Circle of Hands – Play Gets Metal

This is a post of pure enthusiasm for our most recent Circle of Hands session, which had one of the most epic and just plain metal conclusions I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s Venture two, the players are my wife and two of our sons (18 and 16) and they’re already very much Into It.

Play took place in Ebbasbek, a fenland town in Spurr on the edge of a treacherous expanse of wetland and reedbeds.
Hot and sunny, and lots of wading birds and little tweety birds and frogs and insects and big old dragon flies rattling by. Fishing done off rickety networks of narrow plank bridges, and extensive eel farms in the pools and hidden waterways. Coracle boats paddled between the rushes and reeds growing higher than your head for miles and miles in all directions. A veritable maze of confusing paths criss-crossing the landscape between farmsteads and fishing spots and peat beds. The town proper, raised above the landscape on a large earthwork mound of uncertain age, but with many outlying farmsteads situated nearer to resources with houses built on poles to avoid flooding.

The knights arrived following rumours of social unrest between the peasants and the freemen of the town.
Having played one of the two characters they’d rolled up themselves in the previous (first) session, for this session the players did the common early thing and selected the *other* character they’d rolled up instead. This meant we were looking at two male High Martial wizards, one from Rolke, one from Spurr and a woman Priest, also from Rolke but not a wizard. The folks from Rolke had mighty Charm scores – 8 for the gentry and 9(!) for the Priest – making the Spurrish guy’s Charm of 6 seem paltry in comparison. They were rugged enough, but none of them were super-competent fighters.

The tensions between the peasants and freemen had originally been kicked off by a sort of Romeo and Juliet situation between a couple of their respective kids. Opinions were voiced, tempers flared, the freeman girl had turned up dead and things had unraveled from there. No-one’s really talking about that now except the dead girl’s mother (who just wants all the trouble between everyone to end), because things have taken on a life of their own and off the back of the initial disgruntlement, the peasants are now pushing for more respect and better treatment from the freemen all over. The freemen are withholding food and other support. The peasants are withholding labour. There are scuffles and brawls every few days with mutterings of worse to come. Things are nearing a tipping point.

In addition to that, however, there is also the small matter of a doubled dose of Amboriyon Interference that I rolled up during prep…

So one of the townsfolk – a basket weaver and merchant by name of Katja – has been contacted by a Lammasu that’s turned up on a hard-to-find island off in the reeds.
Katja’s already had her long, reed-cutting knife/sax/messer thing enchanted with Haze and, under the Lammasu’s coaching, killed her abusive drunk of a husband and dumped his body in the marsh for the eels to eat. She is now systematically building social force among the gentry in order to gain backing to take her husband’s place in the roundhouse as gentry in her own right. Her dead husband’s sister, however, doesn’t buy Katja’s explanation of the man’s death and isn’t having any of it – but because of Katja’s effective networking no-one’s listening to her.

Oh and then there’s the bright, towering clouds of an Amboriyon zone looming a few miles away on the horizon.
Might come this way, might not, it’ll probably be fine, don’t worry about it.

After a week or two of settling in, the knights get into it in good order.
With all the high Charm in play, things are going pretty darn well.
Frej, the Spurrish knight is intervening in a stand-off/shouting match between a group of peasants and a group of freemen. He’s ace-ing his Charm rolls, ascended characters are proliferating and being won over, the groups are getting broken up, things seem to be coming together.
Astrid the Priest has been talking to both the dead girl’s mother and the dead husband’s sister and getting a sense that all is not well in all sorts of ways.
She’s connected with a peasant and is heading off with him to speak to a lad called Till, who was the erstwhile young Romeo to the dead girl’s Juliet.
After a chat with Astrid, Egon Siegbertson the Rolke gentry, is just about to hike out with a guide to speak to Katja at the reed beds, when something … funky occurs ‘above the table’ as it were.

Egon’s player (Max) suddenly twigs what Frej’s player (his younger brother, Charlie) is doing and what the situation actually is.
It just so happens that greater equality and fairness between society’s economic strata is something that Max is quite into at the moment. So he tries to persuade Charlie to let him take over the situation currently unfolding between the peasants and the freemen. Frej can go off to the marshes, he says, and Egon will take over here with his bigger Charm score and tie things up in a bow. Charlie isn’t entirely keen on the idea because he was doing just fine for himself, but doesn’t realllly mind one way or another, so ends up shrugging and letting it be decided by a die roll – odds Frej will go, evens he’ll stay. Die roll comes up a 3. Frej makes the introductions and leaves Egon to handle the situation before going off with a gentry guide, Lambert, to find Katja.

As it happens, Egon does indeed tie things up beautifully.
Before long, he’s marching up to the roundhouse with two representatives from each of the peasants and the freemen to thrash out some kind of agreement between them.
Astrid the Priest has met the young peasant lad, Till, and despite what certain voices are claiming, simply doesn’t believe he would ever have killed his girlfriend Kora.
She returns to Kora’s mother … who breaks down and admits that she lost her temper over the thing with Till and ended up killing Kora herself. Astrid takes Kora to see the chief and make this public so everything can calm down and be resolved.

The players are feeling pretty good now. Everything’s coming together beautifully.

Until Frej and Lambert, meet Katja out at her home in the marshes.
And Frej fails his first Charm roll in the game.

Katja is pretty suspicious of this stranger from the Circle just rolling up and asking her pointed questions about her husband.
Frej’s player bristles at this and has Frej get a bit more pushy. Katja bluntly asks why shouldn’t she have killed her husband – he was an abusive, good for nothing drunk – and turns her back on Frej, returning to work harvesting reeds with her big knife.
Frej, in a fit of pique – partly thinking to reduce the chance of violence, partly to get her attention – promptly casts Noxify on Katja’s knife.
Katja, being on the receiving end of sudden, unprompted Rbaja magic, in Spurr, delivered by an aggressive, glowering, pushy stranger with a chained mace at his belt, is rightly terrified by this.
In fact, it’s fair to say she was reasonably ‘placed in fear of her life’.
Which was the Tripwire for this component.

So, as Egon emerges from the roundhouse with all parties reconciled and committed to some radical social changes; and with Astrid persuading Kora’s mother to admit her actions to the town just to put the icing on the cake … there is a rumble of thunder and a change in the wind and the Amboriyon zone is on the move.

Frej doesn’t know about any of this because a Lammasu has just landed in front of him and he has bigger things to worry about.
Unarmoured and underarmed, he decides that getting the flock out of there is the best option. The Lammasu is far quicker than he is, however, and leaps at him as he turns to flee. Still, all Frej’s player needs to do is throw everything into defence and roll just OK enough against the attack and Frej’s got at least half a shot at escaping…

He rolls a 3.

The Lammasu utterly one-shots him and with a single, raking swipe from one of its enormous front paws, sends Frej’s shattered body crashing twenty yards off into the reeds where it sinks beneath the water without trace.

In town, the remaining two knights are trying to work out how in the hell they’re supposed to stop an Amboriyon zone.
Spells? Oaths? They get the sense that something major is needed. If they both swear an Oath – Amboriyon probably, will that work? – and then try to cast Absorb on it, then there’s a chance – a Brawn roll, maybe? – that although whoever takes point on this plan will definitely be killed, the zone might be neutralised by the sacrifice. You know, maybe…? Of course, the question now is, who’s going to take one for the team, as it were?

But then Frej’s wraith appears.

Having risen from death in time to see Lambert being torn in half by the Lammasu, Frej paused only to blow Katja’s head off with a boosted casting of Blast before joining his fellow knights back in town.

Frej quickly elects to take the vanguard in their attempt to stop the Amboriyon zone.
I mean, it’s not like he’s exactly got anything to lose now.

They embark on a ritual casting.
Egon will Link to Astrid. Frej will Link to Egon. Astrid will donate Brawn to Egon. Egon will give Brawn to Frej. All three will swear an Amboriyon Oath to protect the town. Frej will enter the zone and use the donated Brawn to cast Absorb, more as a symbolic gesture than a spell as such …. and they’ll see what happens.
The long ritual casting concludes with the white cloud city towering above the town, as the air sharpens and grows still and icy calm.

Frej hurls himself towards the zone as everyone swears their Oaths and rolls a die for their gained colour points (not exactly by the rules but I had in mind the notion that a Brawn roll might still be needed and these rolls would contribute to it).

Frej gets the maximum 6 white points.
Which added to the points gained form casting Link takes him to 9 and grants him a Gift.
There’s clearly only one Gift to take at this point.

In the sky above Ebbasbek, Frej manifests as a Silver Dragon, spiralling and circling wildly in a blaze of light.
Very possibly to the accompaniment of ‘Immigrant Song’, Frej rockets into the very heart of the Amboriyon zone, white fire blazing from his jaws … there’s a skull splitting crack that echoes from horizon to horizon … the world turns white … and when vision returns the zone is gone, the clouds scattered by a mile wide circle of clear blue sky directly above the town.

So much was great in this session.
The ending, obviously.
The Charm rolls, the utter brutality of the knight’s death, but also the clear effect of player-dynamic on in-game choices.

So much was unprepped. The mother having killed the daughter for instance – totally not in the picture at all, but absolutely obvious when the moment finally emerged in play.

It was also interesting that the players were automatically starting to take an ‘investigate the murder of the daughter and the husband’ approach to things (at one point they even went, ‘wait – did the husband kill the girl and that was why the wife murdered him…?’ like it was a TV noir drama or something) but all I did was expose the situation and play named characters directly and straightforwardly – and the whole thing became about relationships and people and choices and fell out perfectly without anyone needing to ‘follow a trail’ or do any kind of ‘detective bullshit’.

I could have fallen into the trap of making Katja cagey, for instance. But because she just out and out said “yeah I killed him, so what? The arsehole had it coming.” and Lambert kind of shrugging and going “Yeah, he was a bit of a dickhead” … then play became not a matter of ‘working things out’ but of players simply having to decide what action to take. Which was a hell of a lot more fun than scratching your head with a pencil for an hour. Because of the structure of prep, I didn’t have a plot to be uncovered. I just had a couple of messy situations and people who wanted things.

Another thing we’re going to see in the next sessions, is what happens now a player has lost a character.
Max in particular is of the school of “No, what I’m going to do is just switch back and forth between my two guys each time and you better not choose them either because they’re mine”.
I’m very curious to see how and if opinions change and whether the shared pool of Circle Knights will start to come into its own.
I suspect it will.

So there we go. Hell of a game. Hell of a session. Very metal. 😉


6 responses to “Circle of Hands – Play Gets Metal”

  1. Like that guy does it

    … is pretty much what I'm going to say when people ask advice about playing this game.

    That was just one tripwire out of two, though, correct? Or were both hit?

    • Yep, just the one tripwire

      Yep, just the one tripwire triggered out of the two.

      The Knights came away as heroes of legend, the Circle's praises sung in epics down the generations. Or for a bit, anyway. Everyone in Ebbasbek particularly likes the part where the Knight turned into a dragon and sacrificed himself to save them. They definitely feel special about that. Kora's mother went unpunished – she'd suffered enough was the consensus – but she was never really right again.

      It seemed reasonable that Ebbasbek subsequently became known for being this strange little bastion of social equality, where the line between peasant and freeman has basically dissolved and the work one does is valued and rewarded fairly and equitably for its contribution alone. The other towns in the area certainly think it's all a bit flipping weird, but it works for them and who knows, maybe it will catch on one day…

      We all enjoyed the fact that if both tripwires had been hit, even if they'd still neutralised the Amboriyon zone and saved the town as they did, the Circle and its Knights would have been blamed/despised/feared by the people and seen off with great force, very probably running for their lives.

    • Considering a lot of ventures

      Considering a lot of ventures collectively, the game gains a little something when one or more of them have hit the Tripwires without some explicitly bad behavior on the characters' part.

      • But we did good! We helped everyone! Everything worked out!
      • That's not how people are talking about it …
  2. Great game!

    This feels like an amazing game. I love the tripwire mechanic.

    How long did the session lasts? In our own games with Chris & Tor, we felt some pressure to "finish" the venture before the end of the session (we played +- 3 hours), and didn't feel that we could play everything we wanted from the situation.

    • Hi! Yeah, Circle of Hands has

      Hi! Yeah, Circle of Hands has grown into my absolute favourite game to run these days. Believe it or not, now that a few pieces have clicked for me I find it almost … relaxing …? Certainly a load of fun. The tightly constrained prep, combined with the really 'hard' (in the sense of 'consequential, no-fudging, no hiding') dice system, plus the total freedom from any need to control or constrain any aspect of the action is just a real rush to play for me.

      Tripwires are a blast. They manage to work beautifully whether you hit them or not, it's very clever. There's also nothing quite like the moment when a player decides to take an action, rejoices at the outcome, then suddenly winces and goes "Oh god. That was a tripwire wasn't it …" ;o)

      We typically finish a Venture in 3 hours, I'd say. I'll spend maybe 15 minutes describing the location and the ways the characters slot into it over the first few days or weeks, then we slip straight into encountering some named characters with strong needs and opinions, get the Charm rolls hitting the table and we're away. I found that if I mix that in with a Cross every time I shift focus between characters, then things quickly take on a life of their own and 'finishing' is never a problem. There is also the fact that I've also grown very comfortable with calling it done at a climactic moment, even if not every detail is totally run down and bottomed out.  If the players have any remaining questions or lingering plot stuff, we tend to handle that in a perfectly satisfying wrap up as part of the 'how things pan out for the Circle here' portion of play at the end.

  3. Questions

    Hi! This post makes me thing about something.

    My current state of thoughts is this: if you have a backstory, you just look at your prep – which has no planned events but only "what already happened to get to the starting situation" and possible moves the NPC could do. Circle of Hands's mechanics and provided techniques really helps to do this.

    You wrote that you decided during play that the mother killed her daughter, because that was the most obvious and consequential thing at that moment. This makes me thing about how you prep the backstory and the degree of flexibility you kept to have this happens. I really understand that controlling the story is not about having prepared something or improvize it, so I think this account is really helpful to better understand how to let things emerge through improvization without controling it.

    If I had to prep a Circle of hands sessions,  I would surely have decided who had killed the girl before play, so if the players are interacting in the village, casting spells, I would not let any space for me to improvize in fear of being arbitrary. This let to some difficulties in one of my Sorcerer game where I was trying to find a very coherent backstory without many spaces to let "emerge" things like "who dunnit"in your game. It helps me to have things to say if somebody makes the proper roll that could lead to the answer instead of improvizing anything on the spot, which is stressing me because I'm afraid of "fastly improvizing something just to have something and get something dull". What I suppose by reading your account is that, if you have sufficiant play material (= we got into play and things happened), this fear is not relevant because answers will provide by themselves as logical from previous events.

    I'm interested to know more about this. Did you decide who killed the girl before play? Or did you keep it "blank" so it can emerge from play? Did you decide something but keeping it as a possibility ("maybe this guy killed her, but it could change if something emerge"?) Did you just not bother and went into play? 

    I'm still thinking about the degree of "what should I keep blank" vs "coherent backstory" I should get (my definition of backstory is "every fictional events that happened before the starting entangled situation and that shaped this situation") and I'm quite struggling with this. I would be open to a vocal discussion about this as I'm not sure if I'm clear about this, with a recorded video to post here!


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