Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saints & Sinners GM playtest feedback

Last night I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with +Tre' Grisby who ran a session of Saints & Sinners this weekend. I was really looking forward to get feedback from a GM that's ran then game. Tre has played in my games, but had never actually picked up the game and ran a session as a GM so I was excited to hear what he had to say.

Before I continue I'd like to comment that Saints & Sinners is quite different when it comes to mechanics and rules. I'd say the only thing in common with mainstream games is the presence of six basic attributes. Aside from that skills and task resolution, hit points, damage and combat, specially hand to hand combat, are very different. I wouldn't say complex, just different. With that in mind here's the feedback.

First of I'll talk about the character generation experience. According to Tre he regrets not having made any pregens. Although character generation is quick it would have helped to save some time ( about 30 to 40 minutes given all the players present). Two elements of character generation were pointed out. The calculation of the pain threshold gave an expression of "umphff" from the players. It's a one time operation involving a percentage of the characters hit points. No big deal, but certainly more complex than adding some values. Unfortunately it is a key value to facilitate damage resolution during the game. Better a one time multiplication than a continuous headache. Nonetheless it wouldn't hurt to have a lookup table to get the value based on character hit points and endurance. Saints & Sinners has fixed hit points for life so the table is capped in size to the max hit points a character can have.

The second element that took time explaining was skill and background development. Many players were accustomed to games with a class or point buy mechanics that leads to a discrete list of skills and/or in which background has a minimal impact on "in game" activities. Saints & Sinners uses a set of human readable terms, not points, to express backgrounds and skills. The whole set of skills, background experience and learning is expressed with words such as skilled, professional, expert, master and legendary and laid out in a cascading skill set. This means that if a specific skill is not mentioned the next uppermost skill level applies. Task difficulty is also expressed in human readable terms such as challenging, hard, epic, etc. These terms indicate how many dice to roll and not how many pluses your character gets. For example if your character has to program something and he's a professional programmer and is expert with php and master with Java, but the task has to be resolved in ruby then the programmer level of pro is used instead of the expert with php or master with Java. The GM dictates the level of difficulty and can even modify it for expertise. Got a time constraint and your character has never read into ruby? Task just got harder by a notch.

One bug that was pointed out with skills was the naming of the expertise levels. As it stands in print right now there are two levels called experienced and expert. Their abbreviation is EXP for both and this caused an issue when writing the skills down. Some skills were labeled EXP for experienced and expert and it was hard to determine which was which. Experienced has been changed for professional with the abbreviation PRO.

Another element that took time getting used to was team work. Saints and Sinners makes strong use of this. It has clear rules on how to apply character skills in a teamwork environment. Three players got programming skills? Let them work together to solve the problem faster and with lower odds of failure. This is even more important when the task is something like disarming a nuclear bomb. The team just can't fail. I just can't emphasize this enough!

These final observations lead to the most important observation of the conversation: how to layout the rules to address GM and player assimilation of the rules. Even when rules are simple, when they're so different and are applied in such different ways from mainstream RPGs, it takes time to break the player's habit. This lead to a slower game and courses of action that were ignored. As players and GM alike became familiar with the rules the pace picked up and new ways to interact with the world were taken advantage of. Namely time, planning and teamwork became key elements in the player's actions. Once players caught on to this the game moved from being a dungeon crawl in an Afghan village to a modern day military mission.

The modifications based on this last bit of feedback will introduce the following modification: a text explaining clearly how the game should be played and a modular approach to the mechanics. Regarding the first modification it was noted that I should have a "Read Me First" text indicating emphasis on speed, teamwork and planning instead of a foreword that nobody really reads prior to the game. Regarding the second modification it was noted that game rules should be laid out in blocks or modules indicating which are core and indispensable rules and which can be added later. The core rules are the "you must always know and master" to get the essence of the game. Things like skill rules and task resolution are core. Combat, firearm and martial, is an extension of the skill and task rules. Combat adds a great deal of elements which are to much to master in one session. The core combat elements should be identified from the additional "nice to have". To hit rolls and damage are core, fatigue and suppression rules can be mastered later. Same thing for firearm vs martial combat. Master one first then tackle the later. A star system was suggested by Tre. Each element can be labeled three stars if it is of uttermost importance, two stars if it's pretty important and one star if it can be omitted more often than not.

Overall it was a great amount of feedback that will lead to an improved update in a few weeks. I'll be working these next two weeks to include this on top of the upcoming updates I already have in mind.

Saints & Sinners is a modern warfare game set in the Vietnam era. At only 64 pages it's a quick read and easy to start running a game. You can get Saints and Sinners as a pay what you want here and follow up on the game development in the Weapons Free G+ community.
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