Tuesday, January 17, 2006

[Mortal Coil] Actual Play at Recess, Part I

I ran Mortal Coil at the latest Recess game day in New York. There was time at the mini-convention for two sessions, and rather than run the same one twice, I decided to try two different scenarios. The first one was really successful. This concept was called Apocalypse Boulevard, a game world inspired by this article. The second game, and my problems with how it turned out, will be posted later.

Even though these were convention games, I started only with the most basic concept and then built the theme document with the players. The theme starts out with the basic premise of the campaign, and all of the players, including the GM, have a pool of resources to use to add to this document. Building the starting theme facts and characters took less than an hour. Even though I only had a four-hour slot, I think this step is really important and I probably won’t skip over it even for full convention demo games. Short booth demos would be a different matter, but there is plenty of time in a full session and this part earns much enthusiasm from the players, and everyone is really bought in to the game once we are done.

To start the theme document, I mentioned the article, which many of the other players had actually read, but a couple weren’t familiar with it. The gist, that kids in the shelter created their own religion, and had access to some magical powers to protect themselves from harmful forces that adults couldn’t see, were accepted by everyone. The other basic fact that was established was that all of the spells the children used would be based on nursery rhymes or fairy tales.

As the players began to put together characters, I advised them to create interlocking passions, so the characters would be tied together and it would encourage the group’s story to be about each other. The players definitely stepped up here, and we had many characters who loved and admired other player characters. There were a lot of passions for protecting each other, and protecting their parents (if they had any). This is great grist for the mill as a GM, since it was very easy to create a strong external threat to get everyone working together and focus the session.

Aptitudes, which stand in for skills (sort of) in the Mortal Coil system, are generally a hard concept to convey, but everybody in this session picked it up pretty quickly. I don’t recall explaining more than twice, which is good. In playtest, this section of the character has generally proved most troublesome for players to grasp. The main difficulty is that an aptitude is expressed as a noun, rather than a verb or adjective. For example, a kid can have an aptitude called liar, rather than the skill of lying or lie.

When actual play began, people really got into playing their kids, using kid-like interpretations of the world and celebrating the small victories they had over some clueless adults. Mortal Coil uses a pool of bonus tokens as a reward system, and the players have a lot of control over how these are handed out. These flowed easily in this game, and we had only a couple left in the pool in the end. Most of them were given for innovative or surprising uses of nursery rhymes and fairy tale references, so this really encouraged everyone to come up with creative uses of this setting fact and created some really strong flavor for the game.

The basics of plot were strong external threat, in the form of some skinheads (led by a demon in human form). One of the kids picked the demon’s pocket in the first scene, and then the rest of the scenario was all about the skinheads trying to get the stolen artifacts back and the kids planning how to stop them from threatening the shelter and their families, as well as the other kids.

Mortal Coil has a currency system that allows players to add detail to the game world, and the few problems that arose were basically clashes of vision for the facts being introduced. These weren’t really problems, as they were quickly solved by consensus.

There was a divergence into some investigative activity at the library, a scene which would normally have been a bit tedious, but in fact ended up quite entertaining. Setting stakes for the information-gathering conflicts made them very interesting, and role-playing the poor librarian, confronted by some unsupervised kids with very uncomfortable questions about swastikas and the First Amendment made for an amusing scene.

The final conflict ended up a bit rushed, because I was running out of time, and I skipped over some of the villains’ actions and mostly concentrated on the demon alone, but that was a decision I made in the interests of time and the conflict seemed plenty exciting.

There were two main things I learned about the system in this game, which didn’t affect play too seriously, but that clearly need better clarification in the rules. First, large group conflicts will not always resolve in a single set of actions. Everyone declared actions and we determined the results, but once everything was resolved it was still unclear who would win the original stakes set for the conflict. I just had everyone initiate another round of actions, and then a third round when the conflict was still not resolved at the end of that. By the resolution of the third round of actions, the demon had decisively lost, and the kids won their stakes.

The other issue is how characters help one another. This isn’t clearly outlined in the rules, and it really needs to be. The system I used for this session wasn’t quite right, and I want to outline the precise procedure in the rules.

All in all, I don’t think the players really noticed this, especially with the first issue, since that played out how I would want, I just hadn’t written it down.

This was a very successful play test of the rules, and the players all seemed to have an excellent time. The rules were easy to explain and there were very few snags at all. That made me extremely happy, and I went into my next sessions with my hopes quite high. That session was something of a disaster in my mind, and worthy of its own post (coming shortly).


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