Sunday, February 8, 2009

Playtest Report

Also posted to the Forge's Playtesting forum.

I ran a round of playtests on the previous iteration of the rules last November, which led to some rules changes which required work on an extensive catalog of spirits and boons, so I've gone back to writing for several months. Tonight, I played the first playtest with these new rules.


This is a GM-less game. More specifically, players take turns setting scenes, selecting where scenes take place on a central map. The character with the strongest relationship with the scene becomes the Genius loci, who plays NPC's for the scene. So, we're all equally players here. There was myself, my wife Giuli and my brother Mike who have both played previous iterations, and our friend Bill. Bill is a very traditional, gamist gamer, with a distinct predisposition against indie games in general. I specifically invited him to the table because of his unique perspective, but he came with definite skepticism. This is a subset of a regular D&D group; the remaining members were invited, but could not come. After tonight, all of them have playtested some iteration of the game (Bill was the last to try it).


I used the new "Quick Start" rules for character creation. Normally, the game involves rounds of initiations in which players build up a map of the region and their own characters simultaneously. The "Quick Start" rules simply give the characters those relationships. Even so, character creation still took over an hour. Admittedly, a good deal was spent on explaining the rules. As in some previous playtests, the repeated question, "To do what?" slowed things down (more on that below).

We played siblings in the same family, all part of the Coyote clan. My character, Father Dreaming Boar, was a shaman with a butterfly familiar, meaning he had ritual power and responsibilities to oversee ancestral rites and put ghosts to rest. My wife's character, Hunting Cat, was something of a generalized hunter. My brother's character, Bishop Angry Muskrat, was a sorcerer with a frog familiar that gave him the ability to transform people into frogs. He closed against his frog familiar in his initiation, meaning that he took advantage of the frog, leaving the frog feeling cheated. This became an important story element later on. Bill's character, Sneaking Elk, focused on his skills as a smith, and his ability to craft iron tools, including his own large iron sword.


  • Scene 1. Giuli set a scene that turned "Groundhog's Day" into an ancestral rite. I tried to learn what messages groundhog had brought us from our ancestors. Giuli played the groundhog and closed, so I misunderstood the message: "take 20 deer," instead of "take 10 deer."

  • Scene 2. Mike set a scene where he sought frog's counsel. Still angry from how Bishop Angry Muskrat cheated him, frog demanded in payment that he turn my character, Father Dreaming Boar, into a frog.

  • Scene 3. Bill set a scene wherein all the characters but mine (mine did not make much of a hunter, so I declined the invitation) went hunting for deer. Finding very young deer, they became concerned.

  • Scene 4. I set the scene at Winter Tahn, where the angry deer spirits have brought pestilence on the family, leading to a showdown between Father Dreaming Boar and Bishop Angry Muskrat. He tries to turn my character into a frog, while I try to have his character run out of town as a sorcerer. I get my stakes, but he fails his, so Bishop Angry Muskrat is driven from tahn.

  • Scene 5. Giuli sets a scene where a hunting party finds little game, and becomes a discussion about where things went wrong. Sneaking Elk and Hunting Cat decide that Father Dreaming Boar is wrong, since the pestilence continues. They'll take their hunting party out to the swamp to bring Bishop Angry Muskrat back.

  • Scene 6. Mike sets a scene wherein Bishop Angry Muskrat plots revenge, again seeking frog's advice. Frog demands that Angry Muskrat send a horde of frogs on the people; Angry Muskrat wants a good plan. Frog gets his stakes, but Angry Muskrat loses. So, frog tells him that Sneaking Elk is coming to kill him. Frog tells him to eliminate Sneaking Elk, then murder Father Dreaming Boar.

  • Scene 7. Bill sets a scene at a ford, where Bishop Angry Muskrat, expecting Sneaking Elk to come to kill him, encounters Sneaking Elk, Hunting Cat, and a party of armed hunters coming to find him. I introduce a dare, wherein a panther attacks Sneaking Elk. It becomes a three-way encounter, with the panther staking to eat Sneaking Elk, Sneaking Elk staking to tame the panther, and Bishop Angry Muskrat staking to turn Sneaking Elk into a frog. Bill and Mike get their stakes, but Giuli fails, so the panther doesn't eat Sneaking Elk; instead, Sneaking Elk tames the panther. But Bishop Angry Muskrat turns Sneaking Elk into a frog. Convinced that he is an evil sorcerer, Hunting Cat and the rest of the hunting party kill him. We rename the ford, "Frog Ford."

  • Scene 8. I set a scene where I try to pray to my patron saint, Saint Grey Coyote, for guidance. Instead, the ghost of Bishop Angry Muskrat appears. Bill then dares the story relationship with Groundhog to introduce groundhog and have him confess. Groundhog confesses that he bore a message not from the ancestors in general, but from Saint Grey Coyote, specifically. He is disappointed in his children, and he wants to kill us all. The ghost of Angry Muskrat and Father Dreaming Boar plan how they will defeat Saint Grey Coyote.

  • Scene 9. At Frog Ford, the ghost of Bishop Angry Muskrat draws out Saint Grey Coyote. Sneaking Elk stakes the restoration of his human form; I stake him leaving our family alone; Hunting Cat stakes setting things right between us and the deer. Saint Grey Coyote stakes punishing his children. Saint Grey Coyote fails, but while both I & Bill open, Giuli closes. Meaning that only she gets her stakes. Saint Grey Coyote puts things right between us and the deer, ending the pestilence and our immediate problems, but he remains committed to our destruction, and Sneaking Elk remains trapped in frog shape.

Table Dynamics

A long post-game discussion followed, and the game itself included a great deal of explanation and discussion about the rules. Little color or description; we remained focused quite heavily on the mechanics of play. This I found disappointing, but it may owe more to the nature of our group than the game itself. Our D&D games are similar. Even with the overhead involved, everyone reported having fun with the game, and while none of us considered the game complete, everyone agreed that the basics are tenable. That Bill, specifically, reported having fun with it gave me great reassurance.

Main Points

We had a very fruitful discussion, both during play and after, which yielded many ideas worth considering, but two themes emerged over and over again.


In this playtest, as in several others, the question at the beginning of "What am I doing?" proved a big stumbling block. Many playtesters have had a difficult time with the notion that the story is the goal, and the mechanics are tools to create it. In our post-game discussion, we discussed the possibilities for motivating mechanics, including goals tied to relationships that players could choose, with goals set to different scales. For a one-shot, only the story scale matters; for epic and cycle games, larger-scale goals could exist.

Number of Relationships

Since players need to keep track not only of their own relationships, but also (in order to use dares effectively) all other players' relationships, and since the story now has relationships, we quickly ran into overload. Shallow relationships rarely entered play at all. We all agreed that a smaller number of relationships, with a smaller number of boons (perhaps set boons which have specific effects) would be well worth considering.

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