mrteapot (mrteapot) wrote,

[Death Takes a Holiday] first playtest

Last night Ross and I playtested a game I've been working on, called "Death Takes a Holiday". Parts of it worked really well, while other parts still need some work. The biggest problem was that the game felt a bit meandering and without clear focus. It also felt to me like the game would work much better in campaign mode than it does as a one-shot, since it kept spinning off interesting side stories and ideas.

Here's what we did.

Perdido Island

Creating the island seemed to work fairly well. Ross had an initial idea that the island was in the Pacific somewhere, and had a n army base built by the US military in WWII. This gave us some guidance in making choices, but didn't invalidate any of the statements that we were going to be modifying.

-Has a population of approximately 7,000 (which means an average of one death per week). About half the population lives in the town of Fable's Demise

Yes, and... the population dies of unnatural causes disproprotionately often. The natives are unusually long lived, though they die of other causes just as often as normal.

-Is known as a popular vacation place for people from the mainland

No, and... it was the site of nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s and is off limits to most non-native civilians

-Has an incompetent police force, specifically Sheriff Horatio Slack (Misfire) and Deputy Irving P. Zalewsky (Slippery Rock), but it has a canny coroner named Dr. Isabel Sparrow(Nephrosis)

Yes, but... Dr. Sparrow is confined to a wheelchair and cannot visit the scene of death very often

-Its temperate forest are home to strange spirits and minor nature gods not usually seen by modern man

Try it a different way... its jungles are filled with local spirits and ghosts

-Is fundamentally a modern day American city in terms of social norms, technology and legalities, though it is anachronistic in aesthetics and style.

That's a funny story... The US military occupied the island, but only have a skeleton crew left on the island.

-Every graveyard on the island has a single grave labelled "Fisher" which the Boxmullers can use to access the Bone Orchard, the otherworldly abode of Death.

No, but... there is a single grave they can use... they just don't know which one.

Then we made our Boxmullers. Ross had some trouble with this. Perhaps because we stopped working so collaboratively, or perhaps because he didn't have a starting idea before going to the statements. I didn't have a clear idea, either, but tried to play off of Ross's ideas until eventually we got a nice duo of characters: an Odd Couple pair of brothers, Ross's Ferdinand being unusually neat and old-fashioned, while I played the loose and laid back Bob Boxmuller.

Ferdinand Boxmuller
age 37
Occupation: Tailor

-Has Fond childhood memories of the Island

No, and... he had never been there before. Ferdinand was convinced to come to the island by his brother Robert (AKA Bob).

-Did something shameful in the past

That's a funny story... about why he became a tailor

-Cares about the next Boxmuller (Robert)

Yes, and... he would do anything for his brother

-Has few social ties outside the family

No, but he does keep up'socially' with business contacts, clients, financiers, etc.

-Has been granted the ability to see ghosts and spirits

Yes, but... only when they want him to

Has been granted the ability to see how someone will die just by looking at them

try it a different way... but he hasn't been able to since he got the ability just before the boat crash, and the sense of dozens of impending deaths provided and extra-sensory overload

All we know about how Ferdinand became a tailor is that it involves Bob lying to a priest (and why he doesn't want to do it again).

Bob Boxmuller
Age 34
Occupation: unemployed (former computer security startup founder)

-Knows how people will die just by looking at them

Yes, but... Bob is very nearsighted, so he has to get close to them and look carefully to see

-Has fond memories of the island

No, and... he had a very unpleasant time on the island as a child. Something scared me at age 13 that I never wanted to return.

-cares about the next Boxmuller (Ferdinand)

Yes, and... I want Ferdinand on hand to help calm my nerves about my childhood fears

-did something shameful in the past

That's a funny story... about why I didn't want to return to the island

-Can see spirits and ghosts

try it a different way... I can't see spirits, but they are always meddling in my affairs andpestering me and causing minor troubles

-Has few social ties outside the family

No, but I did until last month when my tech startup company went baknrupt, my friends/employees blamed me and my wife left me.

After some discussion, we decided to have Bob and Ferdinand already on the island for a few weeks. This let us have Bob and Ferdinand treating the postcards from Death as routine. I wonder how it would go if we started at the "this is weird and wondrous" stage instead. Further playtesting is required.

We chose to go with the postcard that says "Father MacKenzie is writing a sermon that no one will hear. In'st that cute? --Not Religious, Myself"

Bob was tired and hung over, so he shoved the responsibility for Reaping off on Ferdinand. Ferdinand went to talk with the priest

At this point, I realize that I don't have great notes about what statements had what responses applied and that sort of thing. You know, the actual mechanics of the game. I remember the gist of what happened, but not specifically when a statement would be modified by a response. But this isn't that bad: the modifying statements worked so long as we made strong, definitive statements. The problem was a sense that the story was't going anywhere in particular. (I want to test this with more players and in a campaign mode. It's possible that stronger stories would emerge over longer periods... or that they wouldn't.)

The story involved investigating Father MacKenzie, trying to figure out what his sermon was about, hacking into the military base's semi-secure records to see that Father Mackenzie had been involved in some shady espionage dealings in Vietnam. We thought that this might be what the sermon was about, or about how Mackenzie would die. Finally, we determined that Bob had to approach the priest and see how he would die. After approaching with a lame excuse, Bob wound up in an awkward conversation with Father Mackenzie. Father knew something shady was up, but determined uickly that Bob wasn't a spy or anything. Meanwhile, Bob didn't want to lie to a priest ("That's a funny story... about why Ferdinand became a tailor") but didn't want to tell the truth, either. Bob had let slip that he had "newfound respect for belief int eh afterlife", and Father mackenzie came to a conclusion that Bob and Ferdinand had some sort of divine experience, or were conctacted by angels or God or something. Bob determined that Father Mackenzie's cause of death would be "training exercise". Which was odd, because the military base wasn't planning any training exercises for several months. To show that he was a divine prophet (or something), Bob told MacKenzie how he'd die. As both were confused by this, a crash came from elsewhere in the rectory. The secretary had been changing a lightbulb, fell from a chair and banged her head. Bob realized that no one had checked her cause of death. As Bob called 911, the priest went to delete his sermon. The priest had been having an affair with his secretary, and planned to reveal it to the congregation on Sunday. But now that she died, he didn't want to speak ill of the dead so soon after her death.

Thoughts: the game being undirected and meandering might be changed by modifying the card/responses slightly. Certainly altering our playstyle helped a lot. The game is much like Polaris: if you make vague or uncertain statements, the other players can't use the system to react to it. If you make strong, definitive statements that overreach slightly, then the other players can take what you said and modify it and make it work well. Once we figured that out, the game worked better, though it still didn't have a solid direction to go.

I'll have to give some thought into how to move forward from here. Maybe playtest a few more times under different circumstances before changing things much. There's a lot that I do like, though, and I'd like to see the game work properly.
Tags: death takes a holiday, game design, playtest report, rpgs
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