Tuesday 8 March 2016

The Hat Club Playtest, Part 2

Sorry I didn't get this posted sooner, but it's been... a rough week. Still. we finally got to have a proper first session. And it worked! I mean, look, no matter how watertight your game looks, it's one thing to thrust a rulebook under the nose of your mates... Actually playing it is a different matter.

Remember you can still support the Chariot crowdfunder at http://igg.me/at/ChariotRoleplay

Of my pseudonymous friends, Herbert was poorly and did not come, from an altruistic concern that he might give us all something horrible. This left Enid and Brian.

You'll probably remember that we didn't name the characters last time. Since then, we sorted that out. Enid's Akâshic Nun of Kudra, the Prophet, she's called Elinna.

Brian's Tlavatli Noble, the Charioteer, is Aumec.

By the way, one of the things I've included in the game is a list of names, sourced from things like Cayce, Shaver, and, richest of all, Oahspe (which I'm totally going to have to write about sometime, because oh my, it's one of the strangest and most impenetrable books ever written).

I find name lists really, really useful as a way to give a game an atmosphere (one of the things that got the most props from players of MSG™ – which is currently discounted! Buy it now! – was the simple expedient of harvesting hundreds of fake sender names from my spam folder, because who doesn't want to play an executive called Bronsard Advantage? Cripes, I know I do).

Mind you I've been kind of obsessive about that sort of thing. I did a calendar and everything.

Which is how I know that it came to pass that it was on the Day of Sacrifice of the Holy Week of Incal that a rain of animal blood fell upon the great city of Caiphul, most populous and richest of the cities of the North. I may have miscalculated a little in picking that one from the Catastrophe List, forgetting that in the past, before he moved on to stuff like Sunn and Throbbing Gristle, Brian was a Slayer fan.

Ah well. Suffice to say that watching a man of his age doing air metal guitar is... an uncomfortable experience.

We moved on. The morning after was the day of the Show Trials; the procession of the Lord Governor, the Menocean fusiliers, the assembled crowds. The columned, well-lit streets of Caiphul, still with the metallic stench of blood in the air. Thousands of people in the square, the dais on which the governor stands. The Proclamation of Guilt. Loudspeakers made of living stone -

Brian: So wait, with all the ray guns and lamp posts, is this like a Moorcock novel here?

I read a LOT of Moorcock in my teens and twenties, good, bad and insufferable (really, such an inconsistent writer). So yeah, probably unconsciously, some of his anti-pulp sensitivity has fed into my own aesthetic. The Dancers at the End of Time, by the way, is my single favourite fantasy novel, the one I go back to over and over. Nothing matches it. But I digress.

Loudspeakers of living stone broadcast the names of the fifteen damned - no question of their innocence here, the trials a foregone conclusion - among them rapists, murderers, thieves, fourteen free Atlanteans of all sexes and, peculiarly, one Rmoahal slave woman. Which is weird because you'd normally just kill a slave who did something bad enough to have a show trial.

You make an example like this of someone in a slave caste to make a point.

Speaking of slaves, in the crowd around them Elinna and Aumec realise that an awful lot of Rmoahals, collared and free, are in the crowd around them. Like an awful lot. Like about a third of the crowd. And their mood is ugly.

At this point, Brian and Enid were content to take it in, which is fair enough, although nudging a local and asking what was going on would have been a reasonable thing to do.

But then, the first execution happened: the condemned, chained to a post, the executioner, an Akâshic monk, beheading them by incinerating the skull with a bolt of magical energy, leaving a headless body with a cauterised neck. A second, a third.

It's not supposed to be pretty.

Elinna pulled her hood over her face, rightly guessing that having a member of the same order as the executioner might be a bad thing in a crowd like this.

Remember, she was in no danger here. As the Prophet, no one will raise a hand against her. Likewise, Aumec, as the Invincible Charioteer, will always win a fight.

Aumec suggested they get to the side of the crowd and observe from a vantage point, maybe by a column "because it's all columns and steps, right?"

Fair, I thought.

Aumec wanted to get an idea of what's going on. I don't know, I said, there's a lot of people. it's tricky. But he insisted. So I suggested an Obstacle.

An Obstacle is a thing you use when you don't want to do a full Conflict scene, a thing that's harder than most people should be able to do as a matter of course, and yet which isn't important enough to be a full blown Conflict. It's simple enough. You pick a Suit and an Attribute, add Suit + Attribute and if that's 9 or better, you do it, and if it isn't, you can still do it, but you have to spend a point of the Suit and you're good.

I decided it was either going to be Swords + People or Swords + City; both Aumec and Elinna could do that, no problem, Aumec using People (and understanding the people, he gauged the emotions of the crowd) and Elinna using City (recognising abnormal behaviour).

What interested me – and this may well not play out in the same way with another group – is that while the Prophet of the Lost and the Invincible Charioteer are in literally no danger here, they chose to get to the side and see how this played out rather than intervene. Partly this was, as Brian put it, so that they could get to grips with the setting, partly because they recognised that there would be consequences to using their powers.

So when the Rmoahal girl came up, Kekil, who had been accused of murdering the teenaged girl she was serving, of strangling her, before the execution could happen, the crowd surged forward.

People caught in the middle began to panic, to run, to lash out, to trample people. The Rmoahal slaves began to fight through. The Menocean fusiliers formed a line and opened fire. Hundreds died.

But the Rmoahals overran the High Place. The Menoceans were torn to pieces. The Lord Governor and the slave girl vanished. Aumec and Elinna saw a Rmoahal slave nearby strangling his master with his own leash.

They could at this point have intervened, but something in the flavour of the city, the show trials, the smell of blood, led them to doubt which side to take, if any. Aumec could have leapt into the middle of the fray and ended it, but how quickly would the whole thing turn into a stampede with a whirling engine of death behind it?

So instead they decided to run. This meant that we had a conflict. No one would be directly causing violence, but stampeding crowds, fire and stones in the air and the collapse of order would mean that the chance of accidental danger was pretty high.

I decided that the rioting crows would have the World stat (all Suits at 5, Power 5), and a hand bonus of two. So two cards for Brian, two for Enid, two for the hand bonus and a hand of six cards makes twelve.

Brian and Enid got six cards each, as usual.

OK, I won't go through it round by round because it was last Thursday and I can't really remember but the main thing is that the two players quickly got the rhythm of it. They decided that getting out of the way of the riot was a matter of Swords + City (Swords for wits and finesse, City because of running through city streets).

Playing a trump card, taking a point and another card, getting a point for playing a card in your suit, these all developed a rhythm really quickly. So did playing out what happened with each result; Enid lost her first draw badly, so as they skipped through an inn, a brick sailed through the window and cut Elinna's face. In the third round, Elinna played the High Priestess, which was one of her trumps, so she won. Because though that didn't really affect Aumec, they split up and Aumec played out the rest of the opposition himself, eventually making it back to their lodging a little after Elinna did.

At this point we had a brief time out. This was the first time we did a Conflict.

But what to do? They embraced. And then they decided to sleep on it.

Over the next day, the reprisals begin. The proclamation: by order of the Master of Discipline, Tyburon, Rmoahal slaves will be killed, one hundred every day, until the Governor gets given back. The fabled life-force-lit lamp posts of Caiphul become the gallows for a hundred inverted, headless blue bodies with cauterised necks. They're not complete villains, I hasten to add: they're reimbursing the owners at market rate for the dead slaves. Caiphul is a wealthy city.

Yeah. Look, I'm trying to get a rise out of them. This is wrong. This is brutal. This is a thing that must be stopped.

I believe that some things need to be confronted. If you knew that nothing you did would kill you, that you'd always win a fight or never got into one, and you were faced with an injustice like this, what would you do?

I mean, look. There is literally no point in playing the game as a person out for yourself. If you want to be rich and powerful, fine, you're rich and powerful, no game. You're Oduarpa doing whatever the hell he wants. You're Helio Arcanaphus with his head in the sand. You're a demigod. You want conflict? Look outside.

Elinna and Aumec decided that the best thing to do, at least to begin with, was to get back Cambren.

But where to look?

Elinna suggested that they go to the Akâshic College. Ask there.

So they did. But Elinna is from Kudra in the South, and the Northern priests, they're bit best friends with the Southerners. They need to get an audience, this pirate and this Southerner, Priest or not.

A conflict, then. Harmony + People, to bring the Akâshic Monks round to telling them something useful. Although both Aumec and Elinna are taking part, it's Elinna who's doing most of the talking, so she's the principal actor, which is just a fancy way of saying the Conflict depends on her, and so she's the one who has to win it.

After round one, they get in. Here's the Abbot, and his name is, um.... (I'm checking the name list here) Hasumât!

I take a breath. Do either of you know this guy? Enid says, yeah, I do. He's my old teacher.

Aha! Her King of Pentacles slot is claimed. Everything changes.

In the end, although Aumec actually does spectacularly well, enough to net himself two extra points of Cups, Elinna got dealt the High Priestess again (because you win when you play one of your own Trumps) and on round four Enid plays it and boom, game over. Because she's the principal actor, end of Conflict. To be honest, the stakes changed the moment she realised she knew Hasumât.

So yes! Hasumât brings hot herbal brews and tells everything he can. Kekil was accused of strangling her mistress, the teenaged daughter of... Tyburon, Master of Discipline. Suddenly everything got personal.

And that's where we left it.

Here's how the characters stand at end of play. 

Aumec, Pirate Prince
Culture: Tlavatlis
Social Station: Noble
Fate: Invincible Charioteer
Suits: Cups 6, Pentacles 6, Swords 4, Wands 6
Attributes: Animal 1, Body 5, City 1, Hands 0, Machines 5, People 5, Wilds 0, Will 4, Psychic 0
Magical Techniques: none
Relationships: Page of Cups, Page of Swords, Knight of Wands

Elinna, Nun of the Akâshic College
Culture: Atlantean (Kudra)
Social Station: Priest (Akâshic Nun)
Fate: Prophet of the Lost
Suits: Cups 8, Pentacles 3, Swords 7, Wands 2
Attributes: Animal 2, Body 2, City 3, Hands 3, Machines 0, People 1, Wilds 0, Will 3, Psychic7
Magical Techniques: Nurturing, Withering, Precipitation, Clairvoyance, Projection, Harnessing, Unleashing
Relationships: King of Pentacles (Hasumât, Abbot of Caiphul), Queen of Pentacles, King of Wands