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.