The Glittering Trumpet of Kutaraja session 2

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By popular demand, the Glittering Trumpet itself is now a dung chen, a very long Tibetan trumpet.

Session events

Running the blockade

We finished the last session with Lady T in a duel with Jakob de Zoet. Lady T had just about lost when Mohit rushed Bandamassa to de Zoet, rotting away his sword. In his moment of surprise, Lady T ran him through, leaving him expiring on the gangplank between the two airships.

Mohit then exhorted the Dutch aeronauts to seize their opporunity and desert from the Dutch air force. (This was a roll against the recently-expired de Zoet, to represent the discipline he'd instilled in his crew.) Two of the Dutch aeronauts on the picaros' airship did. One, by the name of Karl, wounded one of the loyal aeronauts; the other deserter pulled out the pin that held the gangplank to the picaros' airship, sending de Zoet's body tumbling to the ocean below. The fourth aeornaut on the picaros' airship, still loyal to the Dutch, surrendered.

We then skipped over the rest of the running of the Dutch blockade of Kutaraja because the players (and GM) had got a bit bored of that scene and we all wanted to get to the action in Kutaraja.

Reveal & Refresh

We then had a rather extended Recover and Reveal scene where we learnt that:

  • Mohit hates the Dutch because his father was, and probably still is, a Dutch slave. He never knew his father and Mambo, his mother, was unmarried when she had Mohit.
  • This scandalised Charlie, who revealed that she abhored sex outside of marriage. That face that she was having large amounts of sex with Mambo, and had captured Mambo's assassin by seducing her, escaped Charlie's attention. Charlie also revealed that she was almost exclusively motivated by money.
  • Loki learnt her magic at a school, somewhere near Stonehenge.
  • The first person Lady T killed was a mercy killing: a boy was trapped under a fallen horse and Lady T put the boy out of his misery.

Arriving in Kutaraja

Back to the action, the PCs soon arrived in war-damaged Kutaraja. Heliograph signals guided their airship to a patch of wasteland in Kutaraja. They were met be a crowd of urchins and hawkers, all attempting to get first dibs on both the goods the airship was bringing, and the opportunity to sell them something. Just after they landed, a squad of palace guards (all women), and led by Dhien, turned up. Dhien welcomed the picaros to Kutaraja and invited them to the palace.

Mohit recognised Dhien as his contact and agreed to meet later to discuss the nationalist plans.

Dhien and the other guards escorted the picaros to the palace for an audience with the young Sultan and Vizir al Zahr. The Sultan wasn't that interested in proceedings and let al Zahr do all the talking. There was quite a bit of elliptical talking, but the picaros eventually figured out that al Zahr was so kind because he was thanking the picaros for their airship, such a generous gift for the Achenese air force in its hour of need. The picaros were rather shocked by this, but were confident that Karl and the rest of the crew aboard could handle keeping the airship safe for the moment.

al Zahr then offered the picaros a chance to rest for an hour or so before an informal dinner in the palace. The picaros retired to the rooms allocated to them, but noted that a palace guard remained outside each room, should anyone require a guide. On the way out of the audience chamber, Charlie pocketed a convenient and valuable trinket.

Lady T, using her Fashion Sense trick, read the power relationships in the audience chamber. She rolled badly, and both answers were fouled. She noticed that the Sultan was beginning to chafe under al Zahr's guideance, but thought he was being manipulated by someone else. She also noticed that al Zahr was in love, but thought he was in love with Dhien.

Exploring

Loki, and her guide, went to a third floor (that's fourth floor for the colonials) balcony to look out over the palace grounds and Kutaraja. Loki also noted ways up and possible access to the roof.

Mohit had a quick conversation with Dhien then left the palace to return to the picaros' airship. Charlie hopped out of her window and followed them, but left the window open. Mohit, Dhien, and some of her guards unloaded the airship's cargo of weapons to a nationalist safe house. Charlie again followed and arrived in the middle of a conversation between Mohit and Dhien about the best way to run the revolution. Dhien wanted the picaros to attack the palace tomorrow evening, both as a signal for the nationalists in the palace guard to rise up and capture (or kill) the Sultan and al Zahr, and to motivate the general populace to overthrow the corrupt governement. Mohit wanted to attack the Dutch first, breaking the blockade. When Dhien offered the picaros a good chunk of treasure liberated from the palace, Charlie's enthusiasm persuaded Mohit to go along with Dhien's plan.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, Phisut, the Siamese ambassador, came to Lady T's room enquiring after Mambo, who he said he was expecting. Lady T feigned confusion and took Phisut to see Charlie. When Lady T noticed Charlie wasn't there, she improvised a story of Charlie being very ill on the toilet and Loki having the appropriate medicine. Everyone ended up believing everyone else's lies.

Charlie, Mohit, and Dhien then arrive back in the palace. Charlie overheard Phisut rummaging through Lady T's room. Phisut claimed to be seeking the medicine for Charlie, blaming Lady T's bad Mandarin for the misunderstanding. (Lady T is fluent in Mandarin.) Seeing he wasn't welcome, Phisut left.

Into Kutaraja

Mohit sent Bandamassa to follow Phisut. The first thing he noticed was that Phisut was protected by a magical aura, but Bandamassa was able to follow Phusit to the palace gate and overheard him paying a group of urchins to sneak aboard the picaros' airship and retrieve any and all of Mambo's notes and effects. Phisut then went further into town.

Mohit, Loki, and Lady T sped to the airship and arrived just as the urchins were worming their way to the airship. Loki boarded and snatched up all Mambo's notes and valuable items, in preparation for giving them to Mohit. Mohit paid the urchins double what Phisut had paid them; the urchins revealed they'd been working for Phisut for a while.

Meanwhile, Bandamassa followed Phisut to the Yang Peka Badak then reported back to Charlie. Charlie went to Yang Peka Badak and renewed her acquantance with Wangi. (Charlie had previously tried to steal from Wangi, and they bonded in the aftermath.) Charlie paid Wangi an eye-watering amount of money to eavesdrop on Phisut in his private room, and discovered Phisut and al Zahr in flagrante delicto.

Outstanding threads

  • Information leading to Mohit's father.
  • Charlie's double standards when it comes to sex.
  • The limits of Charlie's avarice.
  • Loki's schoolmates, and the people who set up the school of theurgy.
  • Lady T's resorting to killing as a solution.
  • The return of de Zoet at the worst possible moment.
  • The trinket stolen by Charlie will be found, and things won't go well for Charlie.
  • Loyalty or otherwise of the Dutch deserters.

Playtest comments and questions

  • With answers from Josh, the game's designer, though paraphrased by Neil Smith.

Pacing and information flow

Perceptions of pace for this session were rather different on different sides of the GM screen (not that I use a screen). I felt rather overwhelmed by the amount of information I have to shove towards the players: three named NPCs to introduce, each with a goal and two relationships to reveal to the PCs, plus throwing in some Bangs for the NPCs pushing their own agendas, three suggested next destinations to introduce and motivate, and opportunities for the PCs to pursue their own Seeds. That's a lot of scenes just to show the whole situation to the PCs. I felt I was struggling just to keep the information flow high enough, constantly spouting exposition, while keeping the spotlight moving around the players. This wasn't leaving me much head space for some more advanced GM techniques, such as elegant cross cutting or developing minor NPCs. More on this in "True Questions" later.

The players, however, reported that they were having a much better time of things, with a much faster pace than the fight in the last session. Shows what I know!

  • (Paraphrasing) As a general principle, things should get messy quickly for the picaros. The GM should always be on the lookout for ways to make things dangerous for the PCs. This should make the exposition more interesting and dynamic.

Exemplars and banjoing

People were still struggling with Exemplars and their applicability. I think this was exacerbated by the social/political nature of most of the interactions in the session. Generally, every PC has one Body Exemplar and two other item-based Exemplars (Lady T has an additional Exemplar in her trophy sword). People were finding it difficult to bring these into play in a social context, as they thought they were stretching to break the bounds of credibility to make the items relevant to the social conflict. That meant that people were generally relying on their Body Exemplar for all tasks, which was rather boring.

This is a general question about banjoing (players fast talking the GM to allow the application of irrelevant free-form traits to a conflict). The players are reluctant to banjo their Exemplars into social conficts, but it seems the mechanical system requires quite a bit of that.

In an attempt to get my head around the dice pool building mechanism, I mentally allocate the different sources of dice as different parts of speech. Examplars become nouns: things you use. Classes are verbs: what you're doing. Advantages and Amenities are adjectives: expansions on what you're using. Approaches are adverbs: how you're doing something. If that's right, there's no reason why the nouns have to be concrete, physical objects. Why can't Exemplars also be things like character traits, beliefs, or similar non-physical things?

Suggestion: Allow non-object Exemplars. I suggest that starting characters have one Body Exemplar, one object-based Exemplar, but can make the third one non-physical if they want.

The lack of Exemplar use also some knock-on effects. Because the players weren't keen to banjo their Exemplars into rolls where they didn't seem to fit, there weren't many rolls. That meant that there weren't many opportunities for me to exploit their failures, which meant the Refresh & Reveals were limited and so the PCs weren't earning that many development points. I think we weren't engaging the mechanical economy as much as we should.

  • The idea behind Exemplars is that they externalize internal characterization. Ideally, even items whose ostensible purpose is one thing (a sword) stands in for other things as well (an officer's sword used to display rank and status). Part of this develops as play progresses and the exemplars begin to take on more layered significance. The other part of it, though, may need some better procedural text to make happen.
  • On a related note, be careful of overusing Body exemplar as a default catch-all for everything. Your Hulking Albino Man-Beast should not be using his Body exemplar for social niceties, nor should your Powdered Waif Child be heaving boulders around. The Exemplar does need to fit what they're doing with it.
  • Relating to the "part of speech thing", it maps pretty well. You do not need to have an exemplar in every roll (and this was a question from the last session that I didn't answer for you till today, so an understandable confusion, I think, and entirely my fault). There are a few character classes and builds, in fact, that work best by using Exemplars to set up Advantages for use later. Those later rolls might not use the exemplars at all, just the Advantages.
This clarification means we'll take a good look at Exempars again at the start of the next session.
  • Picaros should be generating about 4–6 Dev per Port of Call, if not more.

Tricks, True Questions, Advantages, and Badassium

Going back to the point about information flow above, I was trying to GM in "DitV mode" and have the various NPCs trip over themselves in their eagerness to reveal the situation to the PCs. But this runs into the issue of mechanics-based True Questions. As I understand the rules, True Questions can only be asked if a character has the appropriate Trick. That makes things awkward for me as GM if I want to shove information down the players' throats, if that information should really be imparted as a True Question. If I give the information anyway, why bother with the True Questions? If I don't give the information, perhaps the players will miss something important. Neither seems satisfying.

One clarification might be by similarity to Gumshoe style clue spends. True Questions should be useful for obtaining additional information, to allow the players to show off their awesome, or for players to short-cut other means of getting the same information.

By a similar token, I can see examples in the fiction where someone gains the advantage after some rolls, but without the relevant Trick, that in-fiction advantage can't translate into a mechanical Advantage.

Question: Can True Questions and Advantages only be accessed via the fixed routes of Class Tricks? If there are alternatives to the Tricks, what's the point of the tricks? If there are, what happens if the GM wants to impart some information to the players or PCs?

Suggestion: Allow a player to spend two success in a roll to either ask one True Question or create 1d of Advantage. Buying the appropriate Tricks can make this much cheaper.

  • Funny story about True Questions: in my original outline, they didn't even have a section. Because I was all, "It's a straightforward mechanic, right, you just ask questions and get answers, yeah?" And then I started picking it apart and said, "Oh look, this is actually kind of complicated." Looks like I'm not done picking apart how they work!
So True Questions do a lot of different things depending on who's asking and who's answering. They are a lovely tool in the GM's toolbox to get PCs to fess up to bits of character backstory, for instance. And their PvP uses are highly entertaining, too.
You're asking about PCs asking questions of the GM, and you've linked in the reveals that the GM is supposed to get out on the table. That's a totally understandable connection to make–and one that's not really my intention. ;) I envision PC-to-GM True Questions as a way for the PC to expand the game in ways that they're most interested in, and to make those things relevant. *Sky High* is a good example of that use, as it allows gearhead players to ask the GM leading questions about airships, the answers to which will give those airships (and chase scenes and battles and so on) some extra texture.
Sometimes PCs ask True Questions that get at the Adventure Sheet info that the GM is supposed to reveal anyway. When that happens, it falls to the GM to, first of all, sell the revealed info as really valuable and the PC as particularly insightful for discovering it. Tell them about the very subtle cues that they pick up and how they can put together disparate facts to come up with startling conclusions. It doesn't matter so much that the player is getting information that they were going to get anyway as long as they feel badass for uncovering it.
Most of the True Question tricks allow players to spend remaining successes on turning answers into advantages, so that lets them not only get the information they were going to get anyway, but to leverage that for more dice later.
What the GM really should never do is withhold information on the Adventure Sheet because it "ought" to be revealed via True Question. The faster you check boxes on the Adventure Sheet, the more exciting the adventure will be.

And while on the subject of Tricks, how plentiful should Badassium be? I think the player have earnt about four point all told between them so far. Some of that has been a lack of rolls make to allow Flourishes, but some of it has been a total lack of Amenities for Bx-generating scenes (no one bought any of the Amenity-providing Tricks). Is this level of Bx generation about right?

Question: How much Bx should I expect players to generate in a typical (three hour) session?

  • A picaro should generate about four points of Badassium in a Port of Call. Most of these will come from Flourishes. Bx-powered Classes (such as the Brute) will generate more. Amenities are, in comparison, a minor source of Bx.

Other points

Some other general points that came out of the session. These are in no particular order.

  • Stakes setting: After the confusion with multi-participant conflicts last week, we decided that we should be more eager to explictly set stakes before rolls, and be careful not to narrate completed actions while mechanically they were still Standing Attempts.
    • There are no explicit and mechanically-determined or adjudicated stakes in RJBJ; there are actions that you Attempt that either happen or they get Denied. Pile enough of those on top of each other and you've got a dramatic scene or an action sequence. Hardly anybody gets everything they wanted, but lots of stuff happens and somebody gets most of what they want, so the plot moves forward. It's messy, and messy by design.
However, you do need to understand what your players are trying to accomplish so that you can either Deny those actions to keep the ball rolling or so that you can adequately sell their victories. In my experience, this happens organically through table chatter, where a player says, "Well, I'm not letting them get away," as they pick up dice, and then they'll make an Attempt of grabbing their jacket collar or whatnot. But that communication is really important, and asking for clearer intents behind actions (ie setting stakes) is a perfectly acceptable way of making that happen.
  • Question When to allocate successes: When rolling against an opponent, when should you allocate rolled successes to the various effects? For instance, if the player rolls five successes and one failure, does he have to allocate them all (e.g. one to Take Care, four to Attempt) before the opponent rolls (generating two successes and two failures). In this example, the player may have wanted to spend some successes on Exploits or a Flourish, rather than an excessive success.
    • Renny Jennys is not an efficiency optimization game. There's a place for elegance and precision targeting, but the rough-and-tumble world of the picaros is not it. The die mechanic is a slap-it-together-hope-and-pray sort of system where you put together your best effort and wait to see if it's toppled down. There is a whole lot of risk and gamble embedded in the dice mechanics, which should hopefully match the lifestyle of the picaros.
Which is a long-winded way of answering: on your beat, you roll and spend all your successes. Then it's somebody else's beat, and you're done until it's your go again.
  • Money and hit points: Some players were still getting used to characters without hit points and without any sort of money tracking. This was more because it was unusual when compared to most other RPG systems, and probably would just take some getting used to.
  • Suggestion Exemplars described by tags: To avoid the problems of trying to fit Exemplar descriptions into just three words (and the abuses of hyphenation that result), why not take a leaft from Freemarket and say that Exemplars are described by three Tags, each of which is one to three words of description?
Josh didn't like this suggestion, but I'll be doing it anyway, if only to prevent some of the crimes against hyphenation in the examples.
  • Question Default difficulty: What's the default difficulty for used for uncertain or dangerous tasks, absent an opposing NPC or a Threat Pool? For instance, say Charlie the Midnighter wanted to clamber over the gas bags of two floating airships tethered together, to cross from one to the other? This is a task that's not straightforward: it could take too long, exhaust Charlie, or damage some of her equipment. In other words, a dice roll might be warranted. But there's no NPC to oppose it, and it doesn't seem like "Gravity" should be a Theat Pool. How could the GM engineer some Exploits of failures?
    • Gravity is a Great Threat Pool: so while I understand your hesitation in turning Gravity into a threat pool, that will work fine. It will work in the moment during that action sequence, and in the longer term, what you're doing is setting up a motif that can run the length on the adventure. It's surpringly satisfying to bring "your old nemesis gravity" into an action sequence later in the game.
  • Danger and exposed failures for social or perception tasks It's not always obvious what danger there could be when PCs are assessing or asking True Questions. On the other hand, hitting Exemplars drives Reveals and Development. Should all such rolls have an element of danger attached to them? (This is more an observation than a question.)
    • Yes, you're spot on. In social matters, picaros are always in some risk, as they are perpetual outsiders and are frequent targets of mockery, dismissal, and shaming. Those can be exploits and hits to exemplars too!
    • Perception checks are usually performed at risk—climbing out onto the outside of the gas envelope or something—and so exploits come naturally. If players ask what they can see or hear or whatever while they're safe, that's rarely a roll. If they want to make a roll, presumably so they can game an advantage out of it, that's great, just goad them into actually risking something in the attempt.
  • Language barriers: Really, why? Do language barriers in the game make anything more fun (apart from the occasional quick joke)?
    • So part of this is a verisimilitude thing, where if you're going to go somewhere on the other side of the world, they're going to speak a different language there. And a large part of the promise of Renny Jennys is exploring and experiencing new places. Language barriers can also help you cycle who's doing all the speaking, and it can present characters with interesting obstacles and fish-out-of-water situations to confront. I've run one game where one PC was coming home, and their fluency contrasted with the other PCs' stumbling rather nicely. Minor note: It is trivial to pick up a new language at Broken. Any Attempt of two or more dice plus two dev means you've picked up the rudiments of the language, then and there, in that scene.