Thursday, August 3, 2017

Changeling the Lost PbtA: Playthrough Postscript

In July I ran four sessions of a PbtA hack I’d written for Changeling the Lost. I don’t know why I love that setting and concept so much. It works where many other World of Darkness games, old and new, don’t. It resonates more strongly than most settings, even outside modern fantastic.

We had four wonderful online sessions—really fun and interesting with a story that evolved naturally. IMHO PbtA fit perfectly: easy moves for strangeness, emotions as stress, action checks generating drama. I’d done serious work on the hack, but the players made it sing. You can see my original post on the adaptation here, along with our play materials. If you’re interested, I’ve also posted the session videos.

All that being said, it isn’t a perfect hack—not even close. At the end of session two & four we stopped off to discuss what worked and what didn’t. They gave good, actionable feedback. Some issues came from my fairly direct translation of Urban Shadows into this framework. Some came from my goofy rewording of moves. Importantly some feedback discussed mechanics the players had invested in. They noticed the absence of key features from their own Changeling the Lost campaigns. I’d written as hack not of Changeling the Lost, but of Changeling the Lost as I’d run it before. I knew that going in, but our discussion conformed it.

While it wasn’t a full and robust playtest, it generated ideas for changes. Some of these came out of the play and others emerge from gut feelings. The latter may or may not work. I suspect these changes will make this version even more reflective of my play, rather than broadening t. I’m not sure what to do on that score. Maybe when I get close to a finished version, I’ll consider include options to make some elements more specific than abstract. Anyway here are my thoughts:

EMOTIONAL IMPACTS
The biggest potential change occurred to me before we even played. It hit something that was already on my mind, so there’s confirmation bias here. One issue I’ve encountered when running PbtA has been remembering stat/moves combos. That’s especially true for versions with many moves and/or strange names for stats. During our play, I constantly rechecked moves to find the stat we needed to roll. As well, though I tried to spread out basic moves across the four stats, some saw much more use. OOH that might be a result of the chosen characters.

I’ve run The Veil about ten times now and I’m constantly surprised how smoothly it flows. There players roll based on a character’s emotional state. Each stat is a feeling, expressing your character’s relation to the moment. You can keep pinging a particular mood, but eventually you’ll spike that out which creates problems. The system has checks & balances. As important, when I say “make a roll” players face an interesting character choice. That’s not to say there aren’t sticking points—a couple playbooks have individual currencies or substitute stats.

There’s an ease of play gain and it fits with Changeling the Lost itself. CtL focuses on emotional reactions and experience. By making a character’s reaction central to their actions, it gives the player another tool of expression. In my version, I’d associate each of the six stats with an aspect of the Freehold: Joy (Spring), Anger (Summer), Fear (Autumn), Sorrow (Winter), Calm (Humanity), and Power (Keeper). To make this work I’d also change the conditions names. I’d make those adjectives (as opposed to the stat nouns): Angry/Enraged, Afraid/Instinctual, Guilty/Heartless, Hopeless/Alone, Insecure/Lost, Confused/Overwhelmed.

This offers several benefits: simplicity and focus on emotions as I mentioned above. It also means I can cut less interesting moves that simply changed which stat you rolled on. It could also cut eight stats down to six. Connecting the emotions to Courts means I can drop distinct Court stats. I’d probably also drop the Urban Shadows artifact of gaining XP when you’ve interacted with each of the Courts. If I wanted to keep that mechanic, I might make it a Seeming-specific XP trigger (like for the Fairest). But then I’d need to come up with others.

CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION
Right now I have the Call on Power and Invoke Contract split into two moves. We can cut that down to one. For that combined move, if the effect’s cosmetic, name the contract and it happens (building the fiction or rolling into another move). Everything else is major and functions as Call on Power, with the required naming and catch (minor or major). I would include an example list for each of these. Not having that created problems. In the original CtL someone’s done that creative work; it can be hard to do on the fly

For these example contract names and catches, I’d pull from existing materials. There’s a nice wiki out there with all these details. I’d add the ones I came up with for my Action Cards CtL version and brainstorm other cool and evocative ones. Catches are the trickier of the two. I’d rewrite and trim some, skipping others. I’d split catches into two types: those with a cost and those representing prep.

This hits against that difference between the games I’ve run and other GMs’ campaigns. A players mentioned the focus on catches in their play. If someone had a commonly occurring catch to a contract, they leaned into that in play. They’d activate contracts just because they were free in that circumstance. I’m not sure I can emulate that without building a concrete list and I don’t want to do that. One new option players should always have is marking a condition (representing glamour spent) rather than going through the catch process.

I also wondering if choosing the catch could be something done by either the player or GM, depending on the roll.

CLEARING
For my hack I’d divorced Clarity from its continuum. At least in the four sessions, that didn’t create a break in the game’s feel. I’d simply renamed Urban Shadow’s corruption system and tweaked that to fit. But Clarity has a drawback particular to running short-term games. In games with only a few sessions, marking Clarity isn’t a real cost. Since it builds up over time, you’ll never hit that tipping point. That leaves two choices for one-shots and short campaigns 1) excise the mechanic (which means removing some moves) or 2) adding an additional drawback when someone marks clarity (like they mark a condition as well).

But for longer games, if I wanted to make Clarity a spectrum again, that would be easy. I’d set a line or circle of boxes (an odd number, say 9, 11, or 13). Characters would start at the midpoint. One end of the spectrum marks going too far to the mundane and the other marks going too far to Wyrd. Each clarity mark trigger would specify a direction to shift your mark; some might allow a choice. When you hit one end of the spectrum, you take a Clarity move and reset to the center. But you also eliminate a box from the end you hit, making it easier for you to fall onto that side.

MOVING PICTURES
I chose to have a relatively large number of moves for each Seeming and Season. Between the two, characters have around 16 moves to choose from; more in some cases. One playtest comment noted that they saw all these cool moves, but only got to choose a few. That’s true because the game archetypes encompass huge categories. As well, some options are less sexy for certain kinds of characters; some have overlap.

We discussed about adding or cutting moves as solutions. The World of Darkness Urban Shadows reskin gets around this problem by giving more advances. That’s not a bad approach and I’m going to leave that on the table. But the first thing I want to do is cut all the ‘uninteresting’ moves. As I mentioned above, changing the stats lets me cut “Use X for Y” moves. I don’t like those in Fate, so it doesn’t make sense to have them here. Then I want to go through the CtL books to see what other moves could be adapted from Contracts with a Seeming affinity and add them to those playbooks..

I still want a large list when all is said and done. But I also want players to use those choices to help deepen the vision of their character’s Kith. Maybe when you pick a new move, you also have to pick one you cross out. It’s one that doesn’t fit for you and once you’ve marked it out you can never take it. That tightens things and forces two choices with a move advance.

HARMFUL CONDITIONS
Urban Shadows had relatively high harm numbers—it’s easier to pull together attacks with a substantial harm number from various moves. That makes sense in that game’s context—lethality combined with the scars system. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted with CtL, especially since each condition marked would have a roll penalty associated with it (ala Masks). So rather than tuning the harm numbers, I opted for a Fate-style damage mitigation. Each condition marked negates two harm; marking your key condition negates more. If you can’t or don’t want to mark, you’re taken out.

In practice I forgot that. It’s a mechanic that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else. It’s also a clunky rule you have to remember. I’m going to eliminate that. Instead, I’ll go back and look at how much harm characters can deal. Base effect should be 1 Harm, 2 Harm if you select the “inflict terrible harm” option on the attack. Moves which increase harm will follow a set progression: +1 Harm, +1 Harm AP, +2 Harm, etc. Harm taken will directly correspond to conditions marked. I also need to look at how much armor factors into the system.

PCvPC in Ctl/US
I opted to remove the “vs. PC” options from Manipulation move. I’d told myself CtL didn’t have Urban Shadows’ PvP elements. That’s a mistake—it needs a player choice incentive. Not having it made a couple of moments awkward. I need to figure out how I want the Call in a Debt to fit with that. In particular, I think for non-Debt manipulation, characters need to have leverage: a fictional justification, money, relative position. Overall I need to consolidate and yank the Debt stuff forward. Right now it’s on the second reference page and gets forgotten easily. That requires a system or layout change.


I’m sure there’s more, but that’s it off the top of my head. I want to especially thank everyone who played! Camilla the Sweet, Gleaming Zach, Morosa Scorned, and Thicket Flickerjacket.