Red-hood Iskra

The past weekend I attended Big Bad Con in Northern California. It’s a convention that heavily favors small press and independent RPGs. So, it’s an excellent place to find people who are up for just about anything and try out games you’ve wanted to play but just haven’t been able to pull together.

The first game I ran at the con was Broken Tales. It’s an Italian game about heroic versions of classic fairytale villains fighting villainous versions of classic fairytale heroes across 18th Century Europe.  Aesthetically, this is totally my thing.  It’s also one of those games that feels the need to make the PCs members of a group who go out on explicit missions.  In this case that group is called The Order and they work for the Papacy.  Yes, this is the game where Captain Hook works for The Pope’s personal strike team.

I should note that the game interprets “fairy tale” very broadly. It includes material from Arthurian Myth, 1001 Nights, even Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books.

In this game the PCs were: Baba Yaga the Child Witch, Garou the Old Wolf, and The Astonishing Pied Piper Without a Name. They were sent out to investigate a series of savage animal attack in the French village of Durfort. The title of the scenario was Red-hood Iskra a take on Little Red Ridding Hood (I was using characters and a scenario provided by the game itself).

So, here’s the deal: Elizaveta had her daughter Iskra out of wedlock and was a source of shame.  So, when Elizaveta had a chance to marry a noble named Gerard, she deliberately sent Iskra out into the dangerous woods to die.  However, instead of being killed Iskra was taken in by Greskar a werewolf who also made her a werewolf.  When Iskra didn’t come home her grandmother Anastazia died and now haunts the woods trying to find a way to save her granddaughter.  Iskra and Greskar (with his pack of ordinary wolves) are basically laying siege to Durfort to get to Elizaveta and take revenge.

I was kind of impressed with the game’s scenario prep advice. It very much focuses on backstory, motivated NPCS, colorful locations and a collection of flexible trigger conditions that cause escalations.  I was then disappointed because each of the provided sample scenarios also include a classic pre-plotted Scene-By-Scene version. The book tells you not to use them unless you just can’t function without that structure.  Seems like an act of cowardice on the part of the writers.  But it’s easy enough to ignore those.

Where I was skeptical was the game’s resolution system. The GM picks a target number which is typically 3, 5 or 7.  NPCs actually have a fixed target number prepared in advance.  Iskra and Greskar for example both have a target number of 5.  That number can then be adjusted by +/- 1 based on whether the NPC’s core descriptor is fully in play or has been thwarted in some way.  A descriptor is just a short phrase that summarizes the core of the NPC.  For example, when dealing with Greskar in full vicious wolf form his target number is likely going to be 6 (+1 from his base 5).

Similarly, PCs have three descriptors of their own. When they are acting, they start with 1 base success, but if what they are doing is in alignment with one of their descriptors, they start with a base of 3.  Note: These are full successes, not dice.  So, in theory an easy action (TN 3) vs. a character acting in accordance with one of their descriptors (3 successes) has already succeeded out of the gate.

Just meeting the target number results in a success with a cost, exceeding the number by 1 results in an ordinary success, and exceeding it by 2 results in a success with an additional advantage.  The way you get additional success is either by spending Soma points (of which you only have 5 and also typically need to spend to activate powers you have called Gifts) or roll six-sided dice.  The interesting this is that each die you add basically generates a success on 2-6, however if ANY of them come up a 1 the whole thing fails.

Notice that this creates a called-shot system.  The player decides which of the three success levels they’re going for and picks up the necessary dice to make up the needed difference between the TN, TN+1, or TN+2 and their base successes plus Soma expenditures.  After that, it’s all or nothing.  They either don’t roll a one and get that exact success level or they fail entirely.

The reason I was skeptical was that the differences to make up are generally in the 2-4 point range maybe one or two more if you’re shooting for success with advantage and from having played The Pool I know the odds of rolling a 1 in that range is kind of low. It kind of felt like the system was flinching from failure in favor of encouraging players who want to play it safe to go for the success with cost level, after all there’s a mission to get done.

But it turned out in practice that the called-shot plus press-your-luck with an extra die or two for better success combination felt pretty tense at times.  And those 1s do show up at the most unfortunate of times.  Poor Baba Yaga got trapped in a tree when some nasty wolves tore her flying broom to pieces.

A particularly interesting moment came near the end. You’ll notice one of the PCs is a version of The Big Bad Wolf (Garou) but this Litte Red Ridding Hood based scenario still has The Big Bad Wolf in it (Greskar). So, this confrontation happened near the end that evoked a kind of Gothic duality, as Garou and Greskar faced off.  The other two PCs were off trying to stop Iskra and her mother from murdering each other.

Garou and Greskar were both down to their last wound. Greskar had already seriously injured an NPC named Vincent (former huntsman and Elizaveta’s personal guard). Garou and Greskar had been fighting in wolf form and I kind of just had this moment of inspiration.  I had Greskar transform into a human, pick up Vincent’s axe and say, “Let’s finish this as men.”  Greskar then came at Garou with the axe.

Garou responded by grabbing and dragging Vincent as a human shield. A few interesting mechanical things happened at this point.  Greskar’s difficulty dropped from 6 to 5 because my choices had moved him out of the strengths of his wolfy descriptors.  Garou was still operating at base success count of 3 because of descriptors relevant to massive strength and the like.  So, Garou’s player only needed to make up 2 points to hit succeed with cost.  There was a moment where the player and I kind of looked at each other both acknowledging that the cost was likely going to involve Vincent. So, Garou’s player only picked up two dice and sure enough neither came up ones and poor Vincent died by the blade of his own axe.  Who’s the real Big Bad Wolf now?

In play, I was pleased to discover that the sliding in and out of descriptor application combined with the call-your-success mechanic was more dynamic than I had originally suspected.  Overall, the game was pretty cool and I wouldn’t mind playing it again.

5 responses to “Red-hood Iskra”

  1. Without dismissing how you’ve presented this experience, and acknowledging that I like numbers and dice as much as anyone, I am minimally interested in the review/analysis. I’m trying not to be judgy about what might have been a rather bloodless “test” of a widget to see whether it works (whatever that means), or what exact sort of automatic-fun-jolt one is supposed to be receiving from its functions.

    I’m more interested in your personal sensations and decisions while playing. What moments included your visceral and intuitive participation? When did you experience Bounce?

    • Actually, I think that’s where I was trying to get to with that moment about Garou and Greskar. I just took a long analytical road. I took a minute to step back and think about the bigger sequence of events because I really thought they were neat. So, I’ll elaborate.

      The confrontation between Greskar and Garou involved Garou basically throwing Greskar across the room. That was a success with advantage. So, Greskar was stunned for a moment allowing Garou to circle around and bite into Greskar’s hind legs. This was another success with advantage.

      Now, here is a point where I definitely felt a fictional constraint. Garou had a hold of Greskar’s hind quarters AND it was mechanically “with advantage”. I couldn’t just have Greskar wheel around and bite Garou or run away. In my mind, I saw Greskar’s front half sort of thrashing around helplessly. So what I had him do was kind of buck like a horse and try to kick Garou off of him. The advantage translated into an additional bonus success for Garou to hold on. But even with the bonus, Garou failed and ended up getting kicked hard in the face and thrown off Greskar.

      As I mentioned in the first post the other two player characters were off trying to stop Iskra and her mother from killing each other. At one point Iskra (in wolf form) turned to charge Baba Yaga. They were in Iskra’s mother’s bedroom so Baba Yaga used her magic to try and pull the large lavish bed into the center of the room to defend herself from the charging Iskra. That roll failed and so Iskra leapt over the sliding bed straight into Baba Yaga’s throat seriously wounding her.

      That opened the door for another interesting fictional exchange. The Pied Piper character has an ability that lets them inflict a wound on pretty much anyone they like, even at great distances but they have to put on a grand performance to use that ability. So the Pied Piper took advantage of the fact that the bed had been dragged into the center of the room, like a stage. He leapt up on it and began playing his heart out, ending on a high shrill note that acted like the dog whistle from hell. He inflicted a wound on Greskar, Iskra and all their wolves. (The ability also frightens animals, so there went all the normal wolves).

      I remember now, THAT’S what inspired me to have Greskar turn back into a human. It was the Pied Piper’s song and dance routine that hurt his wolf ears. That AND I liked the idea of him, on the edge of defeat, wanting to face Garou as a man, not a wolf. But it was that shrill note that sort-of forced him to re-think his monstrousness, even for just a moment. This, of course, led into the moment with the axe and Vincent described above.

      The reason I was so focused on the mechanics is because in games like Fate (and others) “success with cost” is cheap and easy to accomplish and frequently feels like a cop out to keep things moving in a specific direction with a bit of a bummer dramatic flourish. I was worried players were going to constantly shoot for success with cost which would become an exhausting exercise. But here they actually reached for different levels and had actual failed outcomes from time to time. The one use of success with cost was actually interesting and surprisingly engaging. So, I was just happy to discover that this played… I don’t know… normally? Like there was a nice building interplay of events, even across locations at one point.

    • Yes! Thanks. That speaks right to the point of why failure is important, and why I’m always on about “let the dice be your cameraman” in Sorcerer, which actually originates in older play (The Fantasy Trip, Champions) and which turns out to be much more important than merely presentation.

  2. These thoughts about “success with cost” speak to me! I concur with your assessment, Jesse, that too much of this can become exhausting (or rote / merely cosmetic once the exhaustion takes over).

    Hence, the importance of real failure — that shakes things up and actually has an impact!

    I’d rather have more failure as well as critical failure (and critical success) than middling results. I love DCC’s spell tables, for instance, where a *sleep* spell may occasionally put to sleep an entire dungeon (or a *color spray* may cause casualties across an entire village, as happened in my campaign where said village happened to be the PCs’ base).

    I used to think that critical failure was inappropriate for some genres, but I’m not so sure anymore — after all, it’s possible to narrate things in different ways.

    In my Nibelungs game, the PCs are larger-than-life heroes – the extent of romanticisation depening on level, as per D&D, with Nibelungs starting at level 2 -, so I make it a point to narrate a even regular failures as circumstances conspiring against the PCs: A failed stealth check does not mean you stepped on and snapped a twig, but rather a fly landed on the sleeping ogre’s nose and woke him up….

    Anyway, your assessment of Fate seeems spot-on and I enjoyed the werewolves’ battle and how that came about!

    • My big take away was that success with cost is not so bad when there are obvious secondary stakes implied in the action. The main action was about whether Greskar hits Garou with the axe. But Garou’s action involved dragging Vincent into harm’s way. So, when Garou’s player picked up the dice and said, “Aw fuck it, I’m okay with success with cost,” I didn’t feel anxious or tired. Instead, I smiled and laughed because I knew damn well why he said that.

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