Inferno playtest: Session 1, Cold case

There’s a big difference between running a scenario where you wrote the characters, and one where player created PCs are interacting with the rules for the first time. Last night four brave playtesters (one couldn’t make it) and I put Inferno to a new test. And the results were pretty good.

One of our PCs: Robert Liston (1794-1847), FRCSEd (1818); The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh;

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”

The news!

Games of Inferno should always start with the news. I’ve been worried about how much overhead this is for the GM, but the answer turns out to be not much. I aimed to write a one paragraph news story related to each PC, and a similar number related to the plot. In this case that meant eight paragraphs which were quick to write. Particularly as four of them are effectively part of the scenario.

Next week I should be able to base bits of the news on the consequences of what happened in our first session “Coach explodes near Leicester, witness describes fiery angel with 1000 eyes, army, church deny involvement”, and anything our heroes elect to get up to in between adventures.

I still want to include a few hundred stories in the full book, just to give GMs something to populate their news with. Part of the idea is that characters can latch on to a bit of news either during a session or between sessions and run with it.

More importantly, the news led to to a suitable ‘ah ha!’ moment during the game, so that worked. I’m sure they players will study it carefully next time.

Todo: Start a file for news stories.

The scenario

I’m working on a structure for writing Inferno scenarios. The Card of Fate system I’m working with has a very definite structure to scenarios. A scenario is either 3, 5 or 7 challenges, and its over when a majority have been won or lost. A three challenge scenario is quick, a five challenge one is good for an evening’s play and 7 challenges is definitely a multi-session affair.

Each challenge should have clear stakes. Either this happens, or that happens. In our first challenge the characters were investigating a collection of murders. Either they were going to deduce the connection between the victims in time, or they weren’t and something bad would happen. Sadly the cards were against them, and it took their difference engine too long to calculate the identity of the next intended victim, and they arrived too late to save them.

Incidentally, this is an example of the system failing forward by default. The players were always going to find the next victim, which meant the scenario would always move forward. But obviously finding them dead rather than alive was a real defeat.

The structure worked, and will be the subject of a much longer post sometime soon, partly because I think this could be a great way to prep scenarios for any system. A few things in the scenes didn’t work though, for reasons that had nothing to do with the system. I didn’t provide enough variety in prompting things the players could attempt early on, so they got rather fixated on autopsies, and I hadn’t put enough thought into the clues leading from the second crime scene to the villain’s hideout.

In terms of what went on, we had a quick bit of ‘pre-credits’ horror, the crime scenes, the second crime scene, a cross country chase, and a showdown at the villain’s lair. About the right amount of material for the session.

Todo: Get the basics right next time!



The basic system ran just fine, although it’s becoming obvious what the little details are people need to remember.

We also had another instance of a PC being captured which is a good example of stake setting throwing up narrative events that more traditional forms of RPG don’t produce. So that’s good.

Todo: Add a step by step list for basic challenges to the character sheet.

Players (and GM sometimes) still need to get used to the shift from task resolution to conflict resolution. However this has led to an idea. In general I’ve been resolving all the challenges as group contests (everyone contributes an effort, and the leader determines overall success or failure), but that doesn’t always feel right, particularly if the characters aren’t really coordinating efforts.

As an alternative, you could use a skill challenge mechanism. Everyone can make tests, and once a given number of successes or failures is reached the challenge is passed or failed. I effectively ended up doing this for the second challenge the party faced.

Todo: Test this formally

One outstanding bugbear is how to handle PCs assisting each other, particularly in group challenges.

Todo: Remind myself what I actually wrote as the rules for this, and review.


Thinking back, a few talents came in for use and worked well. The heroic Dr Lister used “You can trust me” to rally a crowd to his cause, Victor Tillington of House Virgo used “Calculated success” entirely appropriately in trying to find connections between the murder victims – but was betrayed by his cards, we also had two uses of disguise in a ‘I disguise myself as a worker / guard’ kind of way that took as long to adjudicate as they did to say. So that’s working.

I do need to get to work on behalf of two players who took talents the exact results of which the GM gets to specify. (one curious curiousity and one inexplicable event).

Todo: Keep an eye on them


The good news is the magic system for House Cancer seems to be working just fine. The bad news is while working on it I realised that the magic system for House Scorpio doesn’t work the way the background says it should. A huge amount of thinking went into the original Inferno magic system which I want to capture. This isn’t urgent, because there isn’t a member of House Scorpio in the campaign, but I need to find a way to make the difference between the Conjourers of House Cancer and the Enchanters of House Scorpio more obvious and mechanical.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is using magic against PCs. So that’s something to get around to….

Todo: A magical foe!

Between games

Since this is the first session of Inferno which will be followed by a second it means the characters can get up to stuff between games. I’m guessing about three months of game time will elapse between sessions, plenty of time to do something dramatic. We’ll see how that works out next time.

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