Or: Designer Not Included
We had our first session, and I thought it was pretty interesting! Very interesting to watch all the moving parts finally creak into motion and start doing shit.
The thing started with a mandatory start-of-session flashback scene (N. Phillip Cole recommended one per scenario start and we’ll do that going forward). This is terrific tech on various fronts: it helps give a sense of history, establish a pattern of expected in-fiction badassery, and helps flesh out those delicious little bits about the mysterious War that you define to create the entire setting. Ours were Thermonuclear, Civil War, Robot Feds, and Dream Insurgency. So we got to talk a lot about what all that craziness means. I framed it up into a neat little scene about the gang getting the jump on a squadron of robot police. Each gang member jotted down a possible lesson (also excellent tech, more on that in a minute) filled up their Ki resources, and then we started play.
I’m running the Willow Ridge scenario that comes in the book. It’s a pretty simple setup: the gang is looking for someone in town, but the town is being run by another bike gang. There’s also a side story about a hot springs and stuff related to that. So, in-town politics and obvious enemies/competitors for the poor little town’s stuff. It’s fine, it’s easy.
The pace of play reminds me, honestly, a leeeeetle bit of Torchbearer. Every interaction with the system has the potential to be an elaborate, lengthy process and very little gets “done” but lots of things happen on the mechanical side. Combined with the possibility of calling for Flashback scenes right in the middle of the main storyline, I would not want anyone to expect the game to be action-packed.
It’s most definitely tension-packed and that’s excellent. The core dueling mechanic is… interesting. Very mechanically sound and it generates a lot of tension: should I start something I may not be able to finish? Is the other side gonna escalate past words? Lots of uncertainty and brinksmanship and it feels great.
That said, it’s also scaffolded by assumptions that are just not addressed well in the rulebook — the designer is not included and I don’t want to try and ring him up while we’re at the table. For example: you define what you’re fighting “for” (blood, honor, influence) and that establishes what possible mechanical outcomes might come out of the duel: stains granted or removed, resource points won, even straight-up killing in a variety of ways. But “what you’re fighting for” is unrelated to the reason one might want to start a duel at all. Since the duel is used for everything you have to be pretty creative about tying your motivations into the blood/honor/influence thing.
For example, the first duel of the night was between the leader and the den mother. They’re lovers and frenemies (very Sons of Anarchy, it’s delicious). The scout has gone into town way too long and a storm is rolling in, preparing to soak the gang. The den mother, who is also a speed freak in the literal sense — she rides a sport bike and is clad in the tightest, reddest leathers you’ve ever seen — wants to rush down in a cloud and overwhelm whomever might be there. The taicho wants to let the scout do his job and go in armed with foreknowledge.
Well, so, maybe this is Burning Wheel Duel of Wits damage talking, but that sounds to me like they’re dueling, right? The den mother challenges his honor and slaps down the Challenge card. The taicho hems and haws — he has terrible cards in hand but a very handy dueling ability due to his rank — and accepts her challenge. So…is the den mother fighting for blood, or honor, or influence? I don’t know! We make a guess and say honor. It is totally a guess. The taicho says the same thing, although defending his honor in front of the gang seems much clearly related.
So they have their duel, strike zones are exceeded and they both do and say shitty things to each other, and finally the den mother concedes. Other than the mechanical outcomes related to what they’re fighting for (honor!) and the stage at which the concession was made (Confrontation, stage 1), does that mean the taicho got what he wanted? I’m guessing so. But it’s never actually said. At no point does the Dueling section really talk about consequences other than the mechanical stuff. It worked to do it that way, that you get your intent as well as the mechanical stuff.
I do not love that it’s so hard to fit the blood/honor/influence decision to the fiction. It appears to be an entirely mechanical decision.
The very early decision of your approach to the conflict — indirect (Water) or direct (Steel) — feels somewhat pointless as well. While the game talks a lot about the challenger having special initiative to really set the terms of a conflict — thereby forcing their opponent to use their weaker stat — there’s no actual way to mandate that. It’s not like…words versus weapons. That would be easy to enforce: if you’re talking it’s Water, if you’re hitting it’s Steel. But it’s about approach, and as far as I can tell there’s literally nothing you can do in-fiction to back an opponent into using the stat they don’t want to use. Under what circumstances would it be literally impossible to resort to the direct approach (either drawing a blade or directly intimidating someone)? Or vice versa?
The rest of the session was good and, sure enough, the interaction of the alignments (are you a nomad or a pack member? do you win through misdirection or direct conflict? etc.) and the various techniques certainly do shape play. They nudge the players into the right place: the Taicho sends his enforcer off to do ugly things and he’s more than willing to do them, the scout starts shit on his own that he really should not, and so on. That stuff is strong.
We didn’t get too deep into the scenario. We still had steps 8-10 (!) of character creation to finish, but that was time very well spent. The gang feels unique and colorful, the setting is much stronger than I was expecting after my first few reads, and the situation feels like it has some momentum.
Should be playing next week. More news then!