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Undead dolls with a soul

I was at a con and I had a chance to play the early version of the italian translation of Nechronica (a game designed by Ryo Kamiya, previously the designer of Golden Sky Stories, Maid RPG, and Zettai Reido) . We were not in the best place to play a game like this, but the session went well nontheless.

Me and another one were first time players, the Necromancer (that's what the gm role is called in this game) was the publisher and the third player (if I understood correctly) was helping with the revision of the game.

The setting:

The world is dead, life is no more. The only things that can be considered alive are mushrooms and undeads. But not all undead are the same. Most of the creatures (zombies, mutates, horrors) are mindless beasts while the playing characters play Dolls. The only undead creatures to which the mysterious Necromancer (played by one of the players with a role similar to that of a GM) has decided to give a fragment of soul and consequently the awareness and the ability to think. The dolls are all sadistic experiments or mistakes of the Necromancer that awaken in small groups and have only a vague memory of what they were (or rather that was their soul part).  

Character creation:

We didn't get a chance to do all the character creation, but we were able to do some final touches like pulling for memories. Memories in addition to defining the only brief flashes of what the character knows.

By pulling I found out that the soul fragment contained in BiX, my doll, was once a florist and would like to find her old nursery again. I also found out that she had a serious illness that was destroying her and that she needed to find a medicine.

Memories have two mechanical qualities: one is to give goals to the character and the other is to be able to give a die if they are brought up during a check. For example, when I did a conversation test with another doll (one of the few ways dolls lower their insanity level) I picked a mushroom off the ground and brought it to her as if it were a flower, this granted me an extra die.

As I said the rest of the card was pre-filled, but basically it's a matter of choosing two aspects of the doll that confer a range of information (including abilities, the pieces it's built with, and its treasures). At this stage the detail is remarkable because as we will see in the system part each aspect of the doll can be brought into play and/or lost.


From what I could see, the game divides the things the dolls can do into stages with precise procedures that only apply to that stage. The phases I saw during the session were:

Adventure: In which the dolls encountered the situation.

Conversation: In which the dolls form bonds and try to maintain their humanity.

Karma: In which the necromancer mechanically assigned us tasks that, when performed, confer experience.

Exploration: In which we delved into aspects of the situation and interacted with the environment.

Combat (the one furthest removed from the others): in which a particular dashboard is brought out and we face enemies until a goal is achieved (not necessarily defeating enemies) or the dolls have been destroyed.

Repair: In which the dolls take pieces from enemies to repair what has been destroyed.

The resolution system itself is quite simple. You roll 1-4 d10, add any bonuses and if you get at least a 6 you are successful and succeed, otherwise you have failed.

I'm not going to explain all the rules, but I want to add a couple of interesting notes:

To roll more than one die you must use your memories or bet parts of yourself (each part is marked on the sheet, both the basic ones like shoulders, arms, hands etc and the power-ups. If you fail by putting parts of you in play and fail, something happens in the fiction for which they are destroyed.

Some things you are emotionally connected to like bonds or treasure start with 3 points of madness (out of 4) and if they reach the fourth dot they start an element of doll madness. For example, my doll had her teddy bear (treasure) destroyed and from that moment on she had a childish regression and became whiny (mechanically losing 2 action points), or she went crazy for fear of losing a companion doll whose bond was for protection and became hyper protective (mechanically in combat situations I had to be where she is).

What happened during the game:

BiX woke up along with two other dolls in what looked like an industrial building of some sort. In the distance we could hear strange metallic noises and some sort of military music. The Necromancer gave us Karma to find out what that music was to gain experience. Before going to investigate BiX lingered on the other two dolls, one was acting strange and didn't seem to understand much of what was around her so BiX felt a sense of protection towards her (created the bond). The other Doll on the other hand seemed more responsive to her and BiX tried to converse with her. We both did a conversation check after the exchange, I failed and got nothing while she was successful and took a madness point off a bond. Since the second doll seemed to know how to take care of herself and sported a large sniper rifle BiX chose the competition bond with her.

Next, the dolls ventured inside the industrial facility in the direction of the noise. After a bit of exploration we had to use the extraordinary strength of one of the dolls to break down a door, we found some documents regarding the kind of experiments that were carried out in this place to build an army of undead that increased the madness of the strange doll while the sniper doll used her lightning reflexes to cover the documents as soon as she saw the disturbing images out of the corner of her eye. Since my doll was impatient I urged the other two to go directly to the source of the noise and we discovered an assembly line where undead creatures continued to work even though the facility had long since lost its function. Since there was a skill on my card that said god of death and an enhancement called Katana I couldn't resist and jumped into the fray starting a fight.

Combat is the most crunch part of the game. There is a dashboard with 7 locations that indicate how far you are from danger and a counter for action points. Each dolls body part has an action type (automatic, standard, damage, reaction or fast) the first two can be done an unlimited number of times, the others only once per round (which is quite long).

However even though I started the fight my pieces put me at 9 action points so the other two dolls and some enemy creatures started acting first.

I'm not going to tell the whole fight, but every time a doll or a creature is injured you lose a body part (if the attacker is critical he also chooses which ones), this gives him real mechanical penalties because each part has its function and helps build the character but also makes you understand how your doll (or the enemy) are dismembered. Some parts then have very interesting functions, for example my doll had a large hole in the body that I used to give a -1 to a group of undead soldiers who failed to hit me because under that point of the dress there was nothing to hit or when a zombie segucio ripped the limiter from my neck giving me a boost of action points.

When everyone gets to 0 (or less) action points, all dolls get one madness point and the action points for the new round are recalculated (which can be changed if some pieces have been destroyed).

However with great effort we managed to destroy the enemies but not without consequences, the destruction of my teddy bear I found out later is a very relevant thing, I will have no way to take that madness off until I find a treasure and bond enough with it.

After the combat we scavenged the parts of the enemies and repaired some of our broken parts. (there is a fixed amount of parts you can find based on the amount of enemies you fight).

And this is were our session ended.

It was only few scenes but it was intense.

Necromancer side:

I hadn't the chance to read what the actual rules of the necromancer were but from what I understood they have a fixed amount of "evilness" to use when they build a scenario. The evilness is like the points in a wargame that you use to add threats and enemies.

Bottom line:

The game poses almost as a boardgame in some of its stages and to say the least crunch and optimization in others, yet the fiction it generates is perfectly in keeping with the setting and color of the game. If I look not just at the numbers but at what they represent I realize that what I'm experiencing are disturbing and violent experiences. Knowing that an enemy not only did damage to me but blew off a hand and that has mechanical consequences had a big impact on me. To understand, movement is also an advantage given by the parts tied to the legs, if those parts are destroyed you can still walk using your shoulders but at a higher cost of action points (you are crawling and the mechanics take this into account or even better the mechanics tell you that you are crawling and you live it in the game).

In short, if on the one hand I took this part of the experience as the most interesting on the other I wondered why this aspect is not more explicit. Even at my table where not all of us were on the same page (as it should be) some saw much more the numbers than what they represented and this in my opinion made them lose much of the experience.

Actual Play


Sean_RDP's picture

I like this part

To roll more than one die you must use your memories or bet parts of yourself (each part is marked on the sheet, both the basic ones like shoulders, arms, hands etc and the power-ups. If you fail by putting parts of you in play and fail, something happens in the fiction for which they are destroyed

Do different parts of the body give you more dice? Can you gamble more than one body part or memory on a particular conflict? The consequences seem very concrete, but are they worth the sacrifice?

Every part give you different bonus, some are just to be hit points and gore (like the first thing you can sacrifice without having consequnces are guts) but some are very much useful (you can't attack if you loose parts or enanchment to attack with, you can't move without parts that can give you movement and you can't do very much if you loose parts that give you action points etc).

As for the gamble, you can bet up to 3 parts since you can roll up to 4 dice, also you only need one die with 6+ to get a success, so it is very well worth to bet your parts.

The thing is that you want to go all out in combat because at the end of every turn you will receive madness and it can stuck up very quickly (giving you all sort of flaws) but you have absolutely no way to remove it during combat.

Ron Edwards's picture

A couple things you’re saying are very strange to me.

The game poses almost as a boardgame in some of its stages and to say the least crunch and optimization in others, yet the fiction it generates is perfectly in keeping with the setting and color of the game.

The “yet” stops me in my tracks. How are these two concepts opposed? Are you surprised that numbers and theme are compatible and mutually-refinforcing? That’s a big part of what game design does, and at least based on what you’re describing, this game seems like a good example./p>

I’m especially concerned in this case because you’ve attended Design Depth, which includes significant work about math as a communicative language, rather than merely counting or irrelevant notation. In a well-designed game, what the math communicates and what the words communicate operate mutually; one does not shift away from one of them and into the other. People learn to distrust one or the other only because they have played for-shit-designed games.

... some saw much more the numbers than what they represented and this in my opinion made them lose much of the experience

This is especially odd. How is the response of these other players any of your business? If they did “lose much of the experience,” so what? As far as the designer or presenter being more explicit, that isn’t your business either; it’s theirs, and a necessarily rushed and pragmatic situation like a con demo session is no venue to judge how they do it or will eventually do it.

Even if the other players’ engagement were (somehow) your business, then how do you know they didn’t respond equally as emotionally or thematically as you did? It is no one’s job to display their responses or engagement for your understanding.

I should orient you regarding my perspective. I had a particularly bad experience in play, regarding a game with explicit, and player-tactical numbers and dice. It was revealed later that the game’s organizer was expecting us eventually to stop talking about numbers openly and to use them silently at the table, as an indicator that we were more emotionally invested, or immersed (in this case, I use the word with contempt, not sympathy). His behavior was extraordinarily childish: he did not say anything to us about this either during preparation or later, but instead became more and more upset and frustrated, eventually screaming at me and telling me I was defying him.

Since you are not him, I won’t take my indignation out on you, but I do suggest that you not become this guy. Don’t disrespect players who openly enjoy the numbers by assuming they necessarily lack thematic and emotional engagement.

I think I was misunderstood, it's obvious that numbers and procedures exist to convey the experience but in this game I felt that this part was hidden on purpose. As I said I am aware that the experience is partial because I do not have adequate knowledge of all the procedures and we were at a convention, but I wanted to convey what this game left me in an enthusiastic and estranged way exactly as I experienced it. The game thrusts you into a seemingly cold and strictly numbers-driven experience but if you make the effort (I use effort because the games doesn't push you there) to translate those numbers things are happening that are perfectly in line with the theme.  

As for the players, I wasn't judging their level of interest and indeed they were very into the game and everyone finds their own way of doing this activity. I just noticed that the consequences in fiction generated as a result of the mechanics for them were not influential or at least they didn't express it in any way.

To conclude, I'm reporting a strange experience for a game that has made me very fond of its way of alienating the player to the point of making him believe he's doing a specific thing without guiding him to understand that at a second level he's doing another equally profound thing. If you think about it, this estrangement could be the aim of the designer.

Ron Edwards's picture

I think I understood just fine. Please consider what I'm saying carefully, perhaps taking some time. It's important for your own game design.

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