post-Gaelcon analysis: Contenders, Cold City, Polaris, TSOY

edited October 2007 in Actual Play
I visited Dublin this weekend for Gaelcon and helped out at the Indie Games Track, run by the excellent Adam Kelly. It's a three day con, so Adam had arranged ~5 games a day, mostly one hour demos. Here's some post-match analysis, focusing more on the games and systems than the con or GMs. Questions welcome.

Cold City was the first game I played, run (brilliantly) by Gregor Hutton. This was an excellent introduction and a great way to start the con. Balls to the wall treachery, a weird lobster-handed Nazi, and the old rail tunnels under Berlin. Characters were pregen with a couple of details added by players. Negative traits subtracted from pools, which wasn't especially fun (the Companion's variation is much better).

I didn't realise that weapons would add to damage, which didn't make sense if the only weapons were guns (rather than TSOY) but conflict could involve all kinds of stuff. Conflict and intention-setting worked well. The agendas weren't specific to the demo (One character wanted 'to escape to Israel', which wasn't going to come in) . (I'm reminded of Graham and Rich's example of the Aeternal Legends demo where one character had a trait that took a month to work, and thus would never come up in the session).

Play was a *little* slow at the start, as I think the players expected an investigative scenario. Because most con games are. It would probably have been good to explain, explicitly, that this was a game about betrayal, action and decisions. Not clues, puzzles and gradual build.

Sweetly, Gregor allowed two newbies to sit and listen in. Gregor's narration is good. And lots. The n00bs were so intrigued, they joined the next slot, Contenders.

Contenders was very, very good for demos. 1950s Dublin. I tried to lead by example and started a work scene, which the player opposite me played off superbly. The two newbies followed me with much more emotionally powerful scenes (a father arguing with his daughter over her education, with her wanting to just get married and become another housewife). We had two work scenes and two connection scenes, and then went straight to a fight, which happened to be between the newbies. While in previous games, we'd played tactics cards geninely tactically (staring down the other player, then flipping), the newbies collaborated and considered the relationships between the fighters much more. Very little on the sheets went unused. The card mechanic made sense after a couple of flips, and having *every* rule on the sheet helped a great deal.

(Also, Gregor stuck around to help out. During the fight scene, I dealt while he explained the rules over and over. Very, very useful).

After Contenders, one of the newbies asked "How do we do this every week?"

Polaris followed on Sunday, and ran for two hours. Theme/ability creation wasn't difficult but wasn't that much fun. Building the cosmos was entertaining and was crucial to play. We ended up with very little imagery, but some superb and tortuous melodrama. We had a couple of rulesy issues where it wasn't clear who had guidance over some elements, and whether the Mistaken should narrate some NPCs or hand over to a Moon. PCs 'guest starring' in other player's scenes was a grey area.

Pushing conflict in Polaris is difficult. Really difficult as you're not just creating difficulty, you're pushing for the PC's cynicism and loathing of the people. As scenes didn't explicitly have to start with a conflict, some meandered slightly while the group found its feet. But we had some fun But Only Ifs like '... you are made figurehead King'. One PC's murderes were almost eclipsed by another PC breaking his father's arm. And it was interesting to see how some PCs became background, others becoming full-on protagonists.

(Though I led the group through the game (one, Rich Stokes had some experience), it was mildly annoying to have my Moons look to me during their Heart/Mistaken scenes. I kept deliberately looking away, so their eye contact would fall on the Mistaken/Heart)

TSOY was good. The rules were bulkier than Contenders, and took a bit longer to get to play. I'd cut up a few dozen business-card sized keys which I the group chose from. Though I emphasised they weren't behavioral or proscriptive, I think people still felt they were personality traits of a sort. That said, one player *really* picked up on Keys, sucked up XPs and flipped Pacifist to Vengeance and bought a new ability. Yay! (Characters were mostly pregen with one advance left to spend, with players choosing keys and name at the start).

One player played his character as apathetic and oblivious, which made it difficult to give him things to bounce off. And we didn't have time for true Key Scenes. A lot went unused on the sheet. With only an hour, pools weren't used, refreshes weren't required, and some abilities were superfluous. We didn't touch on Harm at all. The game was much more conversational than I expected, so I don't know if I pushed for address of conflicts too much. But we had some good stakes and fun play. And gift dice were a treat.


  • Interestingly, there are both rules/suggestions in the Polaris book for pushing conflict, and for making sure scenes start off with conflict. But my group ignored the former and remembered the latter :)

    Rather than push conflict, we play it more like this: A scene is set where there is a high potential for stuff to happen, or stuff is already going on. The Heart begins telling us a story about all the interesting stuff the Protagonist is doing in response to the situation, or continues to describe how the Protagonist was responsible for the situation in the first place. The Mistaken listens to the story, and imposes conditions, costs, complications whenever the player of the Mistaken thinks those CCC's will make the story more interesting in his opinion. If the Heart's story is sufficiently entertaining, the Mistaken might very well do nothing, or just add color. The Mistaken is NOT trying to drive the protagonist into corruption for the sake of it. In fact, if the Heart is driving the protagonist toward corruption, the Mistaken should push back and try to drive him toward redemption.

    One way I like to look at it is the Heart is writing a piece of fan fiction for the Protagonist. One drawback of fan fiction is that the author tends to go overboard on things - making the character awesome-to-the-max, or suck-tragic-to-the-max. The Mistaken's job is to add twists to keep the Heart from going overboard and generating a one-dimensional story.

    For all of this, of course, the Heart has to drive the story forward. Every single bad scene of Polaris I've played in has had the same feature: a passive or re-active Heart. If the Heart is in the mood to be passive or re-active, he should say "And so it was" and play a scene as a moon for a bit.
  • In Cold City I didn't see the Russian's hidden agenda as limiting, or too long haul, at all. I wondered if he would consider using the twisted Dr Kneissel (and his plans for escape to Brazil) to work towards an escape to Israel. He could further the agenda but perhaps at the expense of the others in the group, and the RPA's goals.

    I ran the game from the book, and I have some thoughts now that I've run the game too, I'll post those up soon. Briefly, my initial feeling is that smaller dice pools actually work better at delivering larger successes, since larger pools smear mechanically into delivering narrow victories. We certainly seemed to have mostly 1-success victories in conflicts. The negative traits reduced the pools and I thought that was OK. It's interesting to see how Joe felt otherwise as a player.

    The thing I got wrong about the damage was that you ignore the first success when determining the consequences of combat (and I knew that rule but forgot it during the game). Effectively this means you take one off the successes to find consequences, i.e. a Slight Success does no damage. A gun will add 2 consequences on its own though (a shotgun, 6!).

    (The Frenchman's Sabre would have added 2 damage too had he hit the monster rather than negotiated with him...)

    Apart from the opening slots on each day all the games ran with full tables (and Polaris, which was in an opening slot, did run later in the con). We had to turn people away from some games and there was a lot of fun at all the games.

    Some of the games were played more like demos, and others played more like short sessions (after an introductory bit of rule-teaching). The Mob Justice game that I ran was really good and I'll write an AP thread on that soon too.
  • I'd strongly advise using the revised rules on negative traits, rather than the rule that appears in the 1st and 2nd printings of the game. To me, it's a much more satisfying way of handling things. And yes, guns will kill you!

  • Hey, Malc.

    Guns kill, but why are guns a special case?

    And by revisions, you mean that you don't 'endorse' the rule in the Cold City Companion, where negative traits influence scenes but add to pools?
  • Posted By: Joe MurphyHey, Malc.

    Guns kill, but why are guns a special case?

    And by revisions, you mean that youdon't'endorse' the rule in the Cold City Companion, where negative traits influence scenes but add to pools?
    I think you've taken the wrong end of the stick, the revised negative trait rules I'm refrerring to are the ones that appear in the Companion and the main game book from the 3rd printing onwards.

    I'm not really sure how to answer the guns question.

  • Posted By: Malcolm CraigI'm not really sure how to answer the guns question.
    I suspect Joe means, why not do something like TSoY, where anything could be a weapon that adds consequences in it's own arena. So a gun does more damage when you are in combat, but a cable from Moscow does more damage when you are politicking with the Russians.
  • Posted By: Mike SandsPosted By: Malcolm CraigI'm not really sure how to answer the guns question.
    I suspect Joe means, why not do something like TSoY, where anything could be a weapon that adds consequences in it's own arena. So a gun does more damage when you are in combat, but a cable from Moscow does more damage when you are politicking with the Russians.

    Ah yes, suddenly everything is clear. It's not something I had ever considered for the game (not that it is without merit). Weapons do additional consequences in the game as they are the things that have the potential to kill you dead*. Or, to be more accurate, move you to a crisis point where death may be an option. I can certainly see the merit of variable consequence levels based on 'stuff' that you bring into the situation.


    * I do realise that being summoned back to Moscow for screwing and flaunting a secret communique up can also kill you dead, but that is slightly outwith the immediate nature of the situation.
  • To expand on the communique example, TSOY has an example of an especially well-written poem that does extra damage when used to impress, cajole, seduce. Extra damage is determined either by the GM, or by players picking secrets. So in CC, a devastating portfolio might provide extra consequences for blackmail, persuasion, propoganda and whatnot.

    I'm not always sure this is interesting, but it can follow logically from the game's currency.
  • Posted By: Joe MurphyAfter Contenders, one of the newbies asked "How do we do this every week?"
    100% undiluted awesome. Welcome to the revolution :)

    Thanks for the report, Joe.
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