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

Main Menu

[Street Level] Glam punk vigilante

Started by Jon Hastings, May 03, 2010, 06:24:05 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Jon Hastings

I ran the first playtest of Street Level over the weekend.  Street Level is a costumed vigilante game, inspired by Frank Miller's Daredevil and Mike Baron's Badger (among other things).  I GM'd over Skype for my friend Nick.

We decided to set the game in NYC's Lower East Side in the late 1980s.  For his vigilante, Nick created Light Show: a glam-punk themed dude who lurked around the edges of the music scene.  In his secret i.d. he was the low totem pole music writer at the Village Voice.  Nick decided Light Show was "Great" at "figuring shit out" but "Shit" at "doing violence".  For his Gimmick, Nick gave Light Show a small device that produced a blinding light that he could use to disorient his foes in combat.  He also chose to have Light Show start with an Obsession for "protecting women" (although as it turns out, I forgot to bring this into play).  We rounded out character creation by filling in the details of (a) the "civilians" in his life, (b) his living circumstances, and (c) his "normal" crimefighting routine.

We ended up playing through two crimes:

For the first one, Light Show was lurking around at a late night new wave show when he saw a guy yelling at his girlfriend and dragging her out of the show by her arm.  Light Show followed them into an alley and saw that the guy was about to beat her up.  He intervened and, at first tried to appeal to the guy's chivalry.  This led to the first hiccup we encountered.  In Street Level, there are seven distinct "arenas of activity":

-figuring shit out
-acting normal
-sneaking around
-running after someone
-telling people what's what
-doing violence
-running away from someone
-taking a beating
-keeping your shit together

The way it's meant to work is that when your character does one of these things, you roll to see if you get a success, a mixed success, or a failure.  Successes, mixed successes, and failures are all tailored to the specific kind of activity: success at "doing violence", for example, means you injure your opponet; a mixed success at sneaking around might mean you left some trace behind that arouses suspicion.  Pretty straightforward, nothing revolutionary.

Anyway, I made the call that appealing to his chivalry would fall under telling him what's what - which is meant to cover persuasion, intimidation, but it isn't meant to be "mind control".  The GM is supposed to have complete control over the motivations and personalities of the NPCs.  Nick rolled a success, but I just couldn't see this guy being convinced by Light Show's speech (which was essentially "What would your mother think?").  However, success at "telling someone what's what" always gives a +2 bonus to a follow-up roll, so I said Nick could try again with that bonus.  Nick said this time he'd try to convince the guy that he would get in trouble if he treated his girlfriend like that in public.  Nick rolled and succeeded again.  This time, I thought it made sense that the guy would be convinced: so he told Light Show that was a good point and that he'd continue his discussion with his girlfriend at home.

In retrospect, I think I completely flubbed this.  I was interpreting "telling people what's what" too broadly.  Really, it should be about intimidation - it is not an appeal to reason.  So, instead of having Nick roll twice, we should have stayed in free play, because none of his actions demanded a roll (i.e. he wasn't engaging in any of the "arenas of activity").

Anyway, at this point Light Show decided enough was enough: he picked up a broken bottle and went after the guy.  He rolled for "doing violence" and got a mixed success - which in this case meant that he took the guy out but was injured in the process.

However, I forgot about Light Show's obsession ("protecting women"), which would have given him a bonus for acting in line with it.  That might have led to a full success.

The next crime went a little more smoothly from a rules/procedures perspective.  Light Show started investigating someone who was breaking into local band's practice/storage spaces and vandalizing their instruments.  Light Show staked one place out, but the vandal surprised him (Nick failed his "sneaking around" roll) and then gave him a beating and ran away.

We got to see the game's "iniaitive"-type rules in action.  As long as your character keeps earning successes (fully or partially) he keeps "the upper hand".  When the character has the upper hand, he has no restrictions on the kind of actions he can take and he can always act before any NPCs.  When he fails a roll, though, he loses the upper hand.  At that point, the NPCs get to take action first and, more importantly, the character is restricted in what he can do: he can only take actions covered by an arena of activity that falls farther down on the list from the one where he made hislast roll.  So, if you fail at an action that required a "doing violence" roll, your next actions are limited to ones that would fall under running away, taking a beating, or keeping your shit together.  You can gain back the upper hand by rolling a full success in anything and (in some circumstances) a partial success in "keeping your shit together".  (This is all inspired by Trollbabe's system of re-rolls, btw.)

The idea behind this - that failure equals a closing off of options and ends either in the character losing his shit or heroically pulling it together (with theme music blaring) - is very important to me.  And this basic feeling definitely translated into the game.  However, the way it is set up now, I'm not sure that it isn't, perhaps, closing off too quickly.  In this case, Light Show failed a sneaking around roll, which meant he lost the upper hand and the vandal got a jump on him.  The vandal's action was to start beating on Light Show, which forced Light Show to roll "taking a beating".  He got a partial success, which meant he avoided serious injury but did not gain the upper hand back.  We decided this meant that Light Show was in a lot of pain, and his only choice was to try to pull it together.  He got another partial success, which meant he regained the upper hand.  At this point, though, I think I flubbed again, because I had the vandal make a break for it, but, really, Light Show should have had the choice of action (having regained iniative).  It turned out to be a nice "wrapping up" point, though and gives Light Show a direction to go in for the start of the next session.


1. I like the "closing off" feel that the "upper hand" rule gives, but I may want to tweak it so that there's some other kind of option open to you if your forced to make a "taking a beating" roll.  Right now, it seems like beating up the vigilante would be a go to move for any bad guy, so things close off too quickly.  One easy change would be to move " running away from someone" so that it now falls in between taking a beating and keeping your shit together.

2. Although I interpreted "telling people what's what" too broadly, the specifity of the "arenas of activity" had a dampening effect on colorful, detailed narration.  Instead of saying what Light Show was doing, Nick would often just say what he wanted to roll for (i.e. saying "I want to roll for doing violence" instead of saying "I grab a bottle and swing it at his head").  I'd guess this in in part due to it being a playtest, but it also seems to be a pitfall of having such specifically defined dice-worthy actions.  (I almost would rather use more traditional, abstract attributes - Brains, Presence, Brawn, Will - if I could figure out a way to keep the "closing off" effect in place.)

3. My suspicion going in was that the game is overdesigned and that there's not much room for play.  So far, that suspicion is still there, although nothing that has happened so far has outright confirmed it.  We'll see how the next session goes.

lin swimmer

What number of players can it support? Is there a limit? (Or, what was that link again?)

Trollbabe! I was thinking about that recently. Have you ever run it?

Regarding the numbered observations:

I would be sad to see the "arenas of activity" go away. They remind me of some of what I've read about Lumpley's early games. Is that an incorrect comparison? (It's been a long time since I've read those games.) I can see how it would be easy to slip into rolling for those as generic conflicts without anything added to include specific elements of the scene.

The "taking a beating" reminds me of Miller's Crossing. Which means I think it sounds fantastic. What happens when you fail to keep your shit together? The scene ends, with the player at the mercy of the antagonist?
Ryan Theodores

Jon Hastings

Hi Ryan -

Here's the link to the first draft (not completely up to date, but close enough):

Right now, I think it can handle one GM and up to three players, but (again as with Trollbabe) there's no expectation that the player characters will be working as a team.  The expectation is the opposite: that they're all loners who may or may not cross paths.  However, all of these vigilantes will be drawing from the same pool of bad guys, so a certain amount of overlap between their stories is built in.  (Currently, the PvP rules are a bit of a kludge, but they're not my focus right now).

I've run Trollbabe quite a few times: along with InSpectres it's my favorite game to GM.  One of the other things I'm mulling over is whether I should nail down the "who says what when" rules to the extent that these games do.

I was thinking more about the "arenas of activity" and my issue with how that played out.  I think it will work out as long as I remember that they're meant to be very specific (i.e., not allowing an action like "I reason with him" to earn a "telling someone what's what" roll).  During the next session, I'm going to try to keep that narrow focus in mind and see if it works any more smoothly.  (And the Lumpley comparison is 100% correct: this game draws very heavily from Vincent Baker's and Ron Edwards' games - i.e. it is a complete rip-off).

Right now, when you fail to keep your shit together you can either narrate your character's death/capture/end game or you can narrate their escape.  Escape comes with consequences though: a new Obsession (or an increase in a current Obsession) and losing a rank in "acting normal".