Monday, November 21, 2005

Mortal Coil Playtest Report

I ran the first playtest for Mortal Coil last Friday. I had four players in attendance, Bill, Eric, Russ, and Krista. Krista dropped out to go to bed about an hour before we stopped playing, but she was present for character creation and most of play.

A brief primer on Mortal Coil: this is an RPG with a supernatural theme. The game is completely diceless, using instead several types of tokens that players can use in a variety of ways. Players have a pool of magic tokens that they can sacrifice to add to the game world, so the GM and all of the players at the table create a world collaboratively while playing the game. Any time a player wants to, he can create a new fact about magic in the game world. All new facts also have a price, however, some condition that must be met so they work, or some situation in which the fact does not operate. Characters also have passions, attributes that describe what the character cares about. These have a strong mechanical effect if you can bring them into play.

After we all gathered Friday night, we began with the first step in playing Mortal Coil. This is the theme document, a sort of constitution for our game world. I had a basic idea: a seedy bar in Philadelphia that is frequented by gods of dead religions, gods that have no worshippers any longer. I had done some internet research, and come up with a couple of gods to use as NPCs, a bartender and his wife/girlfriend, and a little goblin character who works in the bar. This is all the prep I did for the game.

When we began, I proposed my idea, and introduced the NPCs. Everyone was on board with this, and we established the basic ground rules for our game. Since this bar existed in the real world, magic would be powerful, but any magical effects would be explainable by natural phenomena. We also established that any magical creatures and effects created should be based on actual folklore. Russ then proposed that gods can regain a spent magic token if they reminisce about the "good old days" with fellow gods, the idea being that this would help maintain the tone of the game. I also added the fact that gods could assume human form, but there would be some tell-tale sign that they would always have which someone in the know could use to identify them. With these basic guidelines agreed on, we were ready to begin character creation.

Everone began to consider their options, and came up with their characters. Russ created Pluto, the Roman god of money and the underworld, envisioning him these days as a failed stockbroker. He is still attracted to money because of his godly domain, but transactions these days are far more complex than he can handle, and he just isn't very good at it. Eric decided to play Loki as a bad standup comedian. He wants to be funny, but just can't pull it off because he's a bit too mean-spirited. Bill chose to play the only non-god in our entourage, a leprechaun who hangs out at the bar because the beer is so good. His concept was basically a grouchy little bastard who really resents having to keep track of his stash of gold. Last, Krista decided to play a Polynesian volcano goddess whose volcano had gone extinct, and now the locals weren't afraid of her any more and she didn't get any sacrifices.

These were all great concepts for the game, which was shaping up to be a semi-comedic story about a collection of cosmic losers. A couple of facts got established in the character generation process, mostly in the area of supernatural aptitudes (such as "leprechaun," "trickster god," and "volcano goddess"). What could be done with most of these aptitudes was not yet established. The facts about these aptitudes that were added during character creation were that leprechauns could teleport themselves from place to place, but not while they were observed or restrained (the price), and that the god of the underworld could pull items from his pockets, but nothing particularly valuable or large.

We then began to play, opening with Pluto going on about how things had changed, and how you used to be able to buy your way into the underworld with two coins, and now even panhandlers didn't want your change. This led into some fun free form banter than helped set the mood. At that point, Ninkasi arrived to reveal the hook for the evening. The bar had run out of beer! She swore that there had been enough for months more in the kegs below the bar, and everyone wandered down to investigate. Looking into the huge tank, the gods (and leprechaun) discovered that someone had dug up underneath the bar and drained the beer away through a hole in the bottom of the keg. Pluto, Loki, the leprechaun, and the volcano goddess decided to investigate, since all of them had at least one passion relating to the bar (mostly loves, but Loki had a fear that he would be the last loser there once everyone else had gone on to other things).

The group followed the tunnel below and came out in a railyard, where some folks wearing boots had loaded the beer onto a truck and driven it away. Loki decided to add an ability to shapeshift to his trickster god aptitude. I set the price that he sometimes forgets who he really is after he changes shape, getting too into character. He turned into a bloodhound and started to trail the truck. Pluto decided to call Ra's hack service, and a taxi soon showed up. They followed the truck to a small grotto of trees in a suburban neighborhood, and found a large rock there with steam rising from beneath it. The group decided to knock and see who was home. I sacrificed a magic token from my GM stash to create a new type of creature, the Norse myth dwarf. A surly, dirty dwarf answered, and then the group managed to push their way in to the dwarfs' underground home. There was their stolen beer! They tried to convince the dwarfs to give it back, failed, and then got into a scuffle. Pluto called up some spirits of the dead (he had a 'speak with the dead' aptitude, with the price that he had to make a blood sacrifice, as in the Odyssey, to summon them up). He now decided to add an ability to command the dead to his 'god of the underworld' aptitude, and Bill suggested the price that he can't ask them to do the same task again for a year and a day afterward. Passions also showed their power when Loki called on his fear of being left behind in the bar to bring some serious beat-down on the dwarf he was fighting. The ghosts ended up scaring off the rest of the dwarfs, and the group returned to the bar with the beer, triumphant. Ninkasi gave them all a kiss (except the leprechaun, he got a pat on the head), and all was right with the world yet again.

This was my first full playtest of the rules using the passions, aptitudes, and magic tokens in their current form. It went really well, there are only a couple of minor tweaks I want to perform on the rules before I send them out for third-party playtesting. I am really happy with the way things came out. For some reason, I am always surprised that these rules work as well as they do.

Some of the comments afterward were to emphasize the theme document in the rules text. This really is the most important thing for satisfying play, since you basically set out your goals and basic ground rules here. Our game ended up very jokey, and some players voiced the concern that if you were trying for a really dark tone, that could be a problem. After some discussion, though, everyone agreed that the basic premise of this game creates that sort of tone, and that you could use the theme document to create a more horrific or suspenseful game.

One thing everyone agreed on was that the magic token mechanic was great. They loved the freedom of adding new facts to the game, and they thought that a price attached to each fact was really cool, too, since it creates an instant limitation on whatever power or detail that is added to the game.

Another issue that came up for me was the number of action tokens characters get. I upped the starting total in this revision of the rules, and it seemed like folks had a bit much to throw around. One thing I definitely need to emphasize in the rules is that if any conflict is going on, there needs to be multiple things for people to use their action tokens on. If there is only on goal, I'm afraid it might be far to easy to overwhelm it with tokens. This is the area I want to do the most playtesting, I think.


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