The game called The Sword, The Crown and The Unspeakable Power interests me with a hook, that it is supposed to be “like Apocalypse World, but closer to Game of Thrones. I'd refer to that game as simply "The SCUP" or "SCUP." The book itself strongly encourages play in non-Western fantasy, literally calling it “Western fantasy is safe”.
That’s why we (me and three other players) decided to take inspiration from Ancient India, as a sort of mishmash between the Mauryan Empire and some Rigvedic mythology and times. We didn’t focus on reconstructing a certain epoch, more on the Indian subcontinent feel, unadulterated by hellenization and further colonialism. I took the role of MC. We have played four sessions so far.
We almost played in 1+4 conditions, but the fourth player needed to take their leave. Anyway, here are player characters, their playbooks and their names (in “American phonetics”, because we use Polish versions).
- Yaghadis, The Beloved, he/him (Mystic-Fakir, the member of The Watchers)
- Horus, The Black Hood, he/him (A spy and an assassin of The Curtain, underground criminal net of information and dirty work)
- Svatka, The Voice, she/her (Oracle in Temple of Love & Family, member of The Confessors)
Actually, the name “Svatka” (“Swatka” in Polish) literally means “Matchmaker”. That PC is actually matchmaking nobles into “best possible matches” in her temple.
Magic of Session Zero: Mythology
The SCUP recommends establishing the so-called “mythology” of the world. A group answers a couple of Mythology questions in order to establish the past and what happened (wrong) with this world. We baked out these answers:
“In the beginning, times were hard, but we got by with what we had. Then, we meddled in what we should not. This resulted in wanton death stalking the land, and because of this, there was fear, dread and panic. Until the threat vanished mysteriously. And now we must live our lives with constant vigilance.”
We figured out that “mythology” in details, following questions from the book:
- Who are the main characters in this story? Mages who want progress vs Anti-Mages protecting the world before them. Plus The Incompetent Rulers.
- How long ago was it? Two generations ago, like 40-50.
- What is the aesthetic or feel of our world? Ancient India: jungle, spices, elephants, tigers, social & wealth contrasts, mystics (like Fakirs) vs academic mages (like Persian magi).
- What places exist in our world? Jungles, palaces, big cities, “higher castes live higher”, “lowest castes live underground.”
- What social, political, and supernatural powers exist in our world? Mystic fakirs (as vigilante watchers) and academic wizards – both on the top. Caste structure is like this:
- Warrior caste, descendants of The Incompetent Rulers from the past.
- Working class/caste
- Spirit Binders (“The Excluded”), who broke the seal of Wanton Death in the past.
- What is magic like in our world? Summoning ghosts and other monsters, contract possessions, places of power (chakrams, geomancy, etc.), and body magic.
- What is religion like in our world? Belief system around Devas (their avatars and dream visions) and other Rigvedic entities. And the alternative: Belief about self-improvement and asceticism.
- What values are held in our world? Vigilance, body working, knowledge and Deva blessings.
- What remnants of this time are still felt today? Anxiety & unrest, distrust toward the second caste, superstitions about jungle mist, legends about Talking Tigers.
As you may guess, two PCs belong to the highest caste and they are set to compete for power and influence. Third one (Horus, The Black Hood) gave us an opportunity to talk about the world from the lower class perspective.
The city where we play is called Maratha. It’s just a name for a big city on a river, surrounded by thick jungle.
Important thing in The SCUP is that everyone can (and sometimes have to) have a Patron, and this is related to “Patron Move” rolled at the beginning of the session.
- Yaghadis started with no Patron whatsoever
- Horus has his superior in The Curtain – NPC called Adil
- Svatka’s Patron is Yagadhis!
Due to those social dynamics and results of almost all “Patron Move” rolls like 9 or lower, this created additional complications to the already convoluted situation. Keep in mind that if you roll 6 or less for that Move, Patron is angered because of something and marks “1 disobedience”. Three “disobediences” and either NPC rejects their protege, or – if it’s a PC – they can have hold 1 until it’s spent (and third “disobedience” is removed)
As you may suspect, Svatka quickly gathered “2 disobedience” toward Yaghadis. Hours also earned at least one towards Adil.
How did the first four sessions go?
I could say that the play was slow but tense. It lasted like 8 hours of gameplay (at the third session) to finally get all three PCs talking to each other in the open. I tried to frame as many scenes with at least two PCs as possible. And it worked. No “team play” in the classic TTRPG sense here.
One of the players quickly notices that a caste system based on India – much tighter than European feudal manorial one – turned the game into more grim territory. And the whole intrigue went into a severe obstacle because of that!
I extensively used the “Relation Triangle” technique (PC-NPC-PC) to bond every player character. We started the campaign with a cheese motive: some widowed kshatriya (Ghulam) wanted to marry young magi-archivist (Ezra). But of course, that NPC was in a lower caste, nevertheless he asked Svatka (The Voice) for guidance, Ezra (NPC) was contracted for The Curtain to be killed, so Horus (The Black Hood) went into an agenda conflict with Svatka. They tried to figure out how to commit successful matchmaking and then set Ezra to be killed…
Add to it the exploration of Yaghadis (The Beloved) about It – the entity of It – and craving for a new place of power (he found an ancient Brihaspati temple, with ruins intact)
How it went?
I mixed that initial intrigue with a couple of Threats:
- Talking Tigers of Bangaluru, human souls connoisseurs, wanting to reclaim Brihaspati Temple (Yaghadis sent there one of his apprentices, a young mystic called Arya)
- Phantom Runners, old ghosts merged with volunteers from The Excluded, who want to infiltrate The Curtain and to reveal all sins and secrets of the highest caste.
- Arya herself is a Threat, as a wannabe new paragon of It, better than her master, Yaghadis.
- After a third session, I added a coalition against Svatka and her deeds (I’ll write about it soon).
All Threats have their goals, drives, countdowns and – most importantly – they aim at Resources, which PCs do have! For instance, Phantom Runners aim at “Information” resources, held by Svatka and Horus.
As you may expect in PbtA-styled gameplay, little went exactly as planned. Perhaps only Horus went as intended, with a small complication. I’ll explain on a example from a third session, how Ezra matchmaking/assassination went.
The Svatka-Horus agreement was to delay Ezra’s assassination for at least a month, until Ezra and Ghulam get married. Such agreement happened only, because first assassination attempt [first session] has been failed: Horus didn’t expect Svatka companionship, after he baited Ezra (by written messages) out of her family manor tower into one of the silence towers!
Due to Moves and happenings, Svatka was pressured by Ghulam to go together at night with Ezra's parents to their tower manor, to convince them to marry Ezra-Ghulam Ghulam wanted to climb from behind, to then arrive with Ezra. (Svatka suggested kidnapping, but Ghulam was unconvinced for that idea). It could go quite well, except that Horus sent his counterpart (an assassin called Samira) to make the dirty work for him. He just spied on Samira in order to check if she actually did not fail.
Long story short, Samira (NPC) killed Ezra (NPC) by strangulation. Horus first saved Samira’s head by being chopped by Ghulam (NPC), then they got mad at each other at heights (Ezra lived on the 7th floor of the tower!). Finally, Samira got killed by Horus falling on her; later Horus escaped the guards. Meanwhile, Svatka tried to save Ezra, but failed.
The fallout: Ghulam “fell on his sword” at one of the silence towers, Svatka was claimed “The Oracle of Death” by Ezra’s mother (this sparked the fourth Threat, a coalition of magi to dismiss Svatka from Temple of Love & Family”). Horus finally got his patron Adil satisfied, however, Adil was unhappy with Samira's death, so he ordered to find another talented young woman to replace her. Hours had to find and train such an apprentice!
OK, it seems that Yaghadis was quite adjacent to all that intrigue, except of being genuinely interested in what Svatka is actually doing (and what rumors and lies she tells to him). Svatka tried to convince Yaghadis into the not-yet-existing threat of “magi'' wanting to kill Yaghadis and other fakirs. Also, Yaghadis found another place of power – in Maratha this time, in the “Working Caste” zone. And discovered two other things:
- Emerging threat of Phantom Runners, closer and closer to the second caste (warriors) and aiming at the first. He initially called The Watchers to investigate that situation and support him.
- [4th Session] Ezra’s soul has been kidnapped in some strange vessel, perhaps by her superior, brahmi Kalidas (“her soul marked by a vessel in an ancient underground room with two brass tiger sculptures).
However, Yaghadis met Horus thrice. First time, according to starting “Relationships” in playbook:
- Horus “Encountered Yaghadis and feared him. And fear It.”
- Yaghadis “Hours scare you, just a little bit.”
A second time, just after Ezra’s assassination, at hero stone garden of The Watchers, when all three PCs spoke to each other.
And the third time. Yaghadis wanted to talk to Horus in a lower caste zone, outside of Svatka’s influence (and her faction, The Confessors). It was about that ancient underground, where supposedly Ezra’s soul is still hidden. However, Horus’ “Study a Person” move failed, so I introduce the voice of a hidden Adil, who sent an order to kill “unwanted detective” Yaghadis. I spent 1 hold from “Patron Move” then; I wanted to check if Hours really blindly follows his superior. And actually he follows! Yaghadis almost escaped and successfully used his religious group as a backup, but unlucky 1 Harm got him unconscious. At one moment, Horus gained control of the situation, and left Yaghadis half-alive in one of the corners. The Confessors somehow learnt about that situation, in the end (yes, 7-9 result of “Face Duress” move while escaping the acolytes!)
I mean, Yagadhis marked first Debility status, so he just had been left unconscious with bloody but superficial wounds (1 harm).
For the remainder of a fourth session, Horus met his first potential apprentice, an unnamed courier and smuggler of The Black District (coal making and meat smoking district, opposed to The Curtain). He just managed to catch her for several seconds and tell her the offer. Earlier [third session] I hit the player with “some Yaghadis apprentice, who looked exactly like Samira”, but it didn’t get used anyway…
Trivia: The Black District smuggles absolutely forbidden dried cow meat!
How I feel as a MC?
I’ll start with one bummer. The whole “investigation for Samira’s replacement” felt like an unsupported part of a game. I just asked a player where and how Horus was looking for an apprentice (“among street thiefs”) and just sayed, that “in one week, he found that particular person”. A player could either move with it, or push hard with a different approach. This was in line with the already planned one week of downtime.
Competence of the characters. Sometimes, I tried to think about fictional positioning and how a given character is actually competent by default. That’s why, for instance:
- Who will climb faster to Ezra? Samira or Ghulam? I decided that Samira NPC is better suited for climbing in the dark, so she went into the room with a head start. The SCUP has no stats or contests for NPCs, so I need to make some arbitrary decision on who has more advantages in a given situation (who controls the situation?)
- Case of Horus’ search for an apprentice: he is competent enough (and has some informants from The Curtain) to find at least one talented thief in a week, if he focuses on it.
- Somehow, I decided on the fly that Horus has no problems with just entering The Watcher’s hero stone garden to at least listen to the Yagadhis-Svatka conversation. [I feel that I should address the fact that mystic-fakirs are The Watchers!]
- Other minor things, like the members of the first caste and their relations to people in lower castes.
I feel like constant Patron Moves try to destroy the current status quo. Which is good and intended, I think. If a Patron is another PC, this forces two players to establish what changed in relations between their PCs – not for good, most of the time. The SCUP constantly asks you the question “Do you still relate to that patron – protege dynamic? Why?”.
Each session doesn't last more than three hours, so we have time to make only like 4-5 separate, framed scenes. Which hit the fourth session, when Svatka had only one scene with her involved: a meeting with her supervisor, Madhuri the Archconfessor, about Svatka’s fate and possible support from The Confessors.
I do like running games on PbtA philosophy and “engine”. I do like intense improvisation as a gamemaster (MC, I should call) and doing things during the session, much less before it. I want to be surprised while I run the session.
Prep to SCUP is mostly making Threats, then revising them, plus looking at the Strategic Resources table for a reference. And looking for NPC’s pictures at Pinterest, 80% of preptime. I do like following MC Moves and Agenda as an instruction. Not because it’s easy (sometimes it isn’t), but because it’s easily accessible to run it.
I found out that I do like games of intrigues and drama, as long as I run proper TTRPG designed for it, or at least play it as a player. Also for PbtA games, I feel that I really enjoy running those games, one campaign in a year for a given title. Why not run a particular game over and over? Well, it’s about getting saturated by the theme.. After the last Apocalypse World 2e campaign, I feel satisfied and saturated with playing in a post-apocalyptic intrapersonal drama…