Friday, June 26, 2015

Reducing the number of moves

Again about the design process of City of Judas. This time it’s about accepting good advice - and about how I reduced the number of Moves in the game.

Here is the first part, here the second and here is the third.

The number of Moves
The first drafts of the game had a lot of Moves. There were a lot of Basic Moves and a lot of Peripheral Moves, and also a lot of Combat Moves. For example, in combat you had a standard move to fight, one to be more on a defensive stance, and one to be attacking in full force.
Several of the feedback I received were clear about this: there were way too many Moves.
My initial response was to be defensive. It’s normal to be defensive I guess: it was my game, it was for free, and I wanted advice but most of all I wanted to be given compliments and confirmation. Still, while it’s legitimate to say: that’s the game, play it as it is or don’t play it at all, well… feedback is exactly that: telling you what you did right, and what you should perhaps consider to change.
What I did with the number of moves, was indeed was to change and simplify.

There are a couple of reasons for this: one is indeed that I recognized the wisdom of the commentators that insisted that there were too many moves. A lot of them were smart people that in other cases I found myself agreeing with.
Perhaps this time they were wrong, or perhaps I thought they were wrong just because they were talking about my own work. Yes, of course the real reason was the latter, I was just being defensive.

More importantly (the second reason for this change), I thought about the process I followed when doing other work: when I write fiction, I write following the inspiration, but then I need to review and clean my work, and a lot of it involves taking out stuff.
Same when I write code: when you get the job done quickly, there’s a lot of clutter in the code. When you take your time to tidy up, you usually end up with a better script, which is also shorter.
So yes: I reduced the number of Moves, and in some cases that paired up with reducing the number of Counters.

Bottom line: usually good people give good advice, and while it’s good in an early stage to throw into a game all the ideas you have about that subject, later on you will need to simplify and cut away some useless (or nearly useless) chunks.
An example: Rings were used to improve your rank within the Iron Fist; they had a special rule and a dedicated counter.
Now the rank is just a single Advancement you take with XP. From a rule and a counter, to a single checkbox, without actually removing anything relevant from the game.

So, how’s your experience with your own game design? Does it feel painful to cut certain pieces of your work, to simplify? Or perhaps you don’t have this problem at all?
And as a player/GM, do you find yourself house-ruling to simplify games that are too (unnecessarily) complex? (of course, again, this is often a matter of taste)

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Hunting demons

Here is another short report; this is about a sorcerer and the Hunting Demons (see the preview image below).


Hunting demons are relatively weak monsters, although I wouldn’t underestimate them unless I was playing a seriously martial playbook like the Veteran or the Sellsword (or the Raider, with my gang covering my ass). The annoying thing about Hunting demons: they can be raised from corpses, even random pieces of dead meat assembling together and coming to life fueled by the dark force of sorcery. Sometimes, they appear as an animated statue or an empty armor. So, basically, they can appear almost anywhere, without notice.
They are evoked by the GM by spending points on the Taint Tracker; which is increased by characters taking -1 to Spirit. For a brief comment about Spirit, see +Michael Sands quick and cool review here on G+.

When you invoke with the Taint Tracker, as GM, you act as the Hell Prince himself: you know how to find your targets (including the character!). This is really a pain in the ass for my players (in a good way).

One of my best players (say hello to Tom, everybody) plays a Sorcerer.
His first encounter with a Hunting demon (in the form of an empty armor coming to life) was within a tower, while he was sleeping. He had no time to prepare a spell, so he just went for his mace (he’s got quite an attitude, combining spells and furious mace swings). He made it out of the room, while the Raider and his gang came to his aid, blocking the demon inside the room while the sorcerer ran out.
Then the Barber stepped in, got hurt, and the Sorcerer got mad. They finally burned the bastard after breaking the armor into pieces.
The next time, in the desert, the Sorcerer (I have a soft spot for him, I know…) was on duty watching the camp, and was attacked by another Hunting demon (this time a collection of pieces of – mostly – human corpses, with dogs heads instead of hands). He had a big fire next to him, and managed to use his elementals powers to get rid of the beast.

Now, after a third encounter with a Hunting demon, our Sorcerer is gaining a strange reputation among the ranks of the Iron Fist.
He’s already quite a peculiar subject, with a nasty attitude (and dresses like a scarecrow basically). Add to that, that now he demands to have always a big fire lit in his room at night (remember, we’re in quite a warm climate), or several buckets of water always at his disposal (he likes to use water to confuse enemies and then strike with the mace). He needs the fire or the water to cast his spells fast enough to be able to fight the next Hunting demon.
I am inclined to let the mercenaries of the Iron Fist think he’s a paranoid, crazy bastard. And then to bring up a Hunting demon just so that he can go all smug on them with his “I told you so”.
What’d you think? :-)

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Against the Cult of Nergal

Against the Cult of Nergal is an actual play from the playtest phase of City of Judas, by Richard Sardinas.
See the original post on G+ here.

Aberlardus – The barber indebted to Geilar for saving his life. Played by Fred.
Eban – The Sorcerer. Hungry for magical power. Played by Adrian.
Geilar – The Raider. A Vandal prince who stole the ring of the King of Corsica. Played by Ray.

We started the game in media-res. The caravan the characters were escorting was attacked by what appear to be indigenous nomads. The sorcerer acts first, and with some foresight, by creating a stone barrier around one of the nomads who is trapped there. Geilar charges a large concentration of raiders with his gang, but is repulsed. Geilar took the move Last Stand so elects to face the enemy force by himself on one flank, while the rest of the group attempts to attack the other flank. Aberlardus goes to Geilar’s aide. With a few good rolls the nomads are beaten back and retreat. The character’s have a prisoner.
The caravan master, Calix of Damascus, tells the characters that his rare beetles (a delicacy around these parts) have been stolen, but even worse the nomads kidnapped his daughter. He beseeches the characters to go find her. The characters agree for a fee then interrogate the prisoner. The raider starts torturing him, allowing Eban to manipulate the captive. The nomad talks saying they took her to an abandoned barn and adds cryptically that “She is to be give to the One that rises from Meslam”.
The captured raider leads the group to the barn. The nomad claims that they have taken the girl into the tunnels under it. Eban casts the light spell on the captive. They go into the tunnel and after a long walk enter a large room where the captive is shot in the chest and killed by 2 other raiders. They run, but the sorcerer casts a fire spell blocking the way. One of the raider knocks the other one into the fire, and he is subsequently killed by Geilar’s gang. Since it’s difficult to carry a glowing body Geiler decides to cut the body to pieces and hands out body parts to the group to use as torches. (I added a level of taint here because this was pretty gruesome and the players were treating the captive pretty callously.) Eban took the create fire, but not the control fire spell, so the fire can’t be stopped. He had to cast Stone Spell to turn the burning stones away from the tunnel. They continue and emerge from a trap door into a house.
The house is empty right now. Eventually the players leave (Geilar’s gang stays behind in the house waiting for the sign) and poke around town, finding a few things. The name of the town is Karak and there are several issues going on. Animal pit fights, infighting amongst the ruling houses, and of course mysterious disappearances. The characters ignore the pit fights and go directly to the militia and bully help from them by showing them the glowing body parts, claiming they are from some weird cult. The militia captain admits he has heard rumors that the cult of Nergal has been up to no good, but that cult has been dead for hundreds of years. We assumed that most of the inhabitants are Christian with a few Judiasts here and there. With amazing perception rolls they figure out that everything points to one of the weakest noble families.

They convince the militia to give them authority to search the family’s compound. While there they use perception moves to find a secret doorway. Once inside they come to a large room with some demonic statue at one end. There are body parts all over the place (all those disappeared people) and 3 masked nomads. Spirit rolls are made, but the barber gets a minimum success; he takes the -1 spirit and we move on. The nomads attack the characters. Abelardus jumps to block the attackers to prevent harm befalling Geilar, and is badly wounded (received the unstable condition). A fight ensues, with 1 of the nomads getting killed and the rest escaping. Geiller gives the signal, the sorcerer causes the body parts to flash, and his gang is on its way. One of the nomads ends up killing several of the militia guards and then scales the walls of the compound like a spider. The other nomad is killed by Geiler’s gang. The killing of the guards causes the family to escape and a chase ensues.
They reach the outskirts of the city and Eban causes the groundsunder the family head to rumble and they all fall. The group catches up to them and slaughters most of the family except one of the servants who agrees to take them to the Temple of Nergal.
The characters arrive at the ruined temple and come up on a ceremony. The sorcerer can tell that the ceremony is charged with magic energies. Geiler tells Eban to prepare the Stone Spell to collapse the temple. The characters charge in, and with crazy rolls manage to push back the cultists who outnumber them. Abelardus then runs up and grabs the girl, but he is hit by the high priest (who is the surviving nomad from the shrine encounter in the city). He rolls over the altar with the girl and they escape. The rest of the group pulls back, and Eban causes the temple to collapse on all the cultists killing them.
The characters head back and collect their reward.
The final scene shows the blood of all the dead cultists running to the altar. It then opens and two large Hell Knights step through. The end.

Some questions&answers about the Raider

See the original thread on G+ if you want some context for these questions.

Does the Raider PC make a move for his gang in battle AND another one for himself using the regular moves? […]

When the Raider takes advantage of his own gang, and acts as a leader within its ranks, than it usually makes sense that the Raider will roll the move for the Gang and consider the single character as part of the gang action.
In other words: roll just once for example for Engage in Battle, and the Raider is acting within the ranks of the gang. See also pages 123 and 124 (especially 124 the section CHARACTERS’ GANG VS. NPCS’ GANG).

the Player asked me what are his stats relevant in combat […]

The Raider’s stats become relevant in the case he wants to act indipendently.
Now, the advantage to act indipendently is clear: roll with the Raider’s Steel (which might be a higher stat), attack the enemies from two fronts, or even do something else entirely (”while my gang keeps the enemy busy, I help the noble we’re escorting to get back on his horse and run away…”).

If we stick to battle, I usually treat things like this: for everything there’s a price.
If the Raider stays with the gang, they roll together to Engage in Battle, but the Raider is of course always in position to give orders, to get help from his companions, to direct the gang tactics. And the Raider is not outnumbered because he’s part of the gang.
If the Raider moves ‘out of the ranks’, then it depends: does he engage the same enemy? OK, but he’s outnumbered; he’s not part of the gang anymore, just a single guy fighting among a bunch of enemies and friends…
Does he want to give orders when things are getting hard for the gang? OK, but how does he do it if he stepped aside and picked targets with his bow, instead?

in our group there were a raider and a veteran and they were fighting a small gang

That sounds bad for the poor gang of NPCs :-)

is the other character considered to be part of the gang? and if so how about his own moves

He is considered part of the gang only if he ‘gives up’ acting indipendently and stays within ranks.

If the Veteran wants to move out of the ranks and do something else (attack the enemy gang from the flank, pick them from afar with a crossbow, steal something while the enemy gang is busy with the Raider’s gang…), then he’s not in the gang anymore (and does not enjoy the protection of numbers…)

If not part of the gang or doesn’t want to be part of it, does he have to fight the gang using the Face Death move as if he were alone?

Oh, yes, absolutely. Unless he takes the Last Stand move, and then he has an option to fight a gang on equal ground.

Now, the above are important principles, but a bit of flexibility might be in order, in certain cases.
Take in consideration how many characters do you have, and how’s the situation on the battlefield, and the fiction you guys enjoy the most. What is this fight about?

If you need to overcome the enemy by brute force, then I’d stick more to the tactical side, if your Players enjoy that.

But if the fight is about getting some other NPC safely out of trouble, for example, than for sure the focus is more on threats directed to the NPC.
For example: Raider+Gang engage together the enemy, while the Veteran and the NPC run away.
On a 7-9 of the Raider, instead of hitting the gang, I let the NPC gang take the blow but say that a couple of them sneak past the Raider’s gang and are about to chase the Veteran. Raider, what do you do?

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Exploring politics in City of Judas

During our playtesting, I played a few sessions with only a couple of characters, and the game went well. Having only two characters of course leaves less room for possible conflicts between them; but the game holds.

In this specific adventure, we decided to explore some political conflicts between the Church of Christ and the Cult of Judas. The Iron Fist worked to convince the two sides to negotiate a truce, and finally both Christians and Judaists sent a couple of negotiators to the location designated for the talks. The characters, a Veteran and a Priest (which in the game is a follower of the Cult of Judas), were in charge of the security of the meeting, which was held in a small fortress half a day out of Jerusalem.
While the four prelates began the negotiations, which lasted for several days, the characters collected evidence of someone trying to sabotage the meeting. In one case, a messenger sent by one of the negotiators was killed while carrying a truce proposal to Jerusalem for approval from the high clergy of the Church of Christ.
Seeking a final proof of the talks being sabotaged, the Priest broke into the rooms of the two negotiators from the cult of Judas. In one trunk, he found ciphered documents but managed to get a sense of what was going on: someone inside the Cult of Judas was subtracting money from the cult, and using it to hire mercenaries. In a previous adventure, in fact, the characters have retrieved a shipment of opium that someone stole from the Church of Judas ‘ and apparently it was an inside job, orchestrated from the same man.

With this final proof in their hands, they confronted the two prelates from the Cult of Judas. They managed to obtain a confession from the guilty one, but not before he managed to poison both the emissaries of the Church of Christ. While the Priest worked to save the lives of the Christians priests and avoided what could have triggered an armed conflict between the two religions, the Veteran managed to stop the traitor from escaping.
We ended the session with the militia of the Cult of Judas escorting away the traitor, while he threatened the members of his own cult of their mistake. And in the next session, those mercenaries indeed could have proved handy when the Book of Q. moved a little army to raid along the southern borders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem… but that’s another story.

So, this was for those who asked for another session report. I chose this one because, in contrast to the first that presented the giant demon, the characters basically had almost no need to resort to violence for the entire session - and it was a great session even for the Veteran which is in theory a ‘tank’ playbook.

This time, our preview image is text-only: it should give you an idea of the basic instincts and GM moves for threats like the Church of Christ and the cult of Judas.


And for those who’re wondering: yes, the little boxes are clickable in the pdf of the manual. I think the entire manual is quite easy to navigate.

If you’re interested in the game, check it out by clicking here.

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