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[Project Senate] Extended playtest report (and I do mean extended)

Started by JMendes, March 02, 2006, 10:09:14 PM

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Hello, all, :)

So, I have a mother of a playtest AP report to post for Project Senate. (Refer to the central design thread, if needed.)

Last Tuesday was mardi-gras and half the country slows to a grinding halt. Ideal situation for an extended weekend out. But, what to do? So, Rogerio, a friend of mine, has access to this out-of-town house, and he says, hey, house is free, wanna spend the weekend playtesting?

And so we did.

The players were me as GM, my wife Ana, Rogerio and another friend, Antonio. Left Lisbon Friday late afternoon, had dinner at the house and got started. Stopped playing just long enough to eat and sleep, all the way through to Tuesday night, in which we had dinner, wrapped up the game, sat around tossing some generalities, then drove back to Lisbon (whereupon I proceeded to sleep through the whole of Wednesday, but that's another story).

Let me tell you all right now, every game should go through fifty hours of straight playtesting at least once. We'd all learn to write better rules.

Let me get the less important in-game stuff out of the way. We had a setting and character building session before we left, and this is what we came up with:
- The Setting - organized crime in Chicago in the 1920's; The players will play bosses of important families in Chicago.
- Major entities in the setting: the families, law enforcement in its various flavors, the government in general and the mayor in particular, city services and unions, and of course, the Sicilians and the Catholic Church.
- Ranks within the mob: muscle, made men, capos, consiglieris, bosses and the Capo Di Tutti Capi.
- The resources: Wealth is your rackets and, well, mostly plain old dollars; Manpower is the people in your organization, mostly, muscle; Clout is a mix of your influence and place in the hierarchy, and your experience and personal competence, and it evolved to include the competence of other important people within your organization; Reputation is a measure of your perceived toughness as well as your perceived loyalty to the Family with Capital F.
- Challenge classes: Foreign challenges deal with entities and organizations outside the mob; Domestic challenges deal with problems between families as well as problems of internal organization; Business challenges deal with acquiring new rackets and aligning them with your organization; Personal challenges deal with everything that has to do with actual people, including social problems and chasing tail.
- The passage of time interval was set at three months, the basic interval was set at one day, and the incremental interval was set at one period of the day, such as afternoon, evening and night.

The players built interesting relationships with minor crime families, independent rackets, other criminal organizations and various law enforcement entities, which I, as GM, expanded by adding a few hostile families, the FBI and an obscure (and probably highly unlikely) international hitman organization.

During the course of play, I tried to get my wife killed, widowed Antonio, and watched Rogerio try to take over the media in Chicago. There were a couple of crime boss summits and a couple of gang wars. As play wrapped up, Antonio had a will rewritten post-mortem, Ana went one on one with a hitman and won, albeit at a cost, and Rogerio had a number of FBI agents slaughtered in an alley, all in the name of good, clean fun. Comparing to the previous playtest, it was good to see that Project Senate can support such wildly different settings.

Enough about in-game events. Let me talk about events at the table.

Project Senate is way farther from being ready than I thought. If I were to measure the weekend according to the Fun Now Manifesto, I'd call it an utter disaster. And yet, on some level, it was a success. We explored the hell out of the system, found out what works and what doesn't and identified some interesting avenues for evolving the game.

Player by player gauging, starting with me:

Actual play failed to meet my expectations for the game. It was way crunchier than I thought it would be, and it was way more hectic than I expected. Players spent well over two thirds of the time crunching numbers, trying to milk their characters' relationships for all their worth, all the while generating way more challenges for themselves than I was throwing at them. Yes, the game is supposed to be gamist, but I was aiming for situation gamism, trying to draw out strategy building, rather than mechanical juggling and system gamism. Thing is, for all intents and purposes, that's what the game rewards at this time, so this is something to watch for.

Rogerio was the player who most dug the game. I could tell he was enjoying the strategizing at least as much as the crunching, and he was definitely the one who most easily generated good color in interacting with his relationships. He settled very quickly into a playing style that is very much his own, and that he uses every time he has a chance to, even in other, more traditional RPGs. He does agree, however, that the main problem with the game is the potential for lack of color. He was also the one to suggest I consider turning Project Senate into a GMless design.

Antonio also had a lot of fun. He had a bit of trouble relating to the in-game events at first, but gradually warmed up to it. Thing is, in his own words, while he did have a lot of fun, it's more the type of fun he associates with board games, rather than RPGs. It all comes back to lack of color, I suppose. I finally drew him in, I believe, when I told him his wife was dead. Pity it was so close to the end of the game. Nothing unexpected, though. While he's the player I've known for the least amount of time, I have a pretty good idea of what makes him tick, and that's being in the character, which this game, as it stands now, doesn't quite make easy. He was also the first one to identify the color problem.

And then there's Ana. For the most of the weekend, she was bored out of her mind. It almost seemed that the most fun she had was when she stopped playing just long enough to cook for us (which she did with brilliance, I might add). The gamist CA is very much not her cup of tea, and this is something we both already knew, though she did volunteer to help me playtest my creation, which was rather nice of her. (Also, I have a feeling she truly did enjoy being den mother for the four of us for the weekend.) To make matters worse, she was consistently unlucky in her dice rolls, almost to the point of being deprotagonized, which I didn't even think was possible with the way the game is built.

Finally, as a group, by the time Tuesday night rolled around, we were all tired beyond belief. I closed the door on new challenges, whether player-initiated or my own, and we resolve the few that were still open in a purely mechanical fashion, just so I had some numbers to look at in analysing the behavior of the rules.

So, conclusions to be drawn from actual play:

- The game needs a way to draw out color from the players, and it needs it bad! When I first read the extra die for cool descriptions rule in Sorcerer, I thought to myself, bleagh. But over the course of this weekend, I thoroughly understood it and others like it. Rogerio advanced some alternatives for this, but I'm going to start a thread in Indie Game Design about this (though comments here are welcome as well).

- The game needs a way to involve the players in each other's stories. As it is now, there is an active player doing things, and everyone else is either doing math on their own or engaging in non-game activities. Sometimes, a player will make an honest effort to follow another player's situation, but that's hardly enough.

- On a related note, the game needs a way to encourage interaction between player characters more. The players did strike a couple of deals between themselves, but there was no real interaction and no real cooperation.

- The game needs to be decrunchified big time. Every time a player got a new challenge, there was a small altercation as he vied for control of the calculator. Yes, I am exaggerating, and yet, yes, there was a calculator, and yes, it was widely used.

- Lastly, the concept of GMless play needs to be seriously considered.

Also, things I already knew and saw confirmed:

- I'm not in my twenties anymore and this sort of thing is way more tiring than it used to be.
- My wife is a doll and I love her very much. Also, the woman can cook.
- RPG outings are fun and I want to do them forever.

That's it. Look to the central thread for links to the related game design threads.

Comments, anyone?

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer

Jonas Ferry

Hello João,

How about a trade? I'll comment on your playtest if you comment mine. (^_^)

I think this looks very interesting. Since I played Capes my first stab at design is almost always to figure out how I can get conflicts between players to generate fun. I think Project Senate can do this, if that's what you're after. I also enjoy the Godfather series a lot, so your playtest sounds cool.

First a couple of questions, just to get me into what you're trying to do. I just found out about your game, but I've read the central design thread and skimmed through the Power 19 and the actual rules (version 4).

In the rules under Opposing Goals you say "While the Game Master should avoid aiming for these situations, it may happen that Players find themselves working at cross purposes. Again, Players may have their Characters negotiate with each other freely in order to defuse the situation themselves." How can the players control bosses from different mob families without having opposing goals? It sounds to me like the most fun situations would occur when people pit their characters against the others, with a lot of overt backstabbing and doubletalk. That's one way to get people more interested in the other players' scenes, if something they care about is at stake. What if the other PC is messing with a resource that's important to me, wouldn't I sit at the edge of my chair to see what will happen? Why do you want the GM to avoid this and why should the players try to diffuse the situation instead of milking the conflict for resources?

How does the goal - challenge – intent – reward cycle work, I mean who does what in each step? I don't need a very detailed explanation, just what the responsibilities of the GM and the player are. Does the player set the goal for his character ("I want to become the leading mobster in town") and the GM produces challenges along the way that has to be overcome by the intent-to-reward procedure? Or does the GM start by presenting challenges to the PC's current situation that the players must address? I guess I'm wondering whether the normal mode is proactive or reactive players, or a mix of both.

If you want to go GM-less, you have to figure out who will present opposition in what steps. It's rarely fun to set up your own challenge and then overcome it, you need someone else to provide adversity.

One way to address the lack of intersecting stories is to force opposing, or at least related, goals. They could be ambiguous, perhaps two PCs want to elect a certain politician mayor, but they want it for different reasons. That could lead to them helping each other at first, then opposing each other and then strike a deal.

Another way would be through shared relationships, as I see you already have. Right now they're "locked" when one PC is using the relationship's resources, but would it be possible for two PCs to use the same relationship as long as they don't try to use more than the maximum amount of resources together? If shared relationships are required, perhaps the most important members of the current situation, that could also increase interest in other people's scenes.

I admit I haven't read the rules very carefully, so if some of my suggestions are totally against what you're trying to do, please disregard them.
One Can Have Her, film noir roleplaying in black and white.

Check out the indie RPG category at Wikipedia.


Hey, Jonas, :)

First off, thanks for your comments. Cool idea on the trade. :)

Yes, you're right that Project Senate can be very easily tweaked into supporting cool, fun PC-vs-PC conflict. No, that's not where I want to take the game. Basically because the game aims for long-term mechanical development based on success and failure in a very gamist way. This means that if I go PC-vs-PC, eventually, one player will get more out of the system than another, and that's not what I'm looking for for long term play.

Recall that Project Senate has no endgame and not even a concept of an endgame, and I'm not aiming to have one either.

The way to think of it is, how would good old-fashioned D&D play go if, all of a sudden, you started aiming for intra-party conflict. You get dead characters and bruised players, methinks.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against PC-vs-PC conflict in general (although this is a relatively recently acquired position), but I think there are games where it is a good thing, and there are games where it isn't.

Referring to your specific question, yes, you're right that crime bosses in particular are ripe for opposing conflict. However, that's largely incidental. Because Project Senate is setting-agnostic (and successfully so, at least judging by the two playtests so far), I'd rather aim for the principle than for the particulars of a chosen setting. And in principle, there's no overarching reason for people in power to be at each other's throats. (Hmm... As I write this, my point sounds weaker and weaker. Let me rephrase it this way: that's just not the kind of gameplay I'm aiming for.)

I'll expand on the reward cycle with examples that actually happened in play:
- First, a challenge is laid out. This can be done either by the player, the GM, or even another player (and yes, this did happen during the playtest). A challenge includes an in-game time limit.
Example GM challenge a) The FBI is tracking down the guys you used on that hit last week. You have some time before they build a case, but not that much.
Example Player challenge b) I want to buy controlling interests in a local newspaper.
Example other player challenge c) I want you to establish a new brothel and transfer ownership to my family.
(Example c happened after one player lent a truckload of resources to another to aid in some other problem. This is what was asked for in return.)

- Afterwards, stakes for the challenge are presented. This is done by the person who laid out the challenge, subject to GM approval.
Stakes for a) Manpower -3
Stakes for b) Clout +2 and Reputation +1
Stakes for c) Wealth +1 (minor challenge)

- Then, the player builds a strategy to deal with the problem. This strategy is laid out in terms of in-game actions to accomplish which, presumably, will effectively address the problem.
Strategy for a) We'll leak the identities of the men involved, and their habitual hang-out. Then, we'll reinforce that hang-out with about ten times the men and when the Feds come calling, we'll cause the first bloodbath in Chicago.
Strategy for b) We'll find a small paper owned by this one guy. We'll convince the guy that we're decent fellows, then give him a truckload of money.
Strategy for c) We'll find a vacant place and organize a new establishment around the model of the ones we already have.

- Now the GM assigns a budget for each strategy. The player can clarify his intentions, if necessary, but ultimately, it's the GM's call.
Budget for a) 1 point of Reputation and 9 points of Manpower.
Budget for b) 5 points of Reputation and 5 points of Wealth.
Budget for c) 5 points of Clout.

- And now the players kick into high gear. They hit their relationships, milking them for all their worth, trying to amass enough resources to go into resolution with sizeable bonuses, in order to ensure success. When negotiating with their relationships, I had the players lay out in-game exactly what they were asking for, and this was a good way to have knowledge of events propagate through the game world. It was also one of the places where color reinforcement was most needed. (The other was laying out the strategies.)

- Then, there's resolution, which is almost strictly pass/fail. There is a mechanic for players to improve their rolls after the fact, but it is rather costly. (Permanently burn one point of resources to add +1 to the result.)
(I don't think details of the negotiations involved in each challenge matter much, here. I can dig them up if you want.)

- The reward is straightforwardly the application of the stakes of the challenge, according to the player's success or failure.
In challenge a) the player succeeded and avoided the permanent loss of 3 points of Wealth.
In challenge b) the player succeeded and permanently increased his pool with 2 points of Clout and 1 of Reputation.
In challenge c) the player succeeded and permanently added 1 point of Wealth to the other player's pool.

Oh, wait, I see what you're asking. There is no goal per se, and the challenges are mostly unrelated to each other. I did make an effort to tie each challenge to past events in the game world (except for the first ones, of course), and this kind of worked. Kind of. Mostly, the challenges were clearly more about the mechanical stakes than the actual in-game events. Again, a color shortage problem. To be fixed.

Also, I think one problem here may be that stakes for each challenge are simply too high.

Your suggestion of related player goals has more hidden value than appears at first glance. I have to think about it some more, but there are certain implications regarding party play which may be useful. I have to ponder further.

To answer your last questions regarding shared relationships, players are required to have them but not to use them. Yes, players can both tap into shared relationships provided the tapped total remains within the relationship's maximum values, but that's in the rules as written. The locked thing isn't. If you tell me where you got that idea from, I'll look into clarifying the document.

Again, thanks for your comments. I'll keep an eye out for OCHH threads from now on. You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. ;)

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer

Jonas Ferry


There were two reasons I asked what goals were. One was that it's mentioned in the rules in the heading Achieving Goals, but then I had a hard time figuring out what a goal actually was. Am I right in that there's no game term galled a "goal"? Perhaps the goal (for the player and character) is automatically to overcome the latest challenge?

The second reason was because I think character goals could add color and direction to the game, thereby helping the GM. If there's anything people of power have it's goals, either short-term goals like "removing X from power" or long-term "the rise of my organization above all" or something. If the players choose goals for their characters in some fashion, the GM could use them to figure out what stands in the way in form of challenges.

I have to ask another thing: in what way is the players "proving themselves" and "stepping up"? They're not supposed to compete against each other, right, so I'm guessing it's about beating the challenges presented by the GM and other players? Do you think you could compare what playing the game is supposed to feel like by comparing it to some other game, role-playing, computer or board game?

I got the "locked" thing from the following passage in the rules:

A shared relationship cannot make resources from their resource mix available to more than one Character at a time. As such, a Player who needs to access resources from a busy shared relationship has no recourse but to ask the first Player to release those resources. As before, Players are free to negotiate among themselves, limited to the swapping of promises and favors.

I didn't find the term "busy" anywhere else, so I guessed that when one character was using any amount of resources no one else could use them. I don't know if you want to rephrase anything, as I haven't read the whole text and perhaps the above passage is clear if you know how it fits into the greater whole.
One Can Have Her, film noir roleplaying in black and white.

Check out the indie RPG category at Wikipedia.


Hey, :)

Cool comments, Jonas.

A) Yes, you're right, in the rules as written now, "goals" are just supposed to be the challenges. This is bound to change, in line with what you say about long(er) term goals, as I need to tone down the stakes in the challenges, anyway, so that a "goal" will probably become a set of challenges to be beaten in order.

B) In the first playtest, Step On Up was very situational, mostly in the form of coming up with appropriate strategies to address the challenges. In the second playtest, this was still present, but for two of the players, was totally overshadowed by very aggressive resource management on their part. I'm hoping to get back to the situational stuff, but I'll take resource management if that's all I can get, provided I can bring down the crunchiness some. As for comparing, I was aiming for something like the run planning stage of Shadowrun, which is where about half of the Step On Up happens in that game (the other half being chargen and charimp).

C) You're right, the rules are misworded. Should be "A shared relationship cannot make the same resources available". Will change.

Again, thanks for your input, thoroughly helpful so far. :)

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer


I looked at the rules, and of course came up with some questions where they seem blurry or incoherent. I'll put the comments here for lack of anywhere better to put them. (Is there another thread for them?)

1. A relationship with an enemy or opponent will be signaled by either a strongly negative attachment or a strongly negative alignment, and very probably a very low or even negative availability...
Availability has a lower cap at (2/0) can't start with an enemy? (May be a bad idea, Gamist-wise, but some people may be positioned to make use of that enemy...)

2. 0 Wealth and Reputation are fatal to one's power. I looked over those, and thought a bit, and then had to ask if this is necessary.

Wealth: If you have 0 Wealth but you have Relationships that can supply wealth, are you necessarily politically ineffective? Several Third World countries are quite able to survive despite crushing debt, because the IMF keeps pouring more money into them.
Reputation: Julius Caesar was the enemy of the rest of the Roman upper crust when he turned on the Senate...he had enough soldiers under his personal command for that not to matter. Also, someone who has a reputation Relationship may be able to rely on that to keep him in the political loop, as the CEO's nephew in the Mister Abrams example showed.

Is there a reason for the player to necessarily be nullified when he's broke or "a political liability?"

3. Is there a reason that collective entities work under different rules than single-person resources? The distinction between the two is rather blurry to begin with (if your ally commands a couple of brute squads to supply the Manpower, is he a person or a collective?).

4. Where is the line drawn between your private legion being personal Manpower, and being a Relationship?
My real name is B.J. Lapham.


Hi, BJ,

First off, thanks for your comments. I'll answer your thoughts one by one.

Regarding a good thread for general questions about the game, you can go to this general discussion thread.

1. Yes, you can start the game with an enemy, as you can have a strongly negative attachment, a strongly negative alignment or both. It's just that, at game start, that enemy will be readily available, ripe for manipulation, so to speak. Because of the way the rules work, manipulating such an enemy will likely lead to a rapid decay of availability, which is expectable and good.
However, the reason for the availability cap has nothing to do with this. That cap is there in order to enforce constraints for PC creation, such that those constraints create interesting strategic choices for the player. Namely, and this relates to your question 3, this is an incentive to have some collective entities in your relationships, as the 2 points in Availability is probably too high a price to pay in all your relationships.

2. Your second question is obsolete. In the current version of the design document, character death happens when you reach 0 in any two resources. By the way, in that same thread where you got the link to the rules you read, if you scroll down, you'll find the link to the current version, which is v. 4.

3. Collective entities exist because they allow the players to model different in-game situations, such as having access to an interest group without going through a particular contact. But mainly, they exist to provide interesting strategic choices. In general, negotiating with a collective entity will take twice as long, but you'll get more out of it.

4. I don't quite understand this question, but if it's a straight up mechanics question, the answer is, where ever you want. If you want to have a relationship with a legion, you can, but if you want to say that your manpower is a legion, you can do that too. Mechanically, they will have a glaringly different behavior, but that's OK. If you put the legion in a relationship, you're still going to have to justify your manpower. And if you want the legion to be the manpower, you are still going to have to create a relationship that gives you manpower. So it really doesn't matter. Heck, you could even create a character with both.

Here's hoping I made sense.

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer