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Some Notes on Running SCUP


SCUP
At Furnace XIII this October I decided to run ‘The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power’, a ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ based game that is designed for player-vs-player (PVP) gaming. Clearly, it was promoted as being a way to play ‘Game of Thrones’ style games but it’s much broader than that. I used it to set a game in a city that dominated trade, being based in the middle of fertile plains and on the main navigable river network, rather like a Russ City-state. To be honest, my pitch was pretty simple:

“The defeat was shattering, and your armies were consumed by the advancing hordes. The first riders arrived bearing the grim tidings this morning, and the city is poised, breath held, awaiting word from the court. People are preparing their valuables and families to flee. The court meets tonight. Will you stay and fight, embrace the coming jihad or flee from your ancestral home?”


I stole a line from ‘The End’ by The Doors and called the set-up ’The End of Laughter and Soft Lies’ as it caught my imagination for the feel of the game I wanted. The nobility and the elite playing their petty games as they prepare to be consumed by the approaching threat; a fin-de-siècle feel as everything they know disappears in the churn.

The last element I threw in were some tags, as Furnace has guidelines that require a GM to flag potentially contentious content for the players in advance: PVP, dark fantasy, adult themes. As the game doesn’t shy from sex and violence (indeed, there are moves for both) it needed to be clear at the start.

The scenario was in the second slot, which is three and a half hours long. I reckoned that it needed four, but there was enough of a gap for a small over-run.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the scenario content and also sought some advice from the creators, who shared my question on their Google plus group. I took some of it to heart, and then did my own thing for the rest.

The first area to consider was whether to allow all the playbooks into the game. In the end, I decided not to use ‘The Crown’ or ‘The Gauntlet’, as they are the ruler and their enforcer. I wanted a power vacuum to open up right as the enemy approaches. I did keep the ‘The Hex’ (a witch/outcast magic user), but advised the players that this was a character which was a true outsider and would need to be pushed. I gave the players the option to have ‘The Screw’, the torturer character. They kept it in the selection, but we agreed that any torture would be off-camera. That said, no-one picked that playbook. I was a little worried that ‘The Bloodletter’, a dark Doctor character, would be a bit like the Hex, and perhaps disengaged, and it proved true for the first half of the game.

I decided that the playbook would start with an extra move, and 2 advancement points so it was easy to unlock another move by playing the characters hard into the plot. I also increased the honor rating by one, as this fuels some cool moves. The idea here was to help the players have cool things to do.

The creators had advised me to present a mythology and setting for a convention game, but this is when I decided to go my own way. I’ve run many PVP scenarios (especially with Conspiracy of Shadows, an early indie game) and I think that it is key to get the players bought into the world. Also, I love the co-creative way that many of the Apocalypse Engined games have adopted for world-building. I decided to do world creation at the start of the game; I figured it would take up to an hour, but that we should be able to have some fun if we were really focussed for the rest of the time.

There are some standard questions you ask as you build relationships and factions that the characters are aligned with, but I wanted to go further than that. There’s a great tool for building the mythology of the world (surprisingly not a template in the handouts) which I thought would resonate. I also decided that I wanted the players to flesh out their city so that they owned it and believed in it, so I started to build a list of questions which I went around the table in turn to get answers from.

The first set were all about the city the game would take place in. I wanted the players to be invested in this.
The game is set in a walled city on a rich, fertile plain.
What is the city called?
Is it walled?
Does a river run through it, and if so, how difficult is it to cross?
What do other people say about the city?
Where do the poor live?
What are its neighbours and what relationships are there?
What are the main locations you know and frequent?
Where do the Council of Electors meet?

I went around the table asking the questions to each player in turn. Sometimes the other players suggested builds on the ideas that others had come up with. The answers were captured on some self-adhesive flip charts which we put on the walls around the gaming table. This was surprisingly effective as it acted as a prompt for me and the players during the game.
https://flic.kr/p/2c2Kwny

We ended up with the City of Wheel, a walled city on a critical trade route crossing of a river, which was crossed by many bridges. The city dominated trade between the ’savage nomadic horsemen’ on the plains and the Archipelago downriver and was ruled by an Emperor and Council of Electors. Some key locations like the Palace, the Arena and the towers where the aristocracy lived came out of this.

The next section explored religion and the supernatural.
The City has spires and minarets.
Are the gods active?
What gods are evil?
What gods are good?
What else?
Which god is the city’s patron?
If the gods aren’t active, who cares for the people?
What happens to the religious?
Do the people believe in evil?
What is the Unspeakable Power?
How does it interact with the World?
How are people who interact with it treated?
What festival is it today? How do people celebrate it?
https://flic.kr/p/2c2KwMb

We established that the Emperor was a God-Emperor who protected the ‘People from Evil’ and was worshipped by the official state religion. We also established that the Unspeakable Power came from Demons. Oh, and that it was the Emperor’s Birthday.

The final set of questions explored the city in more detail. This was aimed more at getting flavours and hooks the players could use.
The City is a stronghold?
Is it truly strong? Why?
Does it dominate? If so, what? Trade, crops, transport routes...
What was the most famous defeat?
What was the most famous victory?
Would people care if the city fell?
Where would you go to carouse?
Where would you go for peace?
Where would you go shopping?
Where would you go to sleep?

This worked, as details were drawn on during the game. I’m sure that a longer campaign style game would have used them more.

The mythology was completed giving us:
In the Beginning there was peace with all, but then we meddled with what we should not. This resulted in poverty, famine and plague overtaking us and because of this there was fear, dread and panic until heroes stood mightily and now we must live our lives in constant vigilance.

https://flic.kr/p/2bKbqpe

I was fortunate that the player group I had were all really engaged with the game. Indeed, many of them were quality GMs who I’d happily sign up to play with without sight of the system or scenario before. Everyone shared an interest in the style of play, and the flagging before the game was opened to sign up made sure that we had players who wanted to drive the action.

I’d built myself a checklist for kicking things off with the players at the start.
1) Introduce self, players, tea and toilets.
2) First of all, have you played PbtA games before? Explain if needed.
3) SCUP is a game that embraces PvP, much in the way that Game of Thrones or The Death of Stalin does. Expect to attempt to double cross, betray and even attempt to murder other characters.
4) SCUP is about the characters being in conflict. It is not about the players. You should be working together to make this as messy as possible, to point your characters at each other. This is power politics written in blood.
5) We will use the X-Card (explain).
6) SCUP has Sex Moves, again like Game of Thrones. They give both characters involved benefits. I am assuming that there will be a veil drawn over any use of this. Does anyone have any issues with this?
7) One of the playbooks is a torturer - is everyone cool that this is included as an option?
8) There are a variety of playbooks available for the game
The Adept - effectively the Mage
The Beloved - a prophet, usually from the people, has followers
The Black Hood - a master assassin
The Bloodletter - a doctor with capabilities close to the supernatural
The Hex - a witch (although I would recommend you think twice)
The Lyre - a performer, rabble-rouser, inspiration
The Screw - a torturer
The Spur - a militia leader, horseman and tear-away.
The Voice - a whisperer in the shadows, the power between the throne.
Which playbooks do you fancy?

This led me through it quite efficiently. We ended up with the Adept, the Beloved, the Black Hood, The Bloodletter, the Lyre and the Spur, which was an interesting mix. We did discuss the X-Card but it was never used in play for real.

We finalised patrons, factions and relationships between the players. This worked really well. Again, it was all visible on the wall so we could bypass the slow learning that a more campaign focussed game would work with.

patrons
: https://flic.kr/p/R12TZq

factions
: https://flic.kr/p/2anhTZC

relationships
: https://flic.kr/p/2bKbpSn

My final step before we started was to add two countdown clocks to the wall, in the style of Apocalypse World1, one for Riot and the other for Revolution. Riot was all about when actions the characters took upset or panicked the people. Revolution was about things that would make the mob want to rise up and throw down the aristocracy.
https://flic.kr/p/2bKbrw4

The whole process took close to an hour. Fortunately, because of the group and the co-creative process it paid dividends. Everyone knew the setting and everyone was empowered and involved in it.

I started the game In-Media-Res, at the celebratory feast for the Emperor’s birthday, with news of a great defeat arriving and the players immediately starting to plot to achieve power and engage with their enemies.

I also had a set of beats that I could draw on, ideas that would allow me to keep things moving. However, these mostly proved unnecessarily, as the players really ran with it2, making my input as the MC mainly constrained to stirring it up and explaining mechanics. I think I could have pushed it harder, but I didn’t feel the need.

The one thing that I’d have done better was to have engaged the Bloodletter character more. I noticed over the first 45 minutes or so that the player, Steve, was struggling for an in. I did try and throw in a few hints to help, but I don’t think the player-led plot was necessarily going the way that was easy for him to engage with. That said, all of a sudden he became the reanimator and it all got very complicated. Steve does suggest in his blog that a more formal scene structure like that used in Hillfolk (a game I have the PDFs for but haven’t read) may have worked better. He may well be right. I did try and move scenes around the players if they weren’t involved but perhaps was too passive. I could have thrown more challenges at individuals to drive this more - and to be fair, the rules do suggest that.

Overall, I really enjoyed the session and would love to try the game again. I think it works very well. I’d definitely be interested in hearing Guy’s thoughts on the preparation and execution here, with his expertise on one-shot games as he was one of the players.

Finally, just a shout out to the creators of this game as I really enjoyed the experience, and I think we all went away satisfied by the experience.

My original prep-notes can be found on Google Drive: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1onB0WcZ8r4rGAu11UO7V7jk8xNPLe9nVHllGyd8CYYY/edit?usp=sharing
24th November 2018

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1
All though I first encounter countdown clocks in The Sprawl
2
Steve Hatherley blogged about the game and called this out. By nature, I am quite hands off as a GM, so if the players are driving plot I won’t tend to over-ride that as I think driving my vision would lose engagement in this kind of scenario. You can read his take here: http://fourlettersatrandom.blogspot.com/2018/10/furnace-2018.html