The Third Horsemen: Final Thoughts on 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.

Evil Hat’s Dystopian Universe beta is now closed, and the last of my feedback is submitted. Bound as I am by “disclosure pledge” obligations, it’d be remiss of me not to conclude our campaign story, and provide one final bit of feedback.

 

SESSION OVERVIEW

Between our second and third sessions, I ran a quick debrief online, in which players had a chance to level accusations. With Simon the Natural having heroically sacrificed herself, and Aleron the Hacker being unable to make the final session, there were only three players left to accuse one another. Things took a turn for the hostile when Chevalier and La Corneille both accused Lady Mathilda of treachery, joining forces to brand her a spy.

When a character is accused in Dystopian Universe, they have three options: clear their name if they’re loyal (which earns XP for the government as the Resistance follows false leads), become double agents if they were spies (which earns XP for the character that accused them), or say nothing to indicate their allegiance (which earns XP for the Resistance… whereupon the PC is killed “just to be sure”). Lady Mathilda was the first PC to choose martyrdom. Tearfully accepting her fate, she refused to speak in her own defence, claiming she would rather choose death than impede the Resistance any further.

(Don’t feel too bad. She was a spy really.)

With that grisly business tended to, Chevalier and La Corneille were joined by two new characters: Natascha the Malcontent (a rabble-rousing young punk and anarchist), and Rhith the Armiger (a creepy cybernetically modified super model). Their final mission was to make their move against Morgan la Ver – the corporate mastermind who’d architected their ambush the session before – assassinating him quietly and making their way out without causing collateral damage.

The mission was a complete disaster.

I knew we were going to have an interesting session when secrets were doled out for new characters and I realised we had no spies in the team. My hope was that the tone of paranoia carefully nurtured in the previous two sessions would do its thing, and the players would be at each other’s throats anyway. And so it was, but even I had failed to account for the complete absence of trust and how thoroughly it would impede the mission.

The team devised a plan to corner La Ver at a high society dinner, have Rhith seduce him, and quietly murder him in private. Fine in theory, but by this stage Rhith’s “earn an advancement point whenever you make someone feel uncomfortable” trigger had done its thing, and Chevalier was already planning to cut her out of the mission. Meanwhile, Natascha had infiltrated the event’s catering staff despite having no cooking ability whatsoever, and when someone came to investigate, she entirely lacked the chill to do anything except immediately initiate violence. Things sort of escalated from there.

When events turned violent enough that La Ver was escorted out of the room by his retinue – including Chevalier, Rhith and La Corneille – Chevalier informed their target that he believed Rhith was a Resistance agent, and should be taken away by his guards. Then, with the majority of La Ver’s protectors indisposed, Chevalier announced his love for La Corneille (!!!) and triggered a quick conflict that incapacitated the target. Things took a turn for the unexpected when a dying La Ver began to reveal his secrets… secrets that Chevalier was keen to listen to. Unfortunately, Rhith returned to the room at this stage and shot La Ver in the head. Cue irrevocable party tensions, the arrival of a small army of government agents, and an explosion from downstairs where Natascha had decided to go out in a blaze of glory.

Though everyone else managed to get out alive, and the primary mission objective had been technically achieved, there was no denying that the mission had been a total failure. The government had even had an objective to “start a bloodbath to blame on the Resistance”, which let me tell you they passed with flying colours.

Things got even worse after the mission where, inevitably, Chevalier and Rhith accused one another of being spies. Since they were both wrong, and nether was in the mood to sacrifice themselves, the government was able to advance twice more. Had this not been the last session of the campaign, the government would have unlocked the “Purge the Resistance!” mission for the next session. As it was, La Corneille and Chevalier were content to narrate the Resistance’s complete destruction, as they skipped off into the sunset to be lovebirds together.

In conclusion, this was an exciting mission in which the players did absolutely terribly, and I’m happy that this is a game that allows something like that to happen. After all, this is dystopia.

 

STRANGE SECRETS

Mostly this session just confirmed a lot of the feelings I already had about this game, feedback I’ve already provided in my last post. However, there are two more things I wanted to shine a spotlight on, one good, one bad.

First, the bad. I’ve already stated that I think secrets are a cool idea that at the moment doesn’t work properly, and discussing more with my players has only confirmed that suspicion. Mostly it’s drawing them randomly which is rubbing people up the wrong way. Nobody really minds when it happens in character creation – a randomly provided secret can take you by surprise, but since you haven’t established much about your character, it’s not hard to fit that secret into how you perceive their motivation. But getting halfway into a campaign before being told that your calm and patient mastermind character now enjoys causing trouble for the hell of it, or that your pacifist hacker is now a serial killer, or even just that you have to play a spy now… that really doesn’t work so well.

I get that the game has to force some players to be spies in order to maintain paranoia and tension. So I don’t really know what the solution to this would be. But it’s a problem. One of our PCs was only working with the Resistance because he’d been blackmailed into doing so – if he’d discarded his secret and then discovered his was now working with the Resistance anyway, except now they wanted him to be their mole hunter… it would have been pretty jarring.

Oh, and one final note for the “Killer” secret, where a PC gets an advancement point every time they kill someone… well, if the players has to ask the GM every time they take out a mob, “Precisely how many people did I kill?”, then it’s a pretty big giveaway. That was certainly the case foe Aleron, the team’s resident mass murderer. And also, since the Killer is a RESISTANCE secret, now a Spy secret, the fact he was so obviously a Killer was bizarrely concrete evidence of the fact he wasn’t working for the government. “Aleron? Oh don’t worry about him being a spy, you can definitely trust him – he’s just a serial killer!”

 

SEXY SECRETS

Let me end my feedback for the Dystopian Universe with one of my favourite rules – one that’s squirrelled away in the strangest part of the rulebook, but which really does turn the Fate system on its head.

In Dystopian Universe, when the GM makes a roll, you never know what the difficulty rating or skill of the NPC is set at. You know what the GM rolled, but not the final result. So you have to decide how many fate points to spend based on your best guess of what the GM rolled.

In just one move, every roll in the game is that much more tense. It introduces an extra level of paranoia and suspence to a setting that absolutely thrives on it. And it entirely does away with the occasionally tedious “Oh no you don’t!” “Oh yes I do!” “Oh no you don’t!” that typifies fate point exchange in a regular Fate game. It’s a brilliant, brilliant rule…

…and it’s barely in the rulebook. Maybe this was just an oversight, which would be fair enough for a beta, but the only reference I could find to this rule comes in the Resistance’s advncement tree. One of the first advances the Resistance can buy allows players to know what the skill rating and passive difficulty of GM tests are, therefore implying that these things are secret unless the advance is chosen. That’s it. Worse still, the fact that this is one of the first possible advancement options means that players can write this great rule out of the game before they even start playing. Luckily, my players recognised how fun this rule was right from the start, and purposefully neglected the advancement option.

As a beta player, my job is to present a critique of the rules as I see them, and hope that some of the feedback I provide helps to improve the final product. If only one of my suggestions makes it into the released version of Dystopian Universe, I hope it’s that this Resistance upgrade is scrapped and that this rule gets the pride of place it deserves.

2 thoughts on “The Third Horsemen: Final Thoughts on the Dystopian Universe Beta

  1. I’ve been enjoying your posts on this game. It’s a shame I couldn’t make it.

    Regarding secrets in the middle of the game, do you think it might help if players picked from a different set of secrets for established characters than for new characters?

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    • Maybe. But it would still have some of the problems outlined above – no selection from a list can possibly account for all the many varied character ideas that players will think of for a roleplaying game.

      But it might be cool to present mid-game secrets not as things your character now thinks or feels, but events that happen to them that they must now choose to respond to. For example, instead of drawing a spy card and a Resistance card, maybe you draw a neutral card that says “The government has threatened someone you care about. Work as a spy to keep your loved one safe, or bring the loved one to the Resistance, creating a secret to do with your connection with them.”

      The current rules do always leave PCs the option of revealing and discarding their spyness anytime they choose – and getting an advance for free when they do so, which is broken – so it is theoretically possible for a player to throw away any spy card they get stuck with. But it doesn’t seem in the spirit of the rules.

      To be fair, the game does usually give you a choice of new secret, so you’re rarely FORCED to pick an option you hate… and to be double fair, the game does try it’s hardest to convince players to be surprised by their characters, and to allow them to constantly reveal new hidden dimensions. (There’s even a rule that once a session you can spend a fate point to rewrite an aspect RIGHT NOW, which gives you two free invokes on the new aspect.) That goes against the usual preferences of most people I roleplay with though.

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