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Citadel of Time Play Test: It Plays Fast; Time Travel is Weird

I want to talk a bit about a play test session for a game I am designing. The game is called Citadel of Time and it goes something like this:

Trapped in the Citadel, you pursue missions to retrieve graels for the Castellan's Great Project. Moving to different points in time, your success or failure hinges on overcoming your own issues and the obstacles of the time you find yourself in.

CoT is a structured (not sure “highly” is applicable or even needed) and episode focused RPG. There are four phases based upon the four act structure of Kishotenketsu. The four phases are CROW: Castellan, Road, Obstacle, & Wounding. That is all I will say about the game for now, as I want to start into the play test. But two things first.

  1. CoT is a test bed of ideas (and my own skill) for another game, which Ron is familiaar with: Empire of the Dragon-Lotus. 
  2. The pop-culture pitch for those who like that: Quantum Leap meets Gormengast. 
  3. We had four hours. We finished in 100 minutes. This fundamentally changed how I saw the game and game design.

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Locally (Northwest Atlanta, USA) we began an Indie RPG meetup. It has turned out quite well. The only rule is no D20/5E/Pathfinder as we can get all that we want. Several of us are designers or work in the rpg sphere or both. This day we divided up between my game, Citadel of Time, and Cat Cthulhu or Cathulhu? A chtulhu game aimed at the younger crowd. Play in Citadel were Egg, Dawn, and Becca.

Character Creation

One of the core concepts of CoT was to be minimalist. Easy character creation. Small character sheet. This is where my obsession with 4x6 cards in play really began. CharGen is a simple case of placing an array on the Attributes as chosen. It took ten minutes. The array was 6, 4, 3, 2, 2, 1 or 0. The attributes were (and are) Combat, Athletics, Guile, Legerdemain, Roister, Scholarship, and Sorcery. Sorcery had to be 0 unless you took a 6. You were either a sorcerer or you weren't. 

Egg chose to be a sorcerer and his concept was that of a Cyberpunk sorcerer. Up until that moment I had in mind that the dregs of society who were the characters were of a more fantasy bend. BUT I realized.. Time Travel. The Citadel exists in all time periods of the world, past and future. Instantly made some notes on this. Dawn played a hunter or ranger and Becca was a bit of thief.

C is for Castellan

There is no origin story. Characters, the survivors of the world's ending, eventually find the Citadel, explore it, and realize they can never leave. After a time they realize their only way out is the damn Great Project. So they agree to go on missions for the mysterious Castellan.

In the Castellan phase the GM (The Castellan) interrupts the lives of the players by choosing them for the next mission.

In this case the entire Citadel was celebrating a previous group returning a Jade Goblet. I had the players make a Roister roll to determine how well they de-stress before their mission. Those that failed pulled a card from separated low cards in a 52 card deck. This would be a complication for their mission that they had to settle up with before the mission ended. I.e. before they came back to the Citadel via the Castellan's Time Travel mojo. One player failed and pulled a complication.

Bidding Dice

Attribute scores are auto successes. Players then pull from a dice pool (10) and bid a certain number of dice. At the time, a 4 or 5 was 1 success and a 6 was 2 successes. Failed dice were lost from the pool. Three 6s was a critical and auto-refresh.  When the pool runs out they lose an anchor point (they had 4 at the time) and the pool rfreshes. Losing all anchors means Fading back to the Citadel and and gaining a Decay point. No one faded in the game we played but some got close.

Mission: The grael they would seek was "The White Wolf's Angst". I am a bit of an Elirc / Eternal Champion fan.

In the Road phase they went towards a town that might have someone known as the White Wolf, who was fighting some local bad people. Along the way they came across a party of these bad people. I pulled my own complication cards for them to battle. With such already high chances of successes, they went through the fight very easily. This was one reason I later decided to make slight changes to have Attributes and resolution worked.

Now comes the Obstacle phase. The characters meet the White Wolf, who is a dark skinned woman wearing a wolf's pelt. In the fiction she is an Eternal Champion of balance. That is not canon for the world, I jsut had that as a fun bit for the playtest. They also learn that her emotions affect the land and the death of her lover, of whom she has a painting, are the cause. Or might be the cause, but the players figured it out. 

The White Wolf agrees to give up her painting of her lover if the group can bring her the head of a local sorcerer. This is the Wounding or the price of victory. It needed to be more challenging than it was. The boss fight was fun but anti-climactic. They go back and get the painting. Fade to the citadel where the Castellan is waiting for them.

Everyone had fun, including myself. The game plays fast and is full of improv. And it was a great playtest because it showed me where I needed to tweak some concepts.

Playtest Thoughts

  • Three players is a good party. I had known Dawn and was (and am) a colleague of Egg though we had never met. Becca knew Egg. All are excellent role players.
  • I think they all could have been more critical if they wanted. But CoT turns out to be a great beer n pretzels RPG. 
  • I was well prepared but needed to be better prepared to make game changes on the fly.
  • Our local indie game day idea fosters good play.

Mechanical Thoughts

I realized resolution was too easy. And the CROW concept is good, but needs to be either very stylized, or de-emphasized. I have since made adjustments to how Attributes, Sorcery, and Pools work. But I love the idea of bidding dice.

I am sold on the idea of death in High Adventure games, which CoT turns out to be, should only come after significant play in campaign or via experienced characters in one-off play. My next playtest (I have had a few) will be all characters with one Decay point left. I want to see how that might affect the game. 

Sorcery (or Tech) was not as cool as it should have been, yet it was powerful. Right now, when a character is testing Sorcery, successes are lost as opposed to failures. This represents a price to pay. Sorcery is also more powerful (a 6 on Sorcery is still 2 successes), but obviously high success means burning through dice.

Discussion

  • Any thoughts on play tests in general are good and preparing to run a good playtest. Specifically trying to get players moving quickly into play. CoT is designed to hit the ground rolling.
  • I expected the game to go three hours. With adjustments, it runs about 2 hours now. I find that I am okay with this.  
  • Grael Goals. The White Wolf's Angst is an ethereal concept. I describe graels as people, places, items, or ideas that are meant to improve the Great Project. Are these goals too abstract to be interesting?
  • Stylized and Structured Play. There is an intro, buildup, second buildup, and climax. There are definitve beginnings and ends. So far feedback has been positive about this, but I wonder if I should make it more stylized / structured or less. 
  • Sorcery - how to make it cool, flashy, useful, and dangerous. lol
  • I was determining all fiction in the Complications. I have since allowed players to tell the Castellan what the Complication is and how they want to deal with it.

Thanks.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

I think I need to add more comments about the play itself, so I will do that. 

Deciding on who was playing

As mentioned we were at an Indie Game day. We had two people offering games and six other players. Each of us pitched our games to the players and they divided up to play. It was not an easy decision for most (I mean I want to play Cat Cthulhu too) but everyone had a good time with the games they chose.

Roistering

We talked a little about what each character was doing in the beginning, how they might be celebrating the latest addition to the Great Project. I think having some fun interaction and introduction of characters combined with making a roll that had some stakes to it, even though the stakes (Adding more Complications) were not completely understood yet, helped get the players into the game. Of course all were experienced as role-players to some degree too. 

And who can deny that Roister isn't a great and underused term?

CROW

In general the idea of the structure of the session intrigued the players, I am not sure I ran it strict enough for them to notice a real difference. I am going to speak to the players again and see what they think now. 

Talking It Out

All the players were ready for a fight, but all bought into the idea that not every complication is combat. Part of this could have been how I framed the conflicts, but part of it was just taking the opportnity to use other attributes to resolve the conflicts. The in character discussions with the White Wolf were especially good. 

Climactic Battle

It was okay. They players took care of the bad guy in short order. It lacked an epic kind of ending, though the rules worked as they had been designed (at the time). The return to the Citadel was pro forma, not a sigh of relief that they made it. I think I needed to do a better job of using complications to raise stakes during the game. That is not so much system as it was me not trusting the system.

Ron Edwards's picture

There are so many things to ask about or to comment up, but I have to keep myself from going into consulting mode. Here are some snippets of non-systematic thoughts I had as I read.

If you haven’t seen it, I provide an unconventional and pointed view about playtester feedback in Design Curriculum: alpha and beta.

Regarding the Grael Goals, you can’t front-load “interest.” MacGuffins, in this case something to go-fetch, typically work fine, so use them. Whether they’re interesting too is another issue and – in my view – not very important, just a bonus.

Getting trapped in how-much-structure has killed many RPG projects in mid-playtest, especially if one is working a little romantically off Polaris, The Mountain Witch, Primetime Adventures, My Life with Master, or some of the other explicit-arc designs that came to be called “Forge games.” I advise you simply to run with whatever structure you felt like in the beginning, and not to over-think it. If some overwhelming evidence suggests changing it, then fine, but you can’t arrive at an optimum through analysis – you’ll just keep shifting around.

Sorcery seems fine to me given your structure. Beware of expecting more feedback than you should reasonably get. Some of my comments to Lorenzo in Expanding a setting may be relevant here.

What was confusing about the time travel? I didn’t see it mentioned in the post.

If you haven't, I suggest looking up The Whispering Vault, not because “it’s already been done,” but because the author took some pains to arrive at multiple-destination points-in-history play, and kept it functional without introducing needless suffering over time-travel rules.

Sean_RDP's picture

There are so many things to ask about or to comment up, but I have to keep myself from going into consulting mode. Here are some snippets of non-systematic thoughts I had as I read.

I had the same thought. I was halfway through and realized I was talking too much about the system and not enough about the play. It is why I added a bit. My notes and memories of it are not as clear as they should have been, but they are what they are.

Getting trapped in how-much-structure has killed many RPG projects in mid-playtest, especially if one is working a little romantically off Polaris, The Mountain Witch, Primetime Adventures, My Life with Master, or some of the other explicit-arc designs that came to be called “Forge games.” I advise you simply to run with whatever structure you felt like in the beginning, and not to over-think it.

This is on point. Much of my thoughts and design and critique are flavored by my own Forge experience. There is a slight tendency to think I need to make my own Forge game before I can grow beyond it. But that is not helpful thinking on my part and I am overthinking the structure bit and have been for a while. I am excited by the use of the four part structure and think it is good. So I will leave it alone unless more play suggests otherwise.

What was confusing about the time travel? I didn’t see it mentioned in the post.

I did gloss over that. It was not confusing as much as it was trippy in the way it opened up new avenues. In brief: in the fiction the world (not Earth) has suffered its apacolypse. The Citadel of Time is known to have existed and always exists at each point in time. But in my mind the game was all past. BUT when Egg introduced his techno sorcerer from the future, something I had not explicitly said existed, it changed how I viewed the game. Suddenly it went from being Dying Earth to being more akin to the end of an Age in Glorantha. Which is fine and great even.

To be more specific, Egg's character found the Citadel in the future instead of in the present. Something I had not considered but in retrospect, makes perfect sense. That is what I was thinking, and failed to expand on, when saying Time Travel is Weird. 

I will check out the various points you suggested. Thanks. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I hate that term: "Forge game." It's absolutely anti-Forge, it's branding, it's racing to the middle, it's a status marker, it's everything wrong with role-playing as a hobby subculture. I used it a couple of times because everyone else was, then realized how foul it tasted. Along with a certain number of economic and social abuses, it prompted me to change the rules at the Forge Booth so that one could only participate twice.

I can point to a wide diversity of games whose design was helped at the Forge, and an easy dozen Big Namers of today who arrived at the Forge as snotnosed hopefuls clutching a Cthulhu clone, learned a thing or two, and seem to forget any such thing today. It doesn't seem to penetrate the wall of fog that's laid over everything and is thickened by the words "Forge game."

I'll tell you a thing, too - that none of the individual games met its criteria either. Played textually, My Life with Master, Polaris, Universalis, and Primetime Adventures are profoundly different games, not any sort of unified design trend at all. But at some point people perceived or claimed there to be a central node or guiding aesthetic, named "Forge game." I suspect that's what led to abominations like that ... thing I posted at the Patreon a few weeks ago.

And that's what I'm harshing on here: why all this jiggery-pokery with a central dice pool and whatnots? Maybe it's great (some designs which use such things are!), maybe it does something ... but just easily, and if we look across the designs currently tagged with the equally objectional "story game" term, more often than not, it does not. It just "feels like a Forge game," without being any actual kind of identifiable enjoyable activity - the RPG equivalent of the worst sort of Eurogame, in which we move colored tokens around-and-about, and some kind of end condition vaguely replaces "wins," so that even the designated winner looks baffled and says, "Me?"

Sean_RDP's picture

And that's what I'm harshing on here: why all this jiggery-pokery with a central dice pool and whatnots? Maybe it's great (some designs which use such things are!), maybe it does something ... but just easily, and if we look across the designs currently tagged with the equally objectional "story game" term, more often than not, it does not. It just "feels like a Forge game," without being any actual kind of identifiable enjoyable activity - the RPG equivalent of the worst sort of Eurogame, in which we move colored tokens around-and-about, and some kind of end condition vaguely replaces "wins," so that even the designated winner looks baffled and says, "Me?"

This is something I try and escape as a designer, for many reasons. Trying to measure up to an odd standard that is etheral at best, is not going to lead to better design or personal happiness or fulfillment. To a certain degree even the term "Indie" has been diluted over the last two decades. At the moment it basically means anything not WotC, Paizo, FFG(RIP), or Chaosium, even if individual ideas of those games may be very much in the "indie" mindset or what it was, if it was ever really a thing.

The point being it is way too easy to get caught up in all of that and in the process make a crap game that you end up hating. Whether people play it or not.

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