Posts Tagged ‘Actual Play’

2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.


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At the moment, I’m really enjoying the 2 GMs 1 Mic podcast (www.2GMs1Mic.com).  The main segments are a bit hit-and-miss, but the regular segment Favourite Game Of The Week is a great way to hear about other role-playing games from some very enthusiastic reviewers.  They cover three new games every week; as a result, the list of RPGs that I want to buy, read and play is growing at an impossible rate.  The only solution is that I’m going to have to retire now and dedicate my life to gaming.  My first task is to find out which game comes in the biggest cardboard box, so I can live in it.

Their Currently Playing segments are also interesting, as they deconstruct their latest play sessions (actual play).  Like me, they’re in a couple of different gaming groups and that switch game systems very regularly.  Currently Playing is a great chance to get an in-depth look at games that I haven’t played yet, and to get other gamers’ perspectives on games that I have.  I’m still trying to understand why they like Dresden Files so much (I’ll gripe about Dresden in another post).

Since my main gaming group is having some extreme problems with scheduling at the moment (there’s real life interfering with gaming again), listening to 2 GMs 1 Mic and Ken And Robin Talk About Stuff comprises just about all my “gaming” right now. *sigh*

Also, I made an interesting connection recently.  I was introduced (virtually) to a friend of a friend of a friend, because we’re both big gamer-heads.  Sky Roy thinks a lot about what makes games work (or not work), and writes about it on his gamer blog, Bright Cape Gamer.  He has also put his learnings into practice and written his own fantasy RPG that fixes some of his biggest peeves about D&D and similar games.  The game (in beta), and the reasons for its existence, can be read here: Heroes By Trade.  Feedback and AP are welcome.  I’m really looking forward to reading the beta (and maybe playing it), but haven’t started yet, because these days my free time seems to come in 10-minute chunks, and trying to grok a game that way is frustrating.  I’ll wait til I can dedicate a couple of hours to it.  Meanwhile, I’ve been reading his blog, and I think that he’s my kind of gamer.

So in short, while I’m not gaming, I’m consuming blogs and podcasts that make me want to game more than ever.  It’s like being lost in the desert and reading foodie magazines.  Hope you’re having better luck!


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This is a retrospective and lessons-learned post.  I’m just coming to the end of running a Trail Of Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group.  It was my first Cthulhu game, my first investigative game, and my first time using the GUMSHOE system, so the learning curve was quite steep for me; fortunately, I had almost a year to prepare, as everyone in the four-person group rotates through the GM’s chair.

The game was set in 1933, and centred on an imaginary neighbourhood of New York City called Arkham.  The fishing community on the southern tip of Manhattan was all Deep One hybrids.  The employees of a rare book shop were Mythos-seeking Nazi operatives.  And the corrupt mayor and the mobsters were members of a coven of Yog-Sothoth wizards a-la Charles Dexter Ward.  I created all of the above in secret based on “creepy events and loose ends” in the PCs’ backstories as developed on char-gen night.

The game has gone well, over-all.  The sessions have been fun, the prep has played well, the players are enjoying it I think.  We’ve had six sessions plus the char-gen night, and it looks like we’ll have one more before the PCs’ arcs have largely run their courses (I was going to say “are solved,” but the protagonists don’t really solve anything in a Cthulhu game!).


Investigative games require the most work to prepare, especially if you are writing the scenario yourself.  I didn’t know this, going in.  I must have spent literally ten hours in preparation for every hour we have spent in play.  My notes comprise hundreds of pages.  Some of that was because I was learning to write and run an investigative game on the fly, but still: this kind of game requires a lot of prep.  I can see why published adventures are so popular in this genre.

I didn’t really tie clue discovery to the PCs’ skills; I just revealed clues based on the actions of the PCs.  In other words, I missed out on some system/fiction interaction.

First I went too slow, then too fast.  In the initial sessions, the PCs did a lot of investigating and interacting, but little else.  It was fun for me, watching them follow clues and uncover the mysteries that I had buried, but after a few sessions I realized that we’d barely touched the dice, and wondered if the players were really enjoying things as much as I was.  So, in later sessions, I pushed the action forward by triggering events (e.g. the Salfmores summon the Xothian) that I had been planning on saving until the players had gotten more involved in underlying intrigues.  This spiced up the action, but may have seemed arbitrary or confusing.

I didn’t make my NPCs sticky enough.  I think this is one reason that the PCs didn’t get involved in the half-buried intrigues as quickly or as deeply as I’d hoped they would.  Private Jones (Frank’s old army buddy, now a Shub-Niggurath acolyte and hanger-on of the Nazis), for example, should have been more insistent on dragging Frank into his schemes and obsessions.  The Brookhaven Trust (the Yog-Sothoth wizards) should have taken direct action against Rodney sooner.  Both Brookhaven and the Nazis should have taken more overt action to secure the treasures hidden in Jane’s gallery.

I had too many intrigues going on at once.  I have read only recently (in Hite’s Night’s Black Agents) that players can become confused and frustrated as the number of intrigues rises beyond one.  I had three.  In retrospect, I didn’t really need the Brookhaven Trust arc at all.  I think I just included it because I really wanted to play out the Charles Dexter Ward story.  Or maybe I was thinking: three PCs, three backstories, therefore three secret factions.  Anyway, just the Deep Ones and the Shub-Niggurath-worshipping Nazis would have been enough to engage with all three backstories.

I ended up writing out all the clues that the players had found, after each session, so that they would have a list to look at, next week.  Otherwise, I think they would have forgotten half of them before they could have followed up.  Extra work for me.  Not sure if this was strictly necessary.  I should have gotten them to do it.  With fewer intrigues, there would have been fewer outstanding clues at any one time, as well.

The clues I gave Jane (regarding her personal arc) didn’t lead anywhere.  She could do nothing to follow up on them; could only wait for me to drop the next one in her lap.  I should have designed her clues to point towards investigative opportunities, not just to be pieces of a puzzle to be eventually pieced together.

Action scenes should be a mix of things to fight and things to flee from.  The real conflict scenes are ones in which something horrifying is discovered, and the PCs must roll Stability or Sanity checks.

It’s great when a Horrible Truth targets a PC’s Drive, Pillar or Source, directly.   When Rodney realized that his father is transforming into a Deep One (fish man), and that he himself has Deep-One blood too and will one day transform, and failed that Stability roll and went all to pieces, that was a fantastic scene!  That was what Trail Of Cthulhu is all about.  I can’t wait to reveal the other two Horrible Truths, and see how the other two PCs handle it.

That’s all that comes to mind right now.  It has been a monumental game, with a huge R-map and a very complex 3-part intrigue.  The horrible revelations have been lots of fun to play out: a Stability or Sanity check is always an event; they are the moments about which this game turns.

I would play Trail Of Cthulhu again; maybe with a published module next time.

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Played our first session of Apocalypse World last night.  Cool!

The World Emerges Through Play

The setting, a post-apocalyptic world, is integral to the game but only vaguely defined in broad but suggestive brush strokes, just enough to inspire the players to fill in the details.  An agenda and worksheets are provided for the first session, which is a neat blend of character generation, setting creation and opening scenes of play.  The GM is instructed not to prepare anything for the first session, but begins play by “following around the PCs for a day” and asking questions.  After character creation, these were the first words of the game:

GM: (Points at me.)  It’s first thing in the morning.  Someone is pounding on your door.  Who is it?

Me: Ya, “Who is it??” I say.

GM: Okay, but who is it?  I’m asking you.

Me: Oh!  Well, it’s uhmm… It’s our hardholder, Rice.  No!  It’s this punk-ass piece of shit named uhh, named Dog.  Rice sent him, she wants to see me.

GM: Okay, cool.  “Wake up!” Dog growls, pounding on the door again.  “Rice wants you.   Now!”

Pretty cool, eh?  See how Mike opened a scene but asked me for the details?  It’s a very clever technique.  The idea is that there’s probably more to each player’s conception of his character and the setting than we have vocalized so far.  The GM sets up a suggestive scene and then begins asking questions.  While I narrated hastily getting dressed, trying to avoid Dog (who scares me) and sprinting for the boss’s office, we brainstormed as a group on what the compound and our hardholder’s quarters are like.  We decided that our hold includes an old hydro dam, and that Rice occupies the concrete trapezoidal control building right next to the reservoir.  The GM opened scenes in similar fashion with each of the other players.  And then…

Me: I burst into Rice’s office.  “You wanted to see me boss?”

GM: “Yes,” she says.  There are four other people in the room.  She looks pissed off.  Now, why did she want to see you?

And it’s on me again.  See, the GM is exploring what kinds of stories the players want to tell in this game.  He’s going to take what he learned in the first session, go home and plan out more locations, threats, NPCs, conflicts, etc. for the sessions to come.

So our first session was fast-paced and action-packed, and we were all surprised and impressed by how much cool detail we were able to create on the fly, just by riffing off each other’s ideas through the loose framework of the GM setting scenes and asking questions.  We defined another dozen NPCs, a rival hardhold, some psychic weirdness, a new danger on the horizon, there was a tragic drug overdose, some stupid shit shot off another stupid shit’s ear… it was great fun.

Conflict Rez: Lightning Fast

The system is simple and brilliant.  The GM never rolls.  When players take action, they choose a corresponding “move” from the rules sheet.  The player rolls the dice, and the move offers a few possible outcomes, often with complications.  For example, let’s say some no-good bikers have grabbed my lady friend and hunkered down in my shack.  I want them out of there, I draw my knives and attack.  We decide that the move “Seize by force” fits the bill.  I roll the dice, scoring a partial success.  The move tells me to choose two of the following options:

  • you take definite hold of it
  • you suffer little harm
  • you inflict terrible damage
  • you impress, dismay or frighten your enemy

I’ll choose two of those options, and the GM and I will narrate accordingly.  Let’s say I choose “you take definite hold of it” and “you suffer little harm.”  (I don’t achieve the other two conditions.)  The GM might narrate: “you burst into the room, there’s a quick knife fight in which you make a good account of yourself but take a deep cut on the arm (take 1 harm), then the two bikers lose their nerve and dive out the back window.  Your girlfriend is alright.  As you bar the door, the bikers are realizing you were alone.  ‘You’re fucking DEAD!’ one of them yells.  They aren’t going away.”

Or let’s say I had chosen “you suffer little harm” and “you inflict terrible damage.”  The GM might narrate: “You burst in, knives flashing.  One biker dies on your blade, and the other takes a nasty stomach wound before managing to drive you back out of the shack.  Take 1 harm.  He slams the door and you hear him drag something heavy up against it, probably the bed.  ‘I need a medic,’ he groans through the door, ‘get me a fucking medic or the girl dies!'”

See how much action and plot movement followed from one roll of the dice?  The basic rules provide eight or ten moves that can be adapted to a wide range of actions, and then each character has a few custom moves that fit their specialty.  For example, “the hardholder” character (leader of a compound) has a move for when her gang fights for her, and “the operator” character (dealer, schemer, opportunist) has a move to use his reputation to influence people.

Very Story Now, very fast-paced.  I’m really enjoying this game!  Can’t wait for session-2, when the shit will really hit the fan.  The Apocalypse World ain’t pretty.

-Johnny 0.

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Session 5 was epic!  I don’t want to say any more than that – go read the synopsis here on The Forge.  When the dust (and dice) settled, we found that we had driven most of the story lines to a natural (and epic!) conclusion.  So we decided that the game had ended, and gave short epilogues for Dr. von Braun, Jacques and Serge.  We’re all looking forward to playing Sorcerer again soon!

Enjoy the synopsis and thanks for reading,

-Johnny 0.

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Dr. von Braun and his “wife” Elsa were approached in the lounge of the Hotel Ville de Cloche by a gaunt man in his 50s.  He knew Elsa by name, and looked as though he was seeing a ghost.  “You look just like your mother…” he muttered.  He introduced himself as Timo Meyer, an old friend of her father’s.  After an awkward and brief conversation, he begged them to come visit him at his home that afternoon, and excused himself.

Von Braun and Elsa arrived at the dilapidated mansion to the sound of screams from upstairs.  The door stood open.  The doctor mounted the stairs as quickly as his gamey leg would allow, but reached the second-floor study too late.  Someone (or something) smashed the window and escaped as von Braun entered the room to find Meyer on the floor, eviscerated and dying.  The old man gasped out a warning, an apology, and expired.  Gripped in his hand were the covers of a journal, the centre of which had been ripped out by his assailant.  But the first and last few pages of the journal yet clung to the covers.  They read as follows:

I, Captain Timo Meyer, write this journal to record the events surrounding The Ruby of Kiauchau and my own shameful part in its history.  My purpose is not to write about the Japanese invasion of China, which events have been ably documented by other authors, but to tell of the events that so affected the lives of myself and three others – three others in whose destiny The Ruby continues to play a large and commanding part.  After 26 years of hiding from the truth, I must tell the whole story, and may God forgive me – if there is a God, and not an infinity of mocking demons.

In 1914, as a Captain in the German army I was assigned to Kiauchau Bay in the South China Seas, a coastal territory which the German empire had leased from China.  There was no armed conflict there, the purpose of the territory was mainly trade, but the tiny holding required a military presence for protection.  Therefore, it was a plum assignment, as there was little to do but enjoy the tropical weather while helping the German Governor to maintain order and good relations with the locals.  The weather was hot with a fresh sea breeze, the land green and lush, the beaches fine and sunny.  Some of the men brought their families with them, and lived in the village instead of the army camp.  Myself I was there with my baby daughter and a maidservant.  To my good fortune, my longtime friend Major Victor Breuer was also stationed at Kiauchau Bay.

In keeping up relations, we accompanied the Governor to meetings with the local Chinese warlord, Fang Jiou, on more than one occasion.  Fang Jiou was very rich; he did a lot of pillaging in China and a lot of trade with the Germans.  He was extremely charismatic, but his countenance unsettled me somehow.  I fancied his eyes glowed red when his face was in shadow.   He took pleasure in entertaining the Governor at his palace, which was a huge damp fort adorned and cluttered with a king’s ransom of gold vases, statuary, weapons, jewels, silk carpets and other treasures.

Fang showed us a great ruby the size of a peach pit, The Ruby of Kiauchau, producing it conspiratoriously from within his jacket.  He told of it’s sordid history: it preceded wealth and power, and left betrayal and murder in its wake.  People struggled for possession of it.  Kingdoms rose and fell on ownership of it.  Once, an entire province was put to the sword in conquest of The Ruby.  Fang recounted his story of the murders he himself had committed to acquire the red gem, and the plots and manipulations he had executed since then to rise to his current position.  He credited The Ruby’s halo of good luck for his success.

Fang claimed that The Ruby contained a fantastic landscape too maddening to look upon.  When I laughed, the warlord invited me to look into The Ruby myself.  He held the giant jewel up to the light for me.  “Be careful not to fall in, Captain,” he warned, smiling.  I looked into The Ruby, and my head immediately began to swim.  A pattern of mineral impurities seemed to reach deep into the red jewel, silhouetting razor-sharp mountains and sheer valleys.  The nightmare landscape precessed before my eyes, as if I were flying over it.  I felt my self falling in, plunging towards a deep crevass… I fell bodily onto the table, upsetting dishes and goblets.  Major Breuer caught my arm before I toppled onto the floor.  Fang laughed quietly and slipped The Ruby back inside his jacket.

Our visit ended shortly afterwards, and I did not see Fang or The Ruby again for a year or so, and then only in the course of that horrible event which forms the climax of this narrative – an event which has brought me more shame and unhappiness than I would have thought possible.

I will pass on now to the beginnings of the Japanese attack on Kiauchau Bay in late 1914,…

* * *

[last page]

Few texts even mention The Ruby.  It took me two years of research to learn its true powers – It was formally known as The Ruby of Agrapur – and by that time I was irrevocably bound to it.  I used it, I admit, but now I regret ever claiming it.  I wish only to destroy it, but I know that I am no longer strong enough.

She hounds me still, and soon I will no longer be able to resist her.  Therefore I have hidden The Ruby.  As to it’s hiding place, I dare not write it plainly.  A place of darkness, under a knotted rope.  Three red lights shine clearly on the spot when the moon pulls on the water.  Take it, Elsa.  It is clearly yours by my gift, and by the laws of Germany.  Sell it quickly, before its fell influence ensnares you too. Only keep it out of Her hands.

Antequam haec legis, mortuus ero; utinam ex animo hominum tam celeriter memoria mea discetat.

– Meyer, T. 1940

PS: The preceding is with thanks and apologies to Mr. Philip Pullman, the author of (amongst other great books) The Ruby In The Smoke, which is the book from which I pulled the relationship map for this particular game of Sorcerer.  In addition, the above text borrows liberally from The Ruby In The Smoke.  There, now you know.  I trust my players not to go out and get the book to find the answer to the riddle and to learn what I may have in store for them…

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After the 3rd session, I was a bit worried about the fact that the 3 PCs’ personal storylines were diverging.  But the sages on The Forge convinced me to run with it rather than try to impose some artificial convergence.  With the buy-in of the players, that’s what I did.  And the fourth session was outstandingly good!  Nobody got bored waiting for their next scene to come around.  The stories are intense and individual, as entertaining to watch as they are to play.

Here’s the AP, posted on The Forge.


-Johnny 0.

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Like I said, some shocking happenings in our third session!  Ry is really playing the moral dilemmas and pulling out all the stops.  Serge is on the ragged edge of sanity, and I keep pushing… 🙂  Synopsis posted here on The Forge.

-Johnny 0.

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Another great session of Sorcerer!  The plots are starting to twist deliciously.  Again, I’ve posted the synopsis on The Forge, here.

The third session was last night, and it was shocking!  Really, jaws hit the table.  I’ll write about it soon-soon.  Cheers,


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First session was way fun!  I posted a synopsis here in the AP* section of The Forge (*Actual Play), along with some analysis.  Go have a look, and see why we’re all so looking forward to Session 2!

-Johnny 0.

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