First session was some rough sledding. It looks a leeetle bit like Apocalypse World but boy does it play different. I kept tripping over myself trying to make it work like AW and it’s uh…fussier than that. Much, much fussier.
Character creation was super easy and very evocative. Same with the crew setup, and I loooove that kind of design. I love that the Crew is itself a kind of character with its own advances.
Situation setup feels really loose and undefined, mostly because relationships right at the beginning don’t have much context beyond love/hate, and there are the factions all over the damned place. So it feels slightly impersonal, like the characters are very small cogs in very large operations. By design I suppose.
I ran with the quickstart kit, which throws the characters in the middle of a turf war between two gangs and being asked who they’re siding with. Well, so they sided with nobody but they did have a good relationship with the overboss to whom everyone else reports. They got a job off her, and given the mix and the gang — it’s a Leech (tinker/gadgeteer) and a Lurk (cat burglar), and the gang’s reputation is for subtlety — they did their level best to set up a super-quiet break-in to steal a rival gang’s treasury.
I’m not sure what happened — it might very well be my instinct to snowball events into total fucking chaos — but what started as a pretty good distraction/break-in plan turned into burning down half of the district and pissing everyone off. And failing to actually pull off the gig. Mostly the problem was mechanical: the players didn’t really understand (because I didn’t explain it very well) the absolutely vital role of stress and and absolutely crushing effecting of suffering a trauma while on the job. Stress is there to provide handy get-out-of-jail effects: it powers resistances and provides bonus dice. So they cranked their Stress almost to the top before the heist had even begun, and then had nowhere to go when things went sideways.
The actual procedure for figuring out what to roll and why isn’t terrible but it feels like, I swear to god, like what you go through to buy a new car. Have you done this? They have what’s called the “three legged stool,” where you can negotiate the trade-in value of your old car, the purchase value of the new car, and the interest rate of the financing. When all three legs are unstable, you have the least amount of leverage and you get fucked by the car dealer. Blades in the Dark has a very similar vibe! You can negotiate the position of the action (dominant, risky or desperate, and that tells you how bad complications and failures will be), the effect of the action (limited, standard or great), and the likely consequences of failure. It’s a lot to think about every time you touch the dice.
There’s also this clever, but exhausting, thing called the Devil’s Bargain. The GM can offer that something bad will happen and you get to roll an extra die. So, yeah, once they’re out of stress to buy more dice the players want the fucking Bargains for every roll. Eventually I just stopped offering them because my brain was tuckered out. It didn’t last long, and I started offering really nasty choices: oh yes you can escape the burning warehouse, if you’re willing to climb over the body of your crewmember. Oh yes you can try and throw that incendiary device again, but you’ll burn yourself doing it. And so on. It feels exhausting the same way Act Under Fire tires me out.
The AW fingerprints are still all over the game. The GM never rolls, and evaluates outcomes based on established fiction. There are moves-ish things the characters can do. But there are, lordy, so many interlocking economies. Characters gain stress and then trauma, they track XPs in two different ways, the crew gains Heat and then becomes Wanted and tracks XPs in two different ways. The crew gains Rep and Turf and Coin, can buy useful NPCs or grow their numbers or expand their resources (“claims”). I do love me some good widgets, so I think they’re fun! But complicated.
I’m not totally sold on the way rolls are evaluated, especially since it feels like AW does much the same thing but with way less handling time: roll, add, what’s the total? I don’t like having to decide if a roll is risky or desperate. I don’t love deciding that what they’re trying to do will provide only limited effect, although that may be a really useful tool down the road.
So our crew failed in their first mission, with the first two PCs beat to shit and wounded like crazy — healing takes a long damned time and since many wounds cost dice, they’re useless in the field because dice are worth too much. They may attempt some troupe-style play and send out two different gang members next week while this week’s beat-up folks heal another round.