|11:18 pm - By The Stars: Illyria AP|
On Sunday i was invited to go down to Bethlehem to take part in a playtest of Mike Miller's new game: By The Stars.
I believe this was the first play-through of the game using an orginal set of rules, but , after a lengthy pre-game discussion, play moved along quite well - much better than i was expecting for a first playtest from some of the AP i've read! The group assembled for the playtest was quite large, in my limited experience, at eight players (read Mike's report if you want the names!) - but this version of By The Stars was definately designed with large groups in mind. LARP-sized, really. I've only played in a couple of LARPS - MET convention games - but the game really seems like it could work well for live-action mixing & mingling.
So that brings me to the system; So far, By The Stars is very bare-bones, but i do like it! It is GM-less, diceless (naturally), and many other things-less, but what it does have is a couple of very attractive central mechanics. The character sheets we played with gave our heroes & villians (& incorgible opportunists) a name, three relationships, two Oaths, each was tied into two Aspects, and a Sphere of Influence (which wasn't much used - at least not by me!). Aspects (& Oaths) are the core of game - instead of stats or dicepools you get a stack of tokens for each of your character's Aspects - and, what's really cool, is that you then resdistribute a pile of them to the controllers of the characters named in your relationships & Oaths. (You'll note that this probably makes creating characters on the fly a bit difficult, but i imagine it isn't really all that important who has whose tokens. It probably should be important, but the tokens move so fast that i don't think it is.) So everyone starts some of their own, and some of a few other players' tokens. Oh, and the object of the game is to win back all of your own tokens!
So, it's wicked at heart, but what about the roleplay? It works like this: when you reach a conflict with another player/character you each bid so many tokens (yours and others), high is winner, then you narrate out the resolution of the conflict, token-by-token. (And then trade piles!) This works just like raise & sees in Dogs, narratively, but has the added bonus that each token is explicitly related to a particular Aspect - a great boon to guiding role-play and setting verisimilitude! Like all good "trading" games, By the Stars uses the carrot and stick approach to keep tokens flowing: if you get all of your own tokens for an Aspect back, you fulfill your Oath (and win, with the way the game works now - but i can imagine it also working something like a BW Belief, over a longer term); but an opponent can throw your own tokens against you to endanger, or even break, your Oaths. (The exact consequences of this needs some working out, but it is definately the heart of the game, and its fiction!)
Oh, and i should mention that the colour text on the tokens/Aspects is essential for setting up conflicts as well - if i want to bolster my support from the navy, frex, and the navy is defined by someone's Aspect, then you can fish for a conflict where someone will use those navy tokens against you, thus giving you them. A bit strange - but, in truth, the only game-world things that are defined mechanically & playable-ly are completely inherent, at some level, in the Aspect tokens. It took a while for me to catach on, but i do think this has real potential to create solid & meaningful colour!
I mentioned the LARP feel, right? So that's how we played the game - stood up, took our tokens in hand, and milled around in small groups free-playing from conflict to conflict, (something i'm not very good at, yet), with up to three situations & conflicts running at a time. I think By The Stars would be playable with a smaller group around a tabletop, but the dissonance of the crowd adds a further air of mystery to the proceedings. You want all your tokens back, but who has them? It's not easy to keep track with all the conflicts going on like this! Unfortunately, you also miss out on lots of the fiction & character development going on in the game as well - something that's always bothered me about LARPS - but it does make for better mystery and politics. (And it occurs to me that free-play and conflicts can really be driven by a desire to figure out what everyone's been up to!) So that's all okay, really.
As for the actual play we did with the game, i'm not sure how much i can say. The situation was this: The Singluarity (nominal bad-guys - the super-stable homogenous empire making up the bulk of humanity) has just taken over the monarchal/feudal cloud-planet Illyria (which is one of the many independent worlds seeded by the Singularity and cut off from FTL civilization to nuture "difference"), deposed the king, brain-jacked the royal princess, and installed a colonial government obsessed with extracting the planet's unique resources. The game opened with the Princess hosting a grand ball (which went on throughout the entire span of the game) with the Overlord (civilian Singularity governer), the fleet Admiral & her son the fighter Pilot (me!), the (rampant-ai) Robot leader, and the Glaive (jedi-esque peacekeeping warrior-monks with living metal polearms) representative all in attendence. Simultaneously, the exiled Prince and the Pirate captain bargained fiercely aboard the Pirate's ship over the state of the Prince's return to Illyria - smuggled or ransomed. (Drawing their conflict) the fighting duo accidently caused the ship to jump into orbit right under the Singularity's noses - but the Glaive proved quicker, and soon the steward had worked out some sort of deal (via telecom!) that put the Prince firmly in his hands. By this point the party had heated up, with all sorts of wheeling and dealing (that i didn't have firm track of.) My character, the Pilot, had some sort of minor conflicts - including with the Pirate, who'd been tossed out by his crew and was trying (and failing, thanks to my heavy chip tossing) to steal the Pilot's ship, and the Robot asking for military support for the civilian (and Robot controlled) militia - but things didn't start moving fast until the Glaive handed the defeated Prince over to the Admiral, and the Pilot was ordered to interogate him. This went badly, naturally - the Prince all but convinced the Pilot to join his cause, and escaped! (Since losers get the winner's chips, the Prince was stoked from all his losses - and i wanted him to win, as well!)
Now things started moving really quickly - the Prince, as his first action as a free man, gathered his loyal followers and stormed the royal palace taking the Overlord, his sister the Princess, and, well, just about everybody on the planet, hostage! The Prince and the Overlord fought a terrible duel of words and wits, broadcast across the planet, wherein (due to laying down a stack of Overlord chits) the Prince won the Overlord's political support and respect for his family's fledgling regime. Meanwhile, in orbit, the Admiral was busy tearing into her son, the Pilot, for his monumental failure. Although she wasn't quite able to pin a court-martial on him, he began to lose faith in his military career, and stormed off - right into the wiley Glaive's clutches. Slipping away from the Prince's men, the two warriors engaged in a tense simulated dogfight - which ended in a stalemate causing the Pilot to seek the way of the Glaive to escape his mother's programming, while simultaneously calling the Glaive leader's shady methods into question amongst his followers. (He cheated, and they found out! A very cool use of the minor Oath forswearing combined with particular Aspect chits. Really they drove the whole conflict.) The Pilot returned to the Admiral's command carrier just in time to take part in her glorious, but suicidal, assault on the rebel Prince - as the battle raged, her ship rammed the palace island, driving it down into the crushing depths of the cloud layers, killing them both. (This was the Admiral's martyr victory condition - she won, accruing all that Aspect's tokens. We worked out the rest of the conclusion from the standing levels of the remaining character's tokens.) The Pilot became a hero in that battle, but left to follow the path of the Glaive, on his own, while the Glaive leader took over what was left of Illyria, for good or ill! And the Pirate, Robot, Princess, and former Overlord seem to have all fled on the Pirates newly-mechanized ship, to become something of a famous band of outlaws...
All in all, pretty cool! I'm very much looking forward to playing again in April!