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.