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 having the whole story in one place, and to give interested readers an idea of how one might go about writing hopefully useful playtest reports for a roleplaying game. I’m a bit behind on my playtest reporting due to all seven kinds of busyness, but luckily playtest reports get shorter when the campaign progresses and issues get addressed; otherwise I’d probably burst a blood vessel one of these days.
First off, the fiction: the tone of our game closely resembles black, sardonic comedy, where the authors shock the audience with small, visual-quality tidbits and amuse them with character antics. Based on the three sessions up to now there is no moral horror in Acts of Evil; the player characters are amoral creatures, and whatever weaknesses non-occult NPCs might possess, they pale in comparison. The game therefore possesses a great amount of poetic content, but not much drama. The most satisfying snippets of play have been the particularly striking visual images created now and then in the process of describing occult undergoings. The most uneven content concerns the non-occultist NPCs, whose protagonization is, even with my personal efforts at storifying (described in the earlier post), a rather uncertain proposition; sometimes it works to a degree, sometimes it doesn’t, and pretty often the story of the NPC stalls due to uneven screen time.
The actual play process is very entertaining, as we have a good group, but it’s also in the danger of getting stale and repetitive due to the difficulties in deepening the drama. The last session moved almost solely on the strengths of poetic occult invention, there was a minimum of drama, and what there was is difficult to build upon. The issue of character protagonism continues to hound us: when one of the occultists got captured by faeries and taken to their world, his story changed for several turns into a dark kind of fairy tale fantasy, with the character pretty much as an anti-hero protagonist, clearly the focal point of events. At that point the story of the unfortunate occultist trapped in faerie overran the usual disjointed structures of the game: as the character couldn’t escape faerie by his own power, his scenes were forced into documenting the story of his journeys in the strange land.
The “poetic invention” I refer to above has grown to be one of the major driving forces in the game. In other words, we’re slowly inventing our own fantastic occult mythology that spans the experience of all three occultist characters. It is quite satisfying to figure out some part of this, as any additions tend to connect to already established bits and have implications for what the occultists are or should be doing. I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate:
One of the characters, sir Roger, is a martial adept, that’s his “style” of magic. This was established in the second scene of the game already, which I told about in the earlier report, in which Roger’s fencing Teacher set him up to deal with a murder charge. Ever since then there’s been this tension underneath the story: how will inhuman swordmanship and martial rage translate into cosmic power? Sir Roger had for a long time zeroes in both Imagination and Memory, and a very low Voice as well, so it’s natural that for most of the time he didn’t do anything except Flesh stunts. However, Roger ultimately came upon a situation where he would have to simply overcome another being with his social arguments. Enter the “Lemurian language”, an ancient cant intentionally designed by Hyperborean warlords to bypass the cerebral cortex and hack the lizard brain of mammalian (and, ostensibly, reptilian) creatures, enabling communication and control on a primal level. Very suitable for triggering murderous rages or passive acceptance of leadership, for instance. Of course, forcing such control is wont to drive the victim rather mad.
The Lemurian language connected to a running theme of another character’s: sir Edmund was a mystery archeologist PC who had a passion for the ancient, including the Hyperborean civilization. It had been hinted previously (due to some lost conflicts, specifically) that sir Roger’s martial discipline ultimately had a deeper connection to the Hyperborean magics than Edmund’s academics ever could. Another implication, or rather, explication, was that sir Roger was taught in the Lemurian language by his mentor in the mystic arts, captain McCreel, who would of course use such a secret in controlling his fencing school.
Another example of world-building is the Tenebrian library, which was introduced first as a random aside, then as an increasingly central focal point of occult endeavours. The third PC, a street kid called Fred, took residence with a beat cop by the name of Frank Bullock after he was abandoned on the street by his french Teacher, adopted father and sometime lover, monsieur Pelletrier. Soon afterwards Fred enslaved the good policeman and inducted him into his crude cult of power and dark arts. Unknown to Fred, his ministrations opened a mysterious connection to the Tenebrian Library for Frank Bullock, however, from which valuable tomes of arcane knowledge started appearing in their shared apartment. After a series of hijinks and misunderstandings upon the nature of the connection (Fred assumed that he himself was the chosen recipient of the tenebrous wisdom) Pelletrier, Fred and Frank Bullock penetrated the mysteries, at which point we defined what the vague phrase “Tenebrian Library” meant: up above the Earth, around 7000 kilometers to be exact, resting in a focal point of the Akashic records right above the British Museum, a spiritual presence of most great significance loomed. We’ve yet to find out what else, apart from valuable occult tomes, is contained within, as Pelletrier threw Fred down from the orbit (he landed in Zaire) and ended the scene, but it’s pretty obvious that the library is some pretty hot shit in occult terms.
Although the poetic stuff is kinda interesting, it is also quite interesting that it operates almost entirely in the void, as far as rules are concerned. The result of that for our group seems to be that most of the central ideas (Martial adepts, the Tenebrian Library, Fair Folk, Lemurian language, for example) are established by myself in the role of the GM; when a character succeeds in something, for instance, sometimes I make rather elaborate suggestions as to the mechanics of how, exactly, the occultist achieves his ambition. It just seems much more interesting than just conjuring a ball of elemental fire or whatever, The other players of course participate as well, but it feels to me like I’m a traditional GM who is providing the occult landscape and mythology for the other players to explore. I also know why I end up doing this: as the GM has to improvise a great deal of scenes in short order, it’s also very important for him to have structures and analytical understanding of what’s going on. It’s much easier to think up good new scenes if I string them up into larger structures of mythology.
After three sessions the characters are still running on empty power-wise. They also have yet to ascend to Scourge, despite having had ten scenes each. A character usually gains around two points of Power from a Nobody scene, and more often than not they’ve spent it on their next turn. I suggest that the Power economy might work better if the players gained more Power in larger portions, so as to make the players feel “flush” at times and “broke” at others. The system as it stands now discourages binge spending and other interesting dynamics simply by making it difficult to have more than one or two points of Power. It’s also a shame that we haven’t seen any Power spending on other characters (and therefore no rules-required ligatures either) during the last couple of sessions, simply because the players don’t have any. Not that the characters would need any additional resistance.
There is relatively little security in most checks the characters make in our game. Most scenes in the last session lasted only one roll, with some at two. In the second session we had three roll scenes as well. My own preference would be for this to extend to around four rolls average, two rolls and seven rolls as outlier lengths. That would make it easier to make the game work narratively; as it stands now, there is little encouragement to creating overly elaborate and independent scenes, when the scene will probably end pretty quickly.
Moving between Terrenes
We’ve had several situations now where characters have been moved between Terrenes, or at least almost, by Teachers. This was in the rules at some point as well, although it’s not there now. The reason we’ve had it has been that it made sense: the first such situation was when sir Roger confronted the Avalonian fair folk who protected the tomb of king Arthur Pendragon below Glastonbury Tor. Their touch means oblivion, we narrated, so when sir Roger was embraced by one of the formless voids, it made sense that he would end up in the fairy land.
Another example was when, in the third session, sir Roger won his freedom from faerie by besting lady Trianis, a dangerous fair folk lady. She then brough him back into his own world, which was obvious enough when that was sir Roger’s goal. The interesting thing is that Trianis was at this point already reductedt to a Rival, so she wasn’t even a Teacher then.
A third near-example was when Fred confronted his teacher monsieur Pelletrier up in cislunar space and got thrown down in Zaire. Technically he’s still in the same dimension and time as London of 1840s, but it’s quite a journey for him to return to London, too.
The most serious problem of our third session, and the entire game, was when sir Edmund’s veil of Denial dissolved and his Resistance jumped from 1 to 6 in one fell swoop. This happened at the end of the second session, and Tero, the player of sir Edmund, spent the entire third session just trying to succeed in something, anything. At the end of the session we determined that for all intents and purposes Edmund’s story was over: he was powerless, overtly fetishized, as down in his luck as he could be. We agreed that the smartest thing we could do would be for Tero to create a new character at the beginning of our next session, letting sir Edmund’s story end there.
Obviously the game needs either more consideration for how a character can survive that kind of situation, or a method for retiring characters. Right now I feel that player decision is a fine gauge for retirement: if the player feels that the character is not viable anymore, let him say so and make a new one.
In the interests of learning what goes on in sessions, here’s sir Edmund’s story scene-by-scene, ever since the first session:
Scene #1: Resolution of Rivals: Sir Edmund is a member of the peerage in good standing, invited to the best parties. In this case it’s the debutante ball of Claire McCreel (Nobody), the daughter of one captain McCreel (Teacher, defined in a former scene). Sir Edmund gets into an argument with sir Roger (Rival, PC) about politics, which turns into a veiled argument about occult prehistory.
Resolution of Nobodies: After humiliating the unsophisticated sir Roger soundly, Edmund proceeds to charm the debutante herself on the dance floor. His plan is to gain the captain’s attention through his daughter, to which extent he tries to lure the innocent Claire into the solitude of the gardens, seeking more romantic opportunity.
Elevation of Nobodies: Heady from his success Edmund, the high-roller of our beginning occult crew, confesses his occult ambitions to Claire, asking her to join him in his quest for a grander time of adventure and barbaric virtue. He conjures visions of past lives for Claire in the garden pond, showing her how she is the reborn spirit of an ancient Hyperborean queen. However, Claire refuses the honor and escapes with her soul intact, afraid of the strange gentleman and his paganic discussion.
Scene #2: Resolution of Teachers: The Cosmogony club is one of the most prestigious private scientific associations in the country. While the club focuses mostly on the exploration of heavenly geography, this time there is a highly learned lecture by one monsieur Pelletrier, a French expert in chemical analysis of ancient materiels. The lecture itself is remarkable, but when a central core of highly respected “friends of the strange” withdraws in the tobacco room for further, deeper discussion of some old manuscripts, Edmund knows that he wants to be there, definitely. However, when monsieur Pelletrier himself confronts Edmund at the door, sneering, greeting him in genuine ancient Hyperborean gutturals, Edmund loses all composure and retreats for now.
Scene #3: Resolution of Nobodies: Claire McCreel is afraid and slightly desperate, as her father has promised her in marriage to sir Roger i a previous scene, which is not something Claire is very happy about. Now she’s at the railway station, preparing to leave London for the country seat of her aunt. However, Edmund finds her and decides to return her to her father, luring her into his carriage with promises of aid. She decides to trust him in her desperation.
Resolution of Nobodies: Claire gets suspicious when Edmund tells the driver to take them to the McCreel house, but she’s unable to escape from the slightly reptilian Edmund’s animal magnetism. He escorts her back home, keen to get his reward from McCreel.
Resolution of Teachers: Edmund meets with captain McCreel, who however berates him about his lack of manliness and wisdom. I don’t rightly remember why this was, but apparently Edmund gave something of a bad impression.
Scene #4: Resolution of Nobodies: Edmund can’t get Claire out of his mind, so he goes to spy on her. Claire is tied to a post in her bedroom, so as to not escape from her increasingly cruel father. Edmund gets in via a window and threatens her not to give away his position, hinting of possible freedom.
Resolution of Nobodies: Claire believes Edmund and begs on her knees for aid against her increasingly mad father. Edmund grants her request, after a fashion: he removes the rope she’s tied with from the post and takes her away through the window, holding on her leash.
Degradation of Nobodies: Edmund decides to finally give in to his passions of the flesh, taking Claire away to his cellar, wherein he would worship and ravish her virgin flesh. Unfortunately, Edmund fails. His Dissolution has Edmund’s mind split into two: Esmeralda is a sexual predator haunting the slums of Whitechapel, dressed as a woman of little virtue.
Scene #5: Resolution of Rivals: Esmeralda, Edmund’s delusional female alter ego, meets young Fred (PC Rival) on the streets, after Fred was thrown out by his mentor, monsieur Pelletrier. Both have intimate plans for each other, for young Fred does not realize that Esmeralda is, in fact, transvestite. Esmeralda manages to lure Fred to her dungeon, however.
Reduction of Rivals: Esmeralda and Fred spend a most intimate night, most of which Fred hangs in the ropes after finding out Esmeralda’s most intimate secret. When morning comes, Fred is entranced by the new sights and sensations, and promises to come again to Esmeralda who now has him under her heel.
Scene #6: Resolution of Rivals: Mike O’Tenner (Rival), an underling of sir Roger’s, comes by to consult with Edmund. His master has disappeared in the land of faerie, and he needs assistance in rescuing him. The old Irishman screws Edmund in the deal they negotiate most severely, and when Edmund has given him what he needs, he mocks the stupid blueblood clown who traded secrets for trinkets. Edmund’s veil of Denial shatters, which also shatters the psyche of Edmund completely, leaving Esmeralda in power.
Scene #7: Resolution of Nobodies: Esmeralda wanders the streets, for she has forgotten her heritage and past. She tries to get work in a brothel, where Madame Flora is symphatetic to her. However, when she disrobes and the madame sees the lacking state of Esmeralda’s womanhood, she is refused from even this occupation of harlots. The Dissolution this time has Esmeralda mutilate his own genitalia, so as to better fit into the mold of womanhood.
Scene #8: Resolution of Nobodies: Esmeralda, who is now suffering from endless menstruation, lives in a workhouse. Clara McCreel finds her there (she’s working as a volunteer, you see), recognizes old Edmund, and tries to communicate with her. When it becomes evident that he’s sick and in need of help, Clara takes Esmeralda to a doctor, and ultimately, to a sanitarium, despite all her protestations. The Dissolution of his will has Edmund/Esmeralda become completely androgynous now, and he/she starts calling hirself simply “Ee”.
Scene #9: Resolution of Underlings: Ee is now living in a sanitarium, in a white room, where sie is protected from hir own violence. However, sie still dreams and has visions, where sie travels the breadth of the world. In one of these visions sie finds Fred, Esmeralda’s lover and underling, who is now living in Zaire. Ee tries to walk through the dreams to him, but fails utterly; sie does not have magic anymore, it is as if the manaster has abandoned hir.
Scene #10: Resolution of Victims: Ee gets a new next-door neighbour in the sanitarium when John Knitzias, a former fencer thoroughly victimized by sir Roger, is admitted. At night he whispers of the mists of Avalon and the beings he saw there. Ee tries to agitate him from hir own cubicle as a means of diversion, but is soon found out and put into solitary confinement, there to harm nobody.
So that’s it. As you can see, the last three turns were immediate failures for Edmund/Esmeralda/Ee, followed by continuous Dissolutions. Winning against six dice when you only roll at most five or six yourself, and the opposing dice are better than yours, is pretty difficult. For this to be a worthwhile exercise any longer there would have to be some way to either end Ee’s sordid existence, or to get hir resistance down. After the last scene of the session we agreed that Tero would start with a new character next time, with Ee staying in play as a Teacher NPC.
Oh, here’s Edmund’s list of fetishes and the statistics at the end:
He’s constantly writing things down in a notebook.
Slightly lizardly appearance and habits.
Abducts sex slaves, then frees them later.
Goes everywhere with a drip attached to his arm, spewing animal bloods into his veins.
Addicted to opium. (Yeah, this should is a bit tame compared to the last one.)
Does not brook clothes anymore.
Some questions and concerns about the rules:
What significance does the alternative result of the Resolution of Victims serve? Purpose is only used for Nobodies, so adding to the Purpose of a Victim seems useless.
Should a player be able to choose whether he wants a status change or normal resolution? At the beginning of the scene? Later on?
The chain of fetishes seems to get rather wild early on. Perhaps it’d be smart to allow a player to start fresh after ascending a step. Otherwise it seems that only the most talented player will be able to use more than, say, fifteen fetishes during the game. Perhaps that is enough, although the general scarcity of bonus dice also makes me recommend considering other sources for bonuses. Perhaps there could be other fetish tracks apart from a character’s personal fetishes, or something like that.
There needs to be more Power in the game, the current amount is pitiable. Going back to the power loans from an earlier version could work, but so could simply giving more points for particularly successful rolls or something like that.
There needs to be some way of getting characters out of holes. I think that flipping the NPC killing switch would work admirably for this: Edmund, above, could have gotten his Resistance down by simply accepting a couple of points of Slayings, instead of being nigh unsaveable.
Should Teachers be able to move characters to other Terrenes? Or is it better if players just avoid the kind of situations that are prone to causing that?
There needs to be some kind of rules-based support for character protagonism and antagonism. As it stands our control of the issue is pitiable, which puts all other decisions made in the game out of whack.