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.

Analysis

+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.

Referee

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.

Lead

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.