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(Path of Looting and Slaying) Elfs snuck into my fantasy parody...

Started by Doplegager, July 29, 2009, 06:22:33 AM

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In another playtesting thread, I've talked about about a poor playtest experience I had last week, with a focus on failure on the social level but touching on ways to try to avoid system wariness. Threading in and out of my posts, I referred to a parody system built on the same skeleton as Path of Journeys. By the end of the thread, I'd sat down and written out the parody game, claiming I was going to play it. Well, I did.

The week had been too draining for me to care about running a serious game, so I sent out texts proposing a light-hearted one-shot of the Path of Slaying and Looting. Four of the players jived with it and came to game night (one abstainee was feeling under the weather, the other had had a busy day and welcomed the opportunity to stay in for the night). The following are my full notes on the game; a bit excessive for the forum, maybe, but I couldn't contain my enthusiasm for perverting my own project. Rough rules can be found:

Character Creation
Through a quirk of the collaborative process, all of the players created elven characters from different elven subtypes (starting with the alpha player, who, when he heard it was going to be fantasy trope, immediately latched onto the foppish haughty elf icon). System notes: lower numbers indicate efficiency, ranks indicated are for using the skill actively/reactively. "(9/1) Survive" means a character couldn't open a jar of peanut butter by himself, but has unnatural survival instincts if attacked or surprised.

  • Apolonius McGillicutty (played by Jarrod)
    (9/1) Survive, (1/1) Ego, (1/1) Righteous, (13/1) Expertology, (1/1) Social Climber
    Traits: Born better, Never wrong, and Unnervingly erotic
  • Juan Greenleaf (played by Barkley)
    (5/1) Survive, (2/4) Ego, (2/4) Kill Things, (2/4) Lob Spells, (4/2) Badass
    Traits: Fat-battery, Whirling blades of doom, Reflex save!
  • Hack (played by Amanda)
    (5/1) Survive, (1/2) Ego, (1/8) Kill Things, (1/10) Lurk & Stalk, (2/1) Badass
    Traits: Snappy (pissed off, quick, like a snapper or angry mother), Focused (not stressed or distracted- like a baby, if I don't see it, it doesn't exist), morningstar (I drag it, hit it against things, accidentally knock off heads)
  • "Edgar" (played by Alex)
    (1/1) Survive, (5/5) Ego, (1/1) Kill Things, (6/8) Righteous, (1/1) Badass
    Traits: Takes a hit like DBZ, Being metal, I know enough

Actual Play: the Train
Premise Situation: The Annual Conference on Elven Superiority was meeting in 10 days. The Conference, ACES, was held each year to choose the spokespeople for the elven race through a combination of events resembling a beauty pageants, olympic sports, and iron man competitions ("The winners get to perform honorary duties, such as leading the charge in the genocide of orcish tribes or being the first to make witty and derogatory comments about human dignitaries"). The team was composed of the winners of the competition five years in a row ("in part because Apolonius is also one of the judges").

The game started with the team showing up at the wrong coast, ten days from the beginning of ACES. Someone had scribbled out the actual address and written in the location for a backwater town hosting a state fair. Realizing they had been duped, they only had one choice- get across the continent in 10 days! Skip to an Eberron-style train powered by lightning elementals. When we pick up with the characters, they are:

Apolonius: Sitting on the top of the train being fanned by 15-17 scantily clad youths ("Wait... you're on top of a moving train *and* being fanned?"... "Yes, every once and awhile, one of them falls to their death after raising the fan too high and getting caught in the wind. That's why there were 15-17 of them.")
Juan: Binge drinking ("The bartender had started out giving you the best he had. After awhile, he realized you didn't care and started giving you the worst stuff he had. Unfortunately, you've drunk through all of that. The train is now bereft of swill and you're drinking the good stuff again.")
Hack: Staring at a random passenger with unbridled hatred, imagining he were the man that gave them the wrong address, and causing impressively little mayhem and destruction.
Edgar: In the children's car, trying to convince them that the group had read the map right and had gone where they were supposed to. Given his Righteous score of 6, he miraculously rolled a 3 and was able to convince them. Except one, who was a genius boy who's father was a cartographer and who's mother was a psychologist.

All of a sudden, an explosion at the front of the train causes it to derail. Apolonius uses Social Climber to convince the youths to become human body shields for him. Juan uses Badass to hold on to his seat and just continues drinking while the train car rolls around killing everyone else in it. Edgar used Badass to just stand there as the train car crunched around him, leaving only enough room for him (and the cartographer kid, who hid between his legs). Hack hardly notices the explosion, finally leaping at the poor man she'd been staring at. Unfortunately, the sudden shift in the train causes her leap to push both her and the man out the window, with him breaking her fall.

(Everyone gained 2 drama points since I was triggering a major change. Hack took 1 damage to Survive, Juan took 3 damage to Badass. Because Edgar's narrative included saving the kid, the group gained Grudge (1): Cartography Kid)

Actual Play: Back on Schedule
When the dust settles, it becomes clear what happened: an imp had stopped the train in order to get the lightning elemental (it's a well known fact that impish mating rituals revolve around creating dungeons- the more exotic monsters, traps, and treasures they fill it with, the more suitable they are as a mate). Juan uses Lob to send a magic missile at it, which overloads its magic circuits just long enough for Hack to scurry through the shadows and use Lurk to konk the thing in the back of its head. Not missing his opportunity, Apolonius runs over to it and starts hugging it and playing with it like a kid plays with a puppy, using Social to convince it to be his minion.

At this point, Apolonius uses Expertology to make up the fact that lightning elementals need to breathe, and that the container holding the elemental is suffocating it, causing him to undo the latch and release it. As the elemental starts flying around and exploding, everyone takes cover except Edgar, who uses Righteous to convince it to power the engine again. Juan uses Lob Spells to levitate the train back onto the tracks (originally only succeeding on getting the engine car. Once he realized he'd have to leave the bar car behind, he put extra effort into it). The group heads to ACES.

(Edgar failed his drama check- introduced complication was a storm filled with lightning elementals. Apolonius' player leaves to use the restroom, declaring Apolonius has gone to sleep for the ride. The group gained Grudge (3): Lightning Elementals and Grudge (5): Imp)

It's not long before the group enters the storm system and realizes their plight- the lightning elementals have come to rescue their kin. They decide they should try to use the lightning elementals to their advantage, but that the only character that can do that is Apolonius. Hack uses Ego to wake him up. The imp freaks out while Hack is screeching at Apolonius, running into walls until eventually breaking its own neck. Apolonius promptly wakes up (he has a keen insight about his possessions and instinctively knows when he loses them). Apolonius uses Social to convince the lightning elementals to visit the lightning plains in the West- and since the party was going the same way, to help them out. With the extra power of the elementals, and the aid of the map knowledge of the genius kid, they get across the continent with a day to spare.

(Hack fails her drama check- introduced complication was death of the imp. Juan spends 6 fortune to heal 2 wounds from Badass. Both the Imp and Lightning Elemental grudges dropped by one, to Grudge (2): Lightning Elementals and Grudge (4): Imp.)

Actual Play: Invitation to Dinner
Upon arriving at the conference a day early, inspection of the handwriting on the invitations reveals it was the head judge who had sabotaged the party. Using Lurk, Hack was able to track down the head judge to a penthouse room at a local inn. As a continuation of the check, she was able to sneak into the room, where the head judge was entertaining his mistress, and leave a note with two mints on the pillow next to them for them to discover later. The note was an invitation to dinner that night.

Shortly after, Apolonius led the group to the most expensive and prestigious restaurant in town, the sort that requires a reservation six months in advance, with the intention of reserving the private room for that night. Using Social and batting his eyelashes enough, Apolonius was able to convince the doorman that there was a problem with the list ("My name? Apolonius. But you may have written it down as John, James, Samantha, Barbara, Herman, Bob, or David..."). While the doorman went to get the manager, the party looked at the guest list and noted the private room had been reserved for "goblin barbarian horde," which was appended to "goblin barbarian horde +5". Another social check by Apolonius convinced the manager everything was accurate. On the way to the private room, Hack made a passive Kill Things check and 'accidentally' killed the doorman by turning too quickly (silly oversized morningstar...).

(At this point, I asked Edgar's player what had happened to the cartography kid. The group consensus was that on the way to the restaurant, they'd assaulted him, put him in a sack, and abandoned him somewhere as a test to see how good her really was with directions. There was also the explicit assumption he was going to show up again. Because it was in flashback, this part was mechanically handwaved. Because there were no rolls, the Cartography Kid grudge remained at 1 rank.)

(Hack failed a drama check while hunting down the head judge. The introduced complication was that the head judge wasn't acting alone- the sabotage was a result of a conspiracy.)

Actual Play: the Head Judge
Ten minutes later, the head judge arrived, impressed by the social feat but also noticeably nervous: "What are you guys doing here? How did you guys get here?" At which point Apolonius used the exploits of the session for additional impressiveness (employing 17 lightning elementals to overpower a private train to get to the conference a day early despite setbacks and sabotage). Before Apolonius is able to make a Social check to obtain information, Hack uses Badass to describe how she's staring at the head judge and breathing unnervingly deeply with sheer malice. Apolonius' Social check is able to get him to start talking: "I didn't want to... I didn't want to... I was trying to save you guys. the rest of the council was going to have you kill-" at which point, the goblin horde appeared.

Apolonius uses the goblins as a bonus to his Social ("I like to be alone in a crowded room. You never know who's listening through the walls. Now, if you want to tell me the names..."). Meanwhile, the goblin barbarians start tearing each other to shreds. Hack, Juan, and Edgar run interference, making Kill Things checks.

(Hack's Badass check triggered a failed drama check. Introduced complication was the arrival of the goblin barbarian horde. Party gained Grudge (6): Goblin Barbarians)

Statistical Analysis
I forgot to include a tool for tracking drama use, but am interested in measuring both drama use and the number of times players fail drama checks. It might also be interesting to measure the size of dice pools being used in relation to die results. The below numbers are just to give a general sense of player interaction with the system (they don't add up perfectly to 100%, but are close enough to show general trends).

  • Apolonius rolled: 6, 7, 5, 6, 2, 7, 7, 7. Total rolls: 8, Average result: 5.8.
    Percent of rolls: 26%
    Percent of values: 30%
  • Juan rolled: 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 4, 7. Total rolls: 7, Average result: 4.1
    Percent of rolls: 23%
    Percent of values: 18%
  • Hack rolled: 1, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 4, 7, 4. Total rolls: 11, Average result: 4.9
    Percent of rolls: 36%
    Percent of values: 35%
  • Edgar rolled: 3, 7, 6, 7. Total rolls: 4, Average result: 5.75
    Percent of rolls: 13%
    Percent of values: 15%
Total results used in about 2 hours game play: 30, app. one roll per 4 minutes
Cumulative die values: 153
Average die rolls per player: 7.5
Average die result: 5.1

Emergent System Qualities

  • Accidental Heroes: The Aggressive/Passive rank duality was originally developed in PoJ to simulate complex personal motivations ("why can't I do this when I want to, but I do amazing when I'm under deadline?"), and was meant to represent how a character behaved when they had an internal locus of control v. an external locus of control. I translated this to PoSaL with the assumption that the difference was still largely based around "what do I do when I concentrate" v. "what do I do when I'm surprised".

    What didn't occur to me was that the same mechanic could work wonderfully for the same effect Ron achieved in Elfs (I've misplaced my copy, so I'm going off of two year old memories), where there was mechanical reinforcement for a separation of the player's stated intentions and the character's intentions. Without any intention of this on my part, and with players unaware of Elfs, this method of game play emerged several times. In most of the cases, it was things like Hack's predisposition towards making passive Kill Things checks as a result of being so oblivious with her morningstar.

    At first I was hesitant to let players call for passive checks. On further reflection, I think it's an awesome feature and I look forward to explicitly including it in the game text on the condition it requires the player explains how the result of the check is unrelated, or even counter, to the character's intention.
  • Badass Skill: At first, this skill was going to be entirely mechanical as a way of reinforcing other skills (if you chose Badass, it'd restrict your variety of choices but make your two other skills mechanically more robust). The players reinterpreted it as an active skill, albeit one mostly used for flavor (Juan's binge drinking, for example. Or his continuing to stay seated and drinking while the train was derailed). Much more evocative than my intention.
  • Skill Combos:Some of the strongest points of action first occurred when two players launched themselves at an obstacle (when Juan and Hack both attacked the Imp). We were able to resolve it so that the actions were complimentary instead of competitive. That was awesome, and I intend to include it explicitly in the system rules (For example: An obstacle requires 6 successes to overcome, but needs a combo of at least 3 successes in order for any of them to count. No lone wolf can wittle it down- it takes teamwork, where the challenge is who uses what skills and how they work together).

    An extension of this was my dilemma of how to simulate magic items without just listing them as traits (you can only apply one trait, so most magic item that are sensible for their character are redundant with the character's pre-existing traits). Solution: each enchantment on the item can be used as a kind of skill check. The more potent the enchantment, the easier the skill check to activate it. Enchantment check successes stack with combos, so if you have a magic sword, you might be able to get two successes on that Kill Things check. Awesome simulation extrapolated from existing rules. Cool.
  • Magic Item Sentience: There was a trivial check where Apolonius claimed to have a magic ring that caused him to be able to float ("designed so my family could always look down on people, no matter how tall they were"). As fiat, I had him make a Social check to see if it worked and we all got a chuckle about how the ring had personality (coupled with Apolonius' "unnervingly erotic" trait and lewd jokes about being deep inside the ring). At the end of the night, though, I like the idea that all magic items had personality- a very fun way to add flavor, and mechanically easy since I'm already using skills to simulate the enchantments... and skill structure was originally based on simulating motivations. Cool.

Emergent System Weaknesses

  • Broken Characters: Apolonius put all of his ranks into aggressive Expertology. When it came time to do something that would've been expertology-esque, he went straight to Ego (even though wounds to it could knock him out of the scene, he only had one rank in it and wasn't afraid). He nestled all those ranks where I couldn't activate them, and in such a way where he could theoretically get away without ever activating them. Hmm. Immediate solution: Simple enough. There was originally a cap at 6 ranks. Impose that again and those ranks have to get shuffled around so they'll make play more dynamic and force more complex decisions/strategies.
  • Weak Fortune: Fortune was meant as a way to encourage players to use die results instead of relying on Drama to modify rolls, but the only defined way to spend them was healing wounds. With a low wound session, their value as currency was null. Immediate solution: Increase number of wounds, allow different ways to spend fortune points. For example, in the subset of rules for Dungeon Delving, fortune points are spent to 'buy' dungeon features from a menu (necessary things like the boss key ala Zelda and supplemental things like treasure, magic items, and other resources).

Reason for the Thread Title
Aside from the anecdotal qualities of all the players playing elves, and the common genre of fantasy parody, the main thing that caught my attention was the unintended replication of player intention v. character intention dynamic. I recall that being a strong component of Elfs, and reminded me of it. After the first session, I think the best description of my goal with this project is somewhere between Elfs, Hackmaster, and a slight touch of 4E. So far, so good.
"Never trust a cartoonist who has disappeared.  Cartooning is a way of life.  Odds are, when a cartoonist disappears, they are cooking up some sort of new project."


I really hope detailed posts are not frowned on, if so I'm just as bad an offender as you! :)

I'd like to have a better look at your rules system, but I can't use your hosting site, it isn't anywhere else is it?

I noticed in your game that they kept relying on social, which seemed pretty superpowered! Is that just a quirk of the retelling (ie someone had number one in it and transcripts tend to favour dialog) or is it usually the most powerful choice?


Skill Balance (and lack thereof)
QuoteI noticed in your game that they kept relying on social, which seemed pretty superpowered! Is that just a quirk of the retelling (ie someone had number one in it and transcripts tend to favour dialog) or is it usually the most powerful choice?
Nah, Social isn't necessarily the most powerful choice by any stretch, nor is it really a quirk of the retelling. From the preface of the game: Dungeon crawls are a must, but that's also one of the flaws of this system. Much like DnD4E, everything is too damned balanced. At first glance, it'll look like everyone in the party has niche roles. Let's not kid ourselves. If you can't use your skills to handle just about any situation that comes up, you're not powergaming well. In this case, Social happened to be the favorite skill of the alpha player, so it popped up in equal measure to the sum of a) his activity level in the game and b) his obsession with using it in lieu of any other skill.

Later in the rules, I give a handful of examples of "creative skill uses", explaining how almost any of the skills can be used in response to any given situation (the samples are 'you look up and see a troll jumping down on you' and 'your party is trying to convince the king to pardon the group rogue').  Each skill does open up unique mechanical benefits (for example, without the "Kill Things" skill, you can stab the sentry 20 times in the back, trample him with your horse a few times, and leave him hanging from a tree... but he'll still survive). That said, instead of trying to actually reinforce the traditional niche roles that inspired them, skills are meant to describe how your character views the world: in other words, if your character had "Hammer" as a skill, all the world would be nails. To Apolonius, there weren't any problems that couldn't be solved with Social (including surviving the fall from a crashing lightning rail).

This is as opposed to a system that actually reinforces niche roles, where when the obstacle is a screw, the player with the screwdriver steps up and when the obstacle is a nail, the player with the hammer steps up. In PoLaS, any given player can step up at any given time with nearly any skill, so long as they're creative enough to explain how they're applying the skill of choice. The fun comes from figuring out weird ways to use your skills

Since most obstacles require multiple characters to work together in any given round, usually using different skills, the danger of one player completely overwhelming play is somewhat minimized; the obstacle structure requires diversity of skills and teamwork- the difference is that the components of that diversity and teamwork is chosen by the cunning and humor of the players.

Digital Copies
QuoteI'd like to have a better look at your rules system, but I can't use your hosting site, it isn't anywhere else is it?
It's not currently up anywhere else, but if you PM me your e-mail address, the .pdf of the latest working draft is less than a meg, so I'd be happy to send you a copy :)
"Never trust a cartoonist who has disappeared.  Cartooning is a way of life.  Odds are, when a cartoonist disappears, they are cooking up some sort of new project."