Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hero's Banner and a new Technique

Continuing in my desire to post on more games from the retreat, I'll write up my experience with a slightly tweaked version of Hero's Banner that we playtested for Tim Koppang, and also a new GM'ing technique that Mike and I discussed as a result of the game.

For those that don't know, Hero's Banner is a game written by my long time friend Tim Koppang, and is designed to tell the story of a young man (or woman) choosing between life paths. You get 3 life paths: Hero, where you choose to act or be like someone you admire, Blood where your family's desires or needs take prominence, and Conscience where you own desires run free. The biggest change from other Hero's Banner games was that (at the cues of the write up) we did 3 players, 1 character. This was interesting, it got 3 very good players to put their head together and make 3 interesting, compelling life paths to choose between. Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations with the session was that we could only choose 1 path. Mike in particular wanted to strike compromises between the different life paths.

Beyond the character generation, there is a mechanic, which lets you succeed more the more passionate you are about one path over the others, which uses percentile dice (oh god why? WHY?), and a sort of game timer that measures overall progress towards narrating the final scene and epilogue of the character. These mechanics had a major impact on the game play, which in general is, of course, a good thing (in particular I thought it was good for us to abandon one of the paths, as it wasn't compelling or useful anymore), but too many times they felt like a burden. While we were always in line for choosing a path and agonizing over that decision, it felt like the players were, occasionally, jerked along that path fater or (at the end) slower than desired.

So what was our game about? Our Hero was Dame Plowman, a woman from common stock who had won her way into knighthood and an honored place at the Duke's court. The character (Damien) wanted to be like her, but mainly wanted to court and marry her, achieved by becoming a knight. The Blood story was the least interesting of the three. Our family was in trouble after the death of the patron of the family. Our mother and friend (Baron Landsher) wanted us to take on the duties of a noble and rescue our lands from our debts. Finally we come to the strongest story like, the horse trainer story. Conscience told us to become an Arabian horse trainer, which no non-arab had ever been able to do.

I think the biggest problem was the speed of the plots. I made the horse plot very strong by kicking it into high gear very quickly. First I tried to stage a scene in a village, getting Damien to pass judgment on an important matter (for the peasants). Mike ran from that, because he was late for horse training. On the way there they ran into Dame Plowman escorting a bandit lord from Uran to the Duke's prison. They witnessed the bandit lord attempt to stab Plowman, and decided to interfere despite the fact they were in peasant cloths going to the horse trainers (horse people hate nobles). They ran off quickly, after being stabbed themselves. At the horse folk's place, they were introduced to the master herdsman, (after meeting the hilarious and awesome Shaliq), and given a horse. They were then told they would have to stay with the horse for the next week all the time, with their hand sealed in wax to the horse. After that they went to talk to Mom, but found Dame Plowman at home, waiting to ask them why they were in peasant clothes and what this horse thing was about. Then they talked to mom, who revealed that their major creditor, Lord Fauntleroy was waiting to go over the books with Damien. Fauntleroy left shortly thereafter, thoroughly upset with the level of commitment Damien showed to his debts. Damien and the horse then went out to meet Plowman, and they had a romantic ride on the horse (Aiya). Plowman invited them to a ceremony to recognize her and his contributions to bringing the bandit lord to justice, in 3 days time. The horse was not invited. Over the next several days Damien fixed the village's problems, impressing Fauntleroy, but talked to their mother and told her they would not be the new lord for the land. They got permission from the master herdsman to be separated from Aiya for the 3 hours of the ceremony. They attended the ceremony where they were knighted in a surprise ceremony. Then the final horse scene took place, where they had to pass the final trial of the horse (I've skipped over the 7 horse trials they they've been doing each day). They failed (due to mechanics at this point). Then they went off with Plowman, finding Shaliq and his son fighting bandits, rescueing them and impressing Plowman at the same time. In the end, they chose to go with Sarah Plowman and join the knights of the garter.

I promised that I would discuss a new GM'ing technique from this game. I'm not sure it is coming through in the write up, but the horse plot was very interesting and awesome. All the players felt a lot of connection to both Shaliq and Aiya (the horse). So why was this? And could we find a way to replicate the awesomeness to other games? Mike and I discussed this at some length. The core of the idea goes like this: you as the GM want to make some item important or special in the player's mind, something that they (or the character) wants. First, you make them work for it. You make an entire people or tribe or group who's job it is to gatekeep the item or the best form of the item. The player gets in good with them. Then they are given the item or a proto form of the item. They must doing something that is awkward socially with that item for some time. After that the item will be completed or otherwise augmented. So for, say, a chopper character in Apocalypse World, that wants an awesome new bike. First introduce the nomad group of mechanics that make the best post-apocalyptic motorbikes. They given him a bike, doing a ritual to seal the bike to him, a lot of hoodoo nonsense with feathers and smoke. They let him go with the bike, but warn that the bike will have its own demands that if they are not met, will mean the destruction of the bike. Now comes the important part... The character now has a spiritual connection to the bike, and she (or he, depending on the sexuality of the character) is around as a hallucination all the time, asking for things, being socially awkward. Another example we thought of: a katana that must have a Samaurai's hand kept on it at all times for a week. A book that a librarian character desperately wants that can't be given, but can be copied, over the course of a demanding week. In all of these cases, a time commitment is important, it is also important for the GM to keep up the pressure. This shouldn't be a time-off week where nothing else happens, this should be the week that the plague comes to town, and jimmy falls down the well. There should be pressure to give up the item.

Obviously this item technique isn't useful in all games, but I think it might be a good idea. It certainly worked well in the Hero's Banner game we played.

BTW, Buy Hero's Banner!

1 comment:

Tim C Koppang said...

Ben, thanks for writing this up and for the play-test. For what it's worth, I've been giving a lot of thought to some of the feedback that you and the group had for me. I wanted to let you know that I agree with you about the pacing mechanic and chart. I've already changed the chart to (a) add another tier, and (b) create a gentler slope, especially in the early game, so that players will be able to keep their Influence Scores more even if they so choose. I've also removed the Passion Increase that happens if you do not re-roll. This will (a) give the player more control over his pacing, (b) slow down the overall Passion Increase, and (c) provide incentive to take a re-roll.

(I was also happy to get some more of the story details from your write up!)