Actual Play - [Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks] Conpulsion Play Test Report

Posted by: Lynne H On: Apr 2nd 2010

This weekend at Conpulsion I got to run two games of C2S2. The first was effectively an unplanned, off the cuff solo game which confirmed that the system was fast and easy to pick up and “sell” to someone who’d never seen it before. After the briefest flick through the rules and a quick chat, it took about five minutes for the player to come up with a character. Although the setting I wrote for the game didn’t include any gothic horror elements, that was what interested the player so he generated a character that could safely be described as the Victorian equivalent of Fox Mulder (only with much better dress sense and a far better name – Professor Obadiah Nimrod).

Because at some point I’d like to run this particular game again, I’ll not go into too many details, but the game was set in Newcastle in around 1879 and the local population of street musicians was disappearing. Since the previous discussions on this forum, I’ve introduced something called “Foibles” to the character creation process, which are basically character quirks that give the players a bit more of a handle on who they’re playing and give the GM ways of getting them into trouble, ahem, involving them in the game. Professor Nimrod had the Foible “Never Say No to a Damsel in Distress”, which was gave me an ideal way to link him in to the plot – the first street musician to disappear now had a young female assistant who needed our hero’s help! How could he refuse?

Ably assisted by his grubby urchin sidekick Albert and Daisy (the assistant), Prof. Nimrod tore around the city on the trail of the dastardly villain that was bringing silence to the streets. Mind you, they were all of the opinion that George the accordion player going missing was no bad thing as he never was much good.

The dice lent themselves very nicely to the story that was developing; I didn’t call for rolls very often, only when they were dramatically appropriate. The weighting of the dice rolls meant that whilst they were mostly successful, there was the occasional critical failure when the player (or me) rolled a natural 1. The most entertaining was when Albert was attempting to find a way in to a locked building late at night. Fluffing the roll utterly, Albert walked right up to the main doors and started shaking them to see if they were open, just as a police constable walked by. In a true twist of fate, the Prof rolled a natural 6 when using his Cakes skill to bluff his way out of the situation (because, after all, method actors are bound to be practising their roles after midnight in front of an important government building, don’t ‘cha know, Officer!).

This session was great fun, very spontaneous and really showed how flexible both the rules and the setting are. The player was very enthusiastic and got what the game was about (telling entertaining pulp stories with the minimum of fuss) and has taken away the rules to test them with his own group of players.

The second game was much larger, with six players taking pregenerated characters on an adventure to Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis. Again, I’ll be a bit vague about the minutiae here as I’d like to run it again elsewhere. I’d tested this scenario before to make sure it ran to time and as a result had shortened it a bit by taking out a sky pirate encounter. I still gave the players the briefing about pirates before they set off by airship, which led to some superb deduction by the players later on in the game (they’re so close to what is happening, but they’ve figured it for all the wrong reasons).

In fact, the players were very tuned in to what was going on and needed very little nudging, often coming up with some very ingenious ways of getting to the information (better than mine on occasion) or providing me with alternative ways of getting the information to them if they chose a different path to the one I was expecting. Again, the dice almost seemed to know when a good roll was needed; one player rolled a natural 6 and picked up a very crucial piece of evidence that had so far remained undiscovered.

One other new mechanic that worked very well was Reputation points. Several people commented that there was no way in the original version of the game for the characters to advance and Reputation points were developed to cover that. A character earns the points by excellent characterisation or rolling a natural 6 (adding to their reputation as leaders in their field). If they fail an important roll, they may spend a Reputation point and along with some suitably pithy comment (“…but surely someone of my reputation would never make such a fundamental mistake!”), have another roll (thus saving them from derision).

The players were great, really using their foibles to add to their characterisation and taking great advantage of their attributes to figure out the plot. There was minimal dice rolling, the players only asking for them when they knew it was crucial. I only had two concerns: the level of engagement was not the same as for the one-on-one game (as the party fragmented very quickly once the action started) and I muffed up the delivery of the ending because I was tired. Other than that, the timing was perfect.

More than anything, this scenario showed that the pregens needed a little more tweaking to get them working perfectly as a group and that the scenario needs restructuring a little. These are things that you only find out when you play with a group of complete strangers. The test had been run with good friends who I’ve gamed with for years, so our gaming short-hand circumvented some of the niggles I found when playing it with different people. And it was fascinating to see how different people interpreted the different characters; although grossly the same, the mannerisms and actions were often tellingly different.

Again, the feedback was good with the players commenting on how much they’d enjoyed the setting and the game. One of the group also said that he’ll be taking it away and testing it with his players, so I look forward to getting their feedback as well.

I’m happy with the rules now as they stand and they’ve been updated in the free version to include all of the revisions. The setting seems to be popular with people, so all I need to do now is flesh it out a bit more and get it (and some more guidance for GMs and players) onto paper.

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 2nd 2010


It's brilliant when you get some really useful feedback from actual play. For this game I really would encourage writing up an idealized play session of that scenario for GMs to read. I think that'll help them see your vision of how and when to roll and what the consequences can be.

C2S2 seems to me to be a nice light system that allows the players to indulge in playing their characters and enjoy the thrill of being part of, and exploring, another world that never was.

Posted by: Lynne H On: Apr 2nd 2010

Thanks Gregor.

Yes, I was planning on writing up the street musician one as an example of play to put in, so I'll get on to that once I've finished marking all these lab reports!

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 2nd 2010

As you say, you'd rather not put it on the Internet in detail as you're planning to run it again, but it'd be perfect for including in the book.

Posted by: Lynne H On: Apr 3rd 2010

That's what I thought, book only. I'd like (in an ideal world) to do the Atlantis one as a pdf scenario to support the main rules but I'm taking Malcolm's advice about not promising anything ;)

Posted by: Joe Murphy On: Apr 14th 2010 edited

Hey, Lynne. Some questions have been posted to

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 14th 2010

For what it's worth, here's my take, about Luke's blunt question.

How much of the successful play was you and how much was the system?
"System" is perhaps being used here by Luke (perhaps narrowly, I feel) in the sense of the "mechanics" (or shorthand, maybe, for a sequence of mechanics on a written page).

I think there is a system (in forge terms) that does work in your game and it is more than the mechanic of rolling dice. The "when to roll" and how the group interprets a result (and the group does seem to have hooked onto the entertaining critical failures, and other points like using Reputation points). The "soft" stuff happening at the table is a much a part of the system as what the pips on the dice are and how many of them are rolled.

So, I would say that you need to write advice on what you and the group were doing that made play fun. But you know that, right?

And, why Cakes? Up to you whether you answer that or consider changing it.

I was often asked why Three Sixteen? And while I have some answers on the various meanings of it I can't tell you exactly why I called it Three Sixteen in the first place, and not Big Bad Ass Space Marines or any other title. But I can say I was wedded to it once it was there, for good or bad. I suspect you are too for Cakes, Cogs and Swordsticks.

Posted by: Joe Murphy On: Apr 15th 2010

Hey, Gregor.

You're dead right about the name. It could well be just that it doesn't appeal to me, but that doesn't mean it's not attractive to others.

Looking at the mechanics of the game in Lynne's document, I can't see where the fun is. I can't see how she used what's there (and only what's there) to make for a fun game. So firstly, she's doing more at the table to create fun than what's in the text (and so the text needs that material). That could be further explanation of critical rolls and so on.

Even with that, the mechanics seem rather empty to me - I can't see why I'd use them, rather than another system. That's not just be hitching myself to narrativist systems or One True Wayism - I just can't see where the system scratches *any* itch.

I also think there's a bunch of assumptions in the text about the soft stuff - the GMs role, collaboration, decision-making and narrative jurisdiction. At the very least, I'm thinking of when to use foibles, abilities under multiple attributes, the text about where to use dice, damage and death. These assumptions seem dangerous to me.

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 16th 2010

For "dangerous" I would read "poor form" (or, basically, what most mainstream RPGs do, which is very little to articulate what you do at the table).

For me, the mechanics are OK. After all, when you get down to it, Burning Wheel, say, is just "roll some dice and look for successes". It's the "what you do after that mechanic" that makes BW's text different from GURPS et al. in that BW attempts to channel the _other procedures_ at play into concrete terms and play advice. Mouseguard is probably Luke's best success at communicating that stuff.

My perception is that the mechanics of C2S2 are meant to be "light" and non-grinding, not a chore, and the system that drives fun is more in the immersion in the "Victorian world", and soft stuff of reading and reacting to action and opportunity. The players agree to abide by some "fairly fair" dice rules and take themselves less than seriously. That stuff lives off the table. How do you articulate that in the text? Oh, boy, big question.

Joe, do you have any ideas on that?

I mean, you look at something like Fiasco that you, Per and Malcolm had real trouble with, and that's by an experienced designer. I think it's naturally difficult for Lynne to hit all (or much of that) advice in her text straight out of the gate without help.

Posted by: Joe Murphy On: Apr 16th 2010 edited

Difficult as hell! That's why I felt I should chime in, as she didn't seem to have a lot of feedback. Plus, I've not met her, and so there's no reason to be, uh, 'nice'. (Not that I'm saying you're biased, but it's tricky). I do see there was a big thread on Story Games back in Feb, which had some interesting feedback.

If the game is absolutely positively supposed to run with a GM providing adventure and a somewhat casual attachment to characters, then I'd be a-ok with that. Totally. At the moment, the text doesn't go there. I'm left guessing at the author's intent, and for the most part I'm reading it as a *lack* of intent. For example, I don't think the system gets out of the way - I don't think system can. You're encouraging something. Like in this game, you're encouraging me to think of really broad traits I can apply all the time.

And getting those assumptions out in the open is important. I look back on some of my first game texts, and they're painful. =)

So what one could do, for example, is give a lot more advice on what makes an adventure, and how to do that, and what makes pulp and make that just as serious as the dice-rolling. Don't put it in a 'GM advice' ghetto, put it up front for everyone to grok. Put it before the dice, even. (And why do we need dice anyway?)

Or explain pacing a lot more. Or how to create effective NPCs for the PCs to bounce off, or how to make a PC that has something to say to the other PCs. (One thing I feel the game lacks is attention to motivation and passion - essential in pulp).

Heck, if you wanted to follow Lynne's LARP example where every character had a speciality they couldn't be beaten at, why not have the group list a number of abilities equal to the players, and everyone gets their particular skill at Unbeatable level, and then spends points on the rest. There's light systems that can better provide what I think it is she wants to provide.

But I'm just guessing there.

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 16th 2010

Excellent. Thanks, Joe. That's a really great post.

I'll add a suggestion that I really like: take examples of good play from real games. Show us what is good and then tell us why it's good. Give us insight. That way we can model our behaviour on that good stuff and learn how to do it.

So, let's try and get some other ideas in this thread as a help for Lynne and a resource for others. Anyone else?

Lynne is there any of this that you'd like to go into in more detail? Joe and I are getting what we're both saying clearly but it might not be so clear to you.

Oh, by the way, I have no problem with anyone "not being nice" or "blunt" here. To me, it's in the context of people genuinely wanting to engage and help out (otherwise none of us would be here, right?). So, charitable reading and viewing posts in that light here is, I hope, easy. (Though I should point out that I am a sucker for being nice on forums.)

And a personal note about Story Games. I think getting game feedback on Story Games is dicey. It's fraught with identity politics, "big beasts" roaming through threads, the usual internet sniping from the sidelines and all that hoopla. SGs has also become a pool that people go to as a way of getting word out about, or marketing of, their game. Or because, umm, I'm designing a Story Game, I guess I ought to go on Story Games and talk about it.

I personally don't think it's a good environment to get feedback on a game design, at all, unless you have some masochistic urge to get hacked off. While there are very good people who can help there, I don't think the social strata of the place helps that kind of discussion at all. But that's my 2 cents.

Posted by: Lynne H On: Apr 24th 2010

Sorry not to wade in earlier, but I was on holiday in Toronto when the volcano went off and we got stranded with limited internet access :(

I'm still feeling a bit jet-lagged, but will answer the points you've both raised properly after a bit more sleep. I'm afraid my brain is rebelling at the moment and I don't want to ramble too incoherently at you both :)

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Apr 24th 2010

Good to hear that you're now back to Blighty!

No worries about the speed of response. Take as long as you need, Lynne.

Posted by: Lynne H On: Apr 28th 2010

Its mostly good to be back, thanks Gregor. Apart from the now gigantic pile of marking and the wrangling over who's covering our extra costs, of course ;)

Right, let's see if the somewhat insurance company/airline/tour operator addled brain can answer rour points with some sort of sense:

Yep, there's definitely sections on when to roll, how to use abilities and examples of play in or about to go in the main version of the game. I prefer to do these as real examples rather than making them up, so needed to get some play-testing done with friends and strangers so I could address some of the issues that do arise. There's always something interesting that comes up from real play that you don't get if you're trying to make an example up (or at least, that's been my experience). As per usual, everything went bonkers just after Conpulsion, so that hasn't happened fully yet but its getting there.

As I mentioned on Story Games (at least I think I did; still a bit jet-lagged at that point), Cakes is something of a historical joke. When we were doing our live Victorian/steampunky game, cake was somewhat of a gaming essential. Many events took place on picnics or in tea shops and the motto of the game was Pabulis Immobiles (very roughly translated as "we stop for cake"). As the cake scoffing was a social thing, when trying to come up with a title for the game, Cakes seemed ideal to pop in there for a bit of alliteration with Cogs. Maybe its just us, but we do firmly associate cake with social interaction, more so these days than alcohol, but that's probably just us getting old ;)

To be honest (and I think I did put this in the game), I don't mind what system people use to play this. Rich designed the system to be as simple as possible because we tend to play very system and roll light and much of the roleplaying we've done over the last decade or so has been incredibly rules/roll light (if they're present at all). If people are happy with a given system, be that in-house or commercially available, good luck to them. Whatever makes the game work for them; as long as its fun and people are enjoying themselves, then its served the putpose for which it was created. Ideally, the system that is included could be used in a tea shop in amongst the eating paraphenalia, using a dotted sugar cube for a die and a napkin for a character sheet. It was also designed, in part, to entice those finicky live and non-roleplaying steampunk lot over into table-topping ocassionally...

I freely admit I'm not a systems designer; in the past I've always left that to other people and done the soft stuff (the flavour stuff rather than the crunchy bits). The whole ethos behind the game is supposed to be very relaxed, freeform and cooperative. This game will not be to everyone's taste, particularly if they do like very detailed mechanics. It will be very easy to break the rules in this game if soneone is so minded, but then if that is what someone wants to do this probably isn't the game for them anyway. If someone wants to break the rules and thats what they get their enjoyment from, they have our blessing as long as it isn't spoiling it for anyone else.

Someone on Story Games suggested that maybe I should have just done this as a supplement. That was an interesting suggestion, and in future iteratons it may end up as just that, although personally after some very successful games (not just run by me) I'm actually happy with the system as it stands. Its the support that needs padding out, and that is in hand.

Actually, Joe, I originally wanted to use cakes to solve any disputes, but that was going to get really tedious on the cooking front. I do have some interesting cupcake recipes now and was going to stick it in an alternative rules appendix at the back ;)

Both of you have come up with suggestions about things I know need to be in there and am getting round to, but its always good to have that confirmed for you to make sure you're not heading off on some wierd and wonderful tangent. Both of you have been clear and concise. Some of the Story Games feedback was useful, but as Gregor said, it was a little fraught in there. I have no problem with blunt feedback as long as its constructive as well, and Joe hasn't been rude just straight to the point, which I appreciate.

So, thank you both. I'll let you know how it comes along.

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