Games Design - [Shipwreck] The First Playtest

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 5th 2010 edited

Shipwreck, as the name might suggest, is my game-in-design of shipwreck tales. It's inspired by the fiction such as Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island, films such as Alive and Flight of the Phoenix, and non-fiction sources like In The Land of the White Death and The Caliban Shore.

The game seeks to provide a means to tell a story of survival (maybe), death (almost certainly), rivalry, and co-operation. At least, that's the final goal. Last night we (myself, Gregor, Joe, and Russ) had the very first playtest of the game (the situation creation elements have been tried out briefly, but this is the first full run-through of the game as a piece). I realised beforehand that there were holes you could sail a tea clipper though and serious issues with both the economy and the mechanics. yet, that's what playtesting is all about. To me, the text (the version we were using is linked to at the bottom of this post) seemed, if not great, then at least playable in some form. We had fun, but I came away with both three pages of notes and a much better idea of how to change the game for the next testing iteration.

Anyway, the game begins by sketching out when and where the wreck takes place. We stuck with the default era of the Age of Sail (the Napoleonic War, to be specific) and our unlucky vessel was an east Indiaman, travelling from China to the Cape Colony, driven far off course into the Pacific after being chased by a French privateer.

Our starting characters were:

Jack Bolland (me), the carpenters mate
Jan van Hoarse (Joe), a Dutch speculator
Emma D'Anton (Russ), a French prisoner
'Little Jim', an orphan from Northern England, cabin boy

We also had a bunch of other characters: Dr. Curtis, the ship's surgeon; 'Flogging' Billy, the bo'suns mate; 'Filthy Sally', a prostitute; Jakob Vermeer, a prisoner and spy; A nameless Cantonese servant; A Sufi Imam travelling to the Cape; Captain Hawthorne, the badly injured ship's captain.

When coming up with the characters we would initially be playing, the first chance to the system-as-written was implement there and then. In order to gain Advantages (skills, talents, traits, and whathaveyou) and Possessions (things that could conceivably be rescued from, or washed ashore after, a wreck), your character must get into Debt with another character. In essence, this means that they know some dark secret about your character that could be revealed in play. Now in the text, it said that the Debt should be detailed at this point. Joe asked why we couldn't just say we were in Debt, and have the Debt detailed as and when it was revealed. I went along with this, but it hand an interesting outcome: there were far more debts given out than expected.

How to resolve the Debts issue? Several things could help with this. Restricting starting characters to one Advantage and one Possession would help. Explicitly saying you can't have more than one Debt with the same person. And, perhaps, allowing players to offer a Debt on behalf of a non-player character, someone from the roster of other wreck survivors?

Some Things That Were just Plain Broken

Selecting another played character as the enemy of your character, making the player of that character your antagonist. Sounded good, but in play, rubbish. What if your enemy dies? Simple solution: a player is designated to be your adversary (duh!).

There was little differentiation between Personal and Survival Scenes: There were a few flaws subsidiary to this, including the unsatisfactory Outcomes stemming from Personal Scenes. Potential Solution: There is no scene differentiation, you just choose what you want your scene to be about, your adversarial player sets adversity, you go from there.

Tension ramped up far too quickly: Tension was a killer. Admittedly, going into the first test, it was difficult to see how the economy worked and play demonstrated that it was all kinds of wrong. Solution: tension is getting a big overhaul, with different break points across the three 'acts' of play. Also, the Threat gains its cards by depleting Tension, rather than simply using the Tension level to indicate the number of cards, e.g.: Tension is at 12, adversary decides to bring in the Threat, wants to really screw over the other player and so takes seven cards, reducing Tension down to 5.

Using Tension to gain cards: Another associated problem (the one that caused the Tension to rocket up in the first place) was that people got to take too many additional cards representing Tension. Solution: For each scene, three points of Tension are available. The scene-setting player gets to take one if they choose. Then the adversary gets to take one if they choose. Then players playing the role of other characters get to take one if they choose. If there are any left, it goes round again until there are none, or everyone has refused. When taking Tension, facts must be narrated saying how or why the increase in Tension is taking place.

Scene Outcomes: Many and varied flaws with this. One suggestion that will be incorporated is that through the outcomes of a scene, players should be able to reduce Tension: Having a scene where they give a stirring speech, comfort an injured survivor, make peace with an enemy. These could well reduce the ambient Tension.

Debts: The suggestion was given that Debts, rather than giving a bonus to your hand, allow an automatic victory if they are revealed. Need to see how this works in play.

There were quite a few other things that came up in play and I'll need to work on a new version of the text for the next session (next week, hopefully). Overall, I was pleased. The game needs and immense amount of work, but we got the bones of a good story, with some great scenes (the burial of the deceased Captain was particularly stomach churning). The collaborative play sheet became an interesting artefact, with the map, list of characters, tension, and threat all prominent (although it was suggested that having the in-play characters also written on the edges of this sheet was problematic. Maybe character sheets are in order!)

Hopefully Gregor, Joe, or Russ will pop by to give their critique on things. There's loads of stuff I noted down and I'm sure the others might see certain things worth highlighting.


Note: Cross-posted to The Forge.

Posted by: Joe Murphy On: May 5th 2010

Where did the cooperation come from, and what did the players cooperate on?

Like the agendas in Cold City, was there ever a mechanical reason to take someone into your confidence and then backstab them?

I like the idea of reducing Tension. Or maybe there's a way to gain cards without fuelling Tension.

Posted by: Simon C On: May 5th 2010

Have you considered, instead of "take a card, increase tension, describe what is happening to increase the tension" something more like:

"When a character does any one of the following:
Threatens violence
Picks up a weapon
Invokes a debt
(maybe one or two more?)
That player's character can draw an extra card. Add one to tension."

I'm thinking the effect will be to make the moment-to-moment descriptions of characters' actions more important.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 6th 2010

Joe Murphy:Where did the cooperation come from, and what did the players cooperate on?
Like the agendas in Cold City, was there ever a mechanical reason to take someone into your confidence and then backstab them?
I like the idea of reducing Tension. Or maybe there's a way to gain cards without fuelling Tension.

That's a very good question about where co-operation came from and I'm struggling hard to recall the whys and wherefore of what happened. Can I say 'fruitful void' and be excused a meaningful answer? There was little mechanical push to co-operate in the version that we played. Later on in the game, we may have got to the stage where people started co-operating in order to gain the possessions needs to survive/escape. You've struck on an important point though, and one that will need to be seriously addressed.

Simon C:Have you considered, instead of "take a card, increase tension, describe what is happening to increase the tension" something more like:

I'm thinking the effect will be to make the moment-to-moment descriptions of characters' actions more important.

That sounds as if it has a lot to recommend it and would certainly tie tension increases into the flow of narration and make decisions (taking up a weapon, for example) actually meaningful in the game.

Perhaps we could expand on that? Not only could there be tension increases when a character does something, but also when a player does something?


Gain a card and increase tension by one when a character...
Threatens violence
Takes up a weapon
Threatens to reveal a debt
Talks about the threat

Gain a card and increase tension by one when a player...
Describes omens/portents/signs of the threat
And a few other things which I haven't thought up yet!

I still like the idea of having maximum allowable tension available per scene, probably around three. And only allowing one tension point increase per person. Although, this could be modified to allow additional point to be taken if no one is doing anything else with them.

Thanks for the feedback guys, all very thought provoking stuff.


Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 6th 2010

I didn't think Emma was French? Aw well she's monkey chow now.

Currently the game is not about co-operation or survival. It's about killing people and taking their stuff (or threatening to kill them in order to get their stuff). When you have enough stuff you can win!

There is no incentive to work together: two PCs need 5 key items to escape which means one of them must have 3 key items of his own and could escape solo anyway.

Our character's didn't co-operate at all during the game. The closest we came to it was Jack threatening Sally when she was fighting with Emma – but I don't think Jack actually drew cards in the conflict.

I wish there was more focus on survival, gathering resources and exploration early on in the game. Adding another location to the map each scene is a bit much. I'd like the locations to have some sort of meaningful mechanical differentiation. At the moment locations just let you re-insert a character to scenes at that locale (even if they were last seen the other end of the map).

I don't like Tension being a PC resource - it just feels weird. Worth looking at how it's used in Dead of Night (2?). Do you want people to grab pointy sticks every scene? I think it would quickly get tired.

I don't like the threat being so obvious. It would be better if there were only hints of the threat until the first time it strikes at tension trigger X. I think when the threat attacks it should be random who can be targeted – potentially everyone. Something like deal each character a card, everyone with a black card lower than current threat is a potential victim. Using the Threat overtly in a scene is way overpowered too.

Insta-gibbing Emma with narration also felt a bit cheap, but effective!

Trying to find the conflict within scenes was a pain in the ass – it got much easier when we just said what a character wanted out of a scene. Then the adversary had something to work with.

Hard to comment on debts – we didn't get to the point where they could come into the game. It took a while to figure out all the debts even without coming up with what each one was – is this amount of pre-play a good thing? You're potentially foreshadowing things which may never come up – it seems fairly likely some of the characters will get slain before they reveal the debts (like Emma did and 'Lil Jim could have been if Malc wasn't so merciful).

I'm looking forward to seeing Shipwreck evolve as a game, it's a very evocative theme with some great ideas.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 6th 2010 edited

Hey Joe,

Thanks for the feedback. There's a whole bunch of stuff there that needs assimilation, some I agree with and some that I'll need to muse at length over. You're right, though, the incentive to work together is minimal. I'm hoping that in the current (by that I mean the revised) version of the text, changes to the way Key Possessions work will incentivise co-operation, but also allow some solo escape attempts. At the moment (and, as always, the economy may be screwed until we test it out in play), I've come up with this:
For a lone character, they require five key possessions.

For two characters to escape together, they need seven key possessions between them. No character may have less than two key possessions.

For three characters to escape together, they need nine key possessions between them. No character may have less than two key possessions.

For four or more characters to escape, they need at least eleven key possessions between them. No character may have less than two key possessions._

Might work, might not. I feel that these might (and that's a big might) drive play towards gathering Possessions.

I've erased the 'insta-kill' thing as regards Tension. That was a bit gratuitous, really.

As regards Debts, yep, we didn't really get round to using them and, in light of further thought, I've switched things round a little. When we are first creating characters, you can only have a maximum of one Advantage and one Possession. That's it. So, you can only ever start the game with two Debts. That makes it much easier. Also, you can get a bonus for threatening to reveal a Debt, not just for revealing it (Debts are now a form of insta-victory, but you only have two of them and you lose the ability to allude to or threaten to reveal them). I've a feeling this might work better, but we'll see in play.

The latest (v1.3) version of the text is attached for everyone's browsing pleasure!


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 7th 2010

I've giving some further thought to the Threat (and re-reading Geiger Counter, as it happens). That led me on to thinking more about how the Threat appears in play, when it appears, and how it is used.

So, the Threat draws it's card from the current Tension level. And, it cannot make its presence felt until a certain Tension level is reached. But how powerful should it be? I'll use the example of a pirate vessel happening on the place where the Survivors are.

1st encounter with the Threat: Threat draws 4 cards.
The first time they are encountered, it's two pirates who have come ashore in a jolly boat looking for wild pigs to skewer. With luck, a survivor or survivors might get the better of them.

2nd encounter with the Threat: Threat draws 6 cards.
The second time the Threat is encountered, it's a bit more powerful and determined.
The pirates send a few armed men ashore to find out what happened to the pig expedition.

3rd and subsequent encounters with the Threat: Threat draws 8 cards.
The Threat is now as powerful as it can get and a very dangerous proposition.
The pirates bring their ship round to the lagoon where the survivors are and start firing carronades into the jungle.

If the Threat loses in a confrontation, the number of cards they can draw goes down by one. So, the survivors band together to drop rocks onto the pirate ship from a cliff as the pirates are bombarding the shore. If they win, the next time the Threat appears, they draw 7 cards.

When the Threat gets to zero, they are eliminated.

The power of the Threat would also give characters a reason to band together in the face of adversity.



Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 8th 2010

It would be interesting if one player could get control over running the threat - maybe after your PC has died or if you draw a certain card. That re-inforces the banding together idea.

Posted by: Sebastian Hickey On: May 9th 2010 edited

Hi Malcolm,

I poked at an idea in the other thread. I'd like to poke it again here to see if there's anything worth using. What if every scene had the potential to hurt a character?

I mean, what if every scene had a chance to inject a Threat or a hazard? Maybe you have to flip a card each scene to see if something bad happens? If a particular suit comes up, maybe some shizzle goes down (and applies a Condition to all characters in the scene)?

Example: Sebastian describes a scene on the beach: his character is lost and alone, looking for survivors. As he finishes introducing the scene, Sebastian draws the hazard card. It shows a nine of spades. Oh no! Now Sebastian gets a Condition (which his Adversary chooses for him—let's say he's starving and takes a wound).

To balance that, what if each Possession let you draw a card as a single-use shield?
Example: Sebastian has a sheep as a Possession. When he got the sheep, he drew a ten of clubs. Sebastian decides to spend this sheep card to avoid the Condition._

So, when the bad thing happens, a player can spend one or more of his Possessions to prevent the Condition? That is, the players could spend two Possessions, adding up the card values, trying to beat the value of the drawn card. Or, players could pool their resources?

Example: If the hazard card was a jack of spades, Sebastian's sheep (value ten) wouldn't be enough on its own. Maybe he has a lantern too (the card's value being a four of hearts). Adding the ten and the four would beat the jack of spades. Sebastian spends his sheep and his lantern to avoid the hazard.

Maybe players who are co-operating in a scene could double the value of any Possession cards spent?

Example: Let's say Sebastian chose to introduce the scene with two characters, his own and Pooka's character. They are co-operating, trying to find food. The threat comes up and Pooka spends his "map" Possession (six of diamonds). Since the characters are co-operating, the value of the the map doubles to 12. Which is enough to beat the hazard.

Okay, I'm going a bit wazzo here with the suggestions. Sorry. I get excited by mechanics and I can't help myself. I thought it would be nice to push players together with an outside, potential, but not always present hazard. Like, I could totally risk having all my scenes on my own. But I know that every scene I'm in might involve a hazard, which will cost me resources. However, if I buddy up, our resources will be more valuable.

Incentivising partnership?

To finish it off, I was thinking that the increase in tension would increase the number of Threat cards flipped in every scene. So at the start, you'd only flip one, but soon you'd be flipping three or four or more each scene, sometimes adding the values of the cards together.

Meaning that a late betrayal (refusing to share a Possession in a scene) could totally hose another player—maybe forcing a conflict (fighting for needed gear), a deal (promising to fuck over someone else for short term aid), etc.

Like if the turn order was (1) set scene and characters, (2) draw hazard card and Adversary inserts Condition, (3) choose scene type (conflict or survival), (4) resolve the hazard (if one was drawn), you might get something like:

Example: Sebastian sets a scene for himself and Pooka on the beach. The hazard card turns up a jack of spades and the Adversary makes Sebastian and Pooka's characters "starving." Sebastian turns this into a conflict, and battles it out with Pooka, trying to steal his "fishing rod (value thirteen)." Sebastian wins, takes the fishing rod, and uses it to avoid the hazard (spending it). Pooka has no Possessions to use as a shield, so he becomes "starving." The tension goes up?

Er, yeah. So, that's all. Sorry about the wordiness. From now on I'll keep to analysis and so on.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 12th 2010

Hi Sebastian,

The potential for threat or hazard to be present in every scene does currently exist, although perhaps it is not explicit enough? Every scene must have a conflict, whether it's against the environment, against other characters, or against the Threat. Using possessions as a shield against harm is something I'll need to muse on. At the moment, they are the vital economy for escape/rescue. How to incentivise people to use them up when the really, really need them to survive in the longer term?

The idea of increasing Tension meaning an increase in the number of cards for the Threat is an interesting one. At the moment the Threat cards are mandated and draw upon Tension. Maybe this is another way to look at things? I'll need to have a think about that.

Joe: One player having control over the threat: I'm not sure about this one. I mean, you could certainly have it that the player whose character dies first doesn't take a new character, but takes on the role of the threat. However, I'm wondering how that would tie in with the role of the adversary? It might make a single person very responsible for most of the adversity, which is something I'm trying to avoid in Shipwreck. But, something to ponder anyway!

Thanks again for all the comments!


Articles and forum posts copyright © their authors 2007-2020.