[Go Play Peoria][Mist-Robed Gate] My doubts have been assuaged

Started by GreatWolf, September 02, 2008, 06:46:05 PM

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Probably the highlight of Go Play Peoria for me was getting to play Mist-Robed Gate by Shreyas Sampat.  Sadly, I didn't take really good notes, and I threw away the character sheets afterwards. So, I'll do my best to point out some things that I noticed about the game and what made it work for us.

Game Prep

A while ago, my in-laws bought me a little dagger. It was one of those knives that you buy in "Oriental" stores. Really overwrought, covered in twining dragons, complete with fake gems. Indeed, verging on gaudy. It's been traveling around in my top dresser drawer for a while, not really doing anything. But, as I was contemplating Mist-Robed Gate, it sprang to mind, and I knew that it was the perfect knife for our game.

So, I came to the con, prepared with this knife, a nifty cloth to cover it, and a velvet bag from another game. Sadly, I hadn't prepared for a quality table surface. In the end, we took some cardboard boxes and laid them over the table. Theresa commented that it ruined the ambience, and she was right. Next time, I'll also have a tablecloth to cover the table.

Oh, for those of you who don't know, the primary mechanic of the game is the gradual unsheathing of a knife. To try to kill another character, you actually stab his character sheet. It's very cool. And, a couple layers of cardboard easily protected the table surface.

Then we sat down to play. There were five players, plus a few audience members who were allowed to vote for the Wirework sequences. We quickly arrived at our setting, which was the stereotypical Chinese wuxia setting, although we agreed that we would make up English names that sounded like they were translated (e.g. "Iron Fist" or "Floating Lotus") instead of Chinese-sounding gibberish.

Then we got to work creating a blood opera.

It is at this point that I must confess something.

I bought this game because it sounded really rather cool. Though, as I read it over, I became concerned. Was there actually enough in this book to enable us to play the game? Did the text actually provide sufficient guidance for a group to learn simply from reading the book?

I am pleased to report that my fears were essentially unfounded. Certainly, I am familiar with most of the techniques that the game uses, so I might not be the best judge of this. However, I simply worked my way through the game instructions, doing what they say, and we had a satisfying game as a result.

So, per the game's instructions, we threw together a few factions locked in conflict with each other. We ended up with two renegade martial arts schools (the "Floating Lotus School" and the "Flying Crane School"), a dead swordsmith's son, the Imperial Police, and the Emperor himself. Of course, there was a powerful sword called Night's Vengeance that functioned as our MacGuffin, which played out quite well.

Character creation is a joy, if you are at all familiar with the genre. Essentially, you choose your character's signature Color, Weather, and Quirk. Then, during a Wirework sequence, you get bonuses for bringing them into play. In other words, the game actively encourages the sort of cinematic style that is found in these movies. Very cool.

Add a couple of Loyalties, which the book says should conflict with each other, and you're ready to go.


I'll put this at the front. Mist-Robed Gate actually tells you how to construct scenes. It tells you how to frame a scene, and, more importantly, it tells you how to figure out when a scene is done. That's a really nice touch, which I appreciate.

As I say, I can't remember all the details of the story. Suffice it to say that the Emperor was behind the theft of the sword and the murder of the swordsmith. It did not help that the swordsmith's son was in love with Lotus, daughter of the master of the Floating Lotus School. It was even more complicated, because, as was revealed in play, Lotus was also having an affair with the Emperor. All of this was going on behind the back of Iron Fist, the head of the Imperial Police. And then there was White Brows, the insulting master of the Diving Crane School. And yes, they all wanted the sword.

Now, everyone focuses on the Knife Ritual during discussions of play. I'll get there in a moment, but first I want to discuss the set budget.

At the beginning of the game, each player gets a blank set card. This is a location where action in our story takes place. What this also means is that action won't happen elsewhere. So, by definition, the action of the story is constrained by location. Early in the game, as you're setting scenes, you're also defining the available setting. Frame a scene at the rundown tavern, and you're asserting that the tavern is an important location in the story where a chunk of the action will take place. Additionally, you get a little bonus in Wirework when fighting at a set that you defined. So, it's to your advantage to frame your character into your set a lot.

In our game, we ended up with one unused set card, although this is partly due to the fact that we rushed the game towards the end, due to time constraints. However, I didn't feel constricted by this mechanic. Instead, it forced us to flesh out details of the various sets, improving and elaborating on them in new ways whenever we returned to them.

Also, in our game, Iron Fist (the head of the Imperial Police) had the Palace as his home set. That meant that the climactic confrontation between the Emperor and Iron Fist was actually on Iron Fist's home turf. It worked thematically, too, given that Iron Fist had a Loyalty to Justice....

The other thing I want to talk about is the Knife Ritual. Essentially, this is how it works. There's a knife on the table that is used to track the level of escalation in a conflict. When one character makes a demand of another character, the one player picks up the knife and hands it to the other person. That person has a couple of choices, including escalating to the next level. Eventually, if you don't duck out, someone's character sheet is getting stabbed.

It's a bit like a running "But Only If..." thread from Polaris,c rossed with the escalation from Dogs in the Vineyard. Very cool. But I want to focus on a couple of points that might be overlooked in all the character sheet stabbing.

First, the escalation level of the knife remains after each conflict. In other words, the current state of the knife actually represents the escalation level of the fiction as a whole. This is important, because the escalation level is directly linked to the way that your character can make a demand of another character:

Sheathed—by implication
Stabbing—with physical violence

So, as we head into a scene, we can look at the state of the knife and get a sense of how directly confrontational this scene can be.

All of this leads to my second point, which is about the sheathed knife. When you pass someone the knife when it is sheathed, you can only make demands by implication. I think that this will be the part of the game that will simultaneously require the most practice and also yield the most benefit. Let me illustrate with an example from the game.

I'm playing the Emperor, and Raquel is playing Lotus, the daughter of the master of the Floating Lotus School. I'm being my normal gaming self; in other words, I'm looking for a way to cause lots of trouble. So I frame a scene. Lotus is in the Palace garden, waiting for the Emperor. Eventually, he finds her beneath a tree. They kiss.

Of course, at this point, there hadn't been a hint of any sort of relationship between the two of them. But Raquel didn't object and gamely proceeded.

Then I pick up the sheathed knife and hand it to Raquel. The Emperor says to Lotus, "You know what needs to be done."

Of course, I can't actually say what I'm thinking. I can only imply as I hand over the knife to Raquel. Now, she's trying to figure out what I mean. Then Brett starts laughing. He's figured it out. Or has he? Again, we can only imply to each other what we're wanting to have happen.

So, Lotus heads off to kill her love, the swordsmith's son.

Yes, that's what I wanted. But what if it weren't? What if Lotus had gone off to kill the swordsmith's son, and that wasn't what the Emperor had been implying at all? Wouldn't that have been great?

Yeah, I think that there's a lot of room to play in this area of the game. Again, I had been concerned that this rules section might be problematic in play. Instead, it worked out to be one of the really fun bits in play.

Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, we had to rush the end of the game. This wasn't altogether bad. After Three Hammers (the swordsmith's son) had killed Lotus at her request, he came to the Emperor to regain Night's Vengeance. We ended up with a massive conflict in the throne room of the Palace. First, the Emperor killed Three Hammers, but not before Three Hammers placed his curse upon the sword. Then, the Emperor and White Brows fought, ultimately resulting in White Brows being banished from the empire. And then Iron Fist intervened, ultimately killing the Emperor and destroying Night's Vengeance before leaving the Palace, a regicide.

I mean, that's a cool ending. But I can't help but think that we could have done even better, having more practice with the tools at our disposal.

Afterwards, everyone was buzzing about how much fun the game was. Yeah, I think that I'll be playing this one again.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown