Actual Play – White Books at Go Play (6/27/2014)

IMG_20140619_092815_1_1Players: Dale Horstman, Chris Bennett, Jon Edwards, and Sean Nittner
System: White Books

You pretty much can’t find me in any better mood than I was when I played this game. Matt Klein had scheduled a Friday Session 0 so that we could play EVEN MORE GAMES.

I’d like to think the game started at the Honey Hole with a Bandit (slow smoked beef brisket sandwich), some awesome coleslaw, a glass of Two Beers Persnickety Pale Ale, and some of my favorite people on the planet.

We got back the Campion Hall (home of all my gaming this year) and broke up into two groups. Team Wizard: John, Allison, Karen, and Matt. Team Bears: Sean, Dale, Jon, and when he showed up Chris.

What’s this thing now

From the author Éric Nieudan

White Books is an homage to the original Dungeons & Dragons ‘white box’.

It’s a no-prep, GM-less roleplaying game for 3 to 5 players. Using tiny, A7-size pocketmod booklets and polyhedral dice, you will build a dungeon, create a band of heroes and give them a quest. It’s relatively freeform but uses some of the mechanics of the *World engine.

You can read more about the game by looking at the #whitebooks tag on Google+.

More deets here: http://quenouille.com/white-books-playtest/

My experience was that it felt very familiar in the basic rules like “describe a dangerous dungeon”, “be hard on the players, but be a fan of the heroes”, and “Always ask: what do you do?“.  This was AW principles rejiggered for old school dungeon crawling. Yep, my first reaction was nothing new here.

What are all these books then

Where white books distinguishes itself in the major is it’s rotating GMs. When the heroes are threatened by harm or danger, the player with playbook 1 (Dungeoneering) takes overs. As the Dungeoneer this meant I did a lot of the GMing since yeah, danger happens. The rules for adjudicating it were nice and straight forward (roll one die, usually a d6, but sometimes a d8 if it was your strength, and sometimes a d4 if it’s your weakness).

When combat came up though, referee duties were handed over to person with the Campaign Book, who had separate rules for resolving a fight.

Failure often meant a complication, twist, and or a condition. I was quite amused that the conditions included things like afraid right next to disemboweled.  Each of them having the same mechanical effect on the game, which is that your character is out of the game if all six are checked. They of course informed the fiction throughout though, and when Fellows was corrupted by a demon, we all knew it!

The minor distinction was the subtle two scenes per player separated by a tilt trick embedded in the game pacing mechanic. You don’t really realize you’re playing a Fiasco game until you realize that before you can go from the Exploration to the Enemy phase each player needs to describe a new room that the characters explore, each with their own challenges. Similarly, after the enemy phase begins, each player then has another set of moves and questions to enact. This doesn’t guarantee a rigid 2 scenes/rooms/enemy events per player, but it does set those up as a minimum, and changes the nature of the game as you progress.

The pacing also creates a sort of guaranteed “heroes journey”. Before they can defeat their nemesis the heroes must face certain perils such as a room full of unpleasant surprises, traps, and dangers, a room which reveals their flaws to them and others, and some vital treasure or clue that will assist them in defeating the enemy. Triggering those challenges based on when the referee roll rotated did provide a natural transition, but it was often awkward in play (see thoughts below).

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Our characters

Bastard John (Sean) was an impatient illusionist that tricked everyone by offering them their hearts desires. He avoided danger himself but sought the love the the wizard’s apprentice Yassaril. His great fear was that anyone would see his true form, a disfigured and decrepit old man. I named him that to fuck with Jon, John, and to poke fun at Game of Thrones.  Good times.

Polonius (Chris) was an light-hearted assassin who wielded a poison blade and was afraid of fire. Polinius was the one to betray us, sending his follower to kill the Wizard we were trying to save, and stealing away with something (can’t remember if it was the treasure, Yassaril, the demon bow, or all three).

Fellows (Dale) was the cursed bard who has before even entering the dungeon been possessed by a demon.  He had incredible powers of perception and could often identify Bastard John’s illusions for what they were. In the dungeon he was dumbfounded by room of ice collapsing around him, and further corrupted when fighting demon nights.

Arrowsmith (Jon) the fierce thief wielded a demon bow Chapel made of human bone, wrapped in muscle, sinew and flesh that never missed a target it wanted to hit. The bow bound Chapel within it, but the he was also king of the demons that had taken over the wizard’s tower and they wanted him back. We weren’t really sure how the king felt about that. Arrowsmith was always incredibly careful with his accuracy, since a single grazing blow would be the death of him (he was a hemophiliac).

The Dungeon

Chapel Home, A wizards tower on crater lake filled with creatures he experimented on (biological corruption) that had been taken over by a council of demons and now the wizard was locked in a state of torpor.

Traveling into the dungeon we risked demon possession (hint! already got some of that), being corrupted by the same magics that the wizard used in his experiments, and triggering an earthquake that would unleash a volcano under the crater.

Woah, that was a lot of bad shit.

To prepare for it we brought a sacred raiment that would protect one of us (Polonius) from possession, a map of the fortress and four companions.

  • Yassaril, the wizards appretice that showed us the way to the tower.
  • Gorum, the barbarian mercenary in it for gold so he could return to the clan of the north triumphant
  • Chapel, the demon king bound into flesh and bone in the form of a bow.
  • Glon, the dwarf seeking revenge on the wizard for killing his brother.

Inside we also collected treasures

  • Sea God’s Trident – Pried from the broken stone fingers of the giant statue that adorned the wizards’ ante room. The haft was made of dragon bone, the tines of mithril.
  • Demon Sphere – A sphere that could contain a demon within in and while help the owner could force the demon to do his bidding.

Exploration Phase

Here’s what we found as we explored the dungeon:

Chapel Home

A legend for those who can’t tell our adventures from this amazing map:

Outside the tower was a crumbling bridge over a lake filled with three eyed sharks that thirsted for blood. Arrowsmith nimbly made it across but when Gorem tried, he fell and was hanging precariously from the ledge. Fellows cast a spell of serenity and calmed the beasts allowing the rest of us to pass by walking over their heads and backs across the lake.

The Ante room was filled with two giant statues of elder gods locked in combat. One had barbed claws, the other wielded the Sea Gods Trident (see treasure we nabbed above). The were covered by a swarm of scarabs which flew into our heroes and with a touch, burned their skin.

A sloping passage down to the Ice Prison where the wizard was locked in torpor. Upon entering the room began to collapse but not before Glon could leap down and strike the death blow against the wizard. His death however ended destroyed what was left of his control on the tower and the demon knights of Chapel Home attacks us. There were defeated however. One lead into the collapsing chamber by an illusion, the other captured in the demon sphere.

The final room was the square obsidian room of truth, where all secrets were revealed. Bastard John, knowing that his companions could not love someone as ugly and disfigured as himself, turned their ire on Fellows, who we could all see was possessed by a demon. Against Arrowsmith’s will, his bow pulled back an arrow and let it fly right for him!

Enemy Phase

We just barely started this, skipping to it because Bastard John had betrayed the group.  We realized that our confused live quadrangle with Yassaril was what was turning us against each other, and that Polonius was our ultimate traitor, planning to make off with the treasure and leave us all to die in the volcano’s fiery embrace!

Thoughts on the game

All the rules taken in one book would have been find, but the moves that triggered passing the referee to another player were awkward and sometimes detrimental to the story. Some examples:

  • When Fellows the Cleric played by Dale cast a spell, Dale (who had The Book of Wizardry) took over and was now refereeing for himself. Awkward. Suggestion to resolve: Don’t make a spell-casting class available to characters with the Book of Wizardry. Problem. That solution doesn’t work for other books. Anyone can be put in danger (although I really tried to avoid it myself so I wasn’t in the same situation), anyone can go into combat, etc.
  • When Chris who had the Book of Shadows was describing a new room that we were discovering he had this move: When one hero guides, explores or goes ahead, have that player roll a die.  Sean (me) rolled and got a 5, which meant I was now the referee. So I took over as referee to describe the room, but Chris had already started, and was moving towards his his “new room” description that I cut off and replaced by my “new room” description. Suggestion: Don’t have a die result trigger passing of the referee screen. Let it stay until the focus changes.
  • At various times we bumped into the “enemy rules” before the exploration phase was complete. For instance, we had a betrayal in the party. By the rules it wasn’t ready for this to happen, but we steamrolled over them and did it anyway. We didn’t play past that scene so I’m not sure what effect that would have on the rest of the game, but I got the distinct impression that we broke it.

Based on those troubles, I’m not sure what benefit the game gets from having rotating GMs. The tools (moves, questions, and duties) provided are all great, but they are awkward in transition. I’m a fan of the collaborative dungeon/challenge building and the distributed questions, but shifting narrators (at least at the times we did) wasn’t conducive to playing a cohesive game.

I think the scene framing would be easier with a single referee as well, even if the details continued to be distributed.

I had a lot of fun playing, in some cases because of the rules (the prompts for classic hero encounters) and in some cases in spite of them (playing out enemy moves during the encounter phase, opting to smooth over moves that didn’t support the fiction.