Inferno playtests: No combat, no problem

I’ve now run four sessions of Inferno. Two run throughs of what will hopefully become the quickstart scenario, and two in a campaign. In total that’s about twelve hours of playing time. I’d guess we’ve spent no more than an hour resolving combats of any kind.

That’s not been deliberate. In the quickstart scenario two of the pregens are quite capable of handling themselves and there are opportunities for fights. And in last night’s campaign session the party decided to make up for finding themselves outmatched a week earlier by equipping themselves with revolvers before setting out to confront a criminal gang. It’s just that other ways of solving problems and confronting challenges turned out to be more exciting.

We’ve raced carriages across the countryside, pulled off oceans eleven style heists, fought and won elections, snuck into secret lairs, leapt from sky palaces onto both the top of Big Ben and the Crystal Tower, danced at balls and much much more. At no point have I felt, as GM that what the game needed right now was half a dozen ruffians to accost the heroes to provide some ‘action’.

This is good news. Of the twelve houses in Inferno (sort of character classes) only two are really combat facing by nature, and they don’t have to be. The members of House Aries might be swashbucklers, spies or the like, but they might also be consulting detectives or (it turns out) heroic doctors. House Leo is the house for generals, and while they may well be able to look after themselves they’re at their best ordering their troops into battle.

And just as House Aries and House Leo have a predisposition to combat but don’t have to go that way, there’s no reason other houses couldn’t. Magicians and engineers can find plenty of ways to be destructive, and there’s no reason a member of one of the political houses couldn’t wield a deadly blade (probably poisoned).

So while I’ll want to give the rules for fights a good run out at some point, I’m not too worried about this at all. If Inferno is an RPG that helps GMs and players break out of the trope of a fight at the start, a fight in the middle, and a big fight at the end, I’ll be delighted.

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.

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; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-liston-17941847-frcsed-1818-187311

“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”
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Inferno playtest: Character Creation

After worrying about writing up a character creation document with too much / not enough information I decided to steal from something I liked, and based my document on Vaesen. For each archetype in the game vaesen gives you a short description, a list of talents, some equipment and some questions to answer. I did the same and it got somewhere close to where I wanted to be. Here’s what House Aries look like

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Inferno: Playtest 2

The second Inferno playtest has been conducted, and once again much was learned. It featured five players, and the same characters as the first session, with the addition of Viscount Pusey. The scenario was the same, but played out differently. None of the players had used the card of fate system before, and only one had any familiarity with the world of Inferno.

Scenario

The start: The scenario possibly needs a little nudge to get things started. For the second time, all the characters stood around and looked at each other for a few moments, unsure of what to do. ‘A bit like a blind date where you’re not sure if you’ve got the right person’ was the apt description.

Todo: I think I’ll add an NPC to get the party over the initial ‘are these the right people / are we in the right place’ awkwardness. I’m also wondering if the news is a little bit too long for a one-shot, I think I’ll try and focus it a little more.

The plot: Things went in rather different directions to the first run. This time the party went with the Hyde Park opening, which provided some good early challenges, before the embassy ball was dealt with as an Oceans Eleven style heist (well, that was the plan…) rather than an exercise in intelligence gathering. The final showdown featured a sky-palace crashing into the world’s first skyscraper, death defying aerial interventions, and a satisfying Mary Poppins moment to save the day. This was much closer to how I’d envisaged it running when I wrote it, so it’s good that we’ve checked out the ‘happy path’.

Still didn’t really manage to really trigger any of the NPCs. I suspect that this is down to the scenario.

Todo: Find a way to introduce one of the major NPCs at the embassy. Probably means pointing to them in the first scene.

Difficulty: The group were 2-0 up on their five challenge mission going into the last challenge, so to add some drama since the evening was winding down we made it ‘all or nothing’ on the last challenge. I also upped all the challenges to hard (5 cards) from moderate (3). The sudden change in difficulty was really noticable, and the heroes ended up winning their final challenge on a high card – proper nail biting stuff.

Todo: Make sure the GM guidance for setting difficulties reflects the play experience. 3 card challenges are about right for starter characters, and 5 card ones are a stiff challenge. The final challenge was 10-8, which felt suitably all or nothing…

Characters

Once again the characters all seemed to work. The players seemed a bit happier with the strength of the characters than in the first playtest. The strongest example of this was Dr Rook holding off doing anything magical until the finale – but still finding plenty of things to get up to. There might be two reasons for this – first, the rejigging of the skills list probably created slightly more capable characters. Second, ‘Go hard or go home’ was the attitude of the players, and that strikes me as good general advice for playing Inferno. A player doesn’t make that many challenges in a session, so it’s reasonable to throw plenty of resources (Reputations, Qualities) into each one.

This test was also further proof of Arians not being essential characters. Jemima Gosh certainly didn’t dominate proceedings, although she did buckle plenty of swash. Viscount Pusey’s willingness to engage in a spot of fisticuffs at the end was an enjoyable moment.

Todo: Time to get started on a character creation system! Still keeping an eye on the power level though.

System

Once again people liked the system. Loads of kudos for the tension of the cards. “Like when you need a natural 20, but on every roll.” Most of the players had read stuff through ahead of time, but all felt more comfortable once they’d seen the core mechanic in action. Fortunately Inferno really only has the core mechanic, and once the group had been through the process once there was no confusion. So – probably worth making a video or two demonstrating how challenges work.

By the end of the game the players had got properly to grips with things. I’m sure they’d have had no trouble working out what to do with their experience points, or making other ‘system related’ decisions for future games.

Stakes: Again – the importance of stake setting – and imposing the consequences for failures. I think it helps with Inferno to set failure stakes that have an element of fail forward built in. So the stakes for the embassy heist weren’t “Do you get the info or not?” but “Do you make it out undetected, or do the bad guys accelerate their plans in response to your heist.” It sometimes requires a few moments of extra thought to get these right.

Todo: Strengthen the GM guidance on fail forward. I think challenges on the main mission should be fail forward by default. It’s probably fine to have ‘that just fails’ as a GM option for personal challenges though.

Damage: We had our first proper example of someone being broken and a concession. Elias Halcyon supported Lord Pusey on an influence challenge that went disastrously wrong. Pusey’s boundless confidence was badly dented but Elias was broken, and ended up with ‘Humiliated by the Prussian Empire’ as a negative reputation. Elias did get to trigger his ‘indefatigable’ talent to recover from this – which worked as it should.

Todo: I need to tweak how this is written. As it stands the Prussian empire gains a ‘Humiliated Elias Halcyon’ reputation, but that’s basically writing the information in the wrong place for it to get remembered. Perhaps a space on the character sheet for ‘concessions made / concessions gained’ is the solution.

Personal missions: Players got more adept at building in their personal challenges as the game unfolded. This is probably something that just comes with experience. This also meant that the PvP stuff in the scenario didn’t get triggered.

Todo: Make sure campaign playtests have plenty of room for personal missions and some player versus player action.

Five ways to make your child’s first role-playing game amazing

Do you love role-playing games? Are you waiting impatiently till your child is old enough to join you in your adventures? I know I was. So when my daughter was four years old I made up a game just for her. Since then it’s been played by thousands of families around the world.

But making that first game a success is still a challenge. Here are five ways to make sure that first game is memorable for both of you.

#1 Keep cool

For you, your kids’ first adventure might feel like a very big deal. They’re about to join you in your favorite hobby. If this goes well you’ll have a shared love that will last you for the rest of your lives. A joint gateway to your favorite fictional worlds and real life pastimes. And that’s great. But don’t tell them, it’ll only confuse them.

Tell your child you want to play a game, together with them, and that it’s going to be fun. Tell them they’re going to get to roll those cool dice you have. Give them the dice. Tell them that you’re going to make up a story together and they can be the hero. Kids love it when their parents want to spend time with them, and they can tell when you’re really looking forward to it. That’s going to be enough.

#2 Keep it small

For grown-ups a role-playing game usually means a Dungeon Master and four or more people sitting round a table with snacks and drinks. For your child’s first game keep it small. Just you, and them. Running a game for a child is different to running one for grown ups, and you don’t want to be distracted by friends, toilet breaks and the inevitable moments when attention drifts as the spotlight lands on another player. So for the first time out, don’t invite friends over, this is for you, and your children.

#3 Say yes to their ideas

The promise of a role-playing game is that you can be anything you want to be. So when your child says they want to be a pirate, with their own ship, a pet tiger and a crew of fifty ferocious cat-pirates you say yes. If you’ve been imagining the game as a classic fantasy quest to slay a dragon and they tell you they want to be a caped superhero with a laser-gun, you say yes. That dragon is in for a surprise.

Kids don’t know about genres or rules. Their first game is not a time to tell them what they can’t do, it’s a time to reward their imagination. And remember, with just one or two players you don’t need to worry about game balance at all.

#4 Take them where they want to go

Whatever your child came up with in character generation, make sure they get to show it off in their first adventure. The pirate ship has to sail, to fire it’s cannon and to race another pirate ship. The pet tiger has to growl and eat a bad guy. The fifty ferocious cat pirates have to do ferocious feline things. Make sure your child’s hero gets to be the hero they imagined them as.

#5 Make the ending awesome

Make sure your child’s first ever role-playing game features an epic ending. Face to face with the villain on a cliff edge as the counter ticks toward zero; returning the stolen jewels to the temple moments before sunset while pursued by ghosts; wrestling the controls of the star-ship from the pirate moments before it crashes into the sun. That kind of epic.

If your child’s first experience of role-playing delivers on these five things, I think you’ll have a gamer for life.

Introducing Amazing Tales

And if you’d like to give this a go, I’d like to recommend the Amazing Tales role-playing game. I wrote it to play with my daughter when she was just four years old, and since then it’s been enjoyed by thousands of families around the world.

Amazing Tales features a system so simple a four year old can explain it, and lets you fit a whole adventure into the time it takes to read a bedtime story. It’s grounded in the kind of stories kids love, fairy tales, quests in magical kingdoms, pirate voyages and adventures in space.

Take a look at the game in action. Here’s character creation, world creation and a whole adventure packed into half an hour of play.

You can get Amazing Tales as a lavishly illustrated 104 page hardback book, or as a PDF.

Meet the heroes: Storm Bird

This week I’ll be looking at the different pregenerated heroes who appear in the Amazing Heroes book. You’ll recognise them from the cover.

Storm Bird

Petra Lynch, aka Storm Bird, is a witch, but that’s not what makes her a hero. She was brought up in one of the United Covens, who believe in keeping to themselves and quietly protecting the world from bad magic.

Petra believed in going into the world, learning to program computers, getting a job as an analyst in a giant hedge fund, and living the good life. Until the hedge fund turned out to be a giant ponzi scheme and Petra had to combine her talents for building gadgets, hacking computers and performing witchcraft to save the fortunes of a lot of ordinary people.

That’s what makes her a hero.

Design notes

Petra’s a mix of modern day hacker and old fashioned witch, which should create plenty of opportunities for creative plans in play. Her ‘villains of choice’ are white collar criminals, a part of the criminal world that gets relatively little exposure in superhero stories, but which could add an interesting angle to lots of adventures. If your band of heroes needs someone to follow a lead back to the top of a conspiracy, Petra’s your woman.

Deciding to make a hero a witch meant I had to make some decisions about witchcraft and what that might look like in the game. The United Covens are somewhat inspired by the covens in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, existing (mostly) quietly and invisibly alongside ordinary society. So now, if you want to play a witch, you can; and if you want a bad witch, well, presumably they’re a rogue one; and if no-ones playing someone with supernatural knowledge and your heroes need help with a demon, then they can stop by that little village a few hours drive away and make some polite enquiries.

I didn’t set out to write a game with witchcraft in it, but there you go.

You can find out more by visiting the Kickstarter.