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[The Emperor's Heart] Love and Death in the Imperial City

Started by jporrett, September 02, 2007, 11:19:21 AM

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I got a chance to sit down and do a bit of playtesting of "The Emperor's Heart" this weekend.  It was at my friend's house and there was much gaming going on.  I had just run a crazy game of InSpectres, and there was some boardgaming and Wii happening elsewhere in the house.  My friend Dave and I sat down and I began explaining the game.

I gave him a quick overview of the background, basically reading some selected portions of the background, just enough to give him an idea of the flavor of the game.  Then we went to the setup.  It took us just shy of 30 minutes.  It probably would have been quicker, but I was explaining how the system worked as we went along.   By the time we were done, we were pretty psyched for playing.

We went with the Dowager's Ghosts.  We decided that our two characters had somehow been framed for the Dowager's death, and were wanted men.  While the rest of the Ghosts had fled to regroup (we determined that the Dowager had just recently been assassinated -- merely a week before) we stayed behind in the Imperial City to find out who killed her and to clear our names.

Our Scenario was The Palace.  We wanted to be right in the thick of things, skulking around, trying not to be captured.  For our Resource, we wanted the Immortal's external memory banks.  We figured that they recorded *everything* and that we would find the identity of the person or persons directly responsible for the Dowager's death.  Also, it would be a valuable resource for the Ghosts in their quest to destroy the Immortals.

We quickly sketched out three supporting cast.  Mistress Jade, a concubine for the Emperor; Feng, the Imperial seneschal; and Jin, a bureaucrat  who worked for the Eunuchs at their administrative palace, where we believed the Immortal's memory banks were.

Characters were next.  Dave chose the Old Master, Master Wei.  He had a Sworn Vow, to bring to justice whoever killed his Lady, the Dowager Empress.  And by justice he meant, kill.  He also had a personal rivalry with the Emperor's head bodyguard.  Dave decided that Master Wei had been the Dowager's bodyguard and that he and the Emperor's bodyguard had some history.

I came up with Jialang, the Dashing Hero.  He had a forbidden love -- Mistress Jade, the Emperor's concubine who we'd come up with as a supporting character.  I also took Imperial Blood, saying that I was the Dowager's younger brother (she had been part of a noble family, and that we all came with her to the Imperial City when she ascended to the throne.)  He could not live with people thinking that he had killed his beloved sister.

Finally, our villains.  We picked the Elite Troops and came up with Captain Xi, their leader.  She ended up becoming very pivotal to my character's story.  I suggested to Dave that the rival he chose for his background should be one of our villains.  The Imperial Assassin, Red Dagger, became the Emperor's bodyguard.

Scene 1: Master Wei stealthily moved through the city, avoiding groups of Imperial Wardogs, heading to the residence of Jin.  The bureaucrat, we decided, had once been a part of the Dowager's house, had worked his way up through the former Emperor's administration, and eventually found himself working for the Eunuchs.  Wei wanted to convince him to help us find a way into the very secure administrative palace.  Master Wei reminded Jin that he had once been loyal to the Dowager and hoped to call upon that loyalty now.  Conflict!  It only went for three rounds, with Jin at first telling Master Wei that now his loyalty was to something bigger than the Dowager --  to the entire Empire.  Wei reminded him that the Dowager brought him to the Imperial Palace with her, had trusted him, etc.  We ended the scene with Jin, sitting with his head hanging.  He looked up, a tear running down his face.  He agreed to help the Ghosts.

Scene 2: Jialang was meeting his forbidden love, Mistress Jade, in the Imperial Arboretum.  It was huge, spanning many acres.  They met at an beautifully carved fountain in a far corner of the arboretum.  She was concerned that they would soon be parted, that he would be caught for his "crimes."  He convinced her everything was going to be cool.  He and Master Wei had everything under control.  Then Captain Xi and her squad of elite troops.  Jialang told Mistress Jade to leave, and he faced Captain Xi.  I decided right then and there, that Jialang was going to fall for Xi.  He began fighting the troops, always working his way towards the Captain.  There were a few ties, but the troops never had the upper hand on my hero, he finally faced off against Captain Xi, disarmed her, moved in close, kissed her full on the mouth, and dashed off.  Dave ended the scene with her turning and watching him escape, with a half smile on her face.

Scene 3: Master Wei was supposed to meet Jin at a noodle shop, where Jin would give Wei the security card he needed to get into the Eunuch's administrative building.  He arrived, only to find Red Dagger, his rival, waiting for him, sitting where he was supposed to meet Jin.  Wei sat down at the table and ordered noodles, playing it cool.  There were words between them, and Red Dagger jumped up onto the table and brought his sword down at the old master.  Wei blocked with his chopsticks and the fight was on!  The upper hand swung back and forth, with Wei finally beating Red Dagger into unconsciousness.  He searched Dagger, and found *his* security card.  Master Wei, after sending a message to Jialang, headed directly to the administrative palace...

Scene 4: Jialang was at the Imperial cemetery, visiting his sister's mausoleum.  He had not been there yet, having been on the run for her murder.  He was telling her that they would soon avenge her death, and wouldn't you know it... more of those damned elite troops, a whole platoon, showed.  Sadly, no Captain Xi this time.  Jialang was pretty pissed that his quite time with his sister was being interrupted.  The troops were pissed because this upstart had humiliated members of their group earlier.  They wanted to capture him and take him to their Captain.  He wanted to teach them a lesson.  Of the six rounds of combat, 4 were ties.  The dice pools were being whittled down, until finally Jailang got the upper hand.  He was running across the tops of gravestone and mausoleums, dropping down in between to fight the troops.  Eventually the graveyard was littered with the dead troops, and Jialang crouched on the roof of his sister's tomb, smiling quietly to himself.

Scene 5:  Master Wei slipped into the administrative palace and finally found where the external memory bank was.  It was crystal, shaped to look like a large vase.  Jin was there, with several security guards.  Betrayal!  Jin apologized to Master Wei, explaining that he had to do it.  The spear wielding security guards gave Master Wei a bit of trouble, eventually knocking him out.

At this point, the last award token had been given out and we decided it was time for endgame.

Scene 6: Jialang received the message from Master Wei and rushed over to the palace to assist him.  Captain Xi was waiting for him.  At this point I figured he was in love with her, and did not want her to think that he was a murderer.  The conflict was a mix of fighting, conversation and romance.  I had 10 dice.  Despited that fact, the conflict lasted 9 turns.  It was completely awesome.  The upper hand switched back and forth, with several ties.  It started with swords, and him trying to convince her of his innocence.  At one point, she swept his leg, and as he fell, he lost his sword.  He tripped her, her swords went flying, and she fell on top of him.  Her hair had come loose from it's braid and cascaded over his face.  They were face to face.  Then she kneed him in the groin, and jumped up.  Finally, she ran out of dice.  She staggered back from a kick he'd landed.  He caught her, and they kissed... for a minute I thought I was playing Breaking the Ice :)

Scene 7: Master Wei was awaken by a bucket of ice cold water being poured over him.  He was still in the memory bank room, but Red Dagger was there.  "Get up old man.  Let's finish this," the assassin/bodyguard said.  Master Wei accused Dagger of being the one who had killed the Dowager, which the assassin confessed to.  The Eunuchs convinced the Emperor it was in his best interest.  But now that Master Wei knew the truth, he would have to die.  And so he did.  Two rounds.  Red Dagger carried the advantage the whole time, despited the fact that Wei had, I think 8 dice to Red Dagger's 4.  Wei's fighting style was such that he got in close to his opponent, looking right into their eyes.  He did this with Red Dagger.  Wei thought he was winning when suddenly, his eyes widened and he fell back.  He looked down to see a red dagger plunged into his heart.  He fell to his knees.  "I... promised.. to... avenge... the ... Dowager..."  Then he fell to the ground, dead.  Wow.

Epilogue:  The Dowager's Ghosts had retrieved Master Wei's body, and had a secret funeral for him.  Jialang was there, Xi at his side, no longer a Captain, but an outlaw.  Jialang vowed on Master Wei's grave that he would find Red Dagger...

I would have to say that the game was excellent.  It really moved along.  We were constantly throwing out "what ifs" to each other.  It really helped when one of us was stuck for an idea. Dave was totally ready to play again, right then and there.

I noticed afterwards that we'd never really touched on the turmoil.  We'd mentioned it briefly in the first conflict with Jin, saying that he was under a lot of pressure because of the three Immortals needing new lungs, but I'm pretty sure that was it.  Seneschal Feng was left by the wayside, as was Mistress Jade.  In my mind, Jialang's forbidden love shifted from Mistress Jade to Captain Xi.

On the scenario card, we used all the traits.  We used all but one of our faction traits.  Both character used all their traits, as did the elite troops/Captain Xi.  The Imperial Assassin only use one of his traits.  Finally all the award tokens were used.  Setup took us 30 minutes, and the game itself, two hours.

-- Joe


Hi Joe,

Thanks for playtesting!  I was super concerned about the muddiness of a first playtest draft after the last round of playtest reports, I'm glad you made it work.

1) How did the back and forth of the dice feel for you?  Did it help pace the action?  Or too long/too short?
2) Any thoughts on spending Traits, Award Tokens or Going all Out?
3) Anything you felt supported you really well besides the rule of "What if?"
4) Anything you felt you wanted more support/didn't want in the way of play?
5) How did set up feel?  Easy, tough?
6) And how familiar was everyone with wuxia?  (I'm kind of curious how much this affects play, as well)



Hey Chris,

The pace seemed to work fine.  Here's a breakdown of rounds per conflict:

-- First conflict: 3 rounds
-- Second conflict: 5 rounds
-- Third conflict: 5 rounds
-- Fourth conflict: 6 rounds
-- Fifth conflict: 4 rounds
-- Sixth conflict: 9 rounds
-- Seventh conflict : 2 rounds

Of course, the more dice both side had, the better chance for ties which lengthened the conflict.  More dice is no guarantee, as Dave discovered in the final conflict, but it usually helps.

Truthfully, neither of us considered Going All Out.  The main reason is that by the Endgame, which is where we would have been most likely to do so, we each had three Award Tokens and at least a Trait or two.  We were hoarding them.  I think that probably would not have been the case with more players, which would equal more scenes and more of a chance to use Tokens.  So yeah, I think the number of Tokens is good.  I'd like to try it with more people, like a 3 or 4 player game, and see the dynamic, though I suspect it would be about the same.

Of course, having more examples would be good, especially in the sections about scenes and conflict.  I see have have a placeholder in the text on how to set good goal, so I know you are planning it.

One thing we just sort of fudged was who got to narrate the ties in a conflict.  The player who had the upper hand narrated that particular round, but when ties came up, we just sort of threw ideas back and forth until it seemed cool.

I thought set up was a breeze. As I said in the write up, I was explaining the system while we were setting up, so that slowed things down a little.  I think if Dave and I sat down again to play, we'd have set up done in no time.

For myself, I've seen some of the more recent movies that have been released here in the States.  "Crouching Tiger," "Hero," "House of the Flying Daggers."  Years ago I saw "A Chinese Ghost Story."  I would say I'm familiar with wuxia, but not intimately familiar.  During the Quick Talk, it seemed that Dave had about the same familiarity. 

If you have any other questions, let me know.

-- Joe


"I'd like to try it with more people, like a 3 or 4 player game, and see the dynamic, though I suspect it would be about the same."

And if you hadn't ducked stealthily off to start the game you could have *had* a 3 or 4 player game, ya putz...

I heard about the game today from the other player, Dave, and he was crazy pumped about it.  While he was gleefully telling me about it his wife was sitting nearby commenting to another of the group that was at the Labor Day party that she wasn't sure he'd ever been as excited about *her* as he was about this game.  He didn't hear her.

For the record, I don't believe her for a moment, but I thought I'd pass on the compliment to Chris. :)


Hi Joe,

Thanks!  I didn't expect folks to track how many rounds were in a conflict, but that's pretty awesome data to get.  And likewise the narration fudge is exactly what I had in mind, though I must have missed adding it into text.

As far as wuxia familiarity, I'm aiming for a game that works with just having seen 2 or 3 movies- not necessarily requiring massive genre familiarity, just a bit.  I'm glad you guys got such an awesome time from it.


Thanks!  Tell Dave he can post here or email me if he had any questions or input.  It's always good to hear what you do right as much as what needs fixing and polish.



Hey Joe,

I was also curious about how you felt about the setup process and how that worked out for you.



Hey Chris,

I really liked the set up.  It was quick and easy, which is always good.  For me, I think it's cool that by the time you start making your character, you've got so much of the game already figured out.

That said, I think making the characters took us longest.  Really it was picking the right drama cards.  So many good choices!  But still, it took us no longer than five minutes really. 

Are you planning on more Factions and Scenario cards, or having a section detailing a way for players to make their own? 


Hi Joe,

Yes and yes.  I'm thinking either 6 or 8 for both Faction Cards and Scenarios.  I want enough choice for people to have fun with, not so much it bogs down setup.   And definitely advice on how to make any of the cards- I'd love to see folks make card sets for other genres or settings.



Hi, Chris-

I really don't have too much input to add to the discussion - just thought I'd let you know that I really enjoyed the game.  Honestly, when I told people about how the game went, it was more like a really good movie I had just seen - a movie that needs to have a sequel...

I was initially a little disappointed how quickly Master Wei was defeated, but it really makes for good drama - the gloating arch-villain revealing the truth to a down-but-not-out hero, then subsequently finishing said hero with a little dirty fighting - it makes for a great ending of the first chapter of a great story.  I'm hoping Joe and Ed and I can get together soon and expand the scope of the story - as all good sequels do - adding more characters and upping the ante, as it were.

So, just a suggestion - could the endgame conflicts be extended somehow - maybe by requiring an additional "upper hand" round before anyone can declare victory?




Hi Dave,

That's an interesting idea, though I think given how long conflicts tend to back and forth already, an extra upper hand round might make it too long.

By endgame, most folks have 2-3 Award Tokens, and can afford to Go All Out and snag 6 dice.  If you're really wanting to push it after that, then spend your Tokens on top of that, so you're pulling out 8-9 dice.