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Outer Inner Space

Here's the final session of Cosmic Zap, playtest epic #1! I'd intended to append it to the previous post in the comments, but then again, it'd be good to see a complete retrospective on the whole thing here.

The good news: it worked, and cognitively, procedurally speaking, there's an actual game here. Further playtesting is now refinement, a relatively minor task, and then the big task, how to present it for maximum understanding and inspiration. That latter is currently totally from scratch.

We've also come through the hardest part, which is observable in that this whole time, play itself was exhausting, procedurally. In this session, even eight sessions in, the learning curve displayed its most aggravating inflection point, when everyone understood just enough to impose irrelevant options and inaccurate rules invocations. I love you guys, but out of pity for the audience, I clipped out about 40 minutes of separate approximately 55-second snips that were all (i) pushing buttons almost at random and (ii) misunderstanding which button just got pushed. Fortunately that's never going to have to happen again, and also fortunately, the system seems robust enough to withstand it.

As for what happened? Remember my big criticism that the new Hero Wars risks falling into the Fate problem (presaged by DC Heroes), that the dice are a boring middle-out coin-flip which is utterly managed by Hero Points anyway? That's been solved. Watch this one carefully: the dice speak, boy, girl, and other, they speak loud.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Cosmic Zap

Comments

With a finished instrument, you play it (and see if you can play it with skill and learn to play it better) and then see if you like the sound it makes. With alpha play-testing, you can’t really do that. You start out playing a guitar and finish up playing a violin.

The shift in the meaning of traits is the most obvious example. At the start of play, when creating traits, they were all ‘stuff about my character and his abilities’. By the end of the play, I was treating them more like mini-kickers and/or constructive restraints.

As an example of this. The trait I was most excited about ‘Won’t return home’ ended up being kind of lame. If it was written as ‘fleeing home’ then it suggests something that will be resolved, one way or the other. Rather than something that inspires Thespian monologues that don’t go anywhere.

Traits selection also tied into character ownership. If my traits are only ever abilities then I retain a lot of control over my character. If I make a trait like disenchanted, then other players and the dice decide whether I remain disenchanted or not. I have mixed feelings about that.

The final procedure seemed to work well, it’s exciting enough that I’ll be playing the finished version with my regular group. I really like the idea of high trait turn-over, it seems to make the HQ system sing.

As to the fiction: Well guys, Zeb always said it was better to run away, you can’t fight the man. His death and everyone else’s death (or psycho-spiritual enslavement) just goes to show how right he was.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm giving thought to the issue of messing with one another's characters' motivations. I don't like it much either. It's very close to the non-conflict nonsense people get into with Polaris - "If I succeed then you don't love your wife as much as you thought," that kind of thing.

But I don't want this rules-set to have any caveats, either; you're supposed to play it all the way, any way, irresponsibly. And abilities will therefore go up and go down, get invented and be destroyed.

There are a couple of angles from which to address the risk or problem, one of them being to say, "give it up, don't care about your character anyway," which I don't want to do. Another is to focus harder on augmenting, which is something we didn't do very much, and allows abilities to be showcased and detailed more often by the character's owner.

I remember we brought this up briefly during an earlier session, and perhaps this wasn't as true for Gordon/Alex/Ángel, but particularly during that final extended conflict I was getting the sense that most of my abilities were functionally superfluous given all the permanently accrued bonuses to 'psychology'.  There's little in the way of a mathematical incentive to switch it up if your top ability has broad descriptive application, as I think was true in my case.

The conflict-resolution mechanics themselves seem to work fine, but if I were to ask for one thing, it'd be incentives to fold in other portions of the sheet- either through evocative augments and/or changes to ability-advancement.  Stuff like 'police investigations', 'curious' or 'force manipulation' seemed mainly to act as descriptive flavour for azimuth.  (Not that descriptive flavour is bad, but giving 'em teeth would be nice.  Perhaps you could, e.g, allot a hero point for using a weaker ability in a conflict, not just the cosmic/super/personal cycle, and dispense with the 3 free points each session?)

I think what Alex mentions about personality-descriptors is interesting.  I don't personally have a problem with the idea of a character's personality being modified by conflict- if you can *die* from a bad roll, it stands to reason you can shift philosophy- and I thought that those interactions (e.g, with Diamonds) were one of the more interesting aspects of Zebediah in play.  This never really happened with Azimuth though, so I can't say how it feels to be on the receiving end.

To begin, this game was great - thanks, everyone! I didn't realize I needed to play Earth's First Mind/The Silurian/Mr. ... Mild?, but I did.

Maybe-useful comments ... first, on this game/design in particular. I loved the emergence/growth of Diamonds, and the idea of her showing up across many char sheets. But the mechanics/reality ... I'm not sure. Adding a new trait never really worked out for me - using it just seemed like asking for a beat-down. Rules-confusion might have been a big piece, though. Seems like I took damage mostly-correctly, but I'm not sure I leveled-up right. Or maybe that was just what my play/luck led to this time.

More generally: there's a particular kind of rules-confusion where two games/mechanics/etc. SEEM similar, but really if you do the one in the context of the other it just doesn't work. I ran into this when, after playing Fate, players tried to do THAT in a design of my own. Previously that design had worked kinda-well for that group, but playing it like my descriptors were Fate-y Aspects was plain not fun.

There were some moments in this Zap when I felt like that - like the influence on me of some previous version of a mechanic was getting in the way of doing the current version right. Distinguishing a mechanic as just IT, for THIS game, seems important.

OK - now maybe I can move on to watching the new Zap ... (by the way, when - one way or another - I run this game, I'll definitely say "let's play a Zap." And I'll compile a list of 70's prog album names, song names, and group names as candidate ability-descriptors ...)

Ron Edwards's picture

One of my observe-and-assess topics at the moment is whether it's tempting to play whack-a-mole at the other players' lowest-ranked abilities. There's no win condition involved, but the activity itself is known for its slippery-slope fascination.

I've added and better reinforced easy mechanics for beefing up new ones quite quickly, not as a patch, but because I think it makes good sense and provides an obvious "thing to do" when you're spotlighted. That's the context for the observing and assessing.

I agree with you about "this mechanic is just itself," which applies especially to the semi-GM methods.

I think the issue that arose MIGHT have been more that I created new abilities because they seemed to make sense in the fiction of the moment - and they continued to make sense to my perhaps too-writerly instincts as that fiction played out. A "good" player might know better than to use 'em, or maybe it'd be good if they actually can't be used/targeted for a scene or a session or something.

Of course, I'm also not sure about the current rules - if (for e.g.) damage is only (potentially) inflicted on the ability targeted - and NOT the defending ability (unless they're one and the same), a new, low score might be "safe"(er) to use. If on a victory the targeted player could boost either the targeted ability OR the one he choose to defend with, even better -  TOO much better?

Or ... urg, let me stop now and not pursue the path of trying to write rules for YOUR game. I'll leave the above in case it's useful/interesting, but the main insight is that the same/similar thing that inspires a new ability creation might also inspire inappropriate/premature use, at least for some folks. Targeting by others wasn't a big issue for ME, in my memory.

Ron Edwards's picture

With respect, specific judgments and reservations based on the earliest playtesting should often be left to disintegrate, as the rules twist and play-based experiences accumulate past the points of concern.

Whether play needs to be adjusted to negate or diverge from whack-a-mole adversarial play is an open question. I am not convinced that's what we observed anyway, and you may not have understood fully how to defend abilities at certain points.

However, in case it's a potential problem, or simply as a design detour exercise, I'm playing with the idea that abilities ranked at 13 are immune to being decreased. Therefore erasing abilities altogether would be removed from the game, and there's plenty of time to increase them via the methods I mentioned.

This is softballing in a lot of ways, especially immunizing relationship characters, so I'm not sure I entirely like it in theory, but it's at least an idea to field in playtest and perhaps to incorporate in some way that's not a bolt-on.

I do like the idea that keywords remain vulnerable, maintaining the current rules-concept that bringing one to 0 restores it to 13 with a new meaning. Thus a cosmic role might change ("Behold! I am no longer a mere Guardian of Phylogenetic Truth, but the Cosmic Commander of Ontological |Perception!"), or the mortal side of the character might meet a noble or tragic death, to be replaced willingly or unwillingly to a new person.

HijosDelRol's picture

The idea of resetting the abilities when they reach 0 sounds interesting. I definitely like the "things that become other things" aspect of the game. Like when one of the main abilities is destroyed and the next highest in the same category becomes the new main one and changes to reflect it. It adds to this feeling the game has that, as a player, you are fighting to maintain and evolve those aspects of the game you are invested in (reflected in the abilities) against the ever-changing nature of play. That feeling was really appealing to me.

I would be curious to see how it would work if you were able to choose a different category to put the new ability into. Or maybe you were obligated to do so. Also, maybe the points could be instead added to an existing ability from a different category. I'm thinking here of something like when The Amazing Spider-Man (super) loses his powers, so he decides that instead he's going to focus on being a better Boyfriend of Mary Jane (personal).

No objection from me to the disintegration of early judgements, and agreement that whack-a-mole may not be what happened - pretty sure it just WASN'T, on my end. Sounds like you're working on the "hey, what's up with low-rated abilities?" issue(s?) generally, which (that is, think about it generally) sounds exactly appropriate. I'll just point once more at wanting a ... buffer? between creating an abilty because it seems COOL and then have doing-the-COOL turn out to be stupid.

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