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The Great Barge of What's His Name

Started by Tim C Koppang, January 06, 2009, 10:56:57 PM

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Tim C Koppang

Back in October, I ran a "demo" game of Committee, although it was only a demo in the sense that most of the players had never really heard of the game before they signed up.  Before running the game, I emailed Eric for some advice.  His suggestion was to start with some pre-generated characters from his website.  I took that advice, but also left the door open for a bit of character creation because we were playing with a total of six players including myself.

So in addition to the four sample characters, we had to create two from scratch.  We did this as part of play instead of two more pre-gens.  I wanted to give the players a chance to get a feel for character creation.  I was hoping that everyone with a pre-gen would pitch in to create these new characters.  But the process was only moderately successful.  No matter though; character creation was a breeze.

And generally, the game was quite a bit of fun.  Because of the "demo" format and large number of players, we cut the normal number of encounters by one.  Our expedition was set in Egypt.  The committee assembled at the Cairo museum.  From there, the team had to travel up the Nile, across the desert and finally ended up at its destination: a great and ancient barge of an Egyptian god whose name I can't remember now.  The whole idea was to bring the barge back to the museum.  This didn't happen, however, as the barge was destroyed when the god awoke and gave the characters a taste of hell on Earth.

It was all very pulpy in a sort of "The Mummy", Brendan Fraser sort of way.  There was humor and suspense, and it was enjoyed by all.  We did have some problems, however, which I think I can break down thusly: (1) the timer, (2) the escalation mechanics, and (3) the sheer number of options available to overcome obstacles.  All of these basically boil down to a general feeling of being overwhelmed.

First, the timer.  We did not feel as if we had enough time, especially during group conflicts.  I think, as a group, we only succeeded once or twice.  While we were never stymied, we consistently ran out of time, which was rather unsatisfying.  I feel as if I should have added an extra flip of the timer.  On the plus side, when we did succeed, we all gave out a giant cheer, sort of like a buzzer-beater during March Madness.  However, we did not have an opportunity during these successes to do the system justice.  We had to really hurry.  And I mean hurry through ever narration without hesitation to overcome anything but the easiest of opposition.  I'm left wondering if I was doing something wrong, or if that sort of speed is intended?

Second, the escalation mechanics.  I think we were doing this one wrong, but there was a general feeling that everyone needed to somehow up the stakes each time they added a complication.  This quickly became silly and overblown simply because we ran out of anywhere else to escalate to within the bounds of reason.  So we ended up with all sorts of truly crazy encounters.  Upon re-reading the rules, I think I should have emphasized that a complication need only define why the character doesn't immediately "win".  This was probably my fault.

Finally, I felt as if there were simply too many options for overcoming complications.  As I said, no one was ever stymied because they always seemed to have plenty of ways to overcome the challenges.  We just kept running out of time.  If I can get other Committee players to chime in, how often do players get stymied in your games?  In retrospect now, I wonder if I misread a rule.

Between the traits and all the rest, though, I think some people even had trouble deciding what to use.  Does anyone have any advice on what to use when?  Each player developed some general strategies, but I'm not sure if the number of options couldn't be reduced.  Perhaps we had too many players as well.  I'm not sure, as I haven't really played a full game with less.

Despite the problems we had, the game was fun.  I think with more realistic escalations, less players, and more time we could have really found our stride.  By the end of the game everyone was definitely feeling more comfortable with the system.  If I ran another demo, however, I would seriously think about simplifying the options available and providing a bit more leeway with the timer.  I'm actually more curious, though, to try the game with three or four players instead of six.

Eric J. Boyd


Thank you for taking the time to post about your play experience. I'm glad to hear your group had a fun time, and your expedition set up sounds great. Let me address the issues you raise.

Timed narration can take some getting used to. I recommend in the book that for the first round of scenes you should have the timer running but not enforce it at all. This gives everyone a chance to play with the system without any time pressure.

Also, remember that the Opposition describes the hazard, you get to decide on which attribute you'll use to confront it and whether you'll use that attribute's descriptor, revealing your choice with some snazzy in-character description, and then you pick up your dice and roll them. Only then does the timer actually start. Since you've already made some choices about your general approach to the hazard, your first piece of narration should come pretty easily. In my play, the length of each piece of in-character narration can vary, but generally the first couple descriptions shouldn't exceed 20 to 30 seconds apiece since you hope to use three pieces of narration to hit the resolution sweet spot. Once you've hit your difficulty you can feel free to use the remaining time to ham it up.

If you're forced to use more pieces of narration due to your dice or a high hazard difficulty, that's pretty apparent from the beginning. So keep things short and tight, doing a quick back-and-forth with the Opposition. This works great in action sequences and with fast-moving hazards like avalanches or a bomb counting-down to really evoke the stress of the situation.

You had a lot of players, so your group hazards were to be completed in 12 minutes. Again, keep the initial round of narrations moving briskly until you're closing in on your difficulty when you can relax a bit more. I've actually seldom seen a group hazard end up running out of time due to the rapid pace at which the dice accrue.

So, yes, speed is intended with tougher hazards (5 and 6d10), but the intent is to usually have more than adequate time for the others. That said, I'd encourage you to try a 4-minute time limit instead of 3 minutes if folks are having trouble getting up to speed after the first round. A slightly longer time period may ease the built-in tension somewhat, but the game will play essentially the same.

I think a large part of the problem you saw may be due to the second issue you raise with the complications being presented by the Opposition. The Opposition's complications must be quick—1 or 2 short sentences that should take no more than 15 seconds to narrate. If the Opposition hesitates more than 5 seconds or so, prompt him with the appropriate phrase and then let the player continue if they don't get moving. The three pieces of the player's narration (a combined 60 to 90 seconds) added to the two complications (a combined 30 seconds at most) for a typical scene that hits the resolution sweet spot should leave you a full minute of leeway.

Your understanding of complications is correct—they're just another obstacle or twist to keep the character from immediately winning. A complication's content flows from the player's narration. The book recommends that players narrate toward resolving the hazard presented one step at a time, but sometimes a player gets excited and blows right by the initial situation. So they might describe how they completely overcame the hazard in one go (charging across the rickety rope bridge over a chasm), or they might describe the beginning of their effort (carefully starting across while keeping their eyes peeled). In the first instance, a complication could have a Nazi patrol come around the hill as the character arrives on that side of the bridge. In the second, a complication could have one of the anchor ropes snap and pitch the bridge sideways.

So a complication can escalate the situation if that seems appropriate, but it should typically be in a way that naturally flows from the nature of the hazard (the snapping anchor rope). A complication also can introduce a new source of adversity (the Nazi patrol) or just advance the continuing state of the hazard to raise tension (have the countdown on a bomb continue lower). Hopefully the Opposition will already have a complication or two in mind when they frame the hazard for your character. Can you give me an example of where your complications became overblown?

Stymies are intended to be infrequent. Again, they typically happen on harder hazards when you roll poorly and don't have (or want to) spend Acclaim to better your odds. Having more than a couple during a game would be unusual in my experience.

Lastly, let's talk some dice strategy. You usually want to be putting forward two dice (1 regular and 1 descriptor) for each of your pieces of narration unless you can achieve the resolution sweet spot without the extra descriptor dice.

You start out with dice for one attribute and usually a descriptor die for that attribute. For easy hazards, that may be all you'll need. In other cases, I'd recommend narrating in a use of either Gear or Associations right away to roll those dice and maybe the extra descriptor die, too.

After using two of these dice for your first piece of narration, if things are looking bad, narrate in a use of the other one(Gear or Associations) that you didn't use the first time, perhaps with that descriptor die, too, or the descriptor off of another attribute if it makes sense. Hopefully you'll have two high dice for that second piece of narration now and have leftovers to cruise through to your third and hit the resolution sweet spot.

If you have lots of dice, but your rolls are terrible, consider spending 1 Acclaim to reroll your lowest two. If you don't have enough dice, spend 1 Acclaim to switch to another attribute and roll the appropriate number of extra dice.

During the game, you're going to use up the descriptor dice on your lower attributes and Gear and Associations, which is what those unattached descriptors are for. Start using them in your descriptions to roll those dice as things get tougher.

Tim, hopefully this helps you get a better sense of the flow of play with the timer and some of the dice strategies built into the game. There is definitely a ramping up period where you get used to your options, which is why the hazards start out easy and get harder as you proceed. The game's sweet spot is probably four players, and six is definitely a lot of people to have in your first game. If you've got any follow-up questions I'm happy to discuss them. Thanks again for playing my game and taking the time to tell me about it.