The Undertow – A Playtest Story

Every time I take part in a play test, my mind isn’t always on winning. I’ve tried to weave little vignettes to give myself more of an idea of the cultures we’ve made cards for. I’ve toyed around with the notes I write down during games, but after seeing that a Kickstarter-backed PC game (Torment: Tides of Numenera) dropping a free novella for their backers to read, I don’t really have an excuse to put down the stories. Here is my first stab at one from a couple of playtests ago.

culture_the-undertow

I recall one movement, perhaps a few turns of the moon ago, of a clever fisher of followers. That leader came from a dock owned by the Water Runners, men and women who saw the unforgiving ocean as their friendly pond, born fearless of the void past the horizon. That fisher told them that only the true believers, not the mediocre seafarers, had the inner faith to risk and survive the crashing waves.

To the fisher’s surprise, the sermons worked. The wonders and preaching dissolved all fears of the converted. But it was not enough  – total dominance of the waters was the goal, and as such all influence must come to the fisher’s control. A group was created, the Order of the Radiant Net,  but others called them by the denigrating nickname of Water Rats . Initiates in the order were  fervently cast off into the sea to find new followers, but their leader made sure to send a select few in each boat that were the true rats.

They were saboteurs and thieves loyal to their ocean master. Every pier they docked in, while the missionaries began their work in a port town, the others crept into shrines, stealing relics or eavesdropping on the leaders of other cults. They would take the spoils back to their leader, who would then re-purpose them as “divine knowledge” the leader gathered from the ocean.

The coastal empire of the order grew with each stolen follower and relic. Soon those that still saw the order as a threat gave them a new name – The Undertow. It was befitting, as while a member anointed a new follower on the beach, with a mix of sea water and other liquids, the tide hidden underneath would force them to prostate. And in the end, their leader had many kneeling on the sand.

Shrine Mechanics Video

I did a quick video to show you how one of our core mechanics works. It’s not super high quality and I totally mispronounced “Iconography”, but you get the idea.

I plan to do more of these short mechanics outlines, and eventually a full how to play video. Hopefully I’ll have some better equipment to work with for that. Leave a comment if you have any questions. And if you have some feedback regarding the mechanics or the video, I’d love to hear it.

Research Bookmarks 1

I figured it would be a good idea to get behind the little things I’ve been picking off the internet to help me get a better image of the game’s world. Disclaimer: while I might grab some stuff from them, there is no real way of knowing what will or won’t make it, so don’t take them all as primary sources from what I will eventually put into writing.

Under Tomorrow’s Sky

Description: Under Tomorrow’s Sky is a “fictional, future city…assembled by a think tank of scientists, technologists, futurists, illustrators, science fiction authors and special effects artists to collectively develop this imaginary place, the landscapes that surround it and the stories it contains.”

Why I’m Stealing It: The photo above is a pretty cool concept of a supposed future city. Honestly, though, does the place look…advanced? There’s a goat sitting down in the bottom right corner, and the irregular, raw-cut openings have cloths of many colors draped on them. It’s a rocky mess. But a cool one.

Prophetic News

Description: Oh boy. A little backstory – I run into quite a bit of end-times sites when I sift through lists of links for my day job. This one is the latest of the batch. To give you an idea of the crazy in this one, there is a post where, using completely insane “research”, the ethnicity of the future Antichrist is revealed. It even has end notes.

Why I’m Stealing It: It’s a treasure trove of insane ramblings. The important part of the game is that there needs to be a need of an impending doom, of prophecies and leaders doing what they can to make them real. While I don’t think the blog creator is trying to bring  people to a hidden compound out in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, the amount of effort made into it shows that even the most irrational things have a solid base of sorts.

Random Cool Church Photo

Description: It’s a weird fish-eye lens take on a church.

Why I’m Stealing It: It just looked cool.

Seven Abandoned Wonders of Institutional Architecture

Description: While I’m still on structures, I found this photo set of broken-down areas in the US, Spain, Scotland, and other places.

Why I’m Stealing It: The world of the card game is strewn with crumbling buildings that house makeshift shrines. These structures are going to be good source.

Gaining Credibility

I’ve been taking the game to a few game designer playtesting meetups. It’s been like walking into a hidden world full of creative and passionate people. Setting our game in front of people who have actually published games is honestly fairly intimidating. There was no need for that though. Everyone I’ve meet has been welcoming, helpful, and honest with their feedback.

I’ve got loads of notes and its going to be quite a challenge to figure out how to solve the problems the playtesters have raised. I’m not going to get into every point in this post, but I did want to talk about a recent addition that came about as a result of some of this feedback. I made a small mention of it in our last post, but now I’m going to tell you how we incorporated the change.

In the game, players draw their hand at the end of their turn. We did this because we felt that it gave players time to formulate a strategy for their next turn, thus speeding up the game. A consequence of this was that discarding was very frustrating, with the worst case being that you could lose all your cards an have nothing to do during your next turn.

We decided to essentially eliminating discard and replacing it with the “discredit” mechanic. Basically players would have a new value to maintain called Credibility, which could be anywhere from 0 to 5. Each Credibility you had at the end of the game would increase your Power (victory points) by 1. Effects could lower or raise a players Credibility and players could also raise their Credibility during their turn by paying Influence. We created new cards that would punish players for having a low Credibility, which would encourage players to spend Influence to keep it up.

The end result is a delayed discard mechanic. You can lower a players Credibility, which they will need to raise later by spending Influence (discarding cards). The main difference is that the player gets to decide when to lose the cards.

I’ve tested the game a few times now with this new mechanics, and so far so good. It seems to handle the problem it was meant to solve and the players seem to actually enjoy it. I also think that its a huge thematic improvement. It’s doing things for us that we had been trying to capture from the start.

Now that’s all well and good, but there’s one more thing we needed to deal with in order to meet our design goals. We had to figure out a way to keep track of Credibility without introducing any outside tokens or trackers. To do this we took a note from the game Bang! and put a value tracker on the backs of Culture cards. Below is a crude representation to give you an idea of what I mean.

Back of Culture

Back of Culture

A player can use their actual Culture card and place if partially covering the back of an unused Culture card. By sliding their Culture card up and down, they can indicate what their current Credibility is. We also put the starting Storage and Renown at the top, so that players won’t have to worry about remembering that.

I’m really happy with how this change is working out so far. I’m looking forward to bringing a better game to the next playtesting meetup.