Playtest Report: In Frankenstein’s Wake

Hi everyone,

After far, far too long, I have started making good on the prizes for the challenge. Last night I brought the winning games to my Wednesday story-games meetup, and I ended up facilitating a game of In Frankenstein’s Wake for 4 players in addition to myself.

The Short Summary

The flavor of the game was well-received and had a high “cool!” factor. We were all impressed with the pre-generated characters. However, the amount and depth of the board-game elements in the rules made it difficult for us to see where the roleplaying aspect had any legs, other than the fact that it is nominally a role-playing game. At the end of our first scene of play we ran into a rules situation that I could not solve using the text as written, and also had no intuitive “right” answer. We then spent a good hour or so dissecting the game as it’s presented in the text, coming to a general consensus on a number of points:

  • This is either a great board game with un-needed narrative elements, or a cool roleplaying game that needs to be rebuilt to emphasize the “roleplaying” (specifically, character identification/fidelity and the creation of a narrative through play).
  • The characters have no way to mechanically affect each other, which is part of the “why should I roleplay?” problem.
  • While the pre-generated characters are interesting and mechanically “balanced”, they also have no explicit hooks or any way to personalize them to the players for any given session of play. Everyone expressed a wish that they at least had a paragraph description or backstory that the players could use as a basis for characterization and decision-making in play.
  • The game needs a flowchart showing how the results of scenes impact other scenes. It was one of those things that makes total sense once you synthesize the information, but to verbally describe how the scenes fit together was difficult and took a couple goings-over.

Rules Issue

The first scene was a Funding scene, where the other four characters were all present. The two players who had chosen their lowest stat collaboratively framed that a rich minor nobleman was holding a dinner at the university, and it was known that he was looking for an excuse to donate money to anything that would put his name on it. I played the nobleman (Baron Gunter von Booring).

We decided that it would be easiest if we started with one person and then went around the table, with each person narrating their characters actions and pulling in dice for traits. People narrated various amounts of traits on each of their “turns”, adding from 1 to 3 dice to their pools. Once we had gone around the table once, we kind of stalled, as we didn’t know if we should keep going or not. Everyone had made their initial pitch to the nobleman, and it felt weird ending there (as we could have kept on going into more detail), but it also felt weird going through another go-around of Traits, as it would mean that everyone’s character would be acting very erratically in a very short amount of time. Keep in mind, it was generally accepted that the optimum strategy to win a scene was bring in as many Traits as possible.

Finally, I said that we should roll and move on with the game, as I wanted to at least get through one “week” of play. I felt strongly that there needs to be more guidelines as to when a scene ends, either with mechanical stops or with someone specifically given that power – otherwise, it becomes an arms race between whoever wants to just keep on narrating in Traits.

Anyhow, we went to the dice, and the basic rolling and re-rolling went fine. However, once everyone had re-rolled, we still had two characters tied at 3 successes. What happens in this situation? Does it mean that nobody “wins”, and everyone has to Burn a Trait if they want to get anything out of the scene? Does it mean that they both get their margin of victory over the next highest score? Is there a tiebreaker of any kind? I spent a good 10 minutes scanning the rules, and found no mention of this situation, which I would think is pretty mechanically likely in multi-player scenes, given that players will tend to use similar amounts of traits and each dice is a success 50% of the time.

Once I re-read (and re-explained) the rules for burning a trait in a Funding Scene, there was a collective “huh”. Basically, everyone in the scene decided to Burn a Trait, and got a higher score than the “winners”, which, while noted in the rules as a viable strategy, seemed just weird.

Play stopped at this point, as we began the conversation with the results bulleted above.

Summary

So, I was actually really surprised that the game stalled as hard as it did – on reading, it hangs together very well. Frankly, the biggest issue was the question of “wait, why are we role-playing again” – literally, “whats my motivation?” Which was hilighted by the tie-breaking rule issue.

Eric, there’s at least one, and possibly more, really cool games in here. I think you should try playing it, if you haven’t, and keep a critical eye on whether the mechanics are doing what you want them too. I also have a whole list of more specific feedback to email to you soon. I really want to play the game thats lurking in there, but I feel like it’ll take some significant re-assesment and playtesting to, as it were, stitch it together.

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Published in: on June 28, 2007 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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