Actual Play - [Hammer Falls] Junkie Dystopia

Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: Apr 1st 2010 edited

Hammer Falls is a pocket play game of dystopian storytelling. Together with the author (Pooka), I had a chance to playtest the game at Conpulsion last weekend.


To begin the game, two cards are drawn from the deck. The values of the two cards determine the nature of the dystopia. This feature is clean and elegant, especially as the thirteen options are gorgeously brief yet rich with detail and suggestion.

In game: We chose two sevens and decided to exchange one. The final result, after the exchange, was Minority and Surreal. Minority, as you'd guess, deals with the persecution of minority groups, fringe elements, that sort of thing. Surreal is more complex. Think drug use, virtual reality, the Matrix.

Our story: A new drug, called "node," gives users the (real?) feeling they are connected to one another. Once you've tried node, it stays with you forever, marking you in society as an outcast. It quickly frazzles your brain, distorting your perception, turning you into a beast. Ignorant people believe you can catch the symptoms by sitting on the same toilet, etc.

Character generation is also clean. You pick three character traits, each of which interact tightly with the game mechanics. These are "What do you want?" "Who are you trying to protect?" and "What are you hiding from?"

In game: For example, I chose Cody Hanks the leather-faced junkie legend (the guy who talks about how pure everything was in the old days and the wild tales of his youth). What does he want? Brotherhood—the false community he gets from the drug crowd. Who is he trying to protect? Patty—the gorgeous thirty-something node-fiend who is gradually losing her mind. What is he hiding from? He has never taken node—he does not want to expose himself to the community.

The next rule is probably the sweetest. Each suit in the deck of cards is assigned a theme. Reds are idealogical/psychological and blacks are physical. These are the obstacles in game and, here is the WOW moment, each suit is assigned to one player. Not only are you playing a protagonist in Hammer Falls, but you are also playing a threat. In a way, this threat develops its own kind of character during play. Awesome.

In game: For the four obstacles, we chose Paranoia for hearts, Hallucination for diamonds, Addiction for clubs and the Mosquito (basically The Man) for spades. My threat was clubs. So whenever an obstacle came up for a character during play, it was my responsibility to introduce addiction as a threat to that character's intention.

So that's the game setup. I won't go into too much detail about the story we generated, but instead I'll touch upon a couple of areas.

Game Play

*** The introduction was confusing (when I was asked to describe my character's typical day). I think, as I mentioned afterwards, it would be more interesting for players to pick one of their traits and build a scene around that trait.

*** Once a player starts talking, there's nothing really there to stop him from going on and on. I'd like it if there was one person (the next clockwise player, for example) whose role it was to shout "Conflict!"

*** Once a conflict is determined (by the above method or otherwise), the game becomes super-elegant again. A card is turned over to expose the nature of the challenge. So, if someone drew a ten of hearts, it would be Pooka's job to include paranoia into the scene. This is really, really brilliant. I'll tell you why…

When you're teaching in a classroom, you never say "Bobby, what is the capital of Ireland?" Instead you say, "What is the capital of Ireland?" look around the classroom, "Bobby?" In this way, everyone in the class is thinking, not just Bobby. The same rule applies in Hammer Falls.

*** There's a slightly cumbersome resolution mechanic, but it's fun. If there was a way to reduce the repetition of calculations (like Adam suggested), that would be ace. For example, instead of adding every single card up for a suit (10 + 7 + 8 + 3 + 4 + 9 = 41), could you try using "highest card + number of cards" (10 + 5) as the difficulty? Okay, so this would require a bit of redesign from the cards-in-hand perspective, but it might be worth it. For example, could you reduce the hand size? Give players just two or three cards?

*** Also, I don't think it's important for the game to have a happy ending. I mean, I think there should only be one track, the Dystopia Track, and that it should be thought of as a timer that keeps counting down. What will you protect before dystopia strikes (or the Hammer Falls)? While I was playing, and the odds were stacking against us, I was looking more and more to protect Patty. I started moving points from my other traits over to the Patty trait. I believe that kind of thing happened to all of us. I think it's more important to tell stories about what the character loses and not whether the result is a happy ending. Of course, this is just my perspective, but I'd really consider dropping that extra track (which would tidy up some of the rules).

To continue that point, even if you wanted to keep the happy ending bit, you could easily make that part of the "What do you want?" trait instead of a global trait for all players. Get me?

*** There was some fiddliness in the swapping of cards around. When you win a conflict, you discard the card you were trying to beat and draw a new card which you place face down on the appropriate trait. I'd prefer it if you just used the card you beat—and changed the end game.

_The way the end game works is that you draw a card and try to beat it with one of the stored cards on your trait. If you beat it, your trait is protected from the dystopia.

This is problematic, I think, in that a low or high drawn card could practically guarantee success or failure despite the number of saved cards on your trait. That is, success or failure doesn't seem proportional to the number of cards you invest. I'm probably being stupid here. You might consider modifying it so that you draw a card and compare it to your invested cards in a different way, like suit and number. If you get a match, you succeed. For example, if I draw a 6 of hearts for the end game I will succeed if any of my invested cards are a 6 or a heart. In that way, it would not matter if you knew the values of your invested cards, which means you wouldn't have to do the "discard the card you were trying to beat" thing._

*** As we were discussing, it might be an idea to restrict where the cards can be invested based on which trait was used to set up the scene at the start of your turn.

Good Game

I think that's that.

I realise that this AP report is very much a design post, so sorry if comes across as negative toward the end. Don't read it that way, whether you are Pooka or some other viewer. This game is cool, it generates great stories, and I'd play it again in a heartbeat.

There are published games out there, good ones too, that I can't say the same about.

Good job and keep it up!


Posted by: Joe Prince On: Apr 1st 2010

Interesting to hear about how Hammer Falls works in play (and Pooka's real name). It sounds pretty cool, in a grim dystopian kind of way!

It seems like there are a lot of parallels between HF and Shock – unsurprising given Pooka's enthusiasm for Shock.

How do the two games compare in play?

Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: Apr 1st 2010 edited

Hammer Falls offers a more incestuous and integrated play experience. In Shock, the Antagonist seems like a very stagnant adversary. The role of the antagonist in Hammer Falls spills over from one player to the next, giving each encounter a potentially new angle every turn.

The world building phase of Shock is gorgeous, and open ended, while Hammer Falls delivers a more concise and readable experience. That is, you're given 'oracle' style choices which you can shape to your liking. During Shock I was intimidated by you and Gregor, and I would have loved a little more clay to work with before I was asked to start introducing new elements.

During play, Shock gave players ways to mess with each others' narratives, and threw in escalations . In Hammer Falls, this sort of thing didn't crop up. Instead, players made personal sacrifices to boost their rolls. In fact, where Shock asks you how you would like to tinker with your adversary's narrative, Hammer Falls asks you how you would like to sacrifice the things most precious to your character. I think Shock is a very external experience (the character vs. the Antagonist) while Hammer Falls is much more internal experience (character vs. himself). In that way, Hammer Falls might be truer to the dystopian fiction it tries to represent.

From my one-game-each perspective, so far I prefer Hammer Falls, though I think it needs a little refinement before it's ready for the shelf.

Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: Apr 1st 2010

Also, this is a comment on the AP report by Daniel Klein on Cobweb Games:

_Usually when I do pocket play, no one wins. Except for detergent manufacturers. No wait. Let me try that again.

My previous attempt at pocket play didn't really work. It was Don't Rest Your Head, and while that was good fun and all, we did tend to getting the "party" together soon enough, what with pocket play ending up a rather boring affair for everyone not currently involved in a scene.

Here's why I think pocket play works in Hammer Falls while it doesn't in DRYH.

  1. The world creation thing. The fact that you've helped create the world the game takes place in means you have a vested interest in seeing that world develop, which is just what happens when other people play and make stuff up. You pay attention so you can reincorporate things they invent in your own scenes, and you pay even more attention when they reincorporate something you came up with, because that's just cool.

  2. This is the big one. The Chains. One cannot stress this enough: the fact that each player represents one method by which the dystopia keeps you down means you're acutely following every scene, constantly thinking "okay, if he draws a card now and it's my suite, how do I bring my chain in?" This means that you're engaged, and more importantly possibly, that you're always creating stuff at a low level.

One thing I would offer as a suggestion is that you may want to reshuffle the chains after each "round". I'm taking this from Joe Prince's Hell 4 Leather, where major characters are potentially reshuffled between scenes. Thinking of yet another way to use the same chain may become somewhat of a strain, and you may want to take addiction for a spin at some point (so to speak).

I think both your "does an issue survive when the hammer falls?" suggestion (although I might not go for the suite; let's say the card revealed is examined for its value, and if you have a card of that value on your issue then your issue survives; suits may make it too easy) and your "use highest card + number of cards as difficulty" suggestion. I'd need to be reminded of the exact mechanic to comment on the latter--were there face cards in the deck? If so, how many points were they worth? We'll need to come up with an average point value of a card on your hand and adjust this to the new expected difficulties. But I do agree: it would be much easier. (Also it would make jokers less overpowered, since they wouldn't remove a full, say, 10 points of difficulty, but only 10 - + 1 (so in a worst case situation, when there's another 10 on the chain, just 1 point of difficulty).

Enough rambling! I loved the game and want to play it again as well._

Posted by: Joe Prince On: Apr 2nd 2010

Cool, thanks Sebastian.

Sorry for being such an intimidating presence! I know what you mean, it was quite tricky to get going in Shock and we needed to Pooka to clarify the distinction between Shocks and Issues.

I like the idea of character vs himself, you don't often get that in RPGs. Owning chains seems like a nice contrast too, in Shock you effectively don't do anything for half the game!

Posted by: Pooka On: Apr 12th 2010

Yikes. If I had noticed that this thread was here I'd have posted to it some time ago. Sorry about that.

The primary influences game-wise for THF were Shock and Grey Ranks. So it's no surprise to me that there are noticeable similarities, though It still makes me twitch a bit. I'm glad my game is comparing favourably, though.

I wonder if part of the reason the game felt like the "character v. himself" was because the Chains were largely to do with drug use and addiction, and if that feeling would translate to other settings with other chains. Certainly on some level the sacrificing of traits will contribute to that feeling.

Sorry, late-night musing.

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