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Author Topic: [Cold City] 'Transformations' - playtest  (Read 1195 times)
Malcolm Craig
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Posts: 263


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« on: February 14, 2006, 04:23:00 AM »

These three threads:

Introduction and character creation: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=17325.0

Character creation (revised) & consequences: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=17512.0

Mechanical basics: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=17696.0

give further information on the development of Cold City and what the game is about. In brief, the game is set in Berlin in 1950 and revolves around secretive monster hunters (think Hellboy meets The Third Man meets The Manchurian Candidate). One of the major elements of the game is the reflection of Cold War tensions, mistrust and paranoia on a small scale within the context of the game.

As a side note, the system has undergone a number of changes as a result of playtesting since the above threads were posted, but the essence of the game remains the same.

Group Notes

This session took place at the Open Roleplaying Community in Edinburgh. It's worth noting that 4 of the players fell into the 15- 18 age bracket, while one was about ages with me. I think this is an interesting point to note in terms of feedback, play and experience of the major themes of the Cold War contained in the game.

Character Creation

Character creation moved along swiftly, as the players were enthusiastic to sample the game after a five minute precis as to what it was all about. There was a large amount of inter-group negotiation during the character creation process, something that I was very happy to see. The first example of this was the choice of nationalities, as I had explicitly stated that the group would be made up of one each of the four occupying powers in Berlin, plus a German liaison. Overall, the negotiation was amicable and successful, resulting in the players each choosing a nationality that they wanted to play. Interestingly, the two most popular choices (i.e.: more than one player expressed an interest) were German and American nationalities.

The characters turned out as follows:

Charlie Shackleton: An American army combat engineer (enlisted) with an intense curiosity about all things engineering related.

David Johnson: A former British military interpreter and linguistics expert.

Jean-Pierre Lasseau: A French former maquis radio operator with strong black market connections due to his activities in the war (the black market activity was established during play, rather than during character creation).

Ivor Smidt: A former German research scientist who had done some tangential work on various twisted technology projects. This was perhaps the most controversial character to emerge. In private discussion with the player, it was established that the character had been a member of the Nazi party, but had done so to further his scientific career.

Ivan Kovochyva: A Soviet Red Army private who had been the only survivor of an assault on the Eastern Front by the massed waves of the dead.

Points to note during character creation:

The players universally enjoyed the creation process and liked the way that as each stage went on, their characters developed as people, from their initial names and nationality, through their connection with the Reserve Police Agency, their background, traits, hatred, trust and so forth.

One area of concern was the German character. Whilst writing Cold City, I have been slightly wary of explicitly having character who were members of or who had connections to, the Nazi regime. After due consideration, it's my intention to add text to the game to cover just such a situation, although I think the concept must be handled in a careful fashion. On one hand, it gives character depth, creates tension between the PCs and reflects the fact that former Nazis were used by the occupying powers in various positions during the post-war period. On the other hand, such a thing is a contentious subject of great sensitivity and must be handled very carefully. I think the way the player in question handled this was very good: he said "Yes, my character was a member of the party, but did it for these goals." This is merely a personal point of view, but I would under no circumstances allow players to create characters who were related to the regime in any greater way than this. if a player put forth the idea that their character was a former member of the SS, an ex camp guard and so on, I would very definitely not allow this. I can see the merit of handling a controversial subject within the context of the game, but I am extremely wary of allowing certain things from a purely personal and subjective viewpoint.

The simple question "Could your character work with a former Nazi?" could easily be a highly divisive issue within a group. Some players may refuse to countenance such a thing, others may see it as a reflection of real issues and concerns and handle it in a manner they see fit, within the context of their own character.

Play

The basic background to the session was as follows (text lifted directly from the Cold City draft):

Greta Stauber lives in fear. She lives in fear of being found out as an Alternative, an aberrant result of twisted experiments. To all intents and purposes, she is one of the monsters of legend, a fearful myth, a werewolf. However, this is not strictly true. Certainly, Greta was experimented upon and subjected to curious rays and odd concoctions, but the term 'werewolf' is something of a misnomer. Not too much of a misnomer though. When she starts to feel fearful or under pressure,
stressed or tense, changes will start to take place. Her muscles bulge and her pulse quickens. Her eyes grow wide and red and
huge incisors ratchet painfully down from her jaw. Her fingernails grow to hooked claws, outstretched for victims. These experiments were designed to create a formidable secret force to terrorise the allies, should German be overrun. Project
'Werwolf' never came to much; only a few isolated units were ever set up and even fewer were made up of unfortunates who had undergone the full experimentation. The project was abandoned as a waste of resources late in the war, but rumours of it's existence surfaced with alarming frequency, even amongst the ranks of the allies.

Poor Greta has drawn attention to herself by constantly buying sedatives and muscle relaxants on the black market in order to try and stave off the coming of the monster. Sometimes, even this cocktail of drugs doesn't work and she changes into a ravening beast. Regrettably, Greta is the cause of quite a few murders in the central area of Berlin. Coincidentally, more than half of the victims are black marketeers who pushed her a little too far during a deal and cause her to trip over the edge. This raises suspicions that there is some form of rather sinister gang warfare going on. It must be said that Greta hates what she has become and hates the people who made her this way. She is attempting to live her life as normally as possible, holed up in her tiny flat off the Unter den Linden. Sadly, her life is not as peaceful as she would like it to be and there is the possibility that she may come face to face with the guns of the RPA.

And what of her six month old baby son...?


As briefing sessions in the game reflect the personality and nationality of the briefing officer, the players got to choose who gave them their briefing for this particular mission. The game now contains information on the senior officers of the RPA and their various attitudes, prejudices and quirks. One of these will always give the briefing and it's up to the players to negotiate who they want to give them the information. In the end, they chose Major Spiegelmann, the senior American representative within the RPA.

The players tagged on to the fact that a few black marketeers were getting killed, so started wondering if their characters had any underground contacts. Richard, playing the former Maquis radio operator, gave very good reasoning why his character would have a black market contact, who they were and what the background to their relationship was. So, right from the get go, they understood that they had the opportunity to evolve their characters as the game progressed.

The first in-game conflicts soon came to the surface, when the American character decided that he wanted to take his battered old VW along on the investigation, rather than the entire party travelling in the German characters slightly more capacious Horch. This minor dispute escalated into a full-blown argument between the American and German characters, with both sides using their stereotypical view of the other as a basis and changing the conflict from a simple argument about which car to take a heated fracas about how one character absolutely refused to trust another and attempting to bring other characters on to one side or another.

As a result of the conflict, the American character gained a slight edge and the party split into two for travelling purposes. Surprisingly, rather than travel alone, the American character was accompanied by the Soviet character. This former Red Army soldier actually trusted the American more than any of the other characters due to his down-to-earth views, solid, working-class origins and hatred of intellectuals and the 'over-educated' (which put the American character in immediate conflict with the well-spoken, intellectual British linguist).

As the game progressed, the loyalties/trust/mistrust between characters became more apparent. The players themselves started acting suspiciously towards the others, questioning their motives, decisions and reasons for doing things. Use of narrative within the game proved interesting, particularly the one instance where a Superlative success was gained, creating a dramatic, house wrecking, neighbour-waking situation that almost spiralled out of control. The result of this was further party friction (the split between those who showed little moral concern over the death of a 16 year old boy and those who were concerned by this shocking turn of events).

Arguments development between the characters which proved interesting and informative. Sometimes these were resolved by rolling the dice in conflict, other times they achieved resolution without rolling dice. And interesting aspect of this was that it should be made much clearer to the players that they can initiate conflicts, rather than waiting for me (the GM) to say "Let's roll some dice for a conflict!". Much of this stems, I think, from a lack of familiarity with more narrative-based styles of game.

The final dénouement of the game, meeting with Stauber in her apartment, returning her lost baby to her and placing her under and unreasonable amount of stress, resulted in an almost apocalyptic outburst of violence. The inexperienced characters (this being their first mission for the RPA), reacted with violence, killing Greta. Interestingly, the Red Army character did not take part in this violence, preferring to defend and protect her Gretas baby and show some degree of moral and ethical restraint. This perhaps typified the quiet, but effective way in which this character was played throughout the game.

Outcomes and Comments

Several things were highlighted by this particular session:

1) Trust is not a strong enough mechanical element. There is no real incentive for the players to actually use trust. Several solutions present themselves. Either a wholesale revision of the mechanic (as suggested in this thread: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=18718.0) or making the reward for using trust more substantial than is currently is.

2) The role and rules of the Reserve Police Agency need to be clarified and emphasised. Simple things like "Can they arrest people?" came up in play as perfectly valid questions. This is something I've already taken on board since the game, adding material to the text to outline the remit of the RPA, the rules under which it operates and the extent of its powers.

3) Character creation was enjoyed by all. The players felt that it enabled them to evolve a character over a fairly short period of time, starting off with a nationality and ending up with a well-round character that they want to play. The playing out of the characters proved interesting as the game progressed. The red Army character was the quietest and least combative, despite being the most combat focussed. This really came across as weariness with conflict and a desire to reach peaceful resolutions. The American character was perhaps the most combative in terms of his aggression and forthrightness, particularly in regard to the two more 'intellectual' characters within the party.

4) Players wanted to know more about the relationships between the RPA and other military/police/civil agencies in Berlin. A suggestion was made that each RPA group could have an 'observer' who watches them and feeds back information to the military police. This observer could be an NPC created and owned by the players.

Cheers
Malcolm
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Malcolm Craig
Contested Ground Studios
www.contestedground.co.uk

Part of the Indie Press Revolution
Jason Morningstar
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Posts: 1428


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« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2006, 08:39:56 AM »

The simple question "Could your character work with a former Nazi?" could easily be a highly divisive issue within a group. Some players may refuse to countenance such a thing, others may see it as a reflection of real issues and concerns and handle it in a manner they see fit, within the context of their own character.
Hi Malcolm, this seems like a straightforward lines and veils discussion to me, although I'd strongly encourage "the enemy of my enemy" type thinking, since the shades of grey and moral ambiguity are what's fun about the setting in my mind.  Of course your character can work with a nazi - but at what cost?  IRL the allied intelligence services were "working" with ardent, unapologetic nazis even before the Reich collapsed, to further their own ends.  What this means on a personal level is meaty stuff to grapple with. 

Side note - I think when you amp up trust, you also amp up distrust, which is essential.

 

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Malcolm Craig
Member

Posts: 263


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« Reply #2 on: February 15, 2006, 01:57:58 AM »

The simple question "Could your character work with a former Nazi?" could easily be a highly divisive issue within a group. Some players may refuse to countenance such a thing, others may see it as a reflection of real issues and concerns and handle it in a manner they see fit, within the context of their own character.
Hi Malcolm, this seems like a straightforward lines and veils discussion to me, although I'd strongly encourage "the enemy of my enemy" type thinking, since the shades of grey and moral ambiguity are what's fun about the setting in my mind.  Of course your character can work with a nazi - but at what cost?  IRL the allied intelligence services were "working" with ardent, unapologetic nazis even before the Reich collapsed, to further their own ends.  What this means on a personal level is meaty stuff to grapple with. 

Side note - I think when you amp up trust, you also amp up distrust, which is essential.

Hi Jason,

Yep, I can see the "enemy of my enemy" theory kicking in there. And certainly there is historical precedent for this, both during and after the war (as you point out). It has spurred me to revise sections of the game, particularly that bit detailing directly with the Reserve Police Agency, making in clear that they can, will and do deal with former Nazis and the approach to this is left up to individual teams and team members. Hopefully, in game, these things can be handled in a mature and sensitive manner.

I think there are opportunities here to explore a variety of topics in the context of the game. On the surface, Cold City is a game about monster hunting. As you go deeper it’s all about the relationships between the disparate characters and on the deepest level, it’s about the Cold War and the spectre of evil that still hangs over the world. Bringing the shadow of the Nazi regime into a game would certainly give things an edge and a more visceral (for some people) feel to the relationships between the characters. There could be some opportunities for real dramatic tension and inter-character relationships here: how far do you trust someone? How much do you know about their past? Are they being truthful? It all ties in to the basic asumptions of the game. One of my playtesters ran a very successful and interesting game revolving around Spandau prison and Rudolph Hess, which certainly broached interesting topics and subject matter.

Cheers
Malcolm
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Malcolm Craig
Contested Ground Studios
www.contestedground.co.uk

Part of the Indie Press Revolution
Jason Morningstar
Member

Posts: 1428


WWW
« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2006, 05:47:42 AM »

One thing your setting brings to mind for me is that the technology used to create aberrations and monsters may give those people who still love the Reich more hope, and make them less "former Nazi" and more "biding our time Nazi".  Which adds a certain frisson to dealing with them. 
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Malcolm Craig
Member

Posts: 263


WWW
« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2006, 01:42:19 PM »

One thing your setting brings to mind for me is that the technology used to create aberrations and monsters may give those people who still love the Reich more hope, and make them less "former Nazi" and more "biding our time Nazi".  Which adds a certain frisson to dealing with them. 

Now, this raises an interesting point. From the PoV of the game, the twisted technology had no substantial effect on the outcome of the war; it played out as we experienced it in our world. Rationalising the situation, the technology was/is:

a) Rare

and

b) Little known

Thus, awareness of its existence and what it does is limited. However, rumour, supposition and leaks of intelligence all allow information on these things to filter down into the public consciousness. There's only so long the RPA can remain a secret and carry out its work with a minimum of fuss.

I agree, there is the potential that the technology itself could be something from which unrepentant Nazis may take hope. This would very much be up to the groups playing the game, falling in to the 'lines and veils' discussion you mentioned in your first post.

Cheers
Malcolm
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Malcolm Craig
Contested Ground Studios
www.contestedground.co.uk

Part of the Indie Press Revolution
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