Act Your Evil

I played Paul Czege‘s Acts of Evil today. It’s part of the Ashcan Front, so half playtesting, half real play. I’ve been following the game pretty closely, so for me it’s frantic hammering at the rough edges of a potentially excellent design. I would’ve put this play report / commentary on their forum, except there’s no real-time registration and I couldn’t be arsed to wait until Paul or Matt or whoever got around to letting me in. So I sent it to Paul via email, and post it here for the viewing pleasure of others. Perhaps I’ll link it to the forums if they ever let me in.

Three players and me. Two I haven’t played with before, one of them a youngster who’s only ever played Runequest, while the other is a very experienced local roleplaying activist. The third is Sipi, a teenager I’ve been playing with for nearly three years, and who’s moving away to university soon. The whole crew got the idea of the game rather easily, so no problems in that regard.

GMing this game is tricky. My chosen method was to make a point of the narrative quality of each individual turn: the “scene framing” I did as a GM was more of a prologue to a short story, and I made sure that when scenes ended, there was a long-term resolution narration akin to how a real story ends. This way each turn would have a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a real story. This principle, combined with the idea of framing /for the NPC/, made the game work fabulously. A couple of examples of what I mean:

The very first turn had young Fred, played by young Aleksi, meet with a Teacher called Monsieur Pelletrier in London, England, circa 1840. Fred was a dirty street urchin who tried to steal Pelletrier’s wallet. Pelletrier himself, however, had been seeking this urchin for a while now, ever since he heard that the old king of beggars had gotten rid of his manaster and died soon afterwards. He wanted to take young Fred home, to raise him into an image of himself. A quick resolution solidified the relationship between those two, and Pelletrier took his new ward home. Therein he proceeded to bathe, perfume and groom the boy, ultimately taking him as his unwilling lover for the rest of the summer.

See what I mean? At the beginning I defined an occult ambition for the Teacher, that of seeking out the new occultist raised by the “king of beggars”. At the end I narrated how the failure in a Resolution of Teachers meant not only going home with the gentleman, but it also defined the fundamental fate of the character. In some manner this could be considered an abrupt, yet complete story.

Another, longer example had Sipi’s character meet a Nobody in jail. I narrated how the Irishman Mike O’Tenner (same Terrene), one of the oldest prisoners in the prison, was the gardener for the prison warden. Nobody knew why he was there. Not even a guard, when bribed, could say. We had some murk about who would determine the relationship of the PC to the Nobody, but ultimately Sipi decided that his character was simply morbidly curious about the secret sin of this kindly old-timer.

After successfully making the sleeping prisoner talk about his past the occultist found out that even O’Tenner himself had forgotten why he was in prison in the first place. This was my call; while the player narrated the means of his success, I decided as the backstory authority that it’d be too easy if O’Tenner could just tell.

Sipi continued the story by having his occultist frame O’Tenner for robbing the warden’s safe, a simple feat for his powers. The idea was to set up O’Tenner so he’d go to court and have his old crime dragged from the records. We might’ve had the roll be against the warden, but decided that this was still directed against O’Tenner.

After the occultist succeeded in this vile plot, the whole prison found out that O’Tenner had been part of the Shadow Dáil at the end of Napoleon’s reign, when the Irish went to revolt against their British overlords. We were a bit at loss about how we’d continue from that, but I suggested a solution: it could be that the reason our occultist was so curious was that he needed a traitor of the crown for a magic that would free him from the prison. The prison could be full of rapists, murderers and thieves, but if O’Tenner were the only traitor, he’d be invaluable to the occultist.

The third roll of the story, therefore, was about inducting O’Tenner into the occult tradition: the occultist offered him freedom, which offer he took gladly after being embittered by the false accusations of robbery. The two inmates stripped naked, and when O’Tenner spat upon a silver sterling, bearing the sign of the crown, the magic was unleashed such that no servant of the crown would see the traitor. The occultist then forced O’Tenner to carry him away from the prison as well, for only things O’Tenner carried would stay invisible to the lawmen.

We were very satisfied with the above story of O’Tenner’s, partly because it conformed to the theory: O’Tenner had not been introduced in previous scenes, and the story of his occult transformation formed a nice arc similar to Gaiman’s Sandman stories, which we were using as a blueprint. That was perhaps the greatest success of the “each turn a story” theory; many other turns were fine as they were, but they also lacked resolution. Partly this was perhaps because I failed in following my own advice of having a clear beginning, middle and end to each turn’s story, at which point the more common format of “each turn develops a common story” immediately emerged. We produced rather nice material in this way as well, including a NPC who will probably earn a Desire next session, but those turns didn’t shine with the excellency that the full-story turns had. Part of the problem is no doubt the lacking advice about protagonism and antagonism, but those things could also be codified into some form of rules of conduct that’d help players keep to the difficult (yet satisfying) form.

Following my train of thought, I’d like to suggest a bit of a reworking for the Purpose rules Nobodies have: I don’t think that having a constantly rising value that resists status change is necessary for Nobodies. Our play seemed to indicate that if a Nobody was going to be changed into something else, it’d happen on the first try or not at all. If that failed, then it failed, and trying again would be petty (and difficult, with increasing Purpose). Our two examples of failed Nobody status changes were the daughter of a Teacher, one Claire McCreel, and a fencing student of the very same teacher, John Knitzias. The former will most likely gain a Desire soon, as we’ve seen her several times in scenes, but even for the latter it’d seem to me that trying to turn him into a victim again would lessen the dramatic purpose of his first fateful meeting with the occultist, when he won their struggle on the banks of river Thames.

My preliminary idea for the situation would be to simply state that failing a Nobody’s status change would instantly give him a Desire and an Agenda score. No need to track Purpose, just state that Agenda is added against efforts to turn the Nobody. (Perhaps also allow a player to redefine the Agenda’s value later the same way it’s defined at first; I see little reason for it to be permanent).

A point about the scene framing and making meaningful story content in the game: Nobody scenes and occult scenes are a whole different game in my small head, because as I understand it, there’s not much protagonizing that could be done in the occult scenes. The idea of framing for the NPC and the other related techniques that made the O’Tanner scene work so well aren’t the same set of tools and thought processes that make for a good occult scene. I’m not yet sure if a fully good occult scene is even possible; the best ones we had were definitely enjoyable, but I don’t know yet what makes them tick. One example:

Sipi’s character, Roger jr. the Duke of Kent, has a Teacher who’s also his fencing teacher. The man goes by the name of Captain McCreel, a scotsman with long history in the service of the crown. Roger has been begging McCreel for a long while to teach him the Riddle of Steel, and finally tonight McCreel agreed: if Roger’d come to the fencing hall at midnight, he would be shown things.

Roger came, but he came early and hid in the storeroom. Thus he could observe how McCreel came in with a lantern and drew mysterious step marks on the floor, remarkably similar to what Roger had espied in renaissance Italian fighting manuals. Ultimately it proved, however, that McCreel was not going to spar with Roger: one of the other students of McCreel’s came in and was promptly slain by the bloodthirsty McCreel in a very one-sided duel. Afterwards McCreel turned towards the hiding Roger and told him to make do with the body, considering that the police had been alerted. And if he’d be patient, perhaps McCreel would give him another lesson at some point.

Sipi called for a conflict at this point (we had some murk about who could call it and when), lost, and narrated how his character was left to meet the police, murder weapon in hand.

The above example felt nice in game for a couple of reasons: the occult color was nice, because we established that McCreel’s occultism is all about fencing. The scene itself felt like it accomplished something, because it defined the relationship between the master and the student. I’ll have to play more to make sure, but that’s my current theory: occult scenes have to be firm about establishing the power relationships between the characters, because that’s pretty much what is going on in those scenes.

The rules of Concomitance are a dead letter as it stands, because they do not enforce nor guide anything. Because every player in the group benefits from not remembering them, it’s very effortless and easy to forget their existence. Getting to add to narration against the narrator’s wishes is not a privilege eagerly sought.

The Ligature rule was used once, but it was an instant hit when it was utilized at the end, when players finally had some Power to spend against each other. I suspect that it’ll be used more later.

Fetishizing is still genius. I recommend having a spot on the character sheet for a list of fetishes, because writing them down as a progression of the bizarre is both fun and useful. Limiting to once per turn is not necessary, players realize the difficulty of going over the top repeatedly. This is a mechanic I’m going to steal if I ever need Color control and escalation mechanics, of which this is the first example I can think of.

Power was not plentiful: at first players didn’t seek it, and making Victims is not popular just yet. The rules do work, but pedagogically it’d be better if players already had one or three points at the beginning, just so they’d realize how useful it is. The second session will be a different game, now that the players understand this.

Following from those observations, and from the fact that the game has a bit of downtime for players: it’d be very useful if Power was used as a light metagame currency, representing the metaphysical flows between the members of the Onset (a very loved concept at this table, the Ligature thing brings it to fore beautifully). There are many ways of doing this, but one basic interaction is that Concomitance should be tied to rewards and loss of Power in some manner. At this point I’m thinking that players could be rewarded with Power for suggestions that are taken, but I could see having players pay for enforcing something they want in the narration. The important point is to have some manner of connection between the Concomitance and the rest of the rules, and that connection should have something to do with Power.

If you don’t want to add to the Power floating around in the game directly with some kind of GM rewards, one interesting thing to try would be to have all Power spent by players during a turn go into a pool from whence players could then fish it into their own accounts by suggesting or taking suggestions or whatever you want to reward. The pool could then be emptied at the end of the turn, or it could stick around, or whatever. I could even see making Power a closed economy where abusing Nobodies actually leeches Power from another player when there is nothing in the pool to take.

What else… the Terrene creation went fine, although we only got one. I have some ideas about Scourges, their spirits and travelling between Terrenes (along the lines of what I wrote earlier), but I’m going to save those until after our play gets to that level.

Ah, my favourite citation, from a rivalry between the mystery-archeology occultist and the fencer occultist: “I don’t read books written after the dawn of literacy, thank you.”


2 Responses to “Act Your Evil”

  1. Act Your Evil #2 « Cooking is about Structure Says:

    […] 7th, 2007 — Eero Tuovinen We’ve played two more sessions of Acts of Evil since I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. I’m putting my playtest notes here in the blog in the interest of […]

  2. Act Your Evil #3 « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] reportage/commentaries on Acts of Evil we’ve been playing this fall. The last reports are here and here. Fifth session of the campaign happened last Tuesday, so it’s been two sessions […]

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