14 October 2007

Screw them over. Screw up. Die!

So last weekend (6/7 October) I spent most of my time being someone else. Which was nice.

None of the dodgy car trouble that ruined my Wednesday, a nascent cold that turned me into nothing more than a snot factory, a raft of "things I should be doing this weekend", or a slight hangover resulting from drinks on Friday night managed to get in the way of me heading to Bicester for several hours of gaming. I had originally planned to only attend on the Saturday due to the aforementioned raft, but it quickly became apparent that in order for me to get anything out of it I would have to stay until the game ended on Sunday evening; the payoff for the character I ended up playing was so backloaded that to have dived out at the point we left things overnight and not seeing it through would have left a sour taste.

We were playing The Riddle of Steel - a crunchy, gritty medieval game I had heard of but never experienced before and given my unfamiliarity with the system, and the purported deadliness of TROS combat, I'd put forward an idea for a socially gifted manipulator. It began to look a limited, limiting choice early on; the pitch involved accompanying a noble's daughter on a visit to her betrothed in distant territories and it soon became clear the journey itself - for which the character was not set-up to play a major part - was going to take up most of the playing time. Trust in your fellow gamer is a fine thing though, and mine was repaid in spades once the final destination was actually reached around lunchtime on Sunday.

I had a central premise for the character, based around his forbidden love for the principal NPC in conflict with his loyalty and duty of service to her father. It became very clear in my mind that if the primary marriage was to go ahead, he would acquiesce on his personal desires for the greater good; if however the proposed union was going to have to be sabotaged for the good of the family, then there would be an opportunity for him to turn it into personal advantage and make his move for the girl. So when it became apparent that the marriage was a set-up to politically align the Lady's father with his enemies, weakening his position, my mind creaked into overdrive to try and play cards that would engineer an opening. What could be seen as the downside of this was that it required a thorough doublecross of the other three PCs.

Thankfully one-off games with a definite cut-off point makes this kind of move less generally annoying to other players and more appropriate as a result, so I decided to press ahead. The plan was to be engaged at a big, city-wide, social event for the nobility. My character and one of the other PCs not being nobles, they had to forge identities to even attend - thus setting one up for a cry of "imposter!" and providing a foolproof (or so I thought) method of accounting for the sergeant at arms. A pre-forged letter denouncing another of the party as mad, dangerous and in need of incarceration, signed "by the Baron" and sealed with his mark had been prepared to deal with another of the group back when she had seemed like a genuine threat to the life of the principal (hair-trigger, ultra-violent fighting noblewoman of unknown past... surely an assassin!). This ran into problems when her unknown past turned out to be that her deceased family were connected to the noble family ruling the city, and hosting the ball, only discovered as the group got into a coach on the way to the event. Still, easy enough to rectify, surely? Just hand the letter to the enemies of the hosts - the family the Lady had almost been erroneously married into - and somehow convince them to take action. Job done. The final PC was much harder to plan for, especially as although they had started out antagonistic to each other, there was more interaction, trust(?) and respect between them built over the course of the journey. This final PC was ostensibly the expedition's leader and would surely worry the most about the Lady's wellbeing? Ropey though it may be, I banked on the agent who had caused problems for the group throughout the river journey turning up at the ball, and cut him a deal, figuring that if he did cause a stir the burly priest would be forced to intervene, would wipe the floor with him (thus ensuring less guilt at causing the death of a colleague), but be distracted for long enough for me to make the getaway.

In the event, plans broke down in several places, as they are wont to do. In order to get the Sergeant into the ball at all, my character had been forced to give him intensive training in ettiquette - and taught him too well, such that he deflected suspicion when the alarm was raised; the priest spotted his liaison with the rival family, stirring suspicion, and the swordswoman noble did a fine job of preventing the would-be attacker from carrying out his role.

However the biggest mistake, and apt in the circumstance, was utterly underestimating the Lady Sienna. Love truly is blind(ing), and she had figured out events and took exception to his methods, fatally stabbing him, to his surprise, in a clinch before "using" him to dispose of the aforementioned agent.

It was a satisfying end for me; for the character to live or die is a non-issue at the end of games so long as the end, as and when it comes, is fitting. This fit like a snug glove, but then I had the benefit of watching things unfold from a knowing position. The GM professed to enjoy the complexities of the finale too - but again he was in full knowledge of events. The other players did not complain, though - and this is my reservation - having been out of the loop as events unfolded I imagine there could well have been more than a little "what the...?" based confusion and disappointment with where the curtain fell. I would like to think that after the event, when motivations and processes became open to all the outcome was appreciated. Certainly I think I would have enjoyed it from the other side - having been on the end of player-driven doublecrosses before - but equally would have found it frustrating at the time as things played out. I like to know what's going on, in fact I think it is a major reason why I prefer GMing to playing and is a central tenet of what I enjoy in RPGs (to be returned to in a later post).

In any case, it was an enjoyable weekend, and with all the others surviving, in some cases not fully aware (in character) of the hornet's nest stirred up around them, there might be a potential return at some point, which is not an unpleasant thought at all.

As for thoughts on the system? Crunchier, and using more dice, than I have a preference for, but given the design goals of the game it felt appropriate. Combat was complicated yet often amusing, and the slow pace of play balanced by the quick deadliness and resolution arising from landing blows. The ebb and flow and rhythm of how fights played out was interesting and a positive in the context. However I felt the real strength of the system was in the spiritual attributes - player-defined goals, drives, passions etc. which when brought into play reward the character with extra dice and thus greater chances of success, fundamentally making characters better at things that are important to them, and rewarding players who play to these strengths (and, in certain contexts, weaknesses), helping GMs to fit the game around the characters. In longer-term play they fluctuate, as they are also won and spent as XP, thus modelling shifts in priorities as goals are reached or thwarted. This kind of device is a nice addition to any system in my view - more for the power in players hands than for the XP effect - though given TROS is crunchier than my preference, I think I prefer the implementation of Passions in Mortal Coil to the SAs here.

Would I play it again? Certainly. Would I ever run TROS? No chance.

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