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Author Topic: [Grey Ranks] Toronto Playtest Report  (Read 6672 times)
Hans
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Posts: 576


« on: December 28, 2006, 08:54:25 AM »

Here is the report (finally, belatedly) of the Toronto group's playtest.  Sorry it took so bloody long, Jason.  You said I should post this here, I think, so here it is.  I don't expect any comment from you unless you want to; I just expect an updated copy of the rules for our next playtest session if I can get one together. :)

Playtesters: Hans Messersmith, Erik Weissengrubber, Mark Mueller.

Fictional Content:
Zygmont Kalinowska, a 15 year old nerdy country boy with an abusive "Uncle" and a natural talent for engineering things like bombs and guns.  Thing he held dear: Family.  Reputations: Timid to Tough and Inept to Talented.  Started at D-4.

Mikhal, a very devout Communist 17 year old with a penchant for angry temper.  Thing he held dear: his Faith in Communism.  Reputations: Careless to Careful and Excitable to Calm.  Started at B-4.

Kolya Dubilowski, an obsessively patriotic 16 year old who doesn't know when to quit.  Thing he held dear: His country.  Reputations: Obsessed to Loyal and Eye-Catching to Inconspicuous.  Started at B-2.

Additionally, there was Hannah, a 17 year old Jewish girl whose family died in the Ghetto, and Josef Malik, an "artful dodger" type kid who always looks out for number one.

We played through the first three scenes, with the following selections and a brief synopsis of outcome.

Scene 1 -
Elements:
B2 - Edmund Telekowski, dashing partisan and liar.
B4 - Gdansk Station, embarkation point for prisoners and untermensch.
D4 - Home-distilled 190 proof "bimber", mixed with raspberry juice.

Synopsis: Telekowski ordered our cell to provide a distraction so that the resistance could launch a major attack on the station.  Zygmont (who had built a still for his "uncle"), had a confrontation with said "uncle" to obtain a case of bimber as an accelerant for Hannah to start a fire.  Kolya burned a Nazi flag right above the heads of a Nazi guard post, distracting a number of guards.  Mikhal and Zygmont distracted the rest. 

Outcome: Zygmont moves up two to B4.  Mikhal moves up one to A4.  Kolya moves moves up one to A2.

Scene 2 -
Elements:
B4 - German officer's housing in the Polna neighborhood in Ochola.
A2 - A home-made gun, greasy and covered with tiny metal lathe shavings.
A4 - An informant, Janek Weclawek, is on his way to alert the Germans of a planned operation. (accidently chosen off the A3 list).

Synopsis:  Janek is one of Mikhal's close friends, but Kolya recieves info from Josef Malik (on his way to a date with Hannah) that Janek is planning on using his Prussian father's name to apply for German citizenship.  Mikhal can't believe it (and also can't believe that Kolya might be dating Hannah), but agrees to go speak with Janek, with Kolya in tow.  Meanwhile, we see Zygmont in the basement working on something.  "Uncle" comes in, and they argue, Zygmont blowing up at the "uncle" and threatening him...but it is useless, even as the "uncle" walks away, Zygmont collapses into a scared, timid child.  Kolya and Mikhal meet with Janek, who seems very nervous.  Mikhal plays a game of chess with him, while Kolya sneaks up to his room, and finds the incriminating letters.  They both return to the cell's rat hole, where they meet Zygmont, excited with his new creation...a Sten gun, based on plans smuggled in by the resistance from England.  Mikhal takes the Sten, and he and Kolya set out to stop Janek.  They meet him, and act all friendly at first, but then drag him into an alley, but a bag over his head, and, Mikhal pulls the trigger.  (this, by the way, was absolutely freaking intense.)

Outcome: Zygmont moves down to D4.  Mikhal moves to C4.  Kolya stays at A2.

Scene 3 -
Elements:
D4 - A steamy make-out session.
A2 - Driving away the one you love for their own good.
C4 - Making Love (again, accidently selected from the wrong list, Erik was having a hard time reading the headings :) ).
(It was cool how all of us selected these essentially without conversation, but Mark's little tidbit about Kolya dating Hannah really struck a chord with all of us).

Synopsis: We first find Zygmont in a cellar, surrounded by old people and young children all working frantically on a Sten gun/bomb/ammunition assembly line.  Zygmont appears to be the supervisor.  He is able to assert his authority over the old men who think they should be running the place, and deliver some weapons to Mikhal.  We then find Kolya and Hannah making out in the rathole.  Mikhal bursts in with the weapons, and is unable to process what he has seen.  But he does give them the news, the Uprising begins in the morning, be ready.  Kolya and Hannah then make desparate love.  Afterwards, Kolya informs Hannah of his plan - he has Josef Malik ready to smuggle Hannah out of the city to a place of safety.  She is aghast, how can he ask her to do such a thing!  Kolya then proceeds to do what he thinks will drive her away...he ridicules her, insults her, calls her anti-semitic names, try to drive her way.  She flees.  We see her arrive a Zygmont's place (where she has been staying with Zygmont's mother).  She is packing her things while Zygmont is setting up sandbags to create a firing position for an ambush.  Zygmont convinces her to remain in the city, not to save the Poles, whom she now hates with a passion as all being racists, but to avenge herself on the Nazi's for the death of her parents and family.  Kolya and Mikhal then take part in the uprising, carrying ammunition to MG nests, running across streets filled with gunfire, etc.

Outcome: Zygmont moves up to B4.  Mikhal moves down to D4.  Kolya moves left to A1 (woohoo!).

Next post will be the actual report.

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Hans
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Posts: 576


« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2006, 09:21:27 AM »

Ok, that is what happened, to provide context.  Now on to the actual commentary, in a stream of consciousness fashion completely out of sync with the well organized portion above.

ACTUAL PLAY COMMENTS:

WOW!  We loved this game.  It was exciting, nerve-wracking, intense, and meaningful.  I hope to play another session/act early in the new year.

The reputations are fantastic.  Evocative, and in sufficient number that even a large group should be able to come up with different ones for all characters. 

The whole prologue process and character creation process is excellent.  We floundered a bit at first coming up with character concepts, but we came up with some very interesting characters, so I don't think the current text is flawed in any way.

The setting is wonderful, and your rules are tied in well to the setting.  A possible problem is that because the game is set in such a specific time and place, many players might be very intimidated; they know more about Greyhawk or Middle Earth then they know about WWII Poland.  The setting might make some people's simulationist tendencies come to the fore, making them worry about whether the character is authentic to the setting, and historically accurate.  I felt the pull myself.  You address this to some extent under "Global vs. Personal" but I would expand that section, explicitly warning people away from any attempt to achieve "Accuracy".  Nothing would have killed out game faster, for example, than someone saying to me "Wait a second, how did they get Sten Gun plans in Poland?  They weren't widely available until 1945!"  I really don't have the slightest idea when Sten gun plans were available...I just like the words "Sten Gun" and threw it in.

The act/scene structure seems wonderful, and hopefully we will be able to play another session and get more scenes in to comment on it more.

On Situation Elements - are they selected secretly or in the open with discussion.  I can see it either way, but the text should mention this point somehow.  Also, WOW!  These elements are incredible!  How did you come up with them?  They are a work of genius.

Playing through a scene:  This is the biggest area of difficulty we had during the playtest.  The difficultly is that there is little in the text to really explain HOW to work through the moments and vignettes and how to connect them.  For example, does ALL role-playing take place within the moments and vignettes or are they bits imbeded in a wider context of role-playing taking place?  Who decides who plays NPC's at different moments? 

We played in the following way, for your reference.  Essentially, we worked through various scenes by consensus and based on who had ideas, most of which were essentially colour scenes that set up the various moments and vignettes.  But this process was disjointed, and needed more structure.  Mark, Erik and I enjoyed it, but we are all very experienced with independent games with this kind of structure.  I suggest that the Leader be given a stronger role, as the manager of who gets to contribute when during a scene.

An example of a scene being played would be very helpful.  Again, I refer you to the Capes rulebook, and Tony's big example of play section.

You have to include one other character in a moment or vignette...a player character?  One of the other "official characters"?  I ask because, in a three player game, there will only be 5 "official" characters (three played, and two communal).  This simply isn't enough.  Characters were appearing right and left in our session (characters made up on the spot as meaningful to the played characters (such as the "uncle"), the characters named in the situation elements, etc.)  I'm not sure what purpose this rule serves.  Do you expect people would frequently have moments or vignettes that did not include other characters?  How bad would it be if they did?

When do you determine the reputation that will be tested in a personal vignette?  Is it the same one whose die was contributed to the scene pool?  It seems like it should, yet the Personal Vignette section seems to phrase it much more loosely. 

Reincorporating - this rule (either type) didn't make much sense to us.  FRankly, all of our moments and vignettes were tied into each other, and we had a hard time seeing when this rule WOULDN'T apply.  The next scene reincorporation seems particularly troublesome.  How do you know when this has been done?  What if the elements selected for the next scene make this very difficult?  You use the word "implicit" a couple of times on page 13 in describing reincorporation, but I don't think you really want this.  I'm not sure I would want to play a game of Grey Ranks where the different moments and vignettes were not "implicitly" tied to each other.  I think you may really want to say "explicit".  The whole section would make a lot more sense with that word change.

I assume d4 is as low as a reputation can get, but you might want to make this clear on page 12. 

Here is an exact quote from Erik: "The pleasing transparency of the rules was being obfuscated by the die roll modifiers."  He really talks like that.  But I agree with him, the die roll modifiers seem to get in the way, somewhat, as written, of what is trying to be done with the game.  I think I understand their necessity...near the end game, without them any kind of success would be impossible.  HOWEVER, it seems to me that on the grid, the only real "failure", per se, is staying or returning to the same corner spot, since that means your character leaves the game.  Other than that, any outcome is an interesting outcome.  And really, even that "failure" is only a "failure" if it happens before, say, the 8th or 9th scene, and then it is only a failure because you are stuck and unable to play.  All the modifiers seem to add an
element of gamism to what is, to my mind, the least gamist game I have ever played. 

Given the above, some comments about specific modifiers:
Adding Situation: Huh?  Why have the elements if they aren't going to show up almost immediately in the scene?  We had no idea what constituted "the first time a situation element is included in a scene."  In our first scene, I could have said, as the first thing I said..."Telekowski comes in, a bottle of Bimber mixed with raspberry juice in his hand, and says 'kids, we are attacking Gdansk station!' ".  Do I get three increments?  WHEN do I get the three increments, since this isn't even a moment of vignette for me yet?

"You can destroy another player's Thing as easily as your own".  WOW!

On replacement characters: it seems to me, mechanically, the earliest a character could leave the game is scene 4 (without a conscious choice on the part of the MVP to stay on the same corner).  That's pretty early, and it seems to me fairly likely, especially for the characters who start on the B row.  For example, if I start at B2 and go up, left, then up/down or left/right, I'm back at Martyrdom for the 2nd time on scene 4.  Mark made it to a corner by scene 3, meaning his character could go out on scene 5.  Not playing is not fun, as we all know.  What does this player do if they get written out early?

The scene description stuff is all excellent.

The Grid...a thing of beauty.  It does EXACTLY what you want it to do, I think.  Tieing it to the situation elements is marvelous.

TEXT COMMENTS: (i.e. comments strictly based on reading the rules, and not really tied to playing the game)

The text throughout the document has a very "Forgish" sound to it, which makes it read a bit strangely to non-Forgers.  For example, the phrase on page 2 of my copy that says "there is no game-master role".  Why not just say "there is no game-master"?  Or the sentence on page 4 "recognize that the narrow focus of this game is intended to expand, rather than constrain, the possibilities in play".  Huh?  Simpler language would work better.  I would have at least two people read over the text...someone who has never role-played at all before (your mother?) and someone who has never played an independent RPG, only mainstream games, and have them comment on the text.

Expand the section on "Playing Outsiders" with a few more of the very good reasons why you limit the possibilities.  I can see exactly why you do so, and think it is a good idea, but this section does not fully justify the decision.

You mix up the terms Personal Vignette and Mission Vignette with Moment and Vignette.  I think P.V. = Vignette and M.V. = Moment?  The terminology should be consistent.  A glossary of game terms as well as setting terms would be useful.

The text could do with a lot of cross-referencing.  For example, on page 5 you talk about how the Thing You Hold Dear, but this should be cross-referenced to the section that talks about how the Thing can affect play (and vice versa).  I'm thinking of the Capes rulebook, where Tony has all kinds of cross-refering page numbers in the text which I found very helpful.

On page 6, under My City, you say "to see it callously torn apart is Reputation-rending".  Reputation-rending?  what does that mean?  Perhaps "heart-rending" is what you meant?

You do not have an example for My Family as you do for all the other categories.

Under Your Reputation, you casually throw in the comment "Both begin at D4".  This is the first place there has been any reference to dice, I think, in the text, and seems very out of place.  I suggest the whole character creation section should be prefaced with some kind of overview of play that gives the reader the big picture, so that when you start talking about mechanics in this section, they have something to grasp.  Also, crossref to later sections on using reputations.

You need a Polish pronuciation guide, preferably right near the front.

GENERAL COMMENTS

Man o man, is this a hard game to sell.  I mean, playing teenagers in Warsaw in 1944 is a niche market in a niche market, you know?  I'm not saying you should change anything, because the game is what it is, but I had a hard time getting a group of three people together to play out of a group of 7-8 diehard indie RPGers.  AFTER playing it, I think people would play it again, and I think almost anyone would be moved by it.  But getting them to play in the first place is not easy.

You may remember that I had some difficulties with the Shab-Al-Hiri Roach.  I found that the Roach was one of the most moving narrativist games I had ever played, because its premise was so tightly woven into the game design; that premise being that all existence is meaningless.  The Roach is truly the first work of existential philosophy in RPG form...it is the "Waiting for Godot" or "The Stranger" of RPGs.  And like both "Wating for Godot" and "the Stranger", I hated the Roach, while respecting the artistry of the creator.

Well, Grey Ranks proves the artistry, and at the same time opens up the realm of premise.  By this I mean that Grey Ranks is a premise generating and exploring tool of incredible power.  The setting and mechanics all conspire to FORCE an interesting premise to develop and then be examined.  The difference between Grey Ranks and the Roach is that this premise is NOT 'hard-coded' into the rules.  Is existence meaningless or is there some bigger picture or purpose?  Through the lives of the characters and what happens to them in those few short weeks in 1944, we will out what the players think about those and other questions. 

I say all this, of course, after only playing once, but as you can see, it affected me greatly.  I can't wait to play again.
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #2 on: December 28, 2006, 08:01:11 PM »

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and extensive report, Hans!  It's enormously helpful.  I'll address your direct questions and save some comments for another post.

...the setting.  A possible problem is that because the game is set in such a specific time and place, many players might be very intimidated; they know more about Greyhawk or Middle Earth then they know about WWII Poland. 
The Situation elements are supposed to give players ammunition to add a gloss of reality, but you're absolutely right - trying to make the game adhere to history rigidly would be no fun. 

On Situation Elements - are they selected secretly or in the open with discussion.  I can see it either way, but the text should mention this point somehow.  ...How did you come up with them? 
Openly, and I will clarify this.  I envision them being selected independently and then written down on a sheet of paper for everyone to reference.  They came from a bunch of places - the vague relationship-themed ones are pulled from common tropes in young adult novels.  The extremely detailed ones are from actual history (I've been keeping files of interesting bits, like the "bimber" you guys used).  I wanted a good mix of vague and specific, relationship- and action-focused. 

Playing through a scene:  This is the biggest area of difficulty we had during the playtest.  The difficultly is that there is little in the text to really explain HOW to work through the moments and vignettes and how to connect them.  For example, does ALL role-playing take place within the moments and vignettes or are they bits imbeded in a wider context of role-playing taking place?  Who decides who plays NPC's at different moments? 
I've added some discussion of this (stressing that you can interrupt a Vignette at any point with another, and in fact should), but it sounds like you guys worked it out just fine.  Each group will probably come to its own conclusion.  More playtesting will see if it's a common problem or if letting each group just find an organic flow is OK.

You have to include one other character in a moment or vignette...a player character?  One of the other "official characters"?  ... Do you expect people would frequently have moments or vignettes that did not include other characters?  How bad would it be if they did?
What I don't want is everybody having a private moment alone.  If another character has to appear, at least 50% of the players are directly involved.  I think an occasional solo Vignette would be great, but this is a rule people will break on their own when it is time.  That's my thinking, anyway. 

When do you determine the reputation that will be tested in a personal vignette?  Is it the same one whose die was contributed to the scene pool?
Yes.  You declare when you put the die in.

Reincorporating - this rule (either type) didn't make much sense to us.... the die roll modifiers seem to get in the way, somewhat, as written, of what is trying to be done with the game....Adding Situation: Huh?  Why have the elements if they aren't going to show up almost immediately in the scene? 
All this stuff has been substantially changed since the draft you played.  Your questions show me that it's moving in the right direction, because that stuff wasn't that great.

On replacement characters: it seems to me, mechanically, the earliest a character could leave the game is scene 4 (without a conscious choice on the part of the MVP to stay on the same corner).  ... What does this player do if they get written out early?
I need to add some discussion of this.  The earliest it could happen is scene five, and my thinking is that there are a whole roster of NPCs that can be brought into play by the eliminated player. 

You need a Polish pronuciation guide, preferably right near the front.
I thought about this, but don't you think it would add to the "realism" concern you had?  I think letting people pronounce Śródmieście however they like may be a better course.  I do say "don't sweat the Polish" at one point, so maybe a guide is a good idea coupled with that. 

Thanks again, this is great stuff and I'm both relieved and flattered that you enjoyed Grey Ranks so much. 
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #3 on: December 28, 2006, 08:07:28 PM »

Some more general thoughts, for Hans and others -

Playtesting is full of moving targets.  You guys were using a draft that is now a couple of versions behind, so some of the problems you had have been resolved.  Also, the draft is full of "I'll add stuff here later" mental notes on my part, like extensive cross-referencing and a couple of big examples of play (and many smaller ones), so forgive me for those empty spots.  Others - like procedures for handling "who does what when" questions during scenes - I hadn't even considered, so that's pure gold. 

Questions:

How long did each scene take to play out?

How did you record character information?  NPCs?  How did you note locations on the grid - with objects, writing stuff down, etc? 

You mentioned one player had trouble with the situation lists - can you elaborate?  Is it a matter of making the layout clearer or is it a deeper organizational problem?

Thanks!
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two_fishes
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Posts: 30

Mark M


« Reply #4 on: December 29, 2006, 04:29:28 PM »

Hi,

I played Kolya. I want to emphasize how much I liked the the Grid. It drove a lot of play for me. I would look to see where I was, where it looked like I might be headed and try to set up conflicts that would push me one way or the other. In fact, I jumped on the Hannah romance simply because I was high in the Love chart and needed some hook to express/explore it. Combining them with the Reputation shifts (or shift failures) was both challenging and very rewarding. The Situation Elements were also priceless.

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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #5 on: December 29, 2006, 06:17:51 PM »

Thanks, Mark, that's good to know about the grid.  I'm glad it did what it was supposed to - I was really hoping people would use it as another input into scene framing.  Can you take a crack at my questions about timing and record-keeping? 
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two_fishes
Member

Posts: 30

Mark M


« Reply #6 on: December 29, 2006, 07:33:46 PM »

Sure,

The scenes tended to play out fairly quickly. My recollection is a little hazy, but I believe we made it through the first act in about 4 hours, including character generation (we started after 7 or 7:30 and wrapped up at some point in the vicinity 11:30.) The larger amount of time was spent in the first scene, I think, setting up the first mission. The next two scenes went faster, with the overall mission more loosely sketched out and then going right into individual vignettes.

Keeping track of the grid was easy. We each grabbed a signature die, and placed it on a printout of the grid. Character information was brief. I think Kolya took up about half a sheet of notepaper? And we all sort of took personal responsibility for writing down names and notes of NPCs and Situation Elements. NPC's weren't much more than a name and a disjointed sentence or two.

Hans am I remembering all this correctly?

I think a clear layout might have helped somewhat with the Situational Elements, but it was a small-size (signature printed on letter size paper), unbound copy of the rules, too, so pages easily got out of order as we all flipped through them.
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #7 on: December 29, 2006, 07:51:45 PM »

That all sounds pretty good to me - the intention is to play an act per session, so three to four hours is the sweet spot.  I've been figuring an hour per scene. 

There's not much character information to keep track of, so I'm considering putting it all, along with the grid, on a central 11x17" sheet for everybody to reference.  In my last playtest we used index cards, which worked fine.

Thanks again, Mark.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #8 on: December 30, 2006, 07:26:33 AM »

Hans am I remembering all this correctly?

Your recollection gibes with mine, Mark.  The act took no more than 4 hours, including prologues and character generation.  The Grid was a piece of cake to track, and I still have our character's positions marked if we can do another session for the 2nd act.  Jason, if you do a commercial, printed version, and you think a bit of extra production value would be worth it, a laminated copy of the Grid would be a beautiful thing.  Not in any way necessary, and probably too expensive to do, but beautiful.

The only reply I have to your comments is, strangely, on the Polish pronunciation guide.  I still strongly recommend it, not due to realism, but due to atmosphere.  If I remember correctly, Polish is pronounced very differently from English, and having a guide would help build the sense of another place (unless its being played in Poland, of course).  An alternative would be to put the pronunciation next to a word the first time it appears in parentheses.

Everything else I'll just say I'm looking forward to seing a new draft.  I'm trying to set up another session for mid-Jan.
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* Want to know what your fair share of paying to feed the hungry is? http://www3.sympatico.ca/hans_messersmith/World_Hunger_Fair_Share_Number.htm
* Want to know what games I like? http://www.boardgamegeek.com/user/skalchemist
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