John Harper is making a bad ass game about rogues in the city of Duskwall. It’s in play-test now (version 2.7 as of this post, but we were playing with a cobbling together of 1.5 and 2.5 during the game).
Thinking Nerdly Thoughts
The drive down to nerdly is a little over four hours, which gave me plenty of time to think. Unfortunately I had been reading the 2.5 draft text before going down and only really printed 1.5 at the last minute. 2.5 didn’t include much about Duskwall so I started making stuff up, based on the few thinks I knew from the player sheet. Akoros and Sevros are at war, and have been for six years. Marian, The Swordlord of Duskwall was once loved (or at least tolerated) by her people, but in the years of fighting they have turned against her. Farmers over taxed. Mothers sending their too young children off to fight. Citizens of Duskwall tired of the same speeches and empty promises being delivered over and over again, with no respite in sight.
Many of the people have openly turned against their leader. Insubordination, mutiny, insurrection! Canter, a soldier who committed mutiny when he threw down his sword and would not lead his men to battle rots in the Irongate prison. His sentence indefinite. His sister Levyra waits for him, but she unsafe on her own. The spirits speak to her whether she wants to hear them or not. Even from behind bars though Canter tries to help. He got her work from a crooked quartermaster, Srg. Bint. A man who smuggles creature comforts into the soldiers garrisoned in Brightstone. To keep outside the watchful eye of his superiors he carries them by way of Charhollow, and always uses beggers and thieves dressed as merchants to deliver them hidden amid the munitions and stale rations.
Merrul Brime knows of the trade, some of it passes through her tavern the hooded fox. She keeps secrets for people, and hides them so they can never be stolen. Written in blue fire ink that dissolves in light or after prolonged exposure to air. Stored in jars of blue-tinted formaldehyde and only viewed in darkroom she locks he clients in while they read it. Overmuch? Probably but the idea was drifting through my head and started getting into it. Blue stained fingers and all.
Before game I set up some things to look appropriate to the genre.
I spoke a little about the game and then read the introduction text (from version 1.5) plus a small addendum based on my musings in the car.
It is the year 847 of the Imperium that united the shattered isles of the cataclysm under one rule—all glory to his majesty the Immortal Emperor.
The unquiet shades of the dead—free to roam the world since the gates of death were shattered in the cataclysm—prey on every living thing in the ink-dark deadlands between cities.
The port of Duskwall, like every city-stronghold of the Imperium, is encircled by crackling lightning-towers which create an electrical barrier that shadow-spirits cannot pass. By law, all corpses are incinerated with electroplasm (to destroy the shadow essence within). However, wealthy citizens, heretics of the spirit cults, and the criminal element often arrange for a shadow to escape destruction at the crematorium. Sale of rogue shadows and the illegal spirit essences derived from them are rich trade for the black market.
The docks of Duskwall, on the cold, windswept northern tip of Akoros, are home port for the titanic iron steamships of leviathan hunters. The blood of those massive, immortal demons is the catalyst which gives electroplasm (and a variety of other exotic substances) its potency. The noble elite of the city make their fortunes from the fleets of leviathan hunters they deploy on the night-black waters of the Never Sea.
Despite the Imperial rule, fighting still breaks out between nations. Usually the are quelled quickly but for these past six years, Akoros has warred with Severos to the south. The never ending costs of war have turned the people of Dukswall against their leader. Swordlord Marian, once loved by her people, is now reviled by them. Soldiers, hardly more than boys, head out for battle, most of them never to return.
I then played the opening music: “Furnace Room Lullabye” by Neko Case. iPhone speakers did the trick!
This was probably the most fun we had. Hard choice to make (picking talents) and great stories (what you were incarcerated for). Here’s what we made:
Frost (Collin Jessup) – A soldier for Severos (usually hated in Duskwall) that defected. He was skilled in Blade-work, alchemy, physicker, and strategy, and hooked on the own alchemical concoctions he brewed. Frost knew that after the cataclysm there were still bodies that had not been incinerated were still burried north of the city. Dangerous work, grave robbing, but well worth it. At the last minute though he had been caught. Five bodies safely carried into the city, hidden in the Barrowcleft, and then caught on his way out! He served three years for his crime but knew the bodies would still be there waiting for him when he got out. A little worse for the wear maybe, but it wasn’t like they were doing that well to begin with!
Coil Haig (David Gallo) – A grifter, pick pocket and burgler who thrived on frivolous indulgences. Coil was skilled in guile, finesse, security, and appraisal, and like many of the people form Iruvia, he was a sly bastard. Coil had been in Irongate for a brief stint for trying to impersonate a merchant on the night market named Taffer. He was selling fake Night Lilies to someone with wealth when the real Taffer showed up. It went downhill from there.
Cross (Matt Troedson) – A blood mage from the Dagger Isles. His people traffic in blood magic and opium (often in combination) and he was a trafficker of both. Cross was a Whisper skilled with talents of channel, sight, tempest, and awareness. Cross was the kind of guy that looked like he was high all the time. Glassy eyed and unfocused, but that was just because he was using the sight to see into the other realms. Realms of horror and spirit. Cross was the only one of the gang that was actually innocent. He didn’t want to work for the Dimmer Sisters so they framed him and let him take the fall for another job they did. Nice ladies.
Thena (Morgan Ellis) – A merciless scrapper and native to Duskwall, Thena was a sharp woman with talents in balde-work, reflexes, streetwise, and athletics. She had a weakness for beautiful ladies though, and got put in the Irongate for assaulting (really just fish-hooking) a ship captain that was putting the moves on her woman. When Thena got out she just wanted to have a night of drinking and debauchery, and the follow it up with finishing the job she had started on that smuggler.
We mapped some districts and some distinct features of Duskwall. The poorest district Charhallow, where they made charcoal (we were playing next to a campfire, so the smoke helped evoke the choking cough most of the resident exhibited) that wrapped around Dunslough (better off only because they had a cistern that stored the city’s water). East of that was Barrowcleft, on the edge of the old barrows north of the city (previously a graveyard, but not all of the bodies, or at least most of the bodies, have been exhumed). East of that, invisible to the rest of the city behinds it’s tall stone walls was Brightstone, where the garrison was posted. The island tip to the south called Crows Foot was remarkable because it as both run by a powerful criminal organization The Unseen and because it hosted Irongate prison. Not ironic at all to the thieves.
The players were give three options for their starting selection and chose this one:
The criminal boss of this ward, Scurlock, was recently 3. killed and no one has stepped forward to lead his gang or seize control of the ward. There are a few likely candidates, including his murderer and former partner, Roric; the secretive Dimmer Sisters; and the Skovlander, Ulf Ironborn. Until a boss is named, most fences won’t operate in the ward, and the City Watch are off their bribes and looking to crack skulls and make their jail quota. But hey, no one is ordering you around, huh? Since you’re on your own without any higher-ups to pay a share to, each PC starts with 6d of wealth.
Here was what our map looked like after we were done with it.
The Play is the Thing
Set up, we jumped into play. And this is where I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. Do I ask them about their world and see where I can apply pressure Apocalypse World style? That probably would have been a good thing. Or do I present them with some threat or situation to deal with and see how the react? That might also have worked pretty well. But instead , I gave them a “you’re all in the Hooded Fox” and watched to see which thread they would take interest in.
The trouble being that there were so many. Each character had some unfinished business related to the crime that got them put away in the first place, and there was also Canter and his system, and her connections with the crooked quartermaster, and there was a power struggle between three factions. There were just targets everywhere and I did’t really bring any of them in particular alive.
At least not a first. As they talked I found ways to ramp up some tension. Guests that overheard them getting up and walking out. Those same guests moving as those animated and when examined by Cross, clearly dead bodies inhabited by spirits.
After some time a plan unfolded. Turn Ulf Ironborn, the necromancer against the Dimmer Sisters blood mages in a bloody war and when they had both destroyed each other, step in and take over Charhallow. Ambitious little fuckers!
But even with that plan I didn’t think I gave them enough. I hadn’t provided enough moving pieces (or asked enough questions to figure out where those moving pieces were) so instead of seeking out ways to infiltrate the respective leader’s domains, they walked right in to make them an offer (one they had just made up).
As were were limited on time I granted each group (they split up) audiences with the leaders relatively easily and then let them ply their trade. Ulf wanted bodies to replace the ones Frost and Thena had destroyed (they cut them up and dropped them in the river), or as he said it, homes for his friends. The Dimmer Sisters though, they wanted servitude. Branding your chest, working with other thieves from their roster, and injection of their blood to control a man’s humors should they desire (this was a roll of 3 on a Desperate Gamble to convince them, all kinds of bad).
All in all though it looked like their plans were working (of a sort) but after a week of putting this all into motion, and without any small jobs to help pay the bills most of them couldn’t keep up. Thena was thrown back in Irongate for vagrancy but a guard looking to hit his quota. Coil was hankering for some of the good life and was distracted by the lack of all that which shiny and aged 18 years or more. Paying bills is a bitch!
Thoughts on this game
It kind of killed me that it was only in the end (after the first week) that I felt like the gears were really moving. We hoped to get in another session but that’s tough to do at Nerdly. I think if we had, the would have realized their “long con” was going to take some smaller jobs to help fun, and in I could have used their new connections with (the Dimmer Sisters and Ulf) to both offer them opportunities and cause complications (what if they were seen together? what if their new patron was testing them and sending them into a trap?). Also, we could have seen some of the personal agenda’s roll out. I wanted to see Thena get her drinking and wenching on. I wanted to see Frost try to recover those same bodies he got put Irongate for three years for.
I was a bit torn on how to handle the corrupt quartermaster. I had intend to introduce him as someone to give them a small job (sneaking contraband to the soldiers) and take the job or not that would be a window into the war. Without knowing what he was moving though, the group decided it has to be weapons and armor, which it wasn’t at all. They never quite got to the “lets all jack Sgt. Bint’s carriage” stage but I was trying to figure out if I should a) encourage them to learn more about it before they did, b) allow them to knock it over and find things like letters from loved ones, smutty rags, and drugs instead, or c) ret-conned it in my head and have him be moving weapons all along. Wasn’t sure what would be best for the story, but I knew that what I wanted was for the characters to get dirty, have to live in the muck for a bit in order to see how to climb out of it.
I didn’t use guilds because a) I wanted to see the characters start off with nothing and b) because I didn’t want to introduce a new rules set into the game when I was still learning the basics. I’m not sure if doing so might have helped give them some directions, or if it would have felt like another piece to try and figure out where it fits in the fiction and in the mechanics.
Torchbearer in particular has made me very aware that you need to realize where to set the bar when gaming. How heroic are these characters? What is possible in this world. I think the wealth mechanics (rolling at the end of every week) was my best teacher here. You’ve gotta work to stay alive and fed! I’d very much like to play again and depict those pressures as being very alive and present.
Trust in first principles! I think I could have gotten things moving much faster (and smoother) but asking more questions up front. How did you guys get together? Was it in the click? What job did you agree you were going to do when you got out? Which if you notices that Merrul’s fingers are blue when you know perfectly that formaldehyde you smell would dye them yellow? You know, those kinds of questions.
A note on dice pools. I was very liberal letting the players use their national traits (everything Thena did was sharp, etc) because the dice pools seemed very low. We tried a few 0 dice rolls (rolling 2d6 and taking the lowest number) which all went poorly. Net result: I was definately a fan of making tasks doable without rolls, having them roll a Display of Skill whenever it felt like something they should be doable, using Risky Maneuvers when my gut told me it would be tough, and only using Desperate Gambles on the one roll that I thought was insane. My barometer at least.
One cool rule we made up: The first time you draw your blade, you have to describe it. We had some wicked sounding knives!