DramaSystem: To End All Wars

German Advance

We recently started a DramaSystem campaign set in Kevin Allen Jr.’s “To End All Wars.” DramaSystem is system which Robin D. Laws created for his role-playing game Hillfolk last year, with a Kickstarter funding campaign that took off madly and generated dozens of alternate settings or “campaign pitches.” I wrote some thoughts on the books a while ago, but I excluded discussion of the system as such because I wanted more play experience with it first.

Everyone’s been so busy, it took a long time to set up a campaign, but we finally got one going. One of the first challenges was to pick a setting, with an embarrassment of riches to pick from. First we narrowed it down to history and alternate history, because several players were in that mood; thn we cut the short list down to five titles, and finally voted for “To End All Wars,” in which a small group of magically gifted individuals fight the secret battles of the Great War.

With five players and one Game Master, we had our character creation session a couple of weeks ago and tacked on one round of dramatic scenes for introduction; but Saturday was our first full episode and it went swimmingly. It’s very satisfying when a role-playing game has a great start, because it gives you the momentum to get over all the logistic hurdles that multiple busy schedules place in our path.

We set the game in the fall of 1916, at the end of the Somme Offensive, in a British unit currently recovering in Brittany. Character creation started with Janus Nygard (played by Bryant), a Finnish officer with Swedish ancestry now dedicated to freeing Finland from Russian dominion. With the poles (no pun intended) Freedom for Finland/Freedom for myself, he’s sacrificed his ability to sleep and his moral high ground to the Order for the promise of help against Russia. Janus controls sleep and dreams.

Next was Gordon Lake (played by Susan), a Canadian Anglican chaplain with healing powers and high ideals. His poles are Hope/Despair, hinging on the question “Have I received a Divine Gift or is this my own power?” He tries to be the moral conscience for the group.

Then came Alaina de Trevaigne (played by Maureen), a Breton witch whose mission is to protect the ancient standing stones; her poles are Benevolent protector/Vengeful guardian. She’s not attached to the unit nor officially part of the Order, but bargaining her help for the promise that the sacred sites will be left untouched.

The official leader of the group is Captain Christopher Sinclair (played by Steve), an officer in the British Army from Scotland. He is the one with the most training in sorcery; what everybody else refers to as “the Order” he thinks of as “my family.” His poles are Dutiful son/Individual identity, and joined the army along with his entire graduating class from boarding school. He is saddled with a dark burden: he is magically protected by the deaths of his classmates.

Then came my turn to make a character. With five players, our relationship map de facto looked like a pentagram, and we had talked about some correspondences with the Arthurian myth. But when adding the last character I realized that we had one from the center, one from the north, one from the west and one from the (north)east, so I had to be from the south. Then Susan pointed out that Gordon was linked with water, Alaina with earth, Janus with air. Steve declared that Christopher was aether; so I made a character linked with fire:

The ambulance driver Marie-Isis Dérigny (played by Sophie), from a Breton family settled in the Algerian colonial holding. Before the war she had been an explorer (I modelled her in part on Isabelle Eberhardt) but with the conflict, had come back to the home she had never known to do her part and reconnect with her roots (she is Alaina’s cousin). However, Marie-Isis actually died in Algeria and was possessed by a fire ifrit, the only reason she still lives.

After character creation we had a few dramatic scenes pitting Christopher and Gordon in conflict over lives to be sacrificed, Alaina and Marie-Isis studying one another, and Janus, Alaina, and Christopher trying to establish a balance of influence.We learned the terrible secret: the Order was actually trying to keep the war going longer because although it wanted the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers, it had been prophesied that unless France fell after terrible suffering before the final victory, another even greater evil would follow… This was the mission Christopher had been given and to which he was trying to rally the others.

DramaSystem uses two types of scenes: dramatic scenes, in which one character tries to obtain something from another (this works best if there is tension and disagreement), and procedural scenes, in which characters try to resolve an external, practical matter. Each player, including the GM, takes a turn at setting scenes.

Through play, participants earn drama tokens and bennies which let them influence the outcome of conflicts. In addition to this token economy, procedural scenes use playing cards as a resolution mechanic. Because the token economy and the dramatic issues both take a while to fully establish, the game takes a few episodes to come into its own.

In our second meeting and first full episode, we went around the table twice for a total of twelve scenes, ten dramatic ones and two procedural ones. To be honest, I’m far from convinced that I will come to like the resolution system as a mechanical rules set; however, so far it seems to produce excellent results.

Yesterday’s episode, “The Cost of Power,” produced delicious drama. The high point was a confrontation between Gordon and Christopher. Earlier, Gordon had saved the life of one of Christopher’s former classmates, to Christopher’s displeasure. Christopher had gone to Alaina and obtained a foxglove brew from her, but was told to use it himself for she didn’t want to be blamed for an “accident.” While Gordon was officiating at the service on All Hallows’ Eve, Christopher had come into the infirmary with a flask of poisoned brandy. Alas, Marie-Isis had insistently wanted to talk to him moments earlier and had delayed him just long enough that Gordon arrived in time to see Christopher, wiping tears from his eyes, about to give his old friend a drink. Gordon confronted Christopher who, against  his better judgement, poured out the brandy onto the floor. It was a really great dramatic scene!

Later that night on the other side of midnight we also had dream-walking to Scotland, bodies missing from graves, the ifrit suddenly leaving Marie-Isis to die, and Gordon using up his strength to keep her alive. We also received news that the unit was being sent to the front. The procedural scenes were the two castings, one to allow Christopher to dream-walk to Scotland to meet with “the family” and one to summon the ifrit back and save Marie-Isis. Christopher negotiated everyone’s cooperation to the dire plan, though not without reservations.

We ended with so many hanging plot threads: what had caused the dead to rise, and where were they? Where had the ifrit gone for a time? Whose attention had the summoning of the ifrit caught? Could Christopher steal the ifrit to prolong the life of his dying mother? Was there anything of Divine Grace in Gordon’s healing powers, or was he just a sorcerer? What did the ifrit want?

And who would betray whom first?

Edit: Edmund’s GM notes on the game.

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War of Ashes RPG: So Close!


So the reason I have not had time to write for this blog is I’ve been addressing alpha playtest feedback on the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions. We’ve had a few incredibly productive dev meetings, and we’re quite happy with the way the game is coming together. Addressing playtest comments has made it better, more consistent, clearer. I’ve been writing frantically, with the help of editor Karen Twelves, rules maven Mike Olson, and project manager Sean Nittner. And with all the great ideas generated, we have lots of material left over for Web extras when the game comes out.

We’re going to have a beta playtest, and the application form is open on the Evil Hat site: http://www.evilhat.com/home/war-of-ashes/ —Squee! you can also see the cover mock-up and read the official status details!

Playtest applications are open until July 6. Try the new, improved version and tell us if we got it right or need more improvement!

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2014, used with permission.

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The Death of the Hen: Chapterhead illustration

The Death of the Hen: Initial capitalnce upon a time last year, I took an online literature class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (it re-runs periodically and you might enjoy it too.) The first week’s reading assignment  was Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories, and I ended up reading some Grimm stories I was less familiar—or even completely unfamiliar—with. As I mentioned last year, one particularly stuck with me, a short fable called The Death of the Hen.  Like a lot of fables it presents the amusing adventures of talking animals to present a moral lesson; but the lesson was not one I expected.

In short, it tells us that to be useful, help must be both timely and appropriate.  Help of the right kind withheld until the moment has passed is of no use; help given generously and promptly but of the wrong kind makes things worse.

  • In the tale, the brook and the bride’s withholding of help delay their assistance until it is too late to save the hen; the result is the right kind of help, but too late.  But the hen was already choking and so is no worse off – she would have died without the help, she dies with it as well.
  • The straw and coal’s help was well-intentioned and timely, but was of the wrong kind so it caused others to die who did not have to.
  • The stone’s help was timely and of the right kind, but all the other “helpers” – wolf, bear, stag, lion, and all the beasts in the wood – overwhelm the help which the stone can provide, and so all are lost.

This has popped back to mind several times since I read it thanks to real-life examples, most recently this weekend when a friend needed help from many of us. I felt angered that the fable was being re-told in real time (though I think our hen is actually doing fine since we had more stones than brooks, lions, and straws.)

The Death of the Hen: Chapter end illustration

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War of Ashes RPG: Post-Playtest Editing

KuldThe beta playtest phase of the War of Ashes RPG ended ten days ago and we got a lot of great feedback. Since then, I had two meetings with Evil Hat Productions and ZombieSmith luminaries.

Vidaar StyrsikOn Monday night, I got together with project manager Sean Nittner and editor Karen Twelves, and we hashed out a tentative plan for changes to the text. Key points include clarifying and streamlining combat and magic rules, and reordering some sections for easier reference in play. You can see in the photo below how well prepared Sean was, with all the options on little index cards and looking just like a Fate game! The ones that are crossed out are options we eliminated after discussion.

On Thursday night, the three of us met again, this time with Chris Hanrahan, business manager and partner for Evil Hat, and Josh Qualtieri of ZombieSmith. We went over the proposed changes and we talked schedule, art, cover, format, Web extras, and more.

Both meeting were fantastically productive, brief (90 minutes each for a lot of material to cover), and fun, because those are great people. And now I’m spending my weekend addressing some of the resulting action items.

Meeting agenda, Nittner-style

Sean’s approach to writing a meeting agenda did wonders!

Credits:  Photo © Sean Nittner 2014 and art © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective

I repeat: lots of SPOILERS here but I’ll place them after the cut.

"Time Is A Flat Circle," illustration by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014Edmund and I just finished the first season of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; we’d saved it all because we had been told by friends that it was very good but the pace was slow. Since I end up having a hard remembering who was what and what went on when this sort of show is stretched over many weeks, I wanted to watch it all over the course of a few nights.

I liked the visuals, the non-linear story-telling, the foreshadowing, the casting, the soundtrack, the editing, and the attention to detail. I always have a measure of trouble understanding some of the dialogue when thick Southern accents and mumbling are involved, but it wasn’t too bad.

I appreciated the references and influences in both the writing and the cinematography. I found it interesting that the show has sparked a good number of high-quality fan art homages, from classic illustration to tongue-in-cheek mash-ups.

On the down side, as with most shows of this type and especially on HBO, it fails to do more than squeak a pass on the Bechdel test when two little girls chatter to one another in one episode. There are relatively few female characters (except as dead bodies), and they are not all that important to the plot; they are there to cast light on the two male protagonists’ mindsets. And being an HBO series, there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and sex workers.

That’s it for the non-spoiler section. Read the rest of this entry »

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War of Ashes RPG: Game on!


I just went through two playtest sessions of the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions: one tabletop game this weekend and one Skype-based session with a different group. So far, a few rough edges rules-wise but everyone is having a blast with ZombieSmith’s setting. I thought I’d share our set up at the end of our Skype game: using the whiteboard app Vyew.com, the grey boxes are zones, the yellow ones are aspects we created in play. The three little markers are our characters. (Click on the image to see bigger version.)

Credits:  Art for the markers © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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Playtesting War of Ashes RPG!

Iva the StubbornEdmund singed up for the beta playtest phase of the War of Ashes RPG for Evil Hat Productions. It’s curious and interesting to see someone else use the material without any input on my part (I’m staying hands-off.) he ran one via Skype last Monday and I listened in on part of the game; it sounded hilarious. Afterwards, he recapped it thus:

TONIGHT ON “THE GODS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH” the protagonists (Boegert  an Elvorix rasta priest and Liekenen, a Kuld scholar) – both members of the Society of Stone, meet with their contact (“the old one”) at the Bigg Inn – an establishment soon to be overrun by rampaging Kuld and filled with desperate refugees, escaping soldiers, and naer-do-wells.  The Old One gives them a task – to travel north to a long abandoned estate known as Grantham House, there to recover an ancient book called “How Things Work” before it can be devoured by the Kuldish horde.

Before they can embark on their assigned task, however, they are ambushed by strange Elvorix wearing dark cloaks to hide their glowing eyes.  Neither of the protagonists are skilled fighters, but manage to escape on stolen Guldul.  Likenein even manages to slay one of the attacking Elvorix, only to discover that the body is filled not with blood, but with ash. (also, it doesn’t taste very good).

Riding (very, very slowly) North the pair come to the lands of Grantham, where they discover that there is no life whatsoever, even in those things which appear alive.  Boegert summons the power of his healing herb and goes on a vision quest, in which he sees a huge volcano explode and cover an island with ash, burying entire cities, from which rise creatures with glowing red eyes.

Tune in next week for installment 2 of THE GODS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH!

I get to join in a tabletop test this afternoon with a different group and different characters. Again, I didn’t get involved with game planning but I did create a sheet of paper minis I’m pleased with. I need to check with ZombieSmith whether I can share it publicly, though.

It’s interesting to hear the preliminary feedback and to notice things differently now that I am re-reading the draft. I’ve already made notes for a number of inconsistencies to fix, generated by our last-minutes system changes. A number of rules I’d been trying when I ran the alpha playtest were replaced, so this will likely feel quite different today.

Credits:  Art © ZombieSmith 2013, used with permission.

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