Games Design - [Shipwreck] The Wreck of HMS Aurora

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 12th 2010

Last night saw the second playtest session of Shipwreck. The first playtest session is discussed here. You can download the version of the mechanics that we were using at the bottom of this page. As so much had changed from last week, we decided to start again from scratch, creating a new situation and characters.

We ended up with the tale of HMS Aurora, a sloop travelling from Plymouth to the Galapagos for scientific purposes. Or was she? Anyhow, she was wreck trying to escape the French frigate La Gloire as she rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The survivors found themselves washed up in the cold, inhospitable fjordland of the Tierra del Fuego. The Threat was the continued presence of Gloire and her crew, hunting for the survivors.

Because we were now more familiar with the situation and character creation, things moved a little more quickly than last time. The main changes when creating characters this time around were that you could only start with one Advantage and one Possession. To get these you must get into Debt with another character (a dark secret or wounding accusation that this other character knows about) and this debt must be detailed when it is offered. This was one thing that really helped to make the starting characters more vibrant and help to inform play.

We ended up with:

Gideon Proops, ageing naturalist/scholar
Debts: M'Bengo knows I am a homosexual, Jervis knows I am an addict

M'Bengo, Barbary Corsair turned Royal Navy seaman
Debts: Proops knows I spy for the French, The Lascar saw me with a goat...

Muralithian, aka 'Lascar Mike', an Indian sailor of long service
Debts: Jervis saw me kill the ships officers during the wreck; M'Bengo knows I practice 'black magic'

Lord Darby Jervis, terrified 14 year old midshipman
Debts: The Lascar knows of my cowardice, Proops knows I am a minor Royal in hiding

The number of Other Survivors that could be added to the big play sheet is now mandated at a minimum of one and a maximum of two per player. We ended up with: Simmons (the Captain's clerk), Obadiah Muddledrake (the incompetent 3rd lieutenant), Daisy Sullivan (the Captains daughter), O'Leary (the drunken ship's cook), Father Maynard (a Royal Navy chaplain), Brooks (a burley seaman), DuPont (a French Royalist serving in the Royal Navy).

Creating the map also proved to be quicker and smoother, a benefit of reducing the number of features each person adds at the start of the game from two to one.

In play, things were much better than last time, although there are still holes you could sail a three-decker ship of the line through. Positive things this time round were that, due to the changes, the Threat came in to the game in a much more interesting way. The Threat now draws cards based on how many chips it removes from the Tension pool. The first time the Threat appears in the story, it can only take four. The second time, it can take six. The third (and each subsequent) time it appears, it can draw up to eight. At this stage, each time the threat is beaten in a conflict, the maximum number of cards it can draw reduces by one.

There's a slight problem here, as after the first few encounters with the Threat, the Tension pool was depleted and the final time we saw the Threat in this session, they only had one cards to draw. Additionally, drawing eight cards is not as powerful as it might seem. One the characters had acquired a few possessions and another advantage or two, they could be drawing almost as many cards. So, either the number of cards drawn for the survivors goes down or the number of cards drawn for the threat goes up. Perhaps for each point of Tension taken from the pool, the Threat gets to take two cards, with a maximum of, say, ten cards? I'll need to think about that.

The ability to create Possessions as the result of a conflict win was something that came up during play. The way it currently stands, it's far too easy to create and take new possessions. The suggestion was that creating a new possession must be the explicit goal of a conflict and that this is the only way to create them (for example: M'Bengo says that his goal during a conflict is to create the new possession of 'musket'. He's facing the Threat in this scene, so fictionally he might take a musket from a French sailor). This would depress the possession economy and make them more valuable. Oh, and it was suggested (and adopted) that when you create a Possession, you can't immediately take it. It must go in to the general pool of possession, then you need to spend another success to have your character take it.

Many other positive suggestions came out of pay such as that in a character vs. environment conflict, you only ever get your goal and other success are burned off. The suggestion that NPCs can be killed off by a single Condition in early scenes also look to be positive as, compared with last week, there was very little in the way of injury, death, and madness. The game also needs to see even more that drives character vs. character conflict, as well as co-operation between characters.

By the end of ten scenes, there was a pretty strong story developing. Proops had become de facto leader of the survivors, browbeating the remaining ships officers into submission. Jervis had battered a French officer unconscious and taken his sword, only to be gunned down by French troops in a later scene. Lascar Mike had proved himself to be a skilled hunter (and killer), only to be wounded by the French in the same scene that Jervis was shot. Gloire bombarded some coastline, landed troops, and generally made a nuisance of herself. he Threat does need to be more threatening, though!

I'm sure Gregor, Joe, and Matt will all have additional comments to make. Playtesting will be on hiatus for the next three or four weeks as I make changes to the game text and get some out of play commentary on it. Shipwreck has changed enormously and beneficially over the course of just two playtest sessions. In a few months, with more revision and intensive playtesting, it might be in a more shipshape condition.


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 12th 2010

Just had another thought:

All of the Possessions that are left over after character creation: maybe these should all be assigned to NPCs?


Posted by: Simon C On: May 12th 2010

"...a player
Describes omens, portents, or signs of the Threat
Describes an ominous change in the weather or environment"

That's really clever.

I'm still concerned that the rules for posessions are too abstract. Do you need "posession" to be a mechanical concept at all? Couldn't the conflict rules say "If your character has something perfect for what they're doing, draw two extra cards. If they've got something improvised or shoddy that might help with what they're doing, draw one extra card"

And then things just are what they are. You can make a club out of a piece of the ship's timbers, or steal someone's rifle, or whatever, using the regular conflict rules. The scarcity of resources is enforced by the game's fiction rather than by its mechanics.

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: May 14th 2010

I've been ruminating on this a little and how you want defined phases of play.

In the beginning I suggest that it is all about collecting possessions and exploring the environment (surviving it, as it is dangerous). Then the next phase is about overcoming an external (from the group) threat, where there are fewer survivors around but they are harder to kill off. The final phase is escape, leading to rescue/escape or a doomed end.

At the moment there is a grind to get Possessions that pervades the whole game. I think that this can be restricted to the first phase. Perhaps existing possessions can only be obtained from areas on the map (ie they are owned by people or have washed up on the shore, so possessions are allocated to NPCs or locations), while newly created areas can have new possessions created/found (such as the woods that were chopped down to make a spear in our game, or a seal turned into seal fur, food or a weapon).

Advantages are very useful and are difficult to remove, which is fine. I like the idea of characters being built to Advantage over tests. Perhaps an Advantage can only be gained as a Goal? Advantages never get added to as it stands and are lost when a character dies. Perhaps this is fine, or perhaps this makes life later on very hard unless the Advantages can carry on to the end game. It seems to me that success in the final phase is related to getting Advantage built up in the initial phase and then surviving the Threat in the second phase of play.

I'd also like to see a harshness in the initial phase. Where one Condition can kill an NPC and two a PC. In the second and third phases of play I'd like to see it needing all three conditions to kill NPCs and PCs. This way we will reduce numbers rapidly in the initial phase, then further reduce numbers as the Threat is faced (and it is always defeated, it is just how much harm it does while being defeated). The final phase is triggered when there is no Threat or only two characters left, say. In the final phase the surviving group has to pool their resources and defeat a challenge to escape. It need not be a long phase (one scene per character?) and results in success or death.

I guess I see Shackleton differently in this light.
Phase One: the ship is crushed and the long journey to Elephant Island is made, camp is established and the James Caird is improved in its sea-worthiness. Note that the people who don't go on the James Caird aren't killed but they are "Unprepared" or whatever and are written out of the game.
Phase Two: the "remaining" survivors face the Threat which is a terrible storm with 100-ft waves in the South Atlantic. Finally they land on the south side of South Georgia, just. And note that they leave some people behind in this phase - McNish, Vincent and McCarthy are left at the landing point on South Georgia.
Phase Three: Only Shackleton, Crean and Worsley then attempt to trek across the frozen interior to safety. In their case they get a good outcome and use the Narration to rescue the people from phase 1 and 2 that they left behind.

Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 15th 2010

I was talking to Russ (not Matt as previously billed!) about the game the other day. We both felt that the first session had been better. As it stands Shipwreck may suit a boardgame more than an RPG.

In the second game there was no peril, the threat was ineffectual. More of an annoyance than a real threat ( Apes > Frenchmen)!

It did turn into a grindfest for possessions which was rather repetitive. Every scene was pretty much - shoehorn in as many possessions and advantages as possible, grab a point of tension, try and get a possession. A lack of meaningful decision making hurts the game. There was an element of generating narrative (and fun) despite the system not because of it.

The random possessions make total sense thematically in the shipwreck – the random advantages, not so much. As for the debts I'm still not sure as to their purpose. What do dark secrets and blackmail actually have to do with shipwreck stories? If you definitely want to go that route it's worth looking at how Poison'd handles it.

The scattering of possessions is a really nice device, but it's stuck as a gimmick at the moment and ceases to be important once play begins. Given that all possessions and advantages are the same mechanically (alright some are easier to shoehorn in than others) and everyone starts with one of each.

Personally I think you should forget the mechanics, such as they are, at this juncture. Then have a good think about what you want the game to be about – what's the essence of shipwrecked stories?
What behaviours do you want to emphasise?
Where do you want the focus of the fiction?

I'm wondering if the PC's sharing the single goal of escape is enough to drive play?

I do feel that the environment alone should pose a significant risk to the PCs, survival should be a struggle and death frequent. Also things that aid escape should be distinct from things that help you win conflicts, otherwise there's too much of a win spiral.

Sorry if this comes across as overly harsh, it's just my opinion after two games.


Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: May 22nd 2010

This comment is a placeholder. Thanks for the feedback, it all gives me stuff to think about. I'm formulating proper responses to you, Joe and Gregor. Just so you don't think I'm ignoring this!


Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: May 22nd 2010

No worries, good idea.

Oh, I figure I should put down in a post about Possessions at the start of the game. I liked the idea of everyone grabbing Possessions as usual and placing left-ver ones on the map (face down), so that we have to explore to find what's there.

Or maybe that's some deep-rooted ZX Spectrum game idea buried inside me?

And I'd thought about having Advantages not being lobbed in the air randomly, but simply written to fit your character. (And maybe new ones can be created in later play.)

As you say, you can come back to this later once you've chewed it over.

Posted by: Joe Prince On: May 24th 2010

One way you could go is even more random. Might be quite cool.
Have designated areas marked on the paper. Throw all survivors and possessions up in the air. PCs are drawn from face up survivors with some of the face up possessions. Explore the map recovering the rest of the crew and items and finding resources for survival. Health and sanity become character resources that are gradually lost as you die or go insane!

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