[Solar System Actual Play] Characters Grow by Trial and Error

Started by Paul T, April 14, 2009, 03:38:43 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Paul T

We concluded a two-session game of Solar System on Sunday night, and I was surprised by a few things that took place.

The game was definitely a success, I think, and a good lot of fun, complete with climactic finish, Bringing Down the Pain at appropriate moments, and lots of XP flying around. I was the Story Guide; Arthur and Tavis were the two players.

I set up the game by having each player write up an NPC to go with each Key they took, and then combining those randomly to create a little relationship map, which turned out to be appropriately twisted. A number of strange relationships and little secrets came into being through this process, which I enjoyed--I had to create very little material for play. I did adjust each NPC to make sure that he or she would hit at least one of the players' Keys, but that was about all the creative "prep" I did.

I also created some open-ended Key Scenes and made the list public, for the players to see. This was a sort of "bait", which I hoped would prompt players to jump ahead to ideas I had if they didn't know what to do. I think it worked in this regard, although the game was short enough that most of the Key Scenes didn't see play.

I have a few interesting rules notes, and I'd like to list them and get some feedback from you more experienced TSoY/SS players.

1. When advances were spent, it was always to provide what the player needed right then and there. For instance, if a character needed to climb up somewhere, the player would buy the Athletics Ability, and we'd go ahead and roll. In particular, Pool improvements were very popular, especially when a bonus die was desired and the player didn't have any left. The player would buy an extra die right then and there and roll the bonus die into their standing dice.

This is interesting, because in practice it meant that characters' strengths tended to grow according to whatever they did in the game. Is that the way character growth tends to work in this game?

2. There was also an interesting incident during an extended conflict where one character (a young, rebellious noble with the Key of Unrequited Love) was trying to convince a young woman (the subject of his Key) to go along with his plan to help her escape her arranged wedding. He was looking for something to help him sway her, and the other player suggested that he sing or whistle a song that would have a special meaning to her. The player bought the Secret of Imbuement, describing this melody he was whistling as a "weapon" useful for swaying this woman.

This seemed pretty specific, so we agreed to assign it a bonus of +3. Of course, the player now had no problem winning the conflict and convincing her to go along with him. He used it again in a later scene.

Does this sound like a kosher use of the Secret of Imbuement? It worked well in our particular game, and I think we all liked the idea of this old melody moving the young woman... but I could also see this tactic getting a little out of hand. What do you think?

3. There was another "weapon" uncertainty when I had an NPC try to use the Secret of Disarm during a duel. The text reads: "Your character can disarm an opponent, without changing intentions, with a successful ability check using a weapon in Bringing Down the Pain". I wasn't sure if that meant a) a second roll, made alongside the usual roll in the conflict, with a 1 or higher required to disarm the opponent, b) the duelist must win the opposed roll, inflicting Harm, and then can spend the Vigor point to disarm his opponent, or c) the duelist must take a parallel action to disarm the opponent, rolling at least a 1.

Option c) seemed the most in-line with the system, so that's what I went with. However, it also seemed strange that the opponent couldn't resist the attempt. If I had to do it again, I would probably let the other player decide whether they wanted to keep fighting (in parallel) or try to avoid the disarm attempt (opposed, either defensive, or for harm).

When the player's sword flew out of his hand, I also wasn't 100% sure how to handle it. He was now facing an opponent who was still armed. In our game, a friendly NPC was standing nearby and threw him another sword, but if he hadn't, I'm not sure whether I would have given the fighter a +1 weapon bonus or assigned a penalty die to the unarmed man.

4. I admit that I fudged a bit and ignored Eero's rule that a tie during an extended conflict means a player must spend a Pool point to remain in the conflict. The reasons were twofold:

A. It just seemed weird that a player who spent Pool points in conflict, trying to increase their odds of winning, also increased their odds of losing if and when a tie come up (basically a totally random occurence outside the player's control).
B. It meant that I had to track Pools for NPCs, where normally I could sort of handwave it and say, "let's say this NPC has one or two points to spend in this conflict".

It seems that, under normal circumstances, a PC can push and push in conflict, wearing themselves down until they lose or give. To add another circumstance that could force them to lose (running out of Pool points and rolling a tie) seemed kind of like overkill. In a less important conflict, I can see how this could interesting, but in an important, climactic conflict it seemed like it would have been a cheap shot against the player. It didn't feel right, dramatically, not to let the player push on as far as he was willing to go.

Instead, I tended to use ties to throw some unexpected change into the situation. Since this tended to leave the actual conflict unresolved, I left it up to the  players involved to decide whether they wanted to resume the conflict afterwards or not. When they DID want to resume, we weren't sure whether we should begin an entirely new conflict or not. In this case, I simply ruled that we picked up the BDtP exactly where we had left off.

5. Although I think we managed OK, it was a little awkward to have two extended conflicts going on at the same time. We had a duel taking place (conflict 1), which the other player used as an opportunity to run away (conflict 2, rolled poorly, wanted to extend). The second extended conflict resolved before the first one had, and immediately went into a followup conflict. Timing regular conflicts in relation to extended conflicts was totally arbitrary, and, while I think I handled it just fine, I felt like I wish I had some more support from the system there.

More problematic was the presence of many other NPCs, many of which seemed like they might want to join the extended conflicts mid-way. I wasn't sure how to handle that, so I didn't have any of them jump in to participate. Is there a good, easy way to handle a messy situation with a whole crowd of NPCs? I ruled that the help of one NPC made him a "weapon" for one of the player characters at one point, but that's as far as we went in terms of complicating the situation.

6. Dramatic, extended action sequences seem to be difficult to achieve in this system, especially if many NPCs are involved. Since conflicts use up resources at a frightening rate, fighting a duel, jumping out the window, and trying to escape with your beloved (each time facing a different NPC as opposition) proved incredibly difficult, even with some key Buyoffs and in-the-moment Pool purchases and/or Ability advances. Have any of you had success with this sort of thing? How did it go?

In our game, the young noble was galloping away with his beloved when he rolled to escape the town's guards and failed. It just didn't seem like a meaty enough conflict to go into a full-out BDtP, so I had the guards give in the first round. But we realized afterwards that, given the amount of Harm the character had already suffered and his empty Pools, even the guards (Competent Ability and no Pool points) would have easily won the extended conflict.

Does this sound like good, normal TSoY/SS play, or does any of it sound a little weird to you? I'd love hear any comments anyone has, on any of the above points.

Thanks! We had a great time playing.


Paul T

One of the reasons the "big, mixed crowd of NPCs" situation was tricky was because we often came _this_ close to other actions invalidating one or more intents in BDtP. For instance, one character was in a duel, and switched his intent to convincing the noble watching over the duel that his young friend (Key of Fraternity) was not guilty. This came about because he bought off the Key of Gilttering Gold, admitting to having stolen some treasure from the noble, and this younger fellow was known to be his comrade.

Anyway, parallel to the duel, the other PC was trying to escape with the girl, and this younger friend was involved in that extended conflict.

We weren't sure what to do if, say, the younger fellow was a) killed, b) did something terrible, like kill someone, or c) escaped.

Since the intent was to "convince" someone else, we had no problem envisioning all possible outcomes. However, had the intent been more direct (like "to capture" this young man), the action taking place in the second conflict would have to tread very carefully not to invalidate the first BDtP's intents.

How do you handle this sort of thing? Can external events invalidate the intent of someone within an extended conflict?


Hi Paul, that sounds like a proper game of TSoY if I ever heard of one. No sweat there.

Regarding parallel conflicts that threaten to cross Goals or invalidate each other; it seems you did a good job handling those. I usually avoid them altogether. If not for reasons stated by you, I do for aesthetic reasons. Any conflict should have the undivided attention of the group. If you don't find that to be a problem, my guess is you can go on just as you did.

I have one remark regarding not requiring pool point tax on ties in extended conflicts: I used this rule to great effect in the last game I ran, this added a new dimension besides filling the harm track and emptying the pools of your opponents. It made for some very hard decisions on all sides.

Eero Tuovinen

That thing where players buy what they need with experience sounds exactly like what we have in our on-going southern campaign. I like it, especially when players have created characters who prove completely unprepared for the challenges they actually face. It'd take too long to go through an elaborate cycle of finding teachers, getting training montages and so on and so forth for every little thing at the start when the characters are just finding their shape. There are a lot of Abilities, and I've yet to see a new player who would put in the points at chargen to all of those wide general ones when they can get cool, specific ones. Then their character gets dropped into the ocean hundreds of miles from land, at which point they suddenly start seeing the point of the athletics ability.

Concerning the Secret of Imbuement, I've practically castrated it in my own games because of how strong it is. I'll roll out some sort of replacement when I'm reasonably satisfied with it. My traditional solution has been to only allow exceptional imbuements to come from legendary smiths or whatnot, so the players won't just think up a +3 imbuement on the spot. Then again, if they're willing to spend the Advance on what amounts to a one-time bonus in one conflict, perhaps it's not a problem. It definitely isn't any sort of problem with new players in a short campaign - I wouldn't worry about this sort of thing before it becomes a real issue at the table.

I'd have Secret of Disarm be a normal action in extended conflict, except that instead of Harm or bonus dice it removes weapons. Then again, I'm not entirely convinced that I'm going to keep the Secret, it's a bit specific.

As concerns handling extended conflicts, I recommend the same Harald did: don't push your ability to organize procedures more than you can manage. A BDtP is an important situation, you can easily just focus on it until it's over - no need to bring in other conflicts simultaneously. If other characters in the same scene are doing something that concerns the BDtP as well and needs to be resolved in the middle, then by definition they are swept into the BDtP as well - just have them state goals and get in at the next negotiation phase. This goes for NPCs too, although I tend to be very prudent with my own NPC use in these situations: if my NPC has interests in the conflict, but a player character is already representing those interests, the NPC will just provide moral support or a couple of bonus dice or whatever. I sort of allow the NPC to fade back to make room for the player character, the default protagonist.

We had an extended action sequence in the session we played last weekend. Characters certainly used up most of their Pools, but there wasn't any actual trouble with running out of resources too early. In our case the extended sequence means something like half a dozen rounds of extended conflict, though, so perhaps you had significantly more. Also remember that NPCs should make use of the opportunity to give in whenever their character integrity allows; that's how I keep the extended conflicts suitably short.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Yeah, I usually don't run BDtP for more than 5 to 8 rounds. 8 rounds usually is preceived to be long already. Giving in conflicts is best learnt by example.

Paul T

Thank you for the replies.

What about NPC Pools? The advice in the SS booklet looked good, but in play it seemed like it made the NPCs too strong. For instance, having 3 Pool as the "low end" placed an NPC on par with a PC (since, with 10 points, that gives you 3 in the typical PC's Pool), except that the PC often began the conflict with their Pool already depleted. Having NPCs with Pools in the 7-10 range seemed like they would totally overpower PCs, especially with the "Pools exhausted + tie = knocked out" clause.

I went with Clinton's suggestion of half-size Pools, and it worked out OK (giving a typical range of 1-3 for an NPC's Pool).

Eero, how do you work with those Pool sizes in your games?

Eero Tuovinen

I suspect that you have more NPCs in your conflicts than I do, actually. It's pretty typical in my games for one NPC to have to face 2-3 player characters, which would account for the need to have more resources. This goes with the aforementioned idea that I try to have only one character represent one angle in the conflict.

Another factor is that PCs can buy more Pool and stuff with experience, so if they do get knocked about a bit at the beginning, that'll start to change soon enough when they get some force multipliers into play. Perhaps the most important part, though, is the fact that NPCs only rarely use Effects, while players tend to have some floating about. Gift dice as well, and they can roll Abilities in support. All of this means that spending Pool is sort of a last resort for player characters who want bonus dice, while NPCs are expending theirs readily. Then there is the fact that nothing prevents players from switching Pools and using them all - in fact, most characters should switch to a different Pool when they run out of one.

Finally, remember that a high Pool is only as powerful as the character's Ability rank indicates, really. As a rule of thumb, an Experienced (2) NPC will make for a formidable opponent to start-up player characters as long as his Pools last, while a Master (3) will win them unless he runs out of Pool points. If you create Master or Grandmaster (4) NPCs and give them high Pools, you're basically running the most powerful NPCs you have available in the game, ever. Note also the way I use to determine the Pool size of a NPC - it does not correlate with the power of the character in the setting at all, unlike the character's rank: the sole determinant is how much narrative complexity and interest the NPC has developed. This should in principle mean that only NPCs worthy of respect have the high Pools necessary for dominating extended conflicts, and even then they won't do it if they're weak.

All that being said, this NPC thing is very much a matter of finding out what works for your group. If you want weaker NPCs, then give them smaller Pools. I've found that my NPCs are annoyingly easy to push over if they don't have several Pool points to throw into bad dice rolls, but tastes surely do vary, and Story Guiding is a craft, not a science.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T


That makes sense. I only had two PCs, and they had pretty different goals in the game, so they never engaged in a BDtP together. Pretty much all the conflicts were 1-on-1, a PC and an NPC. Almost all the NPCs were Unskilled, Competent, or Adept (though there was on Master-level NPC).

It sounds like part of it is the players getting smarter about rolling Abilities into each other and otherwise leveraging the rules. Part of the problem was that they had each established a couple of Effects, but none were relevant to the major conflicts that developed, so, instead of going into conflict better prepared than the NPCs, they were entering conflicts with their Pools largely already tied up or spent.

So, PCs tended to have Competent or Adept Abilities, as did the NPCs, but the NPCs, with Pools of 2 or 3, had more bonus dice to draw on than the exhausted PCs!

We'll see if that dynamic changes in longer-term play! I know a large part of it was a stroke of bad luck on the players' part. One player (Arthur) pretty much rolled a (-) on the dice every time he spent Pool for a bonus die. Poor fellow.

Anyway, your description of how it works for you makes sense to me. More experimentation will have to follow!


Paul T

Oh, yeah:

The extended action scene I described consisted of one long, drawn-out BDtP for one PC (which was a close call, and, I think, very satisfying dramatically, with several interesting changes of intent in the middle). For the other PC, however, there was one roll which, having failed, went into BDtP, and then another basic conflict, and then a second BDtP. That was when I just gave on the NPC side, not wanting to draw things out more. It worked well dramatically, but I didn't like that it came down to a sort of GM fiat in the end: had I kept rolling for the NPCs, they almost surely would have won. As I said, they were merely Competent, with no Pool points, but the PC was severely Harmed (and therefore suffering penalty dice) and out of Pool points and advances.

Does this sort of thing come up often in your games? I didn't really like that feeling, where giving in the conflict felt more like an old-school Illusionist technique than some kind of reasonable choice on the level of the fiction.

Eero Tuovinen

The way I deal with that sort of thing is to put the onus on the player:

"OK, another round - damn, I'm bored! BOOOREEEDDD... Can't you give already, you're going to lose anyway!"

In other words: getting bored is a social problem, not a creative choice. And social problems should be dealt with together. It's not your responsibility to end the conflict by giving up any more than it is the player's. Of course sometimes the player thinks that he can win or thinks that the conflict is really interesting and enjoys having his character ground down, but then you just need to find ways to amuse yourself. Get all tragid and grim and describe how the character's bones break as he loses, loses, loses consistently.

This all of course presumes that you can handle the player losing in the conflict; if losing the conflict would just be stupid, then it shouldn't be happening in the first place. Also remember that instead of giving up yourself you can renegotiate the stakes. When we had the long conflict last weekend and it became obvious that the parties were well-matched, I changed goals and opted to imprison one player character instead of sinking the ship they all were on. All but one of the other characters happily left the unfortunate soul to his fate, which meant that I could finish the conflict definitely with a few moves.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T

Hmmm. Good example!

I'll be thinking about this one.

Note: The issue wasn't boredom in the sense of nothing happening at the table (I'm sure we could have made fun, exciting narrative out of the conflict) but the inevitability of one outcome (in this case, failure).

I suppose that, really, the issue was that none of us were *really* open to the possibility of failure in that particular conflict. There's a lesson there! In the future, I'll try to come up with more interesting counter-stakes.

Eero Tuovinen

Yes! That's a very common issue - and it's one that a classical goal-based conflict resolution game is not very good with. If I'm going to write more about Solar System, I'm going to include something substantial about non-conflict struggles. Those are actually a pretty tricky thing in conflict-based rpgs, as it takes some experience to even recognize that something is a struggle without being a conflict; and even if you recognize the situation, it's still an open question whether one can be satisfied by just declaring a non-conflict and doing freeform narration. Might be how we've been schooled to think about roleplaying, but it feels like there should be some mechanical impact when a character struggles just for color and fictional sensibilities.

Of course, the by-the-book solution here is to run an unopposed Ability check against some minor Harm. "We all know that your character will succeed in his cinematic escape here, but do make a Riding check - I want to see whether you'll break any ribs on the way out." This allows everybody to feel like the struggle has been procedurized, but there is no major stakes in the way of accepting a loss gracefully.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T

Ooh! Good trick.

I was thinking along the lines of, "Think of a complication to success. (You succeed, but...) On a failure, the complication takes place."

The Harm trick is kind of a special case of that for when you're not feeling creative. I like it!