RPG test drive: Turn

I had a chance during the holidays to play with one of my online groups. You know how hard it can be to get a group together, especially when they are spread in different time zones; when the friend who was supposed to run the adventure had to ask for another week to prepare, I offered to run something in our original time slot so we would not lose our precious gaming time.

Since this group has greatly enjoyed Golden Sky Stories, I first thought I would try running Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, but I just can’t quite grasp how play proceeds, let alone explain it to others. So I decided to playtest Turn: A Game of Shapeshifters in Small Towns instead.

Turn (Daedalum Analog Productions) is “a slice-of-life supernatural roleplaying game set in the modern era”; I think of it as Northern Exposure meets Teen Wolf, or Twin Peaks done by Studio Ghibli.  It’s written by Brie Beau Sheldon and recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign (where you can find the beta playtest version, freely available.) Here is what the author says:

Players in Turn are shapeshifters in small, rural towns who must balance their human lives and habits with their beast needs and instincts in quiet drama. Their baser natures will challenge them as they strive towards goals from everyday tasks to life-changing experiences, and they will need to find comfort in one another to make it through without becoming stressed out.

Turn is part of the family of games Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), which means that a lot of the setting and story creation comes from the players, not just the game-master. Starting a game involves group creation of the small town where the stories will unfold, and player characters are designed by picking one human role and one beast archetype and selecting from their menu of options to customize your characters.

First we discussed safety, topics we didn’t want to see in play, and the use of Brie’s Script Change tools. I went over the rules, starting with an explanation of the items found in the playbooks.

For the town creation step, in order to resist analysis paralysis and save a bit of time I asked my three players to pick one of the five towns provided in the play aid “Turn: One-Shot Guidance and Town Sampler.” After a bit of discussion, they opted for Patton’s Glen in the Florida Everglades. We used Google Drawing to customize the town map, adding a few more elements.

(Note that we also have a few additional notes for our own use that are not strictly town-building elements, and some of the connections are not strictly following instructions, but the players were happy with the results. Good enough for me!)

Here is the resulting narrative:

Patton’s Glen

Type: Tourist Town

Population: 3562

Themes: Youth, rowdiness, leisure, cattle (i.e., traditional wealth and ways, as opposed to the new tourism-based economy.)

Bloodlines: Armstrong, Kon, McNamara, Ramirez

Patton’s Glen is located in the swampy Everglades in southern Florida. As a Tourist town, it’s reliant on events like Spring Break, the 4th of July Regatta, and the Swamp Fling in winter. The Armstrong bloodline of cattle ranchers is connected directly to the town and has been instrumental in the town’s earlier successes but is now trying to adapt to the transformed economy.

Youth is distant from the town but connected to the Ramirez bloodline and their restaurant/live venue, The Flamingo.

The Marina is close to the town but not connected to it, and instead connected to a bloodline, which means the Kon family likely controls and operates it. They are connected to Leisure, which is close and important to the town, potentially an income or relevance source. The Kon own the Pascua Florida Hotel, which caters to a clientele of well-off retirees.

Spring Break is connected to Rowdiness, which makes good sense! That connection to the McNamara bloodline implies they’re in the mix with the rowdiness that goes down in Patton’s Glen. Whether they’re the cause or victims of it – or maybe both! – is what has yet to be revealed.

Discovering Turn

  • Can shifters tell each other apart from mundanes? Yes, through body language and mannerisms.
  • Is there any formal culture with shifters beyond the heir’s family line? Shifters respect each others’ territories as tradition. Shifters put some pressure on each other to behave; newbies require mentorship.
  • Do shifters have a formal or unspoken agreement to not expose themselves to the town? Shifters are formally instructed to keep their identities secret.
  • Do shifters have any moral code in regards to harming mundanes? Killing mundanes is forbidden.
  • Why do shifters stay here? By choice.

Locations

The Marina: Originally founded by fisherfolk, the marina is now primarily used by wealthy retirees. Facilities also include the Marina Center meeting room/banquet hall; and a restaurant and cocktail bar alternatively named The Fountain of Youth or The Peg Leg and Parrot, depending on whether it’s the 4th of July Regatta or Spring Break. Yes, they actually switch signs.

The Egyptian Alligator: Built as a frontier dance hall a century ago and revamped as a trendy speakeasy in the 1920s, the building was then abandoned and the area reclaimed by the swamp after World War II. Rediscovered by younger generations and periodically used as a squathouse or rave venue, it has recently been creatively renovated under Kit’s leadership, and is currently the trendiest underground venue on the Ten Thousand Islands Coast.

The Flamingo: Restaurant operated by the Ramirez family, caters to the more “with it” clientele; fusion cuisine, free wifi, live music three times a week, open mic night on Tuesdays. Mae works there as a waitress.

Events

Spring Break: The week in early March when students from Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, and Miami descend on Patton’s Glen. These are the ones looking for something more exotic and exclusive than the Tampa Beach experience.

4th of July Regatta: The older, richer, and more sedate tourists are those who flock to the town for its week-long nautical festivities in the first week of July.

Swamp Fling: The Swamp Fling is celebrated in winter and attracts a combination of local attendees and “snowbird” tourists. It includes a number of humourous or eccentric activities and an enthusiastically-attended crawfish bash.

Characters

We then created the player characters, the three shapeshifters. MM was quickest to form a concept, choosing the human role of the Late Bloomer — someone who only recently realized that they could shapeshift — and the beast form of raven. FN chose the role of Overachiever  — someone who is never satisfied by less than their best, mentors others, and is always looking for new challenges — and the beast form of cougar, or rather Florida panther. Finally, HR picked the Lover role — someone known for their big heart and their focus on the people they love — and the beast form of bear.

In the process we also detailed the relationships, each shifter having ties with two other player characters and with two NPCs. In one case I allowed two shifters to have ties to the same NPC because it balanced the tension in the PCs’ relationship with each other.

Shifters

Chris Armstrong (FN): Overachiever Cougar (Florida panther) — he/him; 22 years old, tall, broad, with dirty blonde hair. He thinks of himself as a leader, assertive and down to earth — but he feels his parents are not giving him the responsibilities he deserves in the family’s cattle business.

Chris has yet to inherit his father’s business; and he feels his mother still views him as a cub. On one hand, it means Chris can stay on the ranch and get involved. On the other hand, he does not have as much authority as he feels he deserves.

The one time Chris ever felt satisfied with his own work is when he was able to help another person in the town, using his family connections, and she used that boost to follow her goals and leave the town and go to college. This turned out to be Mae’s best friend. Chris appreciates Mae’s kindness, since she has helped him without expecting anything in return.

On the other hand, he is more wary of Kit, who lashed out in petty revenge pranks when he was unable to also help her get to college. This included some offhand public putdowns, but escalated to sneaking “edibles” on the snack table when Chris got to run an event at the Marina Center. This should have been a moment of pride but instead was such a disaster, at least in Chris’s eyes, that he is still mortified. But when he realized soon after that her behaviour was partly a reaction to the upheavals of both abandoning her college ambitions and learning she was a shifter, he also became somewhat protective of Kit. Or at least, he feels responsible for her.

Kit McNamara (MM): Late Bloomer Raven — she/her; 20 years old, looks like a young Winona Ryder. She had dreamed of leaving Patton’s Glen to go to college but her hopes have been squashed by lack of funds; yet she still dreams of being a world explorer and a musician. She works a collection of odd jobs, but her favourite is that of rogue DJ at the Egyptian Alligator. She is witty, vivacious, and runs with the “cool kids,” or rather they run with her.

Kit’s first experience with shapeshifting happened a few months ago when she realized that she just could not afford to go to college or otherwise leave Patton’s Glen. She was brooding by the edge of the wetlands and suddenly found herself flying in wide circles above the Glades.

In a more recent event, she was startled by the approach of a building inspector; in a blink, she reflexively shifted to her raven form and flew off! Fortunately for her, the building inspector did not see her transform, only a bird flying away, but was nonplussed by her disappearance from the dance hall. His story, together with Mae’s frequent and poorly explained absences, have earned her the reputation that she might be hiding some illicit activities, perhaps drug-related.

That’s when Chris Armstrong put two and two together and, realizing that Kit was another shifter, took it upon himself to introduce her to the basics of shifter life and culture.

Kit has also sometimes not-so-gently teased Mae for her “hippieness.” because she was secretly envious of Mae’s seemingly effortless ability to make friends.

Mae Ramirez (HR): Lover Bear — she/her; 21 years old, white latina, mostly notable for her somewhat hippie looks. Her life revolves around making others happy, but she has a secret dream of running her own business. She works as a waitress at the restaurant and bar owned by her family, the Flamingo.

Mae doesn’t often think of her own wants and needs; she is very externally defined by making others happy. If someone asked her what drives her to find love, she would likely offer a quasi-religious answer, something about the “great fabric of humanity.” But in truth, it’s a mix of this vague ideal and of feeling uncomfortable with herself.

She has reached out to Kit, the newest shifter, as friends but was hurt by Kit’s defensive “you’re not cool” reaction. The last person Mae loved and lost was a childhood friend who moved away… thanks to Chris’s help. Mae feels her heart almost breaking for Chris, the “protector of shifters” with so much weight on his shoulders.

Other Characters

This includes the NPCs our player characters have relationships with, as well as those implied in the PCs’ background stories and those encountered in play.

  • Ms. Armstrong: She/her. Chris’s mother, also a shifter.
  • *Rob Jackson: He/him. Business partner of Chris’s Armstrong’s father, and second in command in the company. Chris feels Jackson does not take him seriously.
  • Maria Kon: She/her. Owner of the Pascua Florida Hotel, chair of the Marina Owners’ Association, and a mover and shaker of Patton’s Glen.
  • *Amanda Lee: She/her. A highschool English teacher who has served as mentor to both Kit and Chris.
  • *Mr. McNamara: He/him. Kit’s father, who is semi-disabled and a veteran. Kit does not live with him anymore but does have to take care of him.
  • Olivia Murray: She/her. Long-winded elderly church lady.
  • *”Wesley Roberts”: He/him. A handsome farmhand who makes Mae’s heart beat faster; he is a semi-regular at the Flamingo.
  • *[To be named #1]: A regular at the Flamingo who’s a bit of a creeper, cantankerous and picky. Mae tries to avoid having to serve him.
  • [To be named #2]: A friend of Mae who left town to go to college thanks to Chris’s help.
  • [To be named #3]: A building inspector investigating the unpermitted renovations at The Egyptian Alligator.

*Indicates the character has a relationship with a PC.

Introduction: Ships Passing in the Night

In our introductory session, I tried to follow the Town Manager (GM) session checklist provided in the draft text:

Town Manager Session Checklist
  • Safety check-in – review Script Change and any vetoed topics
  • Gossip Phase · One mundane/rumor-related vignette per player character
  • One beast scene (aim for more)
  • One scene with PCs interacting together, ensuring each PC is in at least one scene with one or more other PCs
  • One scene with PCs interacting with NPCs, ensuring each PC is in at least one scene with one or more other NPCs – multiple PCs can share a scene and count
  • Two bio breaks (~5-10 minutes depending on session length)
  • End of session snapshot and review

Of these, I skipped the rumours phase because we had just established brand-new background; we only had a beast scene for Chris due to lack of time; I gave only one bio-break, I need to be more careful about this; and we did not have time for an end of session snapshot and review.

Town Meeting

It was a Saturday at the end of February, with Spring Break soon upon the town, and the cruise ship line that occasionally but irregularly stopped at Patton’s Glen (let’s call them Duchess Cruises) had just sent word that one of their ships would be in… during the very same Spring Break week. A meeting of the Marina Owners’ Association had been called to discuss the impact of this double-booking on the town. The Marina Center was overflowing with people; there was much brouhaha, with people lining up to the microphones to give their opinion, ask questions, or plead for particular actions. Some wanted to ask Duchess Cruises to cancel the stop, while others were very much against such an action that could jeopardize future tourist dollars.

[I was using the setup advice to begin the session with all characters at a contentious town event of some kind and have each player explain why their character is present.  I also used the advice for fast setup and had each player mark two stress in each of their forms (beast and human), and one positive and one negative stress in each of their exposure tracks (all NPCs they had relationships with, the Town, and the Raven’s flock.)]

Kit was there working for the caterer, while Chris was there alongside Rob Jackson to keep an eye on the family business interests, and Mae was in the audience, strictly to observe and report for the Flamingo (owned by her family), between half-shifts waiting tables.

Of the three, Chris took the strongest interest in the debate. The Armstrongs were not enthusiastic about Patton’s Glen’s shift from an agricultural economy to a tourism-based one but they understood it was inevitable; however, they preferred older, wealthy, conservative tourists like those of the cruise ships and the 4th of July Regatta to the younger, rowdy, anarchic students of Spring Break. They were dead-set against any possibility of souring the town’s relationship with Duchess Cruises.

Chris went to the podium to take his allotted five minutes of commenting, arguing that the best thing to do would be to discourage spring break revelers by offering them “uncool” events; but did not sway the crowd as he had hoped, perhaps because of the recent “edibles” prank at the community luncheon he had been in charged of. [A result of 7-9 on the struggle move “Mind your manners’ with FN choosing not to give too much information or reveal an uncomfortable truth, nor to betray Chris’s nature and mark exposure, but therefore causing offense with his directness.] He did make some good points about the importance of the cruise ship tourism but no one paid attention—until Rob Jackson made the same points a few minutes later, eliciting murmurs of approval.

Still pursuing his idea, Chris went to speak to Kit at the caterer’s table, trying to convince her, as the authority on cool, to speak about how to make spring break duller, uncool, to students. He insisted until she agreed to go to the microphone, but internally, Kit was far more interested in the younger tourists than in retirees on a cruise ship. As a result, she chose to speak about how the two streams of visitors were unlikely to mingle, choosing different activities and locales. Kit spoke quite well, although the pressure of public speaking brought out bird-like mannerisms that were noted by many in the audience. Ms. Lee, present in the audience, gave her an approving nod and smile. [A roll of 7-9 on the struggle move “Mind your manners’ with MM choosing not to cause offense with Kit’s directness nor give too much information or reveal an uncomfortable truth, but therefore betraying her nature and marking exposure. We decided that the exposure had been positive since Kit spoke well and avoided the other pitfalls.]

Chris then turned to Mae for support, practically dragging her to the line for the microphone. Mae gave a few tremulous words along the lines of “Can’t we all just get along,” then scurried away from the podium. Realizing that the meeting was going to go long and that she could either miss the rest of it or be late for her next shift, she walked out.

Escapes

In the press of people standing at the back of the room and beyond the door, Mae collided with one of her favourite patrons from the Flamingo, a good-looking young farmhand. He greeted her cheerfully and walked back with her to the Flamingo where he had a late lunch/early dinner. Throughout the conversation, Mae was wracking her brains to remember what his name was, or whether he’d even told her… [HR rolled a 7-9 for the “Show restraint” struggle move but ignored the stress point because of her role’s special ability. Also, we told HR we decided to call the young man “Wesley Roberts” until his real name was revealed!] But he did leave her his number with an invitation to call if she ever felt like going out.

Meanwhile, the meeting ended at the marina with weak support for handling both influxes of tourists at once, but also a lot of grumbling and strongly expressed opinions. Like all small town meetings, conversations continued for a while after the official end, with attendees slowly trailing out. Chris had about all he could take and had to disentangle himself from a laborious, repetitive conversation with old Mrs. Olivia Murray so he could hurry home and away from crowds. Kit finished her tasks for the caterer and headed out to the Egyptian Alligator to get ready for her Saturday night set. And Mae went home after the end of her shift at the Flamingo.

Chris’s mother, also a shifter [I had allowed this because it provided useful backstory], recognized the signs of stress when he got home and invited him on an evening walk. As soon as they were out of sight, both changed to their panther forms and went running through the cypress swamp. When they finally stopped, his mother gave Chris a good head-licking as if he was still a cub. [Chris accomplished his seasonal goal, “Enjoy familial comforts.”]

But they had gone far enough to end in sight of the back porch of the Egyptian Alligator, where Kit and a stage hand were taking a break. The stage hand was startled to see panthers so close, but Kit immediately recognized the rangy juvenile getting fussed over by his mother. Chris also recognized Kit and was mortified to be seen by his friend in such an undignified situation. He let out a fierce growl, sending the rattled stage hand scurrying back inside the dance hall.  [A result of 7-9 on the beast struggle move “Free the beast’ with FN choosing not to resist causing damage or trauma. We stopped there because it was getting late, but all three players expressed their interest in playing again and discovering more about their characters.]

Impressions

Like all of the better-designed PbtA games, Turn essentially writes itself through the group’s brainstorming and building on one another’s ideas. I had zero idea of what would happen in this game when we began, nor even of what the town would be like. But look at all the goodness I now have in my hands to create episodes and scenes:

  • Town politics, of course, between the bloodlines and along the themes;
  • A Spring Break week double-booked with a cruise ship and rowdy students;
  • Rumours of panthers showing up near town just when tourists are coming in;
  • A building inspector snooping around the Egyptian Alligator;
  • The awkward beginnings of a romance;
  • Reputations of drug use for both Chris because of the infamous “edibles” incident, and Kit because of her frequent disappearances.

And that’s only the beginning! The setting suggests events such as tourists lost on a swamp hike; poachers, vandals, and hooligans for the rowdiness theme; floods, storms, and hurricanes; the occasional ecological disaster…

The main challenge I faced as Town Manager was to figure out which struggle move the PCs’ narrations best fit, because instead of covering specific practical actions, these moves are triggered by internal conflicts. Beast powers and abilities of specific human roles are easier because they come with more practical, externally visible triggers.

Although I popped this game at the last minute as a one-off to tide our group over, we all felt we wanted to play more and find out what would happen to the main characters. That’s always gratifying!

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