Actual Play - Short Form Fever

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 7th 2010 edited

Recently, I've had a whole bunch of ideas for games, so I've written them up as focussed, short form games and playtested a few at the MKRPG during its most recent Short Block. Here's an outline of how it went:

101 Zombies!
This is a game we've played twice in the last two weeks, with some tweaks having been made to it between the first and second sessions. The premise of the game is very simple: the undead have arisen to feast upon the living and the players are a team of mercenaries hired to cleanse a site of the infection.

Each game starts by rolling 101d6, to represent the horde of zombies at the site, which is chosen by the players; the first session took place in a stadium used for sporting events and rock concerts, whilst the second used the Science Museum in London. Characters are simple sketches, mostly defined by their Strength, Speed and Smarts. The bulk of the game consists of picking up a number of zombie dice whose sum is equal to or less than one of these stats and rolling them to see how many of them you kill and whether you get injured doing so. There are also some tactical options like shoring up the barricades, looking for weapons and healing any of the characters, with the aim being to kill all the zombies before they overwhelm the barricades and swarm the site.

The first time we played, we had a TPK, but the rules got a good going over and were mostly pretty tight, with the feedback largely being about the confusing tactical option of using Smarts instead of Strength or Speed to do some things. It also turned out, on closer examination, that using that option allowed you to kiil as many zombies as using Strength or Speed but with the bonus of gaining resource points or barricades as well.

The main reason I'm writing this report though is to shine a spotlight on Sam, who went above and beyond by designing, printing, laminating and then cutting out with scissors a vast array of tokesn to represent all the variables in the game such as damage, gear and so on. These were a beautiful set of photos of guns, chainsaws, bullets, first aid kits and blood splatters, with '101 Zombies!' written on the back. We played the second game with these tokens tonight, as well as some more players, going from 4 up to 6 and this time we won!

So a big shout out to Sam for his support; his enthusiasm will keep me working on the rough edges of this game and he has eraned a special mention if I ever manage to go to publication with it. Thanks again Sam!

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 7th 2010

Sawmill is inspired by and designed to emulate films like Cube, The Collector and Saw. A group of strangers wake up in a derelict, sealed house containing a large metal cylinder with a digital clock counting down from 2 hours and two boxes on opposite sides of it with a key hole in each one. A recorded message tells them that when the clock reaches zero, a toxic gas will be released, unless they can find two keys to disable the clock before then, The keys must be turned silmultaneously, but one of the locks is boobytrapped and will kill whoever turns the key in it.

Each player then describes what their character looks like but makes no choices about who they are, their background or their relationship to anyone else; each player has two revelation tokens with which to flesh out the story. A revelation token is spent to recognise another character in some way, to confide something about your own characters or to find a puzzle trap that contains a key; a revelation token is earned when a player tries to overcome a puzzle trap. We had an interesting start, with three of the characters being described largely by their physical appearance (large and muscular, tall and thin, etc) but the other two were wearing a diving suit and a pirate's costume!

Interestingly, though plenty of recognitions occurred, which gives the target character the option of either accepting that statement and gaining a skill or denying it and turning the accusation about to give the character who recognised them a skill, no-one ever chose to confide in another character, despite the fact that it operates in almost the same way. I wonder if that was just a result of our play-style or a lack of impetus to trust another character? Perhaps some increased incentive to confide in others would help...

The mecanics of the game depend on rolling dice to match the result on a neutral die; succeed and you get a key! If you have a skill that relates to the puzzle, you doubled the dice rolled and you could also permanently increase your stats by making accusations or confiding in others. The catch is that a double on any roll puts you in Pain, which kills you the next time you fail a puzzle, but a triple kills you outright.

The game played very fast, taking 5 of us to go from start to finish in less than an hour, but it didn't leave much room for character interaction beyond making accusations against each other and then squabbling over who should have the keys we'd found. I believe in the maxim 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it', and the game ceratinly worked, but it seemed a little dry and might benefit from a flashback/cutaway mechanic that would allow players to portray scenes outside the immedaite location of their imprisonment.

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 7th 2010

Mystery of Life
This is basically a rip-off of the TV show 'Law & Order', but every case is a suicide and the investigators are an angel & demon collecting evidence that will send that person to Heaven or Hell. Mechanically, its a game for exactly four players, with two playing witnesses and two playing an angel and demon for the first half of the game, then swapping roles for the second half, which depicts the court case where the evidence is presented.

Foolishly, the resolution mechanic I settled on involved tossing a coin at the end of each scene, with heads being evidence for good and tails for evil, so I brought my bag of pirate doubloons with me, rather than scraping together my loose change; as a result, the three other players insisted on having a pirate-themed story, which began with Parrotless Jimmy jumping off a roof on to a duelling pirate & naval liuetenant, his life ended when he fell upon the lieutenant's raised sword.

The players spontaneously created the idea that the angle & demon were not tied to the space-time continuum and were free to travel to any point in Jimmy's past (or future) to look at the events that had shaped his life and the repercussions of his death. We discovered that Jimmy and his second-in-command both loved the same woman, but she was killed by the second when she spurned him; it was also the second who was duelling the lieutenant. We travelled into the future and saw the child the woman had by Jimmy as a young man in a Christian orphange, flagellating the potential sin out of other orphans.

The rules as stated said that the investigation phase ended and the court phase began when either player had obtained at least 5 coins; unfortunately, this meant we went into the court phase with the forces of hell having 6 coins in their possession, while heaven only had 2, making the outcome of the court case a bit of a foregone conclusion; the redrafted rules now say that the phase change occurs only when both sides have at least 5 coins.

Anyway, Jimmy ended up in Hell, quite predictably, but the game was very enjoyable and created a rich and complex narrative as we wove together the threads of Jimmy's past and future to create an emergent story, so that now forms an important part of the redrafted game.

Posted by: Joe Murphy On: Jul 8th 2010

Sweet! Is any of this online, even in a scrappy form?

Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 8th 2010 edited

Ok, hopefully these should be the links for two of the games:

101 Zombies!

Mystery of Life

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 8th 2010

Those all sound great fun - in particular Sawmill. Keep saving up these little games and you could put out an anthology of short-form games - great to whip out for a one-shot.


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 8th 2010

Great stuff James.

As regards the 'dryness' of Sawmill, I can empathise with that, as it's something I've seen quite a few times in that style of game. Bringing in a (limited) number of flashbacks to non-horror scenes might well help that. Something in the manner of a stripped down strength/weakness mechanic from 3:16? A character has one of each (or maybe just one)?


Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 10th 2010

Here are the links to 'Sawmill' and another short form game that Andrew may remember from the last Concrete Cow. I'm thinking an anthology would be nice, but it seems all the games I have ready already share a theme, which inevitably leads me to want to call any such book 'Play Dead'.


Posted by: Iain McAllister On: Jul 10th 2010

Do you have any photos of the components made James? I like the sound of 101 zombies, will check it out. Maybe I should dust off my 'What a Shambles' idea, Shaun of the Dead the RPG, and see if I can make it work.



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