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[Verge] Secrets of the New Gods (designer playtest)

Started by Adam Dray, June 17, 2005, 07:14:45 PM

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Adam Dray

Over Memorial Day weekend, I ran the first developer playtest of Verge, my cyberpunk role-playing game. Verge is designed to facilitate Narrative play through its Drive mechanics and its reward system, and push players to take risks with the dice.

I had six players, only one of whom I knew well. Most of them are not from my local area. I scheduled the playtest session during the 3-day con that my wife and I host annually for FiranMUSH, an online game we run. Jessica has been a good friend of mine for years but I have never gamed with her at the table-top, but I have role-played with her online. I know Woody from the local area and he's played in a couple D&D games with me. I've known Jon for a few years, entirely through online conversations. I met Constance and Sam this year and met Carrie Ann last year.

None of them have played any "indie" RPGs before. Most have played some tabletop games, especially D&D. Jessica runs Shadowrun games sometimes and was planning to playtest Verge for me with some of her students back home. Constance has a wider experience in tabletop and LARP games.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray

I'd given them a copy of the rules in advance and they had all at least skimmed them but I got the impression that only a few really understood them. I printed a copy for each of them but they referenced the rules only during character generation.

At the beginning of con, days before the playtest event was scheduled, Woody approached me with a piece of paper full of ideas for his character. I warned him that 1) I was busy doing other things with my guests and couldn't give his ideas the attention they deserved and 2) the ideas would be explored best among the other players as a group. I was worried about squashing his enthusiasm but he was just as energetic during the actual playtest. He seemed a bit frenzied at times, in fact, and I had to remind him to "focus!" on the things the other players were discussing.

We gathered in the "ballroom" at the hotel. There was another group of people at a nearby table but we mostly had the room to ourselves. I explained their roles as playtesters and reminded them to tell me what was broken and what worked well whenever they came up with something.

I handed out the character sheets but told them we had some collaborative work to do before making characters. I explained Premise and Drive and how they worked together to make stories more interesting. I asked them what they wanted the game to be about, then read them the examples in the back of the rulebook.

Someone -- I think Woody -- suggested "What is a secret worth?" Woody had his list of ideas and was talking about the godlike AIs in the setting material and someone (maybe me?) suggested that only the privileged few knew about the AIs at all. The group really liked this idea so we went with it.

I asked them what kind of world it should be. When they seemed stumped, I explained the ideas in the core setting material and encouraged them to take what they liked and discard the rest and add new stuff to it. They liked much of it but didn't latch onto my last-minute "virtual convergence" idea about AIs being able to materialize physically in the real world so we dropped it.

We had a vague notion of the setting as a city-state called Meridian in the middle of the US after the AIs secretly saved the world from nuclear devastation using gravity lasers and other technology. The players seemed content with this, so we moved on to characters.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray

I reminded them that character creation was partly a group process -- they should come up with ideas together and help each other through snags. I also reminded them to consider the secrets Premise as they created characters.

I asked them what kinds of characters they were considering. Everyone seemed to have a clear concept in mind already.

Jessica wanted to play a character "different from what I usually play," which (if I recall correctly) is a combat heavy. She said she'd play a corporate power broker.

Sam wanted to play a mean, grisly ex-cop working as a corporate security guard, and he noted he wanted his story to be about his broken family. I was eager to see the Family drive in play, as I had some doubts about its effectiveness.

Jon wanted to be a somewhat nutty political activist who wanted to "set information free." He was totally getting the secrets premise and going full-force on it.

Constance wanted to play a "spin artist" and hacker, someone who manipulated media.

Carrie Ann wanted to play a sex-crazed reporter who slept with people to get the scoop.

Woody surprised me a bit. He wanted to play one of the AIs and I thought this would be a great test of the rules. There was no reason this shouldn't be possible, nor any rule preventing it. As a group, we agreed that it was okay that he do this and he agreed to play a minor AI "deity" who worked for one of the more powerful AIs.

We talked about connections a bit. I told them that characters didn't have to be connected but that it'd probably be more fun if they were. Sam said he worked for Jessica's company. Constance said she did work for Jessica's company. I think Constance and Carrie Ann said they knew each other vaguely. I think Jon had a tie to one of those two. Woody's AI knew Constance.

I reminded them again about the secrets Premise and asked them to answer two questions: 1) Which secrets do you know: that AIs exist, that they think they're ancient deities, that they wield great power over the earth, and that corporations and governments know about them and are using them for their own purposes? 2) If you know, do you think you should tell others? I said they didn't have to have a firm answer to #2 and they could change their mind at any time, because that was what today's game was about.

Then I explained the chargen rules and helped them create characters.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray

Everything had gone very smoothly so far. This is where the trouble began...

The players uniformly agreed that it was too hard to think of 8 Strengths, 8 Weaknesses, 8 Friends, and 8 Enemies. They suggested 4-5 as a better number. They also agreed with my suggestion that, in the future, players could fill out 4-5 at start and leave the remainder of the 8 to be filled in during play. I asked them to muscle through all 8 for this test though.

We helped each other come up with a full 8 traits in each category. It took longer than I expected.

There was confusion about how many boxes to assign the traits. I need to put this information on the character sheet. The character sheet also proved insufficient to hold the lengthy trait names some of the players created, especially for Friends and Enemies. I'd left off fields on the sheet for Archetype and Concept, too.

The players wanted to list each other as Friends. There was no rule against this but there needs to be. I asked them not to do this, since "burning" a Friend forced the (normally NPC) friend to help the character and I didn't want them forcing each other into anything.

Some players created Friends and Enemies by role ("Children's tv host") and not by name. Perhaps this is a consequence of a crowded character sheet, though some players did express they weren't good at thinking up names. This worked adequately in play but names would have been more colorful.

One player created Friend relationships to people we all know RL. It was strange and amusing for him to later call on "Jesse (plays an online RPG)" when we all knew Jesse as a staff member of FiranMUSH, the online game I run. In fact, Jesse plays in my regular D&D games, too.

It was difficult to tell in many cases which traits were supposed to be related to the PC's Drive. The character sheet should enforce this.

Each player created his or her own notation for designating how many boxes are assigned to a trait. The character sheet has 10 blank lines per category and next to each line are 8 small, gray boxes. I had expected trouble here. I had hoped players would draw a line through the boxes that were not assigned to the trait or darken the selected boxes in pen. Woody was the only one who did this. Sam scribbled in each unassigned box, which was similar to my intention. The others placed some kind of symbol (check mark, X, a large dot) inside the assigned boxes. The meaning was usually clear (they uniformly assigned the leftmost boxes as the assigned boxes) but it required more thought than I wanted. I have to figure out a better way to handle this. I'll poke the FATE/Dresden team to see what they're thinking for character sheets.

You can see the complete characters on my wiki.

Interesting things on the sheets:

The players were happy to create setting material through their Friends and Enemies. Some were tongue-in-cheek, like Jon's PC's Enemies (e.g., "Religious Nut of the Cult of Adam Dray" and "Richard Stallman").  Others were serious, like inventing corporation names or bringing real-world government organizations like the CIA into the setting (though the default setting material suggests the U.S. no longer controls the city of Meridian).

Jon created an indirect link between his character and Jessica's. His PC's ex-wife was Jessica's PC's sister. He did this without Jessica's consent.

Jessica placed a bodyguard and a car/driver combination under Gear. I thought this was an excellent statement about how her character thought of people, especially those with purely utilitarian value to her powerbroker corporate suit PC.

Woody did a great job explaining his AI character's childlike persona with his traits, like "Newborn Curiosity," "Billy (child friend)," and (the Johnny Five allusion) "Input!!" He also selected a handful of AIs named after Greek deities as Friends and Enemies. Jessica's character also listed "Athena" (presumably an AI) as a friend.

Carrie Ann's sex-craved reporter filled her Friends and Enemies with sometimes lovers and spurned ex-lovers. She listed "Zeus" as a Friend and "Hera" as an Enemy -- I can only assume there was a love affair...

Constance listed her hacker's "handle" as a 1-box Strength.

Sam's ex-cop / broken family PC had great family-related traits, as well as the conceptual core Strength, "Really Fucking Mean."

Everyone impressed me with a creative range of Weaknesses that gave their PCs a lot of depth.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray

I'll let this gel a bit before I write the report on the game session post-chargen.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777