Thursday, January 10, 2013

Initiative! Play-Test the First!

We ran the first-ever Initiative! playtest last night -- a game of giant robots fighting monsters in our hometown of Toronto. Learned a lot, laughed a lot, ready to do it again!

The goal in this first playtest was just to see if this wacky engine would actually work at all -- would the concept of gaining and losing the initiative bring a fresh sense to the table?

The answer is definitely a YES.

People cottoned on to the concept immediately. If you don't have the initiative, you can only react via Cool or Aware, and if you have the initiative you can try to win via Deadly and Compelling. It took a while, though for people to internalize the idea and start working WITH it in order to achieve their goals.

One player whose character was heavily invested in being Deadly lost the initiative in the first round, and never tried to get it back (didn't know that she could, to be fair), and got beaten right out of the fight in a couple of rounds.

So on the one hand, good that things can swing that wildly -- but it wasn't a great time for the player!

As they started to figure it out, however, you could see people trying to set themselves up. Players would deliberately give up the initiative so they could use a Trait that had a higher chance of success. It seemed like the decision-making at each moment offered lots of options, with pretty clear risk levels. So people could think, "Well, if I try to use Deadly here and I fail, I could be in a lot of trouble. But my Reactive Traits aren't very good, and if fail, I'm really going to get pounded. What to do?"

So I'm encouraged that way. It feels like this core mechanic is going to work. But of course there's some real issues to be resolved. The game as it stands is basically unplayable.

Real Issues

Nowhere is Safe

For example, there's no way to "lay low" -- people would try to use their Reactive Traits in order to step back and get a sense of the battle, like someone might play a rogue or a wizard trying for a vantage point, but in the current system, being Reactive is much riskier than being Active, since a failure in Reactive turns straight into damage. So there's no way to model that sort of "pulling back" from the fray to recollect oneself.

Which is kind of part of the design -- in Initiative!, if you're not pressing forward, then you're giving ground to your opponent. But at the least a lot of people are going to come in with an assumption that this system will have to fight against. And perhaps that assumption -- that there's safety in holding back -- is a reasonable one that I have to consider.

What Are We Doing?

Another problem is even more fundamental -- it was really hard in our "social" scene to establish what damage really meant. In my head, dealing damage is associated with advancing towards your objective, but when the "field of battle" is a social situation with a number of characters each of whom may have their own objectives, trying to understand what dealing damage to an NPC actually MEANS is complex.

There may need to be some structure around establishing goals for each scene, or maybe players will choose which NPCs in particular they wish to engage with. Not sure, and more testing is required, but I'm pretty sure something will have to be created around handling objectives.

One thing I really liked about Apocalypse World was the way in which characters could establish true things about the situation through strictly-constrained lists of questions. So you could use whatever the ability was called to learn something, but you had to choose your question from a predefined list. It's possible something of that nature might work here.

Next Steps

I'm not going to make too many changes right away. There were a few outright holes in the rules I have to sort out, but I want to try and run this again just as it is before I start making a lot of changes. There were a few quirks about the way I ran last night's session that definitely threw the results, so mixing things up and seeing how that influences play will be very important.

Not much reference to the rules was required, which was great. And it was definitely a free-wheeling sort of game, which is exactly what I'm hoping for. Onwards!