The Third Horseman: Initial Feedback for the Dystopian Universe Beta

Disclaimer: This post concerns the beta version of an unreleased game. The commentary below may not reflect the contents of the game’s released version.

A tsunami of post-it notes. That’s my stand-out memory from the first two sessions of the Dystopian Universe RPG. One of the players (or more than one, or less than one MAYBE I’M BLUFFING) ended up with a secret that required them to pass on notes to the GM, and I guess everyone wanted in on the act.

I had to make a judgement call on how secret notes were transmitted in the fiction. In lieu of rulebook guidance, I decided that augmented reality allowed people to mentally compose and send text messages that superimposed over people’s vision. It seemed like a reasonable way to explain how the PC completed their secret mission without doing anything massively incriminating, like having to meet with someone, or send a hackable email. Unfortunately, it also means that the game is now two-parts telepathic staring contests to one-part spoken roleplay; not helped by the fact that I insisted on slowing things down to read every single message that players sent to each other, to make sure there was nothing that required my input.  I’ll just have to let go of that.

Stationary apocalypse notwithstanding, we’ve been having a really great time. Though there are the rules holes you’d expect from a beta – and incidentally, thanks to the designer Brian Engard for his patience as I’ve been bombarding him with questions – it’s already apparent that this is going to be a very good game indeed.

 

SESSION OVERVIEWS

To support the mission-based structure the game revolves around, Dystopian Universe comes with a healthy set of example missions – easily enough to last a campaign. We started with Corporate Espionage, in which the Resistance is trying to covertly steal a new food sample that the government has been hiding. It seemed an appropriate fit for the emaciated dystopia we established in our character generation session, and with a quick recap of rules, we were off to the races.

Right from the start characters were eyeing one another with suspicion, as La Corneille decided to use his prep scene to bump off a few security guards in advance, immediately failing the team their “Don’t kill anyone if possible” assignment. Ah, the fun you can have with compels when a player generates a violent sociopath.

After setting up a few more advantages and requisitioning equipment, the group came up with a quick plan. Chevalier would show up at the front desk as himself, pull rank, and insist on reviewing the lab’s surveillance suite. Whilst Lady Mathilda and her bodyguards posed as the Officer’s henchmen, Aleron, Simone and La Corneille could sneak through the security checkpoints, benefiting from the distraction and sabotage provided by Chevalier’s arrival. The plan got them as far as the second of three checkpoints, where Aleron’s fear, impatience, or perhaps deliberate subterfuge (TRUST NO ONE) resulted in him tripping the alarm. Cue lots of security surrounding Aleron and Simone, dragging them away into custody… whilst La Corneille took advantage of the chaos to slip past the third checkpoint, murder the guards, and pluck the apple from the forbidden tree to accomplish the team’s objective. Later Chevalier was able to use his influence to release Aleron and Simone before faking their deaths, but it was still very much a mission achieved as great cost. Because the team failed to capture the food sample quietly, bloodlessly or undetected, the government was actually able to earn more advancement points than the Resistance did.

That took us up until the end of our first session, with debriefing being postponed until the session after. This took a lot longer that expected – perhaps half our play time – in part because I was struggling a bit to work out how the rules were supposed to work. Ultimately, Aleron and Simone accused Chevalier of being a spy, on the quite reasonable grounds that he’d been acting super dodgy… however, Chevalier was able to clear his name, by revealing that he’d been deliberately acting suspiciously!  He’d been secretly employed by the Resistance as a mole hunter, and hoped to encourage spies to reveal themselves to him, but his efforts backfired when the false accusation and subsequent inquisition cost the Resistance time and resources, allowing the government to advance.

However, not all was in vain, for Chevalier was able to successfully root out one of the spies, even whilst under investigation. It was revealed that Simone had been working for the government as a counter revolutionary, engineering Chevalier’s accusation as a way of spreading disharmony through the group. Remorsefully, she admitted that the government had threatened to wipe out her family of Naturals, if she didn’t comply with their demands. Mercifully, Simone’s life was spared by the Resistance, and she was employed as a double agent – but to the rest of the group she was still marred as a traitor, a target for distrust and derision.

With Chevalier and Simone’s new secrets doled out, we moved onto our next mission: meeting with an informant who possessed vital intelligence, a meeting that turned out to be an ambush. Thankfully, Aleron’s prep allowed him to detect the trap before it was sprung, and gave the team a fighting chance. La Corneille leaped into action and grabbed hold of the treacherous informant, calling on her shadowy masters for backup, and disappearing into a black van with the target a turn later. This prevented the government from killing the informant as intended, but ALSO prevented the Resistance from capturing and interrogating him.

Not all Resistance fighters were so fortunate in their escape. Lady Mathilda was shot and dropped as she fled through the sewers with Simone; Aleron’s attempts to flee were interrupted by the sudden arrival of backup, whilst Chevalier was trapped in the alleyways. When the government triggered a detonation that cut-off escape through the sewers, it became clear that not everyone was getting out alive, and that someone needed to make the ultimate sacrifice. Tragically, it was Simone who achieved this glorious death, pushing Lady Mathilda to safety even as the tunnel caved in on top of her, redeeming herself in death as Chevalier and Aleron took the opportunity to take flight.

 

CRITIQUE

I’ve playtested a few RPG betas now, and some of them haven’t been very good. Since my duty as a playtester is to provide constructive feedback, not shit over someone’s pet project just for kicks, there are times I’ve had to struggle to think of something nice to say about a game, if only for my criticism to appear balanced.

I don’t have to manufacture praise for the Dystopian Universe. Because Dystopian Universe is really good. It’s tense, it’s dramatic, it’s rich in theme… the missions are impressively well-balanced to create hit-and-run guerilla adventures, in which the dominance of the government if fully brought to bear is never in doubt. Advancing the cause of the Resistance feels like a monumental achievement.

Because it’s good then, I feel like I’ve earned myself a few bullet points of unmoderated criticism, included for pedantry’s sake:

  • Character aspects are generated by answering your playsheet’s predetermined questions, which is a great way to speed up character generation in a setting where character turnover is high. But the lack of a “high concept” aspect like in regular Fate Core means that it’s quite easy for, say, the Hacker to end up without any aspects that say they’re good at hacking. We implemented a house rule that the name of each playsheet was, itself, an aspect (there’s form for this, because a character’s social class works in the same way), but that’s a total of seven aspects per character, which seems unnecessarily high for a game where players already have less fate points going spare than in the average Fate game.
  • I love secrets, and the process of accusing people of being spies, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done with the accusation process. It works fine when, say, one PC wants to accuse one other PC. But anything more complicated than that is creaky. What happens if multiple people want to accuse the same person, or accuse multiple people, or accuse each other? Whose accusation goes first? (This can be crucially important, since accusations always end in discarding your secret or character death, and many secrets have activation criteria that depend on you accusing someone successfully or unsuccessfully.) If a character has a secret that triggers an advance-at-cost if revealed, does being forced to reveal after accusation count? If yes, it seems to reward spies for being bad at their jobs, if no it means that revealing life-threatening secrets you’re being blackmailed about can have zero mechanical consequence. Finally, why do non-accusers have to leave the room when accusations are levelled? Being present doesn’t seem to confer any great advantage in the information game (revealed secrets are immediately discarded), and plus, it’s one of the most fun parts of the game. Playing on your phone for twenty minutes whilst awesome excitement happens in the next room is quite the buzzkill.
  • Prep scenes before missions can allow players to heal conditions, pick up equipment, and seek favours from the masters of Paris Nouveau… but 8 out of the 10 prep actions I’ve overseen have all been used to create prep advantages. This is a problem firstly because the beta rulebook forgot to include rules for prep advantages (oops), but also because a lot of other rules are based on the assumption that other prep actions are being used. The bank (GM backup fate point supply), the government’s advancement track, and half the character conditions all assume that characters are buying equipment regularly, and that not being able to do is a disadvantage. As it is, not being able to create a prep advantage is usually too great an opportunity cost for anything else to be considered, especially when the Resistance can START with some advances that make prep advantages frikking awesome.
  • There are balance issues, like you’d expect of a beta. Not particularly between playsheets or secrets, at least that I’ve noticed (though I don’t see The Soldier or The Ex-Cit getting much love, likely because the latter is just a “vanilla” exile character). But the advancement trees are a different story. The government’s advancement track is a particularly egregious example – it’s split into three branches, one of which is rubbish (Corporate), one of which is fine (Military), and one of which is outstandingly good (Security). Criticisms like these, though, are exactly what beta tests are supposed to reveal, so I doubt this will remain a problem in the final release.

 

STILL TO COME

We’ve agreed to do our mission two debrief online, since it takes a surprisingly long time, and we want to get straight into the mission for our third session. This will be our last, since the playtest ends this weekend. My final analysis will surely follow, with an explanation of how everything ended…

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