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Subject: The Dragon Below the Ice rss

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Dan Maruschak
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We playtested Final Hour of a Storied Age rev 0.51 for about three hours over Skype on Saturday, Feb 27, 2010. An audio recording of this session was released as episode 4 of the Designer vs. Reality podcast. The players were Ewen, Jason, Peter, and me (Dan). As always, play begins with the creation of story seeds:

Ewen
New Sea Farm Ice Gold Learning: “In the icy wastes to the north, a farm boy learns of buried gold, but when he ventures forth to find it, he comes across a new sea of warm water.” (3 intersections)

Hate Rich Male Duty Crown: “The prince of a wealthy kingdom hates his duty to inherit the throne.” (2 intersections)

Dan
Corruption Noble Star Fire Hate Throne: “A corrupt noble is using the crisis of a meteor strike to inspire an uprising against the king.” (1 intersection, 6 points)

Small Old Return Gold: “A little old man must return a golden relic that he stole in his youth.” (0 intersections, 4 points)

Jason
Belief Poor Ambition Prophecy Noble Ring: "A poor boy will fulfill the prophecy and become a noble--he will wear the ring we seek." (3 points, 2 intersections)

Truth New Throne Sea Underground: “The truth about the new throne, lost at sea, remains buried underground.” (5 points, 0 intersections)

Peter
Star Lies Female Greed: “An opportunistic astrologer lies about a young woman's future in order to steal her fortune.” (0 Intersections, 4 points)

Plot Axis
Ewen's farm boy seed has the most intersections and is therefore the Protagonist Seed. He identifies the farm boy as the Protagonist, and decided that his village (on the outskirts of a powerful kingdom) is the community that he cares about. We noticed a lot of common ground among the seeds related to unusual heat-related environmental stuff, as well as noble families. We decided that the royal line of the kingdom trapped a great dragon under a glacier long ago, but the dragon is breaking free, causing the melting ice and meteor strikes. The Antagonist is a cult leader who wants to unleash the dragon on the world by manipulating a poor boy into fulfilling a prophecy.


Ewen's Protagonist:
Leo, a farm boy caught up in world-shaking events.
Clever Hunter - 1d10
Pure Heart - 2d8
His Father's Spear - 2d8
I Want To Be A Legend - 3d6
Plot: Search out the Wise, Travel to the Capital, Seal Away the Dragon


Jason's Antagonist:
Drakkis, cult leader of the Children of the Great Wyrm.
Obedient Cultists – 1d10
Insidious Lies – 3d6
Apocalyptic Anarchist – 2d8
Rabble Rouser – 2d8
Plot: Identify the poor boy, Get the ring, Release the dragon


Peter's Supporting Character:
Gaunus the Wise, Royal Astrologer
Amoral Opportunist – 2d8
Knowledge of the Stars – 2d8
Trusted Court Official – 3d6
Friends in Low Places – 1d10
Subplot: Spreading lies about the cause behind the meteors thus
making it simpler for Antagonist to fulfill his plans.


Dan's Supporting Character:
Baron Marko, Corrupt Nobleman
Wheeler and Dealer – 2d8
Leader of the Rebellion – 2d8
Swordsman – 1d10
Ruthless - 3d6
Subplot: Build an army of rebellion.




Chapter 1
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 2, Jason 1
Adversity Bid: Jason 1, Peter 1, Dan 3

Leo's overprotective mother (a 2d8 threat) doesn't want Leo to leave the village to go on a dangerous quest to find Obann the Sage, but Leo's Pure Heart compels him to point out that someone has to go. Secretly, of course, he is also eager to go because he Wants to Be a Legend. (Ewen 6,? vs. Dan 7,?). Leo's mother grabs Leo in a smothering hug and implores him to let someone else go, someone like Randall who is bigger and stronger than Leo and is the greatest hunter in the village (Randall's reputation is a 3d6 threat). Leo, still spurred on by his Pure Heart, points out that Randall is big and slow, and the task would be better accomplished by a Clever Hunter like him. (Ewen 8,? vs. Dan 5,?). Leo's mother points out that the unnatural warmth (a 3d6 threat) is a sign that the world is changing, and may mean that Leo's tricks won't work. She implores Leo to let Randall go, so that Leo can stay in the village where it's safe. “You're my baby!”. Leo holds up His Father's Spear, pointing out that his father taught him to be such a Clever Hunter, and that he can do this. (Ewen 8,2,?,1 vs. Dan 8,6,?,1). I have one victory token to spend, which I use to create the character of Obann the Sage.

Obann the Sage
Hermit – 2d8
Crazy – 1d10
Knows the old prophecies – 2d8
Golden ring that he stole as a youth - 3d6


Chapter 2
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 1, Jason 1, Dan 3
Adversity Bid: Jason 3, Peter 2

Baron Marko is visited by a wealthy merchant. Marko, ever eager for more wealth, meets with a man with fine robes and gold chains. The man, who is in reality Drakkis the cult leader, has some people drag in a chest full of gold coins, claiming it is a gift in support of Marko's cause. The claim that it's a gift is one of Drakkis's Insidious Lies, because his true aim is to get Marko indebted to Drakkis. Marko, the Leader of the Rebellion, is a Wheeler Dealer and is therefore familiar with the technique of saying things that sound like promises but really carry no actual obligation. “Friends of the rebellion are always appreciated!” (Dan 7,? vs. Jason 5,1). Drakkis, being an Apocalyptic Anarchist, preaches his beliefs: “The tyranny of this kingdom is well known! Together, we can usher in a new age of freedom and prosperity!” Marko, Ruthless as ever, indicates that he is keenly interested in prosperity, and has no objection to Drakkis telling the people that toppling the current king will bring freedom, as that will only aid the rebellion. Marko is troubled, however, to notice that one of his servants has a tattoo on his arm with the same symbol that adorns Drakkis's robes, indicating that Drakkis's followers are all around him. (Dan 6,? vs. Jason 4,?). Marko is a little bit troubled, but figures that the cult is just one more thread in the grand tapestry he'll need to weave in order to take over the kingdom. Marko has the gold hauled off to the treasury and Drakkis leaves without having extracted as binding a promise as he had hoped. I won both exchanges and also have two unspent Chapter Tokens, so I have four Victory Tokens to spend. I use them to create a new trait: Rich!

Chapter 3
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 3, Jason 1
Adversity Bid: Jason 1, Peter 3, Dan 1

Leo is travelling through the highlands, gradually becoming aware that he is being surrounded by a pack of wolves (a 2d8 threat) that have migrated up from the south due to the changing climate. Being a Clever Hunter, Leo crouches low to the ground and tries to creep up to an advantageous position. (Ewen 3 vs. Peter 4,3). The wolves outmaneuver Leo and surround him. Two wolves (a 2d8 threat) break away from the pack and leap at Leo. Leo sets his Father's Spear, hoping to impale one of the wolves. (Ewen 5,2 vs. Peter 7,4). He misses, and one wolf clamps his jaws onto Leo's arm through his animal-skin parka while the other goes after Leo's legs. (Another 2d8 threat, although it's not entirely clear what that threat is, fictionally...). Leo, believing that if he falls here he'll never Be A Legend, brandishes His Father's Spear and tries to kill the wolves as a Clever Hunter would. (Ewen 6,? vs. Peter 7,6,?). The wolves bring Leo down, but are spooked by his war cry and scatter into the wilderness. [I'm not sure Peter understood the rules in this chapter, which is probably my fault for not explaining them well. He was “spending” his Chapter Tokens, but I'm not sure he was rolling dice for the environmental threats, and he didn't seem to be introducing fictional threats as he spent the tokens. Additionally, his closing narration with the wolves scattering into the wilderness reads more like Leo won the exchange. This may be a symptom of “resolve the scene” Story Game baggage. I would have closed the chapter with the wolves bringing Leo down, effectively turning things into a cliffhanger.]. Peter had three Victory Tokens to spend. He uses two to create the Pack of Wolves as a character. He chooses not to spend his last token. [This kind of sucks in the design. The having to throw away your rewards is lame.]

Pack of Wolves
Vicious Hunters – 2d8
Flank their enemies – 2d8
Trackers – 3d6
Knowledge of the south lands – 1d10


Chapter 4
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 1, Jason 1, Peter 2
Adversity Bid: Jason 1, Dan 2

Gaunus the Wise, Royal Astrologer, is exploring the shadier parts of Draconis, the capital city. He's heard rumors of the Children of the Wyrm cult, and he hopes that they'll be able to assist him in causing chaos and confusion in the royal court. However, the lower classes are generally secretive and suspicious (a 3d6 threat). Gaunus, however, has traded in astrological trinkets with a number of disreputable characters in the past (Friends in Low Places and Knowledge of the Stars), and those connections may help him get the information he seeks. (Peter 9,? vs. Dan 3,2,1). Gaunus finds someone willing to talk, the proprietor of an occult shop. The shopkeeper (a 2d8 threat) knows an opportunity when he sees one, because someone asking for information is someone who may be willing to PAY for information. Gaunus, widely known as a Trusted Court Official, is an Amoral Opportunist and has no hesitation in making promises to the shopkeeper without regard for whether or not he'll follow through on them. (Peter 6 vs Dan 3,2,1). Gaunus suggests that his recommendations could easily steer a better class of customer into the struggling shop, and the shopkeeper agrees to tell Gaunus what he knows. Peter won two exchanges and has one unspent Chapter Token, so he has three Victory Tokens to spend. He spends one to advance his subplot and one to move his friendship track to Ideologically Aligned with the Antagonist. He chooses not to spend his last token, since there's nothing else worth spending on. [Again, this kind of sucks, and it especially sucks that it hit Peter twice in a row...]

Chapter 5
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 3, Jason 1, Peter 1, Dan 2
Adversity Bid: Jason 1, Peter 1, Dan 5

Leo, tired and wounded, crawls into sight of Obann's hut. Obann, being a Crazy Hermit, just shouts, “You're not welcome here! Why won't you leave me alone? I told everyone to leave me alone! Why won't anyone ever leave me alone!?”. Leo Wants To Be A Legend and knows he needs Obann's help to make that happen, so he makes a Purehearted plea to Obann's better nature: “The ice is melting to the far north. I need your help. We all need your help.”(Ewen vs. Dan 6,?,1). Obann relents enough to allow Leo into the hut to explain further. Obann tends to Leo's wounds, but isn't very gentle about it (the pain of the process is a 3d6 threat). Furthermore, Obann Knows the Old Prophecies, and is quick to dismiss Leo's arguments as misinterpretations and jumping to conclusions as young people tend to do. Leo, still Wanting To Be A Legend and Pure Hearted, is undeterred, and explains about the sea of warm water that he saw. (Ewen 7,?,1 vs. Dan 6,?,1). Leo gets so worked up that he forgets all about the pain of his wounds, and his passion inspires Obann to reconsider what he knows about the prophecies. Obann goes over to an old trunk in the corner, digging out a Gold Ring The He Stole As A Youth, since he knows that it's connected to a sea of warm water somehow. The prophecies, however, are all worded in a cryptic and elliptical manner (a 3d6 threat) which makes them hard to interpret. Leo points His Father's Spear at Obann and demands, “If that's the key to resolving this, give it to me!”. (Ewen 2,? vs. Dan 6,?,1). Obann concedes that the ring is indeed the key to the prophecy, but explains that there's a REASON he took it so many years ago and went to live by himself, and he's not about to let some callow youth run off with it. [I messed up the bookkepping here, thinking Ewen was up 3:1 instead of just 2:1]. (I refreshed Obann's traits). Knowing the Old Prophecies and being a Crazy Hermit, Obann explains that he worked it out a long time ago: if the ring just stays here in the hut everything will work out for the best. Leo jams His Father's Spear into the floor of the hut and declares, “If you must hold the ring, then you must come with me. I am a mighty hunter and I will keep you safe.” (Using all of his traits). (Ewen 7,? vs. Dan 9,?). Obann starts ranting and raving for a while, trying to come up with arguments for why Leo is wrong, but his arguments aren't very coherent, and Leo gets a sense that he'll eventually sputter out of he waits long enough. By our (mis)count, Ewen won three exchanges to my two, for one net Victory Token, plus the one unspent Chapter Token which gets converted to a second Victory Token. Ewen advances his plot segment by one, and also moves Obann's friendship track to Ideologically Aligned.

Chapter 6
Spotlight Bid: Ewen 1, Dan 5
Adversity Bid: Jason 4, Peter 2

Baron Marko has gone to Obann's house (spending 1 token because of the distance from his previously established location). Marko says, “Obann, I know that you usually like to keep to yourself, but sometimes you make trouble, and I want to make sure that you'll be doing the former and not the latter.” Obann is indignant, ranting about how everyone is constantly bothering him, but he and the young boy Leo seem to be packing for a journey. Marko knows that current law forbids him from formally taking the throne himself (a 3d6 threat), but he knows that the people of Icehome are respected in Draconis, and wonders whether he could raise the boy to the nobility and make him a puppet. Leo, however, Wants To Be A Legend, so he may not be as pliable as Marko would hope. Marko is Ruthless and has no qualms about taking advantage of hapless youths, and is a Wheeler Dealer and knows how to make offers like this seem attractive. (Dan 5,?,1 vs. Jason 6,?,1). Leo admits the offer is tempting, but says there are more pressing concerns. He points out the warm sea as an example (a 3d6 threat). Marko says that in such dangerous times people like Leo need support from powerful forces like the Rebellion that Marko is putting together. Furthermore, a pitiful weapon like a spear won't protect them. They need REAL weapons and people that know how to use them, people like the noted Swordsman Baron Marko. (Dan 7,?,1 vs. Jason 8,?). Leo, however, decides to trust in his father's spear and his father's teachings and decline Marko's offer. [Jason wanted to end the chapter here, but he still had a token left to spend.] Marko recalls that the cultists who donated money to his cause (a 3d6 threat) were interested in a poor boy making his way through the nobility. While Leo doesn't fit that description precisely, Marko thinks that he might be close enough to the mark to potentially encourage more contributions from the cult if Marko can enlist Leo's participation. [I realized here that there was no way I could win the chapter, and there was nothing useful to do with my remaining Chapter Tokens which was frustrating.] Marko, however, is Rich and wonders whether getting himself further entangled with the cult would be worth it. (Dan 6,4,? vs. Jason 6,3,?). The better judgment of Marko's current balance sheet wins out, and he decides to leave the boy in peace for now. Jason won two exchanges to my one, so he has one net Victory Token to spend. Not having many attractive choices to spend on, he considers moving Obann's friendship track back to neutral, which I thought wasn't in the spirit of what that rule was for (why should Ewen's character suffer a mechanical penalty because I chose to set a scene in a location with one of his friends?) I couched this objection in terms of Obann's lack of relevance to the scene, which was kind of cheesy of me. [I need to figure out how to encode this judgment in the rules]. He agreed to just not spend the point since there was nothing he wanted to do with it, and I acknowledged that this aspect of the design needs work. Ewen pointed out that he felt similarly frustrated with Chapter Tokens when playing the Spotlight Character, since there are so few things to spend them on.

Feedback

We called time on the game there, and discussed some feedback. Jason felt that mechanical complexity was hindering the gameplay, but also gave that caveat that he is on an extreme end of the spectrum in terms of preferring simple mechanics, so it may just be a question of his personal preference. Peter mostly agreed with that assessment. I inquired whether the fact that they were just learning the mechanics this session was compounding that problem, but there's no way to be sure. There was general consensus that the beginning setup (seed generation, etc.) was good, and everyone's favorite part of the game. Peter suggested incorporating explicit archetypes (e.g. “mentor”) into the character generation process, which is an interesting suggestion that I'll need to consider.

There was some discussion of the idea of Adversity, and how people (especially those with Story Games baggage) jump to the conclusion that this must come from antagonistic relationships. The intention was that friendly characters can present adversity (e.g. the mentor requires the student to prove that he's worthy), but players seem to have trouble embracing that idea. The suggestion that changing the name from Adversity might help shift that mindset is definitely one I'll be investigating.

We also discussed the issue that Jason ran into where he wanted to end the chapter because he felt the scene had come to a resolution. I acknowledged that I was working against the current of a lot of indie/story games with my approach, but I'm of the opinion that a mechanics-first mindset is a valid approach to gaming. I think a lot of Jason's frustrations with the game (such as not knowing what kind of adversity to create in the beginning of chapter 6) stemmed from trying to play in a “fiction-first” way. In Storied Age, the mechanics are there to provide guidance to the narration. They aren't intended to “kick in” when something happens in the fiction, they're intended to be running constantly, providing a scaffold for the fiction to build on. I think Jason was also trying to play in a “narrative advocacy” way, in the sense of wanting to use the mechanics to guide the plot in the direction he wanted it to go. Storied Age isn't really set up for that (especially for the Adversity Player), since the plot is defined during the outline stage. I suspect that this is more “Story Games baggage” in the sense the people want to make scenes that are about resolving conflict between characters with different agendas. Storied Age is set up to have chapters that are about individual characters overcoming adversity. The Adversity Player's job is to provide the Spotlight Character with opportunities to “show off”, not to advocate for a preferred story direction. That isn't to say that those things are bad, they're just not what this game is about.

The bidding system, as always, came in for criticism. As usual, people objected to the compulsory bidding. Based on the playtests I decided to scrap the bidding system. Rev 0.6 of the rules contains completely new chapter framing mechanics and also substantially revises the in-chapter dice mechanics.

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Dave Bernazzani (@rpggeek)
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I wish to provide legendary service to the RPG community to help grow our hobby and enrich the lives of gamers everywhere.
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Ice is scary.
Dragons are scary.

Dragons below the Ice is off the charts!

Great report!

-Dave
 
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What about changing Adversity to Challenge? That would allow for mentors testing students, without precluding enemies and subversion and that sort of thing.
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Dan Maruschak
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sbszine wrote:
What about changing Adversity to Challenge? That would allow for mentors testing students, without precluding enemies and subversion and that sort of thing.

That's definitely something I'm considering. I can still see how it would tend toward the "antagonistic relationship" thing, though. In addition to the straightforward antagonism and the "testing" kinds of challenges, I also want to have room for things like the problems of romantic tension between aligned characters -- these come up a lot in The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth series. If players get too focused on "how can I challenge you?", they might not come up with these softer forms of adversity. That said, "challenge" is one of the leading candidates to replace "adversity". The other big candidate is "trouble". Right now I'm leaning toward the idea of keeping "adversity" and doing a better job in the text and examples of suggesting the less obvious ways to provide adversity.
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