Inferno playtest session 3: Madness and horror

After the last excellent session of #Inferno I was concerned we’d struggle to live up to the high standards we’d set, but that turned out not to be a problem. The game ended on a fantastic note. Two characters found themselves face to face with the big bad, who turned out to be rather… vampiric in nature?

A few moments later only one of them was still on their feet, while the other, faced with a monstrous villain did the indecent thing, and made a deal, selling out the entire party, before claiming to have driven off the fiend.

No one is going to end up like this, probably

This wasn’t the only instance of players looking askance at each other as the secrets of the Inferno club started to bubble up. Lovely.

In between times

The players have started to conspire with each other by email, and put together joint plans. This is good stuff, and their construction of a difference engine for predictive policing is definitely a good thing, and in no way the first innocent step along a dystopian road. More importantly, it provided good material for the scenario and a shared resource for the party to exploit in solving their problems.

I also had a couple of research requests from the players, which meant I could give players info-dumps before the game started. This in turn, meant that at an appropriate time they could say “Obviously this works like that, so we should do such and such”, or just exploit the information for their own benefit.

Todo: This is an obvious, but powerful technique which I haven’t written down yet, so that’s going in the GM advice.

Personal objectives

After my note last week that players weren’t pursuing their personal objectives one of my playtesters pointed out that I might want to be a bit clearer about how these work in mechanical terms. So I was, and that helped a lot, and it helped clarify a few other points about how the game works.

The players then opened the session by all pursuing a personal objective each, and burning some resources to do so. At the time I thought this might explain why so many of them ended up in a bad way at various points (four out of five PCs got broken one way or another) but thinking back it was actually a case of terrible luck on cards or being broken on qualities that weren’t expended in their personal challenge, so that theory has been killed by data.

Todo: One way I can make personal objectives clearer is by changing the formatting on the character sheet. In the one-shot playtests I used a different layout which made clear personal objectives should have ticks or crosses recorded against them as play progressed. That kind of thing acts as a prompt to understanding, so, another layout tweak to the character sheet is due.

The setup

With one PC having become mayor of London I had a bit of a think about how to set up the plot, before deciding that last session’s defeated villain would strike back by disrupting the mayor’s inaugral parade (The Lord Mayor’s Show), kidnapping a bunch of orphans and holding them to ransom. With London bound in supernatural fog gangs of masked criminals descended to cause chaos, prompting one player to remark “This is just like a batman plot”, which made me very happy since that was exactly what I’d been going for.

I also used this setup to take a different approach to a group challenge. Rather than each player choosing their approach to the problem I presented each of them with a situation ‘a supernatural cloud of fog is choking you’ or ‘you are attacked by hoodlums wearing bat masks’ and asked them how they resolved it. This pushed the characters out of their comfort zone a bit and mixed things up nicely.

I can imagine some players might be a bit grumpy about a GM dropping something like this onto a party but a) my players weren’t and b) if you can’t handle ‘this is the dramatic start to the adventure, deal with it.’ you probably should play something else.

Todo: More material for the GM advice section, might want to provide a few ways of framing encounters and different ways of resolving group challenges to go with them.

Ritual magic

The magic system is the most underwritten part of what I’m testing at the moment (although there’s a lot there) but I came across more uncharted terrain in the session. Essentially, the question was, can you get magical effects with a high occult skill if you’re not actually a magician? The fiction would suggest the answer is yes, although the mechanics explicitly rule it out right now.

Todo: Have a good hard think about what can be accomplished with the ritual skill. I quite like the idea of non-magicians mucking about with dusty tomes, with even worse consequences than when magicians do it.

The investigative machine

It’s partly a result of the kind of scenarios we’ve been playing, and partly a result of the character creation choices, but this party are now a well drilled investigative unit, with a literal investigative machine. This time round we had two characters descending Holmes* style into their Mind Palaces to review a riot for clues, one gang being shaken down for information, the police being sent to sweep likely locations and a spot of looking for clues in dusty tomes. At the end of which the results were run through a difference engine. This is the third week in a row the difference engine has been used like this, but at the moment it’s an enjoyable trope rather than a repetitive one.

Todo: Build the next scenario around something other than investigation – perhaps it’s time for some social / political focus. NB – the group’s composition puts a big fight scene right out. It’d be carnage…

Group challenges and scenarios

I’m not sure whether this is a GM style thing or something that’ll be a fairly big break from the Card of Fate system as presented in Duty and Honour. In D&H the central military mission can be pursued by individual characters making single challenges on behalf of the whole party. So in theory a whole five challenge mission could be resolved by one player in three tests. And if that player managed to spread the challenges across a good range of skills it’d probably be within their powers too.

In practice this never happens, but having the occasional challenge get knocked off by an individual effort certainly does.

To date in Inferno I’ve resolved all the central objective challenges as group challenges, and I quite like this, it knits a party together.

Related to this, I’ve done a few group challenges in the form of ‘everyone do a thing, if a majority succeed, you succeed’ rather than ‘everyone do a thing, then have the leader make a final test’. I think this is working as an option for the GM, but should probably be more codified in the rules than it is now.

Todo: Add the alternate option for group challenges to the rules.

When group challenges go bad?

What happens if the person leading a group challenge is unable to make the final test? Well, another PC steps into the breach. What happens if two of them want to do so? Well, then the GM frames a conflict between them.

What happens if the person leading the group challenge is unable to do so because they’ve been stabbed in the back by another PC? This didn’t actually happen, but it occurs to me that it’s something that definitely should be an option, and would make for some great drama. Particularly as you could take someone out of a social challenge just by destroying their confidence, or a focus challenge by ruining their concentration. You don’t have to actually, you know, stab them in the back.

Todo: Clarify the rules on this, put them where the players can see them to give them ideas.

Time for a nerf

When I wrote the ‘You can trust me’ talent for House Aries, which reads, “Your heroic and noble nature wins all NPCs of good character (GMs discretion) to your cause for one scene”, I had in mind that moment in the Bond movie where the villain’s girlfriend betrays him for a hero she barely knows. However to date its principle use has been to sway large crowds of people, “Rouse the village, we’ll put this train back on it’s tracks!”, “Vote for me, and we’ll create a fairer London” and the like. It’s a bit of a political superpower.

So to prevent all the political houses being displaced by charismatic secret agents I’m turning it down to a ‘once per group objective’ power. I also think it’ll stop working if a character’s ruth falls too low, if your good and noble nature isn’t good and noble anymore, then you’re not going to be so inspiring.


It feels like the core of the game is solidifying quite nicely – as it should, I’m building on solid foundations. But it’s nice to see some of the background starting to work the way it should as well.

* The Cumberbatch one

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