Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

[Blowback playtest] JiffyCon 11/14/09

Started by Sam Anderson, November 15, 2009, 07:50:08 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Sam Anderson

Play report by Sam and Kate

Run by the game's author, Elizabeth Shoemaker

We had great time, and we both would have wanted to continue the campaign if it hadn't been a con one-shot. Some aspects of the game were hazy and not entirely successful, but none of those things seemed so inextricably tied to any of the game's thematic or mechanical linchpins that they couldn't be improved by more design passes.

General Disclaimer:
1: we might have totally misremembered some stuff, 2: we're only speaking for our own experiences and our perceptions of the experiences of others at the table, and 3: we adopted a general "we" for this post because we edited it together in Google Docs; individual impressions are marked as such.

1 Civilian (low spy skills, high relationships) - Dr. Kendra (played by Chuck?)
1 Lifer (Good spy skills on a broad range, lowest relationships) - Spence (played by Sam)
1 Artist (Specialist in reconnaissance/info-gathering, medium relationships) - Madeline (played by Kate)
1 Artist (Specialist in social engineering, medium relationships) - Stevie (played by Jim)

Notes and impressions, in no particular order:
The rules explanation and character creation went fast and were easy to understand, and felt like they fit the themes of the game well (certainly a complementary effect). It helped that all the players seemed familiar with the tropes that clearly inspired this game (Burn Notice, Bourne movies, Leverage, Ocean's # and other caper movies).

We kept talking about the game in the context of a TV show: "Split screen" "Cut to" "Guest Star" "This type of development (skills) happens within an episode, This type (character relationships) happens over the course of a season." The more that model was emulated, the more successful the experience seemed to feel. Players would often explicitly define character beats and blocking in concrete, step-by-step terms, which Sam felt was a natural byproduct of how detail and minutiae-focused much of the source material is. There wasn't necessarily any mechanical reason to do any of this that we remembered.

One of the main choices players could make, generally during the Analysis(setup/planning) phase, was deciding whether or not to roll your score in a stat versus just taking half the score (rounded down) as successes. With either method, the remainder goes into the Agency's pool. This led to the odd (ha) effect that odd scores ended up being bad deals for the "take half" method, though this was addressed in the middle of the game by changing the rule to dropping the odd die rather than letting the Agency take a majority. Rolling also meant gaining or losing Momentum (the difference between failures and successes on the roll, positive or negative, are applied to the next roll), which added some spice and opportunity for roleplaying ("I'm still smarting from the bumps I took in that tussle, so maybe I should take a more circumspect approach, even if I wouldn't normally do so.") Finally, rolling on a skill meant checking off a skill use on your sheet, only a few of which were needed to increase the skill. We recount these rules to explain that it felt like there wasn't much incentive to take half, even when Elizabeth informed us that doing so was generally more successful from a probability standpoint. Maybe, on a very basic level, taking half just didn't trigger that die rollin' rush to the reptilian hindbrain?

We didn't see any play of the "negative" versions of the skills, like Brutality for the combat skill, or Paranoia for the reconnaissance skill. Neither of us quite understood how this was supposed to work, but we got the impression these would come into play when dealing with the other characters when our stresses with them exceeded our relationship scores with them.

Experience system was zippy - characters leveled up very quickly (Sam's character leveled up a stat over the course of our single session). This could be a pro or a con depending on what type of game you want to play. It isn't very realistic, but it does seem to fit the mood of the episodic, fast-paced TV show well. We discussed the idea of wiping some or all of the experience points after an arc was finished - thus leaving the only developments in the character relationships to carry over the the next "episode" - which would be consistent with the style of many of the TV shows that this game in aping, in which a lot might happen over the course of an episode, but much of the experience gained would then largely reset for the next episode.

The character relationship mechanic, based on "stress" levels, was very well suited to the genre of this game. As in an episode of a TV show, the characters relationships could change dramatically over the course of an arc - there a lot of room for playful melodrama in here, we think.

The role of the Civilian type seemed hazily defined. Civilians have low skill scores and high relationship scores The Civilian player said he had a good time, and Dr. Kendra got as much character interaction as anyone,  but his character's low skills meant he couldn't necessarily take a lot of substantive action. Also, since the spy-types (Lifer and Artists) were the ones generally intruding on her (Dr. Kendra's) normal world, they were often imposing stresses on her (which were represented mechanically and applied next to their relationship scores with her), which ostensibly would have been something more suited to her, since Civilians have higher thresholds for imposing stress.

A number of ideas about the Civilian type were floated by the group: Civilians could require some kind of explicit Motive that s/he would want fulfilled. Each episode has a civilian "guest star" that only appears for the sesssion, Civilians could have a "normalcy" stat that would help them in situation where the agents would act like maladjusted freaks, but could be reduced the more the civilian gets into the "spy game," with concurrent raising of the spy skills. Etc., Etc.

Could definitely see this setting working for a longer game, although it was quite fun as a one-shot too - I think this relates to the way it is structured to resemble a TV show similar to Burn Notice - you can have a lot of fun just tuning in for a single episode, but the broader arcs and development of character relationships also reward long-term viewers.  We've played a small number of indies, and we've generally had the impression that the good ones work well as one- or two-shots, but don't necessarily lend themselves to long-term play (An over-generalization that should only be taken to reflect our personal experiences. Also, this effect is obviously often by design). We could both see playing a longer campaign/season of Blowback, because the development of the systematized character relationships is so inherent to the game, and interesting character relationships are what we've always looked for in any other kind of serialized entertainment. If we were left with a prevailing impression from the game, it was that this space and these characters were ones we wanted to visit again, to see how they grew and bounced off each other.

There's more we could go into, but we both think this has run on about long enough! We'd be happy to answer questions or expand on other points if anyone would like.


Awesome! I'm glad you and Kate enjoyed it. (Incidentally, this will probably get moved to the Playtesting forum, but that's okay.)

The game definitely has some hiccups, but I think it went really, really well for the first full play-through. I especially feel like the two rules changes we made on the spot (having the odd die just go away instead of being given to The Agency) and fixing the Stress Chart made things much smoother. I didn't notice as much of the TV talk as you noticed-- but if it helped flesh out the characters, I'm all for it. :)

I get that doing things without incident isn't as satisfying as rolling. I do think that there should be a way that spies can just succeed on minor stuff, though, without having to risk failure. I wonder if there's a way to satisfy the lizard brain and still do that?

Definitely for the next playtest, I'm going back to the idea that everyone plays a Professional and a Civilian, and not all Civilians are present for every job. I feel like the Civilians are an integral part of what makes the setup work-- they just have to be a bit more fun mechanically.

One thing that really surprised me was Jim's character, Stevie. If you'd asked me "What happens if someone plays a self-serving dude who just uses the job for his own ends instead of trying to help the Client?" I would have said, "Well crap, that probably breaks the game." It didn't though! But I do think that him being in charge of the job and also having self-centered motives ("Who cares if the restaurant burns down? She has insurance." "If we're going to be stuck here, we better have the mayor in our pocket.") drove the game into a much darker place for Blowback than the source material would normally go. And if we'd had longer for the Blowback phase, and I had more of an idea of how Blowback worked mechanically, we would have seen more what happened to Sarah and Tyler as a result of letting the restaurant burn-- which would have put more stress on the relationship between Mads and Stevie.

Do you feel like there should be more concrete rules for increasing your relationship with someone, or do you feel like "When it feels to both players like their characters have gotten significantly closer" is enough?