Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mask of the Emperor - Mayhem and Torture!

[Cross-posted at the Forge ( under the handle "Abkajud". Before I begin, any terms you don't recognize, or find confusing, can be defined by asking me and/or going to and searching for the term]

So I think I just had the best RPG session of my life. I was reading the infamous 2006 "brain damage" thread at the Forge today, at least the first three pages, and I was pondering some of Ron's ideas as I walked into this session, in particular thinking about how my players have some mild signs that they have been behavior-trained by mainstream RPGs. Thankfully, no question, these guys know how to build tension, know how to throw Bangs into the story (they've done this at least as often as I have, if not more!), and they are very, very good at being spontaneously creative.

First, some logistics and such: we played two half-sessions, one from 3-4:45 pm, and the other from about 8-10:45pm (just wrapped up, actually). My player Katie has a broken foot, so we played in her dorm. Between the sessions, I went to pick up my partner from work, had dinner with Victor and some other co-op folks, and then we came back for more! Victor is playing Kaizo, the Herald of House Minomoto (a psychic slave-servant for that family). Katie is playing Aiden, an Outcast-class pickpocket who ran away from her parents, Lord and Lady Mermens (rivals of the Minomotos) and ekes out a living with a traveling acting troupe.

A quick play-script (or whatever those are called):
The setting - an Asiatic feudal fantasy land, specifically in the heart of the Empire, just outside the capital city, at Lord Minomoto's fortress.
The action (session 3, the latest one, only) - Aiden, the thief, has gotten her actor friends into a world of trouble: when she stole the purse of Kaizo, the Herald, the actors were arrested while helping her get away clean. They ended up here in the fortress outside the city, and Aiden has come to grovel on their behalf. Kaizo, sensing an opportunity to make the most of the situation, offers to bring her on as an under-the-table agent of the Minomotos, with the promise that her labors would convince Lord Minomoto to free her friends. She went so far as to burn down a rival House's dye-shop for the lord's financial gain, in order to prove her enthusiasm.
But that didn't work - after laughing in her face about her predicament, his Lordship said he was going to let them all go free, but only after he'd branded each of her friends a thief, quite literally. Aiden took matters into her own hands: she convinced a couple of guards to help her, men who were disgusted with the punishment their lord had handed down, and they staged a prison break.
In the middle of branding the fourth (and last) of the actors, the jailer got a brazier of coals kicked in his face, and Aiden took a borrowed sword and cut on him til he backed away sobbing. She did the same to another guard, and then had her soldier-ally take Kaizo the Herald hostage; with that bargaining chip, she got the last of the guards to let the actors go, and they made for the main hall of the fortress. While they went, Kaizo used his powers to tell his lord and master what was happening, and Aiden had little warning of what was coming next.
Up there, Lord Minomoto and nine soldiers awaited them. He barked orders to surround them, so Aiden threatened to kill Kaizo if they were not set free. In response, Minomoto, sensing an impasse, harangued Kaizo for so shamefully allowing himself to be captured. Stricken with guilt, Kaizo threw himself on the knife of his captor, and everyone stared, horrified, while Minomoto screamed for a doctor.
When the doctor arrived, Aiden and the actors took him hostage too. Helpless, with his prized Herald bleeding from the throat, the lord let them all go. They stole horses and a wagon, and sped down the road towards the city.

Whew! This was the most intense, exhilarating session I've had since middle school, if not the best one ever! The system worked beautifully - combat was smooth and made sense, as did the wound system (Kaizo's The Way [martial arts] and Self-Discipline [self-control and dexterity) were damaged by his throat wound), and we got to use Interrupts so two combatants could tussle between more finessed fighting (Self-Discipline plus Banditry [dirty fighting, in this context]) and brutish hacking and slashing (Strength plus Banditry).

The best part of all of this - all three sessions we've had so far have been quite powerful, and it really feels like the mechanics (especially the Challenge system) add to the tension! The system inherently uses Conflict Rez and Fortune in the Middle (with teeth! You can spend temporary Infamy or Honor before or after your roll, PC's choice), and it's paid off amazingly - whether we have a foot-chase, or an argument, or even some sword-fighting, the system builds the tension really helps us to focus on what's at stake in the moment and in the scene. That simple, little phrase, "So what's at stake is...", has proven to be a Frankensteinian bolt of lighting into the heart of my game design.

Interaction around the table - Katie was a lot more talkative than Victor, no question. The only part of that that concerned me was that Victor wasn't talking a whole lot. In a couple of distracted, the-plot-is-paused moments, I asked him if he was enjoying himself, and if he knew that he (and Katie) are always free to challenge me, the ref, on things I say, and free to jump in or say "Well, I would like to..." whenever they want. He said he knew, and that I shouldn't worry; he was playing a more passive character, one who follows orders and generally talks things out (and Kaizo is always so proper and polite!), so this was all intentional. At other times, I checked in with both of them at once, to remind them (and myself) that I'm here to help keep conflict moving forward, but they drive it with their choices; they shouldn't look to me for cues or where to go next unless they literally ask "So what's happening?" Most of the time, though, I only had to remind them of their general options to cure any lag that started to develop.

Really aggressive scene-framing helped a ton, to the point where I was saying, "Okay, this scene is ending now, so we can go to...!", but with the understanding that Victor and Katie could always interject with "Wait, I want to go back and...". A couple of times, such as when Aiden (Katie) kicked a tripod full of hot coals in the jailer's face, or when Kaizo (Victor) hesitated before throwing himself on that knife, the player would pause first, thinking. I'd ask them what was wrong, and I'd get "Well, there's this thing I was thinking of trying." Each time, I encouraged them to explain it, reacted immediately with "That's so awesome! Go for it, please!", and then they did it. The climactic turning points (Aiden charging in, Kaizo almost killing himself) also got to incorporate the more dangerous resolution methods: the Blood Challenge (Aiden, vs. the prison guards) and the lethal To the Death! Challenge (since TtD! wounds are way bigger than Blood Challenge wounds, Victor said he would be willing to risk PC death to make the wound more dramatic).
I had a couple of moments in which I had an urge to do things a bit differently, and had to wrestle with myself a bit: once, I wanted to get the PCs' verbal sparring match (between one another) to incorporate a dice roll, as the social skill system is so fun, but since it was two players doing all the work, I figured we had all the Credibility we needed to make it work. The dice would have been extraneous, so we didn't use them.
But when there were arguments between a player and an NPC, we absolutely used the dice! Simple Challenges are a good, relatively pain-free way to have some back-and-forth in a social or physical challenge, without risking injury or death, but they still provide some rising tension and give a good payoff when one person says, "I give up," or "I relent" (if they're winning).
It was wonderful having players, who were used to mainstream games, take so readily and immediately to the Techniques I was employing here. It made me incredibly hopeful about the game (even more so, that is) and did a whole lot to help us find that pay-off we were looking for. Also: it was kind of odd to be wielding a Narrativist agenda (we explicitly discussed stuff like theme and Premise before and between sessions) and thinking "This is it?" Granted, whenever somebody said, "Wow, the dice rolling makes it better!" I knew intensely that this was how I could address Premise, how I could use Fortune, rather than Drama, to have an exciting story.
Fortune really was better than Drama, and I have a feeling that Karma might have been lacking something, too - all three of us imbue dice rolls with authority and Credibility, so to use them in the middle of verbally describing a conflict helped, as I said above, to jack up the adrenaline around the situation. In the past, when I've used pure Drama to resolve combat, it was kind of flat and uninspired. The same is true (times two!) for social conflict, which I've rarely seen done with much grace or excitement. Granted, most systems I've encountered that distinguished social and physical conflict don't even begin to break out of Task Resolution-style, um, resolution (I realize now that's partly where D&D players start having all those debates about what you can and cannot simulate in Fortune mechanics).
Only one real rule-change idea came up the entire session: previously, I had it so that when you spend temporary Honor, you get two dice to do something crazy, fucked up, or shocking. I won't go into why it made sense to spend Honor for that; suffice it to say that when Katie wanted to spend temporary Infamy (Honor's fucked-up evil twin) and I was trying to use the ass-backwards logic of the previous sentence to determine what that would "mean", I said (and wrote) "The hell with it! It's useless!"
So, now, spending Honor means embracing nobility, virtue, sacrifice, and so on, really living the imperial virtues; each point you spend merits two dice; you can choose to spend them before or after you roll. Spending Infamy means you do something fucked up, shocking, or just generally fearsome, and spending Infamy works the same otherwise as spending Honor.
Victor brought up a good question: he was concerned, I think, that spending Honor or Infamy points after rolling was too powerful, or gave an unfair advantage - why would anyone ever spend Honor/Infamy before they roll? Personally, I think it simply messed around with his notion of what a dice roll was supposed to resolve. Given that, I pointed out to him that if your opponent has such a big margin on you that those two (or whatever) potential successes wouldn't turn the tide, he decided that wasn't such a big deal. I feel like I didn't quite understand his question, though, but that's okay - I'm sure he'll read this and talk to me about it soon enough!
Somewhat sadly, we're going to have to slow down our every-other-day play schedule for a while, as Victor's girlfriend is coming here to California from Spain (he is also from Spain). She'll be staying with him, and he'll be hanging out with her a lot, but I convinced him that two-hour sessions (like the first two were, actually) would be fine for me and demonstrably fun for all three of us (Katie, not the girlfriend). I don't think his girlfriend is an RPer, and that's okay; we'll be nice and conscientious of why she's here and how far she came to be here, and it should all work out fine.
One last thing - the president of our student co-operative walked by Katie's window and saw us playing, and decided to come say hi. His second question (after, "Is this the game?") was "Where's the board?" We chuckled about that ^_^ Before he came around to the door and entered Katie's hall, we did a quick check-in, which Katie initiated: she wasn't okay with Chris observing us without any prior discussion. I worked that into our chat a couple of minutes after his arrival, explaining that I was very excited by the prospect of him joining us at some point, but as one of my players wanted to have prior notice first, we would talk about it and let him know before we played again.

Amazing. Damned amazing. Five stars.


  1. Francis here,

    Sounds like a great session, I especially like how things failed forward. It's always been an issue of mine that when I see someone fail a die roll, the failure should do something instead of ending the conflict or just being rolled again. The failure should affect the story being told, if your character can't negotiate with the lord, then maybe she catches a look of horror on the guard's face as the lord hands down judgement. That leads to negotiation, prison breaks, it all builds the story. To often I see games where a failed roll deflates the tension, which is absolutely horrible for the players.

    One thing I'm curious about, Infamy and Honor can be spent, is there any sort of bonus for those who have the Aloof status? I recognize that they are they aren't given infamy or honor necessarily for their actions, but now that Infamy has an upside, it seems to me that to balance that you need to give something to the classes like Herald or Sorcerer.

  2. Dang, just lost my reply.
    Ok - so Monks and Heralds get around lacking a Reputation by being immune to others' Reputation; no Honor or Infamy for ya when you go up against a monk (if they're as strong as starting PCs or better, that is. Some floor-sweeper won't have mastered the mysteries of Aloofness just yet).
    Sorcerers get around this limitation by having a maximum Sorcery value of 10, as opposed to the usual 5-point limit for skills. They're vaguely intended to be classic villains/antagonists.
    As to failing forward - my friend, removing the "whiff factor" from one's gaming is the very best thing for making games better. Seriously, no question! :)

  3. I'm going to have to agree there with you there about whiff factor, but with the caveat of what the players think of success may not be the the way they thought they'd be going about it.

    So, are there any variations in the way that Dishounor and Honor work with their respective classes. For instance Aloof works differently for Monks than Sorcerers, so does Honor work differently at all for Bushi or Courtiers, perhaps on what they can spend honor on?

  4. Another thought on "failing forward" - I know I rag on Luke Crane's design sometimes, but he deserves a high five for insisting that the GM can't make a player roll repeatedly on something, just to "make them fail". I'd mostly stayed away from that anyway, but I've been thinking about it more of late, through the lens of "We already rolled. The subject is closed until the circumstances change".
    Good stuff!

  5. Mainly, the difference in how Honor is used comes into play in combat - Honor as a stat is applied to dice pools in Dueling (which only bushi can do) and in mass combat (which only a bushi has any reason to partake in ^_^).
    Actually, that's the thing - only Bushi and Sages get the benefit of a skill to draw upon to fight honorably, Heralds have no skill they can use to fight "neutrally", and Outcasts have no Honor to apply to their Dueling skill.

    Every class has a social skill that "connects" to their Reputation trait, though, so as to put a greater emphasis/ease of use on social conflict over physical conflict. The stakes for physical conflict are also a bit higher, as well, as you can't kill someone with words. You can inflict Social Wounds, of course, but those are easier to heal.