This past weekend I was lucky enough to run a number of playtests at MAGFest, a music and gaming festival in Oxon Hill, Md. It was for a new game I am making called Alter Arms, and I thought it would be a good idea to break down the experience and the feedback I got in order to work through the results.
WHAT IS ALTER ARMS?
The character sheets used for Alter Arms
Alter Arms is a rules-lite tabletop role playing game based off of Japanese superheroes like Super Sentai (adapted for the U.S. as Power Rangers), Sailor Moon, Kamen Rider, The Guyver, and too many others to count. The setting has characters able to transform into more powerful forms – referred to as alters in the setting – who the players take the role of. Such individuals are so much of a frequent occurrence in the world that they are quickly being accepted as just another part of life that people have to deal with.
The drama tracker at the top of the sheet. Used to monitor how much drama a character currently has and what form they are in.
The central mechanic revolves around balancing your character’s drama, basically the damage a character takes, to use special abilities, and take on more powerful forms to respond to the situation.
As characters transform, they take drama and gain access to larger dice for performing actions and higher defenses. Over the course of a game session, players can even level up to raise a stat, or gain a new form with new powers.
Vectors, Traits, and Defenses
Players have three stats, called vectors: Might, Brains, and Soul. Might is tied to physical actions, Brains to mental tasks, and Soul to social interaction. They are very broad in the scope of what they cover, with the intention being that players can use them to creatively frame their actions and describe how they succeeded. They are all viable options during combat, where players can frame their attack against an opponent using their Might, Brains, or Soul. As such, each stat has its own defensive value that must be met or surpassed in order for a move against a target to be successful. Vectors have rankings of 1-3. Each player begins by raising a single vector to rank 2.
Along with vectors are traits: Bold, Clever and Stylish. Each is tied to a vector. Bold to Might, Clever to Brains and Stylish to Soul. Players choose one trait for their character and cannot change this for the rest of the game. They can be activated when a player makes a move with that vector, or is attacked via that vector, in order to raise that vector by two rankings for that single instance, at the cost of 1 drama. So a move made with a vector ranking of 1 could be raised to 3, or a ranking of 2 could be raised to a 4.
Players are able to determine if an action is successful by rolling the dice associated with their current form (d4 being the lowest, with each subsequent form being 2 higher to a maximum of d12) and multiplying the result by what the vector they are testing is ranked at.
For example: If I was un-transformed and in my base form, making a Might roll to see if I could successfully move a bolder that was in my way, I would roll the dice for my current form (d4). I got a 4. I multiply this by what my Might is ranked at (2) for a total result of 8. The game master says if this beats the challenge that was. If this was a Might move against an opponent - say, a punch - it would be successful if the target’s defense was 8 or lower.
Players take on a type and a power associated with it for all of their forms above their base form. Different types have unique powers, but more importantly, edges over one another. It’s a rock-paper-scissors type relationship where if an attacking type has an edge over a defending type, they roll their dice twice and take the higher number.
The different archetypes that players can take.
Lastly, in order to manage drama, characters have archetypes that give them moves they can perform on their turns to lower their own or an ally’s drama. Thematically, they are based on character archetypes found in the game’s inspiration, representing the characters relationships influencing their ability to continue to fight and grow stronger. The way archetypes work make them better at lowering an ally’s drama (effectively healing them) than when they are used on the person.
Players advance their characters and level up by either earning experience from performing actions in the environment, or by lowering their drama once they transform via their archetypes.
HOW WAS THE GAME TESTED?
For the playtests, I laminated a bunch of character sheets so that players could use dry-erase markers to fill in details about their characters, like selecting what vectors they were strong in and what archetypes they were. The only part of the character sheets I filled out beforehand were the powers the characters had and what type they were. This is because powers have the most options and I did not need to test out all of them.
I used The Van Heist, a very quick and simple module that is designed to get players exposed to the game’s systems and allow them to see what they’re capable of in a way that isn’t very challenging. This was to get a full session done for people who had other events scheduled. In fact, one piece of consistent feedback I got over the weekend was that the module might be too easy.
Players take the role of employees of Switchboard, a company like Lyft or Uber that allows employees to accept jobs posted up on a board, except all the employees have superpowers and the jobs are too much of a challenge for a mere mortal.
The goal of the mission was to protect an armored car that was transporting museum artifacts. The players start across the street from where the car is being loaded in front of the museum.
Deadbolt, Motor Head and Sagittarius, the three alters that the players fought during the session.
Over the course of the module, players fought the alters Deadbolt, Motor Head, and Sagittarius, and a number of ‘mooks’ who act as minor enemies without any powers of their own.
I gave players free reign after I explained the rules and they filled out their character sheets.
One of the things I appreciated from the playtest was the unprompted collaboration between players. They were easy to work together to use their unique abilities to handle different challenges.
I tested the game once on Thursday with three players, twice on Friday with six in the morning and six in the afternoon, twice on Saturday with six in the morning and six in the afternoon, and once on Sunday with two players, for a total of six sessions. Each session ran about an hour and a half, with games with more players running into two hours.
All sessions’ first action when the module began, was to introduce themselves to the car’s guards in order to let them know that they were there to help. I informed the players that this would be a Soul roll, and all groups let their characters with the highest ranking in Soul take the test. Characters who were able to pass the difficult test were rewarded with experience and earned good faith with the guards.
Players appreciated how the system allowed them to perform impossible acts and not have everything fall apart. I intended this by limiting the game to just three stats and having each be a viable combat option.
From there, all groups next had a character scope out the environment they were in to assess any threats. Depending on how high players rolled, I informed them of the mooks, Deadbolt, Motorhead or Sagittarius’ presence around the car.
In two instances, the second Friday session and the first Saturday session, players inquired about the car’s destination and path there. When they did, they actively helped load the van in order to get the van moving. These were the only instances where combat didn’t take place immediately in front of the museum where the car was loaded.
Combat was very straightforward, with only two instances of a player being defeated in all of the five playtests. This was a result of them taking sufficient damage from their opponents.
WHAT WERE THE FINDINGS?
After each session, I recorded a freeform survey of the group to gather their opinions.
Almost all of the feedback was positive. Players said they enjoyed how the system enabled them to create their characters how they saw fit, which I had intended in my efforts to emulate the source material. I designed the three vector stats to allow players broad avenues to describe how their actions were success or failures, depending on the result of the dice rolls.
Dice mechanics were also complimented, with players saying they liked how multiplication felt as a way of determining if something was successful because of how high the numbers got and the degrees of success they allowed. Players also liked how transformation gave them access to new dice, and the tactile way it portrayed power.
Players still pointed out, though, that the freedom of creativity was due in part to what the game master allowed. When this goes to print, I would need to convey that need for encouraging and accepting creativity from participants.
Another wrinkle to this is that such creativity could hamper feelings of advancement in the long run. Like having a character do something too crazy from a success when their character is still low level, with leave them with few places to go once they reach higher forms.
The major criticisms were that the module was a bit too easy, which I mention was intended to give players as easy a glimpse of the game as possible in the time that they were able to set aside to play. It does make me want to test out the system more at a higher difficulty, particularly in such a way that would require players to use all of the abilities available to them. During gameplay, there were few instances of players using their archetypes to lower theirs or any other characters’ drama. I want to put them into situations where they might have to rely on them. Those two instances where a player was defeated could have been avoided had any of the characters used theri archetypes to heal them.
Something I observed was that the character creation portion of the sessions took up more time than I would have preferred. This was due to the number of options that were presented to the players to begin with. When I tested the game at Metatopia last year, the other designers that tried it out called it ‘analysis paralysis.’ This, coupled with the time it took for players to come up with their character’s name and premise, leads me to believe that in the future I should fully pre-generate characters in order to speed things along
I could also create cheat sheets that would allow players to get a quick understanding of the systems so we could jump right into the game, and allow them to ask questions if things are confusing.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
I have friends who have been kind enough to try out Alter Arms for extended campaigns, and fought stronger opponents in more varied scenarios, to a positive response. I want to have blind playtesters come in with higher-level characters put into tougher scenarios in order to get more players’ opinions on late-game feel.
I am also going to create cheat sheets to explain drama, vectors and archetypes in order to help players figure out what they can do during the game without having to stop things to ask me as the game master. I did this before with my previous game, Gigargun, where the whole thing took up almost 2 whole pages. For Alter Arms, I want to bring this down to at least half a page, with the goal being to bring it down to note card size.
I look forward to seeing what I find out from these changes at later playtests!