War of Ashes Beta: After Action Analysis

I’ve had more time to think about the beta test session of War of Ashes I ran last week.

Lets start with the things I’m really liking.

The universe the game is set in and the mechanics that have been introduced to encourage buy-in.  We spent an hour sailing and bickering and pretending to cast magic aboard a Vidaar ship, and it was flavourful and funny.  The doomed search for Garigla, a detail plundered from the history section of the Vidaar faction background, has been enough to spark a whole adventure, and we’re having a lot of fun with that.  Moreover, the prompts provided in faction aspects and faction stunts have been a really good way of introducing the setting to people who haven’t read the book, and weren’t familiar with it before.  I’m a big fan of implied settings.

The presentation of NPCs – everything from small critters to the gods themselves – has given me lots of inspiration to create opposition that matches that irreverent tone.  Which is to say nothing of the NPC character sheets I’ve enjoyed being able to steal wholesale.

And let’s not forget, it’s Fate.  Which is excellent.  Aspect, fate points, invokes, compels… this stuff works great to generate an economy of dramatic leverage, and produces fun stories.  Go download it and read it and play it if you don’t believe me.  And since War of Ashes is heavily based on that, all of the advantages of that game are still working brilliantly well here.

But, as I mentioned in my last post, I also had difficulties running the last session’s big combat encounter, which was unfortunate given it took up the last two hours of the game.  It was unecessary for me to include as many NPCs as I did, and stopping the session for twenty minutes whilst I draw out the map was an equally bad idea.  I also needed to make more use of the new combat mechanics invented for War of Ashes to introduce variety – things like maneouvers (which are overcome actions that allow you to push and pull enemies between zones) and froth (which are hyperactive create-an-advantage actions that allow you to do extra special things with invocations, at the cost of limiting the approaches you can use to 3).  These are mistakes I won’t make in the next session.

However, these are the things that aren’t working for me at the moment in the system as it stands.  MASSIVE DISCLAIMER HERE: this is a beta test.  The concerns I’m mentioning now might not apply to the final product.  Hell, I might have changed my mind about them by the end of the next session.

In my adventure creation post, I was prompted to create approaches for my adventure in the same way as for PCs (combat, exploration, interaction and lore).  I like the idea, but I don’t like the execution.  For one thing, the values seem too high.  PCs were struggling to boost their rolls higher than nameless NPCs using a middling adventure approach and a minor skill proficiency.  PC approach levels run from +0 to +3; adventure approaches run from +1 to +5, and all minor “minion” NPCs use that value as their base for anything they’re not particularly bad at.  Not only does this mean that minor NPCs are better at some actions than supposedly remarkable PCs, but it also means that they’re better at some actions than the named “adversary” leader NPCs that are supposed to be in charge of them, and that are stuck with character sheets on the same level as the PCs.

The rationale behind setting high difficulties for core adventure approaches is that the whole group will have to work together to create advantages that will allow them to progress.  That means more dice rolling, and more attention to what should be the most important parts of the game.  My concern is that the opposite will occur – the core approaches will be neglected entirely, as players search for alternate approaches that will allow them to proceed at lower difficulties.  This is something I need to do more playtesting to determine.

Finally, whilst I quite like the simplicity of the game’s magic system, I know that other players were dissatisfied.  Essentially, it’s just a normal create an advantage action, with a little more scope for what it can achieve (at the cost of attracting dangerous divine attention).  The problem is that most players who want to mess around with magic do so because they want it to be special.  If magic works the same as everything else, it just doesn’t feel as… magical.

So tonight I’m running another game.  It will surely involve another combat.  This will give me a chance to try out a better designed encounter – one with less NPCs, more maneouvring through zones, and hopefully players using froth.  My hope is that this will expand the range of tactical options, without generating any more clunkiness or slowing things down.  We’ll see how it goes!

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