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[The Heartbreaker War] Not quite as done as I thought

Started by Simon C, September 13, 2009, 10:50:58 PM

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Simon C

I guess there's always this vague hope in the back of my mind that I'll sit down to playtest a game, and everything will run great, everyone will say "Well done Simon, best game ever!", and I'll be able to happily progress towards publishing the thing.

Alas, this is not what happened.

Turns out there are a couple of issues with the game that are of the structural/systemic type, rather than the superficial kind that are easily fixed.  Here they are:

First Problem: If you're at the bottom of the order in Precedence, the game is boring.  You are usually left with no choice, or two bad choices in which cards you take.  It's possible for the other players to take pity on you, and leave you a good card, but it doesn't change the fact that you usually have no choice to make in your turn.  That makes the game boring for that player.

Second Problem: The game takes too long.  I was aiming for around 30 mins, but it was looking to take up to an hour.  I'm not sure exactly what was making it take so long.  I think it was speeding up as we went along, but there were times when it dragged a bit, and that's not good.  For the players to put up with frequent character death, often shitty choices and bad outcomes, the game needs to be over quickly.

Regarding the first problem, I have a couple of ideas for solutions.  The first is to let "Combat" cards (the most common card, and usually what the last player is left with) bump characters up the precedence order.  This would mitigate the positive feedback loop of being at the bottom of the heap a little.  You might be at the bottom for a while, but you'll rise up through experience.

The other idea I had was for characters to be able to choose "backstabbing" as an option in combat, and frag other chararacters.  That might bump them up the precedence order, or at least remove the prick who keeps taking the good stuff before them.  I like the idea because it gives the players a good choice every time they take the combat card.  I wonder though if it's robbing the final situation of oomph.  Like, it's cool to have some prick you hate survive the war and then be your only ally in keeping your home town going.  On the other hand, it's also cool to have killed some dude in the war, and then have to go home and see his family.  I like that stuff.

For the second problem, I'm not so sure.  I can't think of any element of the game that I'm willing to part with at the moment.  The most time consuming things in play are:
a) rolling up new characters when old ones die.  This only takes a couple of minutes tops though.
b) thinking of stuff to narrate for some of the cards.  This is more of a problem with some cards than others.  There are some cards that are defintely too open ended.  "Marvels" just lets you invent a magic thing, and I think that I should go back to the old system where you roll some dice.  I'll need to look it over and see what can be pruned.

One thing I was thinking of is replacing a number of the "Combat" cards with "Safe" cards, that do nothing.  That would speed things up a lot, but I wonder if it would be boring?

So I'm not sure if anyone except Malcolm and Steve will really be able to contribute to this, since there's a lot of stuff that relies on knowing the game.  Ask any questions you like.  Ideas are welcom.

Ron Edwards

A quick view from the armchair ...

1. I like the "bump" idea for the combat cards. This is similar to an action/order system I wrote for a proto-game called Mongrel, and I've always wanted to develop it further. It also might eliminate the need to consider the Safe (do nothing) cards.

2. Total play time seems to me to be a different issue from "drags at points." If it drags at points, then reducing play time won't help and might even make it worse; if it goes on for an hour or more but doesn't ever drag, then I don't see that as a problem.

3. Regarding narration, it's also useful to consider the learning curve. If something takes a little while in play for people who are trying the system for the first time, that doesn't necessarily mean that there's a problem. I suggest playing again with a slight training intro for those particular features, and see if there really is a bump there, or whether that was an artifact of first-time play.

Best, Ron


Off the top of my head, the 'drags at points' phenomenon came from:

+ unfamiliarity with the rules of each card. Every card type (Combat, Horrors, Marvels, etc) has its own requirements in terms of narration and dice-rolling. Perhaps having these written down on the cards would have sped this up; I certainly got faster at creating characters (which are done randomly) as the game went on, and I got faster because I took ownership for rolling dice and looking up results on the tables rather than waiting to follow Simon's instructions.

+ death isn't fun. At the moment, I could see early character death in this game (which happened for both my and Malcolm's characters in the first round) provoking a table-flip from a less mature player (such as myself 15 years ago). Death requires rolling up a new character and reinvesting in them; I feel both Malc and I had developed real sympathy for our first characters - it was truly weird to have to let go of that, realise that we would have to come up with new takes on our new characters, ... and then realise that we potentially would have to repeat that cycle two or three more times during the game.

And I think I had to invest something in the character, treating them as real, so that I could convincingly narrate stuff about them.

I reckon the game needs to create a slight attitude shift in the players. When I sat down I thought Heartbreaker War was a character and setting generation system with a high-ish lethality. Now I realise that it's mostly a setting and backstory generator with an extremely high lethality. (Is that an accurate characterisation, Simon?) If you clearly explained at the start of a session that it was that second thing ('Making up the backstory' rather than 'Making up the characters'), I think some of my issues would have disappeared.

I also feel like there needs to be some in-game acknowledgement that the characters have died. Perhaps that's a memorial scene; perhaps it's an element of the fiction that's been affected by them; or perhaps it's a reaction from the village we all come from to their death. I'm not sure, but it felt weird to just drop the dead character and move on.

I also thought it was a little odd, the lack of choice we (as players) had. I understand that our characters are part of a huge war whose outcome we can't really affect. I understand that character generation is entirely random, and their survival is uncertain. The thing is, as players I felt we didn't really have any input into shaping the wider setting of the world. Each year of the war has a particular setting element associated with it (this year is famine, the next year is dark magical experiments). As players, it would have been cool to shape the war somehow - even if that's just choosing between two crappy options ("Do you want the next year to be about Famine or being subjected to dark magical experiments?")

At the moment, it's that lack of any meaningful choice ... and, consequently, that the setting seems pre-determined ... that feels like the biggest stumbling block to me having fun with the game. (However, I was definitely having fun at the start: I think both Malc and I bought in to the totally random character creation, and throwing ourselves into combat and nasty situations. And I wish we'd had a chance to complete the full run of the game to see how everything ties together.)

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C


I take your point about "drags at points".  That's something I will have to watch out for.  I think Steve's point here, that the delays came from each card having a different set of rules, is probably the case.  I think I can probably tweak the wording on some of the cards to make them more similar, and thus more quickly understood.

Glad you like the "bump" idea.  I'm coming around to it.  My only concern is that it adds to the complexity of determining precedence, and thus adds to the overall play time of the game.


Your point about "death isn't fun" is well taken.  I think it's part of the difficulty inherent in what the game is - you're creating characters, but also creating backstory.  The game requires investment in characters, but also punishes you for it.  I completely agree that there needs to be some kind of memorialising of dead characters - some recognition of their contribution to the game, so it doesn't feel like wasted effort.  I feel like when I talked to Malcolm about how the character had impacted the game, and how those events would impact later play, it made more sense to him.  I'm still not sure about how to actually do this in the game. I ran through some ideas in another thread, but in practice, they messed with some of the fundamental parts of the game that I'm not willing to change.  So I'm back to the drawing board on that.

With regards to the setting, this isn't a game where the players create the setting through play.  It's a game where the players discover the setting through play.  It's a thing that's already there, and is revealed as you play.  It's light and sketchy, and gives you lots of scope for invention within its framework, but there is a concrete world in which the game is set.

Meaningful choice, on the other hand, is super important, and it's worrying that there doesn't seem to be enough, currently.

Here's what the game is trying to be about:

Every year, the characters face life-threatening situations.  The players choose how much threat to take on their own characters, and how much to pass on to others.  This happens in two ways - through choosing cards in order of Precedence, and through deciding to aid characters in danger.  The decision to help other characters usually puts your own character at risk. 

You base your decisions on intangible things - how much you like the other characters, how much you want to keep your own character alive, how much you trust the other characters you help you out in return. 

I guess the game is circling around the idea of loyalty, of camraderie.  It's about creating bonds between characters, based on them helping each other through life-threatening situations.  I'm not sure if I can approach that premise without a genuine threat to the existance of the characters.


Simon, I sensed two things going on while we were playing it. First we were developing that sense of camraderie and history between the characters. We also seemed to be (informally) creating the village that our characters had all come from and would go back to once the Heartbreaker War had finished.

I can see some advantages to formalising that 'developing the village' side of things. Perhaps build it in to the structure of the game, and do 'village development' at the end of every year. For a start, it gives a sense of the impact that a character's death might have on the people back home.

How important is the 'back home' part of your game to you?

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C

That's a good point, Steve.

The "developing the village" part is pretty important, because that's where play is mostly going to take place, once you're done with the War.

Formalising that process is an interesting idea.  At the moment the text tells you to look back at the end and fit together all the details you've uncovered as you play, but doing it as we went felt right in playtest. 

Have you got any ideas for what that would look like? I'm wary of anything that takes too much time.  Maybe just an addition to the process that says "take a moment to note any new details about the village, any implied NPCs, and so on".

Hmm.  Implied NPCs.  There's something in that.


The absolutely easiest way to handle it, I think, would be to create a provisional map. I would take a big blank sheet of paper, write the implied characters and locations onto separate cards, and put those cards onto the sheet of paper. That way the cards could be shuffled around and rearranged as things develop (I like the idea of not locking down the map too early).

Sample elements from our game that would have included would be The Salt Mine, Big River, and The Abbey.

I also think that every year - except for the last one - there could be a randomised type of scene back at the village, showing how the war affects them. The only reason I wouldn't play out a scene from the last year is to preserve some suspense about exactly what the village would look like when you come back to it.

(All of these are top-of-my-head ideas, of course, but they may give you some starting points.)

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C

Oooh! Maps!

I'm a big fan of maps.  I think drawing the town as you go would be an awesome idea.  I think cards and such would be a little cumbersome.  But every time you roll up a character getting to draw their house or place of work on the map would be awesome.  I could even include like a couple of village templates, showing the radial pattern of fields away from the manor house and so on...

The "what's going on at home" question is supposed to be answered by the "Tidings from home" card, but that didn't come up very much in our game.  I think we had a particularly nasty first few years of the war, because it seemed like we were drawing about 50% Combat cards, when they're actually only about 25% of the deck.


Quote from: Ron Edwards on September 14, 2009, 03:28:25 PM
3. Regarding narration, it's also useful to consider the learning curve. If something takes a little while in play for people who are trying the system for the first time, that doesn't necessarily mean that there's a problem. I suggest playing again with a slight training intro for those particular features, and see if there really is a bump there, or whether that was an artifact of first-time play.

I absolutely agree with Ron's suggestion here. I've just done this with Bad Family (my 'years-in-development-and-so-close-to-finshing' game), and I think it's much improved the experience. I think a tutorial level for Heartbreaker War and (perhaps) giving more responsibility to the players to interpret and use the charts would be a good thing.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C


I'm resistant to the idea of "training", partly because I think that the game has enough different stages and steps as it is, and partly because since the rules are different for each card, it's hard to know what rules to train.

What I think is a good suggestion is giving players more control over their interpretations of the rules.  Printing the rules on each card is probably the right thing to do, although I think that will create some difficulties.  I've constructed the deck so that you can easily substitute a deck of playing cards for the printed cards.  That's required some sacrifices, but I think it's worth it.  If I print the rules of the game on each card, it makes it that much more difficult.

Steve, do you have any suggestions for "giving more responsibility to the players to interpret and use the charts"?

Also, Steve! Start a thread about Left Coast! I wanna talk about that game!


Really, I think there are a couple of basic skills that it'd be good to throw to the players as soon as possible.

You'll remember that when we started making up characters, you told us what dice to roll, consults the chart yourself and then told us what to write down on our 'character sheet'. After a couple of deaths, I started grabbing the relevant charts myself and working through them (which reduced the rolling up characters time down to about a minute, maybe).

The skills I think it'd be good to teach the players:

+ Where to find the right dice to roll
+ Taking responsibility for interpreting the results of the chart
+ Getting used to giving basic narration.

I also think it'd be worth getting the players out of a 'permission' mindset, waiting for the GM to take the lead, asking the GM what the next step is.

... Another thing that occured to me while writing this is that maybe players could make up two or three characters each at the start of the game. That'd have three benefits. First, it'd get us used to the idea of character mortality. Second, it'd mean we weren't slowed down by rolling up fresh characters in the middle of the game. Third (and best), it'd provide training in those skills I was just talking about. Anyway, it's an idea.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C

Making up a bunch of characters first... I kind of like that.  It would be faster, and also maybe reduce the sting of character death.  If you don't use up all the characters you make, they become NPCs or something.  Maybe there could be a narration step in character creation, to "train" that part of the game? Maybe we get one piece of information about the character, how they fit into the village, like, you describe the character, and then the other players tell you how the other characters feel about them?  That could be an interesting step.