09 September 2004

Scarlet Wake (playtest edition): Read-through Review

The newest and also coolest game that I've seen for a while is Scarlet Wake. Currently it's only in a public playtest release but it looks pretty close to complete and I'm really looking forward to playing it.

It is based on revenge stories, specifically those in which a very cool protagonist slays their way through a group of enemies. Kill Bill looks like the biggest influence but I think I would like to play it as a Western, in the style of The Outlaw Josey Wales or High Plains Drifter.

In any case, the game works very differently from your average rpg. Everyone has a character and everyone takes turns. There is no one gamemaster - instead everyone is basically the gamemaster of their protagonist's story. You begin with your character idea, give them a few numbers and then work through the kill list - five "bosses" who are the people you want revenge on. Each boss has a few numbers and you allocate them "peons" who defend them.

Protagonists can share bosses from their kill lists. This becomes important in play because the decision about whether to fight the boss together or try to take him out alone can make a difference.

Once all ths is sorted, play begins. Players take turns and each gets three ten-minute scenes before play passes on to the next person. Each scene must be about your protagonist's revenge story, e.g. revealing something about their past, improving their abilities or (obviously) taking on the next boss. The player gets to set up the scene and describe what's going on, and other players take on the roles of any antagonists (bosses and peons) present. The protagonist's player can instruct the antagonist players regarding what is required, to make it fit into their story. Then it plays out.

Fighting the bad guys has one of the coolest parts in the game, which made me laugh out loud to read. When your protagonist wants to fight the next boss, you gesture to tell the antagonist players how many people you wish ot fight in the next wave. You can hold up fingers (so many peons), a palms-up wave towards you (send all the peons, bring it on!), point at the boss (just the boss) or displaying your two middle fingers extended towards the group (send everyone, I'm too cool for my own good). Each wave is resolved in a roll of protagonist versus all the antagonists.

There's a lot of complex stuff about how damage is dealt and stats raised and so forth which I'd prefer to leave off discussing until I've played the game. It all looks pretty damn good as written, though.

The one thing that really stands out is the fuel/fire/kick rules. Protagonists do not take damage from fights. Instead, they gain fuel and kick. Kick is used against the protagonists by antagonists, like a currency to make things bad for the protagonist (e.g. remove their weapon, kill them, etc). Fuel sits there until the protagonist decides to "burn" it into fire, which gives them a one-off bonus in the current wave of violence. If your fuel gets too high, then the antagonists can put you into a "bind" which essentially means they can capture you and mess you up a great deal, and you have to escape and take up the killing again.

There's also a possiblity of giving your protagonist a dilemma - setting up a situation in which they have a moral conflict about taking their revenge. You then roll to overcome this - if you fail, you gain a point of Grudge (the hate stat) and if you succeed you lose a point of grudge, gain a point of Honour (the "I'm good" stat) and let them live (for now, anyway).

Those rules, and several of the other aspects, mean that Scarlet Wake is going to be quite a tactical game - you need to make good decisions about when to burn fuel and how many antagonists to take on (you want to beat them but also have them give you fuel in the process). The one failing I found with the rules is that there isn't any advice about this. The importance of these tactics is noted, but there's no advice on (for example) how many peons can a starting character handle? How should I set up my kill list so that I have enough fuel to take out each boss by burning it into fire? It may be that - as this is a playtest release - the author simply doesn't have a good enough set of rules yet, and I hope that there's something in the final release about this.

Finally, the game is competitive. Once everyone has killed all their bosses, scores are tallied up to see who was the best (i.e. coolest) in taking their revenge. There's also some talk about using old protagonists as bosses in subsequent games (e.g. "You brutally killed my father! In front of me!").

Oh, yes - the playtest pdf is one of the most professional and downright cool pieces of game layout and design that I've seen. It blows most big-company professional games out of the water.

This is well worth checking out if you are interested in new and interesting takes on the what a roleplaying game is.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike. It's Simeon here. Saw you on Morgue's blog. It's good to find you again, why don't you drop me a line at serpent@paradise.net.nz or spy on my life at livejournal - http://xenogram.livejournal.com/

Might be visiting Wellington again sometime soon.

Matt said...

Hey Mike,

I just downloaded the playtest. It does look good, I haven't read it yet.

It doesn't really look like it'd lend itself to long terms games, which I tend towards, but it does look a, reasonably easy to learn, and b, a heck of a lot of fun for one offs...

Will there be Scarlet Wake at Kapcon next year? ;)

The Gamester At Large said...

Matt - regarding the length of game, Scarlet Wake doesn't suit one offs at all - you need to tell the whole story, and it seems to me that would take 3 (three/four hour) sessions minimum. For this reason, it won't appear at Kapcon. WARGS is another matter, although we have to get the current game finished before we can consider another one.