March 1st, 2011

delve, glyph

Delve Playtest at Nerd by Nerd East 2011

1/15/11 -- me GMing for Halina, Mike M., Allison and Joel at Manhattan gaming convention

I failed to submit a detailed description of the game prior to the con, so my players signed up with no info about the play style. They were just down to save a town from secret magics. The first thing I told them was how resolution would be handled. I made it sound even more ad hoc than it usually is, partly as a way of looking for trouble. Fortunately, everyone was cool with the looseness, and Halina even expressed enthusiasm for the lack of crunch.

My stress level

This was very nice group of players, fun to hang out with, and easy to engage with the fiction. However, some combo of their temperaments and my adventure didn't lead to a whole lot of self-starting. Mostly, they went after the material I'd laid out and interacted with that. Which is pretty normal, but also drained me a bit, because I didn't have many lulls between providing them vital information.

Perhaps this is why I prefer high color play with lots of character portrayal; the slower pace lets me keep my "adventure navigation" batteries charged. The focused nature of a convention timeslot discourages this, though, and I can't do much about that other than write shorter adventures.

When playing with my home group, I am less diligent about each scene needing to "get somewhere", which is more relaxing for me, but can occasionally frustrate the players. And then there are the times when I'm ad-libbing key metaphysics, which is also stressful.

I guess the stress mainly comes from needing to accomplish something, without having any tools that would make that trivially easy and allow me to concentrate on color as I prefer.

I do enjoy introducing something to the players that makes them go, "Ooh, I have an idea!" I also like giving them a tough choice of what to do next. But there's no formula for this; I work at it until it happens, and then repeat.

The point at which I can finally relax is when the players have formed a to-do list, and subsequent scenes don't NEED to get them to do anything. Once they have a multi-step plan to hurl themselves into danger and/or the solution to the adventure, then I can finally sit back and get into my NPCs, monsters, and scenery.

I guess this is what all the Forge folks who burned out on trad GMing had in mind: skip the hard part and go straight to the easy part.

At Ubercon, I felt similar pressure, but a lot more reward, from the way the players were so immersed. Our deep group focus on the fiction pumped me up and made me eager to do the hard stuff. In this game, however, the vibe was more casual and social, and it wasn't until the players' final big decision to go after the corrupt official that I could relax and just enjoy it.

Distractions and unity

Mike and Halina were decade-long friends with a habit of sharing private jokes with each other. I asked them to tone it down at certain particularly inopportune moments, and they were fine with that. I felt it was messing with the flow of the fiction, and I think Allison felt the same way. Fortunately, Mike and Halina were fully engaged with the fiction most of the time, so I wasn't taking all their fun away from them.

Not sure how much of this is inflexibility on my part. Clearly, many players have less trouble hopping quickly between serious immersed mode and out-of-game jokes than I do. I suck it up whenever the whole group's in on the jokes, but I can't stand fragmenting. When one person's narrating, and another person's chatting instead of listening, I get annoyed.

Scenario flow

The adventure produced the desired sequence of choices. The players quickly had multiple leads, multiple ideas, and multiple things they wanted to learn before committing to a full plan. There was a lot of talking, a small amount of seeing weird stuff (corrupted soil), then a fun fight, then a bit of planning to position the group to take down a corrupt military commander. As they moved toward the commander, I saw the clock, and kicked in my deadly finale. This helped them pressure the commander into giving them the info they needed to stop the evil plot and save the town.

Hints & solutions

In a quick post-play summary, I asked them if they had any ideas how to safely enter the final tunnel. I gave only subtle hints, something like "clear out" or "purify" or "cancel" or "create a protection from" the poisonous air. I know I definitely didn't say "herbs", "smoke", or "tablet". Anyway, they quickly came up with the herb-smoking tablet idea I'd anticipated, and I tied up the remaining loose ends by summarizing their finds in the tunnel.

What did they learn?

They also missed their first guess on which demon name to use. But they called it three times, instead of using the box or the demon itself to test names. So now there's some unknown demon eventually coming for them. That was a fun epilogue note.

I'm not sure about extensible takeaways. They left with a smoke tablet. They learned what "Triculum stone" looks like. They learned that rune-carved boxes can also hold demons. That would probably be enough for most groups. This group didn't seem too concerned about takeaways, so it's hard to tell -- though perhaps that's typical of convention players.

Session Analysis

The more I do these write-ups, the more I retain noteworthy moments from play, and identify them as noteworthy after the fact. I've never really remembered the pattern of my own stress level before. That's probably key info for designing GM support.

Combat and resolution

I used the following resolution system:
- player states intent, we discuss to clarify if necessary
- I state relevant character stat, and ask for skill level
- player tells me skill level
- I instruct them to roll 2d6
- they roll a [good/average/bad] roll
- I narrate, "So that's [good/average/bad] for you, which, being a [skill level] is [still not enough/quite sufficient/way more than you needed]"

I did this for most rolls, I think. At least once with each player. Everyone seemed fine with it.

Nailing down difficulties didn't wind up being required. Perhaps that was luck on two fronts:
a) it was easy for us to all assume the same odds of hitting a zombie with a sword
b) the healer had a high skill and rolled average or better on her two first aid checks

Had the healer tried to amputate blackening flesh and rolled a 4 or 5, I'm not sure what I would have said. I probably just would have imposed a penalty on top of success, as I didn't have a cure in mind for face rot. Something like "You cut it out, but have to really carve up a lot of his cheek in the process. It's hideous." Hmm, not too dissimilar from Apocalypse World.

There were no attribute tests, so I didn't get to see how Agility bonuses to 2d6 felt.
delve, glyph

playtest session 45 -- scenario M5m1 dissects monsters

1/19/11 -- me GMing for John, Dan and Merlin at John's place

Dan had to leave after an hour to deal with wife/baby stuff. The session began with two large tentacles impaled on swords from the previous session. Before proceeding down the magically opened stairway to investigate new parts of the ziggurat, the guys decided to experiment on the tentacles.

They chopped through them, analyzed the layers of the cross-section, and started pouring various liquids on various layers. This was a cool opportunity for me to think about how the monster worked, and to give them some hints about their potential plan to poison it. As usual, there was a little awkwardness as I struggled to make sense on the spot, narrating in separating layers so the various fluids wouldn't be mixing inside the monster.

I should probably think about fun ways to interact with the monster and then define its anatomy more throughly (perhaps to signal those?) before next session.
delve, glyph

Delve combat demos with a friend

1/25/11 -- me and Matt W. at Matt's place

Tentacle fight, take 1, me GMing for Matt using Delve rules:

Too many whiffs. Tentacle missed him, he missed the tentacle or only scratched it. Why doesn't this happen in my home game? Is it because, with 3 PCs, something will inevitably go wrong for one of them, forcing the others to react?

An edge case also came up, where I tried to introduce O/D fighting while Matt was trying to dodge and slash at tentacles. He chose to fight defensively, but I wasn't sure how that'd help his maneuver checks. This also hasn't come up! I think my regular players, used to O/D not affecting maneuvers, would probably have just gone offensive in that situation, the better to land nasty hits.

Tentacle fight, take 2, Matt GMing for me using Apocalypse World rules:

I made a roll, rolled poorly, and the tentacle grabbed me. I then made another roll, rolled well, and killed it. Done. There was no suspense, no evolving encounter with learning and re-strategizing. I complained of this to Matt, and he said that plenty of times in our game we've done tons of positioning to avoid fights, and "roll to win" is NOT always an option. Which is true.

But something still feels weird to me, as if the die roll creates the world. I think "you try, and you don't know why you failed, but you did," is a key experience to make the world feel real. If I know for a fact that (a) I only roll for stuff I have a chance at, and (b) any time I roll, a high roll will in fact achieve my aim, then the world is the machanics' bitch. The GM can tell me, "You can't do that," but can't tell me "Try it and find out if it's possible." The rules of when to roll and how to resolve give me information my character wouldn't have. (I actually had a chat here with Apocalypse World's creator which touched on some of these issues.)
delve, glyph

Delve playtest at Dreamation 2011

2/26/11 -- me GMing for Mark S., Kathleen S., Phil W. and Mendez at gaming convention in Morristown, NJ

Weird session. There were no "We don't have any ideas for what to do!" moments, but there were plenty of the opposite, where one course of action seemed obvious to the players, so they did that without any fun discussion or great investment in the decision.

There also wasn't much theorizing.

I'm not sure whether the sense of obviousness meant that no one felt the need to theorize, or whether a disinclination to theorize led the players to jump at whatever suggestion was made first.  My best guess is the latter.  The augury cards tend to help (though they didn't in this game), so maybe in the future I should push for that early if there's not much theorizing going around.

Everyone did seem genuinely interested in my NPC portrayals, and learning what each NPC had to tell. But these scenes were followed by, "okay, we go to the next place" instead of any group conversation. The players also did the bare minimum to get the bare minimum info out of each NPC, and didn't push for more. I guess perhaps I made it too easy to get something. If any of the NPCs had been completely unwilling to help no matter the PCs' verbal assurances (and exhortations to help save the village), then maybe the players would have been forced to explore some more dramatically interesting options. Coercion and deception don't need to happen, but it's fun if they're at least considered.

Character portrayal

There also wasn't a ton of character-personality color injected into the fiction. Mendez showed his character's soft spot for kids in one scene, Mark showed his character's polite beneficence in another, and that was about it. Perhaps the above-mentioned smooth NPC interactions are to blame -- those scenes are usually where the personalities shine.

I wonder if perhaps I should target PC issues more specifically via NPCs? Tempt them with fame, power, etc., but at a cost? That didn't seem to be the issue here, though, as Phil's ostensibly power-hungry character didn't even ponder grabbing the crazy wisewoman's magic loot. Weird.

The relative lack of character expression also makes me wonder whether my convention character customization process is worth the time it takes. Some players have had great success with it, but is it possible that those folks just came ready to bring the portrayal on their own? So for them the customization is unnecessary, and for others it's insufficient? For now, my best guess is that yeah, the players have to want to do it, but my system does help them to do it more easily. Something to keep an eye on, though.

Is there any way to encourage portrayal in players who aren't initially interested in that? I can't think of a way to reward that via the fiction, and metagame rewards haven't fit into the game in the past. I'm inclined to say "no" to targeting portrayal directly, and focus instead on character-situation interactions that elicit value statements. I wonder how much discovery-style play can also accommodate Dogs in the Vineyard-style morality-test encounters.

I think such encounters should probably fill the same niche as combat: excellent for spice, but not to be overused.

I think personal values are less than half of the usual character-portrayal equation anyway. The rest is largely about the methods used to pursue goals (especially interpersonal ones) and the style with which they're carried out. The intimidating warrior, the suggestive know-it-all, the forthcoming pillar of righteousness, etc.

This is something a lot of games would incentivize by rolling stats in Gruff, Savvy, Noble, etc. But I need to keep that fiction-first. Hmm. Maybe let players define what they're good at, and then list a non-roleplayed feature that aids in that? So the Gruff character is "big and dark-eyed", so when the player roleplays their speech, I factor that look into the NPC's response.


Speaking of spice, perhaps one reason for the low energy in this game was the lack of danger and pressure. There were many conversation scenes before the monster cave, and zero combats. I also never kicked in my Steps of Doom, for two reasons:

1) My usual cue for when to implement a Step is when the players discuss for too long without acting. That never came up, so I never thought of the Steps.

2) I didn't write down the Steps before play, relying instead on my memory of previous sessions of this scenario. So I didn't have them in front of me as a reminder. Nor did I easily remember them in the midst of playing. Oops.

I built this scenario out of bits of three other scenarios with three different Steps of Doom: worsening elemental drain, more monster victims, and a combo of maniac murders and cursed artifact activations. The last time I ran this, at Ubercon, I didn't need any of those. The group latched onto the dates I'd given them, decided that the climax was in 36 hours, and applied the pressure themselves.

The NerdNYC game, on the other hand, had a very nice sequence of toxins and monsters encircling the town, plus a mid-game zombie fight. Probably a better model overall.

In general, it seems to me that urgency leads to more adrenaline, which leads to more participation. Not sure if that was an issue in this session or not.

GM checklist

Before play, I wrote a few notes down. They were intended as ways for me to know what to aim toward in the fiction at a given stage of the scenario, with a few example methods of how. It was not usable at a glance. Some of that was due to my bunched-up writing. Some of it was the fact that "what to aim toward" didn't seem to follow the straight 1-2-3-done progression I'd anticipated; rather, something like 1-2-1-2-1-1-3-1 might be more realistic (and thus harder). But it might be worth another try with a better and more readable reference. Here's what I wrote:

aim toward:
1) PCs eager to do next interaction
2) PCs have a theory to test
3) PCs have a plan to fix the problem


add a supernatural sign, a weird manifestation of some aprt of the problem in action

reveal part of the truth about a person, place, object or event (PPOE)
1) NPCs
- idle mention: fact without obvious relevance; PC questions then reveal relevance
- suspicion or accusation
- defense of some behavior or person
2) locations
- signs of use: when, what, by whom (tracks, broken branches, hot/cold, odors, flora, fauna)
- repeat a signature (e.g. a supernatural sign) already connected to a PPOE


I had a lot of energy, and Mendez was all about creative problem-solving, so the overall game wasn't bad. I got the impression that Mark and Kathleen, while clearly not having a fantastic time, also weren't disappointed. I felt a little bad for Phil, who probably would have had more fun playing one of the many story games going on at the con instead. Still, he was a good sport, and gave me some nice post-game feedback. I think the most disappointed person was me, because I know how much better the game can be. Still, there were some highlights:

The scenario included a big monster that hopelessly outclassed the PCs. Mendez created an infinite loop to trap it, by drawing a teleport rune right under its own target location.

The group decided that the manor lord was responsible. My plan had been that he was actually just another victim of the curse, but their theory was just as plausible and would make for a nice climactic combat. "So be it!" I said in my head. Unfortunately, convention security told us to hurry up and finish the game so poker players could take over the room, so I had to ditch the combat. I was worried that it'd be lame to have them merely slice the demonic tapestry with a sword to save the day; fortunately, Kathleen remembered her horn of acid (which I'd forgotten about) and dissolved it.

There was also a cool moment where Mendez used his crystal rod to hit a mysterious blank spot on a magical device with a sunbeam. In an ongoing campaign, I probably would have had to nix "sunlight = detector", but for a one-shot it seemed harmless, so I went with a faint image (of the correct number to write into the blank space) appearing in the glare.

Difficulty chart

The new chart of "what you need to roll on 2d6 to succeed on which narrated difficulty level (e.g. "slightly tricky", "extremely hard") had mixed results.

On the plus side, it was satisfying for everyone to know instantly, as the dice rolled to a stop, what happened in the fiction.

On the downside, after one use, Mark made a later attempt by asking me, "What's the difficulty?" instead of via the fiction (e.g. "How hard does it seem like it'd be?"). This also prompted me to give him an answer, instead of saying, "You have no idea," which might have been more appropriate given his task (brew a potion to bring clarity and tranquility to a crazy woman). Then he rolled for the brewing, meaning we knew he'd failed before the fictional narration of the woman sipping the potion and nothing happening. I should have narrated, "She sips it... you wait for a few minutes..." and then called for the roll -- something I almost always do when someone isn't grabbing dice and asking me for difficulty levels.

No part of this is impossible to overcome. I can encode key phrases to request difficulty levels, I can write GM instructions to think about moments of revelation, etc. But man, why make the first priority (focus on fiction, not system) take more work to accommodate the second priority (instant clarity on what a roll signifies)? If I do use this system, with key phrases and GM instructions etc., it'll be because I don't trust other GMs to do what I usually do by default. Which is valid in a lot of cases; I'll have to think more about whether this is one of them.


1) talk 1st farmer
2) talk pacing priest
3) talk vanished kid's mom
4) talk scared kid
5) talk crazy woman
6) FFW get directions to sane priest
7) talk sane priest (wanted proof of trustworthiness, but I told them of imperial writ & that sufficed)
8) talk crazy woman & sane priest
9) approach secret clearing, study glyph 2
10) talk cultist
11) study glyph 1 / talk cultist
12) solve wizard door
13) explore cave
14) retrieve goop, experiment with runes, set trap, trap monster
15) study magic altar
16) talk guards
17) study lord, destroy tapestry