Soth - The first playtest

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hix:
On Saturday, we playtested Soth - a game where you play insane cultists in a small town, trying to summon your God and avoid discovery by investigators (it's the flip side of Call of Cthulu, basically).  Afterwards I figured out that it's about playing a villain, and seeing if you can get away with it.  However, the game is broken and needs to be massively simplified.  It's also left me with a lot of questions, such as what strategic choices do I want players to make in this game, and how exactly do you encourage roleplaying?

My three playtesters were Malcolm (Craig), Fraser, and Mash. They all know each other through playing Ultimate Frisbee.  Mash and Fraser have played quite a few RPGs together, while Malcolm and I have played Shock:, Dogs, and Umlaut together since he's arrived in the country.

We agreed to play strictly by the alpha-draft rules, changing nothing even if we found a problem. This came back to bite us when we hit the endgame which, as written, is kinda totally impossible to succeed at, leading to anti-climax.  In fact the whole game is extremely difficult - while designing it, I wanted to make the investigators a real threat but it seems like I over-compensated.  Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I had a few questions going into the play test.  Was the GM necessary?  Did the rules provide enough space and motivation for role-playing?  Was the game fun, and if so where was the fun?

Let me get ahead of myself a little here, and answer one of Jared Sorenson's three questions (after sleeping on it): What is Soth about?  I'll leave the other two for later - How is Soth about that? What behaviours does Soth support/reward?.

I want this game to encourage you see the world from inside the head of a cultist.  I want playing it to create a sense of creepy, predatorial power in the players, punctuated by bursts of fear that they'll be discovered, and a gradually growing sense of competition between the cultists.  So, after this first playtest I'm going to say Soth is about playing people who don't care they are doing something evil.  They abuse the people who love them most, and hurt the people who oppose them, and the game is about whether they'll get away with it.  You play the bad guys - and that created some really interesting tensions in the game.

We started the game by deciding on a location.  The rules specify it's a small town with a population of under 5000.  We had some debate about time period and setting.  We eventually decided on the 1930s, in the depression-era South. The players created that a cultist each: Sheriff Jacob Cleary.  Dr Myron Breckenridge, the local dentist.  Willie Beauchamp, the grocer's son.

Soth begins with the cult making their first sacrifice - someone who is a stranger to their town.  The players decided to kill a travelling salesman in the electric chair of the old mental asylum/prison.  This set up a chair motif that would continue through the game.  Each ritual also creates, as a byproduct of the roll, a whole bunch of NPCs who the cultists can interact with in the following scenes.

(An aside: at one point the players decided that the cultists' next sacrifice would be the daughter of a local chicken farmer.  Malcolm spoke out that he didn't want to see anything ... awful happen when they killed her, and is triggered a negotiation between all of us about what exactly was going to be acceptable in this particular circumstance.)

In the aftermath of the ritual, the players select from a variety of scenes to determine how they live their lives until the next ritual.  Insanity Scenes (which illustrate the cultist's growing craziness) seemed to be particularly entertaining.  Actions here ranged from eating a plate of raw chicken and more importantly taking milk with your coffee for the first time in 45 years, to wiring on a patient's jaw shut in the middle of a particularly unnecessary dental procedure.  Something I noticed here was the players picked up on details from the insanity scenes of other cultists, and developed them.  For instance, from the plate of raw chicken we got newspaper reports of chicken thefts at the local farm, the stalking of the chicken farmer's daughter, and eventually the discovery of the dentist smoking a pipe while bathing in a tub full of chickens.

The use of magic to hunt down and kill investigators also seemed to catch the players' imaginations. For each dice you use, you can describe one adjective about the creatures you have summoned.  This created some vivid set pieces in which investigators were eliminated.  Fraser also took the opportunity to use the betrayal rules and attack Malcolm's character. However, it also brought up a very clear complaint - that people who are investigating you can't be sacrificed no matter how rewarding that might be (as measured by the investigator' s Intimacy score with the cultist).

The playtest had a very stop-start to feel to it up until this point.  Scenes where everything flowed - whether that's judged by in-character conversations, interesting situations, or engaging conversations - were often interrupted by questions about the mechanics or the underlying principles of the rules, or just long stretches where players were trying to decide what to do next.  But even this broke down completely when we entered the endgame - where you try to summon Soth into the world.  We had gone through three cycles of scenes, making the arbitrary decision (due to time constraints) to summon Soth at the end of cycle 3.

The summoning ritual starts with the cultists kidnapping all of the NPCs who aren't investigating them, in order to perform a mass sacrifice.  However, all of the steps that follow, from how many successes you need to summon Soth to the dice you roll are either hard to achieve, different from the rest of the game, or boring and procedural.  This section does not work - and as it provides the climax of the game, that's quite disappointing.  We didn't get to the epilogue section of the endgame, where each cultists gets a chance to describe their life in a world ruled by Soth.  Instead things petered out, we all wrote down our feedback, and then had a discussion.

So, the things that seemed fun (to me) about this game were:
-- acting out your growing craziness
-- casting magic to victimise investigators
-- betraying your fellow cultists
-- investment and interest in the NPCs
-- capturing and sacrificing victims.

That's all good stuff.  My biggest concern is that all of the above comes pretty naturally out of the game's situation, and that the system itself might be getting on the way of that fun.  The common complaints about the game were:
-- too many variations on the dice rolling and tie-breaking system
-- investigators are almost always successful, and the odds are heavily stacked in their favour
-- whether you role-play your character or not makes no difference
-- it was very long - about three hours, instead of the hour and a half I had in mind
-- the endgame was way too difficult
-- too much paperwork, of writing down secret notes, creating NPCs, and handling the different investigations.

Given all of that, there were things that were obviously wrong and that I definitely want to change.
-- simplify cultists scenes so that their mechanical effects emerge through playing
-- collapse investigations into either a single Investigation Pool, or two scenes as opposed to four
-- make summoning Soth easier
-- eliminate the GM (provisional) ... Malcolm and I agreed that a GM was unnecessary to the game, as the responsibilities of the GM role could be distributed to other players or embedded in the rules.  Mash disagreed, seeing advantages in consolidating the playing of NPCs and providing conflict in one person.

I've also tried visualise where Soth sits on three axes: How hard is it?  How flexible is are the events in the story? How much of an RPG is it?

Challenging  ----------------X----------------------------- Easy
Constrained  ---------X----------------------------------- Flexible
RPG           ---------------X------------------------------ Board game

Those are the answers I've come up with for now, anyway.  I want the game to be reasonably challenging, almost possible to lose. I want it to have a reasonably fixed sequence of scenes that lead to the summoning of Soth (but for the fictional content in those scenes to be up for grabs). I also want it to be a role-playing game, and that leads me to the first of my many questions: How do you reward or encourage roleplaying?  (And have I just written another parlour narration game?)

Other questions include:
How is Soth about "playing villains, and seeing if they can get away with it"?
What behaviours does Soth support/reward?
What strategic choices do I want in Soth?

Anyway, my conclusion was that the game (as is) is utterly broken. I'm going to have to rewrite it and retest it, and what comes out of that will hopefully be a real alpha-draft. In the next three or four days I'll make a decision on whether that's worth pursuing right now.

My original post about Soth is here (Forge) and here (Gametime, which garnered more comments). My initial 24-hour design is up on my wiki, here. If you want a copy of the current rules, pm me with your e-mail address and I'll sent it to you.

Simon C:
This looks really interesting!

There are some compelling themes in this game - playing the bad guy, trying to get away with it, exploring one's "dark side".  In some ways, the concept reminds me of "My Life With Master", both in terms of the gameplay, and the themes.  But there's an important difference.  While MLWM characters may see themselves as monsters, as players we are encouraged to see their humanity, to look for their redemption.  Soth doesn't have that element.  Not that that's bad, just that I think it presents certain difficulties, if you want to prevent your game from being an orgiastic revel in how "bad" you can be (which has already been explored with Kill Puppies for Satan). 

I think your playtest has already kind of revealed one issue with that - lines and veils.  I think it's probably pretty important to establish some lines about what's acceptable in the game, and what's not, in terms of "evil" behaviour in-game.  Unless you want the game to be about "how low you can go" (and that's a valid goal too), I'd suggest that establishing ahead of time what the limit of depravity is will tend to discourage exploring that line. 

I think what's really interesting here is not the fact that the PCs are evil (altough that's important), it's that they're powerful, and they're unprincipled.  I'd suggest that the game should focus on exploring how the players choose to use that power - not to problematise their use of it, but to see how far they can take it. 

Something that concerns me is the mention of "passing secret notes to the GM".  I'd hope that eliminating the GM would also eliminate this.  While keeping secrets between players can be a really powerful tool (see The Mountain Witch), I think that the logistics of note passing make it a bit of a nightmare.  I've certainly never had a positive gaming experience that involved secret notes.  Can you find a way to handle secret information in a more elegant way? Do you need secret information at all?  Malcolm can probably talk with more authority than I about this, given his experience with Cold City, a game which I think really elegantly handles the line between "secret in-character" and "secret out-of-character".

Ron Edwards:
Hello,

Simon, I'm thinking that a slight modification of what you said could help solve the problem for this game (my change is in bold):

Quote

While revealing secrets between players can be a really powerful tool (see The Mountain Witch),

That's what makes the Dark Secrets fun in The Mountain Witch; it goes all the way back to the Secrets in the game Soap, when Paul Czege demonstrated that his game foundered because everyone was under the wrong impression that you were trying to keep your Secrets from being discovered.

Steve, perhaps that concept can go some distance in helping with this game.

I also recommend checking out the game in development, Acts of Evil, by Paul. It gets discussed a lot in the Ashcan Front forum.

Best, Ron

Troy_Costisick:
Quote from: Ron Edwards on December 03, 2007, 06:49:10 AM


I also recommend checking out the game in development, Acts of Evil, by Paul. It gets discussed a lot in the Ashcan Front forum.

Best, Ron


Which is right here: (http://www.ashcanfront.net/forums) just to be helpful and add a link :)

Peace,

-Troy

hix:
Again, you all make me think.  Thank you.  A shape for the next draft is beginning to emerge.

-- -- --

I used secrets (and note-passing) because I wanted to introduce the worry of "Will I be betrayed by one of my fellow cultists?" into each cycle of scenes.  As far as secrets go, that's a very immediate and short term one, as opposed to the Dark Fates that run through most of The Mountain Witch. 

Ron, here's what your "revealing secrets" comment made me think of.  You could structure a scene so it had a series of decision points inside it.  Once you've made a decision, you roll the dice, resolve the conflict and close the scene.  The final decision would be whether to betray a fellow cultist or not.  I reckon a tension would naturally emerge from milking the answer to that question in each scene.  In fact, that tension would probably inspire the "space" for roleplaying I've been talking about. 

That's a possible solution.  I haven't analysed it, and I need to make sure that it addresses whatever the underlying issues really are.

-- -- --

Simon, those are some interesting comments on the issue of lines and veils.  I had a think about your "how low you can go" observation.  On reflection, it's not that I want depravity to be the goal of playing Soth; it's that leaving it up to the judgment of the players as to whether things were about to go too far provided a fascinating moment in the game.  I'm tempted to look on this as a feature, and either (a) provide some advice about talking through these issues when they arise or (b) just letting players go for it.  After all, they have the ability to pass judgment and punish cultists who're deemed to have gone too far by "attacking" them in the game. 

The two things stopping me from advocating that second route are that (again) I haven't analysed this issue thoroughly yet, and I suspect Malcolm would have completely disengaged from the game if any badness had happened to the farmer's daughter.

-- -- --

I've been keenly reading every Acts of Evil playtest ever since Gencon.  After Paul went public with what Acts of Evil was about, I realised it and Soth shared the same subject matter.  That meant my first real design decision was whether or not to even write the game.  Anyway, I'm looking forward to buying the finished version.  In fact, I only just managed to stop myself picking up the ashcan. 

I've been wondering whether, at this point, there'd be any benefits to me picking it up - I'm interested in your thoughts on that.

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