Monday, October 22, 2007

Playtest Report: Bliss Stage Part 1

This is the first installment of what I hope to be a number of playtest reports. See, I am a member of 3 different gaming groups. Wednesdays is Exalted, approximating twice monthly on Saturdays is the "Amber" group (though we often end up playing non-amber games), and Sundays is the "Indie" group.

The original goal of the indie group is to play a new game every week. Sometimes, we just play some persona setting, or someone wants to run a particular system that we've tried before, but I do think we see a decent variety of systems. We've managed to try out: Shock, Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Hero's Banner, Shockaris (A blend of Shock and Polaris), L5R (Legend of the Five Rings, not exactly indie, but what can you do), and maybe a couple of others that I can't remember. I hope to write up play reports for each of these games, now that I'm blogging, so that others can live vicariously through me (Mike, I'm looking at you ;))

This last Sunday, we managed to get together a crew for the very awesome Bliss Stage game. This is part one of the report, because we all agreed to play another session of it, since we didn't get through all of the adventure I had planned.

Let me start by giving a brief overview of the world of Bliss Stage and the system. Basically, at the moment you sit down to the game (as far as a timeline goes), "The Bliss" takes out the adult population of the world (16-17+). Everyone just gets sleepy and falls asleep, never to wake up. For a little while, the children have fun with that, looting stores, eating candy and the like. But after a while, you want your mother and father to wake up and take care of you. Too bad. After a month, all the modern services, like water and electricity are completely shutdown. After 2 years, some sort of society is beginning to form. Then the aliens come. They brought the bliss, and now they have remotes that can operate in our world, and they begin hunting down the nascent society that is forming (which already has troubles, with its oldest members "Blissing out"). 5 years after the Bliss, someone finally manages to take down one of the alien remotes. They begin studying its technology. 6 years out, they start experimenting with reversing the technology and allowing some of the kids to enter the dreaming with their own remotes, the tests are brutal. At 7 years, the technology is ready and the pilots are trained, and its time to strike back!

So, if you haven't picked up on this yet, its a roleplaying game for playing mecha pilots who are children, fighting against an alien force that has already conquered the Earth. Wow! But the fun doesn't stop there, it gets much better. The mecha that the children pilot in the alien world of the dreaming are formed out of the strong relationships the children have with other characters in the resistance cell! Your shield is your love of Alice, your lover, your rocket powered fists is the loyality you feel towards the cell's leader, etc. Wow! But wait, there's more. When a pilot enters the dreaming, his anchor (another child trained in instrument reading) must interpret the reading and tell the pilot what he is seeing and what he should do. Thats right, the anchor (a child in the cell) GM's the pilots combat actions in character voice! Wow! Ok, now I'm basically done.

Those of you who know my roleplaying preferences and my anime preferences have probably realized that it would be difficult to make a game more to my liking. Add in the fact that every number / mechanic in the game is designed to either reaffirm or destroy your relationships with other characters, and you've basically got everything I could ask for in a game. Now that I've told you a bit about the game setup, let me tell you about the world we created.

We started with where we were located. The book suggests that we create a resistance cell somewhere near where we are physically in the world. So we thought about where around post-apocalyptic Seattle a resistance cell might be. After discarding as too obvious the Bus Tunnels and the Space Needle, we settled on House boats, lashed together in the middle of Lake Washington. We decided that we had ready access to fish (being on the water), and were fairly able to defend the boats against other bands of children. We decided we didn't have electricity and that sanitation in the middle of a lake was also an issue. When it came time to decided what the aliens were like, it was a little more difficult. We tossed around a couple of ideas, but eventually decided on the very awesome "they are twisted mimicries of people you have relationships with." Going from there, it was fairly obvious that the dreaming was a twisted mimicry of the physical world around Seattle. Some color includes trees growing upside down and buildings in the real world occasionally being replaced by their twisted doppelgangers. That dream stuff, we decided, is what powers the mecha creches we use to fight the aliens.

Once we had established our setting, it was time to get into character creation. Characters in Bliss Stage are generated by the group collaboratively all at once. Once they are all created, the characters are handed out to various players sort of willy nilly (with characters with close ties hopefully going to different players). We started with the Authority Figure. The AF is an adult who has managed to stay awake for the last 7 years. After 7 years, these guys are normally a bit crazy and only being kept alive through some combination of drugs, meditation, gilligan's island tapes and lots of coffee. They are the leader of the cell, and the person who brought in the mecha machines. For our group, we made Robert Morealis. He was a commercial fisherman, who when the Bliss hit was forced to pilot the big hauling boat back to seattle by himself (throwing overboard his shipmates, probably). When he returned to Seattle he found some kids looting his house boat (let by Jed, a pilot), and got them to rally around him. He also led a search team to find his daughters Kat (A pilot) and Meredith (older sister, since fallen into the Bliss, but kept around on the boat and regularly visited by Robert and Kat). Kat is a young hotshot pilot trying to prove herself; to the world, to Robert and also to herself. Jed is the most experience ANIMa (mecha) pilot, and he is growing bitter with the world (and getting close to the Bliss), he has authority issues with Robert and probably half the kids on the House Boat Rafts are still loyal to him. Roderick (Ro for short) is the final of three pilots, who is in love with his Anchor Alice, and the only couple of have had a child "Spike" a one year old boy. Other characters include Sergey, the son of meth lab junkies who carries on his parents work to help keep Robert awake. Megan a girl on the rafts that is in love with Ro, who schemes with Jed (who has a crush on Alice) to break up the only fruitful relationship on the boat, and Shevaun, the unsteady Anchor for Jed (replacing the one that died in his arms after one disastrous mission), who is still unsure of her worth to the group.

Needless to say, with a twisty maze of relationships like that (I haven't even enumerated all of the craziness we came up with), the character interaction just basically flowed easily from there. I think we were also all grateful for the shared character creation, which allowed a lot of voices to really get into these characters and really make them damaged or ambitious or caring.

After that, it was finally time to play (only took about 2.5 hrs to explain the rules, eat, and generate characters and setting). Every game of Bliss Stage is supposed to start with a "defend the base!" kind of mission. This was definitely what we did, and it was really cool to see people get into character voice on both sides of the equation, and really go at the aliens. By the end of the mission, everyone had nightmare elements (sent by the aliens) in their world view, and there are some really twisted things we were able to come up with. The mecha combat was fairly smooth and not very painful as far as mechanics are concerned.

Once that was done, it was time to tackle interlude actions, where we get the chance to really get some character interactions and play with our relationships. Jed and Shevaun had an interesting interaction where they talked about some of what it really meant to be involved in the resistance and why they both worked as pilot/anchor. And what it meant to see the dead anchor reflected in the aliens as Jed fought them. Ro and Alice had it out about why Ro was able to so casually destroy aliens that looked like both Alice and their son Spike. And, in one of the funnest roleplaying moments I have ever taken part in, Robert and Kat argued about how she failed to really give it to the aliens, and hesitated over the demon that looked like Robert. Robert also pointed out that she has to be better than she is if she ever expects to save anyone from the aliens. Then they slapped and punched each other, really hitting and hating the other one.

We were about to go into the next mission, when we realized it was late, and we should probably play again next week.

Once we understood the system, it was fairly lightweight and generally awesome. It really forced us to focus on the twisted, strained relationships that must happen in such a horrific situation. And it allowed for some awesome mecha combat. Wow! What more could you want from an indie RPG?


Anonymous said...


Sounds fantastic. I haven't had a chance to play Bliss Stage in its long form, but the relationship mechanics alone make it my kind of game.

I have a question, however. What seems vague (perhaps on purpose) in the rules is the correlation between a piece of your mecha getting damaged in the dream world and your corresponding relationship getting damaged in the real world. In other words, how did your group explain why their relationships were hurting after or during a mission? Did you come up with a definitive answer or leave things more abstract? And finally, if the latter, did you feel that the abstractness made the game less enjoyable?

Ben said...

Hey Tim,

Yeah, well, you and me on this game, really great mechanics IMO, and it seems to be working well.

Your mecha getting damaged is probably the most difficult part of the game. This is because people want the damage to the relationships to be apparent, but the rules leave things sorta vague.

I think there are two important things to consider when thinking about this damage. The first thing is that Ben (Lehman) quite forcibly points out at one point that he doesn't really want you playing strictly by the numbers of relationships, or even generally. I'm not really sure thats entirely helpful, but I think you can definitely play stress and trust that way, since stress and trust can be very internal things. Intimacy is different, and its very defined what level your relationship should be at based on what kind of physical interactions you have had. The second point is much more important. Lehman has managed to create a setting so very intense and stressful, that it just feels natural that you'll have some problems with other people. Everyone is always constantly worried or upset, and its really easy to funnel that into problems in relationships. Additionally, to relieve stress (which you want to do all the time), players are constantly trying to show/exhibit the problems of the relationship, so you see the cracks all the time. On top of all this, its fairly likely (at least if you're my group) that you've built some serious issues into the relationships already, or at least have thought about it (I can't tell you how many characters are trying to take down other characters or are resentful, etc)

To more clearly answer your questions: the game definitely leaves the effect of mecha damage on the relationships abstract, and we didn't go into the why that much. That being said, the world is very definitely a stressful dangerous place, and I thought there was plenty of fodder for relationship problems all around. Right now, I don't think its hurt the game at all, but we didn't get to play very many interlude actions, so these issues may exhibit themselves later.