On Thursday May 13, 2010, the GM for our weekly Skype-based Mouse Guard game couldn’t make it, so Michael, Erik, and I did a three hour playtest for rev 0.6 of Final Hour of a Storied Age. The audio of the session is posted as episode 6 of the Designer vs. Reality Podcast, so listen to that first if you don’t want any spoilers.

We start off by rolling up groups of words from the theme table and then letting those groups of words inspire us to write evocative sentences:

  • The woman returned to her wealthy family after she acted on her ambition by capturing the star with lies. (Michael)
  • Greed for the crown corrupts. Only the poor can wield the Ice Sword. (Michael)
  • The Frozen Queen calls out for release with false promises of treasure and fame. (Erik)
  • The matriarch of a large farming clan has gone into hiding. (Dan)
  • A man trains at swordsmanship at the opulent temple at the top of an icy mountain. (Dan)

From the story seeds, the mechanics guide us through the process of creating a plot. The mechanics determine that Michael’s returning woman seed represents the protagonist and my sword guy seed represents the antagonist. The main plot structure in Storied Age requires that the protagonist must save her community from some fundamental negative change that the antagonist is threatening it with. We quickly identify the woman’s farming community as the threatened community. We notice some common threads among the other seeds: there is an ice sword and a man training in swords on an icy mountain, a wealthy sword-training temple and sword that should rightfully only be wielded by the poor, and also a Frozen Queen. We decide that the Ice Sword is the key to releasing the Frozen Queen from her prison which will end up freezing the whole world. My antagonist is confident that he can endure this harsh environment and believes that the change will bring him power. The protagonist can keep this from happening if she can get the sword to its rightful protector.

With the overall plot determined, we sketch out three-segment plots for the protagonist and antagonist. I set the antagonist’s plot to “become blademaster of the temple”, “locate the Frozen Queen’s prison”, “get the sword”. Michael sets the protagonist’s plot to “return home”, “locate the missing matriarch who knows about the sword”, “get the sword”. Next, Erik identifies his supporting character, an elemental Ice Warden who is supposed to keep the Frozen Queen locked up but who has secretly fallen in love with her. His subplot is “kill the other elemental wardens”, which should make the antagonist’s plot simpler.

With the plots decided, we stat out characters:

Michael’s character Hope

  • Clever d8
  • Star d6
  • Power of Words d6
  • Prodigal Daughter d4

Dan’s character Darius

  • Way of the Blade d8
  • Boundless Ambition d6
  • Endless Endurance d6
  • Secrets of the Ancient Masters d4

Erik’s character Rime

  • Made of Ice d6
  • Summoner of Ice d8
  • Cold and Calculating d6
  • Elemental Warden d4
[When we were assigning dice to the stats I tried to offer some advice about which dice to assign where, but it turns out that the advice I was giving was based on an earlier version of the rules and didn’t really make sense for the rules we were playing. When you try lots of different ideas it can be easy to forget which one you finally settle on!]

We decide that we don’t need to draw a map for this story because geography hasn’t come up in any of our story discussions so far. We assign our spotlight and adversity dice to the different player types and start playing. In the 0.6 version of the rules, the spotlight and adversity dice are rolled to determine who takes on that role for the particular chapter and also become the “story dice” that you spend in order to bring traits into a chapter which let you roll “action dice” for each trait you use in an exchange.

Chapter 1
Spotlight Roll: Michael 17. Dan 2. Erik 4.
Adversity Roll: Erik 18, 8. Dan 9,3,2
Hope is a few miles outside of the region that her family controls. Erik spends his 8 to introduce a d4 passive environmental threat: Winter hits! Michael uses his 17 to activate all four of Hope’s traits. Hope’s star (d6) radiates heat to keep her warm. (Roll dice for exchange 1: Michael 4 vs. Erik 3. Michael wins, neither exhuast. Michael bumps prodigal daughter to d6.) With the star’s heat on one side and the frigid chill on the other, she is reminded of home and keeping warm by the fire. As she presses on the weather keeps getting colder and colder, a bitter cold beyond the normal chill of winter (Erik puts the d4 for winter forward again). The star burns hotter (Michael puts forward the d6 for the star again). (Roll dice for exchange 2: Michael 4 vs. Erik 2. Michael wins, Erik exhausts. [We forgot to let the winner bump a trait up or down]). Waves of heat come off the star, burning away some of the cloud cover, letting the warming light of the sun shine through.

Erik spends his 18 to activate traits on a character, a pack of ice imps. An 18 on a story die normally activates four traits, but whenever you introduce a character into a chapter you might have to sacrifice some of the activated traits as “tax”. Since this is a new character implied by previous fiction he pays a creation tax of 2 [I felt this was a bit of a stretch for the “implied by” categoriy but I didn’t object. Although Erik had been suggesting in the narration that the cold was unnatural I would have normally wanted a slightly stronger foundation for the “implied by” category. I was less strict than normal because he was still learning the rules and could have easily shaded his earlier narration to better justify it if he had known at the time that it was a good idea to do so]. He also pays a plausibility tax of 1 because it seemed “plausible but unexpected” for ice imps to appear at this place at this time.

Ice Imps

  • Icy Fangs d8
  • Bitter Chill d6
  • Winter’s Flight d6
  • Pack Hunter d4

After the tax he can only activate one trait, so he selects the icy fangs. An ice imp, knowing that heat means food, goes after the fleshling with its icy fangs (d8). Hope, being clever (d8), moves to hide her meager body heat behind the plusing radiance of her star. (Roll dice for exchange 3: Michael 3 vs. Erik 6. Erik wins, Michael exhausts. [We forgot to let the winner bump a trait again]). Hope’s ploy fails, as the ice imps are smart enough to ignore the blinding heat of a star and focus on a fleshling. They close in on Hope with their icy fangs (d8). Hope tries to confuse them with her power of words (d6). (Roll dice for exchange 4: Michael 5 vs. Erik 3. Michael wins, Erik exhausts. [Forgot to bump traits again]) Although the imps are largely mindless, the soothing tones of Hope’s voice lull them into passivity.

At this point Erik would need to put forward more adversity to keep the chapter going but he has no more active traits and no more story dice with which to get more traits, so the chapter ends and Michael wins, letting him advance his plot by one stage (i.e. he’s now 33% done with his “return home” segment) and narrate the chapter’s conclusion: Hope gets away from the imps and, at the top of the next hill, sees the boundaries of her family’s holdings.

Chapter 2
Spotlight Roll: Michael 20. Dan 1. Erik 3.
Adversity Roll: Dan 11,10,6. Erik 8,1.
We pick up the action where the last chapter left off. I spend my 11 to introduce a d6 active environmental threat: a patrol of armed men that Hope doesn’t recognize on the boundary of her family’s lands. Michael spends his 20 to activate all four of Hope’s traits. Hope tries a clever (d8) ploy of timing the patrols to slip through at the optimal time. (Roll dice for exchange 1: Michael 1 vs. Dan 3. Dan wins and Michael exhausts. [Once again, we forgot to bump a trait]) As Hope sneaks through the bushes she hears one of the men clear his throat behind her. She spins to face him and another one does the same thing behind her again. She’s surrounded! They tell Hope that things have changed in the time she’s been away. They order her to come with them to their guardhouse. Using the power of words (d6), Hope tries to talk her way out of it. (Roll dice for exchange 2: Michael 3 vs. Dan 4. Dan wins, neither exhaust. [Forgot to bump a trait]) Her words fall on deaf ears. One of them pulls his sword and tells her not to make them do anything they’ll regret. She is escorted to a fortified guardhouse (I spent my 6 to introduce it as a d4 passive environmental threat) and the men show every indication that she’ll be detained there. Using her power of words, Hope tries to turn the conversation around on them and learn what’s going on. (Roll dice for exchange 3: Michael 5 vs. Dan 2,2. Michael wins, Dan exhausts. [Forgot to bump a trait again]) She discovers that these men are from the second biggest farming family in the region and is able to blackmail them into releasing her with some dirt she has on the head of their clan from when both of them were young. She crosses the boundary into her family’s lands.

I spend my 10 to introduce a d6 active threat: some dirt poor farmers who recognize Hope and demand that she buy their goods since it’s her obligation to spread the wealth around. Hope makes a few token purchases to mollify them, all the while using the power of words (d6) to convince them that she isn’t obligated to do anything for them. (Roll dice for exchange 4: Michael 3 vs. Dan 4. Dan wins, both exhaust. [I realized here that we had been forgetting about bumping traits but with no active traits left it didn’t matter]). The farmers happily take what money she offers but she realizes they aren’t fully convinced. I have no more active traits or story dice to buy more, so Michael wins the chapter and narrates a conclusion. They are distracted from their anger by the light of the star and Hope slips away in the confusion. Michael advances his plot by one stage.

Chapter 3
Spotlight Roll: Michael 13. Dan 3. Erik 9.
Adversity Roll: Erik 18,1. Dan 8,3,1.
Hope has made some progress into her family lands and is now a short distance past the border (enough so that the “short journey” distance tax applies). Erik spends his 18 to activate four traits (less tax) on a new character, Hope’s jealous sister Charity.

Charity

  • Greedy d8
  • Power Hungry d6
  • Equestrian d4
  • Suitors d6

As part of the wealthy family, she is mentioned on a seed so he needs to pay a creation tax of 1. Four minus one is three: Erik chooses to activate Greedy, Power Hungry, and Suitors. The power hungry (d6) Charity has established herself quite comfortably in Hope’s absence, so she intends to verbally undermine and humiliate Hope in order to keep her comfortable position. Michael spends his 13 on Hope, paying a distance tax of 1, to get her Clever, Star, and Power of Words traits [Looks like we messed up here, Michael should have only been able to activate at most two traits with his 13 on his story die, and only one trait with the tax]. She cleverly (d8) listens to what Charity is saying, hoping to find enough rope to hang her with. (Roll for exchange 1: Michael 3 vs. Erik 6. Erik wins, neither exhaust. Erik bumps Power Hungry to d8). Charity continues to insult Hope, trying to make her look foolish and irresponsible. Hope cleverly (d8) begins using her power of words (d6) to verbally spar with her sister (Roll for exchange 2: Michael 3,3 vs. Erik 7. Erik wins, neither exhaust. Erik reduce’s Hope’s Clever to d6). Charity gets the best of the exchange. The power hungry (d8) and greedy (d8) Charity demands that Hope turn over her star. Hope cleverly (d6) tries to find some words (d6) that will deflect Charity’s attention to some other topic. (Roll for exchange 3: Michael 4,1 vs. Erik 5,2. Erik wins, both exhaust. Erik increases Suitors to d8.) Charity’s suitors (d8), a bunch of yes-men, offer a chorus of support for her points and demand that Hope turn over the star to them. Hope’s star (d6) glows, hoping to drive off the men trying to take it away from her. (Roll for exchange 4: Michael 4 vs. Erik 8). This was Michael’s last trait, so Erik wins the chapter. [Erik got himself a little bit stuck here, since he had been narratively driving toward taking the star away from Hope even though it isn’t mechanically possible to take away another character’s trait. When I told him that his first instinct was to back off completely, which sort of undermined his own victory. I suggested leaving things on a cliffhanger as a way of preserving both the victory and Hope’s traits]. The suitors close in around Hope, all eyes focused on the star… As the winning adversity player, Erik chooses to add a d12 to the spotlight dice pool for his current plot stage.

Chapter 4
Spotlight Roll: Michael 11. Dan 12. Erik 8,3.
Adversity Roll: Michael 4,1. Erik 12,6.
Erik spends his 12 on a d6 active environmental threat, a special training room known as the Temple of The Thousand Knives. I spend my 12 to activate my Way of the Blade and endless endurance. Darius, confident that he can endure anything (d6), laughs at the nicks and scratches he recieves. “Is this the worst you can do to me!?” (Roll for exchange 1: Dan 4 vs. Erik5. Erik wins, neither exhaust. Erik bumps the room to a d8.). Steel shuriken fire from the walls, ripping deeply into Darius’s flesh. Darius moves forward to face the next challenge the room offers, a narrow bridge across a pit with huge swinging blades (still facing the d8 for the room). Darius knows the Way of the Blade, and is confident his footwork will let him dodge the blades. (Roll for exchange 2: Dan 7 vs. Erik 2. Dan wins, Erik exhausts. Dan bumps endless endurance to d8). Darius moves past them easily, impressing the masters with his prowess as a warrior. Erik uses his 1 to introduce a d4 passive environmental threat, the painful wounds that Darius suffered from the shuriken. Darius returns to his cell and scoffs at the wounds, knowing he is capable of enduring (d8) far worse. (Roll for exchange 3: Dan 6 vs. Erik 3. Dan wins, Erik exhausts. [I should have gotten a “bonus point” here because my traits were all maxed out and Erik’s were all exhausted]). Darius doesn’t even bother to bandage his wounds but sits in contemplation as they slowly scab over. Erik doesn’t have any traits or story dice left so I win the chapter. I advance my plot.

Chapter 5
Spotlight: Michael 12. Dan 11. Erik 4,2.
Adversity: Dan 7,4,1. Erik 19,7.
[Erik commented that he felt like he was winning a lot of these rolls and felt guilty for crowding us out. I agreed that it was something that I may need to look into. Michael also expressed some concerns earlier about whether the d20 story die was too powerful.] We pick up at the cliffhanger from Chapter 3. Erik uses his 19 to activate all four of Charity’s traits. Still greedy (d8), she sends her suitors (d6) after Hope’s star. [Michael didn’t announce that he was spending his 12 here, but he should have been able to activate two traits with that]. The star (d6) burns brightly, and Hope cleverly (d6) tries to slip away in the confusion. (Roll dice for exchange 1: Michael 3,2 vs. Erik 8,4. Erik wins, neither exhaust. Erik reduce’s Hope’s star to d4.) The star weakens, seeming to run out of energy, as the suitors (d6) close in around Hope hoping to satisfy Charity’s greed (d8). Hope cleverly (d8) realizes that the distraction didn’t work, so she tries to confuse them with her words (d6). (Roll dice for exchange 2: Michael 8,5 vs Erik 5,5. Michael wins, neither exhaust. Michael reduces Charity’s Greedy to d6). Hope focuses on the suitors, tricking them into bickering amongst themselves over which one of them will be the one to get the star from her. [Michael sort of went out-of-sequence here, probably following the “momentum” of winning the roll, saying that he was putting forward the same traits again rather than waiting for Erik to put forward adversity. Erik tried to “respond” to what Michael was putting forward but I told him he couldn’t change his dice once Michael had decided how to respond. I didn’t realize that the order had already been messed up, so I probably confused Erik with this ruling.] Even distracted, the suitors (d6) hope to get the star for their greedy (d6) beloved. Hope continues to cleverly (d8) weave her words (d6). (Roll for exchange 3: Michael 5,3 vs. Erik 2,2. Michael wins, both exhaust. Michael reduce’s Charity’s Power Hungry to d4.) The suitors get caught up in their argument amongst themselves, forcing Charity to sort it out, which distracts her from Hope and the star.

Erik spends his 7 to re-activate Charity’s Greedy trait. She follows Hope outside and tries to chase her down on her horse (d4), still greedily (d8) hoping to get the star. Hope, the prodigal daughter (d4), knows the terrain well and knows a place she can duck into where the horse won’t be able to follow [Looks like Michael believes he activated four traits instead of two]. (Roll for exchange 4: Michael 4 vs. Erik 4,1. Erik wins, both exhaust. Erik raises Power Hungry to d6). Enraged, Charity declares that she will never let Hope take away the power she has accumulated (d6). Hope tries to fend her off with the heat and light of the star (d4). (Roll for exchange 5: Michael 1 vs. Erik 5. Erik wins, both exhaust. No active traits left. [This probably should have given Erik a bonus point for winning an exchange but being unable to apply it to a trait]). Charity forces Hope to promise to defer to Charity and not challenge her for control of the family. Erik has exhausted all his traits and doesn’t have any story dice to activate new ones so Michael wins the chapter. He advances his plot, finishing his “return home” plot segment. She may not have returned triumphantly, but she is home… [I may need to look into this. I don’t want to return to the possibility of “bumbling toward success” that emerged in earlier playtests].

Post-game Feedback

The probabilities of the spotlight dice could use some scrutiny. Michael didn’t like the fact that there was no mechanical continuity across the cliffhanger.

On review, we made more than a few rules mistakes. This might be an indicator that the rules are too complex, but I’m hoping that the problem is that I’m bad at explaining them on the fly. I tend to communicate more clearly in text than when speaking to people, but being able to explain the rules as we play is something I need to be able to do. Even with published games a lot of players don’t absorb the rules by reading them but by having them explained as they go. It may help if I create a flowchart of the game procedures that players can refer to as they’re playing.