Actual Play – To Err is Human… To Forgive is Divine (5/28/2010)

GMs: Sean Nittner and Travis Lindquist
Players: Lots, including Martin, Jay, Shaun, Kristin, Matt, Jennifer, Brent and others.
Systems: In A Wicked Age/PTA and Agon

The origins

This game, these games, sprung from an idea that’s been banging around in my head for years. Alex Miller was the one who pitched it to me, so many years back: “You need to do a game of Gods and Heroes, where you take your projector and a webcam and a couple laptops and let the Gods see everything the heroes are doing.” It was this bold, crazy idea but hell, I had all the gear, why not try it.

And then I wondered what system(s) would I use? How would I coordinate with the other GM? Who would the other GM be? How would I keep the gods entertained enough with their own petty squabbles that they didn’t get bored just watching the heroes? How do we adjudicate the gods effect on the heroes when they want to bring on some smiting? All these questions, most of all who would run it with me, put this project firmly in the “someday” category (read: never)

Then, on a lark I threw out the idea to Travis and he was like bring on the wine and olives, let’s do this! His energy and excitement really got the ball rolling. So we talked some, played some Agon (which we both loved) and finally submitted the games to KublaCon. I can say right now, if not for his energy, excitement and persistence these games would have never happened. Thanks man. Thanks a ton!

Building this from the ground up.

So… then we had to figure out how to make this thing… you know, work. I had played Agon once with Carl Rigney and figured it would probably be the perfect game for the heroes side of the table. Travis and I played a couple games and we both loved it. The game includes a competitive element that is really fun, akin to playing video games with each other. This time you beat me, so let’s do it again and see how I do. At the end we’ll compare high scores, best moves, craziest come backs, etc. That’s exactly what the game fosters. And because it handles all of that with an elegant mechanic, there’s very little (if any) conflicts that arise at the player level. Lots of shit talking and no hurt feelings = Win! We played a few games of that and were totally sold. Here’s my AP on those games: http://seannittner.livejournal.com/tag/agon

I was pretty perplexed about how to handle the gods game until DundaCon. Justin Evans, while we were hang in the bar pulled out his little mash up of In A Wicked Age and Prime Time Adventures. Basically it used oracles to create the pitch session and IaWA’s best interests to give the characters goals but used PTA’s card mechanics for resolution along with the character edges and connections. We played a game and it rocked. It rocked hard. It rocked this hard: http://seannittner.livejournal.com/92794.html

Okay, we’ve got systems for each game, and we know the gods can see the heroes and we know we wanted them to interact but weren’t sure exactly how. At first we had this crazy currency idea that the gods needed to spend “strife” to challenge the heroes, which would pass down from the gods through me (playing the part of Ganymede) to the Antagonist and finally to the heroes. Way to many steps! So we canned that idea and came up with a better one. The God and mess with the heroes all they want, but doing so distracts them from affairs on Mount Olympus. Because each god received (as a base) three cards in every challenge we gave them three degrees of strife (or boon) to deliver unto the heroes. 1 card = a great challenge the mighty heroes will surely overcome (2-3 strife), 2 cards = a might challenge that will overcome all but the most stalwart (4-5 strife), 3 cards = the gods left the room (wearing a laurel wreath I provided) and went directly to the heroes to visit their own wrath upon them (issuing any challenge they want and adding a God die (d12, which is the highest in the game) to any of their opposition. [1]

Wow, that had some fire behind it. The gods could torment the heroes, but that meant they were making themselves weaker to each other… but what does that mean? Damn, find one answer and it just lead to more questions. Eventually we decided that the Gods needed a “win” mechanic just like the heroes, where they had some way to show that they were doing better. Through many iterations this is what we came up with.

  • Have your quest fulfilled by the heroes (Black chip = 8 points). In the fashion of Agon we started off all six gods randomly diving their desires using a combination of a gorgeous tarot deck (Mythic Oracle) and the above mentioned Story Cards to represent the charts in the back of the Agon book. Zeus drew that his desire was to calm the Daughters of Fury (amazon women that were for some reason mad at him, go figure). Aphrodite wanted the heroes to destroy the Stone Elephant, etc. I then told them that three of them could visit the heroes and bestow their quest upon them. Of those three, the heroes would choose one (possibly two they had time, which they didn’t) quest to perform. Thus it was a pretty big gamble that the heroes would actually pick your quest and fufil it, but also this was the highest stake.
  • Gain dominion over the features of the Island (red chip = 4 points). In this case we rolled up two communities, two events and a geographic feature. Each of those started un claimed but could be dedicated to a god if the god invested their energy (and that of their heroes) in claiming it.
  • Win a contest aimed at your best interest (blue chip = 2 points). Only gods who didn’t send their heroes on quests (i.e. the three that stayed behind) can have best interests. These are formed exactly as they are in IaWA.
  • Torment your hero (white chip(s) = 1 point each, up to three given based on severity of punishment). Any time the gods visited wrath upon their own hero in spite they got rewarded. This was a particularly fun mechanic as it fed into the god’s capricious nature.

With this kind of reward system in place, plus the simple novelty of being able to watch another game take place that you can not only observe to have great effect on, we decided we had enough to go on with the game…

And then it came to props.

Oh how I love the props. I sometimes wear things I think will be appropriate to the game, a wool jacket when playing a professor, an ugly necklace that I take off and give as a prop to the players when their characters discover it, etc. But I’ve never worn a costume before. This game, however, begged for it. So Travis and I went down to the UCD costume shop and found greek chiton, like this dude:

greek chiton

It was awesome, 12 bucks each for the weekend and we had epic garb. To top that off I ordered laurel wreaths from Century Novelty. Cheap things but it made it affordable for me to order one for each god, myself and Travis.

Then comes the food. It was last minute but I picked up a bunch of olives (Kalamata and Bosana) as well as some Baklava for the gods. Sorry heroes, you got the hand-me-downs from Dionysus. I would really have liked to do wine as well, but it’s a con, so I opted to hold off on that.

The cards used for resolution were the Mythic Tarot and the Story Cards RPG deck, which added a nice mythic feel to conflict resolution. It also made for an easy to read d12 as the Story Cards are numbered 1-12 rather than Ace-King.

The island needed a little more substace as well. So I printed out this featureless island from the old WotC map a week archive  on a plotter then stuck it to a poster board backing with spray adhesive. I used five colors of small Post Its to represent the five features on the island and then gave a Post It of the respective color to the Gods as they gained influence over them.

And of course there was technology. Hardware: Two laptops, a Logitech Webcam Pro 9000, a decent pari of speakers, and a Viewsonic PJ series projector. Software: Skype. Put it all together and you’ve got the looking glass for gods to observe their heroes and cast down wrath upon them (via IM in Skype from me to Travis).
The Play is the Thing

So, how did it go? Wicked awesome. The gods were selfish, conceited and fickle. The heroes were bold and foolish.

One thing that really surprised me was how tired this game made me. The game ran from 8PM to 2PM and I expected to be getting tired by 1. I was wasted at 10:30. Between appeasing six fickle divine beings and communicating with my earthly counterpart, I was overwhelmed. Despite that, I pulled through and the game was great.

Things were going pretty well for all (and Zeus in particular) during the game but it took a bad turn at the end. One of the heroes, after they had completed Zeus’s quest (appeasing the Daughters of Fury), decaled that the island shouldn’t be dedicated to the gods but the heroes instead. Holy Crap. As if the gods weren’t easy to aggravate before! The hero tried to backpedal but it was too late. The gods screamed in fury, the heavens shook and the mountainous island they had claimed erupted, lava burst forth and the heroes fled as a long dormant volcano became active.

The island wasn’t destroyed, and ultimately, the heroes still were glorious for their triumphant escape but things were quite shaken up and Dionysus pulled into the lead.

Afterwards I visited the heroes, introduced myself for the first time (the gods had visited them already) and invited to mount Olympus to greet the gods in person. They went over to have a 12 player powwow while I sat in front of the camera with a friend talking about the game.

The aftermath

This game got a lot of attention while it was going on. We had several people come in and out to watch bits of it while it was happening and I was so stoked about it I talked people’s ears off for the rest of the con when they asked. This was a monumental project and although it had it’s hitches, I call it a resounding success.

What rocked

Above and beyond everything mentioned above my players were excellent. I got all people that I’ve gamed with before and had a great time with all of them.

In so many ways the setup was spot on. The god would be right in the middle of something and suddenly a hero would do something they didn’t like and all attention turned to the screen. It was great.

I was an instigating bastard. I learned this from running the gift. In this case, as soon as the first three gods left the room to give their quests, I told all the others who remained to pillage away, giving them early shares in the islands features.

Travis was amazing. He had to run a game as though there were 7 GMs (himself plus the six gods) and he did an awesome job. The heroes had figured out something was going on within an hour or so (we didn’t tell them at first) but he still kept them having a great time despite a constant influx of commands from above. Well done sir!

The one God, one Hero setup worked great. After the God were picked Travis told the heroes which gods they could choose from as their favored deity. This created some great personal connections between players even if they heroes didn’t know they had a god watching over them.

Playing the gods servant gave me a great excuse for being tired, flustered and behind the ball, which was great considering our early technical difficulties (see below).

Zeus came back to Olympus and had his beard shaved for philandering. Hera sent jackals after her follower for forsaking marriage. Aphrodite cursed her follower by revealing he had married his sister. Hephaestus set up Aphrodite and Dionysus to sleep together just so he could catch them in the act. Hades came down from Olympus and tore the crap out of his (her in this case) follower. So, so, so many other cool things as well.

What could have been improved

We used the Agon character creation in the gods game including the backstory including the trading of oaths. This took a long time. A really long time. Next time we’ll probably do just an oath with the person on your left and right (rather than all 5 other players). Or if we really need to expedite it just give each hero a couple of oaths from other heroes and be done. The big problem from the gods perspective was that the gods were getting bored watching them and they already had quests to grant them well before the back-story was complete.

The camera only showed us 4 of the 6 heroes. We were scrambling just before the game to get everything working (because of course, the camera decided to stop working just before the game started and I had to futz with it) and didn’t have a good chance to set it up with a better view. This meant two of the gods could hear but not see their heroes. This wasn’t idea.

The Gods game had several mechanical bits that I didn’t like. I don’t think most of the players noticed (except Matt at least) but I was bugged by a couple things.

1. The distribution of island assets was wonky. I told them that any god could get a share by winning a conflict with a god that had a share in it already but that to gain more influence they would have to command their heroes to take action in the mortal world on their behalf. This ended up with every god getting one share of everything and then fighting really hard to get the second. I’m going to work on this.
2. Allowing some gods to have quests to fulfill and others to have best interests caused some confusion in the game, I’ll have to tighten that up a bit.
3. Many times the gods figured out they could clear their card deficit by having a meaningless challenge with another god, and that quickly was abused. I’ve got to make sure that in each conflict both sides have stakes, so null (and therefore harmless) results don’t occur.
4. When we fist selected gods I set it up for each player to have a PC (their main god) and an NPC (one of the others that wasn’t picked). The players were clearly interested in investing in their own god’s agenda and the whole NPC aspect was largely ignored. Will be cut next time.
5. I took the PTA Edge an Connection and turned that into Domain and Mortal Connection. The domain was easy to use (they had domains like marriage, fiery wrath, beauty, etc) but the mortal connection was tricky as the gods weren’t sure how or when they could bring those in.
6. I had planned to have the gods each reveal one card at a time to narrate their work towards success in the conflict but quickly realized the game was way to fast an furious for that. We just flipped all cards at once, counted red suits and moved on. It was kind of brutal. Players were happy but I felt like the narrations I had imagined happening got left out.

This wasn’t a mechanical error but it affected the mechanics. I was all about letting the gods one up each other most of the game (which was great) but early on I let Dionysus break a rule (getting two shares in an island feature, I believe the cultured city without having his hero take an action on his behalf. This meant that he got an early lead that the others couldn’t catch up with (as getting heroes to do what they wanted proved much harder than the gods thought it would be). In a way to accommodate that I later let other gods break different rules (gaining best interests when they had heroes on a quest for instance) and all felt a little wonky. Next time I’ll have a better grasp of what crooked things the god should be able to do behind each other’s backs, and what actions the fates need to step in on.

Will I do it again?

Heck yeah. Next time: Office employees in one room, Management (with the capital M on purpose) in another. Office Waste (for those who remember it years ago), you’re coming back!

[1] Because I found it un-stately for gods to actually roll dice, I sent them down with a 12 card deck to draw from (using a single suite from the Story Cards), which I told them to liberally stack to their desire.