Act Your Evil #3

Time to write more playtest 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 since my last report. Right now it seems that the game will stretch for another five sessions still, which is around three times longer than I’d ever have expected of a relatively simple game like this. Doesn’t bother me, however, as this is some of the most entertaining roleplaying I’ve had this year.

We’ve been playing Acts of Evil weekly, except for a couple of weeks break between sessions three and four. It now seems that each session takes 3-4 hours, during which we’ve managed 3-4 rounds of scenes with our three players. A single scene takes around 25-30 minutes on average, and we’ve had 15 scenes per player in the campaign so far. As I already described earlier, one of the PCs was already abandoned, while the two other original characters are one successful step away from becoming Scourges. That final success is, however, proving rather difficult to win.

Both of the remaining original characters have managed to hike their Resistance scores up to 5. Sipi’s character Roger did his the old-fashioned way, by shattering his Denial at the Lothringen castle in an effort to impress his new secret chiefs in the Ultima Thule society. Aleksi’s Fredric never had that much Denial, but he’s gone up a point at a time. In the session before the last one it seemed that Sipi would be triumphing in the game, but when the Denial ripped in his last scene of the session, we were rather expecting the character to get finished by a series of failures like happened with Tero’s last character, Ee. Surprisingly enough Sipi managed to bring Roger back from the brink with a very judicious use of his resources – he got his Resistance down from 6 to 5, which alone proves that it is possible to retrieve a character that far gone, at least in you happen to have a couple of points of Power available at the time.

Fredric has also over-extended his Fetishes and Dissolutions pretty much as far as imagination allows. His last Dissolution was that when his lizardman body died in the hands of a Nobody, the living, speaking snakes that composed his hair slithered off to preserve the rag-tag bits of his consiciousness. Now “he” is a supernatural swarm of snakes constantly bickering with each other. Probably his last fetish, difficulty imagining how he could distance himself from humanity any more than this.

Meanwhile Tero’s new character used to be a political commissar in Soviet Russia in the ’30s, so it’s a different Terrene from where the others are. Several Terrenes seem to work quite easily now that we’re trying them, too. Having a character come into the game in the middle is almost effortless as well – while the character is conseivably ten scenes behind the others, it’s compensated by the player having more sense for optimization with his second character. The feeling at the game table is that Tero’s character is doing best among the group right now, what with the laughably low 1-die Resistance and all. Starting the character was a bit tricky, though, as the Terrene creation step doesn’t work right with only one starting character. We compromised by setting the “highest prime” at seven for the purpose. I recommend figuring out a real procedure for starting new characters in the middle of the game – even if it’s a compromise, it’s a necessary one in a world where folks want to restart the game, new people come into the game in the middle of the campaign or whatever else.

Tactics of Evil

Paul has often referred to the tactical concerns he assumes from the players of Acts of Evil. This comes up in several places in the rules, such as how Slayings and Terrene creation work. The assumption seems to be that players who are in separate Terrenes, away from others, would have a tactical edge in the game because they could develop NPC resources (Victims, I imagine) the other players couldn’t access. Similarly the travel paths Scourges have access to would allow a character to unilaterally mess with other characters, killing or kidnapping “their” Victims.

Whether I’ve understood the issue correctly or not, that’s certainly not how the game works. Because the players do not have any real control over which NPCs their characters interact with most of the time, and because they have no control over whether other characters can interact with those NPCs, there is little incentive to worry about NPCs as resources. This is especially the case when we remember that players tend to be in different resource cycles, they do not need similar scenes at the same time with each other. There certainly is no sense of “my NPC” most of the time, and the players find it an utterly strange idea that they’d try to kill a NPC “belonging” to another player. They certainly mess with each other as much as they can, but maneuvering NPCs is outside their means.

Also, Victims are a specialty resource that doesn’t seem to be overly useful most of the time. During our five sessions so far only one occultist has made extensive use of a Victim, and even then it’s only been one or two rolls where he actually benefited significantly from harassing a Victim instead of a Nobody. Most of the time nobody cares tactically, although I’ll be discussing the thematic implications below. We only have one Victim in the story, too.

A similar tactical breakdown is evidenced in the mechanics of the Soul’s Desire: while there have been some outright harrying scenes of NPC protagonism in the game, the players have no intent nor desire to declare formal Soul’s Desire for the NPCs involved. This is partly because they’d be doing it against the interests of their own character, and partly because the appropriateness has usually only been realized after a scene is already done.

Narratives of victimization

As I told above, our story has only had one Victim, one John Knitzias, a whitecollar worker and a former fencer sir Roger thoroughly victimized a couple of sessions ago. Since then sir Roger has returned several times to further ruin the life of the Knitzias family, including John’s young wife Mary, a Nobody on her own right. Apart from casual violence and sexual brutality towards both householders, sir Roger has been keen to rip apart any hope of sanity or even artistic ambition John might have harboured.

The last such scene was especially tense, because should Roger have failed in harvesting the Power he needed, Sipi would have most likely given up on restoring Roger into playability after his Denial shattered like it did. However, the dice were on Sipi’s side until the end and he succeeded in brutalizing John, who’d just been brought home from his stint at the asylum, as well as Mary, who’d proved faithful to her husband even after her corrupting fling with Roger. At the end of the scene the whole group agreed on a couple of things which Sipi himself put to words:

  • John Knitzias should have had a Soul’s Desire in that scene, even if we don’t know whether it’s a shortcoming of the system or the player that this was not so.
  • Sipi will do his utmost to avoid brutalizing the Knitzias family again; he’s said so before, and certainly it takes more work every time to make the scene meaningful and the characters human.

What this, and other similar experiences, tell me is that the game seriously needs a more heavy-weight system for handling NPC protagonism. Specifically, what we would like to see is a meaningful way for a Victim’s story to end. It seems that the rules as they stand will take a Victim’s story into a horrid dead-end where the players have little chance other than to distance themselves from a litany of abuse with no real means of release. As brutal acts of evil are heaped upon the Victim there comes a point where the players simply can’t think of anything worse to do – the Victim has reached the bottom.

Now, the narrative method I’ve adopted to prolong and strengthen the stories of victimhood in this game is based on having good things happen to the Victim – every time sir Roger starts a new Victim scene with John Knizias, I tell a short story about how Knitzias has been doing rather well and how he’s getting his life together again after the last destructive visit. This is all well and good in the short term; it makes the Victim feel more human and it gives the occultist something new to destroy, perhaps. However, taken into the long term there are just two ways for this to go: either a player gives the Victim a Soul’s Desire, or his story descends to absurdity when the repeated abuse turns the Victim into a doll with no narrative significance.

Getting a Soul’s Desire is well and good, and I’ll be interested in seeing if John Knitzias, after being terrorized, beaten, enslaved, institutionalized, cuckolded, raped, shot and otherwise thoroughly victimized, will actually get there at some point, or if the game as it concerns him crumbles into absurdity. It might simply be that we haven’t yet got to the bottom of the story development here – for all I know Sipi will himself give John a Soul’s Desire at some point for some reason. I would have expected that if anybody were going to do it, they’d have done it already, though.

If we, however, speculate that John is not going to get his Desire defined, then the game would benefit enormously from having some way to remove him from the game. As it stands, we’ve already had the poor Victim go through two scenes where nobody at the table saw any other recourse for him other than suicide. It’d be nice to have some kind of rules-based way for a Victim to kill himself and be done with it -as it stands I can’t have Knitzias do that, because it’d remove a player resource from the table.

NPC rules

Concerning the above behavior of the Victim rules and the more general NPC rules, the current system of NPC Purpose, declaring a Soul’s Desire and so on seems to entangle itself into a hazy clump that I’m not happy with. To wit, some unarranged thoughts on the matter:

  • Why do you track Purpose for a Victim, even having it go up at a failed Resolution of Victims? I don’t even see any use for Purpose as Victims are concerned.
  • There should perhaps be some conditions in which a Soul’s Desire would be mandatory to set. Group consensus might work, or perhaps something related to a character’s Purpose: when Purpose goes over an occultist’s Clarity he couldn’t confront the NPC without defining the Desire, for example.
  • What if the Purpose of a Victim went down after each resolution and he were removed from the game when it hits zero? A way for a NPC to get removed from the game without having a Soul’s Desire, something that could be rather useful for extended Victims.

Then again, I might just be impatient. We’ve played rather many sessions already, but perhaps NPC protagonism develops slowly by intent, in which case I shouldn’t yet draw any hard conclusions about that part of the progression.

Tidbits

When does a character transcend into a Scourge or Anathema? Immediately in the middle of the scene, or between scenes?

Who decides whether a course of action in a scene is appropriate for a given resolution? We’ve had several scenes where the whole group has crowed “not evil enough!” when a player tried to get a resolution roll with some utterly wimpy activity. Should the GM have the last word, or the player?

A couple of bits of occult fiction from the last session:

It’s the summer of 1837, soon queen Victoria will be crowned as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. However, unknown to most, a small cabal of conspirators works in the Westminster Abbey to seize the spiritual authority of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England in between the death of William IV and the coronation of the new Queen. Appropriate crown jewels and investments of the bishopric have been obtained for this darkest of rites, and when the morning sun greets London, the people hardly realize that the Anglican Communion has lost its spiritual leadership to an occult hacker, who will proceed to laugh silently at the fools at the forthcoming coronation, fools too blind to perceive the empty ritual for the mockery it has now become.

Mao paid dearly for the the Buddha-untouched-by-human-hand that was seized from the unnamed Tibetan monastery by his order. When it was time to substantiate the yet unspoken and ill-defined bridge between communist dogma and occult immortality, the temple had been abandoned and empty for a while already. The bathwater carried by the chairman and his assistants came from the river ice-cold, but it soon warmed up and let off a colorful steam when the Buddha was covered.

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