Before the game kicked off I was chatting with one of the playtesters who suggested that in a tabletop game you might want to downplay the rivalry between the houses. Sure they have their own objectives, but mostly they’re on the same team. And I think that’s good advice in general. But that wasn’t the goal for yesterday’s game.
I’m going to write down what happened, not because I think blow by blow accounts of other people’s games are interesting to read, but because I want this on record. It was good stuff.
The Crystal Heist
Session 5 ended with the players discovering a macguffin. A giant, many tonne crystal, possibly magical and certainly important. It was in a mine, and the bad guys were excavating it.
The players expended their downtime trying to take control of the mine, but the cards were against them, and so while it was thoroughly infiltrated, it was still the bad guys’ mine when the game started, and the clock was ticking.
- Player 1 was ordered to ensure the crystal never reached the surface. Their House arranged for some helpful chaps with explosives to be on hand to make this possible.
- Player 2 was ordered to take control of the crystal and provided with some magical resources to make this possible
- Player 3 was ordered to take control of the crystal and provided with some technology to make this possible
- Player 4 was ordered to make sure the crystal ended up in the possession of their House.
Realising they had opposed objectives the players came up with a compromise plan. Player 4 would arrange for the miners to recieve new orders to remove the crystal from the mine, and put it on a train which would deliver it to the team’s collective bosses in London, who could then sort things out among themselves. Everyone looked suspiciously at everyone else, and agreed.
In the morning player 4 put this plan into action
Meanwhile players 1, 2, and 3 popped off to deal with a vampire in a nearby manor house, which culminated in the manor house catching fire. The fate of the vampire remains uncertain.
Back at the mine the miners were getting ready to move the crystal, a job that was going to take hours
- Player 1, being too squeamish to blow up a mine with people in it, pointed to the smoke from the burning manor house and urged the miners to abandon work and go to help fight the fire
- Player 4 (who was in disguise) opposed this, pushing the miners to stick to their task
- Player 4 won the opposed persuade challenge, and the miners kept working
The crystal reached the lift
- Player 3 kept watch on the mine
- Player 2 went down to the crystal
- Player 1 decided that anyone in the mine could take their chances, and gave the order to blow it up
This became a challenge of Player 3’s observation vs Player 1’s leadership. Player 3 won, spotted their saboteurs going into action, and promptly covered player 1 with their revolver. Since Player 3 drew a joker on the challenge Player 1 was broken, and overcome with remorse, accepted defeat and stood down their saboteurs.
Player 2 reached the crystal and unleashed the demon he had been assured would be able to reveal its secrets. Sadly the cards disagreed and something very bad happened to the demon.
The crystal reached the surface, and was loaded onto the train.
- Players 1 and 2 collapsed in a carriage to drown their sorrows in brandy.
- Player 3 locked themselves in the rear car with the crystal and used their technology to interact with the crystal – success, right?
The train arrived in London, only for players 1 and 2 to discover that player 4 had vanished, as had the car containing the crystal and player 3.
- Player 4 revealed that they had arranged for the car to be disconnected and diverted to their residence, betraying both their companions, and their House, who had wanted it delivered somewhere else.
The game ended with the railway car being unlocked and player 3 discovering that that they, and the crystal, were in the possession of player 4.
Soft mechanics in play
It’s worth noting that two things had a big influence on how events unfolded. In the previous session player 4 had discovered the crystal, but was broken in the process and left with a fear of the dark, to go with their pre-existing fear of the supernatural. As a result they refused to go into the mine during the heist, which definitely shaped how things worked out. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been enjoying players leaning into the negative reputations they’ve acquired during their adventures and this was another good example of that.
The second influence was player 1’s squeamishness. Inferno assigns characters a Ruth score, reflecting their personal morality (If you have no ruth you are Ruthless.) Player 1’s character is very high Ruth. On the other hand, Ruth doesn’t restrain players. Player 1 could have had their character blow up the mine at any point and I’d have reduced their Ruth score to a level that matched their new found willingness to blow up mines with people in them.
So the choice for Player 1 wasn’t just ‘would my character blow up the mine’ but ‘do I want to permanently change my character by having them blow up the mine.’ it’s a subtle distinction, but I like it. So what does it mean that Player 1 gave the order but was stopped? More than nothing I think.
The PvP mechanics
Since the whole session was being set up to revolve around PvP I signalled a bunch of stuff to the players.
- They knew they all had different objectives from the start of the game.
- I broke the session into time increments (evening, morning, afternoon etc.). A character could attempt one challenge per increment
This worked pretty smoothly. This was a change from how Inferno sessions are usually structured – there was no single group objective – but there was still a flow of ‘everyone does a thing, and then we move forward’.
Lots of indie games feature very tightly defined cycles of play (e.g. Agon, Lovecraftesque), which is defintely a way of ensuring your game tells a particular type of story. I want Inferno to be a bit more of a toolkit. The objectives structure that comes from the Card of Fate rules gives more structure to a session than traditional task resolution systems, but it doesn’t lock the game into a cycle of ‘The first scene is always a group scene where the heroes recount their previous deeds’ or whatever.
So next to the ‘mission’ structure for a session, we’ve now got a working PvP structure.
Todo: Think about what other structures could look like.
When Player 3 intercepted Player 1’s efforts to blow up the mine a whole bunch of mechanics came into play.
Inferno is a task resolution system, and the stakes were “Either the mine is blown up, or Player 3 can decide whether the plan goes ahead or not.” So even though the test was observation vs leadership the equivalent of passing a notice test was enough to stop the plan. The subsequent exchange at gunpoint was just narrative dressing on this result. I think if we’d been doing this in ‘combat rounds’ or whatever things would have played out very differently. With questions like “how far into the mine are the saboteurs”, “have they noticed that I’ve noticed them”, “where exactly is the detonator” and so on coming into play. I reckon the odds of character vs character violence would have skyrocketed the moment the position was sketched on a battlemap.
Inferno features a variety of damage tracks, and unlike in regular challenges PvP contests create the opportunity for someone to be on the wrong end of a perfect success, as Player 1 was. Had this been a death defying test of prowess (i.e. one player had attacked another with intent to kill) they’d have been dead. The existence of other damage tracks creates other options. Player 3 broke Player 1’s confidence and so could force a concession, which was enough to resolve the situation. Again, if the rules hadn’t created this opportunity it could have ended in blows.
So, lots of learning from the session, and we’re getting ready to wrap the first run up in what I’m hoping will be a dramatic finale.