While a game benefits greatly from bringing in external playtesters to check out the rules, the designers and developers themselves must always participate directly in playtesting. After all, no matter how many times you read the rules or eyeball the numbers, actual play is invaluable in assessing how things work at the table. This isn’t just about mechanics, either, as it’s important to know how easy it is to grasp the rules—both to learn overall systems and to master exceptions, patterns, tactics, etc.—and to see how the system feels when you’re using it in play.
Given that the Storyteller has a different experience of play from the players, it’s important for RPG designers to playtest on both sides of the screen. So, in addition to running the Zhaojun playtest chronicle, I’ve joined an ongoing playtest group as a player. Here begin the adventures of Irukai the Astrologer, elderly Twilight Caste savant!
I secured my coracle at a tumbledown stone pier in a largely uninhabited corner of Mercedes, one of the lesser principalities of the Hundred Kingdoms, just as another, larger boat cast off. Passengers from that other boat who’d disembarked at the pier were organizing themselves to continue their journey on foot. They included a woman in Realm-wrought armor, a dozen female monks in concealing habits, and a pair of armed travelers with less conspicuous gear and garb. One of that pair, Tepet Joeslyn, remained aloof, while the other, a richly dressed and powdered Sijanese named Touzen, approached me in my guise of a doddering astrologer.
As we chatted on the road about the region and current events, I played up my role of feckless old man by “accidentally” scattering astrological charts everywhere, allowing me to drop back farther from the Dynast and her peculiar entourage, whose eyes exhibited an unnatural feline gleam as it grew dark. By nightfall, Touzen felt protective of his clever, inoffensive elderly companion.
(I’d been worried that the social influence rules would prove complicated in actual play. But once I ran through various social actions in actual play, they proved easy to get a handle on, and the rules packet was a helpful reference source whenever I was unsure about how to resolve something.)
The next morning, after informing me of the troubles in the village of Rock’s Fall—where he, his companion Tepet Joeslyn, and the mercenaries in their employ had established their base of operations—Touzen offered me employment as an astrologer. I expressed interest, but asked to wait until I had a better sense of the situation before I committed to any arrangement.
Rock’s Fall proved to be an armed camp, where a thousand mercenaries—outnumbering the native farmers ten to one—labored to raise crude barracks and fortifications. One of the mercenary captains, a fellow named Thrice-Blessed, addressed my hosts as “Anathema.” Touzen wryly commented that the man had no inside voice, but did not deny the allegation.
We discussed the matter at greater length over dinner. Touzen was primarily interested in figuring out whether or not I objected to working with Solars, so I was able to get through the conversation without letting slip that I, too, was Exalted. I agreed to act as their astrologer and advisor, with an appropriate rank and stipend, on the understanding that I might leave whenever I wished without fear of consequence.
That night, in my new quarters, performed an astrological divination to determine whether this was an auspicious decision. The result was the most positive divination that I’d ever performed. (By dumping in every Charm and modifier available to me, I rolled a stupidly large number of dice—albeit not as many as the biggest dice pools I’ve seen in earlier editions—and rolled a whole lot of tens, giving me a ridiculous 16 successes. This was fun!)
The next day, I talked with Touzen about current events in and around Rock’s Fall, and the needs of the place and its people. As the village elder was a difficult woman who might cause trouble down the line, I spent some time among the locals to learn who else they might respect and trust enough to take as their leader. Surprisingly, the best alternative proved to be one of the mercenary group’s Dragon-Blooded lieutenants, Ragara V’naft.
Over the next couple of days, I examined the village’s largely played-out gold mine and wandered through the hills to examine the region’s strata. Combined with my knowledge of geology, I found a spot that was likely to still be rich in gold, where we might establish a fresh mine with which to refill the mercenary company’s dwindling coffers.
(These scenes required just one dice roll each. Not everything in 3e involves a fancy new subsystem; as in previous editions, you can usually just pick an appropriate Attribute and Ability and roll some dice. I falso ound the explanation of difficulty ratings to be clearer than previous editions.)
Then, having learned that Touzen and Joeslyn had had no contact with any of the local spirits, I decided to establish contact with the spirit hierarchy myself. As it seemed that the region’s gods did not respond directly to the villagers’ prayers and there was no established village god, I chose to start with the god of the local river, a reputedly sad creature named Lone Tear. To stir the spirit’s heart, I called upon the villagers’ children to send brightly colored paper lanterns drifting downriver as I called upon Lone Tear to attend me.
Lone Tear rose out of the river and approached, weeping piteously. He rambled and raved about the collapse of the region’s spirit hierarchy an age ago, when the destruction of the manse at the heart of the spirit court drove the court’s leader mad. I shook him from his maundering by informing him that the Solars had returned, and that the Solars now dwelling in Rock’s Fall had both the power and the will to repair what was broken and restore what was lost. I said that the spirit courts would be made whole again, and he believed, gaining hope where once he had none.
After learning from Lone Tear of the rest of the nearby spirit hierarchy and having him identify three residents with whom he had an affinity—who might be trained as his priests and shamans—I ended our colloquy and returned to the village. I had learned much and made a new ally. That was enough for one day; there would be more to do tomorrow.
As a player, I found the rules to be as clear and straightforward as either previous edition overall. Even though it’s a playtest and not a proper chronicle, and thus is focused more on testing the system than on roleplaying, I’m looking forward to playing further in today’s session!