Sunday, 22 September 2013

Neon Burn Alpha Tests 2 & 3

In the last week I've held two Neon Burn playtest sessions online; one by audio-only over Skype, and one over G+ Hangouts. In both cases, we used a spreadsheet to track shared game information.

I'm not going to write up a full "actual play" of either session, as the point of the playtests is more to figure out where the rules function as intended and where they need work. Here, though, is a brief summary of the two games.

Pax Suprema

In a Roman Empire that never fell, lethal races are held between living brass steampunk flying machines powered by the hearts of fallen heroes, known as Bronze Lions. We established that this single-race event, the Pax Suprema, was a tournament in which only the winning team would emerge victorious - all of the losing teams would be executed on the sands of the arena. Our team was made of gladiator-slaves, racing for the glory of our Master and for our own lives.

  • +Nathaniel Robinson played Vatiatus the Champion of Neo-Kapua, a proud gladiator-racer (Driver/Gunner)
  • Luuk Mouton played Sellularius the Cheap and Lazy, a man enslaved to pay for his gambling debts (Mechanic/Dealer). 
  • I played Trixus the Scar-Crossed, a grizzled ex-gladiator (Coach/Pit-Crew)

We started off with a vicious ram installed (Chain-Blades), but spent most of the session acquiring and installing a cannon that would fire gladii at our rivals (Autocannon). Our chariot was also heavily tweaked for speed above all else.

During the race we quickly pulled away from the pack, and only broadened our lead as the race went on. By the end, we achieved a clear victory, thus ensuring the glory of our Master and sparing our own lives.

Neo-Rio Invitational

In a bright and hopeful high-tech near future, the weaponised Formula Sigma league races sleek angular antigrav vehicles all around the world. The Neo-Rio Invitational is an exhibition race, held at night on a transparent neon-walled track that loops around Rio de Janeiro. The final stages of the course spiral up the Sugarloaf Mountain and launch a jump to the finish line off the shoulders of Christ the Redeemer.

  • +Cavin DeJordy played Kael Sundar, reckless hotshot driver (Driver/Gunner).
  • +Chris Stocker played Hans Gnuuden, a retired driver turned coach (Coach/Pit-Crew)
  • +Lloyd Gyan played A.B.I.un, the A.I. installed in the vehicle (Mechanic/Copilot).
  • I played Meryl M., an enthusiastic mascot/track girl but also an able bodyguard (Publicist/Security)

We started off with a Carcatcher ram and a Mine dispenser installed, but really wanted to acquire an Energy Shield. Kael identified an old rival, Inara, in a bar, and established an Afterburn of the desire to beat her in the race. Although none of us were Dealers, we managed to get hold of an Energy Shield for the standard price. In the second-to-last scene, A.B.I. managed to install it single-handedly despite the complexity of the task, boosted by the team's desire to win and some encouragement from the sidelines.

During the race Kael quickly shot to the head of the pack. Our energy shield was invaluable, absorbing multiple attacks over the course of the race and allowing us to concentrate on gaining position. A.B.I.'s copiloting skills also helped evade any attacks that got past the shield, with Hans' pit-crew supervision standing by in case of serious need. By the time Kael hit the finish line, we had a comfortable lead over Inara (who was nursing a beat-up vehicle around the track) and the field was well behind.


+Cavin wrote his own blog review of the Neo-Rio playtest session if you'd like to see an outsider's first opinion of the game's current draft. Below are my thoughts and musings, mostly identifying areas that worked well and those that could use improvement.

So far I've had mostly positive feedback from the players, and everyone's said they enjoyed playing, so that's encouraging me to press on and fix the problems so it can become the game I want it to be.

Session Time

I'm a little concerned about fitting the game into a three hour slot. For both playtests we basically had an hour each of Approach, Build-Up, and Event.

The Pax Romana game was really rushed at the end because we had to wait multiple "scenes" before our purchase was delivered. That led to us trying to cycle through scenes as fast as we could so we actually had time to install the weapon, which meant characterisation suffered. That was also a problem in my initial playtest, so I've removed the delivery time altogether; Add-Ons are now available at the end of the purchasing scene.

There were things we didn't get anywhere near doing in either test, such as Qualifying. Both tests also only ended up with two Afterburn out of three. However, since we spent about an hour on making the world, the characters, and the vehicle, I suspect this problem would largely go away after the first session since you'd get 1.5 to 2 hours for scenes instead of a cramped 1. Therefore it's probably simply a matter of attempting to streamline the Approach (League, Team, Vehicle) as much as possible, and adjusting expectations about what's achievable during the Build-Up. The Event is still going to need an hour the first time, even using a shorter course, because people will be getting to grips with the racing rules.

I really need to do a full-session test with multiple players face to face, and also try a two or three session League. I think the the race in particular will be much easier when you're sitting around the same table and can physically pick up and move the dice. Entering the values into a shared spreadsheet was functional but slow.


In the Pax Romana game, we assigned a Lead and a Referee to each scene. However, figuring out who was who took a little while, and by the end of the session it had become apparent that the Referee position was probably unnecessary. While they were charged with assigning NPCs for people to play, introducing Complications, and awarding Sparks, in practice we ended up distributing those responsibilities among ourselves. Luuk even framed a scene for his character which included a complication right off the bat, which I thought was cool.

For the Neo-Rio playtest, I'd written the Referee out of the rules. I didn't miss the position; we still managed to introduce Complications and set one-another up to play NPCs, and with everyone on the lookout for other players using Passions the distribution of Sparks worked well too.


With the position of Referee gone, the Lead pretty much became the GM of their own scenes. Lead choice was based on the player with the fewest Sparks, since that would give them more opportunities to generate more Sparks and catch up.

In practice +Chris came out of the first scene with a large number of Sparks, and since he gained some by being in other players' scenes while some of us were spending Sparks for off-track performance, he never ended up framing a scene of his own.

I'm considering some alternatives to make sure everyone gets a chance to have creative input and decide what's important enough to frame a scene around. I could just go with a simple turn-taking order where we go around the table, which definitely makes sure everyone gets a fair go. However, with the way some scenes are required before others (such as getting the Dealer to make a purchase before the Mechanic can install a new Add-On), I think a more flexible system is warranted.
  • One possibility would be to have the current Lead choose the new Lead at the end of their scene, from among those who have an idea what they want to do next. This may or may not also use tokens to make sure everyone has had a turn before going through the group again.
  • Another possibility would be to ask which players have an idea for a scene, and then vote on which will become the new Lead. I think that might take a little too long, though.
  • A third idea would be to have the responsibility for scene-framing go around the table, but when it's your turn you can nominate anyone as the Lead (including yourself) and frame a scene for them. This would make sure everyone gets to offer some creative input, but is also flexible enough that you can make sure important things get done even if they don't involve you. It might result in awkwardness though, if you have a scene framed around you that you don't really want.
Passions and Sparks

I'm not sure if I'm entirely happy with the use of Passions to earn Sparks. It's based on Tenra Bansho Zero's Aiki awards, but it occasionally feels a little "dance for your reward, player!" It's also a little awkward to award online, and might work more smoothly around an actual table.

The Passions themselves worked okay, once I realised the divide between "Passions used to give me dice on rolls" and "Passions used to provide Sparks."

The number of Sparks is currently also an issue. Until I ran a couple of tests, I had no real idea how many might be available for the race. As it turns out, 5 to 7 per player seems about average. With each use of a Talent requiring one Spark, at the moment there is no challenge. Any problem can be overcome by spending heaps of Sparks on it, and players still usually have several Sparks left over. 

The effect is compounded by the fact that multiple players have their own supply of Sparks, and they are all being spent on the same Vehicle to achieve victory. I'd rather there was some threat of scarcity, so you had to consider whether now is the right time to use your Talent, rather than just how many Sparks you need to spend to make the problem go away.

I've had a couple of ideas for reining in Sparks:
  • Limit the number of Sparks a player can hold at once, or limit the number that the team as a whole has access to (drawing from a central pool of 10 or 12, for example). The second option would scale nicely for different group sizes, too.
  • Increase the number of Sparks it takes to activate Talents. This could simply be a linear cost (2 or 3 per Talent instead of 1 or 2), or each Talent might have its own unique Spark cost between 1 and 3, or maybe the Spark cost during the race increases: the first use of a Talent costs 1, but the next costs 2, then 3, and so on. That wouldn't line up with the costs before the event, but it would result in escalating tension and discussion about what's really important.
Engagement During the Event
This is one area where the current draft isn't delivering. I originally wrote Talents with the idea that they would give all of the players something to do during the Event. The Driver would drive, someone would roll for the Field, someone else might roll for a Rival, and anyone else would offer input from the sidelines and look for opportunities to use their Talents.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out like that in play. In the Neo-Rio race, three of us had the Vehicle, the Rival, and the Field, but the last guy didn't have much to do - and even worse, most of his applicable Talents were overshadowed by better ones from elsewhere. The huge quantities of Sparks didn't limit usage, so we never had to go for a choice of "use this one or that one?"

Talents don't require constant engagement, they just need you to stay alert for any triggering conditions.

In the post-game discussion, the idea was floated of having all of the players roll dice for something during the Event. This could be achieved by creating more Rivals, or perhaps having a sort of lesser rival which might be upgraded if you choose to pick a specific Rivalry Afterburn with them. It might also be possible to subdivide the Field into multiple pools.

However, in a cooperative game, all of the Rival and Field pools would need to place their results by some sort of formula to make sure the players controlling them don't make poor choices to help "their" Team win. I have a few ideas for automated Rival behaviour, so I'll run some tests and see how it functions.

Competitive Play

Another option was the possibility of redesigning the game for competitive play. In this approach, each player would basically represent a Team of their own. They may have friendly or not-so-friendly rivalries, relationships, and history with the other teams; they may form alliances, or be implacable enemies.

Unlike the cooperative game, players would not have a conflict of interest in playing their best and trying to win. The competition would be fierce and intense because you're playing against other human minds, and each has the same mechanical potential to bring to bear. Sorting out the results of multiple dice pools would add more depth of strategy as well. With everyone running their own vehicle, everybody would be fully engaged during the Event.

Turning it into a competitive game also removes the need to have a Challenge Pool that artificially inflates the Field if you don't cause trouble amongst yourselves. People would already have motivation to interfere with each other.

The only reason I shy away from a competitive angle is because it sets up winners and losers within the group. People who can't play the racing mini-game as well may feel dejected if they keep losing. However, over a League I could introduce different progress tracks for winners and losers. Those who lose might get a mechanical boost next time, or deepen the strength of their rivalries or something. Winning makes you soft; losing makes you hungry.

A competitive approach would require a complete rewrite of the front-end, although the racing system could remain largely as-is. Even if I don't decide to adopt this approach officially, I'm strongly considering writing it up in parallel to the collaborative game just to see how it works and what its problems are.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Fiasco: The Ice

Barb, Rohin and I got together for our first game of Fiasco. We were going to have a fourth player, but he unfortunately had to cancel. The other two hadn't read the book, so I acted as facilitator.

The Setup

After a bit of discussion, we chose The Ice Playset, situated around McMurdo Station in Antarctica. After rolling dice and choosing details, we ended up with the following relationships:
  • Barb and Rohin were "the ones who found the body," and shared the seal research camp on sea ice, out on the Weddell Sea.
  • Barb and I were ecological extremists, and shared the need to get laid in exchange for something we need.
  • Roh and I were Search & Rescue volunteers, and shared five kilos of explosives and a detonator.

It took a little while to figure out the specifics and solidify our characters. Trying to tie things together and have stuff make sense was a bit of a challenge for first-timers with no real idea how things would play out, and to be honest I got pretty frustrated at one point because I felt a responsibility to keep things going but my brain was grinding to a halt. Luckily we started getting a few good ideas into the mix, and sorted it out eventually. All up, I think the Setup took us a bit over half an hour.

The other two picked their names first, so I had to pick a name that started with "Ja-" as well, just to make this Actual Play more confusing. :P
  • Barb plays James Edwards, a young student researcher and animal activist.
  • Rohin plays Jack McReedy, a Search & Rescue volunteer.
  • I play Jane West, a PETA extremist who's undercover as a scientist.

Act One

I outlined how we took it in turns to be in the spotlight and either Establish or Resolve scenes, although the rules didn't say who got to be spotlit first. After looking at the details on the table, Barb eventually came up with the idea to frame a scene focussing on Jack and James discovering "the body." Off-screen, we decided that Jane had probably killed a Marine with an ice-pick for abusing one of the seals.

Seal researcher James discovered the body of a US Marine lying face-down on the ice. He'd got as far as going over to the body and noticing blood, plus a canister of explosives, when Jack came upon the scene. Although James wanted the explosives for his eco-extremist activities, Jack used his position as S&R team member to take command of the body and equipment. Jane showed up soon after, and helped Jack move the body and gear back to base.

Jack and Jane take the body back to an empty shed on the edge of Mactown. Jane takes the explosives, ostensibly to return them to the military, but Jack keeps the detonator.

Later that night, Jane shows up at Jack's room and seduces him. While they're in the sack, she reaches down and finds the detonator in his jacket pocket. Jack notices her taking it and they argue about it; she convinces him she just wants to "blow some stuff up" and he thinks she just wants to blow off some steam by making things go boom. So now Jane is in control of five kilos of explosives and a detonator.

In the mess hall, James has a quiet word to Jane. She tells him about the explosives, and wants to use them to cripple the base. She wants to stop humans from coming to Antarctica and spoiling its purity, and if that means dooming them all to an icy death for the sake of the animals, that's a price she's willing to pay. James convinces her that the authorities will rebuild damage to communications or the airstrip, and that they need to send a clear message that it's because of the animals, by blowing up the seal research camp. Jane agrees, so long as they can conduct an ecological assessment and make sure the explosion won't negatively impact the seals.

Meanwhile, Jack visits the doctor who's performing the autopsy on the dead Marine. The doctor determines the cause of death to be a blow to the back of the head from an ice-pick.

Jane heads out on the ice with the explosives via skidoo, to conduct her ecological impact study. However, the camp and the ice is swarming with Marines searching for clues about their murdered colleague. They question her and refuse to let her anywhere near the camp, so she speeds back to Mactown. Panic starts to rise, as she realises the investigation will likely close in on her. She needs to act fast before she's busted and loses her opportunity!

The Tilt

Barb and Rohin got to inject a couple more elements into the story. We got "A stupid plan, executed to perfection" and "A sudden reversal (of status, fortune, sympathy).

Act Two

The military investigation gets underway. James is taken to a small, clinical room and interviewed. He points the finger at Jack for taking the explosives, which are still missing. The Military Police advise James not to leave town.

The MPs turn up at Jack's quarters. One questions him while the other searches through his stuff. Jack points the finger at Jane, who was supposed to have returned the explosives. However, it looks like Jane's already pulled a fast one on him - the soldiers find the bloody ice-pick among his things, and he's placed under arrest.

On her return from the ice, Jane's desperate. She gives four kilos of explosive and the detonator to James, telling him to go out to the camp and wait until her distraction pulls the soldiers away so he can blow it up. She makes an IED out of the remaining kilo, dangerously rigged with a car battery, and throws it over the military compound's fence into a pile of diesel barrels. Miraculously she pulls it off, and the explosion creates a massive cloud of black, greasy smoke. 

I interpreted "A stupid plan, executed to perfection" to mean "I can't believe that actually worked." Barb thought it sounded more like a stupid plan should be executed perfectly stupidly, but hey.

The soldiers withdraw from the seal research camp, so James moves in and plants the bomb. Unfortunately, he runs into a couple of Marines who were left behind, and has to flee! The soldiers are caught in the explosion, and the ice shelf breaks off and starts to drift away. James is stuck on the new iceberg.

Unbeknownst to James, Jack was actually in the camp at the time, too. The two Marines had escorted him there so he could show them the murder site. He was on the other side of some crates and got caught in the explosion, but just got banged up and was also stuck on the ice with James.

Jane flees on foot across the icy wilderness, hoping to make it to a nearby French base. She miraculously evades the Marine search parties and manages to successfully flee Mactown!

The Aftermath

James (White 9): As a minor (17 years old), he came out of the situation relatively unscathed. He returned to the States, where a few years later he was imprisoned for suitcase-bombing a cancer research clinic.

Jack (Black 6): Arrested for the murder, and probably the bombing too. He returns to the States where he gets to stay in prison for a very long time. Ironically, the guy who wasn't guilty of anything paid the price for everything.

Jane (White 1): Although she made it away from McMurdo, she didn't quite make it to the French station. Somewhere in the blinding white, she falls face-down and never gets up. She's discovered a couple of years later, one arm protruding from a snowdrift.

The End!

Once we got over the initial creative hurdles and into the swing of things, it was a pretty fun game. Barb did note that it seemed like the sort of "party game" that might do better once people have had a couple of drinks to loosen things up a bit.

The game rules don't seem to come into contact with the story much, mainly just when you choose white or black dice to suggest a positive or negative outcome for a scene. Apart from that, the rules are mostly a set of procedures for creating story elements and deciding who's in charge of framing and resolving scenes.

The story elements have no mechanical weight, though; they're more like evocative springboards for the players to gain inspiration from. The system as a whole requires strong player buy-in to the type of story it wants you to create, because if people don't play towards an unmitigated disaster then the Aftermath results will likely not make much sense.

However, with people who agree what sort of story they're producing, human ingenuity and imagination seems more than capable of connecting the dots and coming up with explanations for the end results. I suppose it works as well as it does largely because everything in a playset is geared towards helping you create this sort of outcome.

Oh, and I'm sure there would be different group dynamics with four or five players. I was impressed with Relationships and Details not belonging to one character, but creating a connection between two characters. While in theory you could play out a nice, civil story of people behaving reasonably and negotiating for what they want, the nature of the relationships and details on offer do tend to create situations in motion where some of the wheels are almost guaranteed to come off in play.