Wednesday 31 August 2016

Chariot: Actually Running the Thing

 (A guest post today by my friend Tim Groth. Tim has been one of Chariot's most enthusiastic supporters and cheerleaders and his account of running it was so fascinating that I asked to post it here. With his story of magickal AI and hijacked Atlantean propaganda, I think Tim completely gets the sort of atmosphere I wanted the game to have. And I think his game had heart, and heart is sorely what this sort of pastime needs.

You can find links to the various outlets that stock Chariot here.

Tim's words start after the cut.)

 Due to some scheduling things, my in-person group's plans for starting up a new leg of our extended Burning Wheel campaign were derailed. Enter Chariot, which I've been talking up to them and wanting to actually run. Everyone got on board and so we made characters and went through a first session last night.

We did char gen with Fates drawn from the deck instead of selected. The players made a Rmoahal Proletarian who had been a slave (Kwit), an Atlantean Proletarian (Nonyx), and a Tlavatli Priest (Hesham). They drew the Judge, the Charioteer, and the Magician respectively. These plus the initial Relationship slots really shaped the way things worked.

Because I wasn't sure (and still am not) how long the game will go for, I wanted to start with one of the catastrophes*. Also given the dream logic of the game, I went with something that had lodged in my brain sometime during the day leading up to playing. The three Fated** are in Keriophis, the White Sun capital of Atlantis. They are dining on a cafe balcony, a giant circle of glass overseeing the city's harbor. Around them are imperial and city army officers, who are managing at a distance the soldiers far below that are taking Rmoahal refugees and slaves into a vast procession of Rmoahals and bringing them all to slave intake centres.

Something, however, goes wrong. There's a ripple through the crowd back from the intake centres to the harbour, and that ripple becomes a wave of Rmoahal's crashing into the far too few soldiers overseeing the process. A riot is breaking out in the capital, literally under the watch of numerous high ranking officers. There's panic on the balcony.***

In the midst of this, an imperial general notices the Rmoahal PC and asks him what's happening / accuses him of being involved. While the general is a fine example of Atlantean noble genetic engineering he lacks real world experience and is easily persuaded into fleeing for safety in the panic. The PCs head down to ground level to prevent things from going poorly for the Rmoahal rioters.

When they get down there, a high ranking imperial army officer is taking control of the situation, and she is marshalling the city and imperial soldiers to quell the riot. All three PCs stand in opposition to her****. Vera, the officer, is looking to use brute force and superior fire power to control the situation so used Wands+Machines. Hesham was talking her down / distracting her using Swords+People, Kwit was using Cups+People to organize the rioters, and Nonyx was using Wands+Body to disrupt the efforts of soldiers—as the Charioteer he'd instantly win if Vera's forces engaged him in battle, but they were instead attempting to get into position and he was sabotaging that not trying to fight him.

In the first round of the conflict, Vera threatens them with imprisonment if they don't stop interfering, while Kwit gets the rioters attention and Nonyx clothes lines one of the soldiers driving a levitating canon platform. Nonyx's player uses the relationship mechanics to declare one of the random army workers in the background an old comrade of his—making him a former army labourer as well. The soldier, Hwun, tosses him some ear plugs and warns him that they are deploying sound cannons set to maximum intensity. Additionally, Hesham's player declares Vera his Queen of Swords—a deeply personal enemy. They recognize one another, and she starts really laying into him. The conflict proceeds back and forth for another round or two of arguing (mostly Vera hurling insults and threats, and him taking them graciously as Kwit starts directing the rioters into the sewers for safety). Eventually Vera snaps (because I dropped a major arcana card and could pivot her stakes), and she jumps on Hesham switching to Wands+Body to try and arrest him. This proves to be irrelevant as he has one of his trump cards, which ends the conflict in a glorious display of light that blinds the soldiers and allows the rioters to escape unharmed. Luckily, before that Hesham's player dropped the Queen of Swords in the conflict and thus Vera is invoked in the next scene.

Having come off a Burning Wheel jag, where logistics is crucial and drives everything, it was a wild swing to the dream logic transitions of Chariot. But felt really great as a contrast. We moved directly to that evening, with Vera leading patrols of paddy wagons to roust up dissidents. There was a precision assault Sky Chariot circling over the city. With Vera was a Priest-Eugenicist to help prevent magic from defeating them again. This was entirely futile as the Magician's magic can only be resisted by another of the Fated.

Regardless the cards were dealt out and the players decided what they were doing. Hesham decided to use a simple illusion to appear to be the general that got shamed into hiding, and to wait in the open for Vera. Nonyx watched from a nearby doorway as backup, while Kwit was teaching poetry and revolutionary theory to his fellows (including his newly assigned relationship of Ako) in the bar whose doorway Nonyx was lurking in.

Vera comes across who she thinks is the general, who orders her to stand down, she says that it is impossible to simply stop now that everything is out in force. Nonyx declares the priest-eugenicist—Tiberon—to be his Queen of Swords. Tiberon oversaw the genetically engineered family line that Nonyx descends from, and was intimately involved in undisclosed past traumas related thereto. While Vera is arguing with "the general" for control of the situation, Nonyx grabs Tiberon and begins to take out frustrations on him. Kwit decides it is a good time to bait the Atlanteans into making fools of themselves. This is two concurrent conflicts of Vera against Hesham and Kwit, and Tiberon against Nonyx. Again, Nonyx can't simply win because Tiberon decides to turtle and simply endure the violence. Once Nonyx throws him into the bar where Kwit is, Kwit and his fellows throw a bar table back out at the Atlantean soldiers approaching the place. Nonyx drags in other proles to start making an example of the pale, priest with theoretically impenetrable skin.

While a bunch of drunk, angry Atlantean workers stomp on the priest, Vera and who she thinks is the general argue over the right course of action. He says she's guilty of insubordination, while she says that he's defying the implicit if not explicit will of the God-Emperor and at this point only the God-Emperor is going to make her stand down. All the while she's arguing this with him, she's trying to get her troops to escalate from rousting potential dissidents to simply eliminating all the free Rmoahal in the city and anyone too close to them. Kwit is trying to get them to stand down, but as much as his words move the Atlantean soldiers they don't see any option but to follow orders or be on the chopping block themselves.

After all manner of curb stomping, Nonyx leans over Tiberon and changes tactics (having played a major arcana card), he promises that it can stop if he gets access to his and his family's genetic code that has been tampered with. Or the priest can be torn apart by an angry mob. Although there is some dithering, in the end the priest surrenders his key to the Cathedral-Labratory where the code can be found.

Vera also changes tactics around this time. Entirely done with the bullshit with the general, she tackles him, screaming "Order the ground to stop hitting you!" while smashing his face into the street over and over again. Hesham as the general grabs for the projection stone she's using to communicate to the troops to override her orders, while Kwit leads his fellows in stopping the deployment of nerve gas in the area. In the end, Kwit demonstrates the inherent injustice of the situation to not just the local soldiers but all those being communicated with because Hesham has gotten a hold of the communicator. He has also recognized Vera as his former owner, which adds to the satisfaction of Vera being dragged away by military police and losing it when Hesham allows her to see for a moment that it is him and not the general she was arguing with.

We cut to not long after, the White Sun Emperor is back in the city and projecting a message to the citizens that everything is fine, that normal police action had happened the night before and that nothing should be considered amiss. From the audience chamber of the Cathedral-Laboratory, however, Hesham and Kwit try to hijack the projection. Although usually such a spell would simply succeed, the Emperor is one of the Fated and so can stay on message and broadcasting until the players win the conflict. Kwit is acting as a second and look out while Hesham pits the power of his ancestors against the technomagic of Atlantis. Nonyx is meanwhile exploring the Cathedral-Laboratory, using his limited magical gifts of clairvoyance to get the key to reveal what he is looking for. As the other two frustrate the God-Emperor, he and one of the proles from the night before who helped stomp Tiberon burst into the genebank of the Cathedral-Laboratory, steal the physical samples, and attempt to eliminate the family's geneline from the memory crystals. The AI running the Cathedral-Laboratory is helpful, but refuses to allow a non-priest to enact such a command.

The Emperor starts off looking for the annoying attempt to alter his message, but when that proves fruitless tries to simply crush the opposing will with his own. Hesham invokes the first builder of city walls while Kwit uses the means that his family used to avoid the scrying of overseers to keep out of sight and to resist the will of the Emperor, until Hesham plays his trump and seizes full control, creating a message that indicates the God-Emperor intends there to be no nobles and no slaves, and all should call each other citizen. A major embarrassment to be dealt with at a later time.

The recalcitrant AI gives the players the most trouble of the night, as it had a ton of pentacle points to simply resist and I had a lot of pentacle cards. Turning off the AI with magic triggered the technician to show up, whom Nonyx made his cousin and rival, Ryx. A harried data-priestess, she is able to resist the pummeling and start locking him out before she is transformed into an animal simply for the sake of expedience. Frustrated over the whole process, Nonyx doesn't just wipe out his data cleanly, but wrecks all the memory crystals and stabs the core of the AI's memory. It gives a final apologetic alert that it no longer functions and that all of its data is gone, before everything automated in the Cathedral-Labratory goes down. Attempts to stop the Fated escaping are meaningless, as engaging the Charioteer in combat to attempt to defeat him is doomed to failure.

All in all it was very amusing and the players zoomed in on a desire to actually do something good before the unavoidable end. The Magician's player is the most torn up about that element, as he fully commits to settings he agrees to play and also always wants to achieve something via the rules. Thus he's keenly on the lookout for something awful to excise from the world so that it doesn't continue into the future of humanity, which dovetails nicely with his people, station, and Fate.

The relationships and the way that you see your cards before the conflicts start shaped a lot of play and the PCs. Little details emerged as a result of desiring to fill up those open relationship slots, and the way that conflicts pivot on a major arcana drop did things like defining Vera's temper and pivoting the action against Tiberon from raw revenge to something with larger implications.

In future sessions I'm going to up the power of the opposition a lot, given the PCs can't die and that when they act in concert they're so damn hard to deal with. For a first session though, I think it was about the right level as it let them feel out what was possible and score some good set-up type wins. There are a mass of technically free but not legally free individuals just outside the city now. The policing actions have to have a different face for the time being, and the White Sun emperor needs to run damage control. It feels like things are setup to bring in those who would want to make overtures to the PCs to pitch all that weight toward their side.

Also as the only catastrophes invoked so far are around social issues, there's plenty of physical events to bring to bear, which will be nice escalation drivers as well as tying into the Judge's doom.

As a last bit, the players really got into it. They enjoyed the system and the idea of it being a past life, allowing for sagas to be run with characters reincarnating with the same Fates but different social stations over time, and things like that. It definitely felt like the mechanics brought about things that wouldn't have happened otherwise, which is all any of us really ask out of game mechanics.

*Chariot has a three stage list of catastrophic events leading up to the end of the Atlantean era and the twin continents sinking below the waves.

** PCs and certain NPCs are Fated to witness and shape the end of Atlantis, only dying in the final disaster. Collectively they are the Fated.

*** I flubbed up here and should have had this point be the start of the scene, dealt out cards, and prepared for the Conflict mechanics to be engaged. However, I didn't do that until after the PCs got down to the street. It all worked out as framing and for the session as a whole.

**** This should have made her play a lot more cards in the Conflict than she did, but it ended up being a moot point.