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Author Topic: [Dead of Night] a retrospective playtest report  (Read 9195 times)
andrew_kenrick
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« on: October 01, 2006, 05:07:20 AM »

It's coming up to the first anniversary since the release of my first game, Dead of Night. I was going to post an article about the production of the game, what worked and what didn't, and my thoughts on the whole thing. I might still do that, but for now I thought I'd try something a little different. Ron pointed out that I've never posted playtest or actual play reports here (or indeed anywhere), so I thought I'd post about a few of our playtest sessions in the hope of highlighting why we did what we did, and showcasing the evolution of my game.

Ok, here's what happened when Dead of Night went out for its first playtest, run by my brother Rob. The game here was played with a very different set of rules to those that made it into the final game, although the scenario played did make it in as Lover’s Peak.

Quote
First up, bear in mind what I had to work with. A surly, grumpy, tired group of people who'd rather be playing Magic: The Gathering. And it was like 1am. My printer ran out of ink right after printing out the main rules, but right before printing out the GM rules section, so I scribbled down the Ghost abilities and ran the adventure from memory.

I pitched the game as very much a spoof of horror clichés. The group picked up on that and liked the idea. I asked them to pick a stereotype for a character. We had:
 
Rob (a different Rob), playing Robin, the Jock. His aim was to get into the pants of...
Ben, playing Sarah Thompson Rice, the cheerleader. She had a can of mace, and her daddy's revolver
Mike playing Caboose, the annoying comedy one
Pete playing Randy, the black guy
Taf playing Enid, the nerd
Matt playing Fido, the great dane (They twigged onto a Scooby Doo theme quickly, so I let them run with it)

It started off with them driving up to the hotel. There was some exploration and in character bickering. Robin, the jock, managed to seduce the cheerleader, and they went off upstairs to do stuff together. Caboose managed to find a secret passageway, and then tripped over a skeleton in the dark. Passing his will save with flying colours; however, he was completely unphased by it. I set some random flitting shadows and strange things off, but they all had horrible perception scores and therefore failed to notice anything out of the ordinary (Which I guess is apt).

Having done the deed, Robin went to take a shower. It was at this stage that the ghosts made their move. The shower Robin was in suddenly started pouring out blood. Robin ran straight downstairs, right past Cabuse (who again passed his will, and was completely unphased by the sight of a naked football star running past him covered in blood. The ghost of Jimmy then appeared before Sarah, and the ghost of Agnes before Robin. Both PCs failed their will saves by a lot. The ghosts then attempted to possess them, and succeeded by a lot.

Ben was now playing Sarah, possessed by Jimmy. His goal was to kill everyone and burn down the hotel. Rob was now playing Robin, possessed by Agnes, Jimmy's wife. Her goal was to protect everyone, and stop Jimmy.

Robin/Agnes began trying to wash the blood off him/herself. Randy, summoned by the sound of the ruckus comes to see what's going on. Caboose tells him, and they lock Robin in the kitchen. Sarah/Jimmy then walks downstairs, and calmly shoots Randy in the head. Yup, true to horror clichés, the black guy dies first. Witnessing all this, Enid locks herself in the library.

Hearing the gunshot, Randy/Agnes breaks down the door and proceeds to begin fighting with Sarah/Jimmy. The gun is knocked from her grasp, and lands at the feet of Caboose.

Jimmy leaves the body, and successfully possesses Caboose instead. Caboose starts a fire, then shoots himself in the head.

That's pretty much where we left it, with the whole cast burned to death inside the hotel. Except the dog, he made it out alive.

Now this was a great first playtest session, back with the first draft of the rules. Everything seemed to click together really well and the game ran exactly how we wanted it to … Except, this was in spite of the game, not because of it. The gameplay we had in this playtest session was inspired by the players and the GM, but not by the rules themselves. What we were seeing at the table was not what we were seeing in the game.

This playtest led to the introduction of Survival Points as a reward system, and these were used to encourage the sort of play we wanted, such as playing up to horror clichés and stereotypes. At first they were a reward system that sat alongside the existing rules such as madness and wounds, but after a few more sessions we realised they were far more powerful as the core mechanic, and replaced all this other systems.
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Andrew Kenrick
www.steampowerpublishing.com
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
Emily Care
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« Reply #1 on: October 01, 2006, 07:46:38 PM »

Hi Andrew,

Good job of following in what the game needed rather than what your initial ideas entailed. How do the Survival points function? Also, how did the mechanic bring about some of the story in play (if they did: ), and how might that have changed now?

best,
Emily
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: October 02, 2006, 04:59:39 AM »

Hi Andrew,

I'm glad you're posting this. It's fascinating to contrast it to the published rules, and here's what jumped out at me ...

1. The real active-characters in the story were the NPC possessor ghosts. Before that, it's all atmosphere and relatively pointless character interaction waiting for something to happen, and after that, it's GM plays one NPC against another NPC.

2. Look at the role of perception checks and Sanity checks (by whatever name). You used them, but most of the time the result was "nothing happens."

Wow ... and nothing like this currently persists in the real Dead of Night as a primary mechanic. In the present-day published game, Survival Points spent by players for a wide variety of advantageous effects become Tension Points spent by the GM for a wide variety of effects (mostly oppositional). The dynamic, PTA-like interaction that creates is very strong as far as I can tell, and I look forward to playing it. All the stuff that was rolled in your example is now retrospective narration in the current game ... and the dice mechanics of the real game are far more about surviving and not surviving, and similarly extreme/consequential stuff like whether you become a werewolf or not.

Oh! And here's what I like best - OK, to review for those who don't (yet) have the game, look at it this way ... say I'm GMing and I say this scenario starts with 4 Tension Points. OK, that not only gives me (the GM) some dice-modifying power, but also sets a degree of horrific description which is well-described in the book (not too robotic, either - well-described, it's useful). Play proceeds, and due to the adversity that's inherent to this game design, players will be spending Survival Points. Every spent Survival Point becomes another Tension Point for me, and the only way they drop is by me spending them. Notice as well that the degree of horrific description waxes and wanes with them as well.

Again, spending Survival Points and spending Tension Points are the real meat of the game, affecting or framing the way the basic dice-resolution functions. It's a lot like the way that Luck and Attention Stars interact as the stronger mechanic framing or holding the action-resolution dice in Space Rat, and if you don't think that's a ringing endorsement, then you must not be paying attention.

What I've driving at is that there is a Color guide in play which is the same thing as the reward mechanic. Pause. Did you catch that? The rules for Color are the same actual points as the rules for Reward!! And just to put the shine on the hood ornament, the scenario itself has a maximum Tension Point level which pretty much signals, OK, we're done or near-done now. So Color = Reward = indicator of Situation. That is RPG design.

It's incredible to me that you started with a Call of Cthulhu-lite design along the lines of Chill or Shriek, and ended up with this gem.

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What we were seeing at the table was not what we were seeing in the game.

I figure you and Rob must have talked about this. I mean, you don't find rules like the Survival Points lying on your pillow the next morning, right? What did you guys say to one another afterwards? What kind of time or effort was involved in saying, "Hey, Survival Points!" and being willing to try it out?

Best, Ron
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andrew_kenrick
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« Reply #3 on: October 02, 2006, 06:59:38 AM »

Good job of following in what the game needed rather than what your initial ideas entailed. How do the Survival points function? Also, how did the mechanic bring about some of the story in play (if they did: ), and how might that have changed now?

Thanks Emily! Survival Points are essentially the player's currency in the game - they are forced to spend them when they get wounded or go crazy or whatever, but can also spend them to get bennies like rerolls or bonuses, or to affect the story by introducing a clue. Players gain more Survival Points by doing cool stuff, or by playing to horror cliches such as splitting up to search the mansion or by running off into the darkened woods to escape the monster.

As Ron says below, they work hand in hand with Tension Points, which are a way for the GM to influence the game by giving bonuses or penalties to dice rolls, as well as acting as a guideline to the level of horror and terror in the game. Seriously though, Ron describes it far better than I do!

At the point of this playtest, way back when, these mechanics simply didn't exist, so the b-movie and schlock horror vibe going on in the story were purely GM and player generated. If played with the rules as written now, the Survival Point mechanics would reinforce this play style, encouraging the players to split up to explore the mansion or whatever, whereas the Tension Points would allow the GM to ramp up the suspension and terror to the final climax.

So, in short, if you compared the same scenario run using the playtest rules and the published rules, you'd probably find the actual story playing out in a similar way. The game itself, however, and the rules behind the story would have played very differently.
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Andrew Kenrick
www.steampowerpublishing.com
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
andrew_kenrick
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« Reply #4 on: October 03, 2006, 07:13:41 AM »

Thanks for the insights and praise Ron. I'll try to post another retrospective playtest report later.

Quote
It's incredible to me that you started with a Call of Cthulhu-lite design along the lines of Chill or Shriek, and ended up with this gem.

Those are a good comparison - the original mechanic and selection of stats would be instantly familiar and comfortable to those of you who know those games. The decision to throw these out and tailor the attributes directly to the genre was the first of Merwin's design changes when he came onboard, and I think set the game on the right course after a lot of floundering for its own identity and direction.

Quote
I figure you and Rob must have talked about this. I mean, you don't find rules like the Survival Points lying on your pillow the next morning, right? What did you guys say to one another afterwards? What kind of time or effort was involved in saying, "Hey, Survival Points!" and being willing to try it out?

You're quite right, they certainly didn't appear fully formed! If I recall correctly they appeared in their earliest form very early on in the game, but they were very much like a fate point - handed out rarely to allow the occasional reroll. They were very underused, and the playtesters commented that they were not terribly useful. Each time we revised the rules, the role of Survival Points seemed to become more and more prominent, until they were at the very core of the game. I'll have to go back through my emails to trace the exact evolution, however.
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Andrew Kenrick
www.steampowerpublishing.com
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: October 05, 2006, 04:03:34 PM »

Hi Andrew,

I have a question, being enmeshed in building werewolves.

What does the Vulnerability regarding silver weapons actually do? Do they inflict two Survival points instead of just one? 'Cause it doesn't say that anywhere ...

Also, as far as I can tell, the werewolves in the book are normally harmed by normal weapons. Granted, they are fucking nasty to fight and hard to take down, but if you do hit'em, off comes a Survival Point and that's that, just like anyone else. Am I reading that right?

Best, Ron
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andrew_kenrick
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« Reply #6 on: October 06, 2006, 05:34:47 AM »

Are you getting ready to run your Dog Soldiers-style adventure? I can't wait to hear how it goes!

Silver allergy/vulnerability is explained on page 148 (the werewolf goes over the page, unlike most monsters) or page 113 (it counts as an assault vulnerability), but yes, you're right in that silver weapons deal 2 Survival Points worth of damage, not just 1.

As for your second question - yes, if you can hit a werewolf (as you say, no mean feat, especially if it's using its feral rage specialization to give it a target of 18), you do damage normally. It's simpler that way. If you want your werewolves to be immune to normal damage, give them the Indestructable specialization (page 107) as well.
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Andrew Kenrick
www.steampowerpublishing.com
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
marknau
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« Reply #7 on: October 06, 2006, 10:40:11 AM »

Andrew,

If I were try to take a systematic lesson out of your description of that first playtest, it would be:

"It's OK to run a first playtest without having everything figured out. Wing it along, see what the players do. Then, afterward, decide where the cool stuff was in play, and figure out how to make the system guide the players into those pockets of cool stuff."

Q1. Is this an accurate statement, in your opinion?
Q2. What was the process of analyzing that first playtest like? Where was your head at, and how did you identify the key things to firm up?
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andrew_kenrick
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« Reply #8 on: October 07, 2006, 03:27:33 PM »

I'd say that that's a fairly accurate approach to how I playtest now, but the Dead of Night playtest was nowhere like this. In my mind I had a solid and workable (read: boring) set of rules and a good group - I was not expecting to pull the game apart, but I'm rather glad that Merwin and I did.

The analytical process was not quite as clear cut as I've implied in my post - I don't think we quite realised the significance of the changes we were making or what we were trying to accomplish until later. We just knew that we needed to change something, to make the game play how we wanted it to play. At this stage I was still thinking in terms of minor changes - specifically the introduction and expansion of Survival Points, but that turned out to be just the beginning. I didn't realise how much we would eventually need to change until Merwin came onboard and shook everything up.
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Andrew Kenrick
www.steampowerpublishing.com
Dead of Night - a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
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