Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

[The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries] Lost City of the Serpent People

Started by Eric J. Boyd, September 06, 2006, 02:35:15 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Eric J. Boyd

My Game Chef 2006 entry of pulp exploration storytelling (see link in my sig) continues to develop! With a third member added to our gaming group, I can finally give The Committee a proper playtest. The shakedown that Alexander Cherry and I gave the game previously (discussed here) has really shaped it into something nice.

Character Creation

Character creation was quick and flowed well. The expedition is led by Lord Melvin Greyscale, an aging aristocrat whose nerves of steel and noble bearing have served him well in facing danger around the globe. Now he goes on another expedition with the secret desire to gain the acclaim needed to sell his story and buy the family estate out of debt. Greyscale's ignoble sidekick Reggie Kender has a way with the working class and fights dirty when not talking his way out of trouble. Yet Reggie desires only to use the acclaim of the expedition to win over the father of his beloved and gain her hand in marriage. Finally, the Infanta of Monaco, Reggie's self-same beloved, accompanies the expedition to prove to everyone that she is not a pampered princess. Her animal magnetism and power over men make her most useful.

So far, the group character creation has yielded very entertaining interconnections among the characters. Heroes and their sidekicks are a natural fit, but a sidekick and his beloved, whose secret desire has nothing to do with marrying him, just rocks. The artifice of the Committee exists to allow characters of all stripes to join together, but I'm betting groups will naturally form connections as well.

Setting Creation

Next up is setting creation. The open brainstorming again worked well. We decided that the lost city of the Serpent People would be our expedition site, and the secret hidden there is the fate of a prior Committee expedition that never returned. The issue of the site is whether we can observe without disturbing (given the prior expedition's fate, I'll bet the answer is no). The Committee is based in London, so our route to the expedition site includes sailing around Africa, Calcutta, traveling overland through Tibet, and arriving in the jungles of Indochina.

The multiple hazard lists of the Game Chef entry have been entirely removed. So we brainstormed one master list of potential hazards, including serpent cultists, serpent people, cannibals, pirates, an uprising, and the fever. I haven't seen anyone have any trouble coming up with hazards to inflict on another player, so the loss of the individual hazard lists is good riddance.


This time out we had all the props in place, and it has been awesome playing with glasses brimming with festive beverages.

The good:

The three-minute hourglass to time scenes is working great and adding a cool step on up element to push out entertaining narration while keeping the scenes moving. Because things move quickly, down time and boredom are not an issue.

The game handles atypical hazards very well due to its storytelling nature, and the one die mechanic handles everything equally well. We've had a bout of the fever, a water spout, haggling with customs, attempted seduction, and an anti-colonial uprising in Calcutta, in addition to numerous fights with serpent cultists and pirates, that have all been a breeze to play out.

Adding the new rule requiring a character to take on hazards with all the different attributes before reusing one (unless Acclaim is spent to do so) has worked wonders. Now players really have to work and sweat to use weaker attributes to narrate their way out of hazards. I had to use my woeful 1d6 Instinct to narrate us around an outbreak of the fever aboard the ship and found the result much more entertaining than if I had simply used a high attribute again. Attributes are now themselves a new strategic and resource management element.

We finally have enough players to test the group hazard mechanics. So far, so good – they seem to create exciting scenes that move quickly. One issue that cropped up was that the characters separated to accomplish different things during the Calcutta uprising, and the player responsible for narrating complications for a character sometimes needed to be reminded what the character was up to. I'm also not certain the Acclaim rewards for group hazards are in line with the rest of the Acclaim economy; more testing is necessary.

The expedition map is an awesome story organizer, and some great strategies have emerged. The players have totally jumped on reusing story elements to create a cohesive story – recurring characters, an ancient stone whose cryptic symbols have been appearing in tattoos and on strange altars, etc. But since you are not rewarded for reusing a story element that you invested in, it sometimes seems wise to narrate something but then not invest in it, leaving the element to be created by another player. Then you can reuse it to your heart's content and get Acclaim for it (giving it to the investor as well). Another strategy is to reuse one of your elements in a scene (gaining no Acclaim) but by its very presence encourage the other player to narrate regarding the story element, thereby netting Acclaim for both of you. The result in each case = more awesome story development.

The bad:

We didn't have a single instance of a character being stymied (unable to match the hazard roll). Which makes me think the current difficulty levels aren't quite hard enough. Our proposed fix is to vary the hazard difficulties from 1d10 to 5d10 rather than topping out at 4d10. I want success to happen most of the time (it's the pulps after all), but occassional failure or sweating hard and spending a lot of Acclaim to succeed needs to be present, too.

Acclaim levels are getting pretty high for some of the characters. I envisioned final Acclaim tallies of around 20 or so, but characters are reaching that point two-thirds of the way through the expedition. Adding the 5d10 hazard will help force characters to spend more Acclaim to overcome hazards, but another fix might be required. One player proposed allowing the character with the highest Acclaim to be targeted with negative effects by the other players for free (they usually cost one Acclaim), which would likely cause that player to spend more Acclaim in their scenes. I'm not sure about allowing the PvP mechanics to gain so much power. Since running out of time costs Acclaim and that hasn't been happening much, I could also turn the timer over a bit sooner in the resolution mechanics (before the player chooses the attribute to use on a hazard rather than after that choice as it stands now). Anyone have any thoughts on this or any other ways to encourage more Acclaim spending?

One shot play might be unrealistic. We got a late start on our first session of the playtest, so we only got one hour to get the prep work done. A second three-hour session has gotten us most of the way through the expedition, leaving the expedition site itself for this week. I still think one shot play is possible if a group allows around 5 hours, but it's beginning to look like two sessions is more realistic unless the expedition route has very few stops. But reducing the game down too far removes a lot of the experience and chance to develop story elements to be reused later. Is one shot play a feature that is worth questing for? Any thoughts on how the game can be streamlined to better achieve it?

My final concern is whether the game is too complicated for a freewheeling storytelling endeavor. Right now each player has a character sheet, a sheet of key phrases, and a summary of how Acclaim can be spent in front of them. That's a lot of paper. Of course, playing a bit will remove the necessity of some of this, but I wonder if the learning curve is too high. Since the game has no GM, having players who know how to play is important to getting the most out of the rules. Am I shooting myself in the foot here?

Once this playtest is finished and I've made some more revisions, I'll be seeking outside playtesters to give the game a whirl. If you're interested please drop me an email or PM.


Eric, sorry I didn't get around to posting about this earlier, but I've been ill most of the weekend - I must have caught something Friday, because by the time I got home I couldn't think of anything but just collapsing into bed.


On Character Creation

I'll admit, I'm a character-connection slut.  If I can come up with a reason to connect two characters together I'll often do it.  That's why, when I made the Infanta, as soon as Reggie decided he was looking to prove to his beloved's father he was good enough, I knew who the Infanta had to be.

That said, the next time I try the Committee, I might very well try to avoid all such connections.  I wonder how differently (if at all) a group of people with NO connection would play out.  But I doubt, especially with group character creation and the way the Committee works, you'd have people with no connection, even if it's just "this is what we know about you having been in the Committee for years."

On Setting Creation

This part I simply adore.  The first time through when it was just Eric and myself, and I sort of idly mused "how far can we go?  like, could we go to Mars?" and Eric was all "sure!" and we created this awesome trek that took us around the world before going undersea to the bowels of Atlantis and from there, to the moon and Mars.

I can't see how a group tossing about ideas wouldn't be able to make awesome out of this step.  That said, Eric, consider throwing every playtest's locations up as examples - stripped of context, of course - to give people a stepping stone to coming up with their own.

On Play

First off, anything Eric said about play being good, I agree.  Of course, being a major collaborator at this point, half the elements that are working well are ideas that I had a hand in, so I might be a bit biased there.  ;)

I completely agree that the three-minute hourglass works well for most things.  However, I've noticed that as a person, especially once we're establishing this gentleman's setting, I sometimes feel a bit too polite to just butt in and interrupt with a complication, waiting for the person to finish speaking, etc.  This means I've spent less Acclaim on screwing people as I otherwise might.

My suggestion to Eric right now is to have that interruption come with a tipping of the hourglass (at which point everyone should stop speaking).  It (1) allows one to interrupt without speaking up, (2) calls the attention of everyone, who are likely looking at the hourglass with bated breath, and (3) allows the interruption to affect the dice without being too nasty on the time.

In addition, I suggested something in response to the "for free" suggestion proposed by our other player, Del:  namely, that the character with the most Acclaim may not earn any more Acclaim from his own story elements while he's the highest.  This is a double-edged sword, because it might encourage people to use those story elements more (since they know they'll get a benefit).

Between these two elements plus the 5d10 hazard there'll be a lot more Acclaim spending and a natural slowing of high Acclaim.

On the 5d10 hazard:  One of the reasons for my suggesting it that Eric didn't mention was that, with four Hazards and four Attributes, we'd find them cycle almost lockstep, varied slightly only when Unexpected Hazards or Group Hazards appeared. By adding a 5d10 hazard into the regular chain (on top of the added benefit of getting some more Acclaim spent) it breaks that monotony in a very nice way.  Not to mention increasing (one hopes) the chances of being Stymied.

Being the guy who got tons of Acclaim from the group hazard (yay dice), I felt that the rewards were a bit out of line on the high side - and I suggested a solution to Eric that I don't remember right now, but involved tying it back into the existing reward structure (basing it, then, on the number of dice used on an individual level).

On top of that I sort of wonder if the group hazards are too easy, or at least aren't scaling properly.  One additional d10 per player feels like too small an increase, when the player can pull out somewhere between 2 and 5 six-siders most of the time (not to mention extra descriptor dice, gear, etc.).  That might take more playtesting to shake out as well, but +1d10 vs. +4d6 seems a bit TOO in favor of the pulp heroes.

Eric, it might be that, for true one-shot play, you might need to just say "these story-element rule simply will not apply when only doing a one-shot" or somesuch.  If you remove that bit, play might go faster.  Plus, recall that we're also stopping the game quite a bit to talk about how we like the rules to give feedback for the playtest. 

I think one-shot play, if that's one of your goals, isn't too far out of your reach.  I also think that removing story-elements isn't that big a deal for one-shot play, because players won't need the extra acclaim so much (and, as you pointed out, there's little time to really re-use the story elements).  That said, it's not the only thing that can be done, though it certainly is one of them (perhaps restricting people to only one story-element at a time, for instance).
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming

Eric J. Boyd

We finished the current playtest of The Committee last week, having played out a full game over three sessions.

Story Highlights

We resumed play in the tunnels beneath a temple in Tibet devoted to the Serpent Beneath. The tunnels allowed us to travel underground through the mountains to the edge of the Indochinese jungles, but along the way a giant serpent attacked us (the first of many).

In the jungle, the party was beset by cannibals and Reggie and Lord Greyscale nearly were their dinner. The Infanta was kidnapped by serpent cultists and found the leader of the missing expedition among them, now degenerating into a serpent person through some evil magic. She was freed and we took the former Committee member prisoner as we went to the lost city itself.

Reggie had a great scene in which he helped the expedition sneak past another giant serpent sleeping outside the lost city's walls by singing it a lullaby. We found the other unfortunate members of the missing expedition in the catacombs beneath the lost city, all but one of them now moldering bones.

The Infanta set off a trap while searching for a means to cure the evil magic besetting the former leader of the lost expedition. Lord Greyscale did his best to aid her before the walls closed in, and they barely escaped intact. Reggie set off a trapdoor and fell through a chute to the center of the catacombs, uncovering a large gathering of serpent cultists and serpent people. Upon hearing Reggie's account of the ritual about to be completed, Lord Greyscale decided to use explosives to destroy the lost city. During the escape from the collapsing buildings, Greyscale was swallowed by a giant serpent and forced to climb his way out of its writhing gullet.

As the expedition retreated from the devastated city, the rubble collapsed into a vast cavern and the true Serpent Beneath, which dwarfed the other giant serpents, arose from the ruins. Lord Greyscale hoped to make its head his greatest trophy and Reggie rallied the fleeing serpent people to our aid, but the Infanta's animal magnetism allowed her to seduce the great serpent and cajole it into returning to the depths.

The Infanta had achieved the greatest acclaim in the reporting of the expedition's exploits. She had proven her worth to all, especially her father, and would never be dismissed as a pompous princess ever again. Reggie married the Infanta despite her father's disapproval and used his sway over the serpent people to aid Monaco in its later war against France. Finally, Lord Greyscale lost a leg due to the festering wound he had suffered early in the expedition and his family estate was lost in foreclosure. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a comfortable retirement in one of the apartments above the Committee's meeting hall and served as curator of the Committee's exhibits until the end of his days.


The story went in some great directions and the reuse of story elements on the expedition log does a good job of encouraging players to make a cohesive story by tying up loose ends as the expedition draws to a close.

Running out of time but having dice sufficient to beat the hazard means the next player simply cuts you off and begins his turn. This was quite amusing when Reggie and Lord Greyscale were in the cannibals' cooking pot and time ran out. As the next player, I simply used the key phrase "But in the end, of course, it was of no consequence," and proceeded to talk about my next exploit without bothering to explain a damn thing. I could have briefly said how we escaped, but I chose to completely ignore it, like it was beneath Greyscale's notice.

I need to be clear that the rules do not allow the Opposition to narrate a complication that negates a character's actions. Having no whiffs is a big part of my goal in capturing pulp awesomeness. Good play aids are going to be key for keeping the important rules in the front of each player's mind during the storytelling.

For this session we played using several rules changes proposed last time:  (1) Having the hazard difficulties vary between 1d10 and 5d10; (2) Tipping the hourglass to stop its flow and denote that you want to interrupt and complicate things for the active player; (3) Raising the difficulty of group hazards to 5d10+2d10 per player; and (4) Not allowing the player with the highest Acclaim to gain Acclaim from reuse of his story elements by the other players.

The 5d10 hazards were a great addition that will stay. We finally got stymied when the Infanta set off the trap in the lost city, even though Lord Greyscale tried to aid her. The stymie mechanics allowed the Acclaim levels to be shaken up and took the story in a good direction. A good first test of them.

This session also saw characters finally asking their companions for aid in overcoming hazards. Timing on helping before the hourglass runs out is pretty tight and the results were either running out of time or being stymied anyway. So there may be more work necessary to make helping a viable option.

Tipping the hourglass to make interruptions and hose the active player is an effective gimmick. As a result, we saw a lot more use of those mechanics this session and some cool narration as a result. A big win here.

I've got to run more group hazards to be sure, but making them a bit more difficult seemed to work out well for the two we did this session.

The Acclaim economy got bigger than I expected. Alexander ended with just over 30 Acclaim, and the rest of us ended in the low to mid 20s. Is this too much currency to keep track of in an effective way? Do the multiple uses for the currency mitigate the bookkeeping aspect at all?

I'm not sure of the value of turning off rewards for reuse of their story elements for the player with the highest Acclaim. Keeping track of who has the most currency from moment to moment seems distracting. Plus, we started using the rule when folks already had Acclaim in the teens and 20s. It would be a far different matter if it was used from the beginning when everyone starts with three Acclaim. Any thoughts on the effects of turning rewards on and off based on your current Acclaim level? Too fiddly? Too punitive?

Some other questions:

1) In playtesting mechanics, do you always do so as part of the larger game or does zeroing in on one piece work well, too? For example, would running a half dozen group hazards back to back tell me something useful apart from their usual appearance in a game session?

2) I indulged in playing with slightly different rules in each session this playtest. A lot turned into immediate home runs, but others didn't. Where do I go from here with these potential rules changes? What should I be looking for in my next playtest?

3) I'm thinking of reversing the order of creating characters and the expedition site and route, making the site and route first. I think this will result in characters that are more tailored to a particular expedition. On the other hand, I don't want characters without interesting disconnects that pull the expedition in cool directions. Any thoughts on the effect this might have?

Thanks for reading.

Graham W

Hi Eric,

I'm glad this game seems to going so well. It was one of my favourites from Game Chef.

The festive beverages: are they just props or do they play any part in the game? I seem to remember that they didn't play any part in the original rules: do they have any sort of ritual function now?

I'm rather interested that you played the leader of the expedition. Was that deliberate? Do you think it made it easier: because you knew the game better?

What was the reaction of the players? Were they really into it? Did the game generally flow well?

Doing the setting creation first is a great idea. You're right, it'll tailor the characters to the expedition, and it'll put the focus on the adventure, which I really like.



To answer the specific questions first:

1)  I prefer playtesting in context, but zeroing in on an individual mechanic is also good, especially if it's an easily-separable mechanic, like your group conflicts.  (Remember when we did that a few times when testing out Ensemble's opening process?)  So, I guess, both is good, though in-context is usually preferable.

2)  In general terms:  any rule change you made was meant to accomplish something specific (one imagines).  So, I suppose, keep an eye out for that "something specific" over time.  All the changes (including the ones we didn't use, like 11 instead of 12 for the attributes) are for a reason.  Playtest (and watch for the effects with) those rules.

3) Eric, I think in general, there should be no trouble with getting characters with interesting disconnects if creating the adventure first.  The average player is likely to enjoy seeing them in the stories for their characters; in addition, you already are setting up interesting disconnects through the "cycle through the attributes" rule.  Some of the strangest disconnects come not from the character concept itself, but rather what's available for use at the time a challenge is thrown down.  Consider Reggie's lullaby - that wasn't because Reggie was disconnected so much as because Reggie had to use Charisma there, so had to figure out a way.

Besides, designing the adventure second means you can tailor the adventure to the characters if you want.  Swapping the order won't make it any easier or harder for those who insist on tailoring their characters, to do so.  And even there, there's the descriptors the other players will "gift" them with, that will provide their own twist.

As one of the players in this game, Eric and I have already discussed a lot of this stuff.  My opinion on the Acclaim economy is that it was already rather high before we instituted the additional braking maneuvers.  In the end, we wound up with little more than we started the session - a jump from 20 to 30 (which was my jump) is much less than a jump from 3 to 20 (which is what happened during the first session). 

I'd suggest more playtesting from the start of the game, with the 5d10 hazard in from the start, the 11 instead of 12 attribute points, the Acclaim braking for being the highest, etc., and see where it goes before worrying about the Acclaim inflation that mostly happened before all those rules were put into place.

The Acclaim brake for being the highest (i.e. no getting Acclaim for your story elements when you're the highest), I didn't feel punitive at all.  It's a teensy bit fiddly, but in a good way - it encourages people to keep track of exactly how much Acclaim they have, and keep an eye on each other's Acclaim, which is a very useful benefit.  In the first session, without this, we weren't keeping track of our Acclaim, and just kind of tossing it about.  None of us knew how much we had until the end of the session.  This rule is just fiddly enough to encourage keeping track (which in turn keeps the competitive aspect fresh in the mind), without being taxing.

I say it is definitely not punitive.  In a close race you won't be high for long, since people will be re-using your Story Elements more.  And if you're farther ahead, well, it just means the elements YOU liked are going to be used more, which doesn't feel punitive at all.


Graham:  The beverages play a small part in the game - Unexpected Hazards, for instance, target either the player with the "most full" or "least full" glass.  That's the only bit that immediately comes to mind, but it's an interesting bit, since it even turns the whole idea of drinking and refilling one's glass (or offering to refill other players glasses) to be a potential strategic choice.

In my opinion, the game most definitely flowed well.  The only times it didn't were times where we deliberately left the game to talk about the playtesting mechanics of it, which really shouldn't count.  I was definitely way into it.

I'm not sure whether or not Eric played the leader of the expedition deliberately, in terms of Actual Play it made no difference, since everyone has the same amount of screen time, and the like.  That said, in the one other Committee game that we played, Eric didn't play the leader (we kinda didn't have a "leader"; it was a famous adventurer's sidekick (Eric) and his daughter (me) going to look for him).  It just seemed appropriate and grew out of the character creation process.  Eric, I'm sure, will answer to explain more of his thought process from his side. 
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming

Eric J. Boyd


Thanks for your reply. The festive beverages are generally props, but the level of beverage in the players' glasses determines who is the target of an unexpected hazard, as Alexander noted. Players can also raise their glasses to show appreciation for your narration, earning you additional Acclaim. The beginning and end of the expedition's report are also now marked by a formal toast with a key phrase, serving as bookends on in-character play.

In character creation, one of the players immediately stated they wanted to play a sneaky, not so noble sidekick, so a heroic leader was necessary. I asked Alexander if he was up for playing that character but he wanted to do something different. So the heroic leader I became. Truly though, I don't think that changed play much if at all. Lord Greyscale ended up with the least Acclaim and didn't have any more authority over what occurred than any of the other characters.

The other players seemed to enjoy gameplay a lot. Being a playtest, we interrupted the flow at times to check on how things were progressing mechanically, but now that the current issues are ironed out play should flow smoothly the next time we give it a go. I'm very pleased with how the game is playing with me there to shepherd it - now I have to see how it goes without me present.

Thanks for the confirmation that swapping the order of expedition and character creation is a good thing.


You're right that having the players consistently track their Acclaim levels could make the economy come alive because there's no way to forget about it. I like the competitive reuse of story elements that would result. Maybe having a token of some kind be passed among the players to denote who currently has the highest Acclaim (like the beverage bottle or pitcher?) would help with the fiddly aspects.

Thanks for the comments.



I like that suggestion a lot, using the pitcher.  Not only does it help with the fiddly aspects, but it gives the person with the highest Acclaim a certain bit of power as well - he becomes the only one with the ability to manipulate drink levels.  It also helps reinforce the use of drinks (and a pitcher/wine bottle/etc) during play. 

On the other hand, pitchers are kind of large to pass around (if being used instead of a bottle), especially in the early parts of the game when your decanters are full and Acclaim levels are even (and thus likely to stay close to one another for some time).  Hrm.  A token of some kind is good, though.
Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
Maker of many fine story-games!
Moderator of Indie Netgaming