Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls PLAYTEST REPORT

Hey, all.

Original preparation thread is here

This is particularly to draw feedback from the five great guys who played in my Mouse Guard game “Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls” at the Burning Apocalypse on Saturday. But other questions and comments are always welcome!

It certainly seemed like all you had a good time. I know I did, even if all my plans were defeated and the pubs of crime lords burned to the ground! But fun is not enough! I want to know more!

I tried to stretch the boundaries of the game in several directions, and I’m very interested in your thoughts on several areas:

The main thrust of pushing the timeline forward into the Victorian era was to make the game more urban. Does Mouse Guard work in the city?

I replaced Hometown with Social Class. The players seemed to sink their teeth into that. Any other thoughts about the setting? Was it too much information? Not enough? Most importantly, were any of you ever unsure about what to do next because the setting was unfamiliar?

This was the most experimental piece. Mouse Guard is not really set up to do mystery investigations. But I wanted to see if it would stretch to accommodate. One of the Victorian skills I added was “Sleuth.” We did a scripted conflict to represent the scenes of canvasing witnesses, testing remains, and infiltrating offices. The mice broke into two teams to determine the how and the who of the murders. Was this too big of a leap for the game? Was the abstract nature of giving up clues for the points shaved off my disposition a fun addition to the game, or do you think just doing these through individual persuader tests would have been more fun? What other thoughts do you have?

I had ten supporting characters printed up on little cards. I had the players choose one each as either a friend or enemy. The other five were handed out randomly. I liked that that this gave each player a ready-made connection involved in the story. Did it seem too arbitrary? Any other thoughts?

I had hoped to make more of these single-use weapons, based off the locale where the fight was taking place. In this scenario, it was a sewer so we had things like “A Shadowed Alcove” and “Hot Steam Pipes”. They were face down so that players could not know what advantage they would give. My hope was that they would help enhance the sense of setting. I realized in the midst of play that this was duplicating the role of helping dice. What were your impressions of these weapons?

All other feedback welcome, of course.

Also, if you could let me know which Guard mouse you played, it would be helpful to be able to put internet handles to faces.

Setting: The only feedback that I can think of is that although Lockhaven was described as being incredibly large now, having grown to encompass several of the surrounding towns, it seemed that we were able to get from one side of the city to the other with little effort or time. It almost seems like the scale was off a little or something. Then again, no one really knows what the scale is on David’s map anyhow. Maybe I was just hoping we’d end up on an airship at some point or something.

Investigation: I loved this, and will probably use it in my games. Once we all caught on to what you were doing, the system helped things move along pretty well. The exploratory nature of an investigatory style game is not necessarily 100% compatible with the “on-rails” approach of Mouse Guard’s GM’s Turn, but what you did worked out really well.

Friends/Enemies: This was cool. Worked out well for a one-shot type game. In an ongoing campaign, I would not use this approach, but for one-shots, I may steal this from you.

Landscape Weapons: Very, very cool. I liked that we were able to glean what mechanical effects these weapons might provide, by their name, but not necessarily know exactly what they did until we chose them and were able to turn over the card. I might steal this too. :wink:

iirc, my guardmouse’s name was Bill.

Investigation sounds neat. What were the stakes of the conflict? What would the Investigation have “won” if it had zeroed out the investigators’ dispo?

I played Archibald, M.D., and I had a blast.

Setting: I had no problem digesting the setting; it seemed pretty familiar to me. I appreciated that it was devoid of steampunk, honestly. :slight_smile: The straight-up Victorian nature of the setting is why I went in Sherlock-y direction with Archibald. I loved it.

Investigation: I thought this was brilliant, and it did not feel overly abstract to me at all. It actually felt much like some of the new conflicts I experienced in the play-test I did with Luke the next day, so I think you’re pretty much in the same conceptual ball-park as BWHQ when it comes to hacking MG.

Friends/Enemies: I thought it worked well, though honestly mine did not figure nearly as prominently as the other players’ F/E’s did. I agree with slahdevnull that I’m not sure how they would work in a long-term game, assuming they rarely or never changed. Granted, I don’t have a lot of MG experience.

Landscape weapons: I was not in the conflict that used them, so I can’t really comment. Conceptually, I would want to know the effects in advance in order to make effective choices.

Otherwise, I don’t have anything particularly negative to say about the event. I had a great time!

Hey Michael. I played Jack, of course. First off, let me say that I enjoyed myself a great deal. I thought the session was fun!

What follows are some of the concerns I noted during play:

Investigation felt a little odd to me, largely around the framing of conflict goals.

You had a very clear idea of what was going on and who was behind it. I support that 100%. But I think that interacts somewhat strangely with the narrative control implicit in the authoring of conflict goals. I know everyone thought it was funny that I kept pushing to add my nemesis Dirk to the list of people responsible, but what would you have done if our conflict goal for the investigation had been to prove that Dirk was at the center of the conspiracy? I personally don’t think that would have been an appropriate goal. There’s potential for a big ole chunk of Illusionism in there, but I don’t think Illusionism is a very satisfying resolution to a mystery.

It’s possible that you need very rigorous rules around what’s acceptable in a conflict goal for an investigation conflict. Maybe investigation conflicts don’t have a goal the same way other types of conflicts do? I don’t want to try to provide an answer for you so much as raise it as an issue for further development. I think there’s a big opportunity for some outside the box thinking, and since it’s a central conceit of the game, it’s worth focusing on it a great deal.

As far as the friends and enemies go, I thought it was a great touch. I was a little confused though that Ingram was the mouse behind it all. Someone, I think it was Al, had selected Ingram as a friend, but he was never on stage as such. It’s a convention of the genre that the true villain is never who you thought it was, but that seemed a bit of a bait and switch. I think that problem could have been solved if there had been a scene along the way where Ingram tried to convince Bill that the guard was exerting a dangerous influence on the city or something like it. If a friend is going to turn out to be the villain of the piece, I think he needs to try to get his friend on his side first. Either that, or friends should be sacrosanct.

I’m not sure I care for splitting Fighter into Brawler and Marksman. In play, they seemed pretty interchangeable. Either they need to be more distinct from each other so there’s a real trade off for using one or the other (or even so they aren’t suited to the same types of conflict) or they should be reunited.

I suspect it needs more forceful mission-setting up front. It felt like we were driving a little bit too much right off the bat. The turn structure of Mouse Guard requires the GM to exert a great deal of pressure in the GM’s Turn, or checks and the Player’s Turn often get devalued. That wasn’t a problem in the game we played, but I do think it’s a possibility. If you like that openness up front, maybe you need to switch things around so there’s a Player’s Turn at the top of the session that’s followed by a GM’s Turn. It would require some juggling of how checks are generated, but it’s not impossible.

The setting based weapons were a neat trick. I want to see it play out a few more times though.

You’re right about the lack of transportation detail. Transportation is really what makes a huge metropolis possible. I’ll need to add some explanations of steam trains and rabbit-pulled Hansom cabs. And dirigibles aren’t that much farther in the future. Hot air balloons, certainly.

Excellent point. I had started the session with a description of the headline of the Lockhaven Chronicle: GRISLY MURDERS BAFFLE INEPT MOUSE GUARD. Therefore, my conspirators had a nice drive to sully the reputation of the Guard as well as continue their murderous spree. I believe my conflict goal was something like “Continue murders and pin the blame on the Guard.”

Part of the tricky bit about the whole investigation process will be teaching GMs how to “play fair.” I didn’t want to tip my hand too early and divulge the nature of the conspiracy within the conflict goal, or during the individual Actions. But I also didn’t want to clam up and rob the players of their hard-won clues out of a sense of GM fiat. I think I struck a pretty good balance on Saturday, but since I would like to eventually write up the system for use by others, explaining that fine line is going to take some careful thought.

To be frank, I only ever run convention games, so I never have to worry about the long term. I could see an episodic game where the mice have a new “old friend” in every corner of the city. It would be like an 80s TV show!

I noted that and got a big kick out of it. When I wrote the character, I tried to make him a fusion of Holmes and Watson.

Michael: Is it important to your play setup procedure that there be a conspiracy/correct answer worked out in advance?

What does the game look or feel like if your Investigation conflicts are about the players authoring what happened rather than the characters discovering what happened?

It looks like Serial Homicide Unit, and we should just play that, since its a better game about hunting down serial killers than anything else out there!

Seriously, though, I considered the who “make up the solution” that works so well in SHU and InSpectres and any number of indie games. But it is a poor fit for Mouse Guard. Almost the entire game (except Circles) is driven by the players having to deal with an objective reality outside their characters that doesn’t care what the mice, or their players, want. For a weather conflict, you can’t set a goal of “We turn the blizzard into a pleasant sunny day.”

This is an excellent point that cuts right to the heart of the matter. I’m thinking that perhaps investigation conflicts can choose only from a limited list of goals. Those goals would be: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?

I think the group on Saturday did this instinctively. The working / street class team focused on Who? and Why? while the genteel team went after Where? When? and How?

Compromises could become almost mechanical. If you’re a single team trying for all six goals, then each 1/6 of your disposition lost is one question unanswered. Do you think that might bridge the gap and turn Illusionism into Participationism?

More later in the day…

Or perhaps instead of a Conflict, a Complex Obstacle answering Means, Motive and Opportunity. Each Success would provide a Solid Lead; Failures provide a Solid Lead as well as a Red Herring, requiring the investigators to choose which path(s) to take.

Darn it, now you’ve got me thinking about game design when I’m supposed to be working!

I also was not very confident about my choice of conflict skills. Perhaps if we limit the conflict goals, we can also specialize the conflict skills. For instance, if one of your team’s goals is WHERE? then you can use “City Guide” for Manuever. If you’re after WHO?, you can use “Circles” for Manuever or Attack.

We could even tie success or failure of specific rolls to the overall goal. Suppose you’re after WHERE? WHEN? and HOW? You rolled your City Guide for a manuever and succeeded. At the end of the conflict, you’ve won, but lost two-thirds of your disposition. You can only get one of the questions answered. Maybe it has to be WHERE? because you succeeded on the City Guide roll, which is linked to WHERE?

That threatens to get too fiddly, though. Maybe just a general guideline that you should keep in mind how well the mice did in their various actions when determining which questions to abandon in a compromise. I’m sure that if someone is after WHO? by using their Circles and rolls a handful of cowards (like I often do), the fictional description of that roll will vivdly describe the closed doors and cold shoulders that the mouse meets while doing the legwork. When the conflict ends and compromise is needed, everyone will naturally recall the Circles failure. Abandoning WHO? will be a natural outgrowth of the fiction, rather than proscribed by the rules.

It also sidesteps needing to answer fiddly questions about “What if you win some rolls and lose others?” that would slow down play for little payout in fun.

Darn you! Now that’s an entirely different and intriguing way of doing things I need to consider. Which is exactly the decision the players (and the mice) would face. The problem then stems from what happens if they pursue the red herring?

Michael, don’t be afraid to get fiddly if it’s required. This conflict is absolutely central to the game and it’s got to feel right.

My recommendation in situations like this is to go back to the sources of your inspiration with a keen eye for what really matters. What are the obstacles and important decisions that stand in their way and how do they resolve them. Go back and read some Doyle or some Christie or whatever drew you to this. Watch stuff too. Figure out how you can get those decisions to come through in the game play.

A red herring is a Twist. It always leads somewhere. It’s been a while since I read any Victorian mystery stories, but from what I recall, the pursuit of red herrings often gives the detective the necessary revelation required to look at the clues in a new way and piece together what actually happened.

SHU! Nice, I haven’t read it yet, didn’t know you’d already poked at that space. I’ll have to check it out! Making investigation interesting is one of the two-or-three Holy Grails of gaming that I have yet to see designed in a satisfying way.

Investigation is a big juicy issue that I think I need to stew on (and research) a bit more. You’ve all given my a lot of food for thought. Thanks.

There were a few other things I didn’t want to drop just yet, though:

You’re absolutely correct about that. I had intended such a scene, but just plain forgot in the midst of play itself. Too many experimental balls in the air.

Again, you’re right. This is a problem that stems from the setting. Once reliable firearms are invented, melee weapons fall out of general use. I wasn’t sure how to reflect that in the game without the lame and kind of game-breaking rule along the lines of “GUNS: +1D on Attack/Defend/Feint/Manuever”

Perhaps Guns neutralize the benefits of melee weapons on the opposing team? It would certainly make a Disarm much more powerful.

I suspect it needs more forceful mission-setting up front. It felt like we were driving a little bit too much right off the bat. The turn structure of Mouse Guard requires the GM to exert a great deal of pressure in the GM’s Turn, or checks and the Player’s Turn often get devalued. That wasn’t a problem in the game we played, but I do think it’s a possibility. If you like that openness up front, maybe you need to switch things around so there’s a Player’s Turn at the top of the session that’s followed by a GM’s Turn. It would require some juggling of how checks are generated, but it’s not impossible.

At one point I was considering throwing out GM’s Turn/Player’s Turn structure entirely and turning Investigation into a stripped-down version of BE’s Infection mechanics. But that is cutting it dangerously close to rewriting the game from scratch. Maybe I just need to expand the amount of time and in-play description generated by each Action in an Investigation, and start with the Investigation right off the bat.