Inferno playtest session 6: The Player vs Player test

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.

This wasn’t even the main event…

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.

System matters

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.

Inferno Playtest Session 5: Campaign catchup

Let’s call the conspiracy

Last night’s session was enjoyable enough, but ran into a problem I should have seen coming. I provided the PCs with a setup and some options about which way to go. They dug in, found the object that’s at the heart of all the weirdness and then… reached out for support.

This is something I’m going to have to think about hard. Members of the Inferno club are part of a conspiracy that spans the globe and can call on immense resources. Sooner or later the players are going to encounter a problem and decide ‘that’s more than we can handle, let’s call on the club’. And if the problem is one that strikes the club as important then it will intervene.

So the session came to a slightly premature end so I could have a think about what was going to happen next.

Todo: Come up with a reason for players not to do this. Perhaps calling in help has a cost in terms of prestige? The club expects you to stand on your own two feet. Call in help and your reputation / security clearance suffers…

On the plus side, I now have a very clear idea of how I want to set up the last part of this mini-campaign, and I can show off something we haven’t seen much of so far – the rest of the Inferno club. We’ve not ended up anywhere close to where I thought we would and I think that’s a good thing.

Hello. I’m Carmilla. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

It turns out if you trail someone’s arrival for four sessions, and make clear that they’re behind all the evil and weirdness going on in the world having them turn up at a state banquet as the new fiance of a prince strikes exactly the right kind of terror into a party. And I got to use a masterpiece as her character portrait, because running historical games is fun like that.

Madam X, by Sergeant, 1884, aka Carmilla, Countess von Karnstein*

I’ve enjoyed the way this game has developed it’s own world in a short space of time. We’ve got a predictive policing system in London, a (now lapsed) cult of cat devotees, signature villains, a mutual insurance fund and characters with increasing numbers of nervous ticks.

Unconventional approaches

This party continue to approach problems in ways unlike those you’d find in traditional RPGs, the ultimate one being ‘let’s get elected‘. This is down to a mix of things. The players themselves are open to it, the characters lean in unusual directions (not one of them is a natural fighter), they have access to a lot of skills and resources, and the timelines in games of Inferno are relaxed enough that ‘let’s do this for a week or two and see what happens’ is a reasonable approach. They’re happy to look into using the legal system, or politics, or public opinion as tools and the system makes that easy to do. It does require the odd bit of mental gymnastics on the part of the GM though.

Basically, the GM advice section in this book is going to be a beast to write.

What’s the skill for blowing things up?

This has come up twice now. I think I’m going to make being good with explosives a talent (sabotage) and make mucking about with nineteenth century explosives horribly dangerous for anyone without it.

Thinking about it, any party which includes a member of a fire House is going to have access to all kinds of weaponry (in the case of House Leo, perhaps even an entire army), so it’s not weird this is coming up.

Beyond the veil

As part of their investigation Alexander Pavel, a conjurer from House Cancer summoned a demon to carry himself into the spirit world and do some investigating. And it was suitably weird and scary, despite his drawing a perfect success. I’m quite happy that this character has started exploring more and more of what they can do with magic, but remains suitably intimidated by the powers they have.

* I didn’t steal this name from Games Workshop. They stole it from Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novella. I’m stealing it back.

Inferno playtest session 4: Consequences and Preparation

In which the party confronted Duchess, the nation’s favourite cat, who was in no way possessed, and her legion of adoring fans, who were in no way deranged.

Concessions

I must admit I’d slightly lost track of how many characters had wound up broken at various points in the game and acquired a resulting reputation. Here’s how it works – if during a challenge you lose all your points in the relevant damage track (concentration, inspiration, vigour or confidence) you’re broken and whatever broke you can exact a concession from you. This can be forcing you to reveal a secret or perform a favour, or it can leave you with a permanent reputation relating to your defeat. As well as these having a mechanical impact the players have been using them as role-playing cues for their characters.

One character is now spooked by the supernatural, and lobbying for destructive measures to be taken at the first hint of weirdness. Another has a fear of crowds, and understandably panicked when a mob surrounded the building they were in. And in one of my favourite moments to date we had a little bit of PvP. Alexander, having been charmed by the sessions’ big bad was downplaying the need to take action. Dilesh used his ‘True Motive’ talent to assess what was going on, achieved a perfect success and so instantly wiped out Alex’s confidence (PvP tests can be brutal). Dilesh could have got a truthful answer to a question, or extracted a favour, but instead chose to give Alex the reputation “Dilesh sees right through me”, meaning should Alex want to mislead Dilesh again he’s going to find it very hard indeed.

So four sessions into this little campaign, and the characters are really bearing the marks of their escapades to date. I’m happy with that.

Todo: Not much, this works!

The low prep approach

Left to my own devices I often do a lot of prep for games, and Inferno has the potential to become a high-prep system. So for this playtest I wrote some news stories based on the players downtime actions, and a couple related to the scenario’s starting situation, and waited to see what happened.

This was fine, particularly as the players opted for an approach I wouldn’t have prepped had I been given a month to come up with material. So I’m encouraged that Inferno can be played in a somewhat ‘pick up’ style.

Todo: Tips for improv GMing with Inferno

The prep

That said, I do think Inferno will be a game that rewards prep, but I’m trying to focus that into a structure that ensures it comes to the table, so any effort put in isn’t wasted.

I’ve just organised the various things I need to keep track of to run the campaign, and it breaks down like this.

  • A Google Drive folder to hold the character sheets
  • A Google Drive folder containing sheets where each player can track their own objectives
  • A shared document displaying the current prestige scores
  • An archive of each session’s news (on Roll20)

Those things are fairly self explanatory. Prestige scores are a bit like experience points in that players receive them based on how their various objectives are progressing. Updating these takes about five minutes per session.

Between games each player sends me a description of what their character is up to by email, including the single action they’re undertaking. Actions might be things like “Develop my latest invention”, “Expand my influence over London’s legal system” or “Research a demon that has the following powers”. Some of these things are discreet actions, some are related to the plot, some are related to a character’s personal objectives.

Adjudicating these actions takes about 15 minutes per player, inlcuding replying to the email telling them what happened. These downtime actions are proving a rich source of background material, B-plots and colour, and the results almost always come out on the table.

The news

The biggest piece of prep each session is the news. This is a collection of short news stories, pulled from three sources. The sources are….

  • What happened in the last session
  • What players have done in their downtime
  • Hooks for the next session’s play

The first two are easy to write, because I don’t have to think of much by myself. The last does require a bit of effort. I think the final version of Inferno will probably also include a few hundred sample news stories that GMs can drop into their own prep to give a sense of the world.

Here’s a typical example of news, annotated to show where the news is coming from:


News, Summer 1891

Liston elected! (Previous session)

Robert Liston, the famed surgeon has been elected Lord Mayor of London following an unusually close four way contest. Mr Liston triumphed by just 600 votes. His political success followed a heroic performance on the campaign trail, during which he personally smashed a gang of thieves and kidnappers, performed life saving surgery on little Ella Day (6) before the city’s journalists, and bested all comers in the hustings.

Persistent fog persists (Hook)

The horrendous fog that has plagued London for months continues to do so, with the population of that noble city now donning masks before leaving the house. The freak weather has so far defied explanation, the rest of the British Isles have suffered no such calamity.

The plucky Londoners are determined to carry on as normal. Society balls have adopted a Venetian theme, and some matrons have commented that the change has levelled the playing field for those debutantes who lack physical charms.

As reported in the New York Times.

Lord Mayor’s show delayed (Hook)

The terrible fog has persuaded the Aldermen of London to delay the traditional parade which marks the election of the Lord Mayor. 

PEEL to the rescue? (Player action)

Lord Mayor Robert Liston today announced the installation of a new, state of the art difference engine at Scotland Yard. It is claimed that the new Predictive Engaged Enforcement of Law (PEEL) system, a product of Henderson Industries, will reduce crime by mathematically deducing where crimes will take place, allowing police officers to be placed there ahead of time.

“If we’re already there, then they ain’t gonna do the crime, and then how’s we going to nick ’em?” said Constable Hollis. 

Constable Brent awarded medal (Player action)

Constable John Brent was awarded a medal for valorous conduct by Mayor Liston after making nine arrests in a single day. “I was on the corner at Spitalfields, just waiting, when I saw the first villains. Later on I was at Charing Cross. Right place, right time. It’s copper’s instinct is what it is.” said Constable Brent when asked to explain his success.

Ghastly discovery has a silver lining (Hook)

Little Tommy Taylor found not one, but two corpses when larkin’, along the side of the Thames. “They was all wrinkled up from the water, and looked like they’d seen the devil ‘imself before they passed” said the imaginative tyke. But it wasn’t all horror for the young lad, “One of em had four shilling in his pocket, and the policeman said I could keep it.”

The Duchess and the Princess (Previous session / Player action / Hook)

Defeated Mayoral Candidate Augustus Delaney has been keeping good company since his defeat. The gentleman politician was seen taking tea with Lady Fetherington-Smythe and Duchess, the nation’s favourite persian puss. 

Crime wave recedes (Player action)

Despite the persistent fog it seems the brave efforts of Scotland Yard are bearing fruit, with Bow Street’s court full of sneak thieves, pick pockets, and garroters.

Lord Mayor’s Show to go ahead (Hook)

After a three month delay the Lord Mayor’s show is to go ahead, despite the appalling fog which continues to plague London. After the parade the Mayor is hosting a banquet for the deserving orphans of London’s rookeries.


Magic

On the one hand, I’m very happy with how the supernatural elements of this campaign have been playing out. Magic is scary and horrific, and as a result gets treated with plenty of respect.

I’m particularly happy with the weird entities I’ve come up with and how the party have responded to them. It gives the game a fairly unique flavour.

On the other hand, I’m painfully aware that the system behind all this is rather underdeveloped. I know exactly what I’m aiming for, but this remains the part of the system that needs the most work.

Todo: Lots of writing

Technology

In contrast, the technology system seems to be working well. I need to fine tune a few points, but the idea of scientist characters being able to pick one specialism, and develop it by completing objectives works well. The PEEL system mentioned in the news above is a player creation, an early result of their character’s work on Cognisant Cogitation.

The tech trees I’m planning to provide will draw on ideas from Victorian science fiction and more recent Steam Punk material for inspiration.

Todo: Write the rest of them, use them in future playtests

Onwards!

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.

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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.