Sunday, November 8, 2009

Playtest Report #2

I got to playtest the Fifth World for the first time around a table on Saturday. My brother, Giuli and I played. I felt really good about the story that came out. I played a football star who wanted to live forever; Mike played the Ferryman, the heir of the character I played in the previous playtest; and Giuli played a character inspired by Nausicaä, who wanted to restore the toxic forest growing up out of the ruins of the Waterfront in Homestead. Actually, that location requires some elaboration, actually. A steel mill once sat down there. The Battle of Homestead happened near there, where Pinkerton soldiers attacked striking steel workers. Today, a large shopping complex sits on the site. The appropriation of so much of the world's biomass to build places like that, and the sprawling suburbs around them, have concentrated much of the world's biological wealth in those areas. In the Fifth World, once all that material finally gets to rot, some of the most vibrant forests grow up out of the cellars, washing machines and cars of suburbia. In this case, it sets its roots into soil filled with heavy metals from the old steelworks. I suggested a story of domination: domination of the steel workers, domination of the earth by the steel mill itself, domination through consumerism, and in the Fifth World, a place angry at humans because it has seen so much of humanity's worst qualities. Mike went for the complete opposite story: freedom bought with great sacrifice, like the labor movement bought with in the Battle of Homestead, or the life of the forest bought despite the heavy metals in the soil. Giuli went with that, and her character tied into that story because she wanted to heal the land.

Mike made the Point more of a sacred garden, as opposed to the terrifying otherworld from our last game. In the fountain, an abnormally large oak tree grows, with its roots reaching down into the secret fourth river that flows underground. When my character, the football star, wanted to live forever, the Ferryman told him to swallow an acorn from the tree whole.

Through the various rounds, my football star became more belligerent, since he thought he'd become immortal. He got married to Giuli's character, and the Ferryman told him he could cleanse the forest so important to his new bride by eating the poisoned fruit there. Since he would live forever, he had nothing to fear.

He died, right there.

The elders of my character's village accused Giuli's character of assassinating their star player; she submitted herself to their judgment to keep the villages from going to war. They executed her, and buried her next to my character, in the toxic forest she loved so much.

Next came the rounds with the memories, which worked out perfectly. The action had reached its climax, so now we went back, before, to see why it had all happened. The real climax of the story came later, even though, chronologically, it had happened before. My character remembered his grandfather dying, and telling him a story that I took from Paul Radin's Primitive Man as Philosopher, about a Ho-Chunk boy who wanted to live forever. He died, and grew into a tree—because only trees live forever. That acorn I had eaten before, what the Ferryman promised would give me eternal life? It sprouted. Its roots went deep, deeper than all the other plants, and sucked up more of those heavy metals than any of them could. So, I lived forever—and cleansed the forest.

Giuli asked why her character had to die, too. My character had wanted her admiration; despite all the women who fawned over me, I wanted her to notice me. In her epilogue, we found out why: I had sacrificed my human life to cleanse her forest, so she became a tree, too, so that my sacrifice wouldn't mean spending eternity alone.

The poem's structure paced it out perfectly, even when the other players worried that we'd reached the climax too soon. It created a beautiful, moving, poetic, mythic story really anchored in the land. I felt very good about that.

Like the playtest before, players raised some concerns about not having enough material to start with. I wanted to make character creation a part of play, rather than something that happens before play. I still suspect that I just need to press for stronger desires, but I'll definitely have to keep in mind that it may need some way of generating more pregnant starting situation.

In both games, the mechanics didn't kick in very often. That may also need some more work; or, it might work just fine right now. Who says that the mechanics need to kick in all the time? Maybe "leave them there unless you need them" makes for a perfectly viable strategy.

Another interesting thing to note: in both games, we had three players, and it took just over two hours, making for just over 40 minutes per player (I've measured time per player because I think, with the rounds, that how long a game takes will work as a function of number of players). If that continues to hold, then a game with six players would take four hours—one standard convention slot, precisely. Of course, I'll need to test other size games to see how that ratio holds up. I'll also need a much larger data set to say anything with confidence.

I haven't playtested nearly as much as I would like so far, but I think I can take this to GASPcon without too much worry. I've billed it as a playtest, so nobody should expect a finished game. All the same, the problems don't seem to break it entirely, either, and playtesters have even had fun with it.


Bill White said...

Wow, that sounds nice. Powerful and elegant. It's exactly right that you don't need "the mechanics" to kick in unless there's a dispute about what needs to happen next--but of course who gets to say what *is* the system.
I'm glad you're making progress with this. Awesome.

Jason Godesky said...

Yup. Right now, the system mostly just sets the pace for scenes and who gets to say what. I have a coin tossing mechanic in there, but it doesn't come up very often right now.