28 January 2007

Playtest Report: The Committee for Exploration of Mysteries by Eric J Boyd

The regular group ran this last week. We're planning three sessions, so number one was brainstorming, character generation and the first part of the journey.

We placed the Committee in London, and pretty quickly decided that we wanted to fight a lot of Nazis and find the source of the Amazon. There should also be dinosaurs.

Our list of hazard ideas went smoothly. I was going to type it up but apparently it got left at the game venue - Stef, try and rescue it for next session!

We then decided that the main points on the journey would be Nazi Germany, the Amazon, and a lost city at the source of the Amazon. The secret is 'a crystal skull of doom'.

Next we made up characters. Our cast were (with the attributes given by other players):
  • Sinister Poe, gentleman thief. Daring high, good all-rounder. People refuse to gamble with him, he's good with a knife, he has a gammy knee and a trained cat called Twinkles. His desire is to gain eternal youth.
  • Donald "Fluffy" Dermont, socialite. Charisma high. He is chased by creditors, has demanding aunts, is a crack shot with his father's Webley and is an amateur pilot. His desire is for a good cup of tea.
  • Reginald Sutcliffe, county cricketer. Charisma high. He is stalked by a sports reporter, secretly chases the dragon, has poodle boots (game group in-"joke") and is reputed to have bribed umpires. His desire is to open for England at Lords.
  • Washington Smythe, ex-Marine, smuggler, trapper. Daring high. Once worked as a bearded lady, never harms a woman, was an artillery spotter and has torn enemie's throats out with his teeth (we don't know how many). His desire is to retire and never be called on again.
  • Dr Matthew Abernathy, Professor of Archaeology. Genius high. He carries a jar of beetles, smokes disgusting cigars, is quite the ladies' man and his tenure is under threat. His desire is to gain a peerage and thus his sweetheart's hand in marriage.
We then set off for Germany, to discover clues as to the whereabouts of the crystal skull and steal a prototype schwimwagen in order to drive to the Amazon. The first hazards where minor - passport troubles, Twinkles going missing, an aunt inviting Fluffy to dinner with Goebbels. Then things got going with an assassination attempt, Smythe stealing the schwimwagen, a bomb, Abernathy dealing with a suspicious Nazi librarian and a ludicrous chase scene as we attempted to escape Berlin with apparently the entire army in pursuit.

Our cliffhanger happened as a Nazi superhuman, almost defeated, transformed into multiple copies of herself as we fought on the schwimwagen, driving hell-for-leather towards the sea.

As that short summary implies, the action was great and often ludicrous.

I'll go into some details of the rules now, and how they worked.

Character generation was great fun, especially adding traits to the other characters. However our group - never the most serious - did add a few that were silly or disadvantageous. Perhaps an instruction to aim for things that are good or bad situationally would be useful? Or maybe it is just us. The fact that the mission is brainstormed first also adds something - you know the sorts of things you are to face and can bear that in mind.

The way scenes work is that the person whose turn it is explains how the group got from the last scene to where they are now, and what that is. They state what they want to do next and then their opposition player (picked randomly at the session start) thinks up some opposition for them. Play goes on until it comes to a conflict. Then dice are rolled, so that the opposition total is known. A three-minute timer is started (in theory a sand-type eggtimer, but we only had an electronic one). The protagonist pushes forward a die, adding it to their total and narrating what they did. Then the opposition player narrates a complication. This is repeated until the total is reached or the timer runs out.

This use of the time limit adds an urgency to the narration that worked really well. All the narration came out fast and snappy, and when your mind blanks briefly it makes it all the more exciting. The tension added is perfect for this pulpy Indiana Jones style game.

There's some more complex rules for group resolution, unexpected hazards and end of session cliffhangers, but the essence is the same and they work just as well.

The other major piece of the rules that I have not yet mentioned is the acclaim economy. Acclaim points are your score and also allow you to be better in play (or hinder the others). This is fine, but I found there were too many things to keep track of about Acclaim. For example, you invest points in ideas on the log sheets (our Berlin sheet has 'Death cult', 'Schwimwagen', 'superhuman', 'Nazis', and 'Parking warden'). If people reuse these concepts in their narration, both of you get Acclaim (but there's a choice of how to gain it each time this happens). You gain or lose Acclaim from meeting or failing challenges. You gain Acclaim when two other players laugh at your narration or raise a glass to you.

I found that this often got left out or slowed the pace of the game. I can see why the rules are all there, but I feel like a streamlined version would help the game move faster. Personally, my preference would be to remove the Acclaim related to ideas on the log. Maybe players could reroll one of their dice if they narrate in one of the listed ideas? That's a little less significant, but probably easier to do (and do fast) in play. The log then becomes an ideas sheet that gives you some advantage when ideas are reused (which seems to be the objective) rather than something to use tactically (yes, Daniel, I mean you and your 'Nazis' there).

Despite those small issues, this is a great game. Look out for the published version (I'm not sure what the timescale is going to be, of course).


Jason Pollock said...

I thought the game was fun. There was a bit of informal negotiation at the start about the tone of the game (we ended up in the standard silly variant), still fun!

I noticed that the timer really pushed the play along. It would be better if the timer was visible to everyone, since that will tell the other players if they are running out of time or not.

I'm not sure I like having a "winner" in the game. It feels that it might lead to people farming acclaim, instead of generating a story. Perhaps a change such that the person gets 1 acclaim for each person laughing and each person toasting would allow a return to an elected "winner", instead of the person who manages to grab the key terms, like "Schwimwaggen", or "Nazi", which are likely to appear in every scene.

Jason Pollock said...

"Once worked as a bearded lady"?


Eric J. Boyd said...

Hi Guys,

First off, thanks so much for taking the time to playtest my game. You're the first playtest group I've heard back from where I was not present at the game, so it's a relief to hear fun was had by all.

Jason, part of the appeal of using an hourglass as the timer is to allow everyone at the table to see how much time is left. It's certainly not required, but if anyone has a copy of Boggle sitting at home, the enclosed hourglass should work fine.

It sounds like the Acclaim gained from reusing story elements on the expedition log isn't working quite like I want it to. The intent is to have a mechanic that rewards the players for creating a cohesive and connected narrative, rather than introducing hazards in a random, disconnected manner that creates a muddled story. I also want to reward a player that comes up with a great idea, NPC, item, etc. that everyone else enjoys and wants to see appear again and again.

But it sounds like certain story elements are getting reused constantly and one or two players are getting excessive Acclaim from that. Do you think that each reuse has been a meaningful one (if not, the other players can veto the Acclaim reward)?

What do you all think of the notion of not permitting the hazards you all brainstorm on your initial list to be owned by any player? So they could be written on the log during play, but only the person doing the meaningful reuse would get a point of Acclaim. That would reserve story element ownership for things that a player truly creates on their own, and allow the others to judge whether they like it enough to see it again.

Could you elaborate a little on how rewarding Acclaim for story element reuse altered the pace of the game? That's definitely something I don't want to happen. What took place at the table between the players when a reuse occurred? When it got left out, what happened and do you have any thoughts on why it was forgotten?

I'd also be very interested in hearing some other details about play so far:
(1) What are the current Acclaim numbers of the characters so far?
(2) Has anyone run out of time?
(3) Has anyone been stymied?
(4) Has anyone ended up asking for aid?
(5) How much have the players been spending Acclaim to hose each other?
(6) How are the desires of the characters being used in play so far?

Again, thanks for playing. I look forward to hearing more about your future sessions.



The Gamester At Large said...

Regarding acclaim and the log, the game was rather silly in tone but that's not to say it wasn't cohesive. The elements used did build up effectively as we went. The main concern was more the use of likely to recur elements to garner acclaim. Maybe we should hit the veto button a bit harder?

I don't think it adversely affected game pacing either. It was generally just someone saying 'Oh I/you get acclaim for using "Nazis"'. Not enough to mess up conflict resolution.

1. Acclaim totals: 5, 12, 14, 7, 15. Pretty varied, but not totally unbalanced.

2. One conflict almost ran out of time, but the last die was pushed forward with about a second to spare. Our cliffhanger looked like it might have gone over time if we hadn't had to stop at half the total too. We weren't pushing too many hard conflicts at this stage however. I suspect we'll have more difficult ones next time, and more likelihood of time really being an issue.

3. No, nobody has been stymied yet.

4. We had one case of aid being required. The conflict worked very well with the two players bouncing narration between each other as they went.

5. We only had one or two uses of acclaim to mess with each other.

6. Desires haven't been central in play at this stage.