Twice at Gen Con I got to run Razed for players new to the game and, in many cases, new to the Gumshoe system. Each game was an eye-opener.

Before I type another word, though, I’ve got to heap praise on the things that made these game sessions possible: Games on Demand and a slew of curious, open-minded gamers. Games on Demand was a hub of activity at Gen Con, busy with bodies throughout the show. If you’re unaware, Games on Demand is a matchmaking program that pairs players in search of games with GMs looking to run games. Many of these games are independent titles and some few of them (like Razed) are playtests. As a GM, you volunteer your time in one or more two-hour slots, list a bunch of games you feel comfortable running, and gather players from the gamers that assemble on the slotted hours—organic, easy, effective.

For example, in two different slots, when we had players looking to play something, they knew not what, I offered up Razed. In each slot I nabbed a full table of four or more players, based off this simple pitch:

Razed is a post-apocalyptic survival and investigation game forthcoming from Pelgrane Press.

In both cases, hands went up before I finished the pitch. So that’s the second thing I want to heap praise on: the willingness of gamers at Gen Con to try new games. A mighty thanks to all of you who played in my Razed sessions, truly.

Now, let’s talk about how my eyes were opened and what I saw.

Using Dials

At both tables, I gave a quick (maybe not quick enough) overview of what makes Razed what it is. Specifically, I focused on the modular, customizable game world that combines in different ways to create something that’s easy to talk about and compare notes on without sacrificing mystery and GM input. In Razed, that means our system of “dials” (which may get capitalized—Dials—in the final text), with which you turn up or down the role of key villains, environmental effects, and conflicts until you get just the campaign mix you want.

Want the Earth to be shattered under the boot of an invading alien force? Pick one of the alien threats and dial it way up. Want humanity to be caught in a war between alien factions duking it out for Earth’s resources? Dial both factions up. Want everything to be the result of an environmental catastrophe? Dial the aliens all the way down and turn up the volume on a global storm or searing solar activity.

(In my current playtest campaign, I’ve dialed a couple of alien forces way up, set another alien presence or two in the mid-range, and set off a supervolcano in Yellowstone to create a grim, multifaceted apocalypse with a complex relationship between the various moving parts.)

Here’s an analogy I sometimes use: In a lot of fantasy RPGs, you know the key components already and you know them well. I can tell you that my D&D campaign is like Middle-earth “except the elves are looking to take all halflings with them across the sea, the dwarves have founded a domineering empire that claims every cave and mountain, and the orcs are in a brutal civil war over the right to turn good in the absence of the Dread God.” You recombine familiar components in new ways. This makes the setting easy to get across and talk about yet fun to explore.

Razed is like that. The Razed book gives you a bunch of toys to play with, to snap together in different configurations, to make your own apocalyptic landscape. So players come to the table, after reading the book, and can know roughly what Hexapods* look like without knowing for sure (a) what’s inside them, (b) what they want, (c) how tough they are, or (d) how they interact with the other factions and forces in the setting. All of that is for their characters to discover along the way, using the Gumshoe system’s investigative rules to glean facts from the world and the general-ability rules to survive.

That’s been a major selling point for the game, to me, since the beginning. What I was less sure about was how two new subsystems we’re introducing to Gumshoe would go over: our equipment rules and Civility.

Putting Tools Into New Hands

Without saying too much about how these rules work (they’re pretty simple, though), I can say that they’re both tools for expressing a character’s current status. They’re not systems in which a character necessarily advances or perfects herself. Civility is something of an alignment system (as well as a device for expressing a character arc). The equipment rules are a simple mechanism for describing what a character has on hand, what she’s willing to trade or carry, and what she’s actively looking for.

Both systems depend a lot on context and player/GM input to make them go. They’re tools for expression, above all, and I feared that some players might not take to them.

My fears were happily dispelled during actual play. Players were quickly using Civility as a shorthand for their character’s philosophy and embracing the mechanisms that let investigative-ability spends dig up equipment for other abilities. As languages for civility and scarcity, they were easy to pick up and use, it seemed.

Tuning the Game for New Players

As an experiment, I meddled with my method for introducing Razed to new players. I kept my speil about what the game is and how it works as close to the same as I could, to see how that worked with different groups, but I remodulated the setting completely for each game session I ran. One was a rural chase-and-escape scenario with the Hexapods as the big bad guys (not unlike my current playtest campaign has become). The other was an indoor explore-and-escape scenario with, let’s say, a different enemy. The information I gave out to characters with the E.T. Knowledge ability in each session simply wouldn’t have applied to the other session—they were that different.

Both groups seemed to have a good time. That, above all, is my vital measurement. In both cases, players engaged with the setting quickly and had good things to say about it afterward. There are lots more combinations of settings to be had from Razed, yet, and I hope they’re all compelling in their own rights.

This was a major energizer for me. Seeing new players take to the setting as quickly as they did renewed my enthusiasm for the game as a whole and has me eager as hell to finish up the manuscript and get it off to new playtesters.

Don’t get me wrong, my at-home playtest campaigns have great whetstones, sharpening and improving the game, but something about seeing it connect inside of 20 minutes with new players is a big relief. I wasn’t sure if I had concocted a good campaign or a solid RPG. You know?

Do you want to playtest Razed for Pelgrane Press? Keep your eyes peeled in the coming months for news on that. I’d love to get your feedback on the game.

*(Have I talked about the Hexapods here yet? I don’t want to spoil them yet but, as you can probably guess from the name, they are a loving homage to the Tripods, dialed up twice as loud.)

Music: Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, Halo 3: ODST soundtrack