Monday, March 12, 2007

The Glory of My Name, Part II

So, getting into the game proper. Overall, I'd describe the energy level as medium-high. I think Agon is one of those games that's not hard to learn or play for the first time, per se, but benefits hugely from all the participants being intimately familiar with the game. Polaris is another good example of this - the Key Phrases are at their heart very simple, but there's often a bit of a gap between when people understand them in the sense of "okay, this is how it works," and when they really get them and understand how they shape and inform play. In Agon, the real crux is, I think, the side-by-side economies of Glory and Strife. It's a constant balancing act of "if we give the GM more Strife, we can earn more Glory... but too much Strife, and we might run into big trouble." I don't think my players really picked up on that relationship in an intuitive way until near the end of the second session.

Anyway, I'll start with my general impressions.

I find it really refreshing when a game is well-designed and balanced enough that you can really stop pulling your punches, play hard, and let the dice fall where they may. Keep in mind that I don't mean balance in the sense of character balance and niche protection and all that stuff (which I find is entirely context-based anyway), but rather in the sense that we players, the people around the table, are on an even playing field. The only other games I can think of that made me feel this way are all without a GM - Universalis, Polaris, and Capes. I think it's quite a feat that Agon managed this while still having a GM. Primetime Adventures has a smidgen of this feeling, but it's too collaborative for me to get that sense of honest competition. (That's not a bad thing, just a different thing.) All this ties into one of Vincent's Anyway posts that really resonated with me, about the coolness of rules that keep us from holding back during play. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find that post. Consider this a placeholder until I find it or someone points it out to me.

Now, moving on to instances of play.

The contest with the wise woman to learn how to brew the antidote went pretty much exactly as I planned it. The characters found her, told her what they wanted to know, and listened to her tell them her condition. I watched the players' faces go through this cycle of "Aw shit, we're gonna get our asses handed to us," to "...Wait a sec, I know how to handle this!" It was cool. The characters ran off to ponder how to farm advantages. Icarus went looking for the island's premiere historian. Kind of on a whim, I decided to go against stereotype and make it a really fit guy - an athlete - instead of a bookish type. David (Icarus' player) challenged him to a foot race! "If I win, you'll tell me the most obscure facts about this island's history that you can think of." That was way cool in my book. He won, netting himself a d8 Advantage die. That advantage die and a Creative Ability ("I wanna add Music to my roll! Because I know some songs about this island's legends!") shifted the contest in their favor. Objective 1 achieved.

The second objective was a lot more straightforward - Billy just did a Heal contest to get the high priest lucid enough to talk. David tossed him a Helping Die by using Cunning to stick close and get Ceas any supplies he needed. At this point, we were all really jazzed about the way that Advantages, Creative Abilities, and Helping were working. It reminded me a lot of the way Fan Mail works in Primetime Adventures, augments in HeroQuest, and (duh) the Helping Dice in The Shadow of Yesterday. I thought it was even more effective, though, for three reasons. First, there were more shades of possibilities - it was like if you took augments, fan mail, helping dice, and the currency from Sorcerer and mashed them all together. Second, they felt more integral to the core resolution system, to me. Third, there's this neat tension produced by the fact that using a creative ability or giving a helping die impairs your Ability - I'm a sucker for these sorts of gameplay choices that have real impact. Anyway, long story short, the heroes get to put a big check mark in the box for Objective 2.

It was at this point that we had to end the first session. I'd spent a little bit of Strife over the course of these two conflicts, and was getting seriously low. Luckily for me, the second session started with an Interlude, which helped to refresh my flagging antagonistic power. During the Interlude, David chose to try to get rid of some of his impairment, while Billy had Ceas make a sacrifice to Apollo - with which he netted a God Oath, that he later used to awesome effect.

On the way to their 3rd objective (the slaying of the Scorpion), I had the bandit leader and his lackeys attack. This went pretty much according to plan. On reflection, though, I wish I hadn't given the bandit minions shields, just because they ended up lasting until the 4th exchange, when I had sort of intended for them to go down pretty much immediately - they were really just meant to test out/showcase the minion rules. Even aside from the minions, the fight ended up being surprisingly tough for Icarus and Ceas, mostly due to the fact that Charax was really good with a bow, and both the PCs sucked at ranged combat. Eventually though they managed to close to melee and eviscerate him. At first Billy found the range strips kind of weird, but when I explained their abstract nature and how they weren't meant to reflect actual positioning he got it, and after the battle was over he said he liked it.

So, I'd spent myself down to a mere 2 Strife after that battle, but luckily the heroes were in need of some healing and refreshing. They decided to do 3 Interlude scenes. I barely managed to not cackle with evil glee. This was definitely a matter of lack of experience with the system. The players weren't 100% used to the friendly-competition stance of the GM in Agon, and didn't realize that it can be important to game the Interludes to make sure that they strike a balance between making sure that they were prepared for the coming trial and giving me more resources than they could handle. We talked about it after the session, and they agreed that it was a neat idea, that it kept the game from languishing too much with endless downtime, and that they'd have to be more careful in the future.

The battle against the Scorpion was suitably exciting. It went very smoothly, thanks in part to our having worked out our unfamiliarity with the system in the combat with the bandits. There was one great use of the Tactics special maneuver where David had Icarus lure the Scorpion into striking a rock ledge with its deadly stinger, starting a small landslide that ended up handicapping the beast on the turn that it was defeated. Ceas was the one that struck the killing blow, calling on Apollo for aid and using that massive d12 to drive his two swords deep into the Scorpion's brains. Way cool.

Finally came the medical battle to heal the high priest. Billy and David both really shone, here - Billy used a couple creative abilities, and David tossed him helping dice like crazy (and accrued a stockpile of Oaths for himself). It was fun, and I was pleased to see that Agon does handle non-combat battles well. I wouldn't say it was quite as tense as the battle against the Scorpion, though - Agon's combat system is just too kick-ass to be outdone - so I think I'll use non-combat battles to end a quest more as a spice, and keep combat as the main course.

So to wrap this thing up: Much fun was had by all. I am thoroughly impressed with Agon. Go out and play it for yourself, if you haven't already.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Glory of My Name, Part I

So, I got a chance to play my first game of Agon over the weekend. I had two players, David and Billy. We started on Friday night, but unfortunately didn't have a lot of time that night, so we were unable to complete the first quest. We got back together Saturday evening and finished.

I'll start with the notes I made for the session, which I scrawled down desperately between helping the players make their characters. The characters were normal starting characters, and I decided on a short quest, with 3 objectives, which gave me a starting Strife pool of 30, and a single NPC limit of 16.

Here's the stuff I rolled on Agon's nifty tables:

Island: Burning sands & red stone canyons
Communities: Devout worshipers with temples
Events: Recovering from natural disaster
Gods: Aphrodite, Dionysus, Athena
Desires: Hide, Incite, Slay
Artifacts: Ring or Amulet
Beasts: Obsidian Scorpion
Men: Pirates of the Red Banner
Monsters: Centaur

Hot damn, that's a sweet setup. A burning desert with red stone canyons populated by an Obsidian Scorpion? Sign me up! I may have been extra jazzed for this because I've recently been reading Judd's excellent Dictionary of Mu, and thus the phrase "burning sands" immediately slaps my brain into submission.

So, I thought about some further detail on the island. Recent natural disaster, eh? Well, when I looked at the type of community, an earthquake was the obvious answer. There's something sad about seeing beautiful white marble temples in ruin. Especially if the community is built into the terraced sides of a winding series of red rock cliff faces. So, at that point, I was starting to get a definite feel for this island. Agon's little charts made it very easy... and they didn't stop there.

So, a divine directive to Slay matches up pretty obviously with the Obsidian Scorpion - that's a no-brainer. The question, though, is which god? I decided on Aphrodite. Her head priest in the temple city had been stung by the Scorpion, and lay dying of its primordial venom. She wants the heroes to slay the scorpion and brew an antidote from its venom. This came to me in a flash as I noticed that Billy's character - Ceas, son of Abas - favored Apollo and had a d10 in Heal. I figured it would be interesting to have a big fight against a monstrous beast - and then have the real climax be a battle of medicine to save the head priest. It would also give me a chance to test out how Agon's battle system handled both a physical fight, and something a bit more abstract. I'll admit I was also thinking about the coolness of healing conflicts in Dogs in the Vineyard.

So, here's the quest as it stood so far:

Athena wants you to use the Obsidian Scorpion's venom to heal the head priest of her temple.
  • Find out how to brew the antidote from the Scorpion's venom.
  • Find out where the lair is.
  • Slay the Obsidian Scorpion.
So, I figured that for the first objective, a creepy old wise woman would know how, and would agree to teach the heroes if they could tell her something true about the history of the island that she didn't already know. I kind of did this to tease my players, since neither of them took a high Lore skill, so I knew they'd need to scrounge up some Advantages and possibly use some Creative Abilities.

For the second objective, I figured that only the stricken high priest would know - since the Scorpion migrates across the desert in patterns arcane and unknowable. Easy enough, right? Except that the high priest was delirious with the effects of the venom. They'd need to win a Contest to get him lucid enough to divulge the Scorpion's current whereabouts.

So, at this point, the two characters were finished. We had:

Fleet-Footed Icarus, Son of Kratos (d6)
Beloved of Hermes
Insight d6, Grace d10, Might d6, Spirit d6
Heal d6, Lore d4, Music d8, Orate d6
Athletics d6, Cunning d8, Hunt d6, Wrestle d4
Aim d4, Shield d6, Spear d8, Sword d6
Weapons: Bow d8+1, Spear d8 d6, Shield d8, Sword 2d6


Far-Reaching Ceas, Son of Abas (d6)
Beloved of Apollo
Insight d6, Grace, d8, Might d6, Spirit d6
Heal d10, Lore d6, Music d4, Orate d4
Athletics d8, Cunning d6, Hunt d6, Wrestle d4
Aim d4, Shield d6, Spear d6, Sword d10
Weapons: Javelin d6+1, Sword 2d6, Sword 2d6, Shield d8

Achievements went pretty well - each of them earned an Oath from the other. I followed the book's advice and used the Achievements to establish a prior relationship between the characters. Both scenes took place during the recent war, and I felt this whole process really helped not only to cement the comrade/rival relationship between the two characters, but also to give them a little more depth of character.

So, after that, I gave the two of them a break to grab drinks or whatnot while I scribbled down a few NPCs. I knew that I had to create the Obsidian Scorpion and the old wise woman. I figured I'd also create a bandit leader, so that I could have a quick, simple battle to get a better handle on the system before the big fight with the Scorpion.

Obsidian Scorpion (d8)
Strife: 15
Insight d4, Grace d6, Might d8, Spirit d8
Heal d4, Lore d4, Music d4, Orate d4
Athletics d8, Cunning d8, Hunt d8, Wrestle d4
Aim d8, Shield d4, Spear d4, Sword d10
Armor d10, Divine Favor: 6
Weapons: Claws 2d6/2d6 (swords), Stinger d6+1 (javelin)
Powers: Natural Weapons, Multi-Strike

Old Anteia (d6)
Strife: 4
Insight d8, Grace d4, Might d4, Spirit d8
Heal d10, Lore d10, Music d4, Orate d4
Athletics d6, Cunning d10, Hunt d4, Wrestle d4
Aim d6, Shield d6, Spear d6, Sword d6

Charax, Bandit Chieftan (d6)
Strife: 5
Insight d6, Grace d6, Might d6, Spirit d6
Heal d6, Lore d6, Music d6, Orate d6
Athletics d8, Cunning d4, Hunt d6, Wrestle d6
Aim d10, Shield d6, Spear d8, Sword d4
Weapons: Bow d8+1, Spear d8 d6, Shield d8

And I figured I'd give Charax two bandit minions:

Strife: 1 each
Arete d6, Battle d8, Craft d4, Sport d6
Weapons: Spear d8 d6, Shield d8

The cool part is that creating these NPCs only took about 4 or 5 minutes. David and Billy were barely back from getting their drinks by the time I was done.

Now, a note about the range strip. For miniatures, I decided to use the pieces from Risk: Godstorm, since they have a decidedly Greek flavor to them. I decided that I'd use the men for men (duh), the elephants for Beasts, and then either one of the gods or an elephant for Monsters, whichever fit the Monster's appearance better. It worked out really well in play.

Anyway, that's enough for the first part. I wanted to go into a lot of detail on the creation of the quest to highlight just how easy it was. Agon does a really good job of providing you with the building blocks you need to make a good session. I'll get into the meat of play with my next post. That will be written as more of an overview, rather than the step-by-step approach I took here.