So I had the chance to try out the mechanics of the game I’m designing, Finding Haven (you can see the consulting sessions with Ron over in the consulting section of Adept Play). This was a couple of weeks ago at Norwescon (all online this year because of you-know-what). It was one of those gigs where you get into the con for free if you’re willing to GM for a certain number of hours. Anyway, no one signed up for this game session (possibly because I made it clear that it was a play test), but one of the con’s volunteers rounded up a number of artists who were happy to give it a try.
The goals I had in mind for my mechanics were these:
- Rolls should have substantial consequences, unlike a miss in D&D combat; it should matter that the PC was there
- Have fewer “fiddly bits” in the dice mechanics that get in the way of the fiction; more Trollbabe than FATE
- Decide where on the spectrum of Mountain Witch/Trollbabe vs. D&D, etc. I want to be as regards character differentiation and how it plays a role in the game mechanics
- Since character death or incapacitation is possible, have a mechanism that prevents player elimination
At the time of play, my initial mechanics addressed the first three points but not the fourth yet. To sum up the dice mechanic, when rolling players get one die, plus another if their profession is relevant, plus another if they use an existing condition, plus more if they risk their health, empathy, or drive. Failures result in intended actions failing, as well as getting a negative condition to a stat.
I gave everyone a pregen, so we didn’t have to spend play time on character generation. The situation I set up was one where the characters were all crew aboard a spaceship enroute to Uranus; in addition to some of their typical cargo, the ship was transporting a number of winners of the recent Culling games, on their way to a lifetime of luxury in Wonderland (if you’d like to know more about the setting, you can check the initial dialogue we read together here:
but this is not necessary for following this post, I hope).
The first scene started with the characters entering the winner’s suite, expecting to have a good time partying it up. To their horror, they don’t see any party at all, they just see a number of people in what appear to be incubation chambers. Looking inside, they see one of the so-called winners writhing in pain as some kind of larvae burst out of them. Shocked, the characters look at each other and wonder what to do. One character wanted to help the poor winner, and bring them to sick bay where they could get treated by the auto doc. However after some discussion the group decided they were too afraid of what the alien larvae might do to them, and thought better of it.
Then the talk came to how much trouble they were in. If anyone found out about what they’d seen and done, the best they could hope for was to go to Thought Therapy; they could also get sent to the Culling early as punishment, if the biots didn’t find it simpler to just space them now and be done with it. The group decides they have little alternative but to rebel, and take over the ship.
Now I as the GM knew that there was a camera in the suite recording them, and I needed to decide whether they would notice this fact or not. In another game, there would be something like a perception check, a spot hidden roll, or the equivalent. In the design I was going for, I wanted rolls to be more significant or substantial than that. Yes, noticing the camera or not could have significant consequences in the future, but not immediately. A failed perception check now would have no immediate damage to their health or resources, or their motives or empathy. It would basically just be boring. So I decided this was the wrong place for a roll, and I quickly looked over their character sheets to see if anybody would be more observant than anyone else. I then told the player of that character that they noticed a camera in the corner of the room.
As expected, this worried the group. The junior engineer decided to try to pull the memory bank before any security noticed what was going on. I decided this was a good time for a roll; failure would mean security would be instantly alerted, and the level of danger would ratchet up rapidly (in addition, failure would mean they’d get a negative condition on one of their stats). They make their roll with one success, and then quickly leave the winner’s suite.
The players decide that their first move will be to try to recruit other crewmembers to their cause. One of the characters had taken a video of what they’d seen happen in the winner’s suite, and they wanted to use that as a recruiting tool.
To help decide the next scene, I look over what I have written down for the ship, how it works and the NPCs onboard, and decide that security would have been alerted by the door to the winners suite being accessed. Further, the NPC who led them into the suite was a very nervous fellow, so it seemed to me logical that he’d start to panic under the pressure. So I tell the group that they hear the sounds of a biot approaching from around the corner, and that when the NPC hears it, he starts to panic. They quickly rush into a room and try to keep him quiet, but their non-violent approaches fail – they flub their rolls, so I say he starts screaming in fear. They wind up trying to beat him senseless, and those rolls succeed.
They tie him up, and leave the room only to encounter the biot, who proceeds to interrogate them. They try to fool it, and make the rolls, although one of the players risked some of their health and lost. She was a little confused about how or why she’d lose health from an interrogation that was purely verbal. I thought for a moment, and said that it made sense that all the stress made her tired, so she got the condition tired under their health. The player was fine with it, and it made sense to me, but my worry was and is, will it always be easy enough to come up with a condition under other circumstances? If it’s too illogical or difficult, that could get in the way of play.
After leaving the biot, the group heads to engineering to try to gain recruits to the rebel cause. In main engineering they find the chief engineer, a couple of maintenance technicians going about their work, and another junior engineer at their post. A character heads over to talk to one of the maintenance technicians. She quietly tells them what they saw in the winner’s suite, and shows them the video she took of those events. I decide a roll is called for, and they make their roll spectacularly well, with several successes, so I added that she convinces the junior engineer as well, who was looking over her shoulder as she made her pitch.
The group now tries to convince the chief engineer and the other technician. The rolls work out well for the technician, but not for the chief engineer. The chief engineer threatens them, giving them one last chance to give up this foolishness and get back to work, otherwise he’s calling the biots. They refuse, whereupon he tries to trigger a ship-wide alarm. A character attacks him, risking all his health, and makes the roll with an extra success, meaning he not only strikes the chief engineer, but gets to put an extra condition on him; he decides that he knocks the man prone (the chief engineer now has the condition prone, which can be used by other players to get an extra die on rolls they make).
Unfortunately that’s all the time we had for the session, so we had to leave it there. So how well did these mechanics meet the goals that I had in mind initially? For me, the jury is still out. The players all told me they had a good time, and the player who seemed most confused at the start of the game, mentioned that by the end of the session she was really starting to get into it.
Now a big issue I have is that in a session like this, there are so many things going on that I have trouble separating out what feature is having which effect. For example, there is the initial dialogue that everyone read at the start of the game (giving the feel of the setting), which people enjoyed; then there’s the social interaction between all of us, especially with how accepting we were of each other, and whether and how much we listened to each other and incorporated each other’s contributions; there is the fictional situation itself and how people responded to it, and so on and so forth. Certainly the game mechanics played a role, but how much of one is very difficult for me to assess.
So if I were just to look at my own experience, in addition to what I already mentioned, I’m a little concerned that the mechanics are overly complex for what I want to do. I can also say that having players get an extra die if their profession is relevant to their intended action slowed play down a bit, as they had to consider whether it could help them, and whether they could stretch the concept of the profession in order to fit their action. None of that is particularly fun, so it seems to me that I should get rid of that part of the dice mechanic, or at least try another session without it.
My motivation for having it in the first place was so that it could help differentiate characters, so that a physician could excel in certain situations that for example an engineer could not. However, I think I’d like to try using the profession to influence the fiction, but not the rolls; similar to how abilities are used in the Mountain Witch.
Anyway I just wanted to describe my own thought process and experience as I continue trying to design this game, and I look forward to any thoughts, tips, or analysis y’all may have.