On Saturday, I ran the first actual session of the Arise playtest game, Exsurge Auroram. We got through one Battle and one Camping scene.
It went well, and we learned a few things.
The combat consisted of four heroes (I was expecting three for this session): a Black Mage, a White Mage, a Hoplite, and a Raider. They went up against four Rank 1 Cromlechai and two Rank 3 Fathomeye Hunters, on The Ferry map.
I created enemy sprites using Kenney’s Creature Mixer, which let me create some very flavorful and fun looking dudes.
Overall, it took about an hour, and the party lost way more MP than they lost HP. Part of that was the presence of a healer, but honestly the enemies didn’t get to do much to the PCs either.
First, when I realized our fourth player was available, I should have immediately brought in more hostile forces. My mistake.
There was a bunch of stuff we learned! Some of it was good, some was bad, but all of it was helpful. The major points for me are:
- As predicted, starting healers have it rough in terms of their usefulness. Our White Mage struggled to do meaningful damage while equipped with just Restore and a boost.
- There was no counter to the gravity of the melee. People got sucked into the southeast quadrant and stayed there, for the most part, because that’s where the action was.
- I struggled keeping the AI meaningful, because of the evolving combat situation. I wobbled between directing enemy actions and just rolling to see what they’d do, and honestly directing felt far more satisfying.
- The meta of GMC stats could use clarification. Should players see enemy stats? Should they be concealed?
It looks like Matty’s solution for healers is to start everyone at level 1, so people have more starting abilities. This will probably work, but I was hoping we could discover ways to solve this problem and still keep the original starting level of zero intact.
One alternative might be to change the Restore spell to something like “Shift Life”, which lets you Heal X or do X/2 damage to one target - letting healers do some damage, but keeping the number low enough that they aren’t also on par with dedicated DPS.
Another is honestly to just change the advice for starting characters. “Start with Restore and one damage-dealing spell” works well enough.
I’m worried that raising starting character levels means having to bump up GMC ranks to match. I’m also worried that having 3 starting abilities will dilute the effectiveness of Cooldown at the earliest points of play.
We talked about this during the session wind-down. To make the most use of the maps, players should want to spread their PCs out. But there has to be a compelling reason for that to happen, otherwise they may as well group up.
Some options here include:
- More intricate maps, with more limited paths between areas, more troublesome tiles (e.g. difficult terrain), and so on.
- On a related note, dynamic maps where floors crumble, obstacles fall from the ceiling, and so on. A map where the available paths may change.
- Enemies that spread apart, use cover, and otherwise force PCs to split up and come to them. Giving enemies more mobility is also an option.
- Map objectives, e.g. “find buried treasure”, “escort a friendly GMC” that require the PCs to move around.
A lot of the time, the enemy AI rolls just didn’t tell me anything useful. “Use this attack” is fine, but what if there’s a better attack? For example, the Cromlechai have a Line AOE attack. Why not use that, even if the dice say otherwise?
This comes down to the purpose of the AI list. Is it there to lift the creative burden from me, the GM? Is it a method of controlling GMC effectiveness on the battlefield, by keeping them from mobbing PCs through superior tactics?
I feel like it might be helpful to experiment with an alternative AI, like a Gambit system. “On a 1-3, the enemy supports its allies, on a 4-6 it picks its own targets”. Or something like “enemy priority: attack at range – flee from melee – if unable to flee, use melee attacks”.
There’s explicitly an ability called “Videre” which lets the caster see enemy stats. It follows that enemy stats should be concealed.
One player says he spotted something in the rules that suggested otherwise. I’m also going to say that information like this will quickly leak out. As players become GMs, or read the playtest docs all the way through, or even just fight a mob type long enough, they’ll learn what it does.
For me, being open and transparent about stats was part of the playtest process. It sounds like Matty is evaluating options for how to handle Videre, and I’m interested in seeing where that goes.
All that said, I also want to say that one of the strengths of Arise is its determinism, as pointed out by the players. There’s no “oops you missed” or fumbles based on bad rolls. The system puts players in charge of tactical decisions. Part of making those kinds of decisions is information about their enemy. Is it more fun to guess about how much HP a given grunt has - or is it better to tell the player, and let them make the hard choice about finishing off a grunt or casting a heal, for example? Personally, I’d err on the side of giving players that information.
Everyone immediately had ideas for Camp Actions they wanted to perform, which was great. The party restored most of its missing HP and MP. Overall this part went well.
I didn’t leave a whole lot of room for roleplaying here, and I could have invited more. Camp feels like the moment to encourage RP and develop bonds, and I will make a point of bringing this up more often.