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For the past few months, I have been wrestling with this small but annoying problem in the Hydro Hacker playbooks. It is a section of the playbook that defines your relationships with the other players. When I run this at conventions or in playtest groups, players always fill the section out incorrectly. Over several iterations of playbooks I have tried to refine this section so that it would be more intuitive, but it has not panned out. Then in talking to one of the Developers (Senda), she gave me an idea that changed how I was looking at the problem – and with that, a better design appeared. Here’s what happened . . .Neighbors
Nearly every Powered by the Apocalypse game has some kind of relationship mechanics, be it Hx in Apocalypse World, Bonds in Dungeon World, or Strings in Monsterhearts. I wanted something very similar for Hydro Hacker Operatives (H2O). In H2O, I created Neighbors. The idea is that in a group of friends, you can group your relationships into a few levels of intensity:
- Tight – you are close friends; besties
- Cool – you like the person more than average
- Neutral – they are fine but not the first person you would hang with
- Putting up with – the person that uses more energy than they give
Each character has a number of spots in each of those categories so they can be Tight with a person, Cool with 2, Putting up with 1 and Neutral with everyone else.
There are more mechanics that surround this, including how to change those values in and out of play, and how you always return to a homeostasis between stories.
The important part to take away is that during character creation you have to put your fellow characters into those spots.The Grid
My initial approach to the user interface (UI) was focused on the Neighbors ranking: Tight, Cool, Neutral, Putting up with. I designed a simple table that looked like this . . .
I was going to explain what the Neighbors grid meant, but I think that will defeat my point. Clearly there are some problems with this design, and for me it was super intuitive, but as it turns out there are reasons why we playtest . . .What Went Wrong in Play
The trick in playtesting is not to jump at every potential problem someone brings up, but at the same time watch for trends. If you are explaining the same thing over and over . . . you have a problem. So the first few times I had people filling out the grid wrong, I noted it but waited.
Then I got some amazing advice from a fellow game designer, Jason Pitre. He told me that I should collect all the playbooks after the playtest and see how the players wrote on them – that it would identify problems. So the next playtest I ran, I did—and he was right.
What I saw was a lot of cross-outs and eraser marks on the page—clearly people were filling it out, then hearing me explain it, then fixing what they wrote. So it was a problem. I then tried to make some small fixes for clarity and came up with . . .
Here I tried to label the columns and note that you could have an infinite number people you were neutral with. I took it to playtesting, and it was better, but I still found people getting it wrong. This was not the right design, but I did not know what else to do.A New Perspective
I was doing a playtest/convention game at the QCC and we got to the Neighbors section. This time I was careful to explain (which is not what you want to have to do), and the players did something that had not happened before; In addition to their relationship slot, they decided to also create relationships between one another—two players were siblings, two were rivals, etc.
After that game, it dawned on me that there was another way that I could display this information and also give players a place to list their relationships. I could base the section on the Characters and not the Neighbor levels.A New Design
I went back to the drawing board, and this is what I have come up with . . .
In this design, there is a line for each player in the game (in truth you likely won’t have six people in your game). Then you just circle the intensity, and now you have a place to define a relationship.
My hope for this is two-fold: One, it will make more sense how to assign the Neighbor levels; and two, it will encourage the group to create relationships between the characters which will further strengthen their connections in game.Back To Playtesting
I have started to show the design to my playtesters, and I will be trying it out at Metatopia to see how it works.
I will let you know . . .
Have you ever encountered something on a character sheet that was not intuitive to fill out? How did you figure it out? Did you make your own sheets?
Dragons Conquer America tells stories of 16th-century New World warfare glazed with a heaping helping of magic, myths, and monsters. Using the RPC25 system to resolve conflicts with a standard deck of playing cards, DCA positions itself as a narrative-first game that offers just enough mechanical granularity to remain tactically engaging.
The beta edition quick start package includes most rules for character abilities and conflict resolution as well as a number of NPC statlines and a simple three-act adventure with which to cut your table’s teeth. All of this is couched in a lovely layout sporting unique a Mesopotamian flair, giving DCA style without compromising readability. If nothing else, the gorgeous full-page art, solid NPC illustrations, and expertly designed layout make DCA a joy to read on its aesthetic merits alone. Fortunately, there is plenty else to praise.
The structure of DCA’s conflict resolution system is simple enough: players maintain a hand of cards, representing their characters’ stamina reserves, while the GM flips cards up from a deck to generate numerical thresholds for the players to challenge. Playing cards from your hand as a player is a tactical decision on multiple fronts. A play that corresponds with the situation a hand -- a Conflict card in a sword fight or an Exploration card while scrambling up a stone temple wall -- results in a redraw (and further bonuses besides if that category is also the character’s Affinity).
However, the number of the card is all that truly matters when calculating the degree of success, and so players must choose somewhat frequently between a comfortable margin of success and the loss of a card, or a more narrow margin or even failure but retention of a card. Furthermore, they must decide whether or not to play multiple cards in a conflict, evaluating this decision in both the short and long term as well. This decision point is recurrent, but is just complex enough to add a degree of tactical depth without slowing play down.
Most Abilities and Skills are simple, almost always granting Advantages and Disadvantages to allies or enemies, which function as simple +3/-3 modifiers to the total value compared in the resolution step. This keeps the game’s focus on the elegant card resolution mechanic, rather than miring gameplay down in minutiae and granularity. NPC stats are equally snappy, with GMs merely drawing cards equal to the NPC’s level, adding them up, adding the appropriate Skill value, and presenting the target number.
Magic is simple enough, with only Christian Miracles laid out in the book. Put simply, characters gain Spirit by performing appropriate actions such as prayer, conversion, and (of course) slaying wicked apostates, then spend that Spirit to cast spells, such as Miracles. The Christian powerset for this system has an interesting sub-mechanic of Corruption, wherein priests who draw too deeply from the well of God’s power might find themselves accidentally imbibing Satan’s strength instead. Gaining and losing Corruption in this way will make for a fun side arc.
There is one truly daring mechanic in the game: Prejudice. Player Characters must select a number of Prejudices, such as Xenophobia, Elistism, Classism, etc. at generation and cope with the consequences during gameplay. The authors go out of their way to delineate this system as option, but it’s nonetheless impressive in the simplicity of its implementation: your characters grew up in imperfect environments and must grow as people or be held back by their Prejudices. There is a Skill, Tolerance, that allows one to resist and eventually completely remove these Prejudices from one’s sheet, creating a natural character arc towards tolerance.
The adventure presented is nothing to write home about. It competently touches upon the major types of confrontation -- Conflict, Social, Exploration, and Divine -- without lingering on any for too long, gives an overview of the Spanish vs. Native conflict, and allows the players several choice points to align themselves with either or neither side of the conflict. There are some good twists and turns in there, but I won’t spoil those -- play it!
Dragons Conquer America has great potential for success, and if the editing and mechanics are tightened up to a professional level, it will likely become another indie gem. There are hints of Shadowrun-meets-7th-Sea in here, peppered with a healthy dose of Dragonlance. Give the Dragons Conquer America Quick Start, The Coatli Stone, a try as a one-shot; if nothing else, it’s worth the time just to flex the card mechanic.
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