Monday, October 2, 2017

Report: Demon City

Last week +Zak Sabbath ran some playtests of Demon City, the modern horror RPG he's working on, and I sat in on one alongside +Cath F and +Christopher Lawson.

Short take:

It's fun. I want to play again and run it. I backed his Patreon based on the playtest.

Long take:

Character creation doesn't take long. You roll seven d10s, divide by 2 and round up or down, choose a role and occupation, and pick your skills. I did it in the ten minutes before the playtest started, though it could take a bit longer for folks who are new to RPGs or indecisive with skill selection. Roles are like classes, but describe your relationship to whatever the Horror is more than they describe your core competency. The roles are Curious, Friend (as in a friend of someone who actually cares about the Horror), Investigator, Victim, or Problem. Occupation can be anything - beekeeper, stock broker, car salesman, drug dealer, therapist.

In the game, Chris, Cath, and I woke up on a bare mattress in an empty apartment, somewhere in an unfamiliar foreign city. We ascertained that we'd been kidnapped and were trapped in the apartment, so after we ate some rice balls ("What is this?" "It's Italian!"), we set about escaping.

Ultra-competent electrician Cath stripped a wire with her teeth and used it to set a piece of lampshade on fire, then held it up to the smoke alarm. The noise attracted an angry Italian man with a gun, which I stole and then promptly lost, and we then spent the better part of the session trying to fight our way past a handful of cultists/guards in the hallway. Chris and I were kind of bumbling and ineffective (except for Chris's excellent human bowling ball routine), but Cath killed them all with her foot, a gun, and a fucking pencil to the neck.

The cultists managed to squeeze in some crazed chanting before she offed them all, though, and so who should come bursting through a nearby apartment door but a terrifying goatman demon, complete with blue whiplike tongue. Our escape blocked, Cath and Chris retreated to the goatman's apartment while I made a foolish last stand, emptying a pistol into the abomination. Cath and Chris found a human sacrifice on a pike in the apartment, Chris finally lost his shit, and without a moment to lose Cath used the pike to spear the goatman, saving my dubiously valuable life.

The game really encourages you to think about situational advantages and available tools, doing a good job of emulating the desperation of a horror movie. You play with theater of the mind, not with your character sheet. There are several categories of advantage (situation, acting defensively, better weapon, better skill, distracted target), and each gives you another die to try to beat your opponents' dice. I like that weapons are only differentiated situationally, so lots of times a rifle would give you the advantage, but in cramped quarters a knife might trump it.

A few things were not intuitive to me as someone who usually only plays D&D-based games:
  • First, only one thing really happens in a round if all the potential actions would preempt each other. It's not like everyone takes turns doing what they want to do: the highest roller's thing happens, and that's it. It clearly says that in the rules, but it was hard for me to get in that headspace. 
  • Second, you choose the lowest die when rolling damage, unlike the other rolls where you choose the highest. This means that the more dice you roll for damage, the more likely it is to be low. When I was rolling six dice against the demon, I got really excited before I realized that it actually decreased my chances of killing it.
These were not dealbreakers, I'm just not used to them. In fact, the way damage works generally made combat feel futile to me, which is about right for a horror game.

I loved two things about the game: initiative and downtime.
  • Initiative: players announce what they're going to do in increasing order of agility, and then everyone rolls together. So everyone acts all at once, but faster characters act with more information. 
  • Downtime essentially replaces level advancement: you get a menu of things to do between adventures representing a range of potential coping mechanisms. You can try anything from cooking to therapy to drugs, and each has a d10 table of potential risks and rewards - you can gain or lose stat points, skill points, or contacts. The main focus is on recovering those all-important Calm points: if a character drops below 0 Calm, they panic and can no longer do anything useful.
One more thing: if you ever find yourself in Rome with a goatman, call +Cath F. She'll see you through.

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