Friday, December 30, 2011

SIFRP Hack: Playtest Recap

This past Thursday, Kainenchen and 2/3rds of my college gaming group sat down to playtest the hack of SIFRP that I've been posting about over the last few months. Our Christmas one-shot is now a matter of tradition, though this was the first of the games that did not use 4e D&D as its game system. The homebrewed Aurikesh setting is an early-Renaissance setting (yay, flintlocks!) with arcane and divine magic. Quick summary of outcome: I think everyone had a pretty good time, but there are significant areas of the rules that need more thought (such as the economy of actions as relates to spellcasting), and I'll be going back to the drawing board on the balance of all but one of the spells that the PCs ever cast.

Our heroes (a veytikka rogue, a kagandi fighter-mage, a human Parthé fighter, a human wizard, and a veytikka priest) awoke in a small chamber inside a larger cavern complex, only to see the Gorgrom guards and their Tiger's Claw commander drop a sixth prisoner in their midst. Listening closely as the guards leave, they're able to hear a door closing and a bolt slamming home some distance away within the caverns. The five heroes get to their feet, introduce themselves to one another, and inspect the prisoner who was so unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the floor. The sixth prisoner proves to be an old and blind beruch named Kalesh. They talk to him for awhile, but quickly conclude that he has little else to offer them in planning a jailbreak.

Desperate for something like a weapon, the human warrior finds a nice heavy rock. The veytikka, of course, content themselves with their claws, and the spellcasters of the group cast their armoring spells.

Design Notes on Armoring Spells:
1. Armoring spells may be too good, but that's an issue I'll need to revisit in the future once I've addressed the problems with the dispelling mechanics, because I hung dispel mechanics on Intrigue Defense - this decision gave an overwhelming degree of primacy to the dispelling character. There are also economy-of-actions issues around dispelling, but more on that later.
2. Armoring spells were the first long-term buffs that the PCs played with, and they really highlighted the issues with hanging any amount of cost on the easily recoverable stats of Health and Composure. To wit, the Catch Your Breath action restores a pretty much guaranteed 2-3 Health or Composure per action, so the long-term buffs effectively have no cost at all. I'd like to move to a system in which Health and Composure are "tied off," as seen in Dragon Age and other games with toggled abilities.

Three of them cautiously begin to explore the passageway out of their chamber, but quickly retreat when they hear something clawed approaching. It turns out to be three veytikka looking for carrion. One of them, Atrik, explains a bit about the caverns. There are 15-20 people stuck down here, including the PCs. Var Dyrak's guards come down here every now and again, grab one of the prisoners, and return with them some time later. They experiment on the veytikka and torture the kagandi; Atrik doesn't know what they do to the humans, and they've never had a beruch down here before now. The cavern complex is quite large, and the most powerful leader of the prisoners is a human named Damornus. Atrik agrees to help with a prison break, if and only if the PCs successfully gain Damornus's aid.

The PCs are still scrounging for anything that could be used as an weapon, and settle on going to a side chamber where the bones of the dead have been cast into a pit. This is close enough to a crypt for the veytikkas' purposes, so they both enter a trance and speak to the ghost of a kagandi. The ghost explains that the kagandi come back somehow broken or wrong inside; the wizard is extracting some kind of glowing orb from their chests. When the two veytikka explain this to the kagandi fighter-mage, he is rather concerned about the prospect. He then fashions two cudgels from bone, stone, and rags. The group senses that the ghosts of those buried in the pit are not at all pleased by this, so they hurry along to meet Damornus once this is done.

A heavily muscled man stops them in the passageway up to Damornus's chamber. After a few sharp words, he lets them pass. Damornus wears patchwork robes; on him they nearly look dignified. He has two other guards with him. He initially scoffs at the PCs' plan to break out of prison, saying that he would prefer to reign in hell. The argument continued without rules for a few minutes, after which point I cut it off long enough to turn it into an Intrigue. Both sides started with a high degree of dislike for one another, except for the veytikka priest; she played Good Cop, and presented a more amiable disposition. Damornus wanted to put these newcomers in their place, while the PCs sought a Service (aid in their prison break). Actually making the shift from conversation to system-based conflict was a bit cumbersome, but it was my first experience with a by-the-numbers Intrigue conflict in SIFRP. I hadn't built any of the characters to be extraordinary at intrigue, though most were at least okay at some intrigue skills.

It's not part of my hack - that is, I didn't change anything other than Frustration changing to Strain/Curses - but I was very impressed with the SIFRP Intrigue rules. Samhaine recently commented at length on systems for social conflicts, and I think SIFRP has at the very least taken a big step forward by increasing granularity. Characters have one of seven Dispositions (how they feel about the other party, ranging from Affectionate to Malicious) that give them three different stats: armor against social damage, modifiers when telling the truth, and modifiers when deceiving the other party. To make an "attack" in a social conflict, you choose one of several Techniques: Bargain, Charm, Convince, Incite, Intimidate, Seduce, and Taunt. Each Technique has a Persuasion (telling the truth) and a Deception approach.  This means, in essence, that the trifecta of Bluff/Diplomacy/Intimidate is spread much more widely. I like this a lot, and we did not have any particular difficulty working out what each character's Disposition and Technique should be for each action. (We didn't use Actions as part of the tests, and looking at them now I don't really understand how they work alongside Techniques - it looks to me like a completely different approach to the whole deal. Admittedly, I'm working from a playtest copy of the rulebook, so any amount of this might have changed in final printing.)

Anyway, the PCs had a hard time really getting Damornus's attention with their arguments, as his Dislike provided him with lots of resistance to their efforts, and he had a relatively high Intrigue Defense. A lucky roll (which did me the favor of coinciding with a strong argument) made sincere headway, and Damornus offered to cut off debate by having one of the PCs fight his champion, to prove that they have the prowess necessary  to carry out the fight against Var Dyrak's guards. The human warrior agrees to a fistfight, and uses Parthic Transformation to completely dominate the fight; he takes a few hits, but deals a staggering blow that leaves his opponent bleeding on the floor with a cracked skull.

Design Notes on Parthic Transformation:
Parthic Transformation is really, really good. I need to clarify the text to indicate that it's not just an increase to Athletics and Endurance tests, but also increases Health and Athletics damage. I am pretty happy with how it worked out, though; it's noticeably better than other options for spending Destiny, and carries the cost of being more vulnerable to force damage. That didn't actually come up in this session, but I feel that it would be tolerably common in extended gameplay.

Damornus is clearly impressed with the warrior's display of might, and grudgingly agrees that he and his two remaining guards will support a prison break and more or less follow the PCs' lead. They gather the rest of the prisoners from the far caverns and congregate in the main chamber, where they make plans with the small force at their disposal. In the end, they put Damornus and his men with Atrik and his fellows, and instruct them to stay hidden and cut off the retreat of the force of guards, preventing them from calling up reinforcements.

The rest of the prisoners pack themselves into the chamber where the PCs first awoke. When the guards finally enter, there are three Gorgrom, one Tiger's Claw warrior, and one apprentice wizard. I won't try to write a blow-by-blow of the fight, but the PC wizard focused on countering the opponent's spells, while the PC priest focused on transferring Injuries to herself and then using Ychirra's Poisonous Gift to transfer them to opponents. The kagandi fighter-mage got to enjoy the full benefit of his night sight here, as it was Shadowy lighting - he was the only person not taking substantial penalties.

Design Notes on Mystic Denial and Ychirra's Poisonous Gift:
1. Mystic Denial is part of where we started to see how I had not hammered out enough detail on economy of actions with regard to spellcasting. Midway through the fight, I realized that I needed to make Mystic Denial cost the caster a Lesser Action in his next turn. I also didn't prepare myself for how trivially easy it would be to hit an opponent's Intrigue Defense (especially when he's got an armoring spell running). So I think I'll be changing the Difficulty of Mystic Denial, especially if I go forward with some of the other changes I'm contemplating for casting.
2. Ychirra's Poisonous Gift is a Big Problem in my design. I knew it was likely to be a problem - turns out I was right. I spent a lot of yesterday going around and around about this spell with Kainenchen; the problem with the spell is that it turns priests into perpetual motion machines unless they are taking just a huge amount of damage every round. This compels opponents to focus fire on the priest far more than I had intended.
3. On the other hand, as K pointed out, without the functionality that this spell represents, priests are compelled to avoid combat more rigorously than other characters, since they don't have artificially larger Health pools than other characters and they use that Health as their mana pool. I'll be going back to the drawing board in a big way on casting costs, as I've hinted above. My preference is that priests (much like clerics in D&D) feel that they can and often should spend some of their actions in melee combat, as opposed to hanging back and casting every round.
4. Arcane casters have no comparable way to remove Strain the way Ychirra's Poisonous Gift removes Injuries. I think this is probably how I want it to stay - I'd rather handle the problem of an arcane caster's mana pool some other way.

The PCs handily defeat the guards, giving them access to hard leather armor, a scimitar, a magical statuette, and a starlock pistol. (Starlock pistols use the stats for Blackpowder pistols that the Monkey King wrote up in his post on his Song of Dust and Wind hack.) The PCs used these to kill the door guards (the starlock shot answered for one of the Gorgrom at the door, and a Poisonous Gift killed the other one; I ruled that non-heroic characters, since they can't receive injuries, were immediately incapacitated by receiving an injury from this spell).

I had intended a great deal more plot to take place after this point, with the PCs exploring the rest of Var Dyrak's tower and fighting a number of other terrible things I'd dreamed up, but it was getting late. Instead, we ran one last fight at the main gate, with the PCs fighting four Gorgrom, two Tiger's Claw warriors, and one apprentice. This fight they handled just as easily as the first, now that they had some actual equipment. This fight just reinforced the points I've made above and made me wish I'd statted the opposition a little more aggressively.

In closing, I think the players had a good time, but there are a number of major changes I need to make in my rules hacks. I've received some great suggestions from the players on possible changes, including the introduction of casting implements and how to handle spell durations. The hack is far from ready for prime time, but I think I can get it there.
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