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[Arrowflight] Pixies, poison, and duty

Started by Ron Edwards, October 30, 2003, 10:43:58 PM

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Ron Edwards


This post is way overdue; we played a single-session game of Arrowflight at a meeting of our campus club almost four weeks ago. I'll start right off by saying that this is one game I'll be happy to play again, for a longer-term stint. This post is kind of a preamble to an upcoming review. The game is another in the run of rather strong, rather focused, and well-made High-Concept Simulationist RPGs that have been coming out lately. It's also the first game I've ever seen that made me want to play an elf (I mean, in the RPG sense of a cool, long-lived guy with glam hair and kind of fast reflexes; never mind the elfs in Elfs).

The first generalization about the game is that every single aspect of the setting, characters, and event resolution operates at the same "depth" of understanding and effort. This is no mean feat - it means that once you get it, you get it, and also that you won't step into any "potholes" during play. I think the only way a game gets this level of consistency, in terms of cognition and usage, is through incredibly good playtesting, and Arrowflight seems to have benefited from a lot of it. The single minor exception is damage, which is a tad clunky in handling time, but I'll wave this magic system around as the true heir to Fantasy Hero - tons of scope, easy point-construction system.

I'll have more to analyze in my review about the game in general, but for this post, I'll stick with the actual scenario we played. Here's the text from the handout I gave them, which included some maps and illustrations from the game.
Adventure Fantasy
Corvel and its many provinces present an unstable situation, following the assassination of Cedric I and the subsequent wars with Kilmoor. Currently, one influence that seems to bode well for the continued survival of the nation is The Code held by many mages and fighting-men.

The widespread Church of Rellian supports the Code, and the most relevant branch for our purposes is the Order of Rai. Its goals are all about racial equality, anti-slavery, and internal stability, rather than expansion, and it's pretty militant about these goals. You guys are "irregulars" for the Order, meaning that you're troubleshooters and special ops for Sir Brynn Forestborn, chief of the head clan of Brudic. You're often assigned to Code-troublesome situations and just as often expected not to return, and if you do, not to shoot off your mouth about it. Fortunately the chaplain will pray for your souls.

How to play
Task resolution is very literal (it's not conflict resolution). Roll a number of d6 equal to attribute, looking for values equal to or less than the skill number (successes). If half or more of your dice are 1's, it's a critical; if half or more are 6's, it's a fumble.

Combat is handled in a traditional linear fashion. (1) Initiative is set by rolling, but you can either speed up or hold your action if you have to. (2) Attempts to hit are rolled against (a) automatic parries or (b) dodges which require spending actions. (3) Damage consists of a complex formula, and includes both location rules and a stun/fainting check based on Wound Threshold. Death is the last of such checks.

Magic is rolled as a skill, with the target number reduced by the individual spell's DIFF value. Some spells may be resisted. A failed spell leads to a series of Saving Rolls based on Mana, and involves taking damage.

Prayers work just like magic, except that priests may practice a daily Devotional for bonuses to prayers throughout the day. Failures, or failing to do the Devotional, result in a penalty.

Destiny may be spent to re-roll a bad roll of any kind; the new roll stands regardless of value. Destiny is gained by critical success on the re-roll or through special GM gift.

The situation
A year ago, a squadron of orcs stationed near the Cursed Wood near the border of Garkan failed to return; in fact, they disappeared. They'd last been seen at a village at the junction with the country road leading to the orcs' assigned outpost. It's a politically sensitive issue, as the orcs might have deserted to join the rogue orcs and goblins who ravage from the Cursed Wood all along its border, and Lady Sera Brudic on the Corvel Council has to face accusations that they indeed did so.

That's why Sir Brynn sent you to the village of Orlane to start investigating what happened to the Gut-Stomper orcs.

Your characters
Jonas (human) – a solid scout-soldier with lots of survival skills. Make sure you understand the special Combat Moves for your style.

Black Quar (elf) – a pure bad-ass, a combat-mage who specializes in knives. Make sure you understand the Magic rules and the special Combat Moves.

Barbados (earthfolk/gnome) – cunning and resourceful gnome, with minor magics and a simple gunne. Make sure you understand both the Magic rules and the Black Powder rules.

Korhall (human) – the chaplain, leader, and interpreter of the Code for the group. Make sure you understand the Devotional and Prayer rules.

These four characters know one another well and have worked together for a long time.

Also, an optional character: Wailing of Widows (faerie/pixie) – one of the Faerie tribe who lives in the forest near Orlane. This character does not know the others and gets some special information from the GM. Make sure you know about Glamors magic, poisons, and all the special size rules for Faeries.

Here's what was going on in my scenario. To my way of thinking, almost all of Arrowflight is about racial diversity - it's better to put differences aside and find common ground. That is, in my terminology, the embedded Theme of play. So I worked with this, saying that the village was pretty snooty human stock with some elf mixed in, and they had killed the orcs with poisoned wine. Or rather, three of the main folks in the village engineered it, and most of the others are cowed and don't see what they can do but go along with it. Now, a year later, in ride these toughs trying to find out what happened. The village tells them that the orcs rode through and away, but something seems a little off.

The poison, by the way, came from the nearby pixie tribe (and we all got into the idea that this was a seriously tough pixie tribe, no wimps), and these same village guys cheated the fairies by not supplying them food over the winter like they said they would. Now, the fairies barely survived the winter and they're pissed off.

And to make life even more fun, as the anniversary of the massacre/poisoning approaches, the orcs are stirring in their graves. Arrowflight has pretty neat Undead rules and I wanted to see them in action. And I liked the idea of the characters, who are generally pretty down on the Undead, confronted with martyrs thirsting for revenge.

I won't lie. I made up the player-characters, the NPCs, the locale, and every detail of the situation. I locked in the scenario without hesitation: the pixies would attack. The orcs would rise up at about the same time. There was no scope at all for the players to decide where the conflict lay; it was set and ready to blow up. Given many aspects of the game's text and design, I think this is probably the best approach toward playing it.

I had three players; they chose Black Quar, Jonas, and Wailing-of-Widows. We dropped Barbados from the story and I played Korhall as an NPC, which was sort of a bummer but not disastrous. The players actually liked the idea that they were hard-cases who nonetheless cared about what this priest made of them, and ran with it, although I would have liked to see how players would have handled this without GM-status for the character.

I must give awesome credit to Christine for her pixie portrayal, as she absolutely nailed the image of the "deadly ditz," yet managed to make the later scenes of play actually very moving, when Wailing of Widows decided to join the Rellian Church.

How'd it go? I'll have a lot to say about the system, which is quite good and very interesting in places, in my review. I decided to push its limits with a really crazy battle full of orc-ghouls, an orc-wight leader, screaming pixies, angry villagers, a couple of bad guys, religious magic, knife-wizardry magic, and pixie magic all firing off at once. So I figure it worked out well, since we never bogged down into some crazy look-it-up issue, and everything did indeed get resolved.

I've mentioned before that many of these players are pretty new - and how damn good they are. In this run, the new guy (the same one who played Casey in the Haven game) was amazing. When the priest called upon his Saint, and the Saint told them to exact justice, and when the dead-orcs all lined up in parade formation to await judgment ... and the player said, "I line up with them," ohh man. It sounds kind of hokey maybe, but it was a great moment.


edited to fix annoying italics glitch - RE


Hot damn.  I'm moving to Chicago so I can play Arrowflight.  Well, not really.  But damn, I've owned this game for a while now, read it cover to cover three times, broke the binding, the book fell apart so I put it in sheet protectors... I have been drooling to play this game for so long it's ridiculous.  Why haven't I? Well, currently I'm sans group, and the previous group I was in... It just would not have worked.  Thanks for the write-up, Ron, and I'm quite looking forward to your review.

Question: Why no orc characters?  Seems like it would have made for some seriously hefty role-playing opportunities.

Question: I agree that the game lends itself well to the traditional illusionist techniques for scenario design.  How well do you think it would support other GMing techniques in which there is a greater degree of player input into what happens and where conflicts lay?

Question: Did you use any of the supplemental materials that are out for the game (Anima, Severed Threads)?

Matt Wilson


Your group is giving ours a run for its money in the number of games you've played recently, and we actually have two small groups going at the same time!

I'm interested in seeing a review of this game. A couple quickies, if you don't mind, before then:

On the ruthless - carefree spectrum, how's fighting in general?

Did you create a character for it yet? How involved is it?

We might have yet another game to put on the play list, sounds like.

Ron Edwards


Ethan, I didn't want orcs as player-characters in this scenario because the whole thing was about attitudes towards orcs, by non-orcs. Also, frankly, none of the races are really much different from one another numerically until you get to pixies and sprites. So it's not as if we were missing some factor or "zone" of the system by leaving out orcs as player-characters.

Without putting too fine a point on it, "orcs" in the setting are clearly symbolic stand-ins for black people in terms of 1950s American literature, just as they are in so many other fantasy games. They are the ex-slave race, brawny and raw, full of potential and ready to join up in the over-culture, but faced with extreme prejudice and certain individual limitations. Please note I'm talking about a literary role/identity, not a real one. Those "limitations" are a source of tricky, high-tension conflict in the stories I'm talking about and they feature heavily in games like Arrowflight and Earthdawn.


QuoteOn the ruthless - carefree spectrum, how's fighting in general?

Did you create a character for it yet? How involved is it?

Damage seems to go one way or the other - negligible scratches vs. serious hits. I was a little surprised to see that serious hits don't individually have much consequences (the "stun from one blow" rules are bit clunky, relative to the rest of the system), but a couple of them will put a character down hard. Or maybe I missed something about bleeding or other things that involve the effects of mid-range wounds.

Also, this was a single session, and I really don't want to over-generalize from it. There are a lot of fighting options and maneuvers in the game, and although we tried a few of them out thoroughly, there are more.

Options for defense are a big deal in the game, especially since basic parrying is a free-action. So a good defensive skill and a little armor together go a very long way. Side note, though: fairy characters differ from the other characters in being super-hard to hit but super-easy to splat.

I pre-generated all of the characters, and I'd put the effort at about par with The Riddle of Steel - a wee bit less numerically, but a wee bit more in terms of placement into a setting-specific background. There's a lot of layering from race to upbringing to training, sometimes involving rolls and sometimes involving points.

My biggest concern (or thought, anyway) is that I see no point to making up characters without a fairly well-articulated understanding among the group concerning "what the game's about." It's very much on the order of Champions that way, in that making up Champions characters without agreeing about what sort of comic you're making together is a recipe for disaster.

This isn't a flaw or limitation of the game design so much as a necessary understanding.


Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I realized that Matt's question hit a little closer to home than I realized. I couldn't figure out why I needed to make that point about RPG-orc symbolism ...

... and then realized that's why I've never wanted to play an orc character in Earthdawn or a similar game. Since the character-race (to me) corresponds so well to a given literary construct that I consider to be ... well, an issue rather than a person, it's jarring to me to play it.

I don't consider such literary works or including such races in RPGs to be bad or ethically-wrong. But I hadn't really considered why I shied away from them, and how central this happened to be for this particular scenario.

This note has been brought to you from the "Ron's Self-evaluatory Musings Department" and should be disregarded as anything specially important to anyone else.