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[HfL] A cereberal game of Polish betrayal in WWII

Started by Sebastian K. Hickey, May 14, 2010, 01:20:18 AM

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Sebastian K. Hickey

Three players, three hours, one survivor. Poland in WWII. A story of betrayal and murder under the canopy of early war.

In this report I'll write a quasi-transcript about building the Frame, which might be helpful to some players out there. Then I'll look at the characters we chose and the decisions we made to squeeze it all together.

Afterwards I'll look at some differences in play (between this and other sessions), exploring the Dealer rules, and I'll conclude with my understanding of the game as it stands.

Quick Framing

Using the Quick Framing rules, here's how the conversation went:

QuoteEoin: What if it's set during the outbreak of WWII but the story is not about the war? (Eoin bids a pip.)

Sebastian: Where is it set? What would you like to see in the setting?

Eoin: What about Poland? I might be stepping on some toes, but can I include a location? There is this citadel in the Polish city of Brestlitovsk, a huge fortress that was involved in a week long battle.  I'd like to see that in the game.

Sebastian and Joe: Sounds good.

Sebastian: For the Adversary, what if there was a kidnap? Some rich fellow's daughter was taken but the kidnapping went wrong. The story could be about the rich fellow trying to hunt the kidnappers down. (Sebastian bids a pip.)

Eoin: What if he was an aristocrat and once he found out who killed his daughter, he ordered them found and executed? (Eoin bids a pip and has no more pips to bid now.)

Sebastian: And for the Gore Threshold? You get to choose that along with the Adversary.

Eoin: Let's keep the violence to a minimum. Gore Threshold six.

Sebastian: Okay, on to Connection. What if the characters were all part of the kidnapping plot, but one of them is actually the daughter, trying to escape? (Sebastian bids a pip and has no more pips to bid now.)

Joe: Let's say that the characters are the kidnappers but that the daughter is already dead. It went really wrong! (Joe bids a pip.) Now, since I am the only one with any pips, I have to choose the next segment: Drop-Off/Destination. We'll start behind the German lines (in Poland) and we're trying to get all the way to Moscow. Maybe we have some kind of asylum there? (Joe bids his last pip. When everyone runs out of pips, like this situation, everyone gets another one to spend.)

Eoin: For the first Checkpoint, we have to reach the Polish city of Brestlitovsk by crossing the enemy line! (Eoin bids a pip.)

Sebastian: For the second Checkpoint, maybe we have to hijack a train? (Sebastian bids a pip.)

Joe: I think we should be more covert. I don't see why the kidnappers would go all out like that.

Sebastian: No problem. I see your point. But you aren't allowed to say "no." You've got to spend a pip and offer an alternate suggestion.

Joe: Let's get Russian papers so we can cross the border without problems? (Joe bids a pip. Each player gets another new pip.)

Sebastian: I like that. It's suitably confrontational, fits the narrative I'm seeing in my head, and gives us a fixed task to achieve. Okay, onto the third Checkpoint. Any ideas?

Eoin: For the third Checkpoint, let's say that Molotov is on the way to Moscow on a train on a mission of national urgency. We have to board threat train in order to reach Moscow!

Eoin spends his pip. Now the Frame is complete.

At this point, I mentioned that I really wanted to end this game with a Deathmatch. This provided us with an obstacle. Why would these kidnappers travel all the way to Moscow to kill each other? We came up with a tenuous, but fun solution: Betrayal. One of the characters would be a Russian operative, who, after arranging for the kidnapping to go wrong, wanted to use the others to help him reach Moscow and then turn them over to the military to get his reward.

In that way we created characters with the intention of betrayal. I think this helped a lot at the end of the game.

The resulting characters were:

  • Svetlana Alexandova, the Arrogant "beautiful, anarchistic, radical man hater," with the Talent to Freak Out.
  • Marcyn Koharcyk, the Cowardly "destitute fiancée of the kidnapee who arranged the kidnap and now seeks asylum," with the Talent to Seduce.
  • Petrov, the Negligent "soviet operative who killed the kidnapee and wants to turn in the others for cash bucks," with a Talent to Out-Rank.


The game was very much reserved, for the most part. In the opening Checkpoint, Eoin, acting as Dealer, was pushing conflict too early. There wasn't enough room for characterisation. Joe, taking Eoin's lead, did the same. The result was that while the guys were pushing for action, as that's what HfL usually delivers, I had understood that we were trying for something else. My expectations were not being met. After all, we had collectively chosen a game with low violence and I felt that we had the opportunity here to try to tell a story about characters instead of a story about explosions (for once).

Before play, I had stipulated that we take a five minute break between each Checkpoint. We used this time to talk about what was going on at the table. I explained the purpose of the Backdrop rules and my reservations with play up to that point. "Think of it like an establishing shot," I said. In fact, I repeated that phrase so often, that I believe I will probably change the term from "Backdrop" into "Establishing Shot" or some such. It sets a scene in which characters aren't compelled to do anything. It is an opportunity for characters to show themselves. It's what Graham Walmsley refers to as the "platform" in his book Play Unsafe. You set up a kind of routine, a kind of ordinariness, so that you can inject a threat into the scene to a greater effect. After we'd discussed what I wanted from the Backdrop, we started the next Checkpoint with a greater sense of characterisation.

We ended the second Checkpoint after playing with communal Applause rules. That is, everyone at the table could Applaud, not just the Dealer. It is a much more encouraging system than the alternative—where the Dealer is the only one to Applaud.

Finally, toward the end of the last Checkpoint, I noticed that the Backdrop was once again getting confused with the Challenge. It seems that the act of donating a pip seems so intertwined with a Challenge, that players sometimes forget what the Backdrop is for. This has happened in all three of the last three playtests. Is this because everyone remembers the old rules, where Backdrops worked differently? Or is it because players want to set scenes as Challenges, not Backdrops?

I will have to be very specific in the text of the purpose of the Backdrop. I think I need to hit the Thesaurus, to find a word or phrase that tells the Dealer not to put in a threat. Something like "Calm before the Storm," or "Lull." Yes, lull is a good word. If someone asks you to choose a lull, surely you must instinctively know what to do with that?

New Understanding

I was talking with a friend about the Dealer rules and he pointed out that he wasn't sure that they added anything to the game. He made the valid point that what doesn't improve, harms. Agreed. But I made the counterpoint that what doesn't improve a game for experienced indie gamers might improve a game for inexperienced normal people. Imagine a field in which the sheep are penned up for their protection. That's horribly patronising. How about, imagine the difference a vitamin C tablet has to the guy who doesn't eat his five pieces of fruit. Grrr. Still patronising. Look, it's a fucking vaccine. All right? Despite the bad metaphor, do you hear what I'm saying? I'm worried about taking things for granted. What we've learned from trying things out, maybe others need to be guided toward with structure? Just until they get their feet? Hell for Leather has proven to be a good introduction into the "indie" style for people who've never played them before. Maybe that's because of structures like the Dealer rules? Or maybe it's because everyone likes stacking dice.

Anyway, my understanding of the game has changed. I thought Hell for Leather was just a game about gore and stupidity. It turns out that it's not. Sure, it supports that, but, interestingly, it can be used for a more cerebral experience. Now, take that with a pinch of salt. I've only seen it in one game (and I've heard of it in two others). But still. Comforting, in a sense: You get what you put in. Discomforting in another sense: I can't force you have to have fun my way!