Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Play Testing Fudge

In January our regularly scheduled game was put at risk by 2 out of 5 players not being available. The GM of our current campaign felt that 3 players was too few to run his current Cyberpunk 2020 campaign so I stepped up to the plate to run my build out of fantasy Fudge.

I had two main goals in the session. First, and most important, I wanted to expose my players to Fudge with a clear focus on having fun and getting them hooked on it. Second, I wanted to play test the magic system that I've created.

To set up meeting these goals, I did a couple of things. The story was not nearly as important to me as having fun and playing with the magic system so I didn't concentrate much on it. I created an isolated story line in a world that is familiar to me; the same world that I used for my GURPS campaign. I told the players that this was an isolated adventure with no consequences, implications, foreshadowing, or connection in any way whatsoever with a potential future campaign. I also took out a notebook and set it next to me at the table. I told the players that this would be a learning session for all of us and that if they had any process, rule, or game comments that I'd take notes on them to consider later. I then asked the players to please not enter into debates about those problems during game play beyond making sure I took the note. These steps really helped create the cooperative learning and fun atmosphere that I was looking for.

Exposing Players to Fudge
Character creation was one thing I had intended to gloss over by using pregenerated characters. I'm a spreadsheet geek. I made a spreadsheet for character creation that could easily generate a complete character, total the points, and autocalculate weapon damage. Well, long story short, it didn't work (not always great to switch from creating something in .odf to excel even if you've saved as an excel file all along). Anyway, this meant that once we were at the table, I had to help the players generate characters fast. I used a quick subjective style and just asked my players what they wanted, I made sure their attributes, gifts, and faults added up right. For skills though, we just eyeballed it. I had three character sheets in about 20 minutes once I figured out that this was the only way were going to end up with sheets at the table at all. Imaging trying to create 3 D&D character sheets from scratch.

My players grasped the adjective ladder system in a flash. In fact, for the first time, my female player was explaining the rules to her perpetual-crunch-monkey husband. This was one of the great things about the system in play. I have read a lot of descriptions of players grasping the system quickly but seeing it in action was another story. I actually couldn't believe how fast they began translating Fair into 0, Good into +1, etc.

After a brief roleplaying encounter, I send the players to their mission: Assault on Zombie Island.

One of the big changes that I've been looking for in a new game that I run is an end to the D&D generated trope of 5 characters save the world. For more on that concept and how I've used the Savage Worlds system to make cohorts feasible in combat see this entry. When I explained that the players would be going to the island with 4 squads of 8 "White Sword" Mercenaries I got a couple of skeptical looks that said, "Really? This is going to be so slow". The players discussed in character how to approach the island and I gave them 4 approach points which they wisely narrowed to the two viable ones. Then, and this surprised me a little, they decided to divide the PCs into the 2 different groups that they sent to land on different parts of the island. This surprised me because I didn't expect them the break the D&D generated maxim of "Don't split the party" so quickly. I suppose given surrounding the lone PC mage in group 2 with 16 mercenary soldiers didn't hurt. It helped confirm for me that the system has a lot to do with how people play. I was pleased both to see this high level of adaptability in my players before we had even rolled initiative and also that the system that I created was already breaking them out of their gamer truism ruts.

As the boats approached zombie island they were suddenly attacked from underneath. Zombies started pulling at the edges of the boat while the squads were still approaching the beach. The zombies tried to capsize the boats with the squad and one PC mage still in the boat. This ratcheted up the dramatic tension pretty quickly.

The first action the mage tried was also the first spell cast of the game. He tried using a jump spell to leap out of the capsizing boat and land on the beach. So, the first thing that I did was show them how to use the table I created to calculate the mana cost (a combination of distance from the caster, duration, and concentration time). This was pretty easy. The next thing I had the player do was roll against his magic skill. Here, I really slowed things down. I don't remember the details here but let's imagine that his magic skill was Good and that his die roll result was Great. I walked him through my mental process showed him where his magical jump effect would have landed him if he had rolled Terrible, all the way through Superb. I really tried to explain that this wasn't a "mechanic" but rather a story result. They really understood and seemed to appreciate it. The player even finished my thoughts for me with something like, "So, in a different situation a Superb result might be a different distance because this isn't about numbers but about what yields a Superb result for my character?" Mean while, I'm thinking "Yes, yes, yes! Gaming salvation at last. This is my crunch monkey saying this!"

The simple gaming mechanics worked very smoothly. The rounds were very fast even with the squads of soldiers and the 30+ zombies swarming the landing parties. I used a combination of things to speed this up. First, I used a more simple damage mechanic than the one for the PCs, the zombies and the soldiers could take 2 wounds and continue fighting, on the third, they fell and were removed from the battle mat. This is pretty close to the Savage Worlds mechanic for damage. In addition to that, I rolled all the soldiers and all the zombies as one group. If the group rolled better on attack than average, they'd hit more enemies and vice versa. They players reported that this had the quality of a film because the action slowed down and became more detailed when paying attention to the primary characters. . . them! I got a lot of positive feedback on this from the players.

Here is a quote from one of my players from an email after the session:

I will say it again, the FUDGE system impressed with it's ease of use and reasonable amount of "crunchy bits" to keep things interesting.

Admittedly, those "crunchy bits" were there in the magic system because I put them there for him. I'm just so glad that I'm finding the sweet spot between my story interests and my players' need for mental stimulation can all get met. Session goal one: Accomplished.

Play Testing the Magic System
As I mentioned above, the magic system is designed so that the players begin with a mana pool and the costs of magical effects are determined by looking up mana costs on a table and adding range, duration, and concentration time (more time reduces costs). I used a magical attribute to determine the highest amount of mana a player could put into a spell. The players really got into this and made a lot of suggestions for improving it.

By the time we broke for dinner, I decided to incorporate some of their more obvious and simple suggestions (mostly adjusting costs) and we played with an already improved magic system in the second half of the session. One interesting thing that happened for me in the course of play was that I found myself not minding nearly as much as I thought I would when the players found ways to exploit the system to their own advantage. One of the things that always bothered me about magic in most other systems is that it never cost anything and risked nothing. For example, as the players were trying to escape zombie island, they were maxing out the amount of concentration time to cast a very powerful effect for a mana cost of 1 (the minimum allowed). The effect was being used to allow them to pass their wounded down to their boats at the bottom of a cliff. As the situation grew more intense though, with zombies quickly narrowing in on them, they had to switch tactics, less and less time concentrating, more and more mana, same effect. To me, this was awesome. This is exactly the kind of process I was hoping for in the game; magic varies, is affected by the circumstances, and is rewarded by planning.

The player who played a soldier in this session said that since I'm hoping to try an all mage campaign and the magic system needs the most play testing anyway, he'd like to try a mage in the next session. Not to mention the fact that it looked like fun and I think he was a little jealous.

After the session, I incorporated most of the feedback from the players. During this first session, all mages could cast the same spells. They were only differentiated by power level differences. In the next session, I'm going to add the magic colleges back as the covering for the spell cost mechanic already described.

So, now we're on FudgeFitz 0.2 and coincidentally we have two no shows for the intended February game too. We'll have the same players for play testing again in our next installment: Return to Zombie Island.

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