Inferno playtest session 2: I wanna be elected

So last night’s session was the best playtest session of Inferno to date, principally because the players really hit their stride and did the kind of stuff that Inferno characters should do. That makes me happy. So it’s worth taking a moment to think about what went right.

In between times

Since this was session 2 the players could get up to things inbetween games. Having seen the volume of work that can result for a GM from allowing players even a little bit of leaway when it comes to volume of activity everyone was restricted to one action. Everyone tried stuff, and while some worked and some didn’t I did realise that failed actions can’t be allowed to just be ‘fails’. I didn’t quite have time to work the consequences of this through, but it’s definitely going to be a guideline for future stuff.

Todo: Make sure downtime rules encourage situations to escalate when actions fail

Improved investigations

Similar to session 1 we began with a spot of investigation. London was shrouded in fog, and a street gang called ‘The Pipistrelles’ were engaged in a crime spree, pick-pocketing, mugging and kidnapping for all they were worth. This time I provided a few more leads for the characters to grab hold of, and the players went for it. One of the shifts you have to make playing a game grounded in conflict resolution rather than task resolution is to bite off big chunks when you act. As a simple example you don’t want to be saying “Can I check this crimescene for footprints” you want to say “I spend a day investigating the various crimes, what turns up?”

In our case the heroes interrogated a prisoner, shook down an opium den (and lost their valued customer discount in the process), tried to shake down a heavy, did some data analysis by difference engine and finally staked out the suspect location in disguise. All resolved with plenty of role-play in about half an hour.

Todo: Make sure examples of play highlight this, and flag it in the instructions to players

Failure is a good thing

In my experience it’s rare for heroes to fail in role-playing games, even at intermediate tasks. The Card of Fate system makes failure more likely by explicitly scoring things. So if the plot is a best of five challenge plot, then that means once the players have attempted between three and five challenges, it should be resolved. Having found their target the players were 1-0 up, their next plan was to capture the ringleader, and by the narrowest of margins they failed, with the bad guy disappearing into the London fog, this made the score 1-1.

Failure is important. Without it things get boring. In the playtests so far I’ve found that having conflict resolution, and a lack of reroll options really ramps the tension up. I’ve also found that mapping out likely scenario paths ahead of time makes me, as a GM, much more willing to do bad stuff to players when things go wrong. It’s a practice I’m going to build into Inferno, but also an approach I’m going to take into more of my scenario writing / GMing in general.

The players go off script

They might not have captured the villain, but they did learn that he was in the employ of a candidate in the mayoral elections. The mysterious, recently arrived Augustus Delaney. And my prep was based on the assumption that they’d now attempt to find solid evidence of this, perhaps by attending a soiree at his mansion and stealing evidence. What I had not expected was the party to decide to run one of their number (the House Aries hero doctor Robert Liston) as their own candidate for mayor.

There are systems which would have made running this kind of thing hard. For instance the players…

  • Hacked the difference engines running the election
  • Hypnotised journalists into writing favourable press coverage
  • Dug up dirt on their opponent
  • Arranged for the heroic doctor to perform life saving surgery on a mediagenic child in front of an audience*
  • Unleashed magical influence during the hustings (Need to sharpen up some rules around this)

Everything culminated in the final hustings (debate), the night before the vote. The good doctor won, and is now mayor of London.

How do you come up with stats for all this? Easy. I decided that winning the election was a hard challenge, and set a standard difficulty of 5 for all these different activities. The exception was the hustings and the final test, since the PCs were up against an NPC with a character sheet, making the challenges on the tests 6 and 9 respectively. (So very hard indeed!). Again, conflict resolution makes this quick and easy to do, hacking the difference engines under a task based system could have been an evening’s play in itself.

The showdown at the debate showcased a nice mechanic. Although the doctor won, their confidence took an absolute battering and they finished broken. Which meant even though he had been defeated Augustus Delaney got to shake the victors hand and say “I know you cheated.”, and in the process gains a reputation which they can use against the doctor in future conflicts. This ‘defeat in victory’ mechanic is one I liked when I came up with it, and I was delighted to see it actually work in practice.

The game changes

What happens to the game when one of your PCs becomes Lord Mayor of London? Only good things I hope. It’s certainly a good opportunity to think about how the game can deal with this kind of stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results in the next round of downtime actions.

Meanwhile, Augustus Delaney and the Pipistrelles are still out there, and I don’t think they’re going to abandon their plans just yet.

Still to do…

With all the good plot related stuff going on, none of the PCs found a moment to pursue their personal objectives. I think part of that is modelling the behaviour to do it. So next week I’ll include some screamingly obvious ‘This bit is here for you’ moments, and encourage the players to take them, rather than waiting for them to create them themselves.

* I mentioned tension earlier. Despite the doctor having all the odds in his favour the child made it by the barest of margins. One of the most tense gaming moments I’ve had in a while with the mechanic of the GM flipping cards one by one ramping it up even further.

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