[Storming the Wizard's Tower] The Temple of Nine Bells

edited August 2009 in Actual Play
This is a lengthy AP, but I'm excited about this game, and I can't find many proper APs out there for it, so I'm gonna go ahead and post the whole thing. In case you are interested, but not THAT interested, I have divided it up into Character Creation, Doing Stuff, and Fighting.


I got real excited about this game when it first came out (or sort-of came out, I guess it's still in playtesting). Vince Baker! Swords! Lots of dice! But my first attempt to run a game got stopped early, and then I didn't get back to it until now.

I ran the game last night, using a town of my own creation. StWT has a fair amount of prep, but its fun prep. Making a town and character types and lists is neat-o. Even making monsters is cool, and you end up with really distinct, weird, unique monsters.

The setting for the game was the town of Nine Bells, which is sort of a loose, fantasy western China, in the spirit of Barry Hughart's Master Li books. I lifted lots of neat little bits of color from a couple old game books for my lists – GURPS China and Palldium's Mystic China.

The town, character types and lists are online here. I think it came out well, and I was pretty proud of it. The rules give you lots of freedom to invent, which is cool.

The group was myself plus five other players. Slightly larger than I'm comfortable with, and I think larger than Vince Baker recommends for the game, but what are you gonna do? The group is one I play with regularly, and while there are a couple players who dig indie/story games, the group as a whole is mostly non-hardcore gamers who prefer more traditional games (D&D 3E and Savage Worlds). Social gamers, if you will.

No one had read the rules in advance, as it was a sort-of last-minute game, and I told them there was no need. Character creation was super easy, even so. There were five character types, so everyone discussed, and then picked what they wanted (except for Colin, who arrived late, and got stuck with the Geomancer). Everyone wanted to be the Demon Hunter, but it was sorted out amiably.

We rolled stats together, and I made everyone a little packet with the lists and what they were. I briefly described the central dice mechanic, and the town itself. Then we went around the table and everyone described their character.

I also took pains to stress that the characters were not mercenaries, or treasure-hunters, but pillars of the community, people the townfolk would call on when the shit went down. This occasioned some laughter and commentary ("Wait, you mean we're not going to leave a trail of innocent dead behind us?"), as the group has on ongoing Deadlands campaign filled with PCs who are amoral bastards. I'm glad the rules stress this bit, as all the players reacted strongly to it. Good to have said it out loud.

I really liked character creation. Because there are so few mechanical elements, every little choice is important. When we introduced our characters, everyone said their name, the character type they had chosen, and said a little something about the gear they had picked. (John picked "Fancy Hat" from the gear list, which proved to be a running joke, and one of the highlights of the game).

Everyone also picked a "person" from the list, and came up with neat little backstories about how they were related to that person. For instance, the list presented "Peach Blossom, a courtesan". James picked her, and decided she was his sister, and he disapproved of her lifestyle. The other players liked that, so they dropped a few references in the game to Peach Blossom, and the family strife between the two.

I think the looseness of the character creation rules encourages players to take more liberties, which I like. If you know that the rules are not complex and finely-balanced, and that your friend just invented the archetypes the day before, you're more likely to tweak things to suit you without asking if it's "okay" or anything like that.



    So the threat to the town was that some monks from the temple on the sacred mountain had unwittingly unearthed a tomb containing a pair of hopping vampires. And the vampires had waylaid and mangled a party of innocent pilgrims. This is a problem, since the prosperity and honor of the town depend on the pilgrims making their way safely through the forest, up the mountain to the temple.

    On top of that, such disharmony has angered the night spirits of the mountain, who are wandering around howling and causing mischief.

    So those were my two main monsters – hopping vampires and the night spirits. I also statted up Bad Fang, a highwayman, the forest itself (as a terrain monster), and the Ghost Bear, a giant primeval mountain spirit, just in case they crossed paths and unwisely came to blows.

    I stole the opening scene from Barry Hughart's 'Eight Skilled Gentlemen' … The prefecture's most skilled executioner, Devil's Hand, is about to go for the record, his 100th perfect execution. There is much excitement and betting in the town square. The victim is the notorious highwayman Bad Fang, who the PC's captured (in a nonexistent previous episode).

    The players got pretty into the scene. John's character was the Imperial Magistrate overseeing the execution, and some of the other players worked their characters in, plus a few of their "relationship" NPC's for color.

    The execution was interrupted by the arrival of a little girl covered in blood, borne into the town square by hysterical monks and washer-women, all hollering about murder and monsters in the forest. The PC's took charge – some kept an eye on Bad Fang (who, by town custom, was now free to go, as the execution had been botched) and some questioned the little girl.

    We used the "Charged Conversation" rules for this scene. It went okay … it took some of us a little bit to grasp the idea that the conversation itself is role-played, in the fiction, between the characters, but the mechanics take place between the player and GM. John's character, the magistrate, had a great Command stat, and he rolled five hits, but we kind of ran out of stuff to use them on.

    The problem may have been that it really wasn't the most appropriate use of the mechanic. I see it as intended for interrogations, negotiations, etc., rather than a kindly magistrate trying to get information from a frightened child. (I had thought ahead of time to have her clam up, and make him figure out that she wanted to talk to a woman, but John made his character a woman, so that stole my opportunity.)

    So the PCs' figured out that the little girl's family had been killed by some sort of old-man-like monsters on the road, and they were all for going right up there and investigating the crime scene, CSI-style. Which was good; I liked not having to give them elaborate reasons WHY their characters should get involved.

    A fair amount of energy was expended trying to decide what to do with Bad Fang. I had sort of imagined they might question him, since I had set him up as one of the few people who knew about the haunted forest. Instead they had a lengthy debate over whether they should just let him go (as per town custom), or take him with them, Gollum-style. Everyone ended up making their case to John, whose character was the magistrate, and I played it up by having the townspeople outside engage in a mob-style shouting match over what his fate should be. So that was fun.

    They decided to take Bad Fang with them. We used the "Controlling others" rules; Colin rolled five hits on his Command roll, and ordered Bad Fang to accompany them. The idea of using up hits to maintain control seemed to click with everyone, and the mechanic worked well.

    Once the players turned Bad Fang into a more serious NPC, I got some good ideas about how he could test that control, but one of the players killed him during the first conflict, so that didn't pan out.
  • edited August 2009

    They left the city, went right up the mountain, boldly, and found the scene of the hopping vampire attack. I definitely wanted to use the combat mechanics before the night was over, so I threw my first monster at them – the night spirits of the mountain.

    The night spirits had the stealth power, so everyone made a perception roll. Only one person failed (less than 3 hits), so I had two of the three monsters go after him, and gave them each +2 red dice for their first attack.

    In retrospect, the combat scene wasn't great. Some things:

    * The game mechanics went fine – I had saved any discussion of the additional combat rules for the moment, and everyone picked them up quick.

    * Red dice to attack, blue dice to defend is very easy to grok. A couple people took a few beats to get that the white dice go with BOTH red and blue, but that made sense to everyone. (James told me later than he really liked how simple the combat mechanics were).

    * John's magistrate had the 'Tactician' ability, which he liked. Making the command roll BEFORE the group combat roll to see how many extra dice you get to hand out is easy to grasp, and that ability doubles the dice you get to give away, so it was pretty powerful.

    * Most players decided to brace or charge, and were comfortable switching from round to round, and swapping out the red or blue dice.

    * Colin, as the spellcaster, picked up quickly on how to use the spells, rolling green dice and putting his hits in checkboxes. His arcane was 5, and he had a spellbook, so he got to roll six dice. Which seems pretty good, yet his spell results weren't super impressive. After his first spell, he decided to take the miscast roll to get more juice. I think the spellcasting rules are flexible and cool, and create magic-using characters whose power level is on par with the others.

    One of the three monsters got killed in the first round. James' character took four damage in that same round. In the second round, another one died, and after the third round, I had the last one flee into the darkness.

    So, all the mechanics held up well in combat, but overall, the whole thing was a little flat and unexciting. To be honest, it felt a little like D&D combat with the whole "roll, damage, roll again" cycle. We didn't narrate the actions much.

    I think I didn't really play my monsters well. I just played them as combat stats. Nor did I make the battlefield interesting by adding any tactical features. So bad GMing there.

    One thing that seemed weird with combat was the lack of initiative or combat order.

    The relevant text reads "Don’t consider everybody’s actions to be simultaneous. Instead, order them as makes best sense of the rolls’ results." Which makes sense. But in practice, we ended up going around the table, mostly, with the monsters going last. Which is fine, but it may have contributed somewhat to the slightly flat dynamic of combat.

    We stopped after the first combat, and plan to continue the game next week.

    Overall, the game was fun, and everyone enjoyed it. Character creation was quick (even with five totally unfamiliar players), and produced interesting characters with some good hooks.

    The first half of the 'adventure' went well, with lots of role-playing. Interaction with the rules at this point was not constant, but the stuff that came out of character creation definitely influenced play here, so that's positive.

    The combat scene was so-so, but that may be my failings as a GM.

    One thing that is completely missing from this game is any kind of "character-driven" mechanic. Nothing about the character's personality, goals, beliefs, etc. have an effect on play. I wasn't sure if I would miss that or not, and I didn't, mostly. Partly because the players in my game were good about creating interesting characters with some clear beliefs and goals (especially the two players most interested in story/indie/narrative games, although its anyone's guess where the cause and effect arrows come down on that). And partly because the system seems intended to create old-school band-of-adventurers-overcoming-challenges play, which is what it does.
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