Okay, this is going to take a while. Probably several posts.
I’m going to warn you in advance that I’m going to go into a lot more detail about issues that I encountered than the things I really enjoyed. I tend to dwell on negatives; it’s an unfortunate habit. Please don’t take this to mean that I didn’t enjoy myself; I certainly did.
I’ve divided each phase of the game into “The Good” (things I enjoyed), “The Bad” (niggling details that could be improved), and “The Ugly” (things that seriously impacted my enjoyment of the game).
That disclaimer out of the way, let’s start at:
The very beginning (a very good place to start)
The description of the world gave lots of information about the world in which the game was taking place; I had more than enough to build a character to fit into the setting. The character template gave enough structure to build something upon, but not so much as to stifle creativity.
There were several key details missing from the beginning that came as unpleasant revelations later, in that I had to substantially re-think my character in reaction. First and foremost, that “Citizen-Pretenders” were supposed to be analogous to Regency-era women, instead of (in addition to?) the lower classes. I made several characterizations of CPs that were based upon the latter, which I would have done differently if that was obvious. I could have built the “women are people” revelation into a solid character arc, but, by the time that became obvious, it was almost the end of the game. Also, the idea that you could buy rank (through a military commission) as opposed to renting it, and, most of all…
One of the biggest problems that I ran into was that the game was built into phases, and that wasn’t transparent from the start. At the beginning, the instructions said something to the effect of “Keep your character in balance, or you’ll find yourself overextended.” I took that to mean, “concentrate some of your money building up rank, some building up attributes, and some building up more money.” However, the fact that the ability to increase income would stop after a few turns wasn’t well foreshadowed, so I went for balance, and found myself with far too little money, which really ruined my prospects for the future (especially when combined with the “you can just buy Rank outright” revelation).
You all meet in an inn…
The idea of an “invitation to the Leviathan Club” for socializing was, I thought, a very nice way to introduce the characters to each other (a high-class spin on the old “the party meets at a tavern” trope).
The reason that this is such a beloved trope is that the GM can get hands-on and take charge of the introductions. In this case, though, everything was left up to the players, and not much socializing was accomplished. As I said in my character’s little prologue, this should have been a moment to meet with everyone, size people up, and gain influence. Instead, I think SPH met three (four?) characters, and two of them were immediately dismissed as unsophisticated because of rude behaviour.
Speaking of rude behaviour… When a rule is established, there are a bunch of things a character can do: they can follow it, they can try to stick their toe to the edge of it, they can ignore it, they can flout it. But there should be consequences to each of those behaviours. As a rule, you should get out of a gaming session what you put into it. If someone makes an effort to stick to the rules, they should be presented with opportunities which correspond to that, and lose opportunities that contradict that, and there should be similar effects for those who don’t. It seemed like the rules about polite conduct were just there for flavour text, and had no effect on the game itself. Now, maybe these were supposed to be enforced socially, but there was both little opportunity to do that (I’ll touch on this again later), and not much interest among the players to do so.
TCB (Every Day)
I really enjoyed the wealth-building part of the game. Making the different choices based on in-character decisions provided interesting writing challenges, and really allowed me to solidify who my character was. It also allowed people to take different paths forward, which was also a good idea.
Again, although “investment opportunities are drying up” was mentioned at least once in the paper, it wasn’t very well foreshadowed that once the investment opportunities were gone, players would have no opportunity whatsoever to acquire further assets. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have let Karekin make off with that solicitor had I known it was the only way to get more assets (or made such frivolous use of the one that was provided to me for a turn).
The one thing I really didn’t enjoy about the first part was the immediate introduction of the plague. Before I could even get my character’s feet underneath him… Bam! He was infected, and I chose, responsibly, to have him drop out of sight, thinking that it wouldn’t get much worse, a decision I had to walk back when it did get worse.
I really liked the mechanics of the duel. It worked about as well as I can ever imagine a duel-by-karaoke working, for which, I really have to applaud your ability to bring such an absurd concept to life. It also provided one of the best points of character development for SPH, when he balked at finishing off @manwich’s character, and allowed him to feel guilty when <pleasing hum> died anyway.
The duties of the second should really have been spelled out earlier. When I declared the duel, I expected highly dramatic meetings between the two seconds while trying to resolve it, each arguing on their primary’s behalf. Instead, there wasn’t a second on <pleasing hum>'s end until the moment of the duel itself, which robbed the whole scenario of most of its potential for interesting character interaction.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything to put here.
…Like a horse and carriage
I liked the multi-step courtship system, where you had to first catch attention, and then get interest, etc., etc. I liked how there was a wide selection of potential partners, and that some of them were even controlled by other players.
This is one place where knowing in advance that the Citizenship split was really supposed to be a gender split would have been so nice. Had that been the case, I would have interacted a lot more with the Sea Pea characters, so that I could build a storyline indicative of that. Instead, I’d been treating the wards with utter dismissal, so reacting to any of them with romantic interest wouldn’t have made sense as a character.
One of the main criticisms I’d have for this whole game is exemplified through the courtship process: I didn’t feel like I was ever really interacting with other players through the mechanics of the game. So, since I chose not to pursue one of the other players’ secondary characters, I was really just acting with myself, which isn’t nearly so fun. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t write up the walk in the park: I had no connection to this “Madeline Penumbra” character: knew nothing at all about her, really. Sure, I could have made something up, but I wasn’t really getting the impression that any extra effort I was putting into the character was having any consequence.
In any story, the plot is just there to throw a bunch of interesting characters together so you can see how they bounce off each other. We had the opportunity to interact through Leviathan’s, but no real way of affecting each other. You have two characters who have the same love interest? Make them compete for that person! Add some drama to it, instead of just mechanics. I never felt that what anyone else did affected my character in the slightest (beyond the whole ordeal with the duel), and vice versa, and that was starting to kill my motivation to participate (especially near the end).
War and Endings
Once things started ratcheting up for the war, I have to say that the character interactions really started getting good. I really started forming connections to these other players through their stories. It was a good note to end on. I also liked the ability to choose a final challenge and go out in your own way.
Although it was a good note to end on, it also seemed like it was far too obviously what was coming. Every month, there was a mention of New Prussia, and every month it got worse, and there was no real indication that any action that we were taking was having any effect on that outcome whatsoever. There was, and I’m extending this beyond the New Prussia situation, either a lack of consequences to the actions we were taking, or a lack of communication of what those consequences were. At the end of the story, I should be able to point to Mayor Tidewell’s election and say, “[This] is how electing someone less bellicose affected the war with New Prussia,” but I can’t. That’s completely opaque to me, and when you can’t see the consequences of your actions, it’s hard to tell if you’re having any.
Also, in regards to the Final Challenge: One of the best ways to write a character is to give that character a goal. Sure, you can tell players that they can’t start progress on their Final Challenge until near the end, but the characters should have a decent idea of what they want in life. This should have been set up much earlier, if not at the very beginning of the game.
Yes, I realize that it was a thing that actually happened in the Regency, but nothing in this whole campaign pissed me off so much as the ability to buy Rank, through either military service, or simple charitable donation. It wasn’t the idea that money could buy Rank and skills, so much as that that was the only way the transaction could go. Aristocracy is made up of multiple feedback loops: yes, money gets you power, and money gets you skill improvement, but money also gets you more money, and power gets you money, and power gets you elusive instructors, and power gets you more power, and skills get you money, and having a high skill attracts teachers willing to get that skill even higher, and it attracts the interest of powerful patrons.
I made this complaint, in SPH’s voice, in the Handbook thread, but I’ll say it again: setting the game up for people to buy Rank outright was a complete inversion of what I thought Rank signified in this campaign. Furthermore, it rewarded people who ignored your advice to choose balanced characters in the first round, making the correct option, in retrospect, to load up on making as much money as you could, because you could just spend it on Rank later. This is why SPH and I agreed to not participate in it, and donated to the causes in question while declining any reward. It was a protest against the idea that social standing could be bought so easily, when SPH had been working so hard to achieve it by making social connections and hobnobbing with other high-Rank people. Donating freely was my concession that I could no longer win the game by achieving the highest Rank. And, really, the only reason that I got the best PER score in the end was that no one else chose that as their final challenge.
The fact that my character could go from leading the pack to a nobody, in the field that they wanted to stand out in, in a single turn, because I followed the GM’s advice at the start and chose to keep the character in balance early… Yeah, that did not make me happy.
Again, I really enjoyed this whole endeavour; I enjoy writing, and SPH was a fun character to get into the feathers of. I’d be interested to see how many of the little easter eggs and subtexts I dropped along the way were actually spotted (and who figured out the Voice’s identity before I revealed it).
The setting was well thought-out; I liked the plot (although the ending at least seemed to be a railroaded conclusion); I think I could have used the CP/woman metaphor to do some really nice exploration of themes had it been more obvious that that’s what the analogy was; and I would have really liked to have some meaningful interaction with other characters beyond dialogue, but the dialogue itself was a lot of fun.
I might have a couple more points to bring up, but I think that was most of the main stuff.
Thank you, @messana, for all of your hard work running the game; it really shows in how well everything was set up. It’s just a shame you couldn’t get that lazy @Bartlebot to automate things properly.
And thank you, everyone, for putting up with my annoying little bird.