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[Ensemble] The Aztec Line

Started by Lxndr, September 22, 2006, 07:29:51 PM

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Wednesday night, my group started playtesting Ensemble, the design project currently heading up the Twisted Confessions line.  Armed with index cards and the appropriate amount of dice (but not so much with ideas), we sat down and immediately started brainstorming.  Unfortunately, the brainstorming stalled for a bit - eventually we started working from what we DIDN'T want to see in the game, and tried to narrow it down from there.  It reminded me a lot of trying to decide where to eat when everyone is hungry, but nobody has a strong preference.  "I dunno, where do YOU want to go?"

This is the same problem I've sometimes seen in PTA and Universalis, when nobody comes to the table with an idea.  The other players (Eric and Dell) both said they would have liked to see some sort of systematic approach to assist with the creation of the setting/premise/idea, but (a) I'm not sure it's necessary, and (b) I'm not sure where to start if it is.  Something like Shock: perhaps.  Anyway, moving on:

Finally, we started tossing out ideas.  From my saying "I'd rather not do fantasy, like D&D style fantasy," Eric (at least I think it was Eric) responded with a line like "well, what about historical?" which led me to thinking about the Aztecs and mesoamerica thanks to my recent viewing of the old TV Show "The Mysterious Cities of Gold."  More ideas were tossed about, and eventually we settled on a somewhat interesting alternative history blending the Aztec setting with the idea of superpowers emerging (a la X-men mutations, or the main characters in the upcoming TV show Heroes).  The 'Aztec Line', then, is the place where Cortez was stopped; the border between the Spanish lands and that of the Aztec Empire.

It was decided that Cortez didn't impersonate Quetzalcoatl - or at least, not just that.  He also manifested abilities shortly after arriving in Mexico that supported this position.  He wasn't the only one, however - there were powers and abilities developed on both sides (and likely elsewhere in the world).  Eric immediately took a godly theme - creating Tlalmictli, someone believing himself to be the chosen of Tlaloc (after being drowned in a sacrifice to him) - Tlalmictli is always wet, and has control over water.

Del took a different tactic, creating a Spaniard named Luis Gonzales, who was pretty much an Angelic figure on Earth (thus again tying powers into mythologies, a theme that'd come back several times).  He had wings, could pull a flaming sword from nothing, etc.  I decided to make a non-powered individual, creating Xbalanque (named after a mayan hero), who I set up as the High Priest of the Aztecs.  He had no power, but still tied pretty neatly into the divine theme, which I liked.  He wants powers of his own, however - and his current plan is to get them by kidnapping Cortez and then bathing in his blood.

We played fast and loose with mythology - in fact, looking up some of these names now, even faster and looser than I first imagined.  One of the secondary characters created (connected to Tlalmictli) was Huitzimictli, connected to Huitzilopochtli.  We thought at the time that Huitzilopochtli was a deity of fertility, but looking that name up now, it appears Tlaloc is the fertility god (along with being a war god and a god of rain), while Huitzilopochtli is a god of the sun and also of war (and a god of death, young men, warriors, storms, and journeyers).  It'll be interesting to see whether or not we take advantage of that information in future sessions, and how it will change our views of these characters.

Other characters created included:  Roberto Gonzales, the son of Luis and with his own power - that of Plague Bearer (and thus so far the only one without an obvious deity-related link); Xbalanque's twin brother, with a 'robin hood syndrome' and some powers of his own (to Xbalanque's dismay); Esteban, the Spanish Ambassador and a Child of the Sun (meaning left open there); Malaxtai, the Aztec general, head of all the troops; Cho-Tsien, a Chinese mystic and merchant from afar*; and Xbalanque's father and daughter - Isabelle (named in honor of the Spanish queen) and Txisa, the latter being an old and dying seer.  And of course, last but not least, Cortez himself.  *(We've decided there's a chinese presence on the western coast, though how new it might be is anyone's guess).

Interestingly, both Xbalanque's father and daughter are anchored to Luis - giving a somewhat strong connection between those two characters.  Xbalanque's daughter nursed Luis back to health when he first arrived - and it was only after catching the sickness that his powers erupted.  Xbalanque's father can actually see the future, and doesn't much care for what he sees.

Reading back over all these things we made, we had a slow start definitely, but in the end we built a little bed of awesome, or at least I certainly think so.

Mechanically, the four themes created at the start of the game were:

1.  Power/Responsibility.  We decided this was the core theme - stealing from the superhero side of our concept, the whole 'with power, what do you do with it? what sort of responsibilities come with it?' is a very interesting question for all 3 of our characters, even the one whose "only" power is religio-political.

2.  The Pursuit of Power.  This was originally Xbalanque's, but has since expanded somewhat.

3.  Who Do You Save?  A question for poor Luis, who has divided loyalties and just wants to see everyone on the same side.  This too has been picked up by several people.

4.  Tradition!  Xbalanque wants to modernize the Aztecs - he likes the advances the Spanish can bring, including metalworking and the Gun.  Others don't like this idea so much, especially Tlalmictli and our xenophobic general.  The struggle between tradition and advancement is definitely on the table.

(To this we eventually added "Do What It Takes", an interesting theme that may or may not last very long.  We'll see.  That's part of the fun, I think.)

The way Ensemble works, any of these can go to zero and vanish.  But if the first one, Power/Responsibility, ever hits zero, the game is over.  Luckily for the players, all they need to do to stop a theme from hitting zero is spending more resources (called beats) on it, so while it acts as a timer of sorts, it's more a timer of interest than anything - once people stop becoming interested in a theme, they'll stop investing in it and it will go away.


The dice determined that the first scene would share the spotlight between Tlalmictli and Luis, with me as Source.  I set them up behind the Aztec Line, firmly in Spanish territory, being chased by Spanish soldiers.  Immediately they began coming up with reasons why, settling on the idea that they had intelligence, important intelligence (a new shipment of guns is finally coming for the Spaniards!).  The Spaniards chased them into a town near the border, and after the dice rolled, it turned out that the information was very important - Luis left poor Tlalmictli behind to carry his intelligence to the Aztec people.

After some shuffling, I was alone in the Spotlight for the next scene, where Eric (as Source) treated me to a visit from Esteban, the Ambassador.  The Ambassador wanted some prisoners released in exchange for Tlalmictli, and since I'd already gotten everything I needed from these prisoners (or so I've decided), I said I'd let two of them go (the third was sacrificed in the interim).  Some negotiations later, and a somewhat shady-seeming Esteban (willing to offer up the location of lots of Spanish guns - the same information that Luis had just brought back) got the prisoner trade he desired, though not the equipment the prisoners had carried with them.

More dice shuffling.  Xbalanque and Luis shared the next scene.  Luis flew by the prisoner exchange (things work quick) to visit the High Priest and his daughter on the veranda.  There, Luis eventually got angry at Xbalanque for holding information back (apparently, Xbalanque's ambition and desires to do right by the Aztec people has led to some shady, secret dealings of his own) and after a roll, Luis failed to convince Xbalanque to let him know more than what was on a "need to know" basis.  On the bright side, Xbalanque did reveal that there was a spy in Cortez' camp (though not who it was) and his plans to bathe in Cortez's blood (before that point we had no specific plans).  Luis flew off, dutifully horrified.

Then it was Tlalmictli's scene again, with Del playing Huitzimictli and myself playing Malaxta.  We established the exchange of prisoners, and then had an argument over whether or not the soldiers needed guns.  Initially, Tlalmictli wanted to sink the ship with guns, while Huitzi wanted everyone to have guns.  It was an interesting three-way conflict since Malaxta felt the issue could be tabled, while the two mictlis wanted to decide NOW.  In the end, it was determined that the guns would be given to the farmers to protect themselves, while the Aztec warriors would continue to fight with honor, without the guns.

After that, it was time to steal the guns, apparently, since we got Luis and Tlalmictli together again.  They went deep into the waters, far away from shore where nobody would see, and there they found Roberto, the plague bearer!  A very tight and close fight happened, where they literally won thanks to a lucky Trait roll.  Roberto managed to infect them both with the plague, however, and it turned out the ship was a decoy!  The only guns they got were the sidearms from the skeleton crew - everything else was empty.  Of course, they managed to take the ship intact, which will much please Xbalanque, who already has like a 'secret police' sort of militia and would love to start a navy.

The final scene we played involved Xbalanque and Esteban again, along with Huitzimictli (I forget who was Source, but I think it was Esteban's player).  They met in the temple for their regular meeting, and thanks to Huitzimictli's threats and some other information, we wound up getting Esteban to supply gunsmiths to teach the Aztecs how to create guns (which was Xbalanque's goal in the earlier scene too, which he failed to get then).  That's where we ended it for the night, finishing up the whole 'Gun' thread, I think, or at least nicely capping it for the session.


Mechanically, the game is working wonderfully.  It switches between scenes very nicely I think, at least in a three-person game, and varies the dice given to each person quite substantially between scenes, which I adore.  Reading the resultant story above, does that seem to flow?  Can you follow what's happening?  Does the focus/spotlight seem to shift too much?

There was one rule I we were using that I thought was fiddly, but it turns out I was remembering the rule from an earlier edition and had already fixed it, so we'll need to do that next time.  It wound up creating more resources (beats), on average than the rule we should have actually used, and was harder on handling time than the rule actually in the text now.

One thing I'm noticing is that creating new characters (at least, characters above the level of "extra", i.e. characters with mechanical weight) is pretty rare.  I'm not sure if I want to see more characters made yet, but the flow of resources assumed a certain character creation expectation that isn't being fulfilled.  I'll keep watching.  This could just be first-session type stuff, since the characters that already exist have barely been played yet.  I'll keep an eye on how resources flow over time.

I know Eric and Del (my other players) had some comments about it, but sadly I've been running myself too hard, and I can only barely remember what they said.  Guys, could you repeat your comments and observations here?
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming

Eric J. Boyd

Quote from: Lxndr on September 22, 2006, 07:29:51 PM
We thought at the time that Huitzilopochtli was a deity of fertility, but looking that name up now, it appears Tlaloc is the fertility god (along with being a war god and a god of rain), while Huitzilopochtli is a god of the sun and also of war (and a god of death, young men, warriors, storms, and journeyers). It'll be interesting to see whether or not we take advantage of that information in future sessions, and how it will change our views of these characters.

Doh! Well, at least I remembered Tlaloc pretty close. I also noticed that Tlaloc is related to death by lightning, something I may add to my character's power set next time. I propose we change Huitzimictli to Huixtomictli since Huixtocihuatl is an Aztec fertility goddess and apparently Tlaloc's older sister. That divine sister-brother element actually makes it all the more interesting that Tlalmictli is smitten with with her.

QuoteI know Eric and Del (my other players) had some comments about it, but sadly I've been running myself too hard, and I can only barely remember what they said. Guys, could you repeat your comments and observations here?

You already mentioned the issue of providing guidance on how to choose what to play at the beginning. What about using the themes as a way to guide this brainstorming - come up with a theme everyone wants to explore and then discuss a setting that can be used to highlight it? And talking about what each person doesn't want to play first seems like it would be useful. Otherwise, the social dynamics of the group could prevent a person dissatisfied with an idea from speaking up and trying to get it discarded.

I felt a little frustrated when playing Esteban in the last scene (I may or may not have been the Source, but I definitely didn't have that many dice). In effect, there really wasn't much I could do to provide adversity to the other two characters since Esteban had only two traits while the others in the scene had four and three. More players could make the possibility of "ganging up" to achieve a goal pretty common. Have you thought of allowing players to spend Beats in excess of the number of traits a non-protagonist has in order to roll more dice, perhaps narrating outside influences that come into play? Or maybe providing a means to veto the goal proposed by another player for the scene or some other means to allow a character that is being ganged up on to escape the scene without being coerced into a result he really doesn't want to see? In this case, letting the Aztecs get the help of some gunsmiths wasn't unfun or dickery, but I see the potential for that to occur.

Also, is there anything stopping a player from setting up a subsequent scene that completely undoes the achievement of a goal in a prior scene? For example, in the next scene could I narrate that the gunsmiths mysteriously die soon after beginning instruction of the Aztecs?

I really like the ability of other players to add facts that must be used in narrating the resolution of a scene, but is there any guidance in the rules on what kinds of facts are and are not appropriate? For example, when Luis and Tlalmictli went to capture the ship loaded with Spanish guns, we succeeded in our goal, but one of the facts you established was that the ship didn't actually have guns at all. That was a cool twist, but allowing facts that undercut the stated goal does walk a fine line. Is there a way to ensure that players don't cross it?

I also discussed with Del the issue of organizing play a bit more. Right now everything sort of just develops freefrom, but have you considered taking your theatre analogy a bit further and using a skeleton of some sort (three acts, the whole rising action-climax-falling action plot line, etc.) as a means to structure play?

Really, though, all these issues are pretty minor. The game hums along quite well and delivers a nice experience of play.

Jason Morningstar

Quote from: Lxndr on September 22, 2006, 07:29:51 PM
Other characters created included:  Roberto Gonzales, the son of Luis and with his own power - that of Plague Bearer (and thus so far the only one without an obvious deity-related link)

Tezcatlipoca's aspect Chalchiutotolin might serve nicely.

This game sounds right up my alley, Alexander.  I'm interested in why you haven't applied more firm constraints on the organization os sessions, like Eric suggested.  Why not an act structure?



   I think I like your suggestion of coming up with themes before characters; that might very well be a good way to help establish setting. Theme before setting - sounds like a twist on your Committee's "expedition before characters" decision. It's at least a good start, and probably would combine well with the "what DON'T you want?" question to start discussion.

   Looking at that last scene again, you definitely weren't the Source - if you were, you would have had more blocks than anyone else at the table, and you didn't.  So it must have been Del as Source, since I was in the Spotlight.

   Consider this viewpoint:  you were not the Source, so the primary repsonsibility to provide adversity and conflict rested on someone else's shoulders.  On top of that, Esteban was created as a supporting character, so by playing a supporting character, your position in the scene on a narrative level was to highlight and put into relief the Spotlight character (which you did well).

   Is it possible you were frustrated because you didn't approach the role of playing a 'supporting character' in that light, especially given the number of blocks you had in comparison to Del and I?  That said, I have some thoughts on how to possibly allow players in that position more of a 'voice' (which will be discussed a little later, when I talk about organizing the sessions).

   There's no way at this point, mechanically, to veto a goal, but the idea is that the scope of the conflict, and thus what gets decided by the victor, is decided by the players, plural.  In theory this means that by the time the dice hit the table, everyone's managed to reach a compromise or consensus of some sort.

   In addition, there is nothing mechanically to stop a player from setting up a subsequent scene that completely undoes the achievement of a goal in the prior scene, other than the scathing glances of the other players.  Ensemble already had one very powerful way of saying 'no' through the use of blocking - I kind of think that enough asshattery would simply mean the griefer would find it harder to get into scenes (since they can be excluded from the block economy entirely), and thus would participate less.

   In the rules text, Facts are allowed "as long as [they don't] significantly change the outcome of a conflict, turning a success into a failure or vice versa."  I want Facts to be able to establish twists on the final goal, definitely, but right now the only way to ensure players don't cross the line is... the other players at the table, once again.


   I'll admit I was hoping you'd like this game - it's inspired a lot by my limited experience in theatre (some high school, a college level theatre class, and a lot of reading), and some part of me considers it the "improv theatre game" in the way PTA is the "television show game."  And you've been talking up improv a lot on story-games, so I've been very curious about how you'd view this game.  I'm glad to hear a thumbs-up!

   Up until this point I only have one major constraint on the story Ensemble creates: when the "core theme" reaches zero, the story ends during that session.  You can continue playing with the same characters and the like, but it's treated as a 'sequel'.  In addition, the "core theme" must be the focus of the first scene of each game.

   Part of this is because one of the design's secondary goals is to allow for flexibility between sessions - if Jack, Paul, Mary and Tom play one game, but the second game is just Jack, Paul and Mary, the third one is Paul, Mary, Tom and Dick, and the fourth is Jack, Tom, and Dick, the game should be able to handle that (and has, so far). This desire of flexiblity between sessions makes me worry somewhat about how much I want to constrain a session, since I want to make sure a session remains at least somewhat self-contained, like a PTA episode or the Platonic Ideal of a Dogs town. 

   The easiest way to do this, and what I've done so far, is to effectively make each scene a self-contained element. Besides the Core Theme, the constraints Ensemble are mostly in a scene's population - which protagonists are featured in the scene are dictated by the dice, and the other characters that can get in the scene are limited by the dice and the other players (who can say 'no' in various ways).  This is 'blocking'.

   That said, while I don't mind the somewhat loose organization of play, I wouldn't mind tightening it on the session-level, at least a little bit, or at least formalizing what we've already done.  This needs to be subservient to the blocking that Ensemble already has.


   Look at the story we had last week - there's a really interesting "guns" thread going through there, starting from the very first scene and heading to the last one.  We did that without any sort of session-level frame, and that was pretty good.  That seems like a good place to start.

   The idea, maybe, is that before each game, people come up with an idea, a temporary thread like 'guns' (to tie this example back in to the first session) that they determine will be the main unifying force for the given session.  Perhaps this isn't before each game, but after the first scene, where you take something FROM the first scene and make that the thread (we started the first scene with nothing, and ended with 'oooh, guns!').

   Then we could maybe set up some beats on this thread (equal to X, where X relates to how long you want the game to go, in some fashion), and allow people to pull from these beats to do things (roll extra dice in the way Eric wanted earlier, maybe build temporary characters).  A session would then be considered over when the thread is depleted of all these beats.  This kind of seems a far cry from an act structure, but feels like it might be a good start, and maybe might be all Ensemble really needs?
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming


The second (and last) game of the Aztec Line story happened last Wednesday (not to say we won't play sequels).  Ensemble is written such that a 'story' ends in the session when the 'core theme' is brought to zero, so we decided to see how that'd work, and just stormed on that core theme until it was done.

I think it worked excellently!

At the beginning, we tried one small rules change (increasing the number of blocks on the table) that was a bit too much - and was redacted before the third scene.  Three blocks per person is the sweet spot, as four blocks per person leads to some massive disparities between Source and Spotlight.

There was also some discussion that led to a rules tweak that would allow scenes without any protagonist (what I've been calling 'zero scenes').  This had to work within the blocking mechanisms.  I liked how that played out, and so it will likely go into the final rules, but I want to share it here first:

First some background, Ensemble allows for multiple characters in the Spotlight, but only one Source.  The Source is the buck-stopper for possible scene or rules questions, and frames the scene, so is sort of a temporary GM.

However, the current process for determining a Source leads to the occasional tie, which the rules right now say is broken by, basically, Spotlight's choice (which can get somewhat tangled when there are multiple Spotlights).

So after some discussions over when a 'zero scene' could be, it suddenly became clear that these ties were a perfect point, and furthermore that playing out the 'zero scene' could act as the tie-breaker.  So during these ties, there are no protagonists.  They're forbidden to enter the scene.

We managed to do one zero scene that worked out pretty well.

We did not use any of the session-level organization techniques that were tossed about in this thread yet, though I have been looking closely at the Harold as a possible source of inspiration (as I said earlier, whatever structure the scenes have need to be subservient to the blocking mechanic which tells us who is in each scene).

I am considering requiring each scene to be written down on a separate index card, so that one can create, like, small 'booklets' of what has come before.  Whatever session-level organization technique I might create will certainly take advantage of that.


Anyway, on to the game!  A week has somewhat dulled my view of exactly what happened, and in what order but:

We began with Cortez (I wanted him to have some screen time!) arriving at the High Priest's manor, angry for some not entirely stated reason but likely having to do with the guns from last time.  He wanted to find Xbalanque, but instead only found Luis and Isabelle.

Cortez manhandled Isabelle and insisted on her leading him to her father, and finally Luis stepped up to stop it (or at least go along).  My original idea was Isabelle would wind up hostage, but Luis won (barely) and so managed to tag along.

Meanwhile, Xbalanque was negotiating with Cho Tsien, the chinese merchant (can you see that we wanted to bring in the unused characters?).  Esteban was also there.  We first argued over a spice shipment, which led to some wonderful slamming of Spanish vs Aztec food, and finally I said "very well, Esteban can have the shipment... if I can have some steel!"  The conflict there wound up being 'would Cho Tsien remain neutral?'  And in the end, he did... but Xbalanque got the spices over Esteban, which I thought was awesome.

An earthquake rumbled through Tenochtitlan while Cortez, Luis and Isabelle were storming through the city, looking for Xbalanque.  Luis had to choose - save some priests from being crushed, or stay with Isabelle to watch Cortez (an excellent case of power/responsibility).  He of course left to save the people, and Cortez took off with Isabelle (literally, turning into a winged serpent and flying away, constricted around her).

We then cut to Tlalmictli, Eric's character, who finally showed up - bedridden with the plague we'd established he'd gotten last time around.  There's a conflict between the Cult of Cortez and Malaxta, the general, that led to Tlalmictli agreeing not to war... just YET.  Instead he would commune with Tlaloc.

It was at this point, I believe, that we had our zero scene.  Cortez and Isabelle and Roberto (the plague bearer).  It was an interesting three way - Cortez wanted Isabelle to lay with Roberto (to catch the plague), but Roberto wound up only asking for a kiss.  It was quite a fun scene, establishing an interesting power struggle between the old Cortez and the young Plague Bearer.  In the end, Cortez left Roberto behind, since he knew Roberto was planning on screwing him over in the end.

After this, Isabelle showed up at her grandfather's house, where Xbalanque was there to offer a naval position to his brother, Hunapu.  His father, of course, can actually see the future, and his brother has seen Xibalba, so poor Xbalanque feels all sorts of disenfranchised.  Isabelle enters, and gives the plague to Xbalanque (he disowns her at this point, which is important for a later scene), and manages to kill her grandfather as well.  The conflict was, really, over the contents of the prophecy - apparently, we established, the plague would unite the people, Spanish and Aztec becoming one.

Cut to Tlalmictli having learned from his god how to purge the plague, and going to the spaniards to kill them all.  Cho-Tsien, of all people, shows up to try to stop them, telling him what will happen - of a horrible plague that will spread from the Spaniards across all of Meztica.  In addition to being a merchant, Cho-Tsien is also a mystic, and has brought a cure that would keep the peace.

In the end, he fails to convince Tlalmictli.  The plague is spread, and every member of the raid but Tlalmictli himself dies ingnobly by summer's end, denied their place in the warrior's afterlife.  Cho-Tsien, however, survives.

The plague spreads panic everywhere.  The next scene is some time later, where Xbalanque has gathered all of the Mictli (the powered) as a council of war.  He tells them that the city must not be abandoned, but instead we must look to the gods, and they are the messengers thereof.  Xbalanque convinces Huictimictli to marry him, in exchange for giving her the navy, and Isabelle (who brought the plague) is sacrificed to the gods.

Of course, in the subsequent marriage ceremony, just as the sun sets... Isabelle rises from the dead, suffused with the power of the sun God.  And that's where the story ends.  A wonderful cliffhanger I'm really hoping to return to later.


Ensemble is producing great stories, I think.  We had some good luck on IRC for a while, we did some wonderful stuff at GenCon, we did some excellent stuff in this game as well.  I'm very pleased with the game as is, especially with the new 'zero scene' rules hack (which really needs a better name).  I'm still considering some more session-level structure, but even in its absence, it is producing excellent fun and some great stories.
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming