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[Improv/Zombie Dawn] Endgame RPG Night Playtest

Started by Paul Strack, April 01, 2007, 02:18:44 AM

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Paul Strack

This was a play-test for a game I am still in the process of writing. The draft may have changed since I ran the game. You can see the current draft here:

I ran the play test at Endgame's Thursday night RPG night:

I had 5 players. Two of them, Brian and Sam, were regulars that I've played with before and who have considerable indie-game experience. The other three (Michelle, Jill and Mark) were friends of Sam and drop-ins that I'd never played with before. From what they told me, their regular game is D&D but they have played indie-games before with Sam.

I started off with my new pitch on what story-games are about: they are games whose rules regulate what the players are able to contribute to the story rather than what the characters can do in the imaginary game world. I gave a few standard examples of the player deciding what is behind the bar when they go to look for weapons and the player deciding what happens when she beats a zombie. The explanation seemed to make sense and didn't take much time.

I then kicked off a discussion of what kind of zombie mood we were looking for, comparing them to various zombie movies. We ended up going for classic zombie-style "ordinary people struggling to survive". I then pushed for a discussion of where the story would take place. People eventually settled on the old standby of a mall. This part was kind of clumsy and didn't kick off the setting discussion the way I wanted. I think that people were still getting used to each other and me as a group and were being cautious.

Next, I guided them through character creation, asking them first to come up with their character concepts. We got the fat clumsy video gamer, the old mall security guard, the tri-athlete working at the shoe store and the jock frat-boy. I asked them what they wanted their goal for the story to be, what they wanted to get at the story of if they survived triumphed. I used this to guide their story-arcs and make sure they had enough elements in the story to get a satisfying resolution.

This is the point where the game really started to click. One of the players suggested that she wanted to become famous enough to attract and marry Justin Timberlake. I pointed out that it would be easier to accomplish this if Justin were actually present at the mall. Another player suggest that Justin could be at the mall filming a movie and a third player suggested they could be filming a *zombie* movie. I loved it. The players realized that it was perfectly OK for them to just make stuff up and from here on out they were spinning as many ideas as I was and playing off each other.

The rest of character generation was pretty easy: just picking a few talents for each character, with prompting from me as to what made a good talent. We had a couple "knows the mall well" talents. This was both appropriate and really cool, because mall knowledge is not a skill people would choose in most RPGs. After char-gen I did a quick run down of how cards, talent use and story-tokens worked. Everyone liked the poker chips. Jill, the regular D&D GM, commented afterwards that she wanted to use chips as visual markers for feat-use in D&D. The whole set up took about 45 minutes.

Rather than explaining conflict, I just got straight into it. Jumping right in was a suggestion from my previous play test and worked pretty well. I set up a scene where the protagonists were at the mall after hours watching the film crew make their zombie movie. Justin Timberlake was in the middle of a dramatic scene with his co-lead (Paris Hilton) when real zombies started eating the zombie movie-extras. Mass confusion reigned and I jumped into an extended conflict.

I set up 4 different "zombies attack" stakes for the players to oppose, making sure to target different things important to them. With some coaching the players picked opposing stakes and I explained the conflict rules as we went through the fight. People seemed to get things pretty quickly, which was very gratifying. After the fight, I explained how winning and losing got them marks in the Death/Insanity/Triumph tracks, which would determine the ultimate fate of their character. I added that they could spend a story-token to discard and redraw their hand and I was done with the rules explanation. By this point we were about 90 minutes into the game and 45 minutes into the story.

From here on out it was just a matter of pushing their story arcs forward towards the goals the players set at the beginning of the game. Rather than doing a scene-by-scene breakdown, I think it would be easier to understand if I described the arcs individually. That is certainly how I remember things. The next 5 paragraphs is just a recitation of what happened, so if you only care about the crunchy rule bits, you can skip ahead.

Jill's character Jennifer (the tri-athlete) had a rivalry with another athlete, Samantha, who worked in the same store. Jennifer's goal was to show up Samantha and get Samantha to quit sports forever. Jennifer started off by saving Samantha and one of Samantha's girlfriends (Bambi) from zombies, then escaping to the sporting goods store. Jennifer, Samantha and Bambi got into an argument about whether they should leave the mall or hide. Bambi and Samantha hid in the sporting-good store while Jennifer left to meet the rest of the group at the security office. When the group decided to escape, Jennifer took Samantha's brother Chip back to rescue Samantha. By then, a zombie-Paris Hilton had eaten Bambi. Samantha and Jennifer began a dramatic race through the mall past zombies and up to the roof, leaving Chip behind to become a zombie. Jennifer not only beat Samantha, but when Samantha realized she had abandoned her brother Chip, she broke down and swore to give up competition forever.

Brian's character Davis (the old security guard) had as his goal to "save the day one last time". This goal was tricky for me, because it was more vague that the other goals. Brian introduced Davis's 18-year-old partner Chip (who was also Samantha's brother) and Chip became the focus of Davis's arc. Davis started off trying to keep the zombies from cutting the mall power and failing. He then ended up in the video game store with his partner Chip just in time to keep Sam's character Lenny from molesting Scarlet Johansson. Davis put Lenny in his place and got the civilians through the back halls of the mall to the security office. I tried to get Chip bitten at this point and failed. Davis had problems at the security office, accidentally triggering an alarm that attracted the zombies. He also managed to call 911 for help before everyone was forced to flee. Chip ran off with Jennifer to get his sister Samantha and this time I managed to get Chip bitten. Davis's final stake was about saving someone from the zombified Chip, which was tough to arrange because the other players kept saving people or killing them off. In the end, though, Davis was able to gun down Chip as he tried to eat Ashley (Michelle's character), getting in a nicely dramatic "sorry kid" line just as he shot zombie-Chip in the head.

Mark's character Brock (the frat-boy) followed a more traditional heroic arc. His goal was to get recognition for his actions against the zombies and become famous. He started the adventure by running for the hardware store to get armed. He managed to fend off the zombies running after him, smash the window and grab the chainsaw (his choice of weapon). When everyone else scattered, Brock sneaked back around to the power station and managed to reactivate the mall power. Brock then hooked up with the group at the security office, wedging the door open when the film crew tried to lock them out. He  managed to convince the crew to follow him to safety. He spent the final conflict cutting a bloody swath through the zombies with everything being filmed for posterity.

Michelle's character Ashley (the cheerleader) had as her goal to hook up with Justin Timberlake, with the help of her BFF Brittany. The meant that Justin's current girlfriend Scarlet Johansson had to be taken out of the picture and the player was constantly setting stakes to take down Scarlet. This was a player thing; the character wasn't so vicious. Ashley started off rescuing the trapped Justin from under a hot dog cart and taking him to the same sporting goods store where Jennifer, Samantha and Bambi were hiding out. Ashley treated Justin's sprained ankle and earned a peck on the cheek. Ashley, Justin, Brittany and Jennifer went to the security office (leaving Samantha and Bambi behind), where they met up with the group including Scarlet. Ashley lost a conflict to keep Justin's attention on her, so Justin ran off after Scarlet when she got dragged off by a bunch of zombies. In the final conflict, Ashley followed Justin only to get caught by zombies herself. Justin turned back in time to save Ashley from zombie-Chip. Scarlet's death was also part of Michelle's final stakes. Scarlet ended up as zombie-chow and Ashley got her final kiss on the rooftop with Justin.

Sam's character Lenny (the video game geek) had the weirdest arc. His goal was to loot  the Playstation Z from the mall during the confusion. Once Sam found about Michelle's goal of getting Justin Timberlake, he also decided that Lenny wanted to win Scarlet Johansson and get Justin Timberlake (Michelle is Sam's real-life wife, so this was a friendly player-rivalry). Lenny started off by rescuing Scarlet from the zombies, but in a creepy-stalker way rather than anything romantic. He carried Scarlet off to the video game store and tried to woo her in a clumsy-geek way, but was stymied when Davis showed up with Chip. Scarlet was unimpressed and latched onto the security guards. At the security office, Lenny decked Justin in a fit of geek rage. As everyone else ran off to escape, Lenny popped Michael Jackson's "Thriller" tape into the mall sound system. By now mostly crazy, Lenny danced through the mall as if he could control the zombies, doing nothing to keep Scarlet from being killed. Sam won his final stakes, so Lenny's denouement was several months later, with Lenny playing on his stolen Playstation Z (with a new zombie video game based on Brock's movie career) while a zombie-Scarlet served drinks in the background.

In terms of pacing, here is roughly how things broke down:

* 45 minutes of setup, setting creation, character creation and rules explanations.

* 45 minutes for the first GM scene, doubling as a teaching session for the conflict rules.

* 45 minutes for the first set of player scenes as they scattered around the mall.

* 15 minutes for a second GM scene getting everyone back together at the security office (I used a simple conflict instead of an extended conflict).

* 15 minutes for some quick player scenes to set up for the final conflict (basically just a series of quick simple conflicts). These were rushed because we were getting close to the end of our allotted gaming time.

* 40 minutes for the final extended conflict to give everyone their ending.

The whole thing took 3.5 hours and was a complete story. Not bad considering that the whole thing was improvised and no one other than me had played before.

At this point the basic conflict rules are pretty solid. I am now happy the bonus-level I set for talents/tokens (+3) and I seem to have the right number of tokens in the game economy. The conflict rules seem simple enough that people grasped them easily during play. There were a few questions as we went along but not too much confusion. I forgot to bring along my usual rules briefs, so people were able to follow things with nothing more than verbal explanations.

The Death/Insanity/Triumph tracks also worked well. This was a new invention for the Zombie Dawn setting which I tested for the first time in this game. Basically, if a player wins a conflict, they get a Triumph point. If they lose a conflict, they get an Insanity or Death point (player's choice). For each GM victory during a GM scene, the GM can assign a Death or Insanity point to any protagonist (GM's choice). The highest track total determines the character's fate at the end of the story. I distributed my points evenly, and before the final conflict, every character except one had the potential for either doom or triumph. Mark's character was just too victorious and got his triumph uncontested, though I did try (unsuccessfully) to smash his film crew's cameras in the final conflict. Sam's character was tied on both the Insanity and Triumph tracks and got both (which seemed to make Sam happy). Everyone else pulled out a triumph because I got pasted in the final conflict. The goals/triumphs worked really well for structuring the overall story and made setting stakes for the final conflict really easy since everyone knew what to expect.

This was the first time I've run the game for 5 players and I am glad everything still worked. I am pretty sure it will work for 6 as well, which is my upper limit on players. I used the new sub-conflict rules for all of the extended conflicts which made things much simpler with so many players. The only time I had trouble was in the final conflict where player stakes were opposing each other as well as the zombies. I didn't properly divide the sub-conflicts, so I had to fake some of the wins and loses of the players against each other. I also ended up stopping the extended conflicts after 3 rounds rather than after 3 victory cards, just to make things easier.

One problem the players had was starting to narrate when I asked them for stakes. Rather than saying what their goal for the conflict was, they would start describing their actions. I had to back them up a few times and get them to specify more general goals. I am not sure if this was a problem with my rules explanations or just lack of familiarity with this style of play. It wasn't too disruptive, though.

For the most part I was able to say "yes" to all player narrations. There was only one major exception. In Sam's conflict to deck Justin Timberlake, he tried to go beyond his original stakes, first trying to unman Justin, then trying to crush his nose and disfigure him. In both cases I vetoed his narrations as too far beyond his original stake. In the end I only let him give Justin a bloody nose. I did so mainly so that Michelle's possible triumph with Justin would still be valid and Sam accepted the vetoes with grace. I hope he wasn't too bothered by it.

Another peculiar aspect of the game: the players weren't helping each other out as much as they could by handing out story tokens or giving away victory cards. There were always 5 or so tokens in the pool that hadn't been given away and no one ever gave out a victory card. Either I didn't explain this part of the rules well enough or the players just didn't feel the need to help each other out. It didn't seem to detract from the game, so I think this was a fluke of play rather than a real flaw.

One real incident of confusion was over suits as tie-breakers. When I told them what they suit ranking were, they were surprised because they didn't fit any of the common poker rankings. It came up a number of times during play, so this rule needs to be clear and intuitive. I have to look this up on the Internet and figure out what the poker suit rankings should be, since I have had similar comments in other play-tests.