Nine hours ago the first playtest of Inferno wrapped up, and it was a cracking success. That’s both to say that a good time was had by all, and that we identified plenty of points for improvement / further testing.
Overall the scenario worked well. It had plenty of Victoriana flavour, rattled along in the frothy, dramatic style that Inferno should have and took in plenty of terrain. We had giant floating air palaces, people leaping between speeding carriages, social intrigue at a ball, supernatural occurances and giant machinery of destruction. Not bad for 2.5 hours of play.
One realisation looking over these notes, is that a second test scenario is needed quite soon to try and emphasise different bits of the system. Maybe a slower paced horror one with time for research, investigations, scientific experiements and the like.
News: Everyone loves the news! But it is a fair amount of work to put together. Fine for prewritten scenarios, might need some help for GMs with less time.
Scenes: To handle the easiest stuff first. I’d prepped a straightforward scenario with three locations. The players immediately surprised me by ignoring the ‘opening hook’ and heading for a fourth location. Not a problem in game but made me realise that of the pregen characters supplied only one has a reason to intervene in the planned opening location, and since they weren’t present it’s obvious why the players did their own thing.
Todo: Write up the new location (The skies over Big Ben) and add it to the scenario as an option. Strengthen the connection to the first location (A mass rally in Hyde Park).
End points: This happened again later in the adventure, when the players managed to intercept the villain en route to his secret base. This was smart thinking, but might have denied us a big finish, since at this point they’d achieved sufficient successes to succeed in their mission. ‘Narratively’ this made sense as well, the bad guy captured before getting to show off his toys…
Todo: Add some guidance about what to do when a mission finishes ‘early’. Think about flow diagrams to help GMs work out how to frame scenes for 3, 5 and 7 card missions so the right outcomes are on the table each time.
Structure: With the nation saved I wrote a quick supplementary mission for the players and let them have a go at that. This provided a more satisfactory ending, although things did still peter out a bit. In GMing this bit I let the strict ‘tests vs missions’ structure slide a bit. Not a problem from the players point of view for the evening’s entertainment, but as the mission structure supports things like experience points this needs some work.
Todo: Work out what I ‘should’ have done, and provide some suitable GM guidelines.
NPCs: I statted the major NPCs as if they were characters. Although their stats got relatively little use, they were both caught on their least favoured terrain and easily overpowered.
Todo: Beef them up! And think about some guidance, how many points should a villain have relative to the party?
Difficulty ratings: I went with a default difficulty of three for almost every challenge in the game. I’d intended the aforementioned NPCs to provide the tough challenges but it didn’t work out that way.
Todo: Test the scenario again, raise the standard difficulty to five for everything at the last location.
All the characters worked the way they were ‘supposed to’, with players able to attempt the right kinds of things with their characters. Even the players who were new to Inferno had no problem slotting into their expected roles, while providing plenty of characterisation. Pretty sure the art helps a great deal for this one.
As an additional note, when your swashbuckling heroine opens the game with two perfect successes while engaged in death defying feats above the streets of London you know the gods of gaming are on your side.
Utility:There was agreement that a number of them lacked a strong ‘secondary’ skill, and often ended up going into challenges with few cards (two or three) when they were out of their element.
Todo: Possible fixes are either – everyone starts with one card in a challenge for free, effectively a universal +1 to all skills. Or – add some extra points for character creation. This needs some testing. Could also be that with more experience players would be able to manage the ‘internal economy’ of the character sheet better and so apply their character’s maximum efforts at the right point.
Utility 2: One early concern in developing Inferno was ‘Will all the Houses be able to contribute enough to an adventure’. Partly based on the notion that House Aries (adventurers) might dominate things. That wasn’t the case. While characters from the other houses might not see themselves as people of action, they are all exceptional individuals and so were able to find plenty to get up to! This does require the scenario to provide plenty of variety in situations, we had environmental challenages, stuff to investigate, social challenges and so on, and only one brief fight. Todo: Work into the advice on scenario design
The character sheet: Worked pretty well, but some usability fixes needed.
- Make damage tracks visually distinct from spendable resources. So squares for damage, circles for resources.
- Add a space on the character sheet for missions
- Add the basic test process to the character sheet so it’s to hand for everyone. (Not that anyone seemed to need it, but probably a good idea)
House and personal missions: The overarching mission worked fine, however because several of the house missions are about determining how exactly you want the overarching mission to play out there’s a problem. Basically regardless of how many tests someone makes the overall missions end state will imply that their house mission has either suceeded or failed. As the most straightforward example, the villain will be either captured or not, and either dead or not, regardless of whether a particular player had anything to do with that.
In contrast, personal missions worked better, because they’re *not* tied to the main plot, and effectively function as ‘b’ plots. Every reason to think that in a campaign game these will work just they way they should.
Todo: Have a good hard think about House Missions and test something else.
The Card of Fate system worked well. It was new to three of the four players, but everyone got into things quickly and we had no real issues with people understanding the rules. Do need to add some bits to the rules about using high cards to break ties (especially nil-nil ties).
Damage: Simplified damage worked. Will keep an eye on this, but replacing ordinary / critical damage with one point for an ordinary, two for a critical makes things quicker without taking away from the gameplay. Having a damage track per quality (vigour, confidence, inspiration and concentration) works just fine.
Todo: Keep an eye on it.
Refresh: Dropping a refresh based on the card of fate in favour of a flat ‘one point per challenge’ worked. Does lead to some interesting points. First, the identity of the card of fate is ‘meaningless’, which means an obvious moment of tension (the card being revealed) isn’t adding to the drama. Second, at least on the first challenge it’s always worth putting in a point of quality, because you’ll get it straight back. This changes a bit as damage comes into play as you’ll start to want those points for other things.
Todo: See what happens at higher difficulty levels and think of something cool (but simple) for the card of fate.
Card flops: Everyone loves these. The tension of the GM revealing cards one by one is great. As is the joy at players drawing a joker / perfect success. Players occasionally refer to cards as dice. This is fine.
Todo: Add a note about revealing cards dramatically to the rules.
Stake setting: First, it’s still easy for the GM to forget to do this up front, but it’s important you don’t. More important though is setting the stakes at a fairly high level. The best success in this respect was telling a player ‘on a success you get what you want, on a failure you’re captured’. You know that thing about PCs never surrendering and never getting captured? Reader – he was, and things failed forward from there, and more importantly I have now proved that… system matters.
Todo: GM guidance.
Group challenges: Perhaps the best bit of a system with many good bits, group challenges were a high point of the game, and a majority of the action happened as part of these. They did all succeed though – so no-one got to feel the horror of botching one as leader. However, this being Inferno a question arose which never comes up in Duty and Honour – what if you want to sabotage the group?
Todo: Mechanics for misdirecting or opposing group tests, including ‘what if the leader is leading you astray?’.
This gets its own heading because there’s a lot to think about. The skills we had in the game were fine but there’s some duplication, some unclarity and some missing stuff. So from the top
- Investigate – got plenty of play, overlaps with research and observation
- Organise – got no use, cut? But mostly aimed at turnsheet play?
- Research – got no use and overlaps with investigate
- Ritual – essential to magic system
- Art – not used, good for setting but perhaps this need can be served elsewhere?
- Engineering – loads of use, strong keep
- Philosophy – the ‘understanding magic’ skill, didn’t really come up in play. Rename?
- Science – Didn’t come up, but… GM should have used it for investigating Aether in place of engineering?
- Charm – lots of use
- Diplomacy – bit of use
- Intimidate – bit of use
- Leadership – some use
But – we miss a deceive skill, which felt needed. Will test combining charm and diplomacy into ‘convince’, adding deceive.
- Athletics – strong keep
- Observation – overlap with investigation. Potentially move to focus or genius?
- Ride / Pilot – got used, was dramatic. Sufficient carriages, steeds and contraptions in the world that this is a keep
- Skulduggery – saw much less use than in D&H, perhaps split into ‘sneaking’ and ‘stealing’ parts. Everyone agrees it’s a great word.
Todo: Put together a new set for the next test run.
- Magic rules even more incomplete than I thought. Need to workout
- Mesmerism really rather powerful. Needs to be codified properly before the next test.
- Gonna need some actual rules for players having things like sky palaces, secret island lairs and the like. Especially when I get to House Capricorn, for whom these things are almost obligatory.
- In a victorian game the correct units of measurement are Imperial. Yards, not meters!