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[Other Worlds] The Infected

Started by soviet, September 12, 2009, 03:16:52 AM

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So, last year saw the main tranche of external playtesting for Other Worlds. It went out to a whole bunch of different people and I got detailed feedback from a total of six different groups, which was really helpful. I also ran a 15-session playtest campaign (a gothic horror game set in a victorian asylum) with my regular group at home.

The results of this playtesting were pretty successful and identified only one real difficulty with the system: because players have so much freedom to describe additional supporting abilities, the game can sometimes get bogged down with players trawling their character sheets for more and more stuff to bring in. I've since added an important new rule that I think rectifies this quite cleanly, as well as a few other tweaks and polishes, but obviously I now need to test them to make sure they work as intended.

So the upshot is that I've started another 'in-house' playtest campaign. Partly to examine these new rules in actual play, but also just to make sure that the procedural notes and GM guidelines that I've put into the text are actually fair representations of what really happens at the table. I thought it would be useful to post the results of this playtest as I go to try and get some wider feedback on any issues that come up.


The first part of any Other Worlds game is the worldbuilding phase. This is where you spend the first session designing the characters and the world they live in. This chapter hasn't massively changed, although I have added some more detailed discussions on a few key topics like Technology and Factions to try and direct the flow of ideas a bit more.

1. What's the setting?
We'd gone into the session without a clear idea of what we wanted to do. We had vague ideas of zombie apocalypse and/or modern military/espionage, but that was it. So we started throwing ideas around for a while but nothing really clicked. Eventually someone mentioned a book they'd read about an alternate history where the nazis won WW2 and suddenly, BANG, we were on fire, riffing on each other's ideas and really starting to get somewhere.

In fact, this is exactly what happened with the last 'blank sheet of paper' worldbuilding session we did - the first twenty minutes or so were a real struggle, and I started to worry that we just weren't going to agree on anything, and then suddenly something clicked, the ideas started to fly across the room, and everything slotted into place very nicely.

Our basic concept was that the Nazis had won World War 2 by infecting Britain with the Wrath Virus, which turned most of the population into very angry 28 Days Later-style zombies. Society had immediately collapsed into anarchy and terror. The survivors had sealed themselves underground (where the virus cannot penetrate) and turned the London Underground into a huge network of underground colonies. We would start the game in 2013 where the virus has started to recede and people could once again go back to the surface. 

We had a lot of fun detailing the society that had developed in those 60-odd years of isolation. We said that New Britain would  basically now be a military/monarchist dictatorship, representing an idealised vision of what life was like in the 1940s. There would be rationing, Vera Lynn-style nostalgia/propaganda, and lots of cobbled-together anachronistic tech. Different parts of the colony would vary based on the name of the underground station they were centred on, so Angel Islington is home to religious fundamen, Oxford Circus is the home of anarchists and liberals, etc. (Yeah, like Neverwhere). We even printed out a map of the underground network from 1943 to use as a reference.

We imagined that the surface itself would be a rubble-strewn wasteland, with all the classic London landmarks like Big Ben still vaguely intact so that we could potentially explore them in character later on. We also decided that a certain amount of re-wilding had gone on, with nature taking over the city again with newly grown trees and plants.

Nazi stealthplanes, Von Braun rockets, Sten guns, Tommy guns, Lugers, pineapple/stick grenades, improvised weapons
Bullets are limited - finding ammo is a big concern
The Enigma machine, the wireless.
Encounter/hazard suits for surface exploration?

No magic or supernatural elements at all - the virus is a scientific weapon. On that note, we said we would try to always refer to the victims of it as the Infected rather than using the 'Z' word.

The Nazis -  scouting parties? invasion force? collaborators/spies are everywhere
The infected - fast, cannibalistic and full of rage - absolutely feral. Different types of zombies - some have different mutations?
Infected animals-  mutant rats, feral dogs, crazed birds, lions and snakes etc descended from escaped zoo animals
Anti-establishment types - republicans, dissidents, anarchists - based in Oxford Circus
The characters work for Queen Elizabeth II - but is she still alive? "No-one sees the Queen"
Prince William is the leader of the strategic forces

Conflicts within the setting
The desire to return to the surface world
The desire to get revenge on the Nazis
The desire to get revenge on the Infected
Is the state lying about what really happened with the Wrath bomb?
What happened in the rest of the world? Did America side with the Nazis? Or stay out of the war?
Prince Harry recently lead an expedition to the surface - but has not returned. What happened?

Overall Tone
Gritty and realistic. War is Hell.

Inglorious Basterds, '48 by James Herbert, 1984, 28 Days Later, Neverwhere, 12 Monkeys, Shadow of Chernobyl, Escape From New York, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Earthdawn, The Dirty Dozen, Dad's Army.

2. Who are the characters?

Sketch out the character concepts
The characters will be a crack team of English soldiers on a special mission. They are the 'Kings Cross Hammers'. Ben will be a special agent/gadgeteer type, Steve will be an oddball scout, Rich will be a cheeky cockney demolitions guy, and Paul will be a deeply religious young medic.

In terms of templates, we decided that each character would have 'Englishman' as their cultural archetype and 'Soldier' as their professional archetype. This is quite different to normal games of Other Worlds where all the characters will be quite individual, but we wanted to experiment a bit and see what happened. We adapted the Englishman archetype from the one found in the Pirates genre snapshot, and then added some abilities like Careless Talk Costs Lives and Make Do And Mend to try and capture a bit more of a ww2 feel.

Decide on a power level
To reflect the gritty nature of the setting, and also to try a power level we've never used before, we set the base rating for all character abilities as 20.

Decide on trademark scope
We decided that each character would have one trademark template, but that they should be used to represent their own specialities within the unit rather than any kind of special powers.

3. What kind of game will it be?

Game length
We decided that we wanted to run a fairly short campaign of about 6 sessions.

Brainstorm potential Supporting Characters
The last game we played was set in one fixed location and had a large number of supporting characters. We wanted to do something a bit different this time, so we decided to just create the unit's commanding officer and leave it at that.

Brainstorm potential scenes/adventures for the future
Stop a missile launch
Capture/rescue someone (a baby?) who is immune to the virus
Find a cure for the virus
Infect germany with the virus
Escape to Scotland - it's a safe zone?
Find out the truth about the past
Have a firefight in harrods

4. Flesh out the characters and initial situation

Create the player-characters
See next update.

Create the supporting characters
We picked the name Brigadier Kane Clarkson for the commanding officer and (as per usual) created his abilities by means of a group brainstorm. He sort of became a cross between Admiral Cain from Battlestar Galactica, Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear, and General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth.

General Abilities: Plan Mission, Summary Justice, Takes No Nonsense
Personality Traits: LOUD!
Relationships: Reports Directly To The PM
Goals: Win The War And Beat The Hun
Flaws: Barking Mad

Create the opening scene
One thing I find difficult as a GM is building up that initial bit of momentum to really get the game humming. So I made 'the group brainstorms up a cool opening scene' an explicit part of the game's worldbuilding process. Last time we played each character had their own separate opening scene, which was cool and all but meant that it took a while to get everyone together. So this time we decided we would jump straight into the action and do the group's mission briefing with Brigadier Clarkson.


So using the Englishman template from the Pirates section in the book, we put together the following archetype:

General Abilities:
Careless Talk Costs Lives
For Queen And Country!
Know English Customs
Know English History
Know The Proper Etiquette
Maintain Stiff Upper Lip
Make Do And Mend
Obey Orders or Natural Authority (depending on social class)

Personality Traits:
Prim And Proper

[to community]
[to family]
[to family]
[to the Queen]

Paul's character is Specialist Craig Thorndyke, a deeply religious medic from the Angel Islington.

Trademark: Medic (taken straight out of the book)
Notable Abilities: Biological Research, Caring, Honour The Dead, Kill Or Cure, Take Cover!, 'The Church Is Mother, The Church Is Father', Vessel of God's Will.
Goals: Save Their Souls, Find A Cure
Supporting Character: Father Nathaniel, the Surgeon-Priest General
Prologue Ability: Test Experimental Bio-Tech

Steve's character is Private Ade 'Ratboy' Waltham, a semi-feral oddball scout.

Trademark: Scout (adapted from the Scout template in the fantasy section of the book).
Notable Abilities: At One With Nature, Exiled From Community, Has Seen The Outside World, Infected With the Wrath Virus, Dependent On Medic For Drugs, Morbid, Paranoid About Traitors, Semi-Professional Goalie, Talks To God.
Goals: Explore The World, Find Roger (missing brother), Kill Nazi Scum
Supporting Character: Jamjar, his rat terrier (notable abilities: Nippy Little Blighter, Plucky, Annoying Yip).
Prologue Ability: Stalking The Devil Rat

Richard's character is Private Dennis Tucker, a cheeky cockney demolitions expert. Rich is really good at accents so I'm looking forward to hearing him talk in-character.

Trademark: Demolitions Training (created by Rich from scratch).
Notable Abilities: Cheeky, Boisterous, Enjoys Danger, Expert Timing, Hero Worships Brother Basil, Likes Watching Explosions, Looks At Feet When Lying, Run For Your Life!, Tinnitus. 
Goals: Marry Molly, Destroy the Infected, See Britain Great Again.
Supporting Character: Molly, a Wren he wants to settle down with after the war.
Prologue Ability: Court Martialled For Blowing Up The Brigadier's Car By Mistake

Ben's character is Corporal Q, a techy espionage guy. Q is of a higher social class than the others (he took Natural Authority, they all took Obey Orders) so he is nominally in charge of this mission.

Trademark: Gadgeteer (taken straight out of the book)
Notable Abilities: Cannibalise Technology, Collects Things, Dependent On Technology, Hates The Infected, Spike Gun, Utility Belt, Well Prepared.
Goal: Scavenge Parts
I think it would be fair to say that Ben is less concerned with telling a story than the rest of us, so he has not taken a prologue ability or created a supporting character (yet).

Learning Points

1) If someone doesn't want to engage in the more overt story-driving parts of the game, I guess there's not a lot I can do about it (either as a GM or as a games designer). Ben seems happy enough with the game, even though I feel he would get more out of it if he thought in a more 'authorial' way. But he's not  really stopping the rest of the group from doing it, so... :shrug:

2) One thing that became really apparent this time was that expecting people to go through the whole worldbuilding process and then generate detailed characters straight afterwards was too much. It's not so much a time issue as a creative energy issue - everyone was just sort of spent by this point, and said they would rather take some time to reflect on the finer details of their characters goals, backstories, personality traits, etc. We already had character concepts nailed down, so this didin't cause me any problems and we finished the rest of the process up by email. One of the things I'm looking for during this round of playtesting is whether the advice and procedures given in the text accurately reflect what actually happens at the games table. So I've added in a note to the worldbuilding chapter to the effect that finishing up these last details over email or something is fine - you don't have to get everything 100% finished in one night.