Constellation / OxyContin

Our extended gaming family is old and grumpy1 and living in different parts of the world. We mainly converge once or twice a year for a “con”, a week packed with gaming. This tradition started around the end of my university years, where we’d pack off to squat in a friend’s (very understanding) parents’ house for a week. Scheduling was a free for all, games were written overnight, crash space was a sleeping bag on the floor. These days we stay in holiday cottages and actually plan our games in advance. Hence this:

Jobs 1

I’m in the nice position of being in touch with two different con-organising gaming circles, which sometimes means two holidays. This year I hadn’t expected the two holidays to be back-to-back, though. We arrived back from Derbyshire, put some washing on, took a nap and then packed off to the second holiday which was thankfully 20 mins away.

The games I write tend to get repeat play these days, but rarely so close as one week between sessions. That meant the successes and failures of the previous sessions were still fresh and I could reshape the bits that didn’t work.

Games I played

Some of these games I can talk about more than others, since the GMs may want to run the games a second time.

The Hunt was a simple, strong premise: the PCs woke up in cages in the middle of rural Derbyshire in winter, to the sound of horns and snarling dogs and the sight of elfin creatures lined up on a nearby ridge. System was very light, atmosphere was very heavy. I’m a big fan of the GM’s style–she’s a devotee of fairly obscure computer mystery games.

Vikings followed the fortunes of six heroes on a voyage to Constantinople. System was light, but a decent enough framework for a good cinematic fight scene at the end. The GM did a great job of ensuring players never missed a turn during the action. I played Peter Dinklage Erik the Dwarf, and murdered the King of Denmark.

Mobile Frame Zero is a wargame by Vincent Baker and Joshua Newman that uses lego. This was the game I was least certain of, mainly because I don’t have an obsession with Lego. The game itself is great, though–it took me back to living-room sessions of Adeptus Titanicus. It doesn’t demand management of large numbers of miniatures (unlike WH40K). I really liked the coloured d6-based system, with its defence and spotting rules. And of course when you blow up enemy mechs and terrain features you get to take them apart and scatter the debris over the table. It is a game about scoring points though–I wonder if it could be adapted to RPG duty and remain balanced. even unbalanced I’d take it over Mekton Zeta. Lots of delicious lego mecha here and here and here (last one is Soren Roberts – I believe he gets a design credit in MFZ).

It Takes Two, Baby used the Unbelievably Simple Role Playing system, with two players playing two personalities (light and dark) inside one head. All characters were being treated at a residential facility. A lot of the interaction was between light and dark halves, vying for control of the same body and whispering to one another–we had a Tyler Durden-style pair of twins, a child paired with an imaginary friend/terrifying poltergeist, and a student haunted by her dead grandmother (who described herself as “corporeally disadvantaged”). Players paired up and collaboratively generated their light and dark halves, which was a really great way of getting into character.

Vampire: The Welcoming Party was a blast from the past–specifically 1995. We were reminded of the true misery of being a neonate, never being given a straight answer and being continually strung along by elders. With that in mind I felt the game managed to parody the kinds of games we used to play quite nicely, and I enjoyed playing my Nosferatu. 

Mao Tse Tung Said was a game about university friends who were once revolutionaries and had since sold out. The GM has a great feel for satire and situational comedy-drama–a few years ago he ran The Thick Of It as a game (and coincidentally came very close to a Malcolm Tucker impression in Don’t Waste Your Life). This game used a trait descriptor system with the option to burn resources (flashbacks, current affairs) to get information from the GM.

Also-rans that I didn’t get to play included sessions of Monsterhearts, Witch, Dog Eat Dog; Paranoia on a generation ship; various mystery games which sounded great but I don’t have much detail on; and Modern Times, a game whose prep involves many different cards and dwarfs the effort I put into Sunder’s Children.

My Games

I chose commercial systems for both games, with the intention of sticking to the rules as much as I could. This hasn’t always worked in the past (e.g. Wild Talents was a bad choice). 

1. Don’t Waste Your Life

This was my Don’t Rest Your Head offering, about newly Awake characters who had just graduated without the grades to realise their dreams. I gave the players a blind pick of powers lifted from the excellent Don’t Lose Your Mind.

The prep time was one tenth of that for my other game–no silly props, just character sheets and powers in envelopes. Since the system effectively manages resources via dice, the players found it very easy to grasp. Also it uses d6 with spots rather than d10s with numerals – for a hunt-and-peck success game traditional d6 have a huge advantage for Search vs Handling Time

I was expecting the players to collapse into nightmare within the single session. This didn’t happen because as the GM aquires Despair tokens and spends them to cause either Exhaustion or Madness to dominate, the players in turn gain Hope tokens that allow them to remove Exhaustion or Madness checks. This tended to be self-limiting (at least for Exhaustion) and the players hovered around 3 exhaustion dice throughout. Increasing the difficulty forced the players to risk rolling more dice but meant that Pain often dominated, feeding the Despair and Hope economy. The GM is encouraged to spend her Despair tokens regularly to keep the economy going, something I didn’t do enough in the first run.

With the Despair economy working the only thing that was likely to push the PCs over the edge would be over-use of Madness talents, or doing something reckless like sleeping. My first group hadn’t fully grasped that sleeping was a bad idea, and so when they volountarily took a nap their characters were hollowed out by nightmares and became adversaries (with new powers). Interestingly I could have killed those characters as they slept, but they were later unable to directly kill the other PCs (even when one enemy player stabbed anther character over and over again). The game doesn’t have hit points; the way nightmares get you is persistent needling until they drive you to exhaustion or you drive yourself to madness.

I was rather pleased that in my second group one player aquired a point of permanent madness through excessive use of his power–a power that required creative and excessive swearing that would make Malcolm Tucker blush.

Overall I got very positive responses from both groups on the system. At the same time the whole game was markedly different between the groups–I’d designed it as a sandbox using the City Accelerator methods, and the players were free to explore. One side went looking for trouble, the other side ran away all the time. The game also confirmed that games that can run over several days rarely do, because players will rarely take downtime volountarily–especially with a mission-focused game where there’s no resource-replenishing benefit to sleeping.

One final comment–it became clear that this was not a game the GM could fudge. In other words, the GM had to always roll to oppose a skill check, on a direct 1-to-1 roll. No asking the whole group to “roll for Perception to see who notices” as an unopposed role – if you do that, there is no chance for Pain to dominate. Also the GM can’t just roll once and ask the players to roll against their single roll. In both cases you diminish the chance for Pain to dominate, making it more likely the PCs will become Exhausted or mad, and stifling the Despair Token economy.

2. Sunder’s Children

Sunder’s Children was also a game about people being left behind–in this case, being part of a village community and watching your friends and family go off to war and adventure, leaving you at home to watch the farm. 

The game scratched several itches:

  • I wanted to run a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.
  • I wanted to use cards to track spells, equipment and so forth (kind of a poor man’s WFRP 3e).
  • I also wanted to use a dynamic hex map: 

Sunder Map

The map grew as the PCs explored, with view distances limited by hills (pink) and trees (green) but further over water or plains / settlements. The downside to a big map made of component tiles is that eventually we reached the edge of the table and we’d have to spend 5 minutes relocating tiles. The table was already choked with character sheets, spell and equipment cards and handouts, so the late stages of the game became an exercise in prop management.

The whole thing was pretty indulgent of me, and I’m grateful to both sets of players with putting up with several things they didn’t like, such as:

  1. Random character generation. LotFP uses 3d6 for each stat, rolled in order. No “roll 4 and take the best 3” or point-for-point adjustment of ability scores.
  2. Character death. Two characters died, and three others became so horribly maimed as to be unplayable. One death was from a late-stage failed saving throw, and probably felt completely arbitrary (and as a result I didn’t use that trap in the second game–it went slightly too far).
  3. Random tables. There were a lot of these, including the Misery and Drudgery tables for farm work, and the Strangeness, Weather, Creature, Corpse and Omen tables in the later stages of the game.
  4. Narrow spell definitions. More than once player tried to use spells to do things that could be inferred from the spell name but were outside their function.

That last item is a consequence of the kinds of fantasy games we play these days–very little mechanical crunch and high on description, with magic as a broad field of ability rather than a very narrow and specific effect.

As for random character generation, one of my players said it was a useful example of “how far RPGs had come” since the days of random rolls to generate a PC. I think that’s a peculiar statement that belies a particular style of play favoured by that player–they like to play very competent characters where those competencies are mechanically described in the rules and win/lose can therefore be ascribed mechanically and randomly. That attitude is also pretty much outdated in today’s indie gaming culture where PC response to success or failure is more interesting than the pass/fail conditions themselves.

Other notes from the game:

  • I changed the class assignation between the games, as well as the way spells were distributed. I felt the second game was a lot more successful, although there was some confusion regarding spell cards–they all looked the same but spells could come from books, scrolls, or just be available to cast as one-shot bits of magic. That can easily be fixed by changing the card mixes if I run again.
  • Spells were self-aware and could infect humans in the second game. This is how a bunch of 0 to 5th-level humans ended up running around with high level spells. Some of them did more harm than good.
  • In both games I managed to run an ooze and render one or more characters unplayable through the loss of body parts.
  • One of my players cast Contact Outer Sphere, which I really hoped would happen.
  • The Summoning spell is complicated and needs a crib sheet written for it.
  • The Web spell was probably the best mass effect battle spell, with Magic Missile a popular second.
  • Traditional cleric spells (Cure Light Wounds, Turn Undead) didn’t get much use. Players were too busy Webbing monsters and chopping them up.
  • Part of LotFP and D&D in general is the reward mechanism. I had to break the rules here and give the players outrageous XP rewards to allow them to progress levels.

On the whole, I like the system a lot for its simplicity and the way it allowed me to run big fights fairly quickly. I don’t think it’s a game either I or the players would take particularly seriously, though, so doesn’t have much repeat play value for us. The encumbrance system is as good as I expected it to be–in fact the whole game is what I expected, i.e. suited for high-bodycount dungeon crawling and not much else.

Final Thoughts


p>DRYH and this particular implementation of LotFP have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they allow the GM to take a very adversarial role. Second, the use of tokens on the table allows a high degree of player self-organisation.

Normally buckets of dice systems are attractive to players because of their tactile nature–they feel more in control the larger the dice pool they manipulate. Those dice however only exist in the hand. In DRYH the dice exist on the table as physical markers–Discipline and Exhaustion dice as permanent, and Madness as temporary. Players gain a lot of autonomy by being able to voluntarily pick up dice as a response to a particular threat.

In LotFP, because I distributed spells, weapons and armour and other items as cards, players could also self-organise. In the late stages of the game this may have been counter-productive since play shifted from GM-centric (where GM has a strong narrative role) to table-centric, with the GM a facilitator at best. Because the players could claim different effects on cards without asking for verbal permission from the GM (since it was written down) they began to debate in-party on strategy rather than query the GM. In other words, they played the game like a collaborative board game. However unlike a board game there was no defined turn structure, so more vocal/forceful players could command attention for longer and dominate the direction of the party. I tried to keep the combats fair in terms of actions, but player-player resource negotiation and strategy discussion spilled over into other parts of the game and made for multiple conversations. Player-player strategy discussions happened during player-GM tactical/scene discussions, and confused things a bit. 

DRYH will see repeat plays; additionally it’s made me think about other d6-as-resource games. Mobile Frame Zero is another one. Hollowpoint could also be considered the same, since the pools remain on the table and may be later adjusted by burning Traits. By extension, Sorcerer has similar features.

I am less sure about LotFP. It’s fiddly, the most fun parts–the magic system–emerge over campaigns and require familiarity with OSR tropes (Vancian casting, etc). A large part of the system is rewards and level gains, which aren’t really suitable for one-off games. Still, it could see repeat use.

  1. This is the year a lot of us turned 40!

6 thoughts on “Constellation / OxyContin

  1. Very interesting – I particularly like all the analysis. I was sorry to miss the DWYL post-game discussion, although I did hear some of it on the following day. I think I can take a guess at what collapsing into nightmare might mean based on what I saw at the end of our game.

    I thought that the powers were interesting, but varied in their mileage. I loved Hell because I used it in several ways and there were still new things I could do with it. I was less taken with Goblins which only seemed to vary the number of Goblins. That said, it wasn’t mine and its owner seemed very happy with it!

  2. An aspect of Sunder’s Children which you don’t really touch on in this writeup but which I enjoyed in the game was the gradual transition from farming life to conflict and adventure. The LotFP system maybe wasn’t ideal for supporting this, but with a system which gave the GM a bit more control and a slightly less comic tone this could make for some really good play.

    In some ways it reminded me a bit of Martin’s “Dogs in the Vineyard” campaign. That too had a nice mix of the mundane concerns of the communities we encountered and the fears and occasionally brutality of combat. (And it also had a few system-related issues, but that’s Dogs for you.)

    • Thanks, that transition was the intention. As to whether LotFP was suitable, it wasn’t really meant to be. I wonder what system could manage that transition well.

      As for the comic tone–I think that was inevitable. The scenario might work using Call of Cthulhu, but that game would probably be even more nihilistic. I would stick with a hit point system at least, as that represents the fragility of life nicely.

  3. Cheers for running both games, really enjoyed them. Good point about D6s being ideal for picking out successes.

    Can see what you mean about LotFP – I like the ethos, but the rules seemed so similar to D&D to make no odds. As you say, the fun bits might develop in campaigns.

Comments are closed.