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[Mortal Coil] Twisted 50s

Started by GB Steve, September 08, 2006, 10:57:36 AM

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GB Steve

I've got the bug at the moment so we started a new game of Mortal Coil last night with me as GM.

In this first post I'll talk about my experience of the process and in a subsequent post I'll talk about the details of the game.

I've played the game once (Flaming Taft!) and run it once before. These experiences were both with much less unruly groups than my own where the players were more focussed on the group experience and the narrative. In my group there's a wide range of roleplaying styles from powergaming tendencies through what I'd call traditional vanilla gaming to more awareness of the aims of narrative gaming. I'm aware of the players' style so it's usually not too difficult to make sure that everyone gets some of what they like but occassionally this does lead to confrontation - nothing too heavy but it can spoil the mood.

It took about 50 minutes to do the theme document and about the same to do character generation. Then we had time to play out two scenes, the first took about 50 minutes with about 3 conflicts and the second around 30 minutes with 1 conflict.

Although we've played a fair amount of indie games (Dogs, MLwM, Polaris, PTA, Cold City), several of the group had not really encountered a thing such as a theme document (only 2 of the four players were in the PTA game for example). As a result the discussion started rather slowly and there was some confusion between character generation and theme. However, prompting with examples from previous games helped and then, all of a sudden, everyone was singing from the same sheet and it took off with suggestions flying in from all over.

Brennan's list of things to establish was critical in providing a framework for the discussion.

The setting is something akin to James Ellroy's LA Noir or John Wick's No Loyal Night (which I really enjoyed by the way). I'll post the theme document later.

We settled on a Medium Magic Level with 10 tokens to give the players power to define plenty of magical facts and by the end of generating the theme document everyone had also pretty much decided what kind of character they wanted.

We agreed to start everyone at novice level. Given that everyone had a clear character concept, generation was pretty smooth. At the end I made everyone read out their passions to the rest of the group to reinforce the communal narrative element. I also emphasised the difference between what you might want as a player and what you think your character might want. I also talked a little about the importance of generating narrative tension using the passions.

It turned out that some players had chosen passions that overlapped too much (Such as a duty to the truth and a love of the truth on the same sheet) so we talked about these and they were changed. My favourite passion was "I love my cheating ex-wife".

I found that 200 cheap poker chips was just about enough for 4 players at this level but it will be a stretch when we get our fifth player next week.

I then took a short time to explain how magic works and conflicts are resolved although this was better understood when we started to play and I ran a conflict pretty much straight away.

The four characters are a mob boss' son, a conscientious PI, a scandal-hound journalist and a classy lawyer.

I left the room to let the players to decide what the opening scene might be and they decided that there had been a warehouse fire, with a least one dead body, and that three of them were in the police station lock-up pending charges. The lawyer was on his way to get the mob boss' son released.

GB Steve

Here's the theme document at the start of the game.

Tone and setting
LA Noir 1950s, James Ellroy.

No big special effects
Anyone can do magic if taught but some are better than others
"No good can come of this". Using magic is a short cut and will cause you grief in the end
Magical creatures exist in spirit form and must possess living creatures to manifest. They can change the shape of the body they occupy. Weak spirits can only possess small creatures.
Only certain groups know about magic: the underworld, the police
There are places of magical power, police stations, mob hideouts, ...
Big rituals exist but they are awkward and time consuming to cast. They can be cast on groups.
Spirits can be bound to provide some of their power
Spirit guides can provide moral strength and limited advice
There was a fair amount of discussion about magical creatures before the concensus was finally reached on possessing spirit but everyone contributed something and by the time we'd finished the document, everyone was really engaged in the game.
On a rules point, I'm not sure about how to implement the "No good can come of this" rule. There are several ways it could be done such as adding to a score each time anyone uses magic, a kind of bad karma, or just trusting that bad things will happen.

During the course of the first session the following magical facts were added:
Whoever controls a place of power can stop magic working there but they can't leave the location for this to work.
Possessed creatures can enter places of power where the magic is switched off but this weakens their hold on the possessed creature (conflict)
Being drunk makes some people lucky, +2 to physical actions, -2 to wits.
A recently dead person can give up information but you can pick up a passion of theirs (conflict)
Each manifest spirit has a weakness which is the same whatever body it inhabits but using this weakness makes the spirit hate you.


So, just to be clear, Steve, your group sat down and put down Magic tokens to define the laws of magic even before the game started?

Those were a whole lotta laws of magic from before play, if I'm reading this right.

I think that's really interesting is all.

Ice Cream Emperor

Quote from: Paka on September 09, 2006, 01:48:14 AM
So, just to be clear, Steve, your group sat down and put down Magic tokens to define the laws of magic even before the game started?

Those were a whole lotta laws of magic from before play, if I'm reading this right.

I'm curious about this as well -- based on the original post, it sounds like the first list of magical laws were negotiated amongst the group, rather than paid for by an individual player? I've only read the rules, but it interests me because it seems to me like the game would be a lot more fun if everyone started with a few free sacrifice-only magic tokens precisely for that purpose -- regardless of the 'magic level' of the game.

Creating rules about magic just seems like such a 100% awesome part of the game, and the correspondance between a low magic world -- in which magic is less powerful or less frequently involved -- and less rules about magic seems pretty weak to me. The number of magic tokens characters get to "spend" puts a clear limit on how common (and powerful?) magic is in the game, so it seems like it's quite possible to have a game with dozens and dozens of magical rules that still has a very low magic feel.

Maybe after I've played it a few times my opinion on the fun of high vs. low magic will change, but I remember reading in another AP post about how the players just couldn't resist the idea of a high magic game -- and it seems like a lot of that has more to do with wanting to let the players make lots of cool magical laws than wanting to have their characters use a lot of cool magical abilities. Is it possible/desireable to allow for that distinction? Is making up some rules of magic in the theme stage (and not paying for them, but instead negotiating for them like other elements of theme) a possible solution?
~ Daniel

Brennan Taylor

It looks to me like the things above the line were all defined based on the magic questionaire in the theme document session. It's OK to define what sorts of creatures are allowed at this stage without sacrificing any magic tokens, including restricting such creatures to an incorporeal state. I'd say it's pretty much the GM's call at what point you cut off contributions in the them stage and defer further creation to the token/fact system. I usually call the cutoff when people are starting to try to add powers to the beings they have defined.

Also, the "no good can come of this" rule seems like a really strong guide for setting price in the game. When someone tries to implement a wimpy price, you can point to this line of the them document to demand a more severe cost.

GB Steve

Quote from: Paka on September 09, 2006, 01:48:14 AM
So, just to be clear, Steve, your group sat down and put down Magic tokens to define the laws of magic even before the game started?
It's pretty much as Brennan said, these were answers to the questions in the book. The discussion about the nature of magical creatures was quite protracted. I think possibly the last two specifications, those about spirit binding and spirit guides might have been taking the theme document a bit far. So, no, we didn't spend any magic tokens on these bits.

In the first game I ran, the specification of magic was limited to "like Harry Potter, with sparkles" but with a very different group.

GB Steve

And here are the PCs and their passions:
Bobby Gandolfi - son of a mob boss
Duty to family
Love of justice
Love of violence
Wants to be in the movies (love)

Matt Rork - conscientious PI
Never screw the client
Hate corruption
Always finish the case changed to Hate the Dragon Tong during the game

Gabe Harris - scandal seeking journalist
Loves to create sensation
Fears compromising his morals
Loves snooping
Wants the truth to be known

Reg Clark-Michaels - classy lawyer
Duty to justice despite the law
Despises hypocrisy
Loves his estranged wife

Of these I think Reg has the most interesting passions and those that will be easiest from which to build scenes. I think Bobby's have good scope to develop an interesting story too. Matt's a typical Film Noir PI, but that's already changed and will become more interesting I think. I think work needs to be done on Gabe's two of them are still pretty close and I think a passion about something else would give the character more depth, much like Reg's one for his ex.

We also settled on some villains:
Senator McCarthy
Maurice Huston III, Landowner
Frank Clarkson, FBI director
Papa Gandolfi, mob boss
Lilith Clark-Michaels, Reg's ex-wife

And several NPCs were used:
Sergeant McClusky, booking officer
Office O'Malley, cell guard
Denise, Matt's secretary
Jenny Leary, femme-fatale, Matt's client
Sergio, Consiglieri for the Gandolfis (Will 4, Shouting at people 3, Hates the legal system 2)
Michael Landan, Editor of the Star (Wits 4, Covering my Ass 4, Sense truth 3, Loves scandal 2, Duty to the truth 2)
Giancarlo Callibari, Gabe's snitch
Leroy, Reg's Chauffeur
Sammy White, trucker
Wong Kei's, restaurant of the Dragon Tong

All this points to two very important themes in this game, Truth and Justice.

GB Steve

And here's what happened in the game.

At the start all but Reg the lawyer were locked up in a cell in a police station having been picked up at the scene of a warehouse fire. No one said why they were at the warehouse but it has been established that there were at least two bodies at the scene of the crime. Reg has been sent down by the Gandolfis to get Bobby out.

Present at the station are McClusky the desk sergeant and O'Malley the cell guard. There are a few other prisoners in some of the cells with whom the PCs get talking. Gabe tries to get a story out of Bobby and uses his one phone call to get his editor to hold the front page (conflict won by 1). Landan will hold the front page for a couple of hours and phones the desk sergeant to get Gabe released.

Upstairs Reg phones the Gandolfi's to get someone to babysit Bobby but he gets Sergio the Consiglieri who has no love of lawyers and gets nowhere (conflict lost by 5). Reg goes down to the cells to get Bobby.

Matt's player spends a power token so that his client, the vampish widow Jenny Leary turns up to pay his bail. It is established that Matt was looking for a package of Jenny's in the warehouse when the fire broke out. Matt leaves with Jenny who drops him at his office. Matt checks in with Denise, his secretary and decides to follow up a lead, something to do with the Dragon Tong that he spotted at the Warehouse. Matt thinks that Jenny is or was possessed by a spirit.

In the meantime, Sergio phones the desk sergeant and has him release Bobby on Reg's recognisance. This means that Reg will be liable for anything Bobby does. Bobby and Gabe are getting on famously and decide to paint the town red. Reg steers them to some neutral ground, Wong Kei's Chinese restaurant. The restaurant which Matt is coming down to because he knows it belongs to the Dragon Tong.

As Matt enters the restaurant he spots the other three getting on famously with some girls in a booth at the back. Suddenly the restaurant is attacked. Another Tong drives by and shoots the place up. They pull up to attack with something large lurking in the back of the car, some kind of big spirit possession.

Reg guides the women out of harm's way but they are too shaken to be grateful (dodged bullets, failed to impress the women), Matt dives for cover (dodges bullets), Gabe rushes forwards to get a photograph (dodges bullets but has to use a power token to succede at photography) and Bobby charges forwards and shoots up the car (dodges bullets, made attack by 5), the petrol tank is hit and all the agressors killed, including the spirit possession. This was just one single conflict with everyone running an attack and a defence. It worked very smoothly.

Next, Matt uses magic to find out what the attackers wanted by interrogating one of the dead. He finds that it is something to do with the package but also fails to resist the passion of his subject and now hates the Dragon Tong (this was a draw but I outspent him on power tokens).

So for next week's game I'm going to think about plot a bit and decide what the NPCs want and what is in the package. Or at least get some ideas about these things. It might be that the players choose instead but I get the feeling that they want me to lead a bit more on this than is strictly necessary in Mortal Coil.

GB Steve

We're having another session tonight so here are some of my thoughts going into it.

The usual way to run Mortal Coil iseems to be to let players call for scenes which allow them to address their passions and goals. Although everyone plays a character, the focus is using the passions to create an interesting story. And it's advancing the story that is what the game is more about, not winning it for your character. At the moment, I'm not sure that everyone is aware of that. I think one PC is set up to maximise his action tokens and another's passions need a bit of work to make them more interesting - that is to provide him with more of an in to the story.

Of course that isn't a given. It is possible to run the game in a more traditional way where the GM has a bigger say in what happens next and the game is more about plot, independently of who or what the PCs are. I have, for example, decided on a way in which some of the current threads can be drawn together but I'm not sure if imposing this on the group is the best way to proceed. That said, unless the group handles things carefully there is a danger of plot bloat, a bit like what happened in one session of our Cold City playtest where, at one point, there was a new McGuffin in every scene.

It seems to me that MC requires some kind of happy medium between these two extremes, which depends very much on the group dynamic. In the Flaming Taft game at Gen Con, I think Brennan created two of the scenes whereas in my School of Magic one-shot game I only created the first scene. So far in this game I've not started either of the scenes  but I could exert more authority over the story tonight.

There's also the issue of splitting the group. MC does not encourage group cohesion, in fact enmity is not necessarily a bad thing. Cut scenes for some players are a good way of advancing the action, flashbacks can be interesting too. You can also have scenes with no PCs that the GM uses to foreshadow the action.

I'm thinking that having a local radio station or newspaper as a way of setting up what is happening of screen might be interesting - players who are not in the current scene could be writing the broadcast. There is a slight problem that one player expects to be at the centre of every scene but if he's got something else to do instead that might be good.

Which is all a bit like saying, plot and passion, how do you strike a balance between the two?

Of course the adult thing is to discuss this at the start of the next session, which is what I'll be doing, but I wondered what anyone else thought.

GB Steve

We've played a few more sessions. Paula has joined in now and her character, Ginny, is a junkie teenage hooker who happens to be the runaway daughter of the Chief of Police. Ginny's passions are about getting a fix and hating her dad.

We also had the following facts defined during the game:
When a spirit's possessed body is killed it takes sometime to recover enough to possess anyone else but it fatigues all those around it.
You can use magic to sense things within 100' to you if you have a passion for it but this increases your passion (conflict)
You can use magic to expel a spirit that interferes with your passion giving you one use of its power but this reduces that passion
Magic can be used to remotely communicate within anyone I have met in the last 24 hours but they will know my true intent
Reg has a dagger that can be used for scrying by cutting himself but this causes fatigue
You can mark someone and sense where they are for a week but they will know how close you are to them
The Dragon Tong have an item that deactivates magic in a place but it requires human sacrifice to power (1/month) – the item is a large golden dragon
You can curse people who have injured you but you can't heal until the curse is deactivated
The Gandolfinis have a Moorish magical artifact, a figurine that answers a question but any gain from this will be paid for threefold.
You can use magic to enthrall men but you have to have sex with them.
Spirits of a place can be called to help with actions to do with the theme of the place but your next action must be in accordance with that theme.

This is what happened in the second session.
Matt interogates the dead Mantis and finds out that the Mantis had the package but they think the Dragon stole it from them.
Gabe talks to his editor at the Star who prints story on gangland warefare but without the photo of Bobby
Matt persuades Ginny to go to Dragon Tong to find out what they are up to. His hatred of the Tong is really driving his actions.
Ginny is given free drugs by Dragons and forced to work as a hooker.
Matt feels guilty about Ginny and has Gabe persuades the police to raid Dragons because he says they are gun running (contest)
The raid frees Ginny and to avoid being arrested she gives evidence on white slave trading
Gabe persuades police to take Dragon totem but is beaten up because no guns were found (contest)
Gabe curses the policemen who beat him up.
Matt puts a magical marker on one of the Dragons who escapes the raid. He also finds out from him that the Dragon's don't have the package. If neither the Dragon or the Mantis have the package, then where is it?
Reg uses his scrying dagger to find Bobby, he's looking for his missing dad
Reg scries to find missing Papa Gandolfini and sees him chained up in a dark cell
Reg hired by Matt to represent Ginny to get her to testify against the Dragon Tong
Ginny signs afadavit and is taken to Scalari's sanitorium

Bobby uses a figurine to find out where his dad is. He is told to talk to his brother Umber to ask where he goes on Tuesdays.
Matt goes to Sanatorium and sees Police Chief Thatcher turn up to free his daughter. He tries to intervene but gets beaten up and put in a padded cell. Scalari persuades Thatcher to leave his daughter behind for medical reasons. (4 way contest). Matt's player realised that the odds were against him but feels compelled to have his PI beaten up at least once. It's in the genre.
Ginny seduces an orderly to help her escape and then frees and seduces Matt to help her. Matt wants to find out more about Scalari but is forced to follow Ginny. He is still weak from the fight and cannot resist Ginny.
Bobby talks to Umberto's driver and beats the information out of him that he takes Umberto to Scalari's every Tuesday which visibly upsets Umberto each time.
Word on the grapevine is that the magic did not switch back on at the Police station when Thatcher left - they must be using the Dragon totem and performing human sacrifice.
Reg goes to see Bobby at the Pink Flamingo. He finds his ex outside with a man. Reg asks Bobby to deal with the man but it turns out to be Giovanni, Bobby's cousin so Bobby just says hello. Bobby asks Reg  to talk to Sammy but Sammy is dead. Bobby forces Reg to find out what else Sammy knows. Reg finds out that Umberto killed him and gains the passion Fear of Gandolfinis but loses any interest in his ex-wife.
Reg tells Bobby that Umberto is up to no good. Bobby takes offences and hits Reg but is persuaded that Umberto is shady.
Ginny and Matt escape in a laundry truck and are picked up by Denise. Ginny escapes at a traffic light and seduces a taxi driver to take her back to her flat that she shares with Brandi. There was a really gruesome scene as Denise and Matt follow the taxi in their car. The taxi is driving slowly because Ginny is in the passenger seat giving a blow job to the taxi driver.
Matt and Denise catch up and drag Ginny to a Temperance Church where Matt calls the spirit of the place to help but Ginny overcomes Major Sally's efforts. Matt is forced by the spirit to preach temperance in his local which he does but then he gets drunk. Ginny manages to conceal the fact that she still has her habit. Paula blew 5 power tokens on this.

Overall the game is being much more driven by the characters' passions and we are switching quite easily from scene to scene as the players ask for time in the spotlight. I have written up a backstory that is driving the plot. It's about 5 paragraphs. The players don't know what is going on but I'm finding that this small amount of prep is making it much easier to run the game.