DundraCon – Part 3 (Saturday Night 2/13/2010)

The family showed up during the day so I got to hang out with them in between games. Dinner at Baha Fresh always means fish tacos for me and the tacos did not disappoint. Worried about prep I ditched the wife and kids (4 year olds can be the slowest eaters on the planet when you’re running late) and head back to set up my game.

Actual Play – Flagship Atlantis

GM: Sean Nittner (heya, that’s me)
Players: Daniel, Kevan, Scott, Joshua, J.C. and one other gentlemen I can’t remember the name of (bad Sean)
System: Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies

SPOILER ALERT – If you play to play in this game at KublaCon, Good Omens Con, or SeanCon and want to be surprised, don’t continue. The story is coming out. If you want just the highlights without the story being revealed skip to what rocked/could have been improved.

SANITY ALERT – This AP report is a mess. It’s one part story, one part mechanics, one part personal reflection, one part crack smoking. It’s gotten horribly long as I both detail everything in the game and then reflect on how it could be better. Sometimes I’m speaking in GM voice as I would to the players, other times as storyteller crafting my narratives, other times as a game monkey discussing my designs and finally as a editor, critiquing the voices above. I thought about breaking it up but frankly don’t have the energy. So, if you have the endurance to slog through it, be my guest. Otherwise skip to the “what rocked/what could have been better” category as it is at least concise.

Here’s the teaser for the game:

The back cover of this book: ‘Skyships. Pirates. Musketeers. Fencing. Intrigue. Mysticism. Adventure!’ Rock!

You don’t always get to choose your friends, but this wayward crew is all you’ve got. The first mate scares you, the captain even more so because he’s either stupid or insane. The sky’s most reviled lord has a cabin next door, just pray his curse isn’t contagious. A young couple has joined you as well, for some pleasure sailing of course, which is why they accepted a charter into the darkest skies you’ve ever seen. And then there is you, yeah, you’re one of them!

Differences aside, you’ve banded together in search of a treasure the world has forgotten. Some call you foolish, the ship was destroyed years ago. Others insane, it is cursed. Your will, however, is undaunted. Captain, set in a course for Flagship Atlantis!

A Good Omens Production.

That was my web description of the game and it really had nothing to do with the plot at all. The situation is this:

The Viridese are a warrior nation who have used the banner of “ending piracy” to police the known skyways. With a horrible plague that only gets worse since the Tree of Life was corrupted, they use fear and martial power to cow the other islands and monitor traffic between them. The Viridese could use their superior strength for good, but instead they are tyrants, oppressing the free people of the Seven Skies.

In this dismal hour however, hope has appeared on the horizon. The legendary Flagship Atlantis, that disappeared 10 years ago, has been spotted. Now, treasure hunters of all stripes seek her out. She represents a thorn in Viridia’s side though, so the Viridese have declared anyone seeking her a pirate, as they hold the lawful claim to the ship.

The story begins with six brave adventurers, who will brave a deadly disease, treasure hunters and Viridese Warmasters to see the prize.


Before the story proper starts, the players go through some exercises to make the characters (and the story) feel more their own. We start with each character pulling the previous one out of a tight spot.

Out of the Frying Pan…

The scene starts as the crew is about to land in Crail and they recount how they barely made it out of the last port they fled from. Conveniently every time I’ve done this Katya (The Viridese outlaw) has been on my left, but I’d start with her regardless.

I tell Katya that she’s been spotted the Viridese and moving to capture her in one manner or others (my favorite is a mirror of the scene in Ladyhawke when Marquet catches the Mouse just as he thinks his wriggled free of Aquila’s grasp). Then Katya picks some relevant forte and rolls against a TN of 9, with the caveat that success or failure she needs to end her narration in trouble that only the character on her left can help her with. Play continues around the table, with each player fending off (or not) the various hazards the player before them planted. When the last player has gone, I then frame one more challenge where Katya must come to their aid, and I simply have Katya narrate her success, thereby closing the loop and ensuring that the last challenge as they slip away isn’t failed.

This step does a couple of neat things. Most obviously it puts everyone in each other’s debt, as each person save the one on their left. It also inevitably leads to hopping on a boat and sailing away in a hurry, which is great given the context of a flashback while skysailing. Mechanically it allows me to introduce things slowly and scale the challenge accordingly. To the first player I just tell them to roll and add a Forte versus TN 9. To the second player, I tell them about Style Dice and have them roll against TN 11. The next player, I tell them they can use multiple forte if they are appropriate and have them roll at TN 13. I keep the TN 13 for the rest of the rolls (that’s high enough) but introduce techniques and helping each other out as we go. I also generously award style dice to encourage fast, decisive and of course, stylish, action.

A superstitious lot aren’t you

This is probably my favorite part of the game. Creating superstitions. I pass a dagger around the table and everyone takes turns holding the dagger and proposing a superstition. The group either ratifies it or denies it with a simple vote. In proper Ilwuz fashion the sailor carrying a naked blade gets two votes which breaks ties. If ratified I write down the superstation and tell people it is common in the Seven Skies to believe that. If rejected, I tell the player who suggested it to write it down on their character sheet as ephemera, a superstition that they hold but most others don’t. They get to treat it just like any forte and if they get enough training points to make it real in the game it will become a commonly held belief.

We’re on a ship. Does she have a name?

Usually sometime during all of this someone has asked the name of the ship they are on, which I tell them we’ll find out. Now they get the answer. I made a ship character sheet that I pass around the table, starting with the captain. Each character gets to pick either the ships name, the flags she sails, one of her fortes (total of three, starting at [+0] Average, if two people pick the same forte it bumps up to [+2] Good), or her foible.

Here’s the sheet: http://goodomensgames.com/images/ShipCharacterSheet.pdf

This is more fun times, though a little trickier. I can tell that the pressure is on to think of stuff other people with think is cool. My suggestion, based on the first time I play-tested the game, is “You could always make her pink.” That usually gets some groans as well as laughs as I explain how the Redstone on her hull might not have mixed well. While fun, if I’m cutting things short (and I will be, the game runs too long), this is probably part that I’ll cut out as it is easy enough for me to make the ship in advance.

Act 1 – Viridia wants you in Chains

The set up for this act is that the characters have all just landed in Crail in search of leads to find the Flagship Atlantis, but it’s not easy. There are constant complications which must be overcome, leads to be dug up, and of course the Viridese making everything more difficult.

To facilitate this I have three custom decks:

Virdia wants you in chains. A sorted deck that demonstrates how active the Viridese are, and how difficult they are making your success. Play proceeds round robin, starting with me and on each of my turns I reveal one of these cards:

  • Viridia in the Sky: The Viridian skyships hover outside the cloud “patrolling” all traffic. You feel safe, for now. TN Mod: +0
  • Boots on the Ground: The Warmasters have docked and sent skilled scouts to report on their findings. Everyone is watching their backs. TN Mod: +2
  • In your Business: Can you trust your contact doesn’t work for the Viridese? Cargo is inspected. Their grip tightens. TN Mod: +2
  • In your Home: “We’re looking for a woman who bears the sword tattoo. She travels with the most unusual crew. Our gold is as good as our swords!” TN Mod: +4
  • Hunted like an animal: The doors have been kicked down. There is no safe harbor. Run. If you want freedom, run like you never have! TN Mod: +6

Viridia Deck
During the players turns, two other decks have cards flipped: leads and complications.

The Leads deck was created in a panic and I ended up loving the idea so I kept it. Leads represent the clues the character put together to find the Flagship. They need to collect 10 leads (in a six player game, scales down with fewer players) in order to gain the victory condition in Act 1. The deck I used for this is the Story Cards from http://storycardsrpg.com. These are really awesome cards because they are so evocative. Here’s an example:

Each turn, as long as there are less than three lead cards revealed I flip one over. The player may opt to peruse this lead by using the card for inspiration to frame a scene where there character discovers a meaningful clue. I’ve found that players are great a creating lost maps, encoded messages, drunken wise men and the lot, each time getting themselves a little closer to Atlantis. Difficulty to do this is TN 11, but goes up based on the Viridese presence and some other complications.

There are also leads amongst the characters themselves. Four of the six characters have secrets that are very cool and I’m always dying to see them revealed. So, to make this mechanically advantageous, I give each of those characters a relevant story card which they keep in front of their character face down. Instead of persuing a lead from the deck, a character may try to find out someone’s secret by making some kind of opposed roll. If they win, the card is flipped over (counting as a lead), the secret holder reveals the secret to the players and that character (or all of them at their discretion) and the secret holder gains a style die (because having secret knowledge that other people want and that helps the mission is stylish).

The Complications deck is made up of everything that goes bump in the night, from disease spreading, duels cropping up, informants in the ranks, or rival treasure hunters. Like leads I reveal one of these a turn (as long as there are fewer than three) and they affect the game in some way. Mostly these cards make things harder, a few however represent opportunities. In addition to the 10 leads required, 8 complications must be overcome before they can find the Atlantis.

Here are a few examples:

Treasure Hunters: You’re not the only one seeking Atlantis. At the start of every turn if this has a style die on it, remove the die and steal one of the revealed leads, otherwise add a style die. TN: 9 (Dangerous: One failure rank if failed)

The Fireborn Spreads: As the disease spreads so does fear. Every roll requires a style die while this card is in play. TN: 11
Dread Pirate Radu Revealed! Whispers of the dread pirate returning are abounding. Capture this card to throw the Viridese off your track and ignore their penalty on one roll (made by anyone) TN: 9 (Dangerous: One failure rank if failed)

A damsel in distress: If Viztor’s turn starts with this card in play, he may only play up his Kind-Hearted Romantic foible, but does not receive a vexing misfortune (3 style dice) TN: 13 (TN: 9 with Viztor’s aid)

There is a final piece of this puzzle that is designed as a recovery and exposition mechanic. Three cards labeled “Vexing Misfortunes” are set out, each with three style dice stacked on them. During their turn, rather than pursue the Atlantis, a player may opt to play out one of their foibles, and play it out to the hilt, really causing their character some trouble but at the same time letting the other players know what their character is all about.

During each players turn they pick go after a lead/secret, complication, or a vexing misfortune. We frame a scene, roll once based on the TN provided on the card, an apposed roll against another player or TN 11 for a lead. As the Viridia deck advances all of these go up except the opposed rolls against the other players. The victory condition is discovering 10 leads and resolving 8 complications before I flip over the last Viridia card. Success means they found the Flagship first, failure means they were caught along the way.

This act is a lot of fun, but tends to run longer than I’d like and has less tension than I wanted. Also I noticed that only a very few cases did players fail rolls. Between using multiple fortes, getting help from each other, techniques and the large supplies of style dice that I hand out, success was rarely a question, it was just a matter of resource management regarding the style dice. For the most part I’m fine with this level of pulp adventure where the heroes kick butt all over the place, but I’m looking at ways to make it more challenging (see the What could be improved below).

Act 2

Ship to Ship Swashbuckling

Act 2 starts either as they have spotted the Flagship Atlantis and must fight off the Viridese Warmasters as they take her or inside captivity, where they must break out to with their freedom. So far, in the play-test and when I ran the game, the heroes have always won in Act 1 and I’ve never tested out the break out scenario. Assuming they were victorious in Act 1, however, Act 2 starts with the Flagship in sight and the only thing between her and freedom is a Viridese Warmaster.

For this I use a Vehicle Duel, with a few special rules (go figure). First off the duel has a timer. In the distance one sail is seen, then another, and another. The Viridese fleet is not far off, after the second round of combat the fleet will be on top of them and they have to flee… into the only place they can go that no-one else can follow. The Sky of Fire! The other tweak to this duel is that it’s really not about destroying the enemy’s ship, that is more or less inconsequential once the Atlantis is captured. What is significant however, are the character’s personal motivations. Several of them (including a lady love, a chance at redemption, the target of revenge, etc) are in the fight, and the heroes have a chance to resolve them.

The timer keeps this battle short (necessary as dueling in S7S can be rather extensive) and puts the captain in a difficult situation of where to allocate his vehicle dice because he’ll never have enough to form a good vehicle roll and give all the other crew opportunities to fulfill their goals.

After round two finishes, goals complete or not, the Fleet arrives and it’s time to set sail! This part of the game still feels rather contrived. Essentially I box them into a situation where the only choice is to point at the Sky of Fire and pray. I’m going for the tension you feel in the BSG board game of PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE let us jump before the cylons blow the hell out of us. Or the scene in the Lost in Space movie, where they get control of the ship and realized they are flying into the sun. Hmm… see the “what could have been improved” section for more thoughts on this.

Crash Landing

This part of the game is beautiful, if only because of my lovely wife. Flagship Atlantis sets sail into the sky of fire, plummeting blindly forward as the sails stitched with redstone thread are filled by winds of flame, until suddenly they break free of a of the sky of fire into a cloud and see an see the small island of Telanram… and it’s getting very close, very fast! The crash, however does marginal damage, nothing that can’t be repaired.

The world, however, is alien and bizarre. A red sky burns the cloud above, the land looks hostile and barren and yet strange mushrooms grow within cracks and crevices in the ground. The air carries a sulfuric smell that beings to make most of the crew ill, with the exception of the Jailor, who is cursed to never taste again.

This is where the second mini game come into play. My wife made a beautiful and not at all to scale map with four regions. Each region has the space for three cards, which are placed face down and look like this:

Beautiful, no?

The mechanics of this game are simple, the players start at the crash landing site: Outside and Alone. Borrowing from the Gumshoe system, each player must only narrate there character investigation a certain area where they have a Forte that is relevant. This insures that Forte’s like Scholar and Priest will come into play, but more importantly, it changes the tone and tempo of the game. We’ve just gone from crazy ship to ship battle and now there is a sudden calmness. Time seems to freeze as they travel, slowly exploring this new world. To reflect that the exploration mechanic is intentionally light. The scene isn’t about conflict, it’s about wonderment, so they just look at a card and say, I’ll use my skill with Alchemy, or my knowledge of different cultures to investigate.

After the first three cards from “Outside and Alone” are revealed they have found the native inhabitants and two new regions open up: “Welcome to Telenram” and “Alien Culture”. The former being a small village on the outskirts that invites them in and shows hospitality, the second being a larger city, comprised mostly of the Vosk’s slaves. When both of these regions are explored, the final area, a crater with a Viridese style castle is labeled “Challenge the Throne”. Here they meet Vosk, the insane Viridese captain, gifted by the Dragon and infected with Fireborn (which, spoiler again, they discover was picked up by the Viridese years ago when they crash landed but is a non-lethal disease to the Fireborn, much like chicken pox was to the Spanish). He’s gone totally mad but his happy to share his story with them and easy to depose once they show the Zharem that his gift of the Dragon is not to be feared.

It is here were all mysteries (or most mysteries) are resolved. The origin of Fireborn. Why the Viridese hate people with the disease so much. Where Flagship Atlatis came from and why it is cursed. Finally, and most importantly, how to cure the disease. All, without rolling dice or facing conflicts. It’s bizarre, but I love it, because it find it very rare that players in RPGs have a major change of mindset, and it’s my hope that this act does just that. In play, I think I succeeded but it is very hard to know for sure. We ran late so by the time all of this was being revealed I was wrapping up. It was after midnight as most everyone had already been fading. What I can say for sure was there was some major character development on the part of the two characters most tied to the disease: the Jailor and Zhava. This made me quite happy!

Act 3

The Triumphant Return.

We ended the game 10 minutes late, something I try VERY hard not to do. What this meant however, was the players narrating their own personal victories after returning to the Seven Skies (or six as it were). Unfinished motivations were addressed and the question of who really got to captain the Atlantis was left unanswered, which was awesome.

My plan for Act 3 was a set of individual duels, one of wits, one of banter, another of blades, etc, to accomplish the goals above, but, in view of the how long the dueling took in Act 2, I think this will have to be reworked as well.

What rocked

The later we go in act one the more pressure there is to reveal secrets rather than follow up on leads. This meant that secrets become valuable commodities and all got revealed. I was REALLY happy about this.

The flow of Act 1 was great. The players kept building on each other, following up one lead with another. There was a letter but it was encrypted, which of course led to a man who needed to be interrogated to find the cipher, which lead to a riddle… All of this invented by the players. Why? Because all of us like following the breadcrumbs, we like it even more when we can control where they go.

Style dice were flying around the table like mad. We had some excellent role-playing moments from all of the players and people frankly doing awesome things (like dispatching bandits while presenting flowers to your lady love).

Smoke and mirrors. As you can probably tell if you’ve read this far (or if you just read the improvements necessary below) this game may be FRIGGIN AWESOME when it’s done, but it isn’t finished yet. There are still lots of places that need work. Despite that, everyone seemed to have a great time. The setting was very rich and gave the players plenty of material to work with and they sculpted some beautiful scenes out of it. So far this game has been run three times and despite being work in progress every time, it’s come off very well.

What could have been improved

Give Katya two people to hate. The one who actually killed her lover and the one that gave the order. Let her kill one of them in act 2 the other in act 3. This may not be relevant if the fight in Act 2 is not with the Viridese.

Give Paulos someone who harries him and reminds him of his curse (A priest of Vaoz maybe).

Act 1 is too slow. To fix that I’m going to shrink the Viridia deck down to four cards (instead of five) and leave out the extra +2. I’ll reduce the number of Leads and Complications they must find accordingly. Also some scenes took a lot time because of the aiding mechanic (see below).

Act 1 is too easy. Very few rolls were failed in any of the games. The ruling I used was that to get help from another character you had to give them a style die. This, the players quickly figured out, was very advantageous as it kept style dice in the player pool and generally a better expenditure than using the style die as the helping hand would add at least a [+2] Good to the roll. I’m going to look over the helping mechanics in the book but most likely either increase the style die cost (one to the other player and one to the bowl perhaps) or set a maximum of two Forte that can be used (either both from one character or one from each) on any roll.

Act 1 is also too predictable. The players know when they will get caught and there is little doubt at the rate they will acquire leads and complications. I don’t want to make it much “harder” as I already drain a fair number of style dice from their coffers during that act and simply adding to the TN would just make then act more stressful. What I would like instead is to make Viridia deck advancement more random. My thought right now is to create complications that appear, advance the deck and then disappear. Those cards, like epidemics in Pandemic would be “semi” sorted into the complication deck. The only problem I have with this is that players know if they just leave the three complications standing it will freeze the advancement of the Viridia deck as well. I think I need to make complications more fluid, so that they go on a track and get pushed off if another card would come into play, liked the Old World cards in Chaos in the Old World.

I always forget at the beginning of Act 1 to tell people they can narrate travel always from Crail. They can venture in the other cities, skies and islands in search of the Flagship. As soon as I mention it I start seeing motion, but I just need to remember to do it early on.

The start of Act 2 (the vehicle duel) is problematic. I want fast paced action and tension and it feels like a lot of “what is going on here” moments pop up where we spend more time trying to figure out if something ears or costs a vehicle die than we do describing the action. Like Pandemic, I love the Battlestar Galatica board game for the escalating tension that occurs after every players turn from the crisis deck as they scramble to get ready to jump. I think I’m going to rework the start of the Act to start with the players aboard the Atlantis and beginning to investigate it. We’ll have a little down time on the ship itself. Based on the character backgrounds the players all have reason to believe the ship is something magical and they seemed eager to inspect it during the game, so we’ll do a little of that. Let them play the bizarre instrumentation, commune with the Thunderbird that curses it, and of course, find the skeletal bodies of the mutinous crew that went mad the last time it was captained. We might even get some fun internal conflicts as they argue over the ship. Once it seems like the heroes are either a) bored, b) ready to set sail, or c) at each other’s throats, I can introduce the fleet. Then it becomes a scramble to get her ready to sail. I’ll use a track system, like Justin’s extended challenges, tasks that need to be completed before she can set sail, and make sure to pepper those with personal motives which will give the characters choices of following their personal goals or helping the group. All right, a reworking of the first part of Act 2 it is!

In the second part of Act 2, I read the cards when they were revealed. I’ll have the players do it next time instead. Give them a little more authorship and allow them to frame the discovery themselves.


    • Sweet. I’m glad you liked it. I was a little scared your reaction would be “What have you done to my baby?!?”

  1. Good god man.

    Anyway, I’ll slog through the rest…later.

    As to act 1 being easy: This is a GOOD thing, IMO. S7S is a fairly unknown system and giving players leeway to explore the game at their own pace in act one with little fear of failing makes it a very accessible game. Combine that with making it harder later, and I think it’s awesome.

    • Yeah, that is a good point. Act 1 should feel easy on the players. The trouble is that the narrative I’ve framed is that they will be captured. Perhaps the lose condition should change to instead of being captured either the Viridese get Atlantis and will publicly blow her to bits (thus the start of alternate Act 2 would be liberating her from them) or that Treasure Hunters get a hold of the ship (thus Act 2 would start with some good old fashion piracy).

      If I do either of those, I can make Act 1 be more light hearted in the narrative as well as keeping the “easy” mechanics.

  2. That sounds like a great game, and a great use for StoryCards! I was listening to your podcast on the way home yesterday, and I sure wasn’t expecting my own game to come up! Thanks for the compliments, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the cards.

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