[GPNW] Spectre of the Beast

edited July 2009 in Story Games
I took my 2008 Game Chef entry, Spectre of the Beast, which I've been refining and playtesting this year, up to Go Play NW for a spin. Am I ever glad I did!

I played a game with Mickey, Kelly, and Ronald, and it was a blast. I've had a lot of Spectre games where people said "hey, cool, that was fun." But never before have I seen such heights of "wow, I love this game!" Thanks, guys, you rock. You brought a ton of energy and creativity to the game.

OK, group hugs aside. . .what's the game about and how does it play? SotB is a game about violence in human history. Play proceeds in Epochs of a made-up history; in each Epoch you play Champions of different Cultures, whose specific Ambitions will impact the world. You play through, rotating scene-style, the resolution of each Ambition one way or another, through accrued Victory or Defeat Points. Along the way you'll tackle specific obstacles through one of several Means scores, with the option of adding The Sword to a Means to render it violent or oppressive. Doing so is a potent aid in winning conflicts, but adds the chance of increasing misery in the world. Play flows from Epoch to Epoch as the hope and suffering of the world increase, vying with each other to create an armageddon or utopia.

We started with a Bronze-Age sort of Epoch (the default), and quickly spun a mesh of cultures:
  • Mickey had an island nation of hellenic-style raiders harassing the coast
  • Kelly a peaceful people near the shore being harassed
  • Ronald an inland folk running afoul of tribal wanderers in an attempt to control nature by engineering
  • Myself a desert people settled comfortably into an oasis after generations of nomadism.
Once the first idea gelled (Mickey's Greco-vikings, I believe), the other Cultures just flowed out. And drawing them on a collaborative map handily contextualizes the cultures and their relationships, which is crucial for aiming Ambitions. When we made Champions, we ended up with, respectively:
  • A military leader who wanted to conquer and settle the coastal folk and thus leave mere raiding behind
  • A visionary builder who wanted to bridge the river mouth to peaceably control the waterway
  • An inquisitive engineer who sought to dam the river and control the flood cycle
  • A restless chieftan's son who wished to organize an exodus out of the desert altogether (i.e. into the above culture's territory!)
For a con one-shot, I do a single-Epoch game with the minimum Victory point total, but that's all scalable. Play was very fast and lively in this session: everyone drove hard toward their goals, and with numbers this low there's even an outside chance of resolving an Ambition on a single conflict--my own Ambition ended (in Defeat, alas!) in two scenes. Everyone else lasted 3-4 scenes. The game is GMless--Players handle antagonism duties around the table Shock:-style; the player on your right is the Nemesis to your Champion and primarily provides your adversity, with other players taking supporting roles in your scenes. My current version of SotB is much tighter in this regard than the original playtest draft. There's a solid guideline for filling your Nemesis duties, and both free play and Conflicts are directed squarely toward concrete actions of the characters, which is based on advice Ron Edwards has been giving about PTA for years.

So I saw the Oasis folk totally give up on my fool's expedition and stay comfortable and complacent in their home. Mickey's raiders succeeded in conquering Kelly's city and became an occupying force. Her Champion then turned to insurgency and piracy, and eventually teamed up with Ronald's Engineer following his violent clashes with the forest tribes, so that they could control the river together through one great, massive fortress-dam.

I've developed a Conflict system I think is quite nifty: you play each scene toward a single Conflict, which is a concrete step by your Champion toward her goal. Then you roll dice based on your means, plus Red dice for the Sword if you're using violence, brutality, etc. The Nemesis rolls a Crisis score that scales up as the conflict grows more pitched (i.e. more Victory/Defeat points), plus has a Sword pool he can spend from if he introduces violence. Now, the nifty part: Rather than interpret the whole roll at once, you leave the dice out on the table and only refer to them step by step. So you count Odds to determine who won, count 1s on the red dice to determine the terrible cost:, count all the 6s to feed points back into pools--Striving Points (rerolls) for Champions and Sword Points for Nemesis--so these can be narrated as redoubled effort, backlash and escalation. and finally check 1s on normal dice for societal trends favoring that player's side of the Ambition. You narrate step by step, with different players providing input at each stage. Having a wealth of different information (rather than just Pass/Fail) generated on a roll is a lot of fun for me, and makes a Conflict feel like more than a glorified coin toss.

All these steps feed into various pools and such on the Culture sheet, so that actions in the moment have a ripple effect out into the Culture and thus the world. All those 1s rolled from violence and oppression increase the Spectre; the other 1s feed different Development Pools for either Champion or Nemesis to reflect the aforementioned social trends. At the conclusion of an Epoch these pools, along with Victory and Defeat points, are all rolled against each other to generate Hope points or add to the Spectre. Spectre is rolled to add to the Beast; it's Hope and Beast which race toward the Fate total to trigger the end of the world. And meanwhile all those cultural trends, and the results of Ambitions, are narrated out by the players, and then a new Epoch is created with new Champions, flowing from the events of the previous. And so it goes. . .

I'm very happy with the game's been playing. It was an ambitious project--to meld a Sid Meier Civilization-style progression with a human, Story Now core, and in a short-form game to boot! But to my amazement it works. People get it, it's fun to play, and the results are memorable and rewarding. Thanks to all my playtesters, including the awesome GPNW crowd! Great players make a great game!


PS If anyone finds this overly explainy or sales-pitchy--it is! Some folks were interested in hearing more about the game and why it's cool, and I was happy to oblige. :)


  • Cool, Joel. I'm glad this game happened at GPNW.
  • Me too, John! :)

    Raffaele, any thoughts now that i've laid it all out? Questions criticisms? Anyone else?
  • edited July 2009
    Man, you're too kind. You got me hooked enough that I'm now very likely to buy your game to give it a thorough read. Also, I always have uses for a game which can be run in a single convention slot.

    Edit: I bought it.
  • I saw that on the account. Thanks and enjoy! I'll look forward to your feedback.
  • Note: This is NOT a post by Jopel Kuresaare, noted roleplaying auteur. You may imagine that Joel P. Shempert has hacked his account.

    OK, now that I've had some time to digest, I'm ready to examine the game experience here. the first post was all "Rah Rah My Awesome Game", but I'd like to dig deeper into what worked and didn't.

    So first, what was really cool:
    • Placing cultures and geography on a map us super-fun and instantly contextualizes the material you're inventing. As soon as one culture's down, all of a sudden everyone's like, "Oh yeah, well I'm over here, and I',m totally migrating through your territory." It also dovetails elegantly into the culture creation questions: "where do you live?" "how do you survive there?" "how do you get along with your neighbors?" and such.
    • The conflict mechanic works just like I want it to: throw a bunch of dice out on the table, then look at different number results in the batch to determine different effects. There's little math, and the steps are broken down so you're not poring over this whole pile of numbers at once. And it means that the effects of violence are incorporated elegantly without having a lot of special rules or subsystems: Every red die you roll has a 1 in 2 chance of helping you in your Ambition, but a 1 in 6 chance of birthing misery.
    • The conflict framing rules that I revamped have greatly improving the game, helping remove that awkward "Uh, i dunno where the conflict is in this scene" feeling that would sometimes come up, accompanied by a lot of abstract speculation on what could happen next that takes me straight outta the zone. By directing focus on "what is your Champion doing in the scene? What is she trying to accomplish right now?" we keep play grounded. Especially important in light of the grand scope that the game tries to encompass.
    • Whoever I play the game with, I consistently see players step up with a wonderful variety of Champion and Ambition types that mesh dynamically in play. Having a great Ambition mix from unabashedly tyrannical to enlightened-but-brutally-pragmatic, to purely peaceful, really makes the game sing! In the GPNW game it was great to see Kelly's peaceful (but controlling) character, when overrun by Mickey's marauders, turn to insurgency and then pure piracy.
    And now, what was awkward or problematic:
    • I'm still looking for more surefire ways of creating Cultures in play. Most of my Spectre games begin with a "Um, er, ah. . ." phase where people struggle for Culture ideas. When one person pipes up with one, then it flows, but until then, everyone (me included) balks at the blank canvas. The Go Play game was no different. I like my "how do you live in this place?" series of questions, but that still doesn't give the initial spark. Maybe a sample list to read out and maybe choose from? I've had bad experiences with folks taking an "example list" as THE list, though.
    • I like my breakdown of the narration stages (Check Odds, then narrate. Check 1s, then narrate. Check. . .), but the implementation's a bit awkward. Specifically, if a result doesn't come up, the step for narrating that result sort of hangs there ("Question 2: what did it cost? Uh, no Red 1s, so nothing, moving on. . ."). I felt a bit pedantic making sure to ask each question each time, but I was playtesting the new version. :) I think this is the sort of thing that can fade to the background as the group masters the game (like the IIEE Steps in Shadow of Yesterday), and only really differentiated when clarity is needed. But for the learning stages, I want everyone to get comfortable with all the resolution steps, without the awkwardness of stuff like "don't worry about it right now, but if you had rolled a 1. . ."
    • Conflict framing is great but scene framing could use some work. I think I need to be crystal clear about the elements that need to be set for beginning a scene (specifying broadly what the Champion wants to achieve is a good start, but. . .), and by who. Right now it says, "Champion player frames the scene, but can defer it to the Nemesis." I'm realizing that while I totally want the Champion to drive the action of her story this way, I still don't intend for that player to run the scene to the point of detailing too much of her own adversity. The Nemesis player should take over once the general details are set, and fully evoke a situation for the Champion to interact with. I'm thinking something like the PTA distinction of "player calls for a scene, and the Producer sets it.
    • I still haven't gotten to test drive the new End of Epoch narration rules. The first version was more or less "Narrate something everyone finds satisfying. Good luck!" The new version has one main narrator, and everyone else gets to inject one element for texture, counterpoint, or whatever. Unfortunately at GPNW, by the time we finished play of the Epoch, there was no time to go into this, so I had to settle for a quick "OK, here's how the numbers feed into all the Cultures' development, and here's all the factors we would have narrated" spiel. Fortunately, my regular Spectre group is set to finish off an Epoch tonight, so i'll be able to give it a go!
    • Any questions, comments? I'd love to hear perspectives from people who've read or played Spectre, as well as anyone's impressions and advice on how to handle these issues.

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