Legendary Lives Now

We just started a Legendary Lives game. I’m GMing for Nick and George (we all just finished a fairly long-running Sorcerer game), and we have also been joined by our friend Mark (who played Trollbabe and The Shadow of Yesterday with me and Nick many several years ago, but hasn’t played with us recently). We met up for a character creation session with gave us: Levspira (Nick), a Sidhe witch who has serious problems with her family (who are all famous, valiant Sidhe warriors) and has also pissed off a devout/patriotic faction of very pro-Elven Empire Firbolgs; Meyouran (Mark), a Spriggan scholar who is a thief and a compulsive liar (although of the type that seems to fall for their own b.s.) who longs to escape the Elven Empire and his background and become a great scholar/teacher; and Fieldmouse (George) a Feral ranger (born Forester, adopted by Nethermen) who had been captured by a particularly nasty circus and kept as a sideshow, escaped from this (with the help of Levspira), and who is now pursuing what he sees as his religious destiny (he had a vision to recover a sacred Nethermen artifact, the Spear of the First Hunter).

We met again for the first session proper, and started with a discussion about how we weren’t going to play the “pilot episode” of the series, so that we could skip over all the maneuvering about why these characters were together and, instead, jump past that to the point where we know they’ve decided to band together (perhaps only temporarily) with a shared goal in mind. In this case, the shared goal is make their way out of the Elven Empire (partly to avoid their enemies; partly to pursue their individual goals).

I hard framed them as just about to enter Balgravia,  a city on the frontier of the Elven Empire, held by the Empire, but a site of low level, simmering rebellion due to its historical importance to Foresters. They were headed there to arrange for passage on a ship to get out of town, as it were.

We got through only one relatively substantial conflict before having to call it a night. I think we were all disappointed that we didn’t have more time to play, because even though we “completed” the conflict, the players didn’t have time to delve into some of the open questions around it. And I was thinking of holding off on writing up the game until we played more, but I wanted to share a little bit about the game that was not expected and that speaks to some of the issues that have come up in the seminars here, specifically the IIEE seminars and the initiative “best practice” seminar.

Ever since first playing Sorcerer back in 2005 (or if not since first playing, but first grasping it, which took a little longer), I’ve become sort of a snob about intiative rules, and have felt disappointed when playing games that don’t allow for the kind of dynamic reactivity that you get in Sorcerer. In my post on my Champions Now game, I noted some features of the game (and of Ron’s advice on how to play the game) that supported that kind of dynamism. But, based on how the intiative rules appear in the text of Legendary Lives, I was prepared to be disappointed by them and figured I would just have to live with them. Here are the relevant rules, under the heading of “Turns”:

“Starting with the player on his left, the referee goes clockwise around the table, resolving each player’s action as he comes to her. The players should sit around the table in order of their characters’ Quickness…

“Once all the players have had a chance to act, the feree explains what the foes are doing, if any are present. Then he begins the next turn by describing how the situation has changed or stayed the same.” (p. 151)

On the page that seems very basic, even simplistic. There doesn’t seem to be any place for the kind of dynamism or reactivity that interests me. When we actually started playing, though, I was impressed that the dynamism is there, but it is coming in from another direction, or, rather, from a different place in the rules: specifically, from the description of the result categories on the Action Results Table, which almost always provide for something more happening than just success or failure, with that “more” providing continuous input that keeps the situation from remaining static. Plus, because the referee never rolls for Foes, but, rather, Foes’ actions force players to roll defensively, you’re getting this “more” throughout the entire cycle of “goes” during the turn.

Here’s what happened for us:

The group was heading to where they thought (due to some decent Customs rolls) they’d be able to find relatively nice accomodations for the night (despite having a limited budget, Nick thought that Levspira could use magic to convince people to give them a deal).

I threw out the first bang (drawn from material from Levspira’s lifelines): they see a crowd gathered around a singer singing a very sad, very romantic ballad, and Levspira realizes that the singer is Sapphira, her ex-lover, a very talented Sidhe bard who left Levspira because she felt Levspira’s commitment to witchcraft was drawing her away from “mainline” Sidhe/Seelie society. What Levspira misses (due to a failed Alertness roll) is that her brother, Wellborn, a renowned Sidhe warrior, is in the audience with two of his fellow Elven Empire Army officers; Wellborn spots Levspira first and takes the opportunity to call attention to and humiliate Levspira standing there dumbstruck (because the Alertness roll failed really badly and because that’s what older brothers do). Mark has Meyouran step into the middle of this and try to impress everyone with his knowledge of archaic Sidhe ballads; which due to a Superior roll, does impress Sapphira (although leaves Levspira upset that he is essentially mansplaining to her ex-girlfriend).

Fieldmouse, who had been standing back during all of this (in part because he couldn’t comprehend the words of the song in Old Sidhe) was the only character with a vantage point to see a suspicious-looking well-dressed Elf (who is actually a Ganconer) approach Wellborn. Or, rather, the only character with a chance to see this, based on the result of an Alertness roll, which, turned out to be Awesome. We interpreted this as Fieldmouse, with his Feral background, completely and utterly grasping the essence of the situation: that the Ganconer was approaching Wellborn like a predator approaching prey.

I took this observation as the switch obver into more structured combat/conflict rounds.
(Although thinking about it again here, perhaps the border is a little fuzzy: is Fieldmouse’s Alertness roll his first turn or does it trigger his first turn? We played it the second way, but I can see a case being made for the first way. However, it is fortuitous that because his roll was Awesome it does allow that the character could have “acted so quickly that he should be allowed a second action in the same turn”, so, in this case, the results would have been the same.)

So – Fieldmouse, sure of his understanding of the situation and wanting to protect Levspira’s brother (even if he is a jerk) tries to tackle the Ganconer. He gets a Feeble on the Brawling roll, though, failing and causing an “additional embarrassing complication which must be resolved”: to wit, barrelling into a group of Elvish Ladies, knocking them over, and drawing the attention of the two Elvish officers.

Mark has Meyouran try to hide himself in the crowd, but gets a Poor result “fails more than he succeeds” on his Conceal roll, which we take to mean that he’s made himself somewhat less conspicuous, but anyone who is even slightly paying attention to what is going on is going to link him to Levspira and Fieldmouse and that he is by no means hidden. And Nick has Levpira try to make sense of the situation, which, from her point of view, is that Fieldmouse has just caused a big disturbance for no reason. Nick rolls a Passable on Alertness, which was perhaps a bit tougher to figure out how it would look (“With considerable difficulty, the character finishes most of what he attempted, but there is much left undone. Frequently, a Passable success results in a complication that will require another skill roll to overcome.”) We decided it made sense that Levspira would have some idea that Fieldmouse was probably aiming for the Ganconer, but wouldn’t have grasped the situation quickly enough to do anything about it – so though she calls out to her brother, it’s too late.

Now we move to the Foes turns: the Ganconer touches Wellborn, which triggers one of the Ganconer’s nasty mind controlly magic powers (I wanted to use the Ganconer as a Foe, but didn’t want to make a PC the target of his initial pretty nasty mind control stuff, so decided the first target should be an NPC — and not necessarily a sympathetic NPC either). And the two Elf officers make grabs for Fieldmouse — and here’s where the system really started to shine for me, and the dynamism came through: Fieldmouse misses Dodging the first Elf’s grab and ends up with his left arm tightly in the Elf’s grasp, but he gets an Awesome roll, shifted once left to Superior due to being less maneuverable now that he has been grabbed once. We said that the Superior roll (“gains a small, unexpected advantage”), while it didn’t allow him to escape from the first grab, did allow him to maneuver the Elf he’s grappling with in between himself and the other Elf, essentially turning the first Elf into a kind of shield.

That was just the first round, but I think it really shows off how the system works: it shows the importance of “perception”-style skills for giving context to the potential effectiveness of subsequent actions (with Levspira caught out and forced to act with limited knowledge of the situation), as well as the way that successful “defensive” rolls can create a very reactive combat/conflict sequence where there are genuine consequences based on the specific actions taken (and the extent to which they succeed/fail).

Anyway, the conflict continued with Fieldmouse using his Howl racial power to paralyze the Ganconer (only for a minute) and Meyouran using his racial ppower of Growth to intimidate the Elves into letting Fieldmouse go and Levspira making an Awesome Sincerity roll to command the Elves to grab hold of the Ganconer before the paralysis wore off.

That’s how we had to end it: we didn’t have time to get into the aftermath, and there was disappointment from the players that we had had this conflict without being able to figure out much in the way of “why” it was happening. But I think we’re all excited to play again soon to find out more.

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4 responses to “Legendary Lives Now”

  1. Mechanics of the mechanics

    Legendary Lives works its character creation magic yet again, with randomization showing all its strengths. It’s especially remarkable in requiring no “concept step” or specification to location or goals whatsoever, and you still get a totally playable person.

    You’re absolutely right to identify how a situation arises from differing personal information, which is also a strength of the game. When you throw in someone from a Lifeline, do some description and role-playing dialogue or activities, ask everyone where they are and what they might be doing, find out who sees what or who understands what (and doesn’t and/or doesn’t), keep role-playing throughout … then actions either play through using the Abilities/Specialties with consequences but without causing more conflict, or they flow straight into conflict-y actions.

    Based on my own games as well as this one (and very few others), once you get used to this kind of easy-peasy “what do you do” and “OK, now we must roll,” it is horribly jarring and annoying to encounter (i) a system which doesn’t do it and (ii) the inadequate procedures which the group has adopted to cope with the lack, and which are often protected by omerta, like the IIEE-gatekeeper phenomena you mentioned in another post.

    … based on how the intiative rules appear in the text of Legendary Lives, I was prepared to be disappointed by them and figured I would just have to live with them.

    The explanation in the rules is horrible and misses the key factor: that you do roll for foes, specifically, hit location. So you know where they are striking. I know I talked about this in detail in one of the Consulting sessions or maybe in the Design Curriculum, so if anyone remembers, provide the link please. You discovered the much, much better reality of the rules right there in play, just as I did the first time I tried it.

    In your case, it’s all about Fieldmouse’s left arm. Everything, everything, flows from that rolled outcome.

    This principle applies regardless of the attack’s success or failure. You know where the foe is, physically, as the follow-through or posture from the last action it did or whatever was done to it. Then, if it’s attacking again, you roll hit location and have the interesting and fun job to draw a line, verbally, between that known posture/position and this particular attack toward that particular limb or whatever. The resulting choreography is easy, logical, creative, and causal, all at once.

    It proceeds with no need for negotiation to the player’s announcement of how they are attacking in response, and the outcome of that roll (given the specificity of the results table) makes arriving at the next posture and position of the foe a done-deal, that is, cognitively speaking, without any overt or difficult processing.

    When and if I play the game again, I plan to aim for serious violence a lot of the time.

  2. An update and some observations

    I've been meaning to post an update of the game, but have been preferentially spending my free time playing games rather than writing about them. Hopefully this makes up for that a little bit: we're up to seven sessions, and have gotten into a groove. Our sessions tend to be short, only 90-120 minutes, which, with this game with 3 player characters, tends to feel a little cramped, though has the silver lining of leaving us always wanting a little more.

    The current situation involves the characters being caught up in an uprising of anti-Empire Foresters against the elite Elvish Empire warriors ("the Blue Sparrows") who are, essentially, acting as an occupying force in the city of Balgravia and environs. The characters have been drawn in in different ways: 

    First, Levspira's brother Wellborn is the head of the Blue Sparrows, he has been charmed by a Ganconer and driven mad. Levspira wants vengeance on the Ganconer (named Artaud): he's already been captured and is slated to be shipped to Whisperly to face the judgment of the Seelie Court, but Levspira is plotting to assassinate him before he gets there.

    Second, a Forester sage named Zeke has come to believe that Fieldmouse, who was born a Forester (on a sacred day, per his life paths), before being raised Feral, is a hero he had a prophetic dream about, and has tried to convince Fieldmouse that he has the power to lead to Foresters to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Elven Empire. Fieldmouse, being both naive and full of himself, thinks that it makes perfect sense that he is this kind of important hero, and so is trying to quell the uprising before it gets out of hand.

    Meyouran has yet to be drawn in as directly, but he continues to pursue his goal of wanting to get out of the city and on a boat to Qes.

    During the last two session, the Forester group Bowmen of Balgravia, started a series of attacks on the Blue Sparrows. Our heroes had been trying to defuse the situation, but that was not fully successful, and so they found themselves at the Blue Sparrow HQ when the Bowmen made an assault. They managed to help turn away the assault (they had figured out some of the code signals the Bowmen were using and used that knowledge to confuse the attacking Bowmen into retreating) and earned the loyalty of an Elfish warrior whom Meyouran saved from a near fatal wound by a flaming arrow. And, dramatically, Levspira took advantage of the confusion to murder (somewhat in cold blood) the Ganconer spy/assassin who had charmed her brother, as she was (rightfully) worried that he'd be able to use his magic again to escape and cause more damage. An Elfish warrior witnessed this, and that's where we stopped — we'll pick up with Levspira trying to deal with that situation.

    There's a lot of detail I'm leaving out, but rather than a blow-by-blow, I want to bring up a few things of potential interest:

    1) The roller coaster effect (as described by Rod): Fieldmouse has given us the most significant (and just the most) examples of this, with one sequence of rolls of Catastrophic (trying to pray for a Cave Lore wonder miracle to get him out of a jam when he was trapped in a basement by anrgy Foresters) to Awesome (to run away from said angry Foresters) to Catastrophic again (when trying to hide from another group of angry Foresters, leading to slapstick comedy-style hijinx as he hid himself inside a roll of woven fabric, which fell over and rolled down into the river). This was a genuinely tense and genuinely funny sequence of events. (He's had two other Awesome to Catastrophic sequences, too).

    2) Villains? This may be more specific to how I set things up, but since I based almost all of my prep on the lifepaths, it may be a more generalizable phenomenon. I prepped a number of NPCs with the idea that they might end up being villains/antagonists, but things played out differently than I expected, significantly, with at least one of them. Specifically, based on how it was phrased in the lifepath, there was the suggestion that Levspira's relationship with her brother was fraught, at best, and antagonistic, at worst. Nick's overall conception of Levspira was that she had rejected the path her family expected of her (they are all Empire loyalists and warriors), though this rejection was not without some internal conflict (she idolizes a "war hero", which Nick decided was her father). Moreover, she was on the run after having (unintentionally) descreted an important Empire religious site.

    All of which is to say that when I put her brother Wellborn in place as the leader of these occupying forces, I thought that, in some ways, I was setting him up to be, if not THE bad guy, then as least A bad guy. But – for Levspira, family loyalty won out, and the attack on Wellborn caused Levspira to side strongly with the Empire forces and to overlook her past differences with her brother.

    This reminded me of some of the things Ron has written about relationship maps in the Sorcerer's Soul: ties of blood and romance are of a different quality than other kinds of ties. That Legendary Lives lifepaths are full of these blood/romance relationships, it makes sense that they set you up for situations where loyalties are tested like this; or, rather, where loyalties end up drawing you in to be on possibly the "wrong side" in a given conflict.

    3) Gods? Mark's character Meyouran has a devotion of 14 and 4 miracles a day, and really grabbed onto (and set the precedent for) making use of the miracles. This has led to Meyouran's god Thana taking a very active role in things: she has provided guidance and assistance a few times already. I have taken the approach that Ross used in his game and tried to ground the activity of the gods in terms of their own interests and goals. A particularly fun example: Levspira prayed for an Assistance miracle to her god Lugh in order to get some help making a good impression on the Blue Sparrows. She got an Awesome, which we decided meant that Ogme, Lugh's warrior brother, would appear and go with her to the meeting to provide cred/support. The game very much has a "gods are present and meddling" feel to it.

    4) Tone: I think one thing that has helped make things work — considering the roller coaster effect (and the everpresent possibility of slapstick levels of failure) and the magic/miracle rich story — was my guess that a good model for the tone would be B&W indie fantasy comics from the late 1980s, by which I mainly mean Cerebus right before and into the first "serious" story "High Society" (i.e., after it had stopped being just parody but before it had turned into… something else entirely). I'm not sure it is required to take this kind of approach, or, rather, I think there are other models that would fit as well (I'm thinking of a lot of anime fantasy), but I do suspect the game would work against trying to play things in a more straightlaced way due to the swingy results on the ART, the common presence of (very powerful) miracles, and the really wide open magic system.

    5) The Foe Turn: one other thing I've noticed (not related to the above) is the interesting power that the Referee has during the "Foe Turn" (not actually called that). The way the combat/conflict system works is that the Player Characters each get a "go" in order of quickness, and then all the NPCs (both enemies and allies) get to act. If an NPC is doing something against a PC, then the PC rolls to defend. But if an NPC is taking action against another NPC, the Referee is wide open to decide what happens: you can eyeball the respective stats to guide how that might play out, but are not constrained by them. What this means is that players can't rely on NPCs to "save themselves", players can't assume that even their tougher allies will be immune from danger, and players can't assume that their allies will do what the PCs want. This means that players need to use their own "go" to take action to command NPCs or defend NPCs or interact in some other way to try to ensure that the fate of the NPCs isn't left completely up to the Referee's whims. Well, "whims" maybe gives the wrong impression — let's say, completely left up to the Referee's committment to exploiting all of the potential complications of a given situation. (Which is is a major task of the Legendary Lives Referee, I think).

    And so because players need to use their "go" in this way, relationships with NPCs are essentially being put on the line in every single conflict. And we are discovering that, even more important that the changes on the character sheets in terms of advancing skills are the web of relationships the player characters are building with the NPCs: the PCs' effectiveness as individuals is important, but there's more power to shape situations by leveraging relationships with NPCs (especially when we include the gods among the NPCs in question).

    I'm not sure if I'm quite getting across all I mean with this last point: it is very powerful in play, and very noticeable, and it makes me think a bit on how relationships work in Trollbabe. (Although maybe this is just me back projecting Trollbabe onto Legendary Lives — if so, in this case, I think that kind of drift has led to a very engaging game).

    • As with the Four R’s game,

      As with the Four R’s game, the book’s setting content is surprisingly strong once play begins, especially geopolitical as Robbie described it recently. Our game similarly touched upon the Elven Empire vs. Balgravia, as well as upon divisions and crisis within a peripheral, rural human culture (in our case, Hillfolk).

      Leaving villain/ally (or whatever) as personal judgment, for better or for worse – you’re right that there’s some Trollbabe in there, but the game’s own processes do seem to favor this perspective, especially if you use the brief Goals rules exactly as written. We faced a similar situation regarding Robbie’s character’s mom.

      I appreciate you calling attention to the Sorcerer’s Soul relationship map concepts, and I agree that they apply strongly here. For the game librarians out there, my training ground in that regard was early Champions and the original Cyberpunk.

      A personal detail which ties into that: as with your game, play featured a troublesome male from the female player-character’s past, whom she murders at the first opportunity. In our game, that was me with Shining Star and her thoroughly useless ex-lover, Sunfox. (I still don’t feel bad about that one, not even a bit.)

      I’m really into Fieldmouse’s story and all his kooky ups and downs. Feel like our difficulty or sense of disorientation with the roller-coaster serves you well, in that you’re ready for it and able to adapt it into the picaresque, or serio-comedic, or borderline satiric fantasy-aesthetic. I think you’ve effectively articulated the tone for what your group has arrived at, meaning, what you’ve made of it. I think any group playing this game has to tune or discover it themselves.

      The divinity of the setting is genuinely hard core in terms of system effectiveness. The group just has to embrace the gods being involved, and that is so strange in terms of recognized fantasy subgenres. It seems almost a Trojan War Greek pantheon level of attention and interaction, which totally does not fit the picaresque mode at all … yet does fit with the geopolitics. I guess it helps to think of the gods as a little bit crazy.

      That’s a very interesting point about the Foe Turn. If and when I play this game again, it seems like something to point out and to consider in general, throughout all sorts of crisis situations.

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