Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Report from the 'hood

In the past weeks I've been thinking about starting to blog again and yesterday a number of people asked me me on g+ how our game of James Mullen's The Hood went after I posted a photo of our gaming table. So it seemed like a good opportunity.

Preliminary info: we played one session, about 3 hours long. I was MCing, three people played the Mover, Ice and Scheemer. We are going to play again. These are some thoughts and first impressions.

Genre, fiction and tone
Before reading the game I was expecting something inspired by recent popular USian crime dramas (specifically something like Breaking Bad). After reading I was left with a rather different impression. I got what the game was getting at, but I also felt like I had no fictional signposts to reference. The Wire was probably closest to what I could imagine, but I didn't really see any clear connecting between the playbooks and the characters.


By comparison, most PbtA playbooks take clear cues from their source material fiction. Jayne is the Gunlugger, Kaylee is the Savvyhead, Buffy is the Chosen, Bella is the Mortal, Rustin Cohle is the Detective, the Dragon Herald is the anti-Daenerys. You know the drill. By comparison, I don't think there's a "Walter White" playbook or a "Bubbles" or "Stringer" playbook in the 'hood. At least not obviously.

Actually playing the game I now think it is perfectly able to create stories in vein of the Wire or BrBa, but it doesn't take a clear "this game is like this show/movie" inspiration from them like I'm used to seeing in PbtA games.*

*This connection also got mentioned on the Misdirected Mark podcast, and the PbtA-tv shows link was heavily implied in an Indie+ panel (and the post-panel discussion) about GMing first sessions. So we are probably taking this whole PbtA games as TV shows analogy for granted.

I asked James about it before our game and he cited East Enders as possible inspiration, so this is in large part probably just my ignorance (having never seen East Enders in any capacity outside of out-of-context clips on Screenwipe).

Anyway you know how Black Stars Rise is "like X-Files, except you play the people in the town plagued by the supernatural and Scully and Mulder never show up to save the day"? The way James put it (I'm paraphrasing), The Hood is "like all those urban crime shows, except you don't play the cops but the victims, witnesses, perpetrators and informants". The prisoners of the lower class injustice. I wouldn't say that's necessarily true of all the playbooks (The Ice comes to mind as an exception), but it's a good general description.

Before the game we had a talk about tone and decided that even though the game was gritty and we were going to play gritty, we wanted a lighter touch. So more Guy Ritchie than David Simon. So: borderline poverty, petty crime, people dreaming big and getting involved in things too big for them, crawling on the edge of the gutter, but with quirky and irreverent characters.

Setting


We talked about setting it in our city, and I really want to try that sometime, but for the first game the (lightly) implied British setting seemed more appropriate. There's info about the MET and some other mentions of how things work in the UK in the book, so I went with that. I have seen Prime Suspect and a ton of british murder mysteries, Attack the Block, Trainspotting, Skins etc. I follow British culture (especially the more critical members of it). I visited London. It was the natural city to gravitate to. I found it easy to cultivate imagery in my head and "barf forth Britannica" so to speak.

The soundtrack is M.I.A., The Clash, Dizze Rascall, Burial, Lady Sovereign, Underworld, Rival, grime. I brushed up on my knowledge of London slang, but I had to go light on it otherwise nobody at the table could understand me.

We drew the streets, homes and other buildings as explained in the book. It worked very well. I also added a few buildings even though the book seems to say only the players get to do it.

Playbooks
There's bloody 18 of them. Eighteen! I would say most hacks struggle with breaking the number ten, at least in their original form. I think if you don't come to the table with an idea what you're going to play, there may be some choice paralysis here. I suggested to the players that they pick a few playbooks a few days in advance to speed up the character creation process on the day of the game. Alternatively I would do the usual trick of picking #of players+1 playbooks myself and offering them around.

The playbooks are organized around how each character makes money. They are still set around an archetype/trope, but they're more explicitly jobs than I'm used to seeing in hacks and it fits both the genre and the thrust of the game's reward cycle. The closest analogy I can come up with are the Black Stars Rise playbooks which also have a "sustaining your lifestyle" at their core.

Moves
The dice didn't hit the table all that often. Unlike Apocalypse World, where most moves are about the moment-to-moment positioning and resolving the micro-conflicts within that positioning, moves in the 'hood are closer to scene resolution and deal with larger conglomerations of activities and actions that cover more time (things like asking around and going to plan b). This is fairly close to how I'm used to playing Sagas. Most action is "freeform", and the dice twist the story in key moments, sending it in unexpected directions. In fact some more immediate moves (like shooting someone) are relegated to peripheral moves.

Even though it goes beyond reskinning and cuts quite deep in the lower layers of Apocalypse World, the 'hood is a fairly light hack. It requires the original game (or decent knowledge of the original game) to play. Subsequently some moves are also a bit light on explanations or examples. We struggled a little with the wording of a couple of moves or interpretations of their triggers. I regret very much not taking notes about this. If I remembered which moves gave us trouble it would have been useful for further discussion. At least one example would have to the Argue the toss. We were not sure what exactly arguing the toss consisted of, or what situations it applied to, but it was pretty natural to use. Another situation that threw me for a loop was when a character fucked up and I offered them the opportunity of getting out by Taking the hard way, but from a fictional trigger standpoint Going to plan B seemed equally legit.

Heat
Heat is a pretty neat concept and mechanic. I'm reading it more or less as a numerical representation of future badness. If you have heat on you, something or someone is coming after you. A huge part of the session evolved from when one character rolled to take the heat off and deflected it to another character.

Because our English pronunciation isn't that good, it was rather hilarious trying to discern between Hit (rolling a 7+) and Heat in conversation, especially when a move employed both terms.

Story (edited)

We open in the office of "The Dutchman" who introduces himself as Belgian but is actually English, a ruthless Schemer with an eye patch and silver tooth. He's pulling of a scam involving angel investments into Greek islands. Naturally, HM's Revenue & Customs office is onto him, going through his records. He successfully rolls to take the heat off, convinces all those unreported pounds are part of a non-profit donation to a local youth group and deflects the heat to...

"Quite Quick" Jane who is squatting in an abandoned garage with a group of hippies who grow weed. Jane is a Mover but apparently gets by by making money in illegal racing. There's police knocking at their door. They're there to talk about something Jane might have witnessed the previous day, but with a garage full of weed the group panics and they all split. Janes crashes at his ex, much to her dismay.

The thing that Jane witnessed was the Ice cold-blood murder of a Russian gangster by the local tailor-cum-hitman called "Patchwork". Patchwork was doing a job for the aging gangster, Silsbury, who feels the Russians are encroaching on his territory and wants to send a message.

The whole reason Jane witnessed the murder was because he was looking into a potentially more profitable racing opportunity offered by the Russians. After outstaying his ex's welcome, he returns to the garage to pick up his car, but is met by two Scottish sharks acting on behalf of an yet unknown entity. Since Dutch fed the authorities a bunch of fake papers, now someone believes Jane is responsible for the Greek Island Scam...and their boss wants his investment back. He needs to come up with the money quick, or his only possession and source of income - his car - is going to get taken away. He asks around trying to get back in contact with the Russians.

Meanwhile Patchwork is trying to get the police off his back, spending a large portion of his payment for the hit to bribe someone in the MET and gets the detective off his case...for now. Meanwhile, the Dutch is already coming up with another bogus scheme, trying to raise money for "Ukrainian freedomfighters". Silsbury notices his campaign and comes to him with an offer to help him launder money, united by their "hatred" of Russians (Dutch couldn't care less).

Jane gets to a private nightclub and offered the privilege to race by an important-looking man, but only if he can beat his current protege. They race some stolen cars around a warehouse and Jane barely wins the hard way, wrecking both cars, hurting his arm and gaining the enmity of the previous racer. The man welcomes him on the team as their new racer and introduces himself as Ilya, the Russian mobster who is moving onto Silsbury's territory.

Aftermath
The players all had fun, they said we accomplished a lot in the first session and want to play again. We won't be able to play next week because I'm going on vacation, but we'll definitely pick it up again for at least one or two sessions, probably with 1 or 2 more players.

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff and the more I read about other people's games, the more insight I get into my own design...

    Re: Argue the toss
    It's a slippery move, but what it boils down to is the character saying "Yeah, but..." So they want money from you? "Yeah, but it'll have to be £50, not £100 like we said." They tell you to get your arse over there? "Yeah, but you'll have to wait a few hours, I can't get there right now." They're going to make the trade with you at their house? "Yeah, but I want us to meet at the bar, not your place." Arguing the toss says "Yeah, this is going to happen, but not the way you want, it'll happen the way I want."

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  2. Damn, in retrospect that makes absolute sense.

    And yeah, seeing other people play your game is a great learning experience.

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