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[Gnostigmata] Contest Tree works

Started by John Kirk, May 12, 2006, 02:03:56 AM

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John Kirk

Session 2
The second play-test of Gnostigmata used Beta 3.0 that you can download from here.  You can read an Actual Play account of the first play-test session here.  The state of the characters at the end of each play-test session are available here.

In this play-test, the Contest Tree built tension exactly as I hoped it would.  The Failure Rewards also seem to be doing their jobs in beefing up the underdogs as well.  The final outcome of the evening's play is that the Stigmatics are kicking the Gnostics' butts.  The Stigmatics have earned two Act-level Rosary Beads while the Gnostics have none.  On the other hand, Ruprecht (the Gnostic character I'm playing), has been significantly strengthened by all of the losses he has endured.  In contrast, the Catholics are not much more potent than they were at the beginning of the game.  It will be interesting to see how Ruprecht fares in the next Act.

The Social Aspects
The players were:  Ralph Buttner, Maura Fitzpatrick, John Kirk, and Adam Reid.

This was the first time Maura played.  One player showed up late and one left early.  We played two scenes, each with three players, but only two of the players were the same ones in both scenes.

With the Beta 3.0 changes, the scenes ran faster than the previous session.  It was fun and didn't have any of the odd quirks that I thought it might after the first session.  At the end of the session, all of the players were enthusiastic about the game.

The Stakes of the Climax
We negotiated the stakes of the climax in the first session.  However, I felt that the stakes were not sufficiently personalized enough to the player characters to make the players care about winning.  So, I suggested that the climax stakes should also include personal stakes for some characters.  The players readily agreed.  We kept the original negotiated stakes, but tacked on some more.  The re-negotiated stakes are:

If the Gnostics win:  They obtain the Gospel of Michael and are free to narrate some magical effect concerning it.  One possibility of a magical effect that was discussed is that it takes the readers back in time to the Creation so that they can actually witness it first-hand.  It was decided to leave the specifics open to the imaginations of the winners at the time of winning, though.

In addition, Catherine falls in love with Ruprecht and Geoffrey switches sides and becomes a Gnostic.

If the Catholics win: The Gospel of Michael is destroyed and is substituted with a forgery that says whatever they want it to say, most likely to refute the validity of some other Gnostic scripts known to exist.

In addition, Father John becomes a Bishop and Geoffrey becomes the leader of the Hounds of God.

Scene 2
(Scene 1 was played in the first play-test.)

The only player-character appearing in Scene 2 was Father John Michael Keys (Adam Reid's character).  This is Father John's introductory scene and one in which he is to be given a mission.  We negotiated stakes of the scene as follows:

If the Gnostics win: Ruprecht learns that Father John is searching for Gnostics at the University and is going after them.  In addition, Father John gains a point of Agony.

If the Catholics win: Father John discovers Ruprecht is a Gnostic and is going after him.  In addition, Father John gains a point in one Relationship trait of his choice.

The scene is framed in a small Catholic church with stone pillars and tapestries lining the walls.  Gargoyles crouch in the corners of the sanctuary overlooking the pews.  Cardinal Martin and a nun are preparing for services.  The church is otherwise empty until Father John comes walking in the door.

The Cardinal berates the Father for being late and demands an audience with him immediately.  Humbled, the priest walks forward and kisses the Cardinal's ring.  The Cardinal is obviously irate and verbally scolds his underling for both his gambling and drinking problems.  The Cardinal points out that he thinks John Keyes is worthless to the church and implies that he must be stealing from the offering plate to support his gambling addiction.  The Cardinal also states that he will give the priest one last chance.  Father John is to perform a mission for the church to prove his competence and show obedience.

The priest readily agrees, but before he can be informed of his mission, a man in a pin-striped suit walks in the door demanding to speak to Father John.  Apparently, Carlos, a mafia boss that the Father knows, is demanding payment of a gambling debt.  He's here to collect $20,000 or else.  John Keyes argues with the man, saying that he'll get him the money soon, but "Guido" marches over to the tapestries on the wall and threatens to tear them down to persuade the priest of his resolve.  At this point Cardinal Martin interferes, demanding to know what the ruckus is about, putting the priest in an even more difficult situation.  John Keyes persuades the mafia thug to calm down and wait outside while he gets the money.

Father John ended up bouncing back-and-forth between the Cardinal and the thug, juggling both antagonists, for the remainder of the scene.  Finally, he gets rid of the thug by making him a potentially disastrous bet:  "Heads I come with you right now to see Carlos, tails you walk away and tell him you couldn't find me."  (The characters were flipping a coin, but the actual conflict was resolved in the normal way with dice.)

After all of this, Adam Reid won the right to narrate the scene's outcome.  He decided to narrate that the Stigmatics lost, so that he could get two Scene-level Rosary Beads instead of just one.  He narrated it as follows (paraphrased):

Cardinal Martin tells Father John that rumors are circulating about a group of Gnostics that has infiltrated the city's University.  He is to go there, find out who they are, and deal with them.  The nun, who is still preparing for services, overhears the conversation.  She is actually a Gnostic spy who contacts Ruprecht and tells him of the plot.

Notes: Adam was surprised that the Cardinal was so antagonistic.  He pictured the Cardinal as a friend and ally.  Unfortunately(?), I was the player that introduced the Cardinal into the scene.  So, I had control over him until the scene's end and I used him mercilessly as a means to push conflict.  Maura, a new player, introduced the nun and didn't want to use her because, in her eyes, nuns aren't confrontational.  As a consequence, she had a real problem contributing to the Gnostic side of the conflict and we lost.  I think after she gets a couple of more scenes under her belt this won't be a problem.

Scene 3
The only player-character appearing in Scene 3 was Geoffrey St. Cyr (Ralph Buttner's character).  This was Geoffrey's introductory scene and one in which he is also to be given a mission.  We negotiated stakes of the scene as follows:

If the Gnostics win: they learn that some Catholic group is hunting Gnostics at the University.  Ruprecht gains a point in two separate traits.

If the Catholics win: they learn that a heretical gospel exists and someone at the University knows about it.  Also, each winning player gains a rank in one trait.

The scene was set in the Russian steppes.  There were a number of large tents set up in an encampment and a number of guards milling about.  Camels, a dog, a pair of trained lions, and a pair of caged giant lizards were also in the mix.  Geoffrey was sitting by a campfire with another man and they were discussing a weapons deal.  A young woman reading a book came out of one of the tents.

The scene started with the woman saying, "According to this book, that sword isn't worth anywhere near two million."  (I was playing the young woman.)

The man sitting next to Geoffrey asked, "Who are you?"

Simultaneously, Geoffrey replied, "one of my wives" and the woman replied, "I work in the Art History department at a University in London."

Geoffrey then waved his hand, exerting Infernal Influence, and caused the book to burst into flame to shut the woman up.  I used Coincidence and a trait pair of Daisy (Ruprecht's secretary) and Artwork in a failed attempt to resist.  The other players looked startled at my choice of trait pair, questioning how I would incorporate Daisy as a trait in the conflict.  I calmly reached to the miniature of the woman on the table, picked it up, and waggled it with a smile.  Everyone laughed.  Without a single word, I established not only that Geoffrey's wife was Ruprecht's secretary, but also that the previous two scenes had actually transpired in London (the identity of the city had not yet been established). 

Geoffrey then bribed Daisy to "go away" by offering her a piece of jewelry he drew out of his pocket (Ralph had to pay a Piece of Silver to introduce the new item into the scene).  I tried to have Daisy resist the offer (I thought it would be cool to have Daisy take the valuable necklace and toss it into the fire in contempt), but the dice weren't with me.  Daisy took the bauble and retreated into the tent from which she emerged.

At that point, a horse galloped into camp carrying a rider.  The rider was a member of the Stigmatics with news for Geoffrey.  Robbed of any kind of human NPC at this point, I had one of the trained lions attack the horse (I had introduced the lions during scene framing, so I had control over them).  The lion quickly killed the horse and then attacked Geoffrey directly.  Geoffrey drew out his pistol and shot the lion dead (we negotiated the death prior to rolling).  With that shot, Ralph earned his fifth white Rosary Bead, wining the right to narrate the scene's outcome.

Ralph chose to have the Stigmatics lose the scene, giving the Stigmatics another two black Rosary Beads.  That gave them five black Rosary Beads, which won them the right to narrate the outcome of the entire Act.  Again, Ralph chose to narrate the Stigmatics losing the Act, which earned the Stigmatics two Red Rosary beads instead of the one they would have received had he chosen to narrate them winning.  Consequently, the Stigmatics are far ahead of the Gnostics at this point.  Being on the losing team, I can really feel the tension rising.  This is good news, because that is exactly what is supposed to happen!

The combined negotiated stakes of Scene 3 and Act 1 stated that, if the Stigmatics lose, then the Gnostics learn that some Catholic group is hunting Gnostics at the University (now established to be in London).  Also, they learn about the Gospel of Michael.   Having established Ruprecht's secretary as being Geoffrey's wife, it didn't take Ralph much time to come to the conclusion that Daisy overheard the conversation between the rider and Geoffrey.  Daisy became the means through which the Gnostics learned of the Stigmatic conspiracy.

The narration of the outcome of the scenes was a little awkward.  This is because the stakes for the scene required that Gnostic characters that were not in the scene be informed if the Stigmatics lost.  We were able to work around the problem with NPC's.  But, I can see that repeatedly doing this will quickly get old.  I added some advice on focusing the plot stakes only on those characters present in a scene.  You can see these additions in the  Beta 4.0 version of Gnostigmata.

One interesting final bit about Ralph's narration was that he also included a comment that Geoffrey concluded his weapons negotiations with the other arms dealer.  So, Geoffrey collected his two million dollars.  What's interesting to me is how unconcerned I am that his character is suddenly rich.  His wealth adds a touch of flavor to his character, and establishes that he can live a fairly lavish lifestyle.  But, that is all.  It has absolutely no bearing on the final outcome of the game as it provides no means for his character to gain any mechanical advantage.

I think that is pretty cool.  It tells me that I have succeeded in creating a game that is both highly narrative and highly gamist.  The story we've created so far is a little rough around the edges, but I think that has more to do with our inexperience in playing narrative style games than with anything to do with Gnostigmata's rules.  If nothing else, it is fun to play.

Looking for Advice
I'm still looking for any advice anyone might have to help me speed up play.  The pace of play was quicker in this play-test than the previous session.  I would even say it is acceptable.  But, I wouldn't mind speeding it up further.  I'd like to be able to say that up to 5 Scenes can be played out in a single session by experienced   players (which will usually constitute an entire Act.)  We're not to that point yet.

Also, the mechanics for choosing which characters should appear in a scene is broken.  Currently, there are tables which tell you which characters appear.  The number of players determines which table is used.  But, the actual players keep changing in the play-tests, even during a single session.  So, we have to re-assign letters to each character (A, B, C, etc.) and look up the information on a different table every scene.  That is not at all what I originally intended.  If we have to re-assign letters every time, it's little different from just picking which characters are going to appear.  I'm considering replacing this whole system with some kind of card-drawing technique:  Any player that draws a card in the suit of Cups or Pentacles has his character appear in the scene.  Any player that draws a Trump card can choose whether his character appears.  If all characters or no characters are given the spotlight, then repeat the process.

What I really want is a way to guarantee that all various combinations of characters are eventually explored, and I want to ensure that no character is left completely "off stage" for too long.  I would appreciate any suggestions for how to do this.
John Kirk

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