20 July 2012

Grimm: Part 3 - Playtest Review

This is the third part of an ongoing series about Grimm. Part 1Part 2Part 4 and Part 5.

In a previous post I wrote about the system as a whole, what my initial impressions were about how it worked, what it was trying to accomplish, the niches that the archetypes fill and general details about character creation. The next entry contained the characters I created for a on-shot and details about what the various abilities they had were. Now that I have run the game and have actual play experience with the mechanics, this will cover more details about the system, abilities and options available to the kids, the setting, and what the game as a whole really seems to do.

For the one-shot, I made some small adjustments to the default assumptions of the game. Each kid started at 4th grade; 3rd grade is normally where a kid starts. The Dreamer and the Nerd both had the choice of one set of spells from two options. I also allowed them to learn an additional spell with very little work. Normally kids do not start with spells and it takes a considerable amount of time/effort to learn a new spell. Those kids that didn't have spells (the Bully, the Jock, the Outcast and the Popular Kid) received a little something extra to give some balance; e.g. the Bully, Jock and Outcast all started with additional weapons and the Popular Kid got a cell phone which her fairy godmother could reach her on while in the Grimm Lands.

My motivations were simple: I wanted to see more aspects of the system and toys are fun. Those are default positions to change that shouldn't really affect the core experience as I saw it. After running it, I think that they were positive decisions and added to the game. It is worth noting that due to scheduling, there was no Outcast.

Expending Your Core Traits

Since I didn't list them previously in the character write-ups (which was an omission on my part), here are the abilities for each Core trait:

Protecting Your Rep (Cool): Once per scene when making a test in a trait that is lower than your Cool, you may use your Cool trait instead of the appropriate trait, plus whatever advantages or disadvantages would be normal for the test. After doing so, your Cool is expended by one grade.

Being Brave (Pluck): Once per scene before making a Pluck test, you may expend one Pluck grade to automatically succeed at the test. Alternatively, once per scene after failing a Pluck test, you may expend one Pluck grade to act somewhat normally. You still suffer disadvantage on all trait tests for the scene equal to the number of grades by which you failed the original Pluck test, but at least you can try to help your friends.

Use Your Imagination (Imagination): You can create imaginings. It gets its own section in a chapter, so it will be addressed all on its own later on.

Calling on Luck (Luck): If you are making a non-Core trait test that you can't possibly make, even with creativity and teamwork, you can call on luck to raise your grade in the trait for that single test. Your current Luck is expended by a number of grades equal to the advantage you give to the other trait. You can only expend a number of grades equal to half your personal grade level, rounded down. This option must be used before you roll the dice.

Shake It Off (Muscle): Usually, whenever you suffer from wounds, you suffer a -1 disadvantage per wound to all of your tests. But if you expend one Muscle grade, you can ignore those wounds for the rest of the scene.

Each kid that I wrote up also had a keepsake. Keepsakes are items from our world that gain a magical ability when they enter the Grimm Lands and are powered by the imagination of the kid who possesses it (to use the magical ability, the kid must expend one grade of Imagination). The Bully's digital watch would effectively allow him to take two turns, the Nerd's binoculars let him see far beyond the horizon, the Outcast's cigarette lighter acts as a flamethrower, the Jock's Louisville Slugger can turn any piece of handy ammunition into a deadly ranged weapon, the Dreamer's chalk can draw doors, and the Popular Kid's umbrella can protect her from any fall by floating to safety.

The concept of expending Core traits to power abilities (most notably your iconic core trait) was mentioned previously, but I never really expanded on it. That was primarily because I wanted to see the mechanic in action before offering commentary on it and I didn't know if I could address it while resisting the urge to comment. Mostly I wanted to avoid too much commentary without having any real experience with the system.

The basic idea behind this is that your Core traits (Cool, Pluck, Imagination, Luck and Muscle) represent both your capabilities in those areas, but also a resource that can be used for certain powerful abilities. Every kid will get access to these in the form of their iconic trait and at least one keepsake, though many talents and archetype abilities can use this as well for some advantage. When you expend a trait in this fashion, the grade level is reduced until the end of the story. Any future tests you make with that trait will use the new reduced grade level (until the end of the story).

In theory this sounds potentially very neat, but in practice it had the effect I was afraid it would: Players are ridiculously wary of expending their traits for this benefit. It is trading your long-term effectiveness for short-term gain, which is often a losing proposition. Imagination is the easiest to justify this as the trait itself didn't come into play much, but it is also the most commonly required Core trait to be spent, meaning you might have to ration overcoming the task at hand against the possibility of a test down the line. Being Brave is right out the hardest to justify since using it for that effect puts you down the slippery slope where you will have to rely on the ability rather than the trait. Pluck is a common test to resist "something bad". The obvious fix would be to remove the clause where expending the grade level reduces the trait, so each trait gives you a number of points to spend per story. Protecting Your Rep would require a bit of work as it could be potentially very powerful and easily upstage what the Normal Kid is supposed to bring to the table (being able to fill in an unanticipated need at a moment's notice).

The only iconic trait that was used during the session was Imagination, though the digital watch, chalk and umbrella keepsakes all saw use. The Dreamer was by far the character that expended the most grades, but this is unsurprising because they a) had the most to play with and 2) Imagination didn't come up much beyond that.

Imaginings

Probably the most notable thing in Grimm are the imaginings and tragically you only get access to them if you have Imagination as your iconic Core trait. The Imagination Core trait is always iconic for the Dreamer, with the option of being doubly effective for imaginings (this is what the Dreamer in the session had). Imagination changes the world around the character in a specific and typically short-term way, but it cannot replicate another character's ability, talent, or spell and cannot be used to directly damage or destroy things. Broadly, Imagination is a force of creation and creativity, but cannot be used to invade another character's niche.

Characters with iconic Imagination can expend one Imagination a turn for a number of turns equal to half of their personal grade rounded down. Each Imagination expended in this fashion gives you access to the same level of imaginings with a broad list of guidelines and some examples. 

For example, level 1 imaginings affect minor changes that appear coincidental. They are always nearby and immediate and cannot affect other characters - though can find small items (some rope, a torch) with an associated trait test  to find/create it and an explanation how it came to be, or create an insignificant item on your person (e.g. a candy cane). They can also heal and increase the boost range on a single roll (this doesn't take any time). For contrast, level 4 imaginings allow you to create more powerful items (heavy weapons, armor) that you have immediately, or find significantly powerful items (including keepsakes), increase your boost range by 4 (again, no time required), inflict -3 disadvantage on a creature, or shape the environment in a significant way.

The healing imagining renders a Dreamer-only ability rather useless. I had given it to the Dreamer (you can read it in the write-up), not fully digesting the imaginings at the time, but replaced the ability mid-session when I came to understand that it was rather pointless, particularly as the Nerd had gotten access to Heal and had Boy Scouts for first aid. The boost range increase is so-so at best as you are expending a finite resource on the chance that you will increase your grade on your roll. This is not a winning proposition.

That all being said, imaginings are very powerful for the sheer scope of options that they offer and I would really prefer if every kid had some access to them. Giving every kid iconic Imagination and allowing the Dreamer another pick could be a workable solution; every kid has Imagination, the Dreamer is just better/more efficient at it. The Dreamer always gets Imagination as an iconic Core trait and can select an additional iconic Core trait, or select Imagination again, which grants the double effectiveness mentioned above. In this case they would get the double effectiveness and an additional iconic Core trait.

Magic: A Cautionary Tale

Magic is powerful and strange in the Grimm Lands and I think that I quite like it. Each spell has an associated Magical Style and a Circle (1st through 6th). Spell descriptions are very simple and clear in application without ever feeling like a bullet list of effects or a cafeteria menu. This is a bonus after the draconian arguments that other fantasy games can bring with regard to magic.

The magical style (Artificers, Enchanters, Guardians, Seers, Witches and Wizards) is a grouping for spells with a similar theme. Each style has a sidebar discussion about how to incorporate it within the game, examples of who uses it and the methods that it employs. There are no mechanics associated with magical style, 

Example: Guardian magic is used by fairy godmothers, good witches and guardian angels. Guardian magic typically requires the permission (or request) of the target of the spell, or their parents if the target is too young. Some guardians require a symbolic badge in the case of the ward spell. The sidebar discusses ways how some guardians are a little weird and that others are malicious in how they twist the spells are their disposal.

Circle represents the power of the spell, including how difficult it is to learn and cast, how draining it to cast and how many turns it will take to cast.

Casting a spell takes a number of turns equal to the circle of the spell. During each turn you will advance in circle by making a Gaming test against twice the circle until you have finished casting the spell; e.g. William wants to cast Fear on the Ugly Ducking, a 2nd-circle Wizard spell. During his first turn he will have to advance to the 1st-circle by making a Gaming test against a difficulty of 2. The next turn he will have to advance to the 2nd-circle by making a Gaming test against a difficulty of 4, after which the spell will be cast. If any of these tests are failed, the casting has to start again.

There are also "progressive" spells which cross a number of circles. You have to learn each version individually, but they offer some options. The classic example for this would be the Wizard spell "Blast". If you have all for circles (1st through 4th) you can stop at any time and cast the circle that you have just advanced to, or continue advancing until you top out. Nothing major, just neat.

After successfully casting a spell, kids have to deal with weakening and estrangement. Weakening gives the caster a disadvantage to all Playground traits for the scene equal to the circle of the spell cast, and this is cumulative with all spells cast that scene. If your disadvantages are ever greater than your Gaming trait, they start to turn into disadvantages for the story. If those disadvantages ever exceed your Gaming trait, then they permanently reduce all Playground traits. I actually forgot to use this, but it never would have actually been relevant at any time in hindsight. Estrangement is caused by trying to gather more magic than you can handle, represented by a Pluck roll. Failure causes things to get weird and makes you more like a creature from the Grimm Lands, which happily (?) also reduces the amount of weakness you suffer.

There are three main ways to learn magic (though certain talents and abilities can modify this): Apprenticeship, study and precociousness, in order of ascending difficulty. Apprenticeship takes one day to learn a 1st-circle spell and the time doubles for every increase in circle up to 32 days for a 6th-circle spell; this is for intense study - adventuring and traveling quadruples the time requirement. Each day requires a Gaming test with a difficulty at twice the circle of the spell for the day to count as a successful day of study. You will, obviously, need a teacher for this. Study takes twice as long as apprenticeship and until you cast the spell successfully three times, it will go haywire on a failure instead of nothing happening. Precociousness takes the least time, but you have to spend every round observing the spell as it is cast. The character may then attempt to cast the spell normally, but every scene that passes since it was learned increases the difficulty to cast the spell by 1. Spending an entire scene writing notes (with associated Gaming test just like casting the spell) will allow for learning the spell via study later. Miscast spells learned this way always result in a haywire, so the study later is going to be important.

As I said above, I quite like the magic system. It was pretty unobtrusive for a magic system and the effects were useful, but not overpowering by any stretch. Magic is pretty cheap to get access to (Gaming is a Study trait and those are the cheapest to raise), but the Pluck required to use it safely in the long run can be expensive. That is mitigated by the fact that Pluck is really good for every kid. You are going to want Pluck. Iconic Pluck can also allow you to sidestep estrangement entirely if you are conservative with it.

System: General Thoughts

After having seen the system in action, I quite like it. Generally, I have a tendency to enjoy systems that don't play coy with your expected results. It makes planning things significantly easier from the GM perspective and hypothetically from the player as well. There were a couple of exceptions to this. Bad luck was the first. Astronomically bad luck that took probability out back and put it down like Old Yeller. The second was optimism, strangely. On more than a couple of instances I observed decisions made on the basis that there was a chance (~17%) that the result would be boosted and perform over the grade level. I found this to be curious and am most likely to attribute it to so many experiences with previous systems where performing beyond expectations isn't nearly as unlikely.

Along similar lines, unless there is distinct advantage from having multiple successes (e.g. hitting multiple times in combat), it is always better to provide teamwork than try on your own. Because a die will be rolled for each character providing teamwork, you will still get the best random result, but it will also be applied to the best starting score. This really maximizes the upside and virtually negates any downside - virtually. See above regarding phenomenally bad luck (only one character providing teamwork reduces the chance to botch to ~3%). Even in situations like combat where multiple successful actions are beneficial, having one primary actor will yield the best result if the other characters will probably be unsuccessful on their own. This is another thing that I like since it really encourages the kids to work together at accomplishing things. Immediately actions are considered from a group, rather than personal, level; i.e. what can you bring to help other people help the team, not just what can you do on your own to help the team.

With unlimited time available, it is virtually guaranteed that you will be able to boost your grade level by at least one (~83%) through focusing. Though the characters only actually used focus once, it was through that and clever teamwork that some Bad Things were evaded. It is a subtle, but clever combination of mechanics that show clear benefit to having plenty of time without it ever getting out of hand.

Every game benefits from some experience with the system to create characters and Grimm is certainly no different. Were I to go back with what I know now, I would have made a few modifications to encourage even more teamwork among the characters. As well, I have a feeling that the players would design characters with a close eye so that gaps can be appropriately filled and that everyone has a teamwork buddy for any given trait; to provide teamwork a kid must have the trait within two grades of the actor. Had the Outcast been present, that would have been covered, but as it was there were a few holes. I also don't know if there would be quite the diversity in origin talents as I used. 

Combat tends to be relatively one-sided based on stature. Bigger things will generally be more successful and smaller characters have an uphill battle in front of them, all other things being equal. While Throw is a great equalizer (being more effective if the target is larger than you) simply damaging anything larger can potentially be a time-consuming and frustrating endeavor. Similarly, kids are pretty fragile. This is both a feature and potentially an issue. It strongly promotes approaching conflict from a position of planning and significant advantage, but with some gaming instincts long hardwired, there can be issues. Fortunately, I saw this coming and planned an object lesson regarding combat with a clearly superior foe and it worked splendidly.

From a narrator perspective the setting and flavor are fantastic. There are wonderful twists to classic fairy tales all from the perspective "what happened after the tale ends and things go sideways?". Not everything is new takes on the old; there is also new material as well. My only complaint is that there don't seem to be a lot of things appropriate for starting characters to deal with. Making minor characters is a breeze, but it is nice to have some examples to judge how appropriate what you intend to do is. Many of the suggested Pluck rolls seem far beyond what most characters will likely ever be able to achieve. While there is some excellent advice, I just feel like there is something missing when jumping in for the first time.

Running a game for five people is generally my limit (I was planning on having six). Having more than that typically divides my attention in a way that hurts everyone and providing that many spotlights can feel forced. With Grimm, I never actually felt any of those issues. While there was a lot going on and everyone was able to contribute, often that contribution would come in the form of supporting another character. As well the narrator advice specifically gives examples of how to spotlight the various archetypes. The archetypes and the strong niche protection that they provide gives excellent cues how to support what that character, and that character alone, does well.

To sum everything up, I think that this is a very excellent game for doing what it sets out to do: running kids through darker fairy tales and asking the question "what happens ever after when the magic fades?" The mechanics are simple and never get in the way, while reinforcing the need for teamwork and and establishing transparency in how they work. There are some changes that I would make, but they would be a matter of taste rather than necessary to keep everything functioning.