I talked about fast hacks in my last two posts, now let's talk about what comes next. In the past I would have tweaked, edited, and likely put my hacks away in a drawer. Jason Morningstar stated a thread on this on the Gauntlet Forums recently. I have lots of games that rightfully never saw the light of day (Rolemaster FFT, True20 Wuxia, Steampunk Evangelion, etc). But with online gaming spaces I can try games out—literally as a playtest. Playing to test if the game functions.
In these plays I don't look for feedback so much as ear-drum rupturing distortion. Are there places where the game doesn’t work at all? If not, we keep going. We hit difficult passages, we keeping playing through. I’ll get that in post. I try to be clear about the state of the game to the players and what I expect from them: play and a chance to decompress about it at the end.
I’ve put several things through their paces online. Crowsmantle, for example, I consider a noble failure. It taught me about PbtA and I love the core concept. But I know to make that stronger, I’d have to do some serious, non-lazy hack work. Another game I’ve iterated a couple of times online and at conventions is Magic Inc. It has legs, but after several plays, I suspect Fate isn’t the best option. But my other Fate hack, Reign of Crows, while not perfect, ended up being kind of awesome. At first I thought SCUP and Legacy: Life Among the Ruins would cover that ground, but they’re adjacent. On the other hand my zombie supers reskin didn’t work as I wanted. I’ve run a lot of Masks: A New Generation since then, and I think I could tweak it to work.
Today I want to present a game I cobbled together desperately over a few weeks before we sat down to play it: Changeling the Lost PbtA. My original version unabashedly hacked Urban Shadows. I ran four sessions of that in mid 2017. It worked—not perfectly—but it clicked along and we got a solid story. Afterwards I took what we'd seen and retooled the game for another try in early 2018. Since then I've run a dozen and a half sessions over three campaigns. More importantly, Tyler has run it a bunch and given me insight about how it went at his table.
You can see the earliest version here.
A great deal has changed since that. The biggest shift came in moving away from the original stat arrays to The Veil’s emotional states. It makes sense given how Changeling the Lost connects to feelings; each Seasonal Court represents a strong emotion. I revised it to stats based on the four Courts, plus two associated with humanity (Calm) and Arcadia’s dark temptation (Power). Originally I used The Veil’s idea of spiked out emotions, but later made that a damage system—with harm represented by marking stats so you can’t roll them. But this week I made more tweaks.
Here's the most recent version.
Originally I had relationship questions connected to Debts. That Urban Shadows mechanic has weight in a Changeling setting. CtL includes ideas and mechanics surrounding promises and pacts. But in Urban Shadows, actions generate debts, not intent. But the fae need contracts. So in CtL PbtA you can only establish a debt if you’ve made an offer which has been accepted.
In play debt mechanics fell to the back. Players invoked them from time to time, but mostly they acted as flags for the fiction. So I shifted those relationships into triangular Entanglements, a mechanic which worked in Hearts of Wulin. These connect characters, drive the story, and act as an XP source. Debts remain as several moves key off of them. The most recent version gives PCs a standard entanglement, a romantic one, a debt they owe, and a debt they’re owed.
Simplifying relationships meant I had to cut one of my favorite bits, Rivals. I put it off until today. Originally each character also had a rival, someone they hated in the Freehold. I built cool custom lists for each playbook with names and reasons. But in play rivals rarely came up. Entanglements had energy, and they crowded out rivals.
Originally I borrowed the idea of conditions from Masks: A New Generation. I had it worked out nicely. Each Seeming had a unique condition they had trouble clearing, like Ogres had a harder time not being angry. Each condition affected two moves and I had a distinct harm track for physical damage.
But when I shifted to emotional states as stats, conditions became superfluous. Weirdly I kept the term. When you marked a stat, you “took a condition.” I had some color text on the character sheet about what that looked like. In play that never really mattered. Players played from what made sense rather than checking how a condition changed their outlook. So I cut that and the extra harm mechanics.
That had some ramifications in the design. Many of the moves I’d hacked from had drawn on the idea of harm, armor, AP, etc. Cutting that required changing lots of moves. I had to find new and interesting ways for combat-focused characters like Beasts to be effective.
Over time we’ve reduced the total number of moves, removing many and adding a few in. Originally we had persuasion and manipulation moves. But Patrick Knowles realized those all covered creating a change in a target. So we rolled all of that into the Conflict move and increased the options there. It makes all conflicts parallel and adds new wrinkles. Of course that created move ripples.
But we didn't only cut. One Urban Shadows element I’d left out was Put a Name to a Face. We’d been trimming US elements, but we needed something for interesting and flexible NPC connections. We also added Inner Turmoil as a means of putting pressure on entanglements and relationships. More and more I’d come to realize I ran CtL as a melodrama, so we needed a move to reinforce that.
Perhaps the biggest change came in consolidating the information moves. Read a Sitch and Pierce the Mask became Study. Rather than a list of questions players could ask, I left these open. I also added the option to declare a detail, something which generates great stories in Hearts of Wulin. I debated about this for a long time—not having set questions removes a way of reinforcing setting feel and puts the heavy lifting on the players.
Doing that also constricts the design space. I’m less fond of certain playbook moves, like those that let you substitute stat X for Y, ask a new question, or just give a stat raise. Sure they’re useful, but they’re also less interesting. Question-based moves also suggest these are things others can’t learn about a situation. So I shifted info gathering playbook moves to complement Study (giving additional hold for certain situations or a question they can always ask in addition to their hold) or offering a set of specific questions, but with a better hold payout for success.
Left in the Hedge
I’m really happy with Changeling the Lost PbtA as it stands right now. But I also realize it isn’t a full Changeling the Lost adaptation. Today I cut out the lovely Motley and Trust mechanics I’d built because while they adapted the original, no one engaged with them. They got in the way. I’d originally worked out many ideas about Contracts and Catches, but ended up abstracting all that. Other elements like Changeling the Lost's rich list of powers, pledge bindings, granular Clarity, token items, Goblin Contracts, Entitlements, Fetches, etc fell away as well. They still exist in the fiction and story, but they’re not in the mechanics. Some of that I expected to drop, but others had to be pried from my grip.
If you’ve made it all the way here, I have a message. Playing and revising this hack have been an absolute joy. I’ve uncovered and refined the play Changeling the Lost always promised me. I found others who connected with those pieces and showed me aspects I hadn’t considered. And that wouldn’t have happened without The Gauntlet.
I have a great f2f group—made up of several interlocking circles of players, with the oldest of them someone I played with in High School. They’re up for experimentation and willing to try out things. But they also strongly prefer long campaigns and fairly trad games. Two of the four f2f games I run are multi-year campaigns; another’s just getting started, and the last will probably push for a long-running game here soon. That makes iterating a challenge.
But the Gauntlet’s been a smart, reliable group, hungry for new games and ideas. I put my time in, running lots of existing games before I felt right about putting something experimental out there. And I still run more established games both to try them out and to balance my hack bombs. In the first post in this series I encouraged everyone to do fast and lazy hacks. In the second, I encouraged trying them out and being cool with them not working.
Now I want to encourage you: find an online gaming community. Build a relationship there, make yourself part of the community, play games. If you have a crazy game idea, eventually you’ll find folks willing to try it and you’ll want to try theirs. That’s a win for you and frankly, it’s a win for me. The more wonderful, crazy games—hacks or otherwise—that are out there, the more vibrant the rpg community is.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.