Campaign 2: Session 1, Welcome to Ruritania

The first full session of the second playtest campaign saw a new member of the club join the party, and generated a number of useful playtest insights. First up, the question I ended last week’s write up with… will secrets work in play?

And there was a ball. Games of Inferno pretty much require balls. Art by Wilhelm Gause (1900)

Secrets are great in play

To recap – during character generation players can take secrets or scandals for extra points. Scandals are public, and give you a negative reputation that applies against you in appropriate situations. Secrets are… secret, but the GMs job is to create challenges that threaten to reveal player’s secrets turning them into scandals. As an example…

Cavalry officer Gustav Emil has a hot temper. He left Ruritania after killing someone in a duel. That’s a scandal, everyone knows about it. They won’t mention it to his face, but it’ll count against him in a lot of social situations.

What no-one knows is that while on an expedition in Siberia he got into an argument with a fellow officer named Captain Danzler, that ended with him stabbing Danzler and pushing him down a ravine never to be seen again. That’s a secret. No-one knows about it.

So, you can imagine his surprise when he was introduced to Captain Danzler. A man suffering from amnesia, but trying to piece his life back together. This launched a personal objective for Emil, “Prevent Danzler from learning the truth”. He got off to a good start – managing to keep control of himself and avoid arousing Danzler’s suspicions when introduced to the horribly injured amnesiac. Although doing so pushed Emil’s social skills to the limit.

This is a related point – secrets should probably aim for the weaker parts of a player’s character sheet, at least to start out with. Emil can’t resolve this problem with a cavalry charge…

Scandals imply something about the world

Two of the characters in the group are gay. One opted to make their relationship (with the king!) a scandal, the other to have their sexuality be a secret. If your sexuality is a secret, then mechanically it becomes a scandal if it’s exposed, which means it’s disadvantageous to be an out, gay man in this version of Inferno’s world. We discussed this as a table, and decided we’re fine with it. It feels right for the period, and that means these characters are going to find it a little harder to make their way in society.

In the excellent Haarlem Unbound (buy it, read it) set during the Harlem Renaissance Chris Spivey talks about three different ways GMs can responsibly inlcude prejudice in a game – all with prior player approval. Level 1 sees characters of colour confronted with low-key, passive racism. Level 2, ‘The Harlemite Player’ introduces more agressive in game prejudice and a mechanical modifier.

The Harlemites Player
My hope is that most gamers fall somewhere within this range or higher. At this level, introduce the Racial Tension
Modifier (see box nearby) and add a moderate level of the backdrop features listed above in addition to the ones here.
• Wealth and class do not protect a black investigator (at any social level) from racism.
• The police’s normal response is to threaten or to use outright violence against black investigators

I think this game is going to end up somewhere between level one and two on this scale. There is a mechanical modifier that will apply to a lot of social tests, their social class won’t protect them, but the authorities won’t be actively persecuting them.

We’ll see how we get on. To be 100% clear, choosing to have a character be gay doesn’t create a disadvantage for the player. It’s choosing to have that be a scandal that creates the disadvantage, and anyone at the table could have said ‘That level of prejudice is not something I want in the game’, and vetoed the scandal element.

Note to self – sometimes it feels like tabletop role-playing has come a long way from pretending to be elves… That’s a good thing.

Bring on the NPCs

One of the ways of preventing Inferno from becoming too complex is to avoid having stat blocks for most of the opposition. Challenges are either moderate (difficulty 3), hard (5), really hard (7) or near impossible (9). (Although truthfully if a challenge plays to the strengths of a character they can probably manage at least a 50/50 shot at a near impossible challenge.) You don’t need to stat things up further than that.

Unless… the players are run across a proper NPC. An opponent with a character sheet just like theirs, and reputations and qualities that they can throw into challenges. So when Johannes Stroika attempted to win the favour of the defenders of Dresden by staging an impromptu fencing demonstration in the bar of the People’s Hotel things got real. Because I’d already decided that the bar of the People’s Hotel contained this young lady.*

Art by Sergey Gurskiy

The resulting fencing demonstration was 9 cards vs 7 in Johannes favour, although both sides were holding back a bit, and sad to relate poor old Johannes did not win the kiss he sought, but ended up face down behind the bar. He didn’t even get her name. Of course because this is Inferno, he was introduced to her later, at a ball. Meet Julia Rischenheim, daughter of the Ruritanian Chancellor.

Every game needs a Benson

On arrival in Ruritania the party were met by a man named Benson, who introduced himself as their personal gentleman. Every cell of the Inferno club has a butler, and as it turns out, they’re all called Benson. “I come from a long line of Bensons sir.” A couple of notes about Bensons.

First players seem to like having a butler. Having someone taking care of your every need is always fun.

For the GM a Benson is fantastic. They can take care of any logistical stuff that might otherwise delay the game. “I have taken the liberty of procuring invitations to tomorrow’s ball, and ordered suitable attire for you all.” They can discretely remind players of any relevant bits of information they might not have noticed, “The Vizier sir, is the head of the club.” and they can be the GM’s voice if a little steering is needed, “Are you sure that’s altogether wise sir?”

In this last capacity they even provide an in character mechanism for players to ask the GM questions “Remind me Benson, where does the club stand on the Prussian question?”

Next week…

Next week we start getting to grips with an important part of Inferno that I haven’t tested at all yet. You’re members of a secret society that attempts to control the world, but how exactly do you manipulate a whole country?

* sometimes, you go looking for artwork and find a whole character. This was one of those times.

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