Saturday, September 5, 2020

Wow, that worked! Solo urban investigation using On Mighty Thews + Nocturnal Table, etc. [Session Report and design discussion]

A week ago, if you'd asked me how I might run an urban-investigation scenario with a meaningful mystery in a solo RPG session, I probably would have answered with real doubt that it could be done, or at least done without sacrificing logical cohesion or suspense as the Player/GM either generated or dictated their own story. 

[TL;DR for this post: I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that one can run a satisfying urban mystery adventure solo by combining the light narrative game On Mighty Thews with a detailed random-table toolkit like Gabor Lux's urban generator, The Nocturnal Table. Session report and analysis follow.]

Well. A few nights ago I had the rare urge to try some solo RPG action. I have the remarkable (and free!) Ironsworn and its (paid) expansion, Ironsworn: Delve, which together look to my eye like the current 'state of the art' in rich solo or co-op RPG design. However, I've only tried playing Ironsworn once, and just haven't ever felt enough energy to sit down and really parse through its rules to the point of fluency. Very much recommended (especially as the base game is free!), but these days I really find that after spending my days thinking hard about writing, teaching, and scholarship, I have limited patience for digging into a new system if it involves much complexity. Still, Ironsworn comes with handy tables and oracles for generating a variety of uncertain outcomes. Could one use that kind of random table, but hack in an even simpler resolution system? I started wondering whether any of the other, more minimalist rule-sets on my hard drive might work, supplemented by various random-table resources.

Hmm, I thought...what about On Mighty Thews? That's a really lightweight framework...





Now, mark ye well, herein we see the fickleness of the hearts of men. Only a few months ago, on this very blog, I had the following to say about Thews
There are some storygames that almost completely do away with the 'concrete reality of the shared fiction' ... I have the ruleset for a narr[ative] game called "On Mighty Thews" that I greatly respect in terms of game design - but I just can't get behind its agenda. It uses a delightful, elegant chargen and resolution system, and/but it works by inviting players to introduce new facts about the world (ranging from "the first hobgoblin falls dead from the log bridge" to "ah, but those runes on the gate are the work of Atlanteans, my ancestors! I read their glorious words and command the gate to unlock." The reality of the game-space is in perpetual limbo, and in some of these games, nothing is sacrosanct about that reality unless/until it gets fixed through narration at the table. I can respect what these games seek to do, but I generally don't find them appealing.
10:19 AM

Those are not remarks that anticipate adoption of Thews as a resolution system! But maybe because I've played a couple games of Fiasco recently, I was more willing than usual to give the game another try. To my surprise, I found that Thews works really well as a solo system, if supplemented by rich random-table resources. Why? How? Well, Thews does allow regular creation of in-game "facts" by the players  - but it also regulates and limits when and how extensively a player may do so. It turns out that those regulative limits made all the difference, in my experience - especially for running a mystery scenario. Yes, in Thews, "the reality of the game space is in perpetual limbo," but a player's ability to speak "facts" into that limbo is controlled by several factors:

+ Characters' simple STAT array includes "Warrior," "Explorer," and "Sorcerer." (There's only a bit more to the game's character-generation process). Your ability to speak "facts" into the game is contingent on successful "Sorcerer" rolls. This means that a highly competent warrior is unlikely to control the flow of fictional "facts" in the game narrative, so characters face real trade-offs in their priorities.

+ Characters are only allowed to narrate "facts" about lore in the game-world at specific moments. In particular, your opportunity to "spout lore" (so to speak) about something is limited to the moment when it first appears in the game. Your characters cross a bridge and find an ancient, crumbling altar? RIGHT NOW is your chance to attempt a Sorcerer roll so you can announce the "facts" you know about that altar. If you bungle the roll, that's too bad: apparently your desired "facts" aren't the real facts moving forward. 

+ There is a similar process for generating "facts" about what happens (instead of what's there) -- so when you are fighting opponents, you could declare a wound on an enemy minion as a 'fact' - but this is somewhat separate from the lore-crafting itself.

+ Finally, higher rolls earn you margins of success that mean you have more "facts" to narrate - but you gotta do it right now - you can't save up "facts" to spout later. 

As it turned out, combining these constraints on player creativity with the wide-openness of random tables generated a really delightful synergy. For solo play, I needed the GM's ability to dictate facts combined with the player's capacity to discover a not-yet-known mystery. How'd it happen? 

I made a pair of characters for On Mighty Thews, then opened up some random-table resources: Ironsworn, Ironsworn: Delve, Gabor Lux's The Nocturnal Table (which I've written about here), and Sixteen Sorrows by Sine Nomine Games. As it turned out, I ended up mostly relying on The Nocturnal Table, with just a bit of input from Ironsworn. Nocturnal Table offers innumerable random data points to flesh out a decadent sword-and-sorcery-tinged city; I was able to generate some initial "leads" using these, try to explain them using my own creativity, and then govern whether or not I was onto a red herring or an actual "fact" using the Thews rules - and turn back to the random tables in Nocturnal Table whenever I needed a fresh set of leads or clues. 




Below, O patient reader, I'll tell you the story of what happened, and then close with some final analytical comments. To illustrate how this worked, I'll insert [R] to show where I relied on a random dice-roll to generate content or determine an outcome. 

THE MYSTERY OF THE POISONED EUNUCH

I decided to play in a pseudo-Byzantine, decadent urban metropolis. Conducting the night's investigation would be a pair of friends somewhere between Holmes & Watson and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Our characters:

Azzur

Sorcerer (d12)

Explorer (d8)

Warrior (d4)


Scholar (d10)

Former spymaster (d6)


Reserved (d20) 


Azzur is a 'retired' spy (he left under circumstances I might want to flesh out in another session...) turned scholar. He's rubbish at fighting, but his keen eye and learned mind make him a formidable investigator. His d20 trait, "Reserved," details his typical bearing - in Thews, you get a re-roll token if you play through a Scene in accord with this trait, but if you attempt something desperate and violate your core trait in the process, you get to roll a d20 with the attempt, once per scene. So Azzur is normally tight-lipped, with his cards close to his chest, but if he's ever rattled enough to abandon his reserve, he will throw himself into his efforts.


Varak 

Warrior (d12)

Explorer (d8)

Sorcerer (d4)


Ice-Fang, his father’s sword (d10)

Strong (d6)


Hates killing (d20) 


Varak is a brawny northern barbarian who came to the Great City as a mercenary, but since arriving he has turned from his heathen past and from murderous violence as well. His pacifistic d20 trait means that he will try not to kill opponents when possible, but if something really provokes him - watch out. 


So much for the cast. What happened? Below are (lightly edited) notes from my actual-play session. Please pardon the stream-of-consciousness flow to these notes - they are mostly written as I typed them during play, thus illustrating the way the story developed organically. 

You start by adding locations that match your characters' Values and their opposites. So I noted that this city includes some prominent locations:

Reserved: Chapter-House of Spies
Uninhibited: The Lotus-Smoke Dens
Pacifistic: The Church of Creation
Murderous: Assassins' Coven 

For good measure, I threw in a Barbarian Quarter by the Docks, as well. 

There has been a disastrous accident. [R] 


Well - what appears to be an accident, at least; but for some reason, Azzur isn’t convinced that’s so. Let’s find out why - and what happened!  [R]


“A devious subordinate eunuch was selling souls, to facilitate an arrest.” And he was somehow involved in the ‘accident’? Ah, maybe the accident claimed this eunuch’s life…and Azzur knows through his connections that the eunuch was involved in some pending arrest…so he’s wondering just how ‘accidental’ all this was.  Ok, so the eunuch is a former colleague of Azzur's from the city's spy-service. [I ended up interpreting "selling souls" metaphorically...this time].


Assyrian head of a royal attendant, probably a eunuch 
(Metropolitan Museum of Art: Image in Public Domain)



The eunuch - and those near him - were wracked with a sudden sickness [R], exposed to…something, while resting. Azzur has noted that the site was subtly marked with chalk [R]…Perhaps some kind of amphora full of particularly noxious stuff was served, or fell and broke, and overwhelmed them with the fumes…many recovered but the eunuch was asleep and never awoke. Hmmm. Ok, that will do. Azzur suspects this unlikely 'accident' was not entirely...accidental, since his old friend was investigating something. 


In his pocket, the eunuch had a petrified eyeball and some rouge [R]. Weird! 


3 people Azzur thinks might know more [R]:

+ Garbage collector Mortho Tass, pushing hand-cart full of rags, and lamenting the loss of the regal purple robe that was snatched from him. 

+ Telquanar the Pirate (carries a balm against skin disease) and 8 pirates; four throw a weighted net from above, the rest grab the goods and run. 

+ Oltremor the barbarian robber: robs his victims all on his own, and the six slaves are only there to carry off the loot. Wields an ornamental scimitar. 


Azzur wants to know what the dead eunuch was working on in more detail, and who might have gained from his death. Because the dead eunuch was carrying a small pot of rouge (and, bizarrely, a ‘petrified eyeball,’ Azzur investigates the rouge, and realizes it isn’t rouge; it’s a red balm against a skin disease, which he knows is used by Telquanar the Pirate [Not sure whether I rolled here, or just rationalized this]. 


Azzur and Varak visit the garbage-collector Mortho Tass, hoping he can tell them the whereabout of Telquanar the Pirate. Tass laughs and says that he can indeed, but he wants something in return. Tass recently acquired [R] (says he ‘found’, but huh…) a regal purple robe…and then it was stolen from him, snatched away by one of the 18 drunken members of the Procession of the Goat-cult [R]. Wonderful. Tass wants Azzur to snatch the purple robe back for him, after which he’ll point the way to Telquanar. 


Huh. What a goat-rodeo, literally. 


Interesting question: is this really just a drunken group of whacky cultists, or is there something larger and darker going on? And is there any significance to the purple robe, or not? And was its theft mere happenstance…or deliberate and important? And is this all connected to the eunuch’s death, or part of something else happening in the City of Dreams? Azzur wonders. (And he makes a successful Lore roll with a margin of success of 2. He will create 2 facts) He remembers from his time among the spies that the “goat cult” was connected to a disgraced spymaster who quit the Chapter-House years ago. Hmm. Also, he recalls that the goat cult often attends the Lotus-Smoke dens, and knowing this, he and Varak head toward that unsavory establishment to look for the stolen purple robe. 


Hmmm. This will require a Contested roll, vs a d8 cultist. Can our heroes find the robe-wearing cultist, isolate him, and get the robe away, or will they find themselves surrounded by angry cultists and Lotus-smokers? 


Azzur, already deeply uncomfortable about the lotus-smoke den surrounds, decides this is an all-or-nothing moment. Not sure that he can isolate the man with the purple robe otherwise, he loudly and flamboyantly pretends to be an enthusiastically intoxicated lotus-smoker (violating his d20 trait of Reserved), and manages to escort the robe-bearer to a private stall - where he and Varak try to separate him from his robe, by non-lethal force if need be…cultist rolls a 5…WOW even with all that, it is a TIE at 5. But the Players win ties! Success, with no extra margin of success. 


Coughing and wheezing, the protagonists make their way hastily away from the Lotus-Smoke Den, the purple robe bundled up under a cloak, having left one slightly-bruised and inebriated cultist asleep by the lotus-pipe. 


Azzur consults his stock of Lore about the purple robe, and (success!) comes up with 2 facts about it:

+ this one belonged to a prince of the city’s royal family. Uh-oh. 

+ that prince has not been seen publicly for a fortnight. Even more uh-oh. 


He decides they’d better try to convince Mortho Tass that this robe is too dangerous to wear around the city. Will he be persuaded by reason (and maybe jingling coin)? Or will he still insist that he wants the robe back in exchange for the location of the pirate, Telquanar? 


Ah! Azzur’s words aren’t persuasive, but Varak saves the day, showing Tass the wiser path (and handing him a jingling coin-purse in exchange for the robe). Varak can dictate two facts. 1) Tass tells them that two weeks ago he took the robe off one of the slaves attending Oltremor “the barbarian robber,” and 2) Tass suspects, based on what the heroes have told him, that Oltremar either kidnapped the prince or IS the prince in disguise. 


Wow. 


Where to next? 


Tass also gives the heroes a simple address where Telquanar the pirate holes up. It’s in the barbarian docks area. Oh, wow, it’s the home of... [R] a grave robber named Morthevole who sells ossified remains as popular good-luck charms for thieves (hey! Remember the ‘petrified eye' found on the dead eunuch? That was probably one of these charms...).


So it seems pretty clear that the eunuch had on his person a grave-charm of the kind sold by Morthevole, and some of the balm that Telquanar the pirate uses. Huh. So…what was the eunuch up to there? Azzur wonders whether the eunuch was … maybe…looking for the missing crown prince? And snooping around a known thieves’ quarters looking for clues? So - are Telquanar and the grave-robber in the thick of it all, or are they just coincidentally related? 


Ok. Azzur and Varak either need to go shake the tree at the Chapter-House of Spies, or they need to do so at Morthevole’s shop for grave-curios. Hmmm. Choices, choices. 


How about they go to the shop, browse trinkets, and let on that they are thieves looking for employment by a bigger boss…’they have heard about some prominent gangs, Telquanar’s, and Oltremor’s, and they wonder wether Morthevole can point them to them, or…” Meanwhile they are also looking for any clues they can find. 


With a tied roll [R], the investigators don’t learn anything, but they do convince Morthevole that they’re thieves looking for hired work. He says to come back that night after dark. They do so - and find that they have a ‘job interview’ with Telquanar and his gang of 8 pirates! Oh, just great. The robbers demand that Azzur and Varak immediately go help them rob a passersby to show their skills and mettle. 


Urk. Probably a bad idea, but they accept…and the victim is…[R]...

OH CRAP - a mob of 3d10 seeking the kidnappers of a child! 23 people go rushing by! (um, surely the pirates aren’t stupid enough to try robbing them?)


Ah…dilemma time…the heroes can help stop the kidnapping, but they'll have to flake out on their ‘job interview.’ 


Yeah, they’ll flake out. [hmm, why was there another kidnapping, though?] 


Ok, the PCs are already up on rooftops, so they can see the … escaping party with a bundled-up child. They launch pursuit. Who are they chasing? 

(Azzur tries a Lore test [R]…rolls a 12! 4 facts or bonuses!!!!!! And...


1: the kidnapper is Oltremor the barbarian…

2: with his 6 ‘slaves’.

3: the kidnap victim is the son of a local nobleman. 

4: take a +1 bonus to act against the kidnapping! 


Oltremor: d10 Barbarian


Competition roll - PCs want to catch up to and corner Oltremor so they can confront and stop him. He wants to escape (d10). 8 vs…7+1 =8! Thank goodness for the bonus to spend!


It's Confrontation time! The PCs drop down into the street right in front of Oltremor and his slave-thugs, two of whom are carrying a bundled prisoner. The PCs yell at the kidnappers to stop. The sound of the enraged mob of 23 pursuers grows closer from somewhere behind. 

Oltremar and his thugs will fight!!!! [R]


Uh-oh. Oh yeah! 


Oltremar wants to cut down these impertinent do-gooders, and barge through them to keep going. The PCs want to get the child, and take a prisoner or two if possible. 


[R] Ok…this would have been a tied result of 6 vs 6. But Varak, in a moment of desperate fury, incensed at this vile kidnapping, and feeling a bit … energized by the 7-vs-2 odds - throws his normal pacifism to the winds…he strikes not just to subdue, but wildly, madly, fiercely and vengefully…striking some blows to kill. 

He rolls a 16 on his d20. 6 = margin of success! Wow. [Ooops, I think the margin of success should have been 5, in fact.]


Free success = heroes recover the kidnapped child.

1 = block enemy intent - they don't escape

2 = wound Oltremor  

3 = capture Oltremor

4 = kill one of his m

inions

5 = kill another of his minions 

6 = the other minions flee into the night


[In hindsight, I didn't resolve this scene properly. Somehow I had it in my head that the whole fight needed a one-roll resolution. Actually, I should have done something like 3 wounds to incapacitate Oltremor, then knock 2 minions out of the scene - then one more round of clobbering minion butt before they ran away or were all down. The main thing, though, is that the player can dictate whether they kill or just incapacitate the enemy - definitely looking to ask Oltremor some questions!]


The mob is approaching and we have captured the barbarian kidnapper. Why is he doing this? Has he kidnapped a prince? Is the prince himself kidnapping people for some vile cultic purpose? What’s going on? 


Azzur makes a Lore test to try to recognize the rescued child [R]. Success! It turns out that this child is the pre-teen, only son of the Captain of the City Guard - already marked out as successor-designate to his father’s hereditary post, when the time should come. Hmm (a dark theory is forming in Azzur’s mind concerning why such noble persons’ child heirs are being abducted…but I don't know whether that theory is correct until I earn some further fact-successes to declare them). 


That mob is almost upon them. Not wanting to see the mob tear apart their prisoner before they can question him, Azzur and Varak agree to split up. Varak cuts the thug’s cloak in half and uses it to bind the prisoner tightly, then drags him off through dark side-alleys to have a little conversation. Meanwhile, Azzur unties the terrified kidnapped youth, and then leads him gently toward the oncoming mob. Azzur will try to pacify the situation while returning the child safely - and hopefully will glean more information, or at least a contact with the Captain of the Guard.


For his part, [R] Azzur just manages to calm down the mob and return the child safely to his palanquin-bearing keepers. He leaves his contact information with them and asks for an audience with the Captain of the Guard on the morrow. 


Meanwhile, Varak is intent on punching some information out of Oltremor the Barbarian (Varak is no longer willing to kill here, least of all in cold blood; but he won’t let Varak know that!). 


Varak almost fails to break Oltremor’s grim resistance, but at the last minute, he flashes Ice-Fang, his father’s sword, dangerously close to Oltremor’s neck - and the thug spills the beans (this only worked because of the special sword’s supplementary die, AND because Varak could spend a re-roll token that he earned with his non-lethal Virtue-following while wrestling with the goat cultist, earlier). 


What Varak learns chills him to the bone.


It turns out that Oltremor was hired by a cabal of sorcerers in the city - who are planning a magical ritual to possess the next generation of the city’s ruling elite! Yowza. Unfortunately, that’s all that Varak is able to get from Oltremor. Just who are these mysterious magi? Where are they hiding, and how can they be stopped? 


Our characters will certainly have some ideas what may be going on - but are those guesses correct? I will have to keep playing to find out! 



AND NOW, YOUR POST-GAME ANALYSIS...

Hopefully, those session notes are clear enough to indicate how the flow of the game worked. Random tables, mostly from The Nocturnal Table, provided external seeds that I could initially respond to. The game rules from Thews governed my attempts to respond. I was free to come up with my own theories about what might connect the different random-table data points, but Thews also regulated whether and when I could declare any of these theories correct. Quite often, I wasn't able to just dictate enough to clear things up, so I was regularly pointed back to fresh content from the random tables. The table results would regularly throw a wrench in my emerging theories, and suggest that something more complex was going on. Still, continued investigation and engagement with the story gave me more opportunities to keep narrowing down my theories and establishing some of their elements in "fact." 

I never truly botched a roll - Azzur is quite good at attempting those Sorcerer tests - but my vague plan was that in the event of a really bungled roll, I would turn to the Ironsworn table for "plot twists" to see what might happen next. 

If you are interested in checking out any of the resources I used, you can find them here (affiliate links for products at DriveThru): 


This worked really well and proved a very enjoyable experience. I shall have to try it again, and determine who those evil wizards are - and whether they can be stopped in time... 

Happy gaming!

3 comments:

  1. This was great, thanks! Both the write up, and your mechanics descriptions. The idea of asserting the lore is a great one-I tested out another method (miso) for a solo investigation game, and it took forever to resolve. Definitely keen to try this way.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Yeah, this method has worked really well. Since, I've run it co-op with multiple players, 'facilitating' the process myself but without a real GM role. That, also, has worked well (I used a slight hack, mixing in some stuff from Blades in the Dark, and we tweaked things to make some bits slightly harder for us). Good times.

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  2. This was great, thanks! Both the write up, and your mechanics descriptions. The idea of asserting the lore is a great one-I tested out another method (miso) for a solo investigation game, and it took forever to resolve. Definitely keen to try this way.

    ReplyDelete