Some of you may remember Matt Snyder putting together a voice-chat game of Nine Worlds. We played our first actual session last night (wiki here) and Matt said something to the effect of “Hey, if you guys get a chance generate me some buzz.” So this is me doing that, hopefully Matt doesn’t hate me when this is over.
I’m dividing this entry into three sections: 1. The game itself, 2. Actual play of Nine Worlds in general, and 3. The session we played last night.
Section 1 – Nine Worlds as a book and a game
I’ve got a copy of the Rush to GenCon 2005 edition, so it’s a bit tough to judge the physical quality of the book. I can say that the layout is solid, the play-aids are good, and the cover art is highly evocative. More than that, I don’t know. But I can speak of the content of that book, and that’s what I’m going to do.
If you’ve got a cool setting, and you want to know how to present it to other people to play in, I recommend this book. I liked the way Vincent Baker did stuff in Dogs in the Vineyard, but there aren’t really any story-seeding characters or locations in Dogs. Matt has taken a different route in which he presents a whole bunch of short, sweet descriptions of people and places.
The reason I suggest Matt’s work to you in this regard is that he provides just enough information about each element he records to be great inspiration for stories in play. At least, if not more, important is the fact that he doesn’t provide so much information to the reader that you end up telling Matt’s stories instead of your own. There are hints of stories all over the place, but they’re just enough to set your own imagination off instead of tying it down. If you’ve got cool stuff to share, this is the way to do it.
Overall verdict on content: The entire book is shapes your imagination in a positive way. It provides you new ideas, and constrains the directions of play just enough to help keep everyone on the same page.
As a game, I am sad to say that Nine Worlds doesn’t shine as brightly. There are some extremely cool ideas at work in the mechanics, but ultimately they are too flawed to get excited about. Still, there are some really cool things going on.
First, when you look at a Nine Worlds character sheet you’ll probably notice the Muses. If these look a bit like Spiritual Attributes from The Riddle of Steel, that’s because they’re closely related. Except that Muses are a much more mature imagining of them. In once sense, Muses work in basically the same way as Spritual Attributes. That is, they add directly to you chances of victory during resolution, and they’re a significant bonus. However, the way that Muses contribute to experience is very cool.
The way it works is that any time you use a Muse in a conflict and win, you make a little mark next to it. You note whether this victory used Arete or Hubris (more on these later). Then, whenever the narrative reaches a point where the Muse is either resolved or becomes unresolvable (your Muse might be “Save my girlfriend” and you might fail) you gain experience from it.
Here’s where things get cool: you get the experience whether you succeed or fail and you get experience in the thing you use the most (more on this in a bit). The first part is great for narrative freedom because you don’t have to “win” to get more powerful mechanically. This turns out to be a big deal, and it allows you to do some really cool tragic stuff. Also of note is that you only get to resolve that Muse (and get the mechanical advantage) when you reach a milestone in the narrative. You can’t just spend it down on the fly like you can with Spritual Attributes.
I mentioned Arete and Hubris earlier. These are the two really big stats for characters in the game (called “Virtues”); if either one goes to zero then the character dies. In-game the two represent a number of opposing ideals. Arete is excellence according to the laws of the universe, not mundane, but supernatural in the strict sense. This is the Virtue you use when you want to be the Champion of the Gods, or when you just want to be a really cool human. Hubris is individuality, often expressed via breaking the laws of the universe. This is the Virtue you use to challenge the gods themselves; magic and unnatural power.
Whenever you start a conflict you pick one of the Virtues to help you win. What methods are you employing for victory? If you do win, then you mark any Muses you used with the Virtue you used. When you finally resolve a Muse, you get one of two types of experience: Valor or Pride based on which Virtue was used most with the Muse. This turns out to be pretty cool since a glance at a character’s experience levels quickly indicate preferred thematic choices.
Also cool is that the two types of experience are used in different ways. Valor can only be used to increase your own stats while Pride can only be used to increase the power of “Talismans” which are statted items that your character can use (after a fashion) which aren’t actually your character.
But it’s not all shining brilliance. Each of the four suits is linked to an Urge. This is cool because each Urge is evocative and provides some great (again, non-stifling) direction for narration. Unfortunately, the Urges are clearly unequal in power. Thus specialization in the more powerful Urges is mechanically encouraged. This isn’t cool. Further, the Urges provide a potential for some really excellent mechanical variation among characters, but in action they end up being mechanically similar while providing simple narrative color variation. This is the big miss for me.
Specifically, the mechanical differentiations for four different Urges boil down into two categories: changing stats, and making short-term changes to stats last longer. Of the Urges three change stats, and one is clearly better than the other two at doing it. This means that optimal characters are good at Metamorphosis and Stasis. This could have been a lot cooler than it was, and ultimately disappointed me.
The other big mechanical problem is in the Virtues. While they provide great color, and a really cool differentiated experience system, they’re hard to work with in play. Since the Virtue you use at any given time determines the number of cards you draw for a conflict. You then get to add appropriate Muses, but that Virtue is where you start. Since narrative power is strictly gained through the conflict mechanics, winning here is a big deal. There’s no “You lost, but you still get more power” in this part of the mechanics like there is with resolving Muses, so players will always want to win. This, in turn, means that you always want to draw as many cards as you can. Since, other than color, the two Virtues work identically, you basically always want to utilize the one you have a higher rating in.
This turns out to be a devestating slip in the design. It ripples into the experience system such that having a lot of Pride isn’t so much a statement about your in-game choices, but a statement that you have a high Hubris value. This robs the game of the potentially interesting Arete/Hubris conflict to a very large degree.
Ultimately the combination of a set of mechanics that encourages players to build their characters with roughly identical Urges and the fact that players are encouraged to pick one Virtue during character creation and stick with it throughout play make the mechanics of Nine Worlds a bust. There are tons and tons of super-cool ideas in there, but as Nine Worlds shows us, it only takes a single slip in design to rob them of their power.
Section 2 – Nine Worlds in play
In play Nine Worlds ends up being a mixed bag. The mechanics and the setting presentation provide rock solid color direction and narrative fuel. There are hundreds of cool stories just waiting to be told, and you’ve got all the tools you need to jump in and tell them.
The world you get to play in is superb and evocative, and that’s always a big plus for stories. Further, the world is thematic in such a way that it encourages certain types of stories, which I also find to be a big plus.
As I mentioned in the mechanics discussion above, this winds up not really mattering that much. The mechanics of the game hamstring a player’s efforts to address themes. Specifically, since narrative power (and thus ability to address theme) is derived from victory in the conflict mechanic, players must always strive for victory in the conflict mechanic. This means that thematically appropriate losses may not do what you want thematically.
In some ways this is a feature, and not a bug. That is, it makes all the stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. Since you can’t get ahead by failing, victory for your character is what you as a player strive for. This pushes the stories in a specific direction: a constant striving for dominance over everyone else. Unfortunately, the player can not effectively make negative statements about this striving within the mechanics.
The ultimate result is that the majority of theme is addressed at a level outside of the mechanics. While I do admit that a functional social contract is necessary for any functional roleplaying, Nine Worlds seems to rely more heavily than many games upon this social contract. It restricts player choices in such a way that many statements and cool stuff come from outside the mechanics and setting material. This indicates that the game isn’t facilitating play nearly as well as it could be, which is a tragedy.
Ultimately, what Nine Worlds does do right, it does very right. Further, I can’t think of another game off the top of my head that is doing the same thing, even badly. This leaves you in a position such that, if you want to do what Nine Worlds does, then Nine Worlds is better than any option out there (even not using anything), but you will also notice that the game could have been much better than it is.
Section 3 – Nine Worlds in this instance
The specific instance of play I’m discussin here is one that Matt was recording. When I see a link, I’ll put it here. He had mentioned, either in his recruitment post, or in alter discussion, that he had some intention to use the recordings for marketting purposes. That is, to show the game in action. I mention this because it has some bearing on the way I ended up playing.
Interestingly, I didn’t really think about the recording when it came to making revealing personal statements. This is probably due to the fact that I’m basically equally guarded around just about everyone, so I don’t feel the need to put up extra layers of shielding for some unknown listener.
The session in question was good. It was Matt, Fred, and I since Ben is on some crappy dial-up connection and couldn’t join us. I’ve played with Fred for over a year now, so I’m pretty familiar with his play style. On the other hand, I’ve played with Matt precisely once: a ten minute demo of Nine Worlds at GenCon 2005. This was a good chance to get a feel for how he thinks and plays.
The game ran smoothly, with a few hiccups when we tried to frame new scenes and weren’t entirely sure what we wanted to do. Beyond that, things went roughly as I expected them to: Every conflict I was in I used Hubris (since that was what I had the highest rating in), and Fred always used Arete (again, his highest Virtue). Even drawing huge stacks of cards, the Urges we had rated highly were always the ones we used because the cards never came out in such a way that we could score higher Fate values with our non-specialized Urges.
The mechanics channeled us into a very predictable set of behavior. While this was okay (maybe even straight-up good) in the first session, since it helped us get a solid feel for the characters, I can see that it has the potential to get old over more sessions.
At the same time, the Urges provided some truly kicking narration. Thinking within the constraints of a Stasis play, or a Metamorphosis play, or a Chaos play really gets the creative juices flowing. The Arete/Hubris split on methodology also made for some cool distinctive color, though the lines did blur once or twice.
The world definitely followed through on its promise. It was rife with conflict, and the book provided just enough material to propel us directly into cool stuff. Definitely a positive. There was, in play, an interesting tension between resolving a Muse now, and holding onto it for the bonus it gives you while it’s still on the table. That was pretty cool.
Another interesting thing about being recorded is that I made an intentional effort to do as much mechanical stuff as possible. I scored some points, I used some Muses, I created a Muse with Points, I boosted stats with Points, I created a Lock on some stats, and I intentionally resolved a Muse.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been so aggressive with the variety of my actions if this had been a regular, unrecorded game, but I’m not sure that this was in any way a negative thing. It helped me get a grasp on some of the mechanics which might have taken a bit longer otherwise.
Of course the ultimate question that arises is: was it fun? And the answer is, in spite of its flaws, this is one dang fun game. Its imperfections are somewhat saddening, but it still delivers a fun experience. I recommend it overall, but be aware that it could (and honestly should) be a better game that it is. On the bright side it does deliver on a lot of its promise, and ultimately points in some cool new directions for play.
ADDENDUM (20:06): This post is terribly schizophrenic. It’s well below the standards I’d like to think I have when it comes to editing and clarity. In case it’s not clear, I really enjoyed the game and anticipate continuing to enjoy it. It is just that it seems extremely clear to me that I could have been enjoying it a whole lot more than I am, which would have been simply phenomenal.
ADDENDUM (Jan 28, 2006): Matt has made available the first scene from our game. There are some volume equalization problems (that is, my voice projects a little too much), and it is just on scene, but it’s good stuff. You can find it on Matt’s blog.