On Saturday, we got a chance to playtest my Game Chef game from this year, Longshot. It actually went surprisingly well. The game was a lot of fun, and the playtest showed me the places the game needs some fixing. So the game fulfilled both purposes of a playtest.
Longshot is a science fiction western game, and it seemed to me like the players collectively got the genre down well. It felt like a western game, with a crooked sheriff, rounding up a posse and even lynching someone. It also felt like a science fiction game, as we had hacked computers, a planet destroying alien civilization trying to wipe out the colony and three characters escaping in a small spacecraft. All that and backstabbing, betrayal, mysteries solved, comic slapstick and a standoff between the law enforcement and the insane cult members with guns. In the end, most of humanity was cowering in the basement of the Ranch, while Ross's PC, Adam's PC and my PC tried to escape on a three man spacecraft. Only to discover that we had an eight year trip and only food for one person.
Playing, we had:
Adam playing Deputy Thomas Gonzales, the Greedy Town Marshal
Myself, playing Dr. Timothy Webb, the Incompetent Archaeologist
Pete, playing Hesta Thushpa, the Veteran Rancher
Ross, playing Lt. Joon-Jun Milton, the Cowardly Deserter
and Stentor, playing Sister Bethia Isuko, the Hotheaded Pilgrim.
Deputy Gonzalez spent most of the time on his dual goals of "pin the sheriff's murder on somebody else" and "abuse his newfound power for his own gain". My Dr. Webb accidentally discovered the dead sheriff, by knocking the body onto himself. This helped establish Dr. Webb as a flailing sadsack, exactly as he was supposed to be. Pete's Veteran Rancher spent a lot of the game acting behind the scenes to benefit himself (and probably wound up leader of whatever humanity survived). Hesta Thushpa was clever and cagey, and always looking for an angle to benefit himself. Ross's Lt. Milton spent much of the game avoiding conflict, but turned out to a card-carrying badass when the time was right (ie, singlehandedly apprehending the Pilgrim once the standoff was over). Sister Bethia Isuko initially showed how she was crazy for the Space Brethren, then she turned out to just be violent and crazy (and wanted on three planets for fraud).
I was a bit interested in why people chose what they did. I chose my Job and Personality for the interesting relations to other PCs: The Pilgrim and Rancher were already chosen, so the Archaeologist had interesting conflicts with both. Ross chose based on the Authorities granted (and wound up with two very similar special abilities). Stentor chose the religious zealot because crazy cults are fun (excellent reasoning). So there are a variety of reasons for choosing each character, which is a good thing.
Once we had characters chosen, I had to explain the rules. It turns out that there are a lot of rules. Enough that it seemed somewhat intimidating. My explanation didn't help this much, as I was jumping around, explaining things in haphazard fashion. But everyone seemed to get what was going on once we got into actual play.
We realized early on that a few things were off, and we corrected those things quickly. As written, the Mystery Pool increases in die size after every scene. This put a some big dice into the pool after the first time around the table framing scenes, well before the plot had taken off. We determined that it should increase once per time around the table. This meant that each person got to frame 5-6 scenes before it got really tempting to declare yourself the murderer. This new timing for the Mystery Pool meant that it got really tempting dice-wise just as the characters got into real serious conflicts.
We also realized quickly that we weren't having a lot of conflicts. (This changed in the last half of the game, but early on it was very true.) Which meant that Conditions,which were keyed off of conflicts, would last so long as to never go away. We changed it to decrement each scene instead of each conflict. I think this may make Conditions not impairing enough (perhaps each gives a -2, not a -1?). But it meant that they timed out pretty reasonably: small conditions disappeared quickly, but a d12 or d20 condition stuck around a long time or the entire game.
The other major realization was that several special abilities need reworked. This is a not a surprise, exactly: I knew that those bits were fiddly and difficult to balance properly. It's unsurprising that they needed tweaking and reworking or rebalancing. The Greedy personality's Leech needs remade, and the Rancher's ability generated more d6s than I expected. The Hothead's double Enraged ability worked pretty much exactly as planned.
Putting dice into the Common Pool needs to be prevented to avoid a near limitless conflicts. Similarly, the Common Pool only refreshes after a conflict is over, to avoid draining the pool repeatedly in a single conflict. Simple enough to fix.
With these few caveats, the game in general worked real well. The first half or so of the game was relatively low key stuff. Few conflicts, though there was a murder investigation going on and other people trying to fulfill their various character goals. Then a lot of these plot lines fell by the side as one or two big plots became important. (The other stuff acted as spurs to action and character establishment stuff, so I'm happy that they were there.) Once those couple of plots became central to the game, the conflicts started happened faster and furious, dice were spent, decisions were made and people got hurt. This is all very similar to my lap writing experiences and my experience with GMless games like Fiasco. Which are two of the big influences on the game.
Actually, it's real easy to identify when the shift in the game happened. It's when the Pilgrim attacked the acting Sheriff with an axe. Then she stole the alien artifact, and ran off to the cult compound and we had a big Waco style cult showdown. After that, it was all violence and lynchings and rounding up posses and invading alien armadas.
Ross spent a few scenes not doing much, which may imply that the Coward and/or the Deserter need stronger motivation. Or it may have been a tactical move on his part. As the game stands right now, it encourages waiting out early conflicts, letting others fight, and then spending big on later scenes once your opponent has spent their dice. I'm not completely sure if that is how that part of the game should work, but it is an emergent dynamic of the game. Of course, a lot of the game is about how to carefully play your resources to maximum effect. I'm unsure if that is to be encouraged or not. Certainly, any attempt to change that dynamic would require reworking the entire game system.
The Common Pool seemed to work as I hoped. Once or twice people put dice into the pool to keep it from going empty, but mostly it would have a lot of dice, and then empty down to a single die. At that point, everyone would be reluctant to take the last die until they really needed it. The decisions people had to make regarding the Common Pool seemed like they were working right as far as I could tell, and it helped reinforce some themes of expending communal resources to get your own personal goals.
The dice and mechanics actually were timed quite well to time out for a single session, and the story wrapped up around the same time as the dice ran out. Because most of this was just based on the spending of dice, it's possible that we could have pushed things longer by spending less, I dunno.
People tended to use their big Condition dice early. Pete largely avoided taking on Conditions (and chose a mid range one when he did), but the rest of us were willing to get injured or enraged to get that tasty d12 or d20. I wonder how viable the strategy is of taking only small Conditions vs. big ones. If you pick a d4 and d6, you'll only be impaired for one time around the table or so, but get an average of +6 to your roll, which isn't bad (about as good as 1d10 or 1d12). You suffer double impairment for that brief time, as opposed to smaller impairment for longer with big dice. Huh. That seems like it works nicely enough. I'll have to see how it works out in future playlists.
It was also suggested that after a point, it as hard to keep justifying a specific Condition on a character. After a few scenes, is your guy still Enraged? Tired? Even after two days of rest? A quick suggested fix was that you can shift your conditions around after a scene ends. You still have the same number of Conditions counting down as before, but you can decide to make your Enraged into Tired or something. This gives you narrative flexibility, but keeps the same mechanical situation.
Overall, everyone seemed to have fun playing the game. (Pete said that he was uncertain about the mechanics at first but was happy with the game by the end.) The character were portrayed in every entertaining fashion. There are a few clear changes that need made, and then the game will run nicely. I'll probably produce an updated version with these modifications sometime soon, though it will obviously be too late for Game Chef.