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[PTA] PTA House Rules Play-Test

Started by Paul Strack, February 25, 2007, 06:59:33 PM

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Paul Strack

I ran a PTA game based on the following house rules:

I am still editing the above rules, so it may not reflect the rules used in this play-test.

The players were Brian, Chris and Karen, all experienced gamers with a background in a variety of indie games, used to this playing style. We have played together in various one-shots at our local gaming store but are not in a regular gaming group together. The game ran for 4 hours.

I suggested the basic premise for the game: a Battlestar Galactica spin off in which the protagonists would be the crew of a small passenger ship caught in the middle of the Cylon invasion from the premier of the series. My game prep consisted of putting together a list of Greek names for character creation and coming up with a few "bangs" for the adventure: a nuclear pulse taking out their ship, a Cylon on board, someone on one of the planets that they needed to go down and rescue.

We started with discussing the game premise. Chris was late, so I only had Brian and Karen for that part. This was unfortunate; the scenario discussion was very useful in getting player buy-in. Chris didn't seem to mesh with the scenario as easily as Brian and Karen did; it seemed to take longer for his character to click.

Brian and Karen fleshed out the basic scenario considerably. They decided that the ship was a once-great luxury-cruiser for hire but now the company that was getting ready to go bankrupt and it was on its second-to-last cruise. They also invented the passengers as a bunch of B-list celebrities and their entourage on the way to a "Celebrity Poker" much on Geminon to raise money for charity. I inserted a pair of Geminon politicians there to keep an eye on things, and Chris ended up taking one of those characters when he showed up.

As the GM, I framed the first scene, trying to set up enough of a situation to give the players something to play off of for the rest of the episode. A nuclear explosion's EMP took out the ship systems, a Cylon on board went wild and an NPC crewmember went missing.

The first conflict was an extended conflict to get the players used to the rules. I set stakes first, again to give the players something to play off of. I put out two stakes for the opposition:

* The out-of control Cylon wanted to kill a passenger and escape.
* The passengers were freaking out and going to damage an important ship system.

The players set counter stakes:

* Brian (the pilot) wanted to keep the passengers from hurting the ship and calm them down.
* Chris (a passenger/political functionary) wanted to protect another passenger he was sweet on from the Cylon.
* Karen (the ship steward/Jack of all trades) wanted to take down the cylon with her taser.

I clarified that Karen's stakes were only about taking down the Cylon, so that if she won, someone could still be killed. Similarly, if Chris won, the passengers would be safe but the Cylon could still escape.

I played hard (and by choice) for the Cylon but randomly for the passengers. I put down one story-token per round on the Cylon's stakes and the Cylon won every round, ending up with 3 victory cards. I played randomly (by chance) for the passengers, didn't give them any tokens and they won no rounds.

Post-game, I learned that Brian deliberately threw the first round of conflict, not realizing how victory cards would play into his winning the overall conflict. He lost the 2nd round as well, but realizing he was in a tough position, he pushed hard to win the 3rd round so he had 1 card to the passengers none, giving him his stakes and saving the ship (his issue).

Chris and Karen both played hard. Chris in particular used several traits to earn his victories. In the end, though, they only had two cards each, with neither of them beating the Cylon. I pointed out that one of them could give a victory card to the other so one of them would win. They negotiated a bit, and agreed that taking out the Cylon was the more important concern. Chris gave a card to Karen, narrating his character bumping into his crush and knocking her out. Karen ended up taking down the Cylon with her taser.

I could have killed Chris's sweetie at that point, but I wanted to play out that relationship more. Since my stakes were vague, I decided to kill another passenger instead. I used this "vague stakes" trick again in later conflicts, saying "someone will die" instead of "character X will die" to give me more wiggle room in directing the story.

We went through a series of player-chosen scenes, all with simple conflicts

* Brian set a scene with him and Karen in the engine room, getting the ship back online and talking about their missing crewmate. They discovered the crewman floating outside, and the conflict was about how that worked out. Brian set stakes first: the crewman would gasp out a bit of information about the Cylons and then die. My stakes were that a passenger would come by and see the dead engineer. Brian won.

* Chris set a scene about take care of his unconscious crush, but his boss coming in an harassing him to leave the floozy alone and do his real job. We played out the scene, and Chris decided that the conflict would be about whether he would loose control, like his father did, or keep his cool and impress his sweetie when she woke up (the father thing was his issue). I couldn't tell which would be better, so I played by chance and won anyway, because Chris threw the conflict (playing low). Chris narrated that he blew up at his boss and started yelling just as his sweetie woke up. Brian stepped in and spent a story-token as a bribe to get Chris to do a quick flashback of Chris's character as a child getting yelled out by his father. When the flashback ended, I narrated a parallel situation, with Chris's character acting like the father and his waking sweetie acting like the kid. That played out nicely.

* Karen set a scene where she was schmoozing her boss, the ship owner, who was a rich guy with no particular survival skills. She started talking to him about what they might do next, filling him in on the Cylon situation. I pushed into a conflict, with the ship owner saying he didn't trust Brian (the pilot) and asking Karen to get the command codes so that the ship owner could take over. Karen decided this was a bad idea. She set her stakes to calm her boss down and let Brian stay pilot. Karen won.

It was my turn to set a scene. By this point the ship had reach Geminon and saw the fighting and nuclear explosions. I had a meeting in the ship's bridge between Chris, Karen, Brian, Chris's boss (a Geminon politician) and the ship owner. I ran this as a simple but multi-way conflict:

* Brian wanted to land to rescue his family.
* The Geminon politician wanted to contact the Gemini authorities.
* Karen wanted to convince the ship owner to retreat back into space away from the Cylons (Karen's issue was about finding someone's coattails to ride).
* The ship owner wanted to land at the company repair facilities.
* Chris's stakes were vague: land on the planet somewhere safe.

Brian threw the conflict and had the lowest card. The conflict results ended up in the order above. Brian simply caved (no narration). I narrated how Chris's boss blathered on, clearly useless and out of his depth. Karen also caved without much narration. I narrated the ship owner bombastically asserting his authority over Brian to force a landing where he wanted.

Chris's character took an interesting turn at this point. He decided to play up his ex-military background and have them land in a safe area away from the fighting to evaluate the situation. We had a tangential discussion about whether he could change his traits to reflect his new leadership skills, which led into a discussion about trait-evolution and character advancement. The net result was that Chris's character end up with more of a "competent ex-military" vibe instead of the "fawning sycophant", while his boss became more of a non-entity.

We had two more player-chosen scenes, again simple conflicts:

* Karen had a scene where she tried to convince the passengers that their contract with the cruise ship was void and that they would be better off staying on the planet. She was also trying to get the ship owner to back her up. I had an important passenger accuse Karen of wanting to leave them to die. The conflict was about whether she could convince the passengers to get off, but I really wanted to keep them around, playing both an Ace and a story-token. I made a point that Mr. Important Passenger now had a grudge against Karen.

* Chris couldn't think of a scene idea, so Brian had a scene where he got a message from his family that they were in a religious retreat and under attack. The ship owner and Chris came in to argue about what to do. The conflict wasn't about whether they would go to the rescue; both Brian and I wanted that and Brian had his pilot take off before the conflict started. The argument was about how command would be distributed when they got there. The ship owner wanted Chris to be in charge of the rescue, but to acknowledge the ship owner's authority for the overall situation. Brian wanted command to be chosen by merit instead of the now-irrelevant ownership issues. Brian spent tons of resources and won resoundingly.

At this point it was getting late and we decided to play out the final conflict. I set the scene: the religious compound was under attack by Cylon centurions when the ship arrived. I set stakes first:

* One group of Cylons was in the compound and would kill "someone important" in the compound.
* One group of Cylons was going to attack and damage the ship.
* Mr. Important Passenger arranged for one of his security guards to ensure that Karen didn't make it back to the ship after the rescue.

The players set stakes as follows:

* Brian was going to rescue one (and only one) of his family members, plus protect the ship.
* Chris was going to fend off the Cylons.
* Karen was going to take down the security guard and get back to the ship.

Interestingly, Chris set a stake that when things were over, the ship would stay on the ground and Karen set a stake that the ship would leave when the conflict finished. So the PvP stakes determined the question of whether the ship would leave, not my stakes as GM.

I played hard with story-tokens, but held back a bit with cards. I didn't have to hold back much; my hand was mostly crap at this point. Still, I was able to keep tension high with the tokens but give the players their victories by playing weaker cards.

The players also fought hard, except for Brian who again threw the first round and killed off his own sister, leaving only his niece to save.

The conflict ended with 1 card on each of my stakes, 1 card on Brian's stake and two cards on each of the player stakes. I tried to ratchet up tension by shuffling cards among my stakes, but didn't calculate thing right; there wasn't any way I could win anything, and I caved on everything (though I think I did manage to keep things interesting and uncertain during in-conflict narration).

Brian saved his niece, Karen knocked down the security guard (accidentally killing him) and Chris drove off some Cylons with a tractor. Chris won overall, and narrated that one of the ship's landing gears was taken out, so it could not leave the surface (resolving that the ship wouldn't be leaving the planet).

We were out of time, so I narrated the group receiving Laura Rosalyn's message as acting president of the colonies that humanity had lost and everyone needed to escape into space if they were able. Each player did quick "epilogue shots" for their character's final reactions. Brian was in shell-shock, cradling her niece. Chris was sick with the idea of going back to war. Karen was calculating how the acting president might need a PR person.

In post-game feedback, the players told me that they generally like the way the rules worked. They gave a bunch of suggestions. The two biggest problems seemed be story-tokens and narration order.

The players felt like they didn't have enough story-tokens, especially early in the game. A couple of suggestions were made: making some story-tokens available at the beginning for the session, making the tokens smaller in value but more numerous, removing the limits on token usage but making using multiple tokens a diminishing return. I'm not sure yet what I am going to do here.

The strict loser-to-winner narration order was also a problem. Everyone did like the fact that the losers got to narrate and therefore stay involved, but it wasn't always clear what they should do. Two of the players complained that if they were losing, they didn't know what to narrate since they didn't know what the winner would do. Several ideas were suggest, such as reversing narration order (which I didn't like). I think the best idea was to let the narration go in any order the group found "natural", with winners deciding whether they narrated first or last if there was a dispute. It's clearly something that needs more experimentation.