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Author Topic: {Bliss Stage playtest] Northstar State Nightmare  (Read 3354 times)
Mark Woodhouse
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Posts: 121


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« on: November 21, 2005, 05:09:55 AM »

Playtest notes for Bliss Stage

Playtest date 11/20/05.

GM: Mark Woodhouse

Players: Kathy Shane, Adam Cerling

General comments on reading, rules.

1.   The game is really, really bleak and hits you right in the gut. The setting material is brutal. Kathy said that it was hard for her to see any hope or possibility of happiness for the characters. Some question about “where the fun is” outside of very Director-stance arc-of-destruction appreciation of tragedy. Adam suggested there should be a bit of a "bleakness dial".
2.   There was some question about who/what could be a significant NPC – could you take a relationship with someone who was dead, in Bliss, or otherwise not present? We decided not.
3.   Definitely some organizational difficulties with the rules at this stage. Terms are used before they’re defined, and it was a bit difficult to keep everything straight. I made character sheets which seemed to help a lot.
4.   The multi-pilot mission thing I mentioned in e-mail didn’t end up actually coming up in play, as we had one player cancel at the last minute.

Defining the world

1.   This was fun. We used the University of Minnesota campus, and specifically the Civil & Mineral Engineering building, which is mostly underground and has a great big work bay 8 stories high down the middle. We envisioned this as being the heart of a collection of rag-tag settlements of feral kids who squat the former University campus. The project is a one-man vision that’s recruited kids from the squats.
2.   We came up with a bunch of general and specific details that helped us establish look and feel very quickly. Also fed into the next step very naturally.

Characters

Adam created
  • Karl (14), an Eager Young Hero whose father had been a cop. He had come to the project from leading a gang of surviving kids. He still carries his father’s gun.
  • Karl’s little sister Karin (12)
  • His buddy Jeff (14).
  • Adam chose the Understanding anchor, Megan, who we decided was a little bit older than him (16).

Kathy contributed
  • Chrissy (15), a Desperately In Love pilot who lacks confidence in herself, but always finds a way to be useful.
  • Lyla, the 13-year-old prodigy who helps Dr K with his work and is Chrissy’s rival
  • Roxanne, an adult who is trying to organize the feral kids and resents Dr K’s group.
  • Chrissy’s anchor is Fred, a geeky 14-year-old who is her best friend (and wishes he was more). He was the Forgiving anchor.
I added two authority figures (in heavy consultation with the players).
  • Dr Rajiv K, a neuropsychology postdoc who has discovered how to use the remote seeds to allow entry to the dreamworld. Dr K is a bit out of his depth, and edgy as hell due to the drugs he uses to keep out of Bliss. He is intense, peremptory, and hates to be questioned. Chrissy is utterly devoted to him, but he is conflicted about the relationship and tends to overprotect her.
  • Mrs Lewis, an older woman who lost her own family to the Bliss and has become a surrogate mother figure to the kids at the project.
I also added one additional NPC
  • DJ, who has a gift for machines and tools and helps Dr K with his equipment. She is Chrissy’s roommate. DJ is socially awkward and a bit of a spaz. She’s 17.

Comments: I made one misstep here. I provided cards for the various Anchors, with names & text and a picture. The pictures were selected more or less randomly. In practice, we felt that the pictures created an immediate response from the players, changing how they chose their anchor and how they characterized them. I hadn’t counted on them being a non-neutral stimulus, since I chose them pretty much randomly from a file of modeling-agency headshots.

We also felt that we goofed a bit in allowing the person who created an NPC to define the character a bit too much. It seemed to make it more difficult for the player who would actually need to play the character to identify with them since they’d largely been defined (age, personality, role) by someone else. Not sure quite how to balance this out. Should the creating player basically say “I want Fred, the forgiving anchor” and leave everything else up to the other player?

So we ended up with

Karl, Eager Young Soldier
Dad was a cop, driven, carries dad’s revolver, athletic, natural leader
Bliss 15, 2 Trauma
Megan (anchor) 4/3
Jeff 3/3
Karin (sister) 4/2
Rajiv 1/5

Chrissy, Desperately In Love (with Dr K!)
Glasses, wants to help, lacks self-confidence, wishes she was prettier/smarter/braver/etc.
Bliss 30, 1 Trauma
Rajiv 5/3
Fred (anchor) 2/4
DJ 3/1

Briefing scene

I decided to push on the tensions right off. The pilots and anchors are called in, and Rajiv is clearly planning to have Karl do the first REAL mission – Chrissy is an afterthought, supposed to observe and help DJ with the equipment and monitors. Karl’s really eager, gung-ho. The shakedown mission – the first time anyone’s left the staging area on the other side – is

1.   Proceed to a waypoint – find out how possible it is to navigate on the other side
2.   The waypoint is in an area where gardens that feed the survivors are in the real world. Recently alien remotes have been seen in the area. Look for any signs of alien activity in the dreamworld around the waypoint. Find out if we can identify the aliens on that side.

Megan complains a bit about the new anchor equipment, which is much more invasive than the tests they’d done in the past, but she quickly settles in to do her job. Rajiv stresses that Karl is not to engage with any aliens, although he can defend himself if he needs to.

Comments: I didn’t go with the volunteering thing. Based on the characters I had to work with, I just decided to push on the wallflower’s issue by leaving her in the background as gung ho Karl got all the glory.

Mission

There were only a couple bumps getting the “who gets to narrate what” and when to roll stuff going. It seemed very natural to break the action into discrete chunks. There’s a definite break in the action as dice get rolled and the player strategizes about where to put them – and some kibitzing took place at every stage.

Relationships seem rather fragile while you’re in the mission, but not excessively so. Everyone felt that choices were hard, but not unduly so. In terms of strategies, can’t say that we noticed anything really specific. Know when to quit… that’s one.

In this mission scene, I bent a rule. As Karl accomplished objective 2 and would have been ready to be pulled out, an alien robot arrived on the scene (due to a Nightmare detail). I let Adam declare a new Objective – “Kick that alien’s ass” and he convinced Megan to leave him in against orders for one more sequence – which did not go very well – he barely made it out on the next sequence, and only at the cost of a Betrayal on his relationship with Rajiv.

His relationships definitely got smacked down. He lost a Trust with Karin and with Rajiv – Stress really piles up fast, and I was going after his relationships pretty hard. 3 Interludes was just enough to relieve the Stress and do his compulsory Betrayal. I can see the possibility of a serious downward spiral if a pilot is called upon for multiple missions in a row, but otherwise the multiple Interlude cycles MIGHT plump them back up again. Smaller games would make this tough, though.

The character sheets I made really organized tracking things in Mission – you could put the dice right in the Mission, Nightmare, or various Relationship boxes, and track all the changing numbers pretty easily.

Interlude

We basically didn’t use these rules. People said what kinds of scenes they wanted, we adjusted numbers as needed.

Interlude scenes felt a bit pointless – the non-Pilot has no power, the outcome of the scene is not in doubt, it just happens and your Pilot gets a recharge. I can see how these OUGHT to be an engine, but they don’t feel like it yet. Seems like the NPCs in the scene ought to have some kind of influence. As it stands, it’s not even Parlor Narration – it’s color.

One thought we came up with was letting the player of the NPC requested frame the scene – so Karl can ask for a Trauma Relief scene with Rajiv, but Rajiv’s player chooses how and under what circumstances it happens – so the commendation for valor that Karl has in mind turns into Rajiv breaking down and Karl getting to be strong whether he wants to or not. Another possible way to handle it might be to let one party name the NPC, and the other name the kind of scene. Or maybe it just needs some kind of resolution mechanic – it just feels weird. As Kathy put it – I can go have sex with my Anchor and get an Intimacy boost, not matter how he feels about it. Even if it makes him feel crappy and used. Which is cool if it means something – has consequences – but not if it doesn’t.

Overall

The game crackles along – it breaks the creative process into nice chunks, and we felt like after just a few scenes we were discovering/creating a coherent narrative – for example, we found out that no two pilots see the otherworld the same way, and that you get symptoms when you cross into a new Stage while in the otherworld, and that navigation is HORRIBLE – you need to be given directions from your anchor practically step by step if things are at all Nightmare-y. You could see the conflicts shaping up already. On the bad side, it definitely feels unfinished. In particular, the Interludes, but also
  • Need sharper guidance on character creation for non-Pilot characters – how much is in the hands of the Pilot’s player and how much is the domain of the person who will play the character?
  • Is there a death-spiral for Trust – do players get enough chances to build it up? You have to use the relationship in a mission, but not have Stress in it after the mission? Since calling in a relationship Stresses it, how is that possible (unless you take a Stress>Trust drop). In general, it seems like Trust is going to burn up fast.
  • Non-Pilots seem kind of flat, in general. They need some kind of oomph. “A relationship needs 2 sides.”
  • Bliss shoots right on up. Karl piled up 11 in a single mission. Will Pilots have a long enough lifetime to finish a narrative arc?
I’m also going to say that this game needs a big fat Mature Readers sign and a big upfront Lines & Veils discussion. As the parent of a 6-year-old, I was acutely aware that this was HIS future. Just the topic of intergenerational relationships is tricky and difficult for a lot of people, and THOSE are certainly part of the game. It’s nasty, dark, uncomfortable stuff. Which is part of what makes it cool.

One other thing that was brought up was whether there was a way to add new relationships after the start of play, and whether there was scopes for other kinds of relationships – could a rivalry or even a hatred give you juice in the otherworld? Don’t know that that rises to the level of “problem”, just an idea that got tossed around.

We had a lot of fun, but there’s definitely a ways to go in our opinion. I've definitely played commercial games that worked much less well than this one.

We all agreed that we looked forward to more.

Best,

Mark
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Adam Cerling
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Posts: 159

WhiteRat


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« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2005, 01:16:18 PM »

Mark has covered it all well, so I'll just expand on a couple of points from the player's side of things.

On "Bleakness": As I read at first I wasn't sure what the tone would be -- as bleak as Evangelion? As lighthearted as Dual? And then I read the text about being a kid surviving the five years since the Bliss, and my gut twisted up. This was way more bleak than Evangelion, I realized. The only thing harder to imagine than nine-year-olds murdering one another over Snickers bars was thinking about all the infants and toddlers on the planet simply starving to death in their cribs. Child neglect on a global scale.

Nonetheless, the setting is powerful and rich with possibility. The ideas grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Congratulations on a very successful setting design in that sense. I don't know if it is right for the game to have some kind of dial that eases back on the horror of it all -- I just know that if it were there, I would have turned it. Right now the game supports tragedy in the vein of Evangelion -- do you want it to support romantic comedy/drama in the vein of Dual?

On Anchors (and other NPCs): I had difficulty playing Kathy's pilot's Anchor because I was not creatively invested in him. He wasn't "my guy," he was hers. I think I'd have had an easier time if I had done more of her Anchor's design. In a way this seems critically important to me: if a relationship between two characters is to be powerful, don't both characters need to be played with equal interest and vigor? I need to put something of myself into the design of an Anchor I'm going to play, otherwise I fumble to find the fit.

On Trust and Stress: Having Stress equal to Trust during a mission is such a dangerous, dangerous place to be! Were we correct in thinking that if a Betrayal occurred and Trust fell once, that Trust would immediately fall a second time because Stress was now greater than Trust?

On Endgame: I too was startled by how quickly I accrued Bliss. There's no way to avoid it, either: it's an inexorable countdown to the end. I found myself wondering: what if I don't want to stop playing my pilot? This game seems to have such potential as a long-term chronicle. If I wanted to draw it out, I might house-rule Bliss so that it accrues only when the ones you roll go unused.
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Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.
Ben Lehman
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Posts: 2094

Blissed


WWW
« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2005, 06:35:47 PM »

Unfortunately, I read this just as I'm about to depart on a long bus trip, so I won't be able to comment for a bit.

Thanks a lot for playtesting!  Really useful stuff here.

And, yes, Adam-- darker than Evangelion.

yrs--
--Ben
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ptikachu
Member

Posts: 24

Kai, from Malaysia


« Reply #3 on: November 22, 2005, 01:55:19 AM »

I'm about to start my playtest this Friday, so let me comment here:

I wouldn't allow a relationship with anyone in Bliss or dead, because there's no meaningful way to interact with them.

Evangelion is one obvious analogy, but the other one I made is The Matrix. Yeah, Neo ends up in Bliss in the end, doesn't he? But he made a difference, saved the world, all that. When I describe it to friends who haven't watched Eva, I use that analogy.

"Except you know, with kids!"
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ptikachu
Member

Posts: 24

Kai, from Malaysia


« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2005, 02:35:35 AM »

Comments: I made one misstep here. I provided cards for the various Anchors, with names & text and a picture. The pictures were selected more or less randomly. In practice, we felt that the pictures created an immediate response from the players, changing how they chose their anchor and how they characterized them. I hadn’t counted on them being a non-neutral stimulus, since I chose them pretty much randomly from a file of modeling-agency headshots.

We also felt that we goofed a bit in allowing the person who created an NPC to define the character a bit too much. It seemed to make it more difficult for the player who would actually need to play the character to identify with them since they’d largely been defined (age, personality, role) by someone else. Not sure quite how to balance this out. Should the creating player basically say “I want Fred, the forgiving anchor” and leave everything else up to the other player?
You're right that pictures will bias the players.

I'm thinking that after creating pilots, each player, in order of Pilot Bliss, picks another player to be their Anchor (subject to negotiation). That Anchor player chooses one of the Anchor Abilities, names and describes the Anchor. Seems to be a fair sharing of duties. I'll also point out to the players the significance of the Anchor being compatible with the sexual preferences of the Pilot and I will encourage this - the Authority Figures are going to be encouraging pilot promiscuousness in my game, which could get very creepy.
Quote
Chrissy, Desperately In Love (with Dr K!)
Glasses, wants to help, lacks self-confidence, wishes she was prettier/smarter/braver/etc.
Bliss 30, 1 Trauma
Rajiv 5/3
Dr K has a 5 for Intimacy? Did you play out the implications of this?
Quote
1.   Proceed to a waypoint – find out how possible it is to navigate on the other side
2.   The waypoint is in an area where gardens that feed the survivors are in the real world. Recently alien remotes have been seen in the area. Look for any signs of alien activity in the dreamworld around the waypoint. Find out if we can identify the aliens on that side.
Something I'll be doing too - lacking description for the dreamscape from the rules, I'm going to say that there will be "nodes" which are pretty much like waypoints, where things of interest will be located.
Quote
In this mission scene, I bent a rule. As Karl accomplished objective 2 and would have been ready to be pulled out, an alien robot arrived on the scene (due to a Nightmare detail). I let Adam declare a new Objective – “Kick that alien’s ass” and he convinced Megan to leave him in against orders for one more sequence – which did not go very well – he barely made it out on the next sequence, and only at the cost of a Betrayal on his relationship with Rajiv.
There should be something in the rules that allows the GM to do this - to change the objective of the mission in lieu of threatening X categories.
Quote
His relationships definitely got smacked down. He lost a Trust with Karin and with Rajiv – Stress really piles up fast, and I was going after his relationships pretty hard. 3 Interludes was just enough to relieve the Stress and do his compulsory Betrayal. I can see the possibility of a serious downward spiral if a pilot is called upon for multiple missions in a row, but otherwise the multiple Interlude cycles MIGHT plump them back up again. Smaller games would make this tough, though.
Pilots who aren't involved in a mission - they still get to call for interludes, right? That seems to give a lot of benefit for no drawback.

It seems that pilots who get to skip missions get to survive much longer, being able to essentially reduce 3 levels of Trauma or gain 3 levels of Intimacy for "free."
Quote
The character sheets I made really organized tracking things in Mission – you could put the dice right in the Mission, Nightmare, or various Relationship boxes, and track all the changing numbers pretty easily.
Seems like nifty idea. Do you list down the different results of dice rolls on the sheet?
Quote
Interlude scenes felt a bit pointless – the non-Pilot has no power, the outcome of the scene is not in doubt, it just happens and your Pilot gets a recharge. I can see how these OUGHT to be an engine, but they don’t feel like it yet. Seems like the NPCs in the scene ought to have some kind of influence. As it stands, it’s not even Parlor Narration – it’s color.
A playtester who has read the rules says the interlude choices feel like choices in a Japanese Dating Sim. Not sure if this is intentional. Japanese Dating Sims are single-player, all about the protagonist. Just like the current form of the Interlude scenes rules.
Quote
[li]Is there a death-spiral for Trust – do players get enough chances to build it up? You have to use the relationship in a mission, but not have Stress in it after the mission? Since calling in a relationship Stresses it, how is that possible (unless you take a Stress>Trust drop). In general, it seems like Trust is going to burn up fast.[/li]
I'm pretty sure you're missing the part in the Mission rules where the Pilot and Anchor call up an initial set of Relationships at the start of a mission. Those relationships don't get Stress. The ones you call in afterwards, in extremis, are the only ones that get Stress.
Quote
One other thing that was brought up was whether there was a way to add new relationships after the start of play, and whether there was scopes for other kinds of relationships – could a rivalry or even a hatred give you juice in the otherworld? Don’t know that that rises to the level of “problem”, just an idea that got tossed around.
Not explicitly stated, but each pilot does have a "other relationships" rating already. Maybe all new relationships start at the default level appropriate for the pilot type.

Very cool feedback, Mark. I hope my group's playtest is as productive.
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ptikachu
Member

Posts: 24

Kai, from Malaysia


« Reply #5 on: November 22, 2005, 02:43:21 AM »

BTW, sorry about the line-by-line replies. Bad habit. I'll avoid doing that in the future.
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