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[Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
Topic: [Contenders] Hell's Kitchen (Read 2218 times)
[Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
May 16, 2007, 11:05:38 PM »
Jake hosted another Go Play SE Portland event for more than a dozen people associated with Portland Indie Games, and I moderated this GM-less role-playing game for Jake, Christian, and Nick.
Contenders bills itself as “a role-playing game of blood & sweat, pain and hope.” It’s a game where each of the players plays down on their luck boxers trying to escape from the gutter. I think there are some mechanical issues with the game, some of which I could see coming before play, but it really delivers an experience true to the genre it's emulating, along with a great time. It's a game I've really looked forward to playing. It works fine for a one-shot (five hours), but I think it wants a slower build-up; I'd prefer to spend two or three sessions with it if I get to play it again.
You can pick any setting you want for your boxers. We arrived at January, 1931 in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan. There's snow and sometimes blood on the ground. Prohibition, labor agitation, organized crime, redemption, and romance were also a part of our backdrop. And of course pain and hope.
Jake - "Big" Leroy Biggles: The big man from back West (Oregon) who learned boxing in the Army and has come to the Big Apple to make his fortune. He's earnest and good-intentioned, but not above getting dirty in the ring if that's what it takes to win his old flame, Jill Jameson back. Jill's currently engaged to Boris' trainer Henry Lovitt. She has a young boy named Frankie who's got Leroy's eyes. Leroy isn't certain that Frankie is his son. Whatever the case, Jill seems to have moved on and is looking for a more reliable provider for Frankie. Leroy's great hope is to prove himself to Jill before she marries Henry.
Nick - Halim "Lincoln Washington" Jubar - An Iranian immigrant who grew up in privilege but disappointed his parents by coming to America and putting on boxing gloves. Taken with the culture and history of his adopted home, he intended to go by the All-American name of Lincoln Washington in the ring, but was quickly typecast as a Persian villain. His parents have cut him off financially. Unless he can prove himself worthy, he risks deportation and then execution back home.
Christian - Boris "The Brute" Kachalovsky – son of a staunch Socialist worker, Boris’ family immigrated from a Jewish community in Western Russia to the states when he was a little boy. Both his parents are desperately poor, and Boris earns money for his family by boxing because his father’s reputation makes it impossible for him to get a factory job. His sister Alena is an active Socialist and is in danger because of it. She’s borrowed money from loan sharks to support the cause. Boris has secretly taken on anti-union tasks (scaring and roughing up unionists), but feels conflicted and guilty about it.
Me - "Fearless" Finian Walsh – Son of an Irish longshoreman, Doyle Walsh, Finian grew up hard of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. He’s hired out as muscle to a local gang boss now and then, primarily for protection rackets, but doesn’t relish the work. He just needs enough set up his younger brother Rory for college. He’s seen Rory hanging around Murphy’s pool hall lately and that has him worried. Finian is also muscle for some of the longshoremen who are trying to unionize and who are being intimidated by anti-union thugs hired by Robert Evans, a wealthy importer.
I brought my ipod and portable speakers for the game, something which is becoming a favorite gaming accessory. I know there are times when music can be a distraction for some, but I like what the right music can add to a session or parts of a session and want to develop the uses for this tool further.
Of the background music options I suggested, (including no music whatsoever), we settled on having the 1920s playlist that I compiled for The Shab-al-Hiri Roach playing softly in the background for most of the time, with an anachronistic switch for boxing matches. I’d put together a short list of twelve songs found by searching “Boxing” on iTunes which included songs from various Rocky movies interspersed with some fairly rowdy fight-themed rap.
My other ever-present accessory was my case of poker chips. I’ve gained a fondness for poker chips since they were used heavily in an Iron Heroes game GM’d by a good friend a couple years back. I like poker chips for any game with currency that changes relatively rapidly or that might otherwise be forgotten, languishing unused on a character sheet.
In Contenders, “Cash” changes frequently – green chips, and a boxer’s In-Ring Traits change during and between each boxing round. We used white chips for “Technique,” red for “Power,” blue for “Cover,” and black for “Conditioning,” and this seemed to work out pretty well. Given that Contenders uses standard playing cards for scene and fight resolution, the poker chips seemed especially fitting.
Christian volunteered to start things off as Boris, choosing a “Work” Scene delivering some coats to the wealthy socialite, Jenny Franks, to earn some quick Cash.
A red Joker was drawn during this scene mandating that the following scene link with this first one in a positive light. Though we never drew another Joker outside the boxing ring for the rest of the night, we tried to connect the characters as often as we could. The players really worked toward this end, and Jake had a great idea to stop mid-session and talk about where the characters’ stories were and where they were likely headed. Some people are bothered by this kind of discussion, but I both find it helpful and enjoy it as an activity on its own.
I’ve allowed too much time to go by to be able to provide a blow-by-blow account of the game. I’ll simply detail some highlights and some impressions. Hoping other players will talk about their favorite aspects of the game in all the blank spaces.
• Leroy had some great scenes with his former and future gal, Jill. I could just visualize him in the snow outside the tenement where Jill lived, begging for her to come out and “just give me a chance!” I played Jill and decided to keep my shoddy Irish accent thing going with her character as well as Finian’s. There’s just something about the Irish lilt that invites drama and pathos, hopefully even if it’s being slaughtered by an American tongue. There was a great scene early on where Jill, on Henry Lovitt’s arm, discovers Leroy washing dishes at the McGuiness diner. Leroy is somewhat embarrassed by the situation, but is serious in his efforts to prove that he can win her affections back and be a good provider and role-model. Jake and Nick had a nice scene as Leroy and Frankie, (father and son), down at the gym where Leroy trains.
• Although Halim’s Connection was ostensibly his parents, they were established as being outside the country, and some unnamed representative of this family was determined to be his Connection. Because he lost his first couple of fights right out the gate and had a couple other scenes go poorly, I don’t think he ever visited his Connection to try to gain Hope. While Nick had some great NPC cameos, especially as Frankie and Alena, and seemed to have a good time narrating Halim’s hurricane fighting style, his boxer character seemed a bit isolated from the rest of the common story. I’m seeing this on reflection and feel badly that I didn’t do more to get Halim involved in what became the main storylines of the evening. Halim quickly got cast in a villain mold by his early Pain gains, his cheating in the ring, and his ethnicity within the context of the setting. I’m not sure that’s quite the direction Nick wanted, but he did seem to enjoy himself regardless,
• Boris had some bad luck in early Connection Scenes and fights. In his first boxing match, he was ahead on points against Leroy, but then was narrowly knocked out. This put him on a path to Pain similar to Halim. Christian seemed to have a great time anyway whether as a boxing announcer, promoter, press agent, pawnshop weasel, Finian’s brother Rory, or wallowing in the doom of Boris himself. He, “Vic the Russian”, and several other anti-union thug types put my father and several of his longshoreman buddies in the hospital while Finian was out having coffee with Boris’ sister Alena. This put Finian and Boris on a collision course which built in an all out “Gangs of New York” style fight at Five Corners and then peaked in the ring at the sold-out venue of the New York Hippodrome. Boris’ brutal beatdown of the rising star, Finian, lost him his sister forever. A good thing for her as detailed
• Finian never fought dirty, won his first couple fights, had no complications problem in any of the jobs he took, got his brother Rory to keep out of the Irish mob and hit the books, and found romance with Boris’ sister Alena. I enjoyed playing Finian, but would have like to seen a little more of a personal struggle on his road to triumph. I wonder how often the game system offers that. Two boxers got on a hard road and stayed there, whereas Leroy got mostly good news and Finian pretty much sailed though without a scratch until his final fight. (which I knew as a player that Finian needed to lose if he wanted to save the life of his woman) The players provided good opposition and struggle for all the boxers in our role-play but the cards didn’t always reflect that balancing act that seems to occur for boxing protagonists in the middle third of most movies of the genre. I came to the game prepared to weep at the trials I was sure to endure. Finian was livid when he discovered that Boris was behind his father’s beating and guilty at having not been there to defend him, but that was all apart from the games mechanics.
• We got a lot of great play in five hours. There are a lot of characters, locations, scenes and themes I’ve not mentioned in this overview. I really like the structure of lots of different kinds of Scenes each with different, but still simple resolution mechanics associated with them. Having each Scene have a narrow goal aimed at improving a specific attribute of a character seems to help the “getting stuck” part I’ve occasionally encountered in the three other “GM-less” games I’ve played. But each scene is still really rich with possibilities within the constraints of the genre.
• It may be an emerald the size of a boxer’s heart, but I view this game as an unpolished gem. I have a few concerns, but my main one is with the Pain attribute both in how quickly and how much it can outstrip the Hope attribute, and with what that does to a player who can see their boxer has no chance of having a positive outcome to their boxer’s story. Once they know their Hope will never equal their Pain, they have nothing to lose in “Bringing the Pain” in a boxing match. Two of the boxers had double-digit Pain in the course of one evening’s play, never mind a multi-session game. If they “Bring the Pain” against another boxer, they are going to knock out that boxer every single time, eliminating any of the tension that the early boxing matches had, and which is a big positive for the game while it’s present. If the other boxer brings the Pain in defense, he may survive if he’s got a good Pain rating, but the winner of that bloody bout *will* be eating the mat. We had three of our boxing matches end in first round knockouts that you could see coming a mile away. If I were to play this game again, I’d cap the amount of a boxer’s Pain that they could add to a Domination or Damage check to 6. Bringing the Pain would still be a significant factor, outstripping the tactical option chosen and likely of greater potency than the boxer’s In-Ring Traits, but not guaranteeing a knock-out. Cover seems to be a bit of a dump Trait as well – I might allow it to be trained concurrently with another Trait if the boxer has the Cash to pay for it. (A Scene spent training seems to be a more vital currency than the Cash spent while training, especially towards the mid and endgame). These are off-the-cuff thoughts that would need playtesting, obviously. I think the currency of the whole system could use a second look, maybe with built-in differences depending on whether a one-shot or multi-session game is planned.
• Nothing in my comment above should dissuade anyone from giving this game a try as soon as they have the opportunity. This was one of the best times I’ve had role-playing in recent memory. Even if the mechanics don’t always parallel the genre emulation in every instance, the game text and basic drift of the rules do an absolutely terrific job of setting you up for great scenes that make you feel like you’re in a great movie. Players like Jake, Nick, and Christian don’t hurt either that’s for sure. Thanks guys.
Re: [Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
Reply #1 on:
May 18, 2007, 02:27:27 PM »
Very cool write up... Echos my own experience with Contenders. Re: your observation on Cover being a dump trait, in our game it felt like cover really paid off for the boxers that emphasized it, and that cash was always a grind. I have suspicion that the relative value of the traits varies depending on the ecosystem that develops among the PC and NPC boxers, and can vary from game to game. A good result for replayability, I should think.
Re: [Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
Reply #2 on:
May 20, 2007, 10:46:49 PM »
Thanks for bring this game to our get together Matt. I think this has been my favorite game experience so far out of all the games I've played in the Go Play! SE Portland game nights.
I'm very curious to see how the game would go over a longer play period. I imagine that Halim would have had a cance to develop more as a character. I also wonder if Bringing the Pain would have been less of an issue if each player had more time to try to raise their hope. I'm also not entirely convinced that Cover is a dump trait, but I'd have to play again to be sure.
Panty Explosion, Classroom Deathmatch
CrossRoads of Eternity
Work in Progress
Joe J Prince
Putting the fun into dysfunction!
Re: [Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
Reply #3 on:
May 25, 2007, 09:23:35 AM »
Thanks for running the game and for the great AP Matt.
It's stimulated a lot of ideas for me, you can read them here
Prince of Darkness Games
The Collective Endeavour
Re: [Contenders] Hell's Kitchen
Reply #4 on:
May 27, 2007, 07:19:12 AM »
I really like the idea of using poker chips for cash and in-ring traits. When we played Umlaut the other week we used chips for cash, but the idea of using them for traits is great! I think it would save on a lot of book-keeping during play.
Dead of Night
- a pocket sized game of b-movie and slasher horror
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