Gothic Earth Session 9: Burn The Witches (Experimental Design Notes)

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This session report is mostly about game design; we tried something new and the players got a ton of work done. I've tried a couple of times to write up the notes into some linear fashion but they always turned into short stories, so instead, I will make this very brief.

 In session 8 the players got one over on me. For years I have always been able to get away with mobs. Lynchings involving lots of people are dangerous and wicked things! For the most part, my players have never been able to settle one down; until session 8. Through very good Role-play and quick thinking, the players were able to stop the terrified and riled up citizens of Belalp from playing into the villain's game plan.

From the enemies point of view, this was a well-thought out and calculated move that was critical to the master plan. There are agents operating within the village of Belalp, and one specifically was going to be rewarded that night. They had framed the old woman, instigated a lynching, and planned to use it as a distraction to steal a baby for a vile ritual which would greatly increase the agent's power as well as the mastermind's.

This didn't happen, the mastermind found themselves perilously exposed to discovery, the evidence against the old woman was solid enough to cause a gut reaction but not good enough to withstand any close scrutiny, and no baby was stolen; thus no ritual was performed and the plan was thwarted.

The players definitely earned this win! They now had a chance to force an encounter with the enemy before it had a chance to reach its full potential. The players had been able to give themselves a three-day window to figure out what is going on, identify the enemy agent, and deal with them.

The elements of having the perfect game were there: Allow the agent to steal the baby, accurately predict where the ritual was to take place and catch her and her boss in the act. Of course, we all know that the perfect game is an elusive thing, but the potential was there.

I wanted things to be tense, as well as frantic; I've toyed around with time-based adventures before, but never really was all that happy with the results. My villains had their work cut out for them, they had a lot to do in a very small window, they had to strengthen the evidence against the old women, create another diversion, set the groundwork for a fast and precise kidnapping, and complete the ritual while the old woman burned, preferably along with the PC's.

I decided to try something new, I really enjoy strategy games and I thought that this scenario would fit that format in a very interesting way. Instead of using a clock to count time, the players, and the villains had a limited amount of actions allotted to them to complete their goals.

Now there is a problem with this, strategy games are difficult, you have to experiment for a while until you hit upon formulas that work, D&D is very different. There are no redos in Dungeons & Dragons. There are no take-backs, either. I had to figure out a way to make this game fair for both sides; while I enjoy strategy games, my players might not, and it is them on the hot-seat, not me. 

So, I got to designing. I decided that 13 Actions might be enough; it would hopefully give them enough wiggle room to let them make an error or two without the entire thing becoming impossible to win. I wanted a really good challenge, and a difficult game, but not something that was too mentally demanding.

Prior to play, I laid out the ground rules.

  • Play is broken up into a set number of actions. Day 1 has 3 actions, Days 2 and 3 each have 5. 
  • At the end of the game, Events will play themselves out, independently.
  • The party is not allowed to split up, each action must be done as a team. This is out of fairness to the enemy who has the same amount of actions as the players do.
  • Movement Rates are going to be ignored, it is free to walk in all civilized spaces, but there is a charge of 3 actions if one goes out into the wilderness.
  • There is no need to go out into the wilderness.
  • While the players are limited in actions, once one is declared, you are allowed as much time as you need to to explore the location and complete the action.
We took our time before beginning, this is a strange playstyle and I wasn't sure if it would work or not, we were play-testing. I let them know that if I feel that the game failed because of something that I did, then we'd replay it in a more traditional game. By the third day I knew that the game had worked.

SECRET RULES

I kept some rules of play a secret for pacing reasons, I also had to keep the game fair. Like I said, D&D doesn't give one much time to think, evidence has to be loud enough so that puzzles can be solved in real-time at the table.

At the end of each day, if they went back to their cabin they got a free turn which was used as a briefing. The NPC ally Dr. Van Helsing would talk with them about what they had figured out. Now Van Helsing, in order to function, had his own motivations and biases. I didn't give anything away, I just asked leading questions so that they could have a better chance of thinking clearly and faster than if they had just been left to ponder this stuff on their own. I did limit the number of times that Van Helsing could eliminate a false lead and point them into a different direction.

In regards to enemy activity, for the most part, I kept it so that when the heroes made a move, the enemy moved at the same time. I had a short list dictating daily objectives for the enemy, however, they were not limited to these actions, they had to be responsive to the players. An attack meant to draw attention to itself would force the players to make a decision, complete their planned action and let the police handle the attack, or investigate the scene itself. As always, my villains played to win. Some enemy actions were just distractions while others were productive. Some went undetected, while others; since the players were close to the locations in question, were noticed.

If at anytime the enemy and the player chose the same location, I would have rolled a secret initiative but this never came up. What I ended up with was a nice clean investigation game, it made in-town exploration exciting, everyone was on the same page, and running the NPCs was a breeze!

The time required to play this scenario out was perfect for the time we had allotted to us, as DM I was able to maintain a strong grip on pacing, which was important because I wanted the players to experience the pressure that their characters were under. They were able to acquire LOTS of information about the village and the people who live there (too much to write here). They had to choose their moves wisely, they did make a few errors which I had expected, but by the last turn I judged that the game had succeeded, they knew who the agent was, what her plan was, now they just had to predict her last move.

The game wasn't perfect for either side. That last turn was one of the most intense moments that I had ever had in D&D, I so wanted to help them, they had almost played the perfect game but this last move had to be precise for them to pull it off. In the end, they made the wrong decision but this was a really difficult game. They still ended up winning. The agent hiding in the village of Belalp was exposed and became a loose end, the mastermind knew that it was just a matter of time before she led the heroes right to them, so the agent was eliminated.

The heroes were able to stop the enemy from thripling its strength, but the agent who eliminated his co-conspirators and former boss is now a local hero as he was able to steal all of the glory from the players and become untouchable.

Over all, this was a very well played game that was demanding on the players' skill to get a job done in a limited amount of time that was simulated perfectly. It was definitely gamey, the mechanics were more out in the open than I normally have them, but it more than made up for it in playability. This is something that I will definitely be doing again.

3 comments:

Martin Aaby said...

I like the idea of using a timeframe, but I've always lacked ability to handle how the enemies move in detail compared to how players spend their time - this is a very specific scenario, and that makes it work better.
But just to clarify, the players knew about the move-time system you had set up? Did they know their deadline?
Also, how elaborate was the investigation - I've always wanted to run a session with heavy investigation, but when I try and think up a scenario, I'm always afraid it's too simple and dumb and my players will not find it engaging, or it's too vague and complicated and in turn my players get frustrated.
How do you suggest one strikes a balance? I a time-limit the key here?

Ripper X said...

Hi Martin, thanks for commenting :)

Investigations are actually our groups favorite thing to do. The first module that I ever ran was a Ravenloft title by the name of "Night of the Walking Dead", it got me started on how to DM this style, but I've perfected it over the years. I still run into snags here and there, but for the most part they have all played well.

Yes, the players knew they only had 13 moves. I had drawn them a map of the main village of Belalp, and they had labeled all of the buildings during play. They also had a suspect list which they built themselves, they had planned on hunting her down already and they were searching for her, but this made things more interesting.

In the past, we had always gone day-by-day, and there is always a deadline of some kind, be it the murderer strikes again, the thief slips away into the night, the enemy finds the treasure before you do, your ship reaches port, whatever.

Since the village of Belalp is pretty small, everybody who lives in town or has an important job is named, have a personality assigned to them, and a short backstory of 3-4 words. Just a code that I can remember. I also wrote down how some people are connected with others, and prepped a list of rumors and plot-hooks that will last throughout the adventure which I can lean on.

Some characters provide different services, such as one knows the history of the land, another knows where everything is at. People have secrets, if you were to just read my lists they wouldn't be very interesting, but once they are applied to the game and the players slowly learn them through observations and talking to them, it becomes fun.

In this scenario I knew what all of my villains were up to, they had objectives to complete themselves. You don't need too much detail, you just need a rough plan; the bad guys cannot be static, they need motivation and tasks to complete. They make errors, they modify the plan to fit an ever changing model, they lay traps and miss-direct. They attempt to railroad the story, which the characters must not fall for, else figure out how to shift the railroad in their favor.

My players are good at this style, they take notes on everything, it makes continuity on my end very difficult but it has a great payoff.

Martin Aaby said...

Yeah, my players taking notes I didn't expect and remembering stuff from several sessions ago, has screwed my own oh so carefully planned continuity. Damn them for paying attention!

I really think it would suit my group with a big of mystery and I've already done my NPC-plan with the up-coming pirate-island (I talked about it in a previous comment), so I should try and work in some sort of specific mystery.

For now, the big luring danger I've presented the players is an army approaching the big city which is their base of operation, but I've no plans yet on how to handle it, except have it creep down my map.

I'll try and work in some sort of investigation-sidequest for the next part. Thanks for elaborating - huge help!

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