Friday, December 17, 2010

Amber in Chains

So, based on a convergence of guests and available free time, I ran a game last night. I had done very little prep to begin with, but I ended up improvising madly as the number of expected players jumped from 3 to 6. With 3 players I had been considering just trying some 2 Guys with Swords, modified for 3, but for 6 that wasn't practical, but I also didn't want to run straight Leverage - I had gotten a request for some supers elements, and what's more I'm not entirely sure how it shakes out with 6 players. So, looking at the potential spread of players, their overlapping familiarities and my needs, I very hastily threw together a Leverage hack, bolting on many pieces from Smallville, to run an Amber game. Sort of.

The premise of this particular Amber filed the serial numbers off, both in and out of game. At a high level, one of the princes had won, and ruled Amber as the Sun King with an army of elementals at his beck and call. More problematically, he had also wiped the names and much knowledge of his siblings from the universe with his destruction of the pattern and assertion of the new order. Players represented the underground, those with enough knowledge to know there's been a usurpation, looking to find and restore the nameless. One of them was said to be held by one of the lords of Amber, and the players took advantage of the wedding being arranged in the manor to try to find it.

I won't delve too much into what happened, but it went spectacularly, with one player taking advantage of a recent widow to get an invite (all the while being urged by her husband's ghost to kill her) , and with complications that spiraled out of control, including one dramatic romantic proposal accompanied by peacocks resulting in roast peacock getting added to the menu. Things culminated with the discovery that the whole manor rested on the shoulder of the Titan, his release and the subsequent destruction of, well, the whole building. I got at least one request to return to the setting at some point, and with a bit of polishing to the system, I think I'm inclined to do so.

System wise, I stole the four stats from Road to Amber (Force, Wits, Grace and Resolve) and a new set of roles: Soldier, Scholar, Tinker, Priest (which should have been Courtier), Ruffian and Hunter. Straightforward enough, but Priest ended up doing more heavy-lifting for rolls than anything else, perhaps a bit too much. Something I need to keep an eye on.

I let the characters take five distinctions. In retrospect it was too many. I think that many distinctions works with no stats, but in conjunction with the stats they just made for a little bit too much, especially for freshly created characters. It wasn't a huge problem, but it's something I'm going to note.

I also tapped into Smallville, loosely, and had each character pick a bloodline (effectively a heritage) and a gift (effectively a superpower). The two could be related, but did not need to be. These were pretty much entirely created on the spot, and they were structured after powers: three special things you could do with a plot point. As such we had:
  • A scion of the house of the moon, who could turn into a shadow
  • A Scion of the Titan, who was a badly trained mage
  • A Scion of Mandrake with an entourage
  • A Scion of Karm who could read thoughts
  • A Scion of The Hanged Man who had Major Arcana related tricks
  • A Scion of Feldane who mastered ghosts

Mechanically (and time-wise) this was the hardest part because I pulled these out of the air. For some of the poweres I just riffed off Smallville, but for the bloodlines, i was totally making things up. Worse, because I was working fast, I forgot to include any abilities based on exploiting opportunities (what you can do when the GM rolls a 1). If I take the time to go back and retune this system, most of the effort is going to go into making the bloodlines and gifts cleaner and easier to use.

Lastly, I hybridized Smallville conflict resolution by adding stress pools for Hurt, Tired, Confused and Upset. They worked like Smallville (opponents can roll them against you, the value gets too high, you're taken out) but I skipped Smallville's 'damage' roll and used this rule: Look at the third highest die you rolled - you inflict stress equal to that die size or increase the stress pool by one step, whichever is higher.

With that out of the way, I'll say this - All the good things about running Leverage very easily transitioned over to this. Chargen was a bit rougher than Leverage, taking most of an hour, but that was a function of the new system and the necessity of me making stuff up. Play was full of subplots and complications, but was still all wrapped up in about 2.5 hours of actual play. With 6 players and the amount that got done, I was pretty darn pleased. What's more, it was very low stress for me as a GM. I went in with a few ideas, but by and large I just let the complications do the work for me (which they did, with extreme prejudice).

I did use the "Complications start at d8" rule, allowing myself a free budget of d6s, and I think that worked out very well for one specific reason: When players wanted to use distinctions that seemed a little dodgy, I asked them to justify it, and often used those justifications to add some assets or descriptors to the table.

I also used a slightly different method of creating assets, where I let players create "permanent" assets - ones that last the whole game - for one plot point, but only if they went on the table, rather than remaining under the player's control. That let the players use these assets, but also let me turn them around to use later to complicate things (which I, of course) did. as a technique, I really liked this as a very organic way to handle players stretching their distinctions.

The bottom line of this for me is that I need to work a bit on my Leverage hacks to help make sure I have more of a toolkit on hand to draw from rather than need to totally make stuff up, but with that done, man, Leverage remains a super-potent go-to for a fast, engaging game.

The one tip that I'll add is this: While the system can support open-ended play, you're only going to get the speed benefits by having a clear goal in play. In leverage, that's baked in. For this, I needed to make sure it was inserted (recover the nameless). In the absence of that, we could probably have played all night, and that would have been fun, but it wouldn't have had anything like this kind of finish. The goal drives play, but it also gives you a stopping point - that's incredibly potent and important.


  1. Your experiences with Complications at d8 and "free" d6es is interesting. Ditto the "on the table" Assets and the "in my hands" ones. I think I like that quite a bit and may need to work it into some future designs.

  2. One of the things it dovetailed with is my using complications more indirectly (in some ways, more like the Smallville trouble pool). I would occasionally put a complication to immediate use, but more often I would take a black poker chip and add it to my stack, then spend those as opportunities arose. Shifted the focus a bit, but definitely underscored the "building the adventure as we go" vibe.

  3. Man, but I just wish I had a window into some of these sessions. Ever consider a limited format podcast for some of these games where you hack up new ideas?

    I'd love to have an inside look at how you manage that much story inside 2.5 hours... in most of my games that'd be a single combat encounter...

    I hear the iPad has some wonderful voice recordings, maybe your crew would be interested in sharing with the rest of us?

  4. I have to agree with ZeroGain. I am mesmerized sometimes with the ease that you pull things out of the hat. If not a podcast, which could put pressure on the gaming table, how about a symposium of some type at a convention? I don't know how often you travel to them, but the opportunity to witness, interact, query you and your compatriots...well...would be quite enlightening.

  5. What I am finding is that the speed and relative efficiency of many Cortex Plus-powered scenes is a sharp contrast to games folks are used to playing, if only because of the shift away from extended combat. It might help to explain why a lot of story can unfold in a shorter time period.

    That said, I'd love to sit in on a panel of other Cortex GMs and riff on this sometime. When the game hits the play space, it goes from being multiple ideas in theory to actual use, and I find that the best part of any game.

  6. It's also not THAT much story in the grand scheme. I mean, yes, we said and did a number of things, but there were pauses like you have in any game. The difference as Cam points out is that the combats are super brief -- I don't know that we can really be said to have had any, though there was that brief punch in the face I did on one dude in the climax. They take about as long as you'd see them take on a TV show, super fast. Which left the rest of the game to be all about each player coming up with a gambit, pursuing it to the point of a roll being made, and some consequences spilling out onto the table. There was very little filler in between and, I think due to our timeframe, very little side-chatter. In a more relaxed, less "holy crap it's already late and we want to finish this" mindset we could have had more banter and scenery-chewing (and I'd've enjoyed it -- if we started at 2pm instead of 9pm). But that wasn't the kind of game we were pursuing that night. This was more, we have a mission, let's probe the objective's defenses, find the soft spots, and push on through to our goal. Good stuff.

  7. I really liked the sharply focused conflicts / gambits. I think they kept playing moving at a sharp clip. Short sessions usually leave me feeling unsatisfied, and this was definitely an exception. The fast clip also meant that waiting for a spotlight turn amidst everything that was going on wasn't tedious.


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