Voidheart Symphony is not an easy game. That's not a bad thing, but it does mean that a few sessions into this quarterly series I'm still trying to get a feel for the game play. I've run a lot of Legacy, Free from the Yoke, and various related hacks. While Shattered City threw me a little, having the physical book in my hand has made me more confident that I could run it again successfully.
Voidheart isn't exactly a Legacy game. It draws inspiration from there but is very much its own beast, except for one detail. In Legacy you split between the family side and character side, each with their own set of moves. In Voidheart the split is between moves your character does in the real world and moves that your character does in the other world aka The Castle. There's an added wrinkle In Voidheart that each side has a different set of resolution mechanics.
Last session we hit a couple of stumbling blocks trying to figure out exactly where the PCs needed to go and how things worked. We also began to see the “death spiral” of PbtA present in this game. That's something you learn to manage in play, but we’re just starting so we aren’t sure. People failing and digging themselves in deeper in a not fun way. Part of why I wanted to sketch out how VS works is to list ways to heal and escape the abyss.
I want to try and unpack what's going on in Voidheart. That means figuring out what I need to know as a GM (aka Architect), what the players need to know, and what the stages of play are. This isn't written from an expert point of view. Instead it is by an experienced GM who has run three sessions of Voidheart so far, has read through the book thoroughly, and has worked with the character keeper. Take this with a grain of salt. it may well be that there's an emergent play that I haven't hit yet where all the gears and cogs hum and work together smoothly. I’m not there yet.
Voidheart takes a lot of inspiration from Persona 5. It is not a Persona 5 simulator, but I in my reading it’s the most significant touchstone for play, even more so than say Persona 3 or Persona 4. The book cites other sources, like the amazing The Invisibles, but at heart Persona 5 shapes how the book translates for me. When I read it, that's the paradigm in the back of my mind for better or worse.
At the start of Voidheart the cosmology of the situation is unclear, especially for the players’ PoV. Some of that’s sketched, but there's a lot of not explicitly describe imaginative space. So we come in with questions of how the Castle-space works, how do others see it, and so on. In most pbta games that's a fruitful space where players collaborate to fill in. That holds true to an extent with Voidheart but not entirely. Some of what's happening isn't explicitly sketched out, but is implicit in the many moves. And that can be tough because there are so many moves: basic- broken into several categories, moves contingent on situations, playbook moves, hangout moves, and Covenant moves. Everything has multiple moves.
Here’s the vision I’ve come to– the structure I think players’ need to have in mind to approach play. It may not exactly be how Voidheart presents it, but it is workable for a shared understanding. One of the shortcomings of taking a Persona 5-based vision of this that key aspects of the video game aren’t present here. Things like a singular character with bonus powers, a mentor-explainer, slowly gathering members of the team and dealing with their individual trauma via the Castle, a bigger villain behind the scenes which only gets revealed at the end.
VASSALS AND CASTLES
So let's talk about the Vassal. Each is a figure who exists in the real world, the city. They have garnered some additional supernatural power. They use this power mostly unconsciously to cause harm in the real world. Exactly what has granted this power to them is unclear at the start. Each Vassal has a Shard, a unique segment within the Castle. Shards are mental constructions and represent Vassals’ their inner lives. It echoes who they are. This exist in an otherspace. The Vassal does not actually enter the shard or castle. While they are connected to the shard. the shard is not where they are. Instead the shard exists connected to a place of significance for the vassal. It is a magical, liminal space which the vassal cannot see. The PCs can enter the shard from that point of significance.
Within the Shard are spaces (rooms, locations, etc) that reveal things about who the vassal, their purpose, their fears and hopes, etc. . It is a subconscious presentation. Vassals have a independent thought form existing within the castle, an avatar. Depending on the shard’s themes the Vassal’s avatar move through, manage, or play out fetishes here. Enforcers exist within the shard. These can be simple shadow puppets as obstacles or monsters with a stronger existence, look, and personality. Generally Enforcers remain within the castle. But as a Vassal becomes aware of being stalked and pursued, the subconscious shard may bleed into the real world as a defensive measure. In this case enforcers may enter real world.
To get to the castle the players need to find that area of significance, and then locate the door. This is abstract. Once players arrive at the place, they can locate a passage without having to roll. They can define the entryway, and it should be a generally accessible place.
The idea is that in the real world players investigate the Vassal. They use info discovered to disrupt the Vassal’s actions a little in the real world. The games structure suggests that it is unlikely the PC can fully stop them in the real world. But by disrupting and learning about the Vassal, they gain an edge when they enter the shard to fight the Vassal. PCs also go into the castle to gain information, fight enforcers, and figure out how to get to the Vassal for the final confrontation. At a certain point the players should know where the vassal’s lair is in the shard and have enough that they feel confident taking on them on. If they beat the vassal in a final confrontation, there’s a check to see what results. It might give them a new conscience, force them to admit their crimes, or something else. It isn't about killing the the Vassal— it's about changing who they are by shattering this magical mind shard they’ve created to empower themselves.
Enforcers: These are monsters of significance within a Vassal’s shard. They exist within that as a monster or foe, but the Vassalss clock fills, then an enforcer can leave the shard and cause problems in the real world. It took us a bit to realize in play the enforcers operated in this context and weren't necessarily additional allies in the real world. It's spelled out later in the book but it wasn’t immediately clear.
Let's assume we're starting fresh and the characters have returned to the city, have defeated a vassal, and you've resolved all those details. At that point the group talks about what the next Shadow (aka Vassal) is. This requires a little bit of prep on the part of the GM (note: I’m going to use GM to refer to what is called the Architect in the game). They should have one or more ideas ready and then collaborate with the players based on a list of questions. The book has some examples– which is good. The way this process is first presented makes it looks like it's a purely collaborative thing. But I think the GM needs to have some concepts ready. Otherwise it is a big conceptual ask.
With the Vassal set, the phase begins with each player rolling The Grind. This is a check made against their worst gauge, so it is already a painful thing. Regardless of what is rolled– strong hit, weak hit, or miss– there's a crisis facing the character. They and the GM define it based on that specific gauge rolled. This crisis starts as quelled or imminent. Quelled means that it is been dealt with for the moment. However GM as a reaction they can move it back to imminent during play. That's supposed to show how the Vassal can steal your victories from you. But if the player is taken action to quell a crisis and then gets it pulled away, that feels not great. If a crisis has not been quelled at the end of the “mission,” then that crisis becomes a long-term problem. The player must either put a black mark or a tick in that gauge (GM option).
If a player misses on The Grind then the crisis is dire. There’s only one obscure way to remove the Dire tag (see later). If a dire problem is imminent at the end of the investigation, you take a black mark. Is that in addition to the black mark or tick from it being imminent? It's not clear. One issue here is also that it's very easy to forget that while the crisis is imminent, a player has lasting disadvantage against that gauge– making a real a pain in the ass.
It is really important to figure out how to deal with a crisis and how to clear text from gauges.
The next thing that happens is the GM sets a six-section clock on the investigation. They add a tick at the start of each day. but reactions can also add them. If the clock is filled, the Vassal moves to a new stage of awareness. The first stage is passive, meaning the vessel isn't aware of the rebels. The second state is alert, meaning that the vassal knows the rebels are out there, but probably doesn't know their identities. (Question here is how much this is subconscious vs conscious awareness?) The third state is hunting, meaning they likely know the identities and that a confrontation is coming. The heightening stages have consequences. At the start of each Alert day, players each mark a gauge. Each Hunting day they have to mark two different gauges. Pressure in the city is significant as marking gauges increase the failure chances on rolls.
Play operates in days. Days split into two actions. You can do two “everyday" actions or one “everyday” and one “rebel” action. Note that while everyday actions are marked as such, rebel actions aren’t explicitly labeled that way, though there are some examples given. Going into the shard itself is a rebel action as are the more directed investigative ones..
DEALING WITH EVERYDAY LIFE
Let’s start with the crises for you and/or your Covenant NPCs. The move for this is Wolf at the Door. This requires no roll but there's a cost: mark a condition, fade a covenant, or ask a PC for help and have them market a condition. It is simple but costly..
If you want to heal a condition you can Let Your Hair Down which is rolled against the Lack gauge. It has some significant upside: meet a new NPC, refresh a gauge (i.e. remove a tick), gain a minor Covenant. This feels like a good fallback unless your Lack gauge is really high. It also means you mark World which potentially gets you an advance.
The other fixing action is Let Go. This one has some fictional costs. You can choose to rest when other people are depending on you and lose a rank of World affinity, which means you also lose an advance. But you get to heal a condition. On the flip side you use your power and authority for someone else rather than for you. In this case you lose rank of Void and heal a condition. The latter’s a little odd and the book doesn't give an example of what that actually looks like.
The other option is to heal up via the Wrap Up end of session move where choices there can be used to heal condition or refresh a gauge. Some Hangout moves also heal things, but I’ll come back to that.
The other side of the story, which pushes the conflict forward, is investigating the vassal. Some of this is about figuring out the vassals form, generally what they’re doing, and what their resources are. But the most important part of this process is to set up The Emperor's New Clothes move. This is the big finale roll you make after confronting and defeating the vassal. .
The elements of this move set up what you need to be working for in play. It’s a little buried in the Castle moves section and easy to overlook. You want to make as many of these things true as possible:
- You confronted the vassal in person in the city.
- You've uncovered the full details of what they're planning.
- You've met people the vassal holds dear.
- You've defeated at least one of their enforcers.
- Your mundane self has suffered at their orders.
- There's organized resistance to the vassal among the city's people.
One of those six can usually only be done within the castle, defeating an enforcer. Another one, uncovering details, can be Castle or City. But the other four are things that you need to do in the City. So players need to have these goals clearly in mind when they're proceeding.
The most basic investigation move is a the universal move: Take a Risk. When you do something risky which isn't covered by another move, you do it and the GM says what consequences occur. So if you're doing something which doesn’t exactly fall under one of the others you can come back here.
The next move is one that should be kept as a fallback in almost every circumstance. If you don't know exactly what your character wants to do or should be doing then Read the Wind. Why? Because there are no costs and it or downsides to this move. Essentially you get to narrate something in the city and then ask the architect to add a detail to it: a new way your target is hurting people, an unexpected meeting with an NPC, or a sense of the overall mood of the city. The move isn't fully directed, but it is an opportunity to find things out. Most importantly it gives you fleeting Advantage when you follow up on that. As the book says this is the move to do “…if you want the architect to give you leads to follow up on on.”
Now as for actual investigate or “find out” moves there's only one really directed to that and a couple of others that tangentially fit. The clearest one is Rebel Eyes: when you spend time looking for information, say what you're trying to find out and check against Heat. The questions are open on this one; it seems like you can find out anything. Except that's not really true, as written on a hit you'll have a clearer idea of how to get the information, the architect gives you one or two costs. I’m not sure if the point here is to add more narrative or if we need to go to another move, but it does mean a potential roadbump whenever you use this. It makes a really key feature costly and doesn’t offer a great sense of the scope.
This move has a couple of other issues. First it checks against one particular gauge, Heat. So some players can be have a really hard time with what is a key action. Second, the weak hit has someone in the scene uncover something about you. That’s in addition to other costs– and it might be an NPC, but it might be the Vasal or a Vassal’s agent. Regardless I would use this as the standard “I want to find something out move,” and keep any costs modest. I’d also usually allow a Miss to gain information but with a limitation, cost, or consequence.
The next most likely move for finding things out is Connect. This move assumes there’s an already established NPC or maybe a generic figure like a security guard. When you try to connect with them, you can roll on one of three gauges depending on how your approach. Players found the description of those approaches a little wonky. But on a hit “they'll give you a chance to make your case" now I assume that's a fictional description rather than the player now having to follow up in the fiction. It feels like to use Connect as a source of information you need to have already know the shape of what you're investigating.
A few other City moves could be used to gather information in the right context. You could use Make a Stand to get someone to pay attention to you. This might be used where you have have failed with Connect or you're starting with a hostile person. But it seems like a more aggressive action-oriented move rather than an information gathering one. The next move is Pass Beneath Notice which on a hit allows you long enough to get what you wanted. I assume you would use this to access a secured source of information. The last one is Vent which is when you vent out the Void’s power within you, you choose an effect. One of those is “perceive something you couldn't otherwise sense.” This move has some downside in backlashes, but these don't involve marking conditions or a gauge. Instead they're weird side effects. So from maximizing point of view it's a good go to move.
So the other tools PCs have are their Covenant moves. Some of these can provide information via doing a Hangout with them (The Fool, The Sage, The Hermit, Justice, The Sun). Others offer information as a standard City move (The Oracle, The Lovers, The Star, Judgment). A few of Covenant city moves offer an assist to the information-gathering moves (The Hermit, The Vagabond, The Moon).
To the other side of this is that the characters will venture into the Castle and the particular Shard of the vassal. The question is why? What do you gain by going into the castle, either together or by yourself, before you're ready to directly confront the vassa1? I will say that the game isn't particularly explicit or obvious about what your characters are doing there.
So let's look at the moves here. The most basic is Dive Into Darkness. This is basically the transitional move to enter the otherspace. Depending on how you roll, you'll arrive in a better or worse position. The exploration move is Travel the Labyrinth. It has two sides. On the one hand there's Exploration. This allows you to reach a place that reveals a hidden truth about the vassal. So that answers one of the requirements of The Emperor’s New Clothes. but in general this move also has some down side even on a hit.
But if you're going somewhere specific then the goal seems to getting to a location, rather than an information action. The book has four examples: The Shard’s Heart, which seems to be where you go to fight the vassal; an enforcer’s lair, which I assume would be to battle and defeat a particular enforcer; a landmark, which isn't particularly clear, but I assumed in the fiction could be a place that could reveal something about the Vassal. But there’s also The Exit which suggests that to get out at the end of whatever you're doing, you have to make a roll to leave.
It seems like the Castle has very limited utility and some high risks. You want to go in there once to find out hidden truths and maybe another time to fight the enforcer to get those benefits for The Emperor's New Clothes The rest of the castle moves seem to be about exploring and gaining Advantage when you're doing the exploring or when you're fighting the vassal at the end.
Most of the Castle Covenant moves center on helping out or providing advantage while you're there. Only one of them, The Gardener, seems to be about providing information. the rest are very much set up during exploration, action and fighting the vassal.
RESTORATION AND HEALING UP
This is the other big question: how you repair your character? I mentioned up above the basic moves that work help in part with that. Check In lets you heal a condition or intensify a Covenant. Let your Hair Down just heals a condition. Let Go heels a condition potentially but at the cost of an advance. Within the Castle itself there is only Find Shelter which allows you to heal another Rebel’s condition or intensify their crew Covenant. It also allows you to use your Playbook’s shelter move. The only other basic move that seems to offer some healing is the Stand with Me Castle move which lets you heal a condition on a 10 plus.
Please note that in this I'm not going through all of the Playbook moves. I'm assuming players will have a handle on that, and if they’re taking a move from another Playbook they can find which moves fall into these categories..
What’s really important is which Covenant moves offer some kind of healing
- The Fool: The Hangout move can heal a condition
- The Magician: The City move here can quell a crisis oh, but it can also remove the Dire state from a crisis. This seems to be the only way to remove the dire tag.
- The Oracle: The Hangout move allows you to heal a condition
- The Gardener: This one is a little odd in that it allows you to refresh another Rebel’s gauges when you check in with them, but there's a significant cost: either you have to tick one of your gauges or you take disadvantage the next time that person is hurt.
- The Auteur: The Hangout move can refresh infamy or Lack, stacked with other effects. The City move can remove a tick from Fealty.
- The Lovers: The Castle move allows you to heal another condition when you mark a condition.
- The Chariot: The Hangout move allows you to heal a condition.
- Strength: The Hangout move is a not-as-good version of healing a condition in that it doesn't heal it but it mitigates the next miss you make with a roll affected by that condition.
- The Wheel of Fortune: The City move gives you fleeting advantage on Let Your Hair Down.
- Death: The Castle move has a weird ability to remove a Blood-related crisis by inflicting a condition on someone
- Temperance: The Hangout move allows you to move a tick from a stress gauge with the most ticks to the one with the least.
- The Devil: The Hangout move allows you to heal a condition.
- The Tower: The Hangout move allows you to heal someone else's condition. The City move allows you to once per investigation fully refresh a gauge when you max out that gauge.
- The Moon: The Hangout move allows you to swap one condition for another.
I hope this doesn't come off as too negative-- because I'm really excited and hopeful about this game. I spent all this time looking through and putting this together because I'm super excited about the game. But we ended up with questions after the last session, so I wanted to make things clearer for all of us. We have another nine sessions and want to make it smoother and easier for the players.