Monday, May 23, 2011

Heroes of Destiny: Third Playtest

The third playtest of Heroes of Destiny was the first one that involved a multi-sessions campaign. Our very first test was a one shot run at the rules in a swashbuckling setting, and the second one was largely a character generation session. Now, we got to sit down with player-generated characters and have a full game session dedicated to gaming.

The rules are still rough, very rough, in places, but I'm happy to report that when this system works, it works.

The game picked up with our group of old west heroes on board a train headed out to Redemption Colorado from the east coast, each for reasons of his own. The three are brothers, and the ties of blood pull them together even though their pasts might otherwise drive them apart. One is a former law man, the other two of more shady occupations, all looking to set up life in the west through a shared stake in an area supposedly rich in gold.

Last game, one of the passengers went crazy, half ate two others, and then proceeded to fight the three of them. He lost to a small hail of gunfire that sent him tumbling off the roof of a train car, falling into the rushing darkness.

We picked up pretty much right there. The session that proceeded was very heavy on role playing and non-combat die resolution. The latter went amazingly smoothly. Despite the long hiatus between sessions, people picked up on the basic roll really quickly. That's not too surprising, as there's not a lot to it. Pick up some dice, roll them, and look for 5s. If that took a long time to figure out, we'd be neck deep in a whole other set of problems.

What was really exciting, however, was how talents and trainings affected play. Without any prompting from me, people would throw their dice, look at their sheet, and then alter their role playing so that they could leverage those bonuses that allowed them to manipulate the pool results. Characters really came to life early in the game, and while good players will always bring that kind of spark to their play (and this group had at least one such player), it happened early in the game, without much of a warm up period.

Even better still, I got to see first hand what it was like to watch a system fade into the background. We played for several hours without anyone stopping to puzzle something out. What questions there were became routine (mostly asking if a particular talent or training could apply to a situation/approach), which left the game wholly uninterrupted by the rules. We played, people occassionally tossed dice with complete confidence, read the results without any difficulty, and we proceeded with play.

One hang up we hit a little early was a question of cooperation, as in how to do it? The on the fly ruling I made was that the primary actor rolled his pool, but all participants could modify that roll with their talents, trainings, and gifts. However, if any participant wanted to include his Destiny dice, he could swap those out for any of the pool's Hope dice. That kept die rolling down while letting everyone participate. The group came up with the little flourish that you still rolled your own Destiny dice, which turned out to be a nice touch. This ruling went over big, and it's become part of the baseline rules from now on.

The play about erodiing Hope and burgeoning Destiny is also growing on people. One player lost almost all connection to his wife during play as he stood up and took over as lawman more and more throughout the session. He remarked at one point that it felt right, both in terms of his character and how it was coming off in play. His wife wanted him to put away the badge and live the simple life, but his ideals were calling him back to action, and he was consistently choosing them over her, and it was straining their relationship. He said there was a small story playing in his head about such things, even though we weren't playing them as part of the game, and that made the whole experience richer for him. I can't say that would happen to everyone, but it was really nice to hear about.

Then we closed in on the end of the adventure and hit combat. Combat hit back too. Even though they were supposed to sprout from a common root, combat was everything basic resolution wasn't: it was difficult, intrusive, slow, confusing, and ground play to a halt. No one was happy with it.

There were several large categories of problems when it came to combat:
  • Too Many Dice - Despite my assumption that the creation of multiple effort pools would make people die hungry, it turned out not to be the case, and all the various options that granted additional dice turned some people's pools into veritable seas. They had so many ways of drumming up more dice upon more dice that they literally had too many options and didn't know what to do with them all. This means that Dreams and Ideals need a complete overhaul, since playtesting showed they were important to play and populat as a concepts, but their mechanical implications need wholesale replacement.
  • Hope Limits on Potencies - The idea that only the extraordinary can really let rip with potencies is a good one. Representing this by placing a semi-flexible cap on the amount of Hope you can put into a potency is not. It created confusion and the need to perform a calculation every time someone wanted to roll a potency.
  • NPCs Are Hard - I'd designed NPCs to be diceless in order to speed and simplify their resolutions. I did this by listing the automatic successes they had toward several kinds of actions by way of assigning them gifts. Nice theory. In fact, it didn't work so well. The fact that NPCs have gifts means they still have resources that need management. Removing the dice meant that I didn't even have the physical tracking aid to use. I started using dice to help out halfway through, but it still was far more complicated than it was supposed to be.
  • Damage - Damage is all kinds of screwed up. People either miss or commit grievous wounds on their opponents. Each time a player took a hit he went from fine to half dead. I wanted injuries to matter in this game, but this is too deadly for the kind of experience I'm trying to create. It needs to be scaled WAY back.
  • Different Die Statuses - We've tried it several times now, and the whole fine/bloodied/bruised thing is just not working. Even though everyone gets how it works, people don't like them. The general consensus is that a die should be in play, or not. But having some that can do something when others can't, when they're otherwise identical, is unpopular. Wounding, and by extension recovery, needs new rules that simplify this.
Despite the rash of problems that came up, however, the game was seen in a positive light overall. People loved the basic resolution, and even those who were skeptical about dropping skills and using more descriptive traits like talents and trainings are 100% sold on the idea now. They love them, and they love using them. The goal is to make combat work much more like basic resolution, ideally to the point where combat is no different from any other kind of die rolling.

The ways I try to make this happen follow in later posts.

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