seat-of-my-pants design

Sunday’s playtest session produced something that I value very highly: a pressure to design and not just test. At this stage of testing that’s exactly what I want to happen, a playstorm that creates something new.

In this case the scene demanded a new mechanism: it was a large scale combat scene with the players helping defend against incoming armoured cars, aircraft, and infantry. It was clear that one roll was not going to be satisfying here: this is not about one person solving one problem. Fortunately I had a kernel of an idea: what if instead we frame this as a montage with each person getting one scene, one time in the fight where they solve a local problem.

Eventually it’s time to slap a mag in that Chatellerault and punch holes in enemy aircraft. But what about the rest of the assault?

That was awesome! One character shot down an airplane, one tried to give orders but got himself shot, and another screwed up a demolitions trick and ruined their halftrack. And so we wrapped it up there.

But that sucked. I mean, the montage was good but wrapping it up was not. It seemed as though there should have been some large scale repercussion to all that failure. Something more than just the local risks being realized. Okay, Hoberman is wounded. Okay, the half-track is damaged. But what about the fight? What about the whole reason we’re in this scene in the first place?

And so we shift gears from playing and testing to designing. I try to ask guiding questions about what the players wanted and what they got, what would be more satisfying. I realize that part of the failing was that, lacking a rule, I got cowardly and failed to push the failure hard. A mechanism should do that so I can’t wreck a scene by being faint of heart.

And so we co-wrote a mechanism. A simple one. Something not stateful (no hit points or stress tracks). And something that isn’t risking indefinite iterations of rolling and rolling and rolling. Because that’s something I am trying to avoid as a global design goal. Here’s the example text:

A group of plucky defenders entrenched with help from the players is under attack by aircraft, armoured cars, and infantry. Montage!

Jesus crews the machinegun and tries to shoot down the aircraft. Risk is COST (planning to destroy the players’ vehicle) but a roll of 8 on his Violence and one of the aircraft goes down trailing smoke and the other breaks off.

Hoberman stands up shouting orders leveraging his tactical knowledge — he has Know at d10 and a specialization of Violence. He knows his stuff! Risk is HARM and he rolls a pair of 1s and gets wounded. Also that fail indicates that this montage will fail!

Duarte triggers the explosives he set up while preparing defenses using Mischief with risk WASTE. He rolls a fail as well and the explosives go off too close and too early. Many are wounded and the players’ half-track is flipped over destroying all their stores of fuel and water.

Now things are bad so the ref  stages the resolution scene: the enemy overruns the outer position at great cost and the fighting is now hand to hand. Hoberman needs assistance and the half-track is not accessible. What do you do?

Jesus takes the lead, stealing a friendly motorcycle and sidecar to escape the battlefield, rolling Chase. Duarte helps with his Locate skill, identifying a vehicle with the keys still in it. The ref chooses the risk to be DELAY: if they fail then they are captured. If they succeed but realize the risk then they are forced to flee in the direction of open desert without any supplies. If they succeed without realizing the risk then they escape and find their way to town.

This is how playstorming is supposed to work: unanticipated problem, whimsical solution, discuss, refine, write.

And now we have large scale conflict rules for Sand Dogs. And they are portable to any Soft Horizon game!

Playstorming is the design equivalent of improv reffing. It’s probably not for everyone. But I think most refs do a little design on the fly to handle weird edge cases. This is just more of that.