[Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

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[Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Pete » 11:54pm on 29 Nov 08

This is a write-up of the Cold City game that I ran at Dragonmeet 2008 earlier this afternoon. The original blurb was:

'Number A196234': a scenario for v1.1 of the Cold City RPG.

'As the Cold War rages in the full glare of the world media, the Underground War is fought in ruined bunkers, dank tunnels, building sites, and bombed out apartment blocks. In the divided city of Berlin, the Reserve Police Agency hunts down monsters left over from sinister experiments and twisted technology. Things from beyond our space and time, strange creatures altered by bizarre machines, the decayed corpses of undead soldiers, things that hide in the darkness. But the Reserve Police Agency itself is riven by suspicion, mistrust and political ambition. The four occupying powers of Britain, France, the USA and the USSR all see the need for the RPA, all contribute personnel, all have their own agendas...

Near two thousand years ago on the road to Calvary a Jew was cursed to wander the world forever; the terror of Kristallnacht saw the Nazis arrest this ancient being who was found wandering the Berlin streets, never to be seen since. Now a monomaniacal RPA accountant tasked with following the money trails of German Jewry hangs dead in his office; will the RPA agents tasked with the investigation follow in the footsteps of the Nazi Ahnenerbe in pursuit of an ancient prize? Will they do what is 'right'... even if doing so means betraying their countries, their colleagues, and their own beliefs?"

The Players

  • Piers, playing Eli Rothberg, a German Jewish Rocket Scientist. (In reality a Nazi.)
  • James, playing Dmitri Svidrigailov, a Snake-Oil-Tongued Russian Wheeler Dealer, Spy, and Family Man.
  • Justine, playing Mervyn Harris, an English rake with a foul temper and an amphetamine addiction.
  • Justin, playing Guy Redmond, a homosexual American.
  • Tom, playing Marcel de Rais, a Conflicted Frenchman hiding his SS Collaborating Past

Cold City requires players to 'Bring The Cool' to the table, and I lucked out with some excellent players who 'got it' from the get go: setting small stakes, proactive scene framing, hitting the agendas of other player's characters, tossing in ideas for twists based on player knowledge of all characters. We had some really excellent draw scenes, and both the players and I wove in elements from the draw scenes into the play of the actual scenario proper.

The Play

Bluntly, we ran out of time. The players were wheeling around pursuing their hidden agendas - we were playing the Open style of game where all character information is made public to all players, which works so well in this game - and two hours was just not enough to address everything that 5 players can bring to the table if they're all being individually proactive. (We only ended up playing for two hours because chargen took an hour - an hour really ain't so long, and chargen in Cold City is fun what with the Draw Scenes and all - and we took two 15 minute breaks for 1) food and 2) the usual 'The Trade Hall Is Closing! I Gotta Quickly Head And Buy Some Stuff!' episode.) So running out of time meant that the scenario did not come to a neat, satisfying close, which I found kinda deflating and I daresay the players did too. (I need to play faster I guess, although were were burning through conflict-filled scenes at a rapid rate.)

However... I really enjoyed everything in the run-up to not finishing. Hidden agendas were being pursued left right and center, characters were being set-up to fall big time by the machinations of players coolly riffing off of knowledge about character secrets, and we had some great dramatic scenes.

  • Guy the Yank vehemently denouncing Eli the Nazi-masquerading-as-a-Jew about his secret past in front of a makeshift synagogue. Some bitter words were hurled across the table that saw a lot of 'Ouch!' comments to fly in from the other players.
  • Dmitri the Russian pulling back a tarpaulin to reveal life-support tanks full of young and very much alive girls who screamed to be saved. Dmitri had the 'A Family Man' trait, and so in direct opposition to his national agenda - to safegauard and redirect discovered Nazi technology to Russia - Dmitri was overcome with horror and started pulling the plug on the life support systems of these tanks. Then his flashlight highlighted the face of the girl in the fifth tank: the face of his long-lost daughter. Ouch.

And plenty of other good stuff, all supported by the Cold City system.

What Worked

Draw scenes. Being given a spotlight opportunity to introduce your character in cool way is gold. The players framed some bitching hot scenes that introduced elements that found their way into the main narrative later in play. More games should have spotlight scenes... they really get players invested in their characters and provide yet more meat for the story-mill.

Hidden Agendas. Again, being given a mechanically significant set of goals for your characters is gold. The players were given their hidden agendas by me, but they really ran with them. I even set up some conflicting situations where characters were conflicted in their choice of which of their two agendas - national and personal - was best to pursue at that given moment. Just like the Beliefs in Burning Wheel, agendas are awesome and when constructed with care can lead to some richly dramatic player-driven play which is what I dig.

What Didn't Work

Trust. Phew, yeah I know, trust is a central mechanic of the game. Everything else was firing thematically and mechanically, but trust just seemed to be this odd set of numbers that really didn't contribute anything to play. There was plenty of trust and mistrust being roleplayed, but mechanically the trust values and dice were ignored for the most part. Does anyone have any comments on how to really bring trust as a mechanic into play? (Like a blog entry or something like that?) This is the fourth game of Cold City that I have played/run where the mechanic of trust has been sidelined by accident.

All in all, a fun game even if it didn't come to a neat conclusion. Many thanks to all the players.

Cheers
Pete
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby oreso » 10:21am on 30 Nov 08

Peturabo wrote:Trust
Hm, yeah. Trust hasn't worked as advertised in any of my games really either. It always seems a bit awkward to bring it in to play during conflicts (a 'moleskin boots' lame stretching for dice sometimes).

I've been in games where it was raised and lowered with frequency though, and this genuinely did reflect the balance of trust within the group and it was fun to use just as a mechanical way of saying "I'm on to you, you shady dealer". This was a Closed game with secrets though, so, maybe in an Open game there's less incentive to declare your PC's trust mechanically, since most of the cards are already on the table. And yeah, it would come out more in a campaign rather than a rushed con-game one-shot.

I guess as a GM you've just gotta ask after every conflict: "Has anyone's trust changed?" until it becomes natural.

Sounds like Open games are tons more fun though. Actually getting the players to do the work and bring in their hidden agendas without fear, and letting other players riff of them for ironic affect (a player deliberately making anti-Nazi comments to the hidden Nazi for example, while the character is ignorant) seems a lot less hard work for a GM.

The trait: A Family Man
Wow. What a cool and dark way to bring that in to play. Seems like your players were throwing out hooks and you were using them to string 'em up good and proper. Excellent.

How was the tone of the game in general though? I remember you saying you didn't have funny accents going, but was it a dark spiral into squicky horribleness or a pulpy action game with some drama or what?
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby w00hoo » 7:12pm on 30 Nov 08

Trust, I think trust is always going to work best in a Closed game. It tends to be something that meanders up and down until the finale when you discover if you've put your eggs in the right baskets or not...
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Pete » 11:08pm on 30 Nov 08

oreso wrote:Sounds like Open games are tons more fun though. Actually getting the players to do the work and bring in their hidden agendas without fear, and letting other players riff of them for ironic affect (a player deliberately making anti-Nazi comments to the hidden Nazi for example, while the character is ignorant) seems a lot less hard work for a GM.


I'm with you on this one: IMO Open Games are gold, and what's not to like about a group of creative folks all riffing off of each others ideas and "Bringing the Cool" to the table? I've never run a Closed Game though, and while dubious about it, I'm open to giving it a go. I think it is a legitimate concern that awesome, drama-filled secrets that never come to light are worthless though, and secrets in the sole hands of more passive, reactive players in the Closed style of play might well never come to light.

oreso wrote:How was the tone of the game in general though? I remember you saying you didn't have funny accents going, but was it a dark spiral into squicky horribleness or a pulpy action game with some drama or what?


It felt like a Cold War spy drama on late night telly: I guess the old Caine thriller "The Ipcress File" is closest to what I was feeling during play. The tone was about to spill over into really dark areas concerning duty to country versus personal morality when we had to end play. I'd really like to play this scenario again with the Pompey crew.

Cheers
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Mick Red » 11:11pm on 30 Nov 08

Im with woohoo on this if im playing cold city id certainly want a closed game, i dont want other players knowing my agendas, and this IMO is why trust didnt have the desired effect in your game, trust is an amazing tool in CC
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby oreso » 11:25pm on 30 Nov 08

Mick Red wrote:Im with woohoo on this if im playing cold city id certainly want a closed game, i dont want other players knowing my agendas, and this IMO is why trust didnt have the desired effect in your game, trust is an amazing tool in CC
I wouldn't say 'amazing', because the hidden agendas already provide issues of trust between PCs if they're being explored. Its a cool reward for exploring them, and it might focus things and force you to bring issues of trust into the open, but, you don't necessarily need that carrot to make sure that happens.

Today's Landston game was completely open, and indeed, the secret ties and plots between the PCs were created by us at the table. It was great, and I loved being able to calmly announce "Yeah, I'm going to betray you soon". I figure its like when you watch Star Wars, and the fact that you know Palpatine is a Sith Lord you get to appreciate the dramatic irony and his evil manipulation all the better when you see him pretending to be an ordinary and polite senator just doing his best for the Republic.

Still not dismissing Closed games either, but yeah, maybe more suited to longer term play anyway. More time for secrets and issues to arise 'naturally'.
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Madcat » 9:48am on 01 Dec 08

I prefer open style games - one - there's the thing about nasty secrets being worthless if no-one knows to poke at them. (Though I think some sort of mechanical escalation mechanic might be useful in some games to stop people blowing your secrets too early), and secondly because they avoid the nastiness that can erupt when players think they're being ganged up on OoC or from a bout of 'But that's what my guy would do...'

With an open game, you get some editorial control over nastiness that happens to your characters, and people can't hide behind 'But that's what my guy would do...' if they choose to be jerks OoC.
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby w00hoo » 11:44am on 01 Dec 08

Mick Red wrote:Im with woohoo on this if im playing cold city id certainly want a closed game.


I'd actually be quite happy to play in an Open game, it just happens that all of the games I've played in (or run for that matter) at Con's have been Closed ones. I think it comes back to the age old problem that if you get a group of great Players around the table you're going to have fun no matter what crap you are trying to play whereas if you get a mix of Players then there needs to be more 'care' taken over the game itself and having it all open for people to fiddle with just wouldn't really work. That's why I always run Closed at a Con, I want to be sure that I have the control to keep the game within the parameters of the slot.

Aside from anything else, I'd definitely want to know in advance what type of game I was signing up for, as I think you'll find the two styles play quite differently.
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Pete » 7:12pm on 01 Dec 08

Madcat wrote:I prefer open style games - one - there's the thing about nasty secrets being worthless if no-one knows to poke at them.


Indeedy.

w00hoo wrote:That's why I always run Closed at a Con, I want to be sure that I have the control to keep the game within the parameters of the slot.


An excellent point. Like Spock to Kirk in "Mirror, Mirror", I shall consider it. ('cos the Dragonmeet slot ran away from me.)

w00hoo wrote:Aside from anything else, I'd definitely want to know in advance what type of game I was signing up for, as I think you'll find the two styles play quite differently.


I'll be sure to add that to the sign up sheet at Conception. Mmm, though maybe I'll give folks the choice of Open- or Closed-style play at the table.

Cheers
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Re: [Actual Play] Cold City :: The Wandering Jew

Postby Magus » 12:08am on 16 Dec 08

Hey Pete

This is Piers, one of the people who took part in the CC game at Dragonmeet. I just wanted to say that I really appreciated your efforts on the day. You made the whole experience extremely enjoyable - Justin and I had turned up to play Cthulhu but could not find a game. We had both heard of CC but had never played. After this experience it is a game I will return to.

I came to this game never having played an 'open' RPG and thought at first it would not work. How wrong I was! Knowing other people's agendas enabled some excellent role-play on all the players part. The highlight for me was Justin's character, Guy confronting Eli (my character) about his suspicions of his Nazi past. I found myself caring less about whether or not I won or lost the scene conflict but how I could role-play it. I won the scene, but this led to Justin's brilliant epilogue scene. Overall I felt that I was a contibutor to an evolving story rather than some sword-wielding herbert who stands around waiting to stab the dragon for XP and gold.

Peturabo wrote:...running out of time meant that the scenario did not come to a neat, satisfying close, which I found kinda deflating and I daresay the players did too. (I need to play faster I guess, although were were burning through conflict-filled scenes at a rapid rate.)

I think you're being a bit harsh on yourself - one of the epilogue scenes was brilliant - Guy (Justin's character) hanging himself in a macabre recreation of the opening scene of the game.

Peturabo wrote:Does anyone have any comments on how to really bring trust as a mechanic into play? (Like a blog entry or something like that?)

My suggestion would be to have an early group scene where the players are forced to co-operate initially(attacked by horrible monsters or an agent from one of their representative organisations). Then perhaps contriving to force players together at times - perhaps aiming a scene right in the middle of a character's national and personal agenda and roping in the other characters.

oreso wrote:Sounds like Open games are tons more fun though. Actually getting the players to do the work and bring in their hidden agendas without fear, and letting other players riff of them for ironic affect (a player deliberately making anti-Nazi comments to the hidden Nazi for example, while the character is ignorant) seems a lot less hard work for a GM.

Completely agree, and in the main it worked extremely well.

oreso wrote:How was the tone of the game in general though?

For me it was very noirish, with a little arthouse. Possibly Cronenberg directed?


I was a bit of a sceptic when I heard about narrative RPGs. How could they work without extensive information for the GM? Well, with some half-decent players and a good GM - very easily. I had not done any RPGing for a very long time prior to Dragonmeet and had resigned myself to boardgaming for immersive experience due to professional and social pressures. For me it's a way forward, enabling myself and some friends to enjoy RPGing without having to put too much work in as preparation. Additionally I'm now very into the idea of creating a fantastic story rather than having a competiton every time I play. I've been thinking about playing Sorcerer as well for this reason.

Thanks for your efforts on the day, Pete. I thought you were an excellent GM, encouraging a great deal of good role play. You also ceded to other ideas at the table if you thought they would add to the gameplay.

Cheers
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