Posts Tagged ‘playtest’

While I ponder a bit more of the ins and outs of this new game, we’re approaching Gen Con, and there’s some exciting stuff to say about it, starting with the fact that Parenthesis Press is going to be there with a diverse slate of options.

First of all, for House of Cards fans, I’ll be running sessions at Games on Demand, which has been brought into the fold and given space on the second level of the Indianapolis Convention Center this year.

The most exciting part for me, though, is the announcement of the First Exposure Playtest Hall in the Sagamore Ballroom. For those who may remember me talking about Metatopia, this is in the same vein (and is in fact run by Double Exposure, the folks behind Metatopia, DexCon, Dreamation, and lots of other New York-area events): a ballroom full of new projects from indie game designers looking for playtesters drawn from the amazing crowd of gamers of which Gen Con is comprised. I’ll have (the yet-to-be-renamed) Delve there, but that’s not the biggest news – Corona will also be there. Regular followers will note that I’ve talked somewhat extensively about how the former works, its design philosophy goals, but Corona has basically only been cryptically mentioned by name with no further information.

Well, time to break that silence.

Corona is a strange specimen, to be sure, which is one reason I’ve been keeping info pretty hush-hush. It’s an RPG, but as much in the tradition of story games as House of Cards, if not more… yet it’s also very much like a board game. It’s a “strategic RPG,” to perhaps coin a term, in that your characters are the high-up movers and shakers of a solar empire, managing a domain against external threats and internal intrigue. In the tradition of Dune and its numerous antecedents, you’re a powerful and hyper-competent agent, or maybe even a psychic god-emperor overseeing the subjects orbiting the star that defines your territory and your power. When you take actions, you don’t wade into the fray personally: you give commands to legions, negotiate treaties, shape interstellar trade policy, or manipulate propaganda. The game is meant to be cerebral and stately, unfolding potentially over many different star systems, interweaving their stories with one another and with those the monumental figures that steer their destinies.

Final details will be available shortly, but the plan is to run three sessions of Corona, one each night on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, open to eight players interested in getting their hands dirty with the system in its current state. If you’re going to be there, please come by and take part! For more information on the First Exposure system, you can visit their website – registration will be managed through Double Exposure directly.

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[Delve] The Brad Is Down!

That’s not an accidental error in the title: during the most recent Delve playtest, the player of the Bard decided that he was the Brad, whose name was Brad. (There was some drinking going on this time.)

Reset button hit, we find ourselves at the entry to a new dungeon, with the Bard, Dwarf, and Necromancer. As a way to spice things up, I extemporaneously slipped in a theme for the dungeon to help guide narration: this particular site was the abandoned workshop of Caiphas the Clock-mage, which legend holds is the repository for an automaton that helps to control or manage the weather, and which seems to be malfunctioning. (I may hard-code this “quest detail” step into the rules; one of the feedback notes this time was that the gamemaster in general needs a stricter procedural framework. A gamemaster used to traditional power dynamics in fantasy gaming will find himself or herself prone to hijacking the narration away from the balance of agency as crafted in the rules.)

Rather than take one step by step through the adventure as in previous sessions, I’ll sum up:

* The dungeon table is going to be overhauled: halls and intersections are over-represented. Thinking of turning them into things that are just assumed to happen procedurally, rather than taking up entries on the chart to accommodate them.

* Magic continues to be a powerful special, due to its catch-all “add a detail” nature, and it will probably require a bulleted list that delineates more clearly what it can and cannot do. That’s balanced out, in a meta-game sense, by the fact that it’s really tempting to use it even when not strictly necessary; the player of the Necromancer made all but one or two attacks in combat with Magic rather than defaulting to a “magic-flavored” Strike or Shoot, consequently skimming AP from the Pool on a regular basis.

* Up for debate is whether to add a declaration step to the beginning of the turn sequence. It would encourage tactical thinking and speed up the actual resolution of turns by forcing commitment to a programmed series of actions, but at the cost of some measure of player agency, which is an important principle in Delve (and in a lot of my games, really). That said, emulation of old-school adventure gaming is also an important principle, and I need to think about which is more> important in this case.

* Currently, no healing ability means characters with 1 Health are in a precarious position. Still working on the idea of a Heal special, but as one playtester noted, that puts a meta-game pressure on the players, who would then feel obligated to take a Healer character for “party balance”. The alternate approach is to add in a healing provision to the AP rules: spend an AP, regain a point of lost Health. Then again, what D&D 4th did with “healing surges” wasn’t entirely popular, and contributed to the “it’s just an MMO on paper” criticisms. It also runs contrary to the spirit of early dungeon crawl games, many of which were very unforgiving with regard to character mortality. As above, time to put some thought into prioritizing the various aspects of Delve‘s design philosophy.

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[Delve] The playtest gets a reboot

With some of the rules tweaks lately, let’s hit the reset button on the ongoing playtest session. Rewind to the beginning: in this alternate universe, the players pick the Bard, the Elf, the Thief, and the Viking. We start at 4 Adventure Points in the Pool as usual.

One of the things that still needs to be decided is whether the mere act of entering a dangerous or safe area results in a gain or loss in AP, respectively. On the one hand, it leads to AP inflation, since pushing ahead gets the party an AP regardless of the result. That means 2 AP for every dangerous area, and 1 for a safe area. Let’s see how it shakes down either way by running the same sequence of events with each possibility.

Starting with the low-AP rules…

From the entrance, the party starts by pushing ahead [+1] (5,5 = Intersection, 3 paths) It’s doubles, so the area is gray: neither safe nor dangerous until someone decides. The party opts to force it safe [-1] to have a secure zone around the entry.
Pushing ahead on the left path [+1] finds (3,6 = Dangerous hall), with an immediate follow-up roll leading to (1,1 stairs down).
To keep this from being too easy, the gamemaster immediately decides to force a hazard in the dangerous hallway [+1] (3,4 = Illusion). The gamemaster decides to yoink the Berserker’s stats and say the illusion is an ogre “guarding” the stairs. It doesn’t have any specials, though, so it’s worth just 2 AP to beat. However, since it’s not real, they don’t roll against its Defense; instead, they must succeed at a Master test for either Strike or Shoot to realize it isn’t real.

Initiative goes Bard/Elf/Thief, then Viking/Illusion. The party goes into the fight with 6 AP; the gamemaster has 4 HP to work with.

It’s a fight!
Elf starts a spell [-1] to attack the Illusion.
Thief uses Assist on the Viking [-1].
Bard Shoots at the Illusion: (3,1) miss!
Viking uses Fast [-1]. Then, Strike at the Illusion (1,6; assist 1,6): hit on the black die either way. The Viking’s player decides to call for a hand-over, putting +1 HP. The Viking also isn’t fooled by the illusion any more, and uses that narration to call out a hint to the others. They still have to make their tests, though.
Illusionary ogre returns the favor: Strike vs. Viking (2,1) hit!
Elf’s spell attack resolves last: (6,5) hit! But since it’s not a Strike or Shoot, it doesn’t let the Elf know that the ogre isn’t real.

Round two!
Elf Moves in
Thief also Moves (…behind the enemy, naturally), Assisting the Bard [-1]
Bard Shoots again (1,1; assist 4,1) hit! The Bard sees through the Illusion.
Viking uses Fast to duck away [-1]
Elf draws his sword and Strikes (5,1): against the Master difficulty, that’s a miss!
Thief Strikes with a dagger (4,6): either one would work, so she takes white, hit! The Thief sees through the Illusion.
The ogre is in a bind: the Viking cleverly moved after Shooting could happen but before Striking, so it’s left with no action to take.

Round three!
Using the lighter AP rewards, the Bard and Thief would like to Assist the Elf, but with only 1 AP left, they can’t afford to. They just hang back and hope.
Elf Moves back, while Illusion Moves in to swat at the Thief, the last to hit it.
Elf draws bow and Shoots, using her Level bonus (+1) (3,6): hit! Finally, all adventurers see through the Illusion and it is defeated. The Hazard Pool went up to 10 from all the activity, but the party gets their 2 AP reward, bringing them up to 3 AP, while the Hazard Pool stands at 8.

Stepping back to analyze, the party would have gone into that fight with 7 AP for just entering the hallway, which wouldn’t have tipped the scales too much: the Bard and Thief might have both thrown their Assists on the Elf for that last shot, but things would basically have gone the same way. Let’s continue.

The party backtracks to the intersection (A) and pushes ahead [+1] down the center path, which yields (5,3 = treasure) something nice! It turns out to be (2,2 = Greedy Coin), which the Thief pockets for later.
Backtracking to intersection A again, pushing ahead [+1] down the right path leads to (4,1 = safe hall to 5,1 safe intersection, 3 paths). The dungeon is starting to open up a bit, but isn’t exactly cranking out thrilling adventure.
From this new intersection (B), the adventurers push ahead [+1] down its left path into (3,2 = Storeroom). It’s a safe place, and they make note to remember it for perhaps a good camp site later.
Back to intersection B again, pushing ahead [+1] down the center path – looks promising! (2,5 = Dangerous hall to 1,2 Dangerous Anteroom). The higher-AP rule option would have just given the group 2 more AP.
In either case, the gamemaster springs a trap in the anteroom [+1] forcing a hazard. It turns out to be (1,4 = Toxic Gas) a cloud of deadly vapor! Each adventurer must test Health [M] to avoid the consequences.

We’ll leave off there for now. It becomes apparent that opting to reward the party for entering dangerous areas on top of the “push ahead” reward will add up over time. In the stingy rules, the party has a Pool of 8 AP, with the Hazard Pool hovering at 8 until that gas trap was forced, bringing it down to 7. By comparison, the adventurers would have 10 AP with which to deal with the dungeon if they had a reward for entering the dangerous section, and they haven’t actually had any trouble since the illusionary ogre.

The two options for ironing this out seem to be either to keep the rewards light so far, or to even the score by giving the gamemaster a Hazard Point when the party enters a safe zone. If that were the case, the Hazard Pool would be at 11 after that last stretch of uneventful dungeoneering. That certainly lends the unconscious tension of looming danger down the line, and means the group would already be almost halfway to the game-changer if the Danger Level for the dungeon is 50.

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One of the linchpins of the Delve system is the economy of Adventure Points, which is proving to have a lot more kinks in it than originally anticipated. The basic premise is that players get rewarded with AP when they make the game more perilous for their adventurers by pushing further into the dungeon and facing challenges, and can in turn spend those AP to do cool things with their characters.

That said, there’s what we might call an ontological issue that wasn’t readily apparent: where do AP come from? Is the Hazard/Adventure Pool a closed system in which the same points are endlessly recycled back and forth, and the game consists thereby of a shifting balance of finite states? Or can points be generated and destroyed, which has the potential to be very empowering to all the participants but might involve a headache-inducing level of bookkeeping?

Here are the possibilities that have been sketched out thus far. As it stands, each Pool starts with a number of points equal to the number of adventurers. So far, the rules haven’t really been diligent in specifying where new points come from – it’s apparent in some cases, like when the Thief decides to Sneak, spending an AP to go into the Hazard Pool. That’s a spontaneous use of an existing resource, an action rather than a reaction to an existing situation. By comparison, if the dungeon goes Lights Out, that’s being imposed on the adventurers, and what Nightsight does is prevent the normal loss of AP that accompanies having to re-light.

In attempting to more rigorously define the way points operate, a correlating issue is what it means to be out of points. If the adventurers have drained their Adventure Pool in a hard fight, the presumption is that they should have a hard time of things until they can manage to get more AP into the Pool by pressing ahead and facing down possible danger in spite of the risks. That’s heroic, and being heroic is what the game is about. But what about the Hazard Pool? If the GM has thrown every nasty boggan and backstabber against the party and they’re still kicking, there becomes a risk that the party can simply meta-game and withhold the addition of new HP to the GM’s Pool by just not using specials. In that sense, we could say the dungeon has been “cleared out,” but what about that one unexplored hallway?

It seems the most reasonable answer is that entering a dangerous area puts a new Hazard Point into the pool. But where does it come from? It seems like it comes from nowhere, a natural consequence of adventuring in dark monster-infested corridors, but that raises questions about where other points come from. Is there a situation in which Adventure Points just appear out of thin air? Perhaps: maybe when an adventurer falls in combat. As envisioned right now, dead is dead, from a mechanical standpoint, and that’s a logical potential result of facing down evil wizards or barbarous orc warbands, but there’s a case to be made that going down swinging, at least, should be equally rewarded for being heroic, not to mention genre emulation to be had in netting the party a chance to rally through a valiant sacrifice. We’ll think about that and come back to it.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned thus far: each dungeon has what’s called a Danger Level, which rates how harsh it is (a function of how likely any given turn is to generate a hazard or potential hazard: a standard dungeon is Danger Level 50, for a 50% chance – the standard Dungeon Table is split evenly between hazard and treasure – but custom Dungeon Tables can be of higher or lower DL by imbalancing the results). We open the way to an interesting cross-mechanic if we have an escalating point total in the economy: if the number of total points between both pools hits the Danger Level, there’s immediately what we might term a “Game-Changer”: a plot twist event that opens up new possibilities or alters what’s already established. That might be “the dragon slumbering in the heart of the cavern complex awakes,” or “the goblin shaman has cast a spell, and all the goblins in the stronghold have increased stats now”.

A final design consideration: Delve is meant to be fast and light, so cobbling together scores of detailed mechanisms goes against the spirit of the envisioned final piece. While it might be true to the conventions of early RPGs to just throw every disparate mathematical model together in a book for players to navigate, I want to stick to the ethos of modern game design as cohesive and streamlined wherever possible.

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Recap: the adventurers (in marching order) are the Thief, the Swashbuckler, the Shieldmaiden, and the Elf. The Thief picked up a Fog Flask after destroying an animated skeleton, and the Elf dispelled a magic sigil to gain an Ancient Grimoire.

AP: 8 HP: 6

Does this storeroom have exits? It does if any of the players say it does, but the Thief wants to wait and see if the other, earlier corridor holds anything interesting.

Back at the right-hand corridor, a safe hallway (5,2) leads into a gray hallway (double 4s). The party puts up 1 AP to make it dangerous (they’re still on the first level), which the gamemaster notes but doesn’t escalate right away. A few rolls yield more hallways, which everyone decides to discard (and a note is made to adjust the number of halls on the dungeon table). Finally, a (6,5) yields a safe Grand Chamber. The party lucked into a big score! However, it’s not all good: a grand chamber automatically has both 2 hazards and 2 treasures, plus either another hazard or another treasure based on whether it’s a white or black entry.

AP: 7 HP:7

(It becomes apparent that the AP flow is significantly out of whack following the rules as written, since the unforced appearance of this safe Grand Chamber would suck 8 AP out of the pool. leaving it dry. While the game wants to encourage dangerous areas, the more important emphasis is simply to explore: putting down a natural safe area should not be a penalty – the choice should be to pay points from the pool to get a safe area when it’s needed or press forward and see what happens. Thus, the AP is not going to be adjusted for this encounter.)

Secretly, the gamemaster rolls (3,1), a Vagrant, and (4,3), an Illusion. The gamemaster decides this indicates that the antagonistic NPC adventurer is a magician, and the Illusion is her phantom double. (That explains the sigil and the Grimoire from earlier, and the catacombs imply the party’s facing down a Necromancer.) The gamemaster also rolls real quick for the treasures: a Sorcerer’s Staff, another Ancient Grimoire, and a pair of Gryphonskin Boots. (At this point, the gamemaster mulls whether the treasures should be Revealed along with the hazards, because the rules haven’t decided either way. The spot decision is that treasures are only Revealed if there are no hazards around, unless an adventurer wants to spend turns looking around.)

The gamemaster narrates to the party, using details to provide cues without resorting to game terms: an earthy, moldy smell hangs in the air of a sunken laboratory space lined with preserved remains. The Thief passes an AP to the gamemaster to Sneak in, and the rest of the party files in after. Though the adventurers don’t know it, the figure that addresses them is the Illusion – the actual Necromancer simply mimics silently along with the Illusion, trying to misdirect the group. “Halt, intruders! Depart my atelier or be destroyed!” It’s on!

AP: 6 HP: 8

The party decides to go half and half at each visible ‘opponent’: the Thief and Elf opt for the apparent threat, the Illusion, with the Shieldmaiden and the Swashbuckler sparring off against the real Necromancer. The Thief keeps Sneaking, so that’s an AP down, and the Swashbuckler goes ahead and spends another for Fast. The Elf ponders spending a third to kick in a Magic spell; a question arises as to when the Elf’s player is obligated to declare the effect of the Magic. It seems to make sense that a magician has to decide what “spell” they’re casting when they start, meaning when they spend their point on the special. The Elf’s declaration is to ultimately not use Magic, just opting to Shoot. This can still be described as a spell, but it’s functionally no different than any other ranged attack.

The Thief and the Elf are going to get to go first, followed by the Shieldmaiden, then everyone else. The reason the Thief has the Assist special is, in part, to simulate “back-stab” or “flanking” tactics that make others’ attacks more successful. The Thief’s player is going to pull that into play here, stating that the Thief slips behind the Necromancer to take him out. Granted, that’s the Illusion the Thief is attempting to out-maneuver, but that’ll come up soon enough. The Thief has enough Move to change their distance from Far From to Close To, but not enough for Next To.

There’s a moment of humor as the players realize they’re attempting to apply positional advantage to a mapless game, then the Elf goes. (On the turn chart, Move comes before Shoot, so even though their turns are simultaneous, the effects unfold sequentially.) While the Thief is closing the distance by lurking from shadow to shadow, the Elf lets loose lightning with a hair-curling “pop”. The roll is (1,5): the player thinks it’s just a standard attack roll, and mulls asking for the Thief’s Assist, but it’s actually the test to discern the Illusion and thus “defeat” it. A Shoot total of 10 is indeed good enough – an E result – and the gamemaster describes how the Elf sees the electricity arc right through the form of the evil wizard and into the copper alembics on the shelf.

The Shieldmaiden is about to lunge forward, but with over half of the party’s Adventure Pool depleted, her player is not sure about burning another one to use another special. As melee is about to occur, the AP is 3, while the gamemaster is up to a whopping 12 Hazard Points to throw back. The Swashbuckler’s also notes that the turn structure – everyone resolves a complete turn in Move order – still leaves him going later in the turn; is Fast meant to be a global qualifier, or just indicate that the character can cover a lot of ground? There’s an argument to be made either way, but it’ll have to wait until this fight is over.

The Shieldmaiden’s spear would likely find its mark easily if she could get Next To the Necromancer (she’s got a Strike of 6, and the Necromancer doesn’t really do Defense with a 1), but the best she can do is to get Close To him. Still, she’s got a 1-point advantage, and his Defense is abysmally low, so she can basically take the die she wants and its corresponding effect without fear of not succeeding. The roll is double 3s, so she opts to take the white die. The Necromancer is drunk with stolen vitality from his magic, though: a Health of 6 means he can take the hit.

AP: 3 HP: 10

The Swashbuckler’s turn occurs at the same time as the Necromancer’s: the opponent first decides to Move away from the Shieldmaiden, making her Far From him and imposing a penalty. There’s some talk about whether he ought to be able to do this, since it’s an enclosed chamber and he was already at the far end, but it’s agreed that it would be broken to let adventurers corral every creature hazard they come across: the gamemaster can narrate that the movement takes advantage of cover to net the same mechanical effect. Still, there’s some spatial weirdness to be considered as the players take turns using their Moves to increase or decrease range bands. In the meantime, though, a necromantic spell surges forth, conjuring cold tentacles made of shadows from the gloom of the laboratory to ensnare the Shieldmaiden! Description aside, this is a Shoot attack with the Paralyze special attached (-1 Hazard Pool). It’s an even test (3 Shoot vs. 3 Defense), and a (3,4) does the trick. The Necromancer is betting on lasting long enough to sap the adventurers’ Move scores so that they can’t catch up if he bolts for it. The Swashbuckler’s Fast Move follows Shoot, crossing the rest of the distance to get Next To the Necromancer, so that he can use his impressive Strike of 5 to whittle the wizard down. Shatter wouldn’t help much against a Defense of 1, so the special is saved for later. (4,5) lets the Swashbuckler take the white die and knock another point of Health off the deceptively wizened foe.

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Delve playtest: entering the dungeon

Test run of Delve with 4 adventurers, in marching order: the Thief, the Swashbuckler, the Shieldmaiden, the Elf. I picked these four because they all move pretty quickly, so we won’t get stuck in hallways for long periods of time.

Starting AP: 4 HP: 4

(This may not be the final rule, but currently, the Adventure Pool and the Hazard Pool start with points equal to the number of adventurers. I don’t think they should start empty, since points don’t go into the pool until after a hazard is defeated, so the first encounter would always be with no points to spend. Granted, that might be interesting: as a player, you’re in the position of having to kickstart the momentum of the game by questing forth and bumping into the first dangerous encounter. Another assumed rule that may or may not change: there’s always a safe chamber at the entrance. That’s not how all or even most dungeons actually “start”, but it’s convenient.)

(Oh, and die rolls are listed with the white die first, and the black die second.)

From the entry to the dungeon, the first area is a safe intersection (6,2) with 2 additional junctures. The Thief takes the left corridor to find (1,4) a dangerous hallway. GM uses 1 AP to add a hazard so things can get started properly, opting to roll on the hazard table for the actual detail: (5,5) means Catacombs, which the Thief decides to investigate. It’s level 1, and the GM decides that letting there be Catacombs without having something pop up in them would be lame, so there’s a minor creature, an animated skeleton, with an equally minor treasure.

AP: 5 (+1) HP: 4 (+1,-1)

The Thief gets to go first (higher Move), and rolls Strike. (3,3) is a tough decision, but she opts to take the black die to give the GM a point. Either die is good enough to deal damage, so the skeleton loses 1 Health. The skeleton swings back, and gets a wimpy (1,1). The Thief nimbly dodges. Meanwhile, the other adventurers are moving up to join, although the Thief will probably finish the job first. A (2, 1) isn’t great, but the Thief’s skill is enough to compensate, and she decides to take the white die, but doesn’t feel like adding a detail. The treasure is hers for the taking: a Fog Flask tucked in with the burial goods.

AP: 6 (+1) HP: 5 (+1)

The party moves up to a storeroom: it’s a dangerous room, so an AP goes in the Pool, and there’s going to be another significant encounter. The party can all fit in the room (it’s a 5×5), but the Thief and the Swashbuckler are the only two who will have moved into the room for the first turn, so when it’s time to Reveal, they’re the only two who have to deal with the Magic Sigil (3,3) graven into the floor this turn. The Thief mutters quietly – no using Sneak this time. The very air seems to heat up: it’s a Health (E) test to resist the painful aura of the sigil. No kidding around here! Fortunately, the sigil doesn’t actually cause Health loss, only penalties. The Thief rolls (3,6) and the Swashbuckler rolls (2,5) – an AP from the Thief, who takes the white die but still doesn’t pass, and a point to the GM for the Swashbuckler taking the black die to similarly negligible avail. The Thief decides to use the detail accompanying the AP to suggest that the Swashbuckler take his Fast Move to knock over a bundled-up carpet and roll it out over the sigil – the Swashbuckler has to agree, since it’s a detail that affects him, but this sounds like a good plan, so it’s a yes. However, the GM spends the newly acquired point to declare that the sigil doesn’t require line of sight to operate, so the cover is irrelevant.

When the Shieldmaiden gets into the room on turn 2, the roll of (4,2) gets her an AP from the white die, and the Elf’s (2,5) gives the GM another point as well. Nobody passed the test, though, and the Elf is now rolling for an effective 0 Health, too. OUCH. The Elf decides to kick in the Magic special to counteract the sigil. Spells go at the end of turn, but there’s nothing else here to contend with first, so it’s okay. In the meantime, though, someone else gets to Pick Up Items. (6,1) – an Ancient Grimoire is wrapped in an oiled cloth for protection behind some more mundane goods on one of the shelves. The Elf’s going to get that without dispute, with a side helping of gratitude for shutting down that painful sigil.

AP: 8 HP: 6(+2, -1)

(At this point, I’m wondering if having AP flow tied to the die rolls is a good thing or not. It seems to be inflating the Adventure Pool a bit faster than necessary, although the party isn’t spending AP on specials yet, either.)

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