Sunday 26 April 2020

Dungeon Bitches Playtesting!

OK so. I ran a playtest. There were some issues but it mostly worked.
(content notes for miscarriage, violence against women, sex while drunk, homophobia, body horror, mental illness, vomit... look just assume that it's gonna get nasty, OK?)
Also I was a little bit drunk while running this, and it was a couple of days ago, so my recollections might be slightly innacurate. It still gives an accurate impression, though, I think.
First, have some more of Sarah's concept art: the first is our Banshee for the session, the second a fairly typical Spider.

So, who were our PCs for the session? We have:

"Daughter", a Wounded Daughter. A kidnapping-victim of the town's fucked up burgomeister, who likes taking girl's teeth out with pliars (and also killing them). Escaped, and tore off her own skin to assume a new identity. Has been sleeping rough for a few months since, went kinda feral, has forgotten how 'people's names' work (hence being called "daughter").
Bellamy, an Amazon. Given as an indentured servant, along with her sister, to the local Viscount (who was a total shitbag). Her sister was a serving-girl, Bellamy a guard. Shit went south, the Viscount got handsy with the sister and sent Bellamy to die a soldier's death fighting monsters when she objected to her sister being concubined. Bellamy, however, survived (sans an arm and some sanity, and with more scars and weapons), was rescued by St Margaret (see below), and returned - now thoroughly pissed off - with the intent of rescuing her sister from unwanted marriage. Her sister, not recognising Bell and thinking the monstrous-looking bitch who busted through the window was a dangerous intruder, bit off her tongue in fear, and Bell was driven off. She doesn't know what's happened to her sister, and is on the run. A big brutal big-sister.
Cecelia, a Lantern Girl. A good, pious girl who used to work around the church. Fell in love with her best friend, and - upon confessing to her - got brutally outed and thoroughly shunned by everybody in her life. Was living with her parents, who were slowly gearing up to go full conversion therepy/exorcism on their 'gay failure of a daughter', before she met some other bitches and ran away with them in the night, stealing anything useful she could from her parents home on the way out. Young, naive, virginal and scared of fucking everything.
Deidre, a Lilim. (We hacked the Spider class back to being more demonic, to avoid arachnophobia issues). Got summoned by the Viscount's sorcery-practicing spymaster, and nearly enslaved. Rescued through sheer coincidence by St Margeret accidentally summoning her. Posh, likes the finer things in life, the only one taking care of her appearance.
And  St Margaret, a Banshee. Originally offered as a sacrifice to the lich The Decayed Mother (who dwells in a dungeon outside town), she was somehow not suitable as a sacrifice, and the she-lich gave St Margaret back to the cult, to raise as their own kid. It went... better than expected. Something was clearly wrong, though. She left home, got married and tried to have a kid. The kid was stillborn. In her grief, her locked-away supernatural power ignited properly, and she burned her home down (killing her husband) in a moment of emotional anguish. Since then, her supernatural power has been slowly consuming her, she's been getting steadily less healthy as time goes by, and steadily less rational.

The session begins with our girls camped in a little cave outside town. They realise winter is coming, they're low on supplies, and they need cash. A plan is hatched: sneak into town, steal some dungeoneering supplies, and then hit up a local dungeon - The Thirteen Chambers Of Castigation - for loot.
St Margaret suggests that she has a contact in town, an urchin named Corkscrew who's part of a street-gang, who might be able to help. So the gang sneak into town, and find Corkscrew, and a few of her gang, drinking under a bridge together. While Daughter and Bellamy stand guard a little way away, Cecelia and St Margaret (and soon Deidre) have a little chat with the girl-gang about getting supplies. Corkscrew is convinced they're all gonna die, but suggests that they should talk to her boss, who can sort them out with what they need. 
To work out what they want, St Margret attempts to Commune With Strange Powers, which she does by vomiting up blood and interpreting how the blood-puddle lands. She is effectively doing haruspexy on herself. What she sees is a jumbled mess of imagery; human-animal hybrids, lots of corpses, and looming behind it all, The Decayed Mother - an ancient she-lich who seems to be the biggest power of the dungeon.
So, across town they go. At the back of the local inn, they're met by The Old Boss, an elderly woman running the criminal underworld in town, who invites them in to discuss business. 
First order of business is absinthe, as a mark of mutual trust. Some of our PCs totally fail the proper etiquette and preparation, but everybody becomes mildly tipsy and negotiations begin. The Old Boss listens to their plan, and says she can get them a couple of crates of dungeon-exploring kit, no problem. But, she has a Price. 
The town's spymaster is proving a problem. The Old Boss wants him dead. Unfortunately, the hit-men she's sent have failed; the boss is protected by bound devils, who render him impervious to mortal weapons. The Old Boss wants the party to recover some sort of magic weapon that can kill the spymaster, and either hand it over, or use it to kill him. If they don't, she politely reminds them that the Bitches are not immune to mortal weapons, and she has a lot of spies and a lot of hitmen. Anyway, their stuff will be ready in a few hours.

So, they go back under the bridge to drink more heavily. One of the urchins begins flirting with Cecelia, which escalates to a fumbling first kiss for the lantern girl, which then triggers her 'sixth sense' move, since she's this is moving pretty fast for her. She gets a snapshot vision of the future: the urchin isn't in fact trying to seduce and rob her, and is merely horny, and her fellow bitches are all basically hanging back and being encouraging. So, whilst the rest of the team head off to collect the goods, Cecelia stays behind, and gets laid for the first time. It's weirdly heartwarming for anonymous drunken outdoors-sex. (Only later did Cecelia realise that this was a "you are probably going to die and it wouldn't do to let you die a virgin" fuck).

The group are returning home with their goods, when they attract the attention of the town guards, manning the walls against intruders in the night. As a distraction, Deidre wanders over and plays up the 'poor lost waif all alone late at night' thing, and rolls to Flirt with them. It works, and the guards decide that it would be much better to get this waif to a warm inn (and then go drinking) than to stand around in the cold all night; as a happy coincidence, neither of them are assholes, and their intentions are in fact entirely pure! So Deidre goes drinking with the guards, and as they drink, learns that one of them has a child who's gone missing, and is distraught about it. The other guard is convinced it's our asshole burgermeister (the same one who kidnapped "Daughter") responsible, but is powerless to do anything against a politically powerful citizen. Deidre commiserates, and then sneaks off to rejoin her buddies back at camp.

Back at camp, "Daughter" is horribly drunk, and has decided to make 'art' on the cave wall by scratching it in with her fingernails. She doesn't really seem to feel pain anymore, and doesn't notice - or possibly doesn't care - that her fingers are bleeding. Bellamy tries to talk her out of this, (since "Daughter" has already wracked up some hurt by drinking until she's sick, and now her fingertips are being ripped to shreds), which turns into a bickering argument until "Daughter" is finally physically pulled away from the cave wall.

Meanwhile, Deidre and St Margaret have a little chat about the spymaster. They conclude that the bound devils are the same sort of being as Deidre is, and if they can summon said devils, they can be removed from the spymaster's service, thereby rendering him vulnerable again. A plan is hatched; St Margaret will Commune With Strange Powers to learn the names of the devils in question, and would fail the roll, but she uses her move Burn to take Hurt for plusses to the roll, and another bitch (I believe Deidre but my memory is hazy) spends a bond to support her, tipping her over to success. Her consciousness snaps out of her body, and she finds herself - as if in a dream - viewing the Decayed Mother from above. The she-lich is compiling a list of enemy assets that need to be removed, writing down the true names of devils in the spy-master's service. St Margaret reads out what she's seeing, and Deidre records her gibbering, realising she is - successfully - compiling a list of True Names.
It is at this point that "Daughter" sees how badly hurt St Margaret is. "Daughter" knows she can take away St Margaret's hurt through physical intimacy, letting her take that pain on herself. Unfortunately, her attempts to explain this are kinda incoherent, both because she's absolutely wasted, and because even sober she's kind of bad at acting like a human. Her offer is made badly, an argument breaks out, and her frustration triggers St Margaret's 'Blight' move, causing dangerous supernatural weirdness to plague the target of her anger. Daughter takes some Hurt from a minor cave-in. Worse, though, is the side-effect, scrambling all the writing nearby to be illegible. Which includes the True Names of those devils that Deidre just wrote down. I'm slightly merciful, and have it shift to being in a script nobody present can read, so the information is inaccessible until they can find a translator, but not completely lost.
They go to sleep.

The next morning, they head to The Thirteen Chambers Of Castigation - the dungeon they intend to hit up - which is an hour or so from their camp, hidden in the mountains. The approach is a narrow gorge, getting progressively deeper and more shadow-filled, until they reach the gorge's end, where the dungeon's entrance looms. The archway, hewn from the living rock, is carved with the heraldry of St Cyprian, that can also be seen in the cathedral back in town.
Cecelia rolls to Reveal Truths, learning that the ancient saint supposedly built this place to lure in the sinful, and then punish them with suffering and then death. St Margaret attempts to Commune again. Belamy spends a Bond to give her a plus, holding her hair back as she vomits, and St Margaret responds by anointing Bellamy with her vomited-up blood, Simba-style. It's all a bit odd, but kinda hot. Anyway, she gets a direct vision of the Decayed Mother saying she is looking forward to meeting with St Margaret. It emerges that St Margaret was given to the she-lich to be turned into a weaponised monster as part of some greater struggle, but the girl's will to live broke partway into the process, so the lich rejected her and sent her back to mortal society. Hearing this, "Daughter" attempts to commune directly with her patron, the Wounded Mother, to see if this lich is one of her patron's children, and if she's a threat. The result is a direct message from the Wounded Mother; the Decayed Mother is one of her children, and - while she doesn't know who "Daughter" is, she would consider her an ally. 

The party ventures within. There's some room-by-room dungeon exploration, which grinds things to a halt a little and doesn't really affect the emotional stakes much. I'm gonna skip over the details. I'm looking at ways to fix this, thinking of using a Ynn-style depth-crawl rather than mapping the place room by room. The main point is the huge amount of flirt rolls that happen, building up a stock of 
The party ends up in a room scattered with the bones of thousands of long-dead people, filled with a susserus of whispering voices. Some research is conducted, and the players learn that this is where the Decayed Mother dumps the corpses of her creations after they fall in battle. They also conclude that, whatever the Decayed Mother is making these monsters to fight, it's clearly much worse than the lich herself. Anyway, she lacks the ability to lay their souls safely to rest, believing that they'll be caught  further in in the sadistic punishment intended by the dungeon's creator, so she's just taken one room as her designated mass-grave and left the souls there, where they can be at least relatively safe from eternal damnation.
Cecelia considers this, and asks if - if she prays really hard - she can lay the souls to proper rest here. I figure sure, it's a Commune With Strange Powers roll, and rather than getting to ask questions on a success, she'll be able to do... something. So she rolls. Gets something fucking stupid like a 12.
I tell her she can feel two separate forces, both willing to answer the prayer. She has to pick between Punishment and Love. She picks Love. A number of souls - not all of them, but still hundreds - pass on to some sort of peaceful afterlife.
Cecelia realises that she's abandonned the last vestiges of her faith in the church, rejecting her god and his ideas of judgement and vengeance, and embracing something else and it's message of unconditional, if painful, love. She is, by any measure, considered the most horrible sort of heretic by mainstream society, the sort that gets burnt at the stake when she gets found out. This sounds, to "Daughter" at least, a lot like the Wounded Mother. Discussion and flirting happens. 
(Quote of the session goes to: "everyone's flirting in the bone room")
The group hears something large approaching from behind them, and flee deeper into the dungeon, arriving at an elaborate metal door that they bust through.

On the other side, there is the opulent sanctum of the Decayed Mother, who rises from her seat to greet them, including greeting St Margaret by name. St Margaret falls to the floor in shock. 
The Decayed Mother instructs St Margaret to stand up properly. St Margaret does so. The lich asks her how she's been finding the outside world, St Margeret responds - on the verge of tears and/or a full-on debilitating trauma flashback - that it has been shit. The lich informs her  - quite fondly - that she's going to 'fix' Margaret, and instructs her to approach so the lich can begin the process.
This is too much for her, and Margaret has to roll to Endure Pain to cope. She rolls, and the result is shit. But she spends a bond on the lich to bump her roll up, and then Bellamy takes her hand, holding it securely, and spends like 3 more Bonds, bumping the roll up to a success.
She keeps it together, for now. Tells the Decayed Mother "No, I'm fine like this". The lich responds "I see. Your friends have already fixed you. Good. Anyway, I suppose you've all been sent here to try to kill me, which is a shame."
The party explains that, no, they just need money for food, and possibly some sort of magic knife to kill a devil-enslaving bastard back in town. The lich nods, clicks her skeletal fingers, and a meal appears. Takes a moment to remove a few of her (fucking ancient) rings, and hands them to the party, suggesting that they can sell them for quite a lot of cash. Then asks about the sort of man they're going to kill. On hearing about him, decides on an appropriate end.
To test the party's resolve, she settles on Cecelia (the most normal and least murderous looking of the group), and instructs her to fetch a pet rabbit from a box on the other side of the room, on which the lich will demonstrate the weapon she intends to give them. Cecelia is doubtful, expecting a trap, and rolls to Reveal Truths by scrutinising the lich's body language. The result she gets is that the Decayed Mother is using them as pawns in a greater conflict, but has no particular ill-will towards them. So the rabbit is fetched. 
The lich takes a vial of smoking liquid, and drops a little onto the rabbit's face; the rabbit rapidly, painfully mutates into a rabbit-sized tetsuo-style mass of cancerous flesh, totally helpless. She suggests that if they splash the poison onto their victim, he'll suffer the same fate.
Lastly, she selects Deidre for some scrutiny, and asks her who she considers the most beautiful person present; Deidre promptly answers that it's Margaret (prompting a bunch more flirt rolls as the Bitches process that - I'm predicting a bellamy-margaret-deidre love triangle forming and it's great). The lich nods, and begins ripping off her own face, re-sculpting herself to resemble her broken protege. Instructs the party that they should leave.

And that's where we ended the session.

Overall impressions? There's some stuff I wanna tweak. Make XP more available. Let Commune With Strange Powers give those who hear the result XP and/or hurt the inquirer, to give it a little more oomf and distinguish it from Reveal Truths. And I think I want to make Broken a temporary, rather than permanent, condition, so players are a little less cautious about getting Hurt.
I'm also gonna totally re-do the dungeon stuff, making it a depth-crawl rather than room-by-room, so mere navigation uses up less time, and there's more focus on the actual emotional ramifications.
But, it's getting there.

Appropriately enough, today's apparently Lesbian Visibility Day. All you gay girls reading this, consider your self seen and appreciated.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Dungeon Bitches Continues Development

So it's been about three weeks since I started Dungeon Bitches as a project, and I have been writing furiously. The rough skeleton of the game can be seen in the previous two posts here and here but I've expanded it out a lot from there. I'm anticipating the book having maybe 100 pages of a4.

So, what's in those pages?
The game starts out with a brief introduction. The overall concept for the game, a rough picture of how you play PbtA games,  set of up-front content warnings.Then after that, into the base mechanics. Stats, rolling for moves, hurt, bonds, experience and what the basic moves actually are. Then how to make a character, and the ten classes.
Compared to the blogposts, classes have been expanded on somewhat. There's an extra section in character gen, in which you define a relationship with another PC (tying the party together) and with an NPC in the world (tying the party into the setting). Fairly freeform, again designed to prompt you into considering who your PC is and how she relates to people, much like the Three Questions. Each class has been bumped from a choice of 4 moves, to 6, meaning you can spend all of your advances purely on your own class's moves, getting all of them and not needing to branch out.
One concern I got a lot with the initial notes was that the selection of classes skewed strongly towards the supernatural, with four of the six being non-mundane, resulting in a game where all the PCs were kinda weird. So, additional classes were added to compensate for that. You know have 10 classes; 5 mundane, 5 supernatural. The new classes are:

  • The Firebrand. An angry bitch with strong views, a rabble-rouser, saboteur and activist. Hard/Soft. Her mechanics mostly revolve around self-sacrifice. She can spend her own XP to benefit her party members, or take Hurt so they don't have to. Some damage-mitigation stuff in there, and an option to get XP when you do something self-sacrificing out of principle. And then, her last significant move lets her do proper large-scale rabble-rousing, which can potentially have some big effects on the game world.
  • The Lantern Girl. New to adventuring, out of her depth, paranoid about danger, still working a lot of stuff out. Soft/Queer. Well suited to a 'coming out of the closet' sort of narrative. Has a 'lamp turned on/lamp turned off' dichotomy going, getting benefits to information gathering and perhaps supporting her allies in its light, but being able to slip away into the darkness when it's turned off. Super efficient information-gathering capabilities, and some mechanics that reward you for working out who you are and who you want to be. Totally not a self-insert.
  • The Disgraced Princess. Used to be a member of the upper nobility or royalty, due to be married off for political purposes. Rampant gayness resulted in her either being kicked out of her noble house, or fleeing it, so now she's one of the Bitches. Subtle/Queer. An absolute social powerhouse. Has money, gets bonds on people, can issue direct orders, and the best PC for using the Flirt move if she has time to prep. Also gets some stuff encouraging her to shy away from real nastiness, and rewarding other PCs for sheltering her.
  • The Spider. (Look, I like spiders, OK?) A shapeshifting humanoid spider living secretly among, and preying on, mankind. Hard/Subtle. Gets a lot of very sexualised moves that let her lure and ambush people. Can reveal her horrible true form to inflict various psychological effects on victims, heal up by draining blood, heal others by feeding them her blood. Her Sex Move lets her shift her appearance to look like whoever she last fucked (and she gets temporary a bonus to a stat to reflect it!). Lastly, her bite contains a euphoric venom, which can be used to knock out victims. Or, she can bite during sex, and the euphoric effects of her venom mean her partner's sex-move triggers *twice*. She's very much a sexualised predator, keying into a lot of tropes from things like Carmilla.
The Spider in particular went through a few revisions. The initial version was called the Lilim, and tied into some IRL mythology around Lilith and her descendants. This got chucked out because it tied the game to a real-world setting a little too hard. There were also, like, some issues with the moves where she went over the line from 'sexy and predatory' to 'kinda rapey', so they got altered. And, like, the class can absolutely still be played that way if you want to, but it's much less overt.

The next big section is on safety tools. This is honestly the most I've ever written about them. This section's not prescriptive, I don't say 'you should use this tool and it will make your game safe' because that's not how it works. Different groups will find different tools work for them. Rather, the point of this section is to be up-front about the need for something and to discuss what I've found works well. Really, the three main points are:
  • communication is important
  • consent is important
  • feeling in control is important
And the specific tools you use will follow from that.
Normally, I'd make this section pretty short, spending a few paragraphs talking about why traumatising your players is bad and a quick 101 on how not to do that, but here I've gone into a more depth. Really, though, this project is a giant pile of potential triggers, so I kinda had to give it some weight.

Following this, there's some advice on how the game is intended to be played. It begins with some general tips on how to be a good player (be proactive! treat the world like it's real! embrace emergent narratives!) and some advice on things like how emergent narrative works, the relation between fiction & moves, etc. Then some more specific sub-sections dealing with different areas of the game; Queer Stuff, Sex & Romance, Violence, Trauma, Dungeon Exploration, Safe Places & Downtime, and Going Back To Town. Each gives a rough overview of how the game is expected to work. Rather than hard mechanics, there's a discussion of things like the expected dynamics, good 'probing questions' to ask in these scenes, when to apply (or not apply) a given move, where different types of scene fall into the general structure of the game. It's about setting expectations, rather than laying down concrete rules.

The last major section is GM stuff. You get some general pointers on being a GM, and then on handling things like logistics, wandering monsters, etc. Lastly a set of tools to roll up a random dungeon (with tables for treasure, room/body searching, etc), and to roll up a random town (with tables for who the main factions are, shitty injustices to witness about town, rumours, etc).

It's a very rough first draft. There's a bunch of other stuff I wanna put in (how to set up session 1, some essays on the assumed setting and what, like, a dungeon is, guidelines to running longer-term plotlines, that sorta thing). That, combined with some full-page art, proper indexing, etc... I'm expecting expand the book out to 100+ pages.

Tonally, I've been using a very casual, conversational voice to write it. Sentence structure is loose, there's swearing, there's slang. I think the precise, technical, textbook-style tone of voice commonly seen in RPGs is quite a masculine coded thing. I want to push away from that. Using a more informal tone pushes the intent of the game quite well, puts you in the right headspace. Similarly, I'm not shying away from putting social justice stuff in the text. If I think shitty patriarchal bullshit is relevant to whatever I'm discussing, I'll just call it 'shitty patriarchal bullshit', because honestly if you're not on board with that worldview already why the fuck are you playing this particular game?

I'm gonna be running the first round of playtesting soon. I'm excited for it.
One thing I've been finding is that the more rpg work I put out, the more personal the stuff I put into it. Esoteric Enterprises explored my experiences with poverty and life on the fringes of society, for example. The islands module - under the working title And The Sea Gave Up The Dead Who Were In It - is exploring a lot of different thoughts I have around religion, death, faith, rebirth, and the failings of those principles. Dungeon Bitches is the most I've pushed this for something I intend to publish, though. It's meant to be raw and messy and personal. I'm drawing on a lot of my experiences with being poor, disowned by my family, gay, trans, homeless, all that stuff. There's a lot of stuff in there where I'm reflecting on and channelling nasty shit I've dealt with; the Wounded Daughter, Lantern Girl, Corpse Doll and Runaway Nun are all kinda self-inserts. 

In some ways, it's not been an easy text to write. I'm pulling on stuff that was painful at the time, maybe continues to be painful. In other ways, it's been incredibly easy; I stick some music on, have a beer, and the words just sort of flow out. I'm not restricting myself and holding back on anything, it's kind of a brutally honest piece of self expression.

I've been working closely with an artist for this project. Sarah Carapace is super talented, really gets what I'm going for, and has had a lot of useful suggestions for game stuff and visual stuff. Plus there's a lovely rough softness to her work that really clicks with what I want from the game. Art takes time, obviously, so it's gonna be a while before the full book is ready, but when it's done, it's gonna be fucking stunning
Anyway, I'll leave you with some concept art from her, and some test layout work we've tried.