Undying: Deep Dive

Debrief, thoughts, disappointments

Played Undying last night, the one-shot in the back of the book. It’s set in 1889 Seattle, the night of a huge fire that nearly burned the city to the ground. It comes with premade PC vampires in each of the five flavors and an established relationship map of the city’s vampire politics. When you set up the game, you trickle tokens drop-chart style all over the map and that tells you how badly the fire has harmed your hunting grounds, as well as which of the NPCs died in the fire.

It’s a pretty good setup for a one-shot.

tl;dr: I had a very hard time making the game work for us. Here are my thoughts, in bullet form.

* Using a premade relationship map was tough. One big reason for this is that Undying uses its r-map to track debt among vampires. It’s kind of hard to eyeball the map and see actual relationships, such as rivalries and maker-child(e) connections. I transferred all the debts to everyone’s character sheet, which helped a bit, but still…ehhh.

* Plugging into an existing power structure is…not to our taste. I didn’t love that, because I had to spend a lot of bandwidth working out just what the top-level movers-and-shakers actually wanted out of this crisis. So, right, the one-shot scenario comes with several jumping-off prompts, none of which made a bit of sense in my head. The one I ran with, because it seemed political and fruitful and interesting, was that one of the surviving Patricians wants to take over as Princeps (top dog) in the wake of the crisis. Neither I as GM nor any of the players had any idea at all how to approach that. Do you just kill him? Maybe! But they stared and stared at the moves, and the moves did not direct them toward any particular ideas.

* The Moves are mostly very generic, except when it comes to feeding. The hunting/feeding/prey stuff was interesting and very well done. They all work together to do a really good job of greasing the downward spiral into monstrosity. Two of the three players started at Callous, one started at Monstrous. When each of them had their hunting/feeding scenes, it was very amusing to have them have to decide just what flavor of monstrosity they’d allow: the Nightmare decided (s)he was the headmaster at an orphanage and fed on children, and decided it was more blood-expedient to direct the orphanage staff (her blood slaves) to silencing the traumatized children by any means necessary, rather than actually bothering to mess with their memories. Yikes.

* Hunting and feeding are the best parts but they become pro forma really fast. So basically, once you’re put on your show and everyone kind of gets where you’re at regarding your treatment of prey, there’s not a lot of variety left. It’s like, okay, here’s my procedure, yes I agree it’s monstrous, but I need to do it twice more at that pay rate. Great, now there are three dead bodies scattered around Skid Row. As good as that first round of description is, there’s not really any reason to repeat it. It takes a lot of narrative time and bandwidth and the payoff is really, really small, both fictionally and mechanically.

* Treating the GM as another player at the table is the one thing I hated most about this game. The GM gets moves but no directives as to when to make them. There’s no “miss” when you’re bidding, so when do I make my moves? In PbtA vanilla, misses trigger the GM to do things. This is just trad GMing I guess? But then I found it very hard to maneuver the fiction toward tough-to-handle GM moves like “overwhelm with prey” or whatever it’s called when the crowds come with pitchforks and torches. It really only came up once in the evening, and it was a tossup whether to spend the blood on the generic “Flaunt” move (do anything vampire-y you want for 1 blood) or the more robust/fiat-y “overwhelm” move, that maybe costs more than 1 blood. They’re functionally interchangeable.

* The only meaty interactive moves are Meddle and Fight, and they suck. Okay, so it’s true of all PbtA style games that the moves constrain and shape the fiction. Unfortunately, I think, Meddle is so generic that it’s not shaped or constrained enough.

We had a situation where we decided that the best way to handle a rather elaborate scheme to draw out the Princeps and wear him down was to have a Meddle, and then Fight him once he was closer to empty. Wellll…the system itself is built so you can’t actually do that, probably because it’s a tactically obvious thing to do.

Meddle relies on a bidding/raising/folding thing that remains totally opaque to me. I have no idea what raising and calling looks like in the fiction. Not all meddling efforts easily lend themselves to escalation, which is what a raise is supposed to look like. So you’ve got this tension between wanting to win the fight through bidding, and narratively not being able to justify it. That’s not the worst thing, but it’s frustrating as hell to have the blood advantage and not be able to put it to use just because we run out of things to scream at each other.

Fighting is better, I think, because it’s a straight blind bid between sides. Nobody knows what the other side’s blood pool looks like, neat and scary. Buuut Meddle is written in a way that you can’t wear someone down first and then kill them: all the blood you bid on the Meddle rolls over to the fight so what was the point of it all?

I slept on it and thought about it and still don’t have any sense of how to really leverage Meddle in interesting ways.

* Having to work the NPCs just like PCs is way too hard (for me). So…when a game is built for good symmetrical conflicts, say Burning Wheel for example, I love treating my NPCs as full equals. In BW they’ll have Beliefs, and those are super easy to pursue because they’re right there. There’s nothing at all like that in Undying. NPCs are supposed to have Agendas and Ambitions, but the one-shot came up super short on this. Some of this may be a function of the one-shot being incomplete. But when the situation started, I had literally no idea at all of how the Patrician might possibly start making moves (and as GM I had no idea when to start making moves, other than “like when you GM an RPG”).

* The players had nothing at all to hold onto other than ambition for its own sake. Maybe that genre-appropriate but it was really hard to get the game moving because of it. Steve Segedy I think mentioned having characters decide what’s important to them in their eternal unlife: art or experience or gardening or whatever. That strikes me as totally essential for play guidance. Without it, you’ve got your betters threatening you with un-challengeable Bargains (another move that sucks because it’s so one-sided), and then the GM needs to know what those betters actually want.

As I write this, I feel like probably the one-shot doesn’t really provide enough information for me to run with the game. I suspect if we’d set up our own r-map and our own setting and situation, everyone would be more invested and clearer on who’s who. But everyone had a strong skydiving-without-a-parachute feeling through most of the game.

* Maybe my favorite part of the game is Flaunt, but it has … problems. Flaunt is so elegant and easy: spend 1 Blood and do a vampire-y thing. Neat! Turn into a cloud of bats? Become a living shadow? Work dark blood magic? 1 blood, say what happens, that’s that. As long as folks are using it rationalize their operations in the mortal world or otherwise just kind of supernaturally coloring their activities, it works great. But it’s a pure rulings-not-rules rule, and when you’ve got rulings you’ve got precedent to deal with. I don’t know about you, but precedent wears me right the fuck out. I do not love having to make ongoing rulings and then track how I ruled things. This is 1000% worse in a PvP game, because it can very quickly devolve into a court of common law: “Why could I not use my super-hearing to spy on the Princeps but she can use her scrying?” That sort of thing. Ugh.

The bottom line is, I’m glad I tried it out but Undying is not my jam. It might maybe be my bag if we built our game setup from scratch, and my players could feel the edges of something very interesting going on. The things I would need to make Undying work for us would be:

* A better handle on what to do with Meddle.
* More motivational context for NPCs.
* A much better understanding of what our options are (Meddle being the problem child here, I think, since it applies literally to every nonlethal confrontational)
* A better sense of when and how to make GM moves
* How to make Feeding/Hunting interesting in the long game (I suspect if you’re looking down the barrel of becoming Lost — that is, worse than Monstrous — it might be interesting to work out the narrative path upward)

What I did not get to see in action, and it might very well be that this is where the good part of the game is, is the “Downtime” game. This is where there is a whole lot of scheming and a nice menu of colorful choices on which you’re spending your time between Nightly play. I have a tiny suspicion that Nightly play is almost like the Night phase of Night Witches, designed to be less interesting than the rest of the game.

0 thoughts on “Undying: Deep Dive”

  1. Interesting and super good writeup!

    Even the parts I disagree with.

    Though, disagree is probably too strong a word. I think its more like, “I run games differently enough that I don’t have the same stress point, I have different stress points.”

    So, very cool to hear your PoV on this. Super useful too.

  2. Jason Morningstar​ oh wait, I went back and saw the post you’re talking about. For real, I was sure I was just in a shitty mood that day!

    And I thought my prep concerns would not matter since we were doing a one shot.

  3. Sorry it didn’t work for you! Still an interesting read. The version of Undying that I played was so early that it still had dice, so I can’t offer any suggestions yet. Excited to try the final version soon, though.

  4. Oh Brand Robins what are your stress points with Undying? The whole vampire genre isn’t my bag, but the game always seemed interesting to me. Paul’s POV on this seems to be a lot of things that wouldn’t bother me all too much, so I’d be curious to see other views

  5. My impression is that Paul’s not even wrong about any of the points of friction, it’s just a playstyle thing. I’d only add that it is a slower burn game not well suited to a one-shot.

  6. I agree spend a session making the map and the lore it makes a big difference to the investment. The diceless mechanic is tricky to work with and I still don’t know how to add gravitas to the hunting grounds.

  7. Agreed that it’s a slow burn game, yeah. And I think there are probably best practices, as always, too shoehorning it into a shorter format.

    Sitting here with my post, I think the deal with Meddle is this: in Move-speak it’s basically “when you do a nonlethal thing.” It’s kind of the Defy Danger of the game, except it always involves dicking with someone.

    So in our game, we’d plowed a lot of time into sorting through how hunting works, and really putting the Humanity dog-and-pony show on display. This is possibly a mistake for one-shot play because it takes up a lot of time. In our game, we all had our chance to get into the hunting, and then we were running late and still hadn’t gotten into executing our schemes, and suddenly everyone is “uhhh I guess I Meddle?” But there was not nearly enough context set up for what that might look like. And again, the “Meddle them dry” play is not supported.

    There’s this thing I could never really bridge in the fiction, and that’s the mechanical/fictional function of Blood as a resource. Mechanically you need to wear an opponent down but fictionally what can that look like?

    If I had it to do over I’d probably back off the focus on hunting and lay down clearer handles in the fiction for the players to Meddle with.

  8. Eadwin Tomlinson actually the Hunting Grounds stuff felt okay to us, other than Abundance. The other two tags were nice move triggers, like if you’re feeding somewhere with Awareness 1, you’d better take the time to cover your tracks.

    Proximity mostly let me justify “you’d better choose quickly as your hunting option if you want to feed before this meeting you’re going to.” It was weaker than Awareness but not as totally useless as Abundance.

  9. Aaron Griffin uh… so it basically comes down to a difference of playstyle, I think. (Including that I rarely do one-shots of table top games except at cons).

    Like, I know that it’s totally a thing that the game does and that players do — but looking at moves to figure out what to do is not something that I, or most of my players, do on a regular basis. Yes, we do it sometimes, but it’s usually a second or third order thing.

    Also, I just use R-Maps differently than Paul. Like, we’re close enough that the times we’ve played together we were able to get on the same page pretty fast, but he does more at the table draw, where I do more the-world-as-such draw. So for me using an externally created map is sometimes a little odd, as the world looks weird, but it isn’t procedure complicating/breaking — which it sometimes probably is for Paul.

    And, I think, those things come together in the different ways we play moment to moment. Like, a lot of play — in character actually in scenes play — at my table is about forming, establishing, and testing relationships ad hoc and ongoing structurally. Where as some of that element of creation seems to be done more in the R-Map and character setup for Paul. So when my group hits the table with a pre-gen situation, we’ll figure out what all those lines mean by playing into them and seeing how it feels, and triggering moves semi-accidentally as we go through that process. Where as Paul (and Paul, feel free to correct all my bad assumptions here) and his group seem to want to move more object-orientated, based on existing information about relationships, to trigger moves to effect and affect the world.

    All of which means an Undying one shot with an existing relationship map is pretty hostile to a lot of the tenuous and semi-stated bounds of Paul’s groups play, where there the kind of thing my group gets along with because it doesn’t stress our positions.

    (If anything stresses my group, it’s that soft PvP is fine — but having a PC actually murder another PC in game is likely to just not happen even when the moves say it should. Because testing each other is fine, killing someone? WHO DOES THAT?)

  10. I think that’s a accurate assessment, and it’s an ongoing challenge to get my players to play toward the fiction and not the mechanisms.

    Since a lot of what makes a PbtA game unique is its relationship between moves and the fiction, I think my players often feel insecure about where it’s possible to mechanically impose their wishes on the fiction. Like last night, because it was a heavy intrigue driven game, someone straight up asked “okay but how do I lie to someone so they believe it? Is that a Bargain? Is it Meddling?” Which is a very different question than intent-focused play, which Meddle totally demands (hence stating your stakes up front). They’d just gotten used to Seduce or Manipulate!

  11. For realz though, this is a scene that happens in every PtbA game I play with these folks:

    P1: And then I seduce you and trick you into murdering your family
    P2: Let’s play that out!
    P1 and P2 play a scene of scheming and seduction
    Me: Okay, you should roll to see what happens
    P2: No, I just do it
    Me: … that isn’t how PtBA wo…
    P1: Shut up, so now lets do the scene where I ‘ve killed your mom and you feel sad
    P2: Yea! I love PtBA games!
    Me: ::cries::

  12. The blood bidding stuff is just freeformy enough that it felt more solid than it actually turned out to be. At one point one player tried to recontextualize the procedure as something like a Duel of Wits or a Versus (the Burning Wheel damage is baaaad here), which it really isn’t.

  13. Brand Robins I have the opposite problem with one player. He will often just roll some dice and then ask if he succeeded even when he is not doing anything remarkable or move worthy. He is trying to “involve the dice” but something isn’t clicking…

  14. Aaron Griffin ha, sure, we have one of those here as well. Simultaneously wants to roll to make shit happen and wants to gloss over places that aren’t interesting. It’s been pretty rocky.

  15. Aaron Griffin Have you ever had this happen?

    :Player rolls dice:
    Me: What did you just roll for?
    Player: I… don’t know. I thought I should be rolling.

  16. Undying struck me as a cross between a card game and diplomacy. Something where iterative play would build and play off. Nightly play seemed to me like the bidding segment of a card game. Where you’re laying out stratagems and flagging to possible partners your plan.

    I share your feelings with rulings. The game does somewhat expect the players to come with an idea of what vampires are about.

    Meddle didn’t seem too crazy on a read through. Read a lot to me like the conflict resolution of Dogs in the Vineyard. In the example of meddle, I think it mentions that anytime blood is spent, it should represent the use of powers. Which can escalate, but bidding seems somewhat short.

    What was interesting to me was that there was no social conflict. There was the bargain, and I think that was it? Like unless your lore moves allow blood to be spent to convince, a lot of the talking is freeform.

    The pvp aspect I feel you have to buy in hard. Diplomacy style. because otherwise any problem, the players can unite and usually take down.

  17. I think the Flaunt stuff is maybe a one-shot problem too: IIRC there’s a bunch of stuff in the book about getting on the same page as far as what your predators can and can’t do, which would I suspect help a lot with the common-law problem Paul points to (not eliminate it, but help: if everybody’s like “oh, sure, you can turn into whatever kind of animal but also predators always know predators,” you don’t need to settle “can I turn into a rat and follow him home?”)

    Honestly it seems like a strange game to try and do a prebuilt one-shot for, and even stranger to try and slot custom PCs into that r-map. High degree of difficulty there.

Leave a Reply