Tuesday, June 11, 2013

NTRPGCon Recap: Michael Curtis's Shiverwhen

NOTE: The image above is not from any specific Shiverwhen-related materials, is only loosely tied
to the events described below, and is meant only for flavor/reference because I like having pics on my posts.

At this past weekend's North Texas RPG Con, I had a chance to playtest Michael Curtis's in-development RPG Shiverwhen. Michael himself admitted he's still working on the elevator pitch for the game, but at the end of the playtest evening, he seemed to be very close with a newly minted description of "Victorian Shadowrun" (which grew from his early elevator pitch of "slow-apocalyptic, fantastical, alternate Earth"). I will say that "Victorian Shadowrun" actually comes pretty close to describing the experience I had, but only points to the tip of an iceberg that is richly developed and understood with only the most modest of elements; with little more than the character classes and some setting history, you get a rich view of the entire world as it was, as it is, and as it will become in the future. Please understand the following is my take on Shiverwhen and is not meant to replace Michael's description of the setting prior to the game session (which I cannot recall well enough to repeat accurately).
In Shiverwhen, preternatural gunslingers (ballisturgists), brickhouse melee fighters (combatants), psychically-gifted divination empaths (uncannies), reality-flexing writers (scriveners), balladeer bard folkmen (sorsingers, sp?), tinkering electricians (gimcrackers), fate-influencing theurgists (esotericists), and energy-shaping caretakers (kindlers) work side-by-side in a place where and conspiracy and intrigue are interwoven with gothic shadows, menacing horrors, and fading technologies rubber-banded together by ingenuity and magic.
When you consider the history of Shiverwhen (the place within the game), its previous epochs (Springwhen and Summerwhen, if I recall correctly) point to the theme of the lost Utopia—an Earthly eden that's slowly decaying (a "slow apocalypse") into a dark place where even simple technologies (think gaslights and steamboats) work best in the places where people and industry are densely gathered (cities) and tend to "fade" in places where populations are thin and nature abides (the rural countrysides). The dystopia is mild in Shiverwhen (the game and the place). There is some elitism and awareness of social class, but it seems to be "organic"; that is, there isn't some ruling class that enforces its will on others, but there is a mild and "unofficial" caste system that separates those born to higher stations in life (or those that have achieved it) from the lower (i.e., "poorer") rungs on that social ladder.

We played the part of a group of come-of-agers striking out to make our name in a world where we held positions of general disfavor. The characters were pre-gen as Michael had sought to balance the party for the adventure before us based on the number of players and save the time of character generation. Considering I tend toward playing magically-endowed characters, I welcomed the opportunity to take up the role of the gunslinger. Understand though, that in one way or another, classed characters in Shiverwhen are able to tap into magical "embers," which makes them all magical in some way (some more than others).

Just in case any of you find yourself at a future con (or possible future gaming group) engaged in the introductory adventure ("The Perils of the Book Trade"), I won't give too much away in terms of plot. What I will say is that it started off immediately with a test of the combat mechanics before unfolding into a string of investigational discoveries, capped off by a final showdown. It became obvious quickly that my role as the gunslinger was profoundly important to the party in eliminating our enemies during the combat encounters; but that really seems to be the role of the gunslinger character. Guns seem to be the most effective combat weapon in Shiverwhen (place and game). Keep in mind, however, in Shiverwhen's cities, guns are ridiculously illegal; that means the gunslinger is the one character that can easily end up in jail for simply doing his job (in the context of a mixed-class party of PCs).

The mechanics of the game are simple, smooth, and effective. The character skills grow congruously from the classes; I think there's some leeway in choice during character creation, but it's hard to tell with pre-gens. The skill checks (including attacks) are percentile-based and fair, including rushed/reactionary "second" actions, and the armor mechanic is elegant and seamless. Armor types tend toward the unassuming (e.g., the long leather coat worn by my ballisturgist and the heavy coats worn by many of my comrades), but it suits the setting to a tee. There's also room for the uncommon armor types as well (like a robed, hooded figure wearing a metal breastplate). Without giving too much away (hopefully), armor works like a saving throw against damage, either mitigating it or eliminating it altogether. This armor mechanic seems to be something that went over well in Michael's playtest of the game back in February at TotalCon as well as it did in our game. More than that, the mechanic has an understated "narrative" effect during play as well; what I mean is, even though the use of armor was experienced as a die roll and wasn't expressly phrased in prose, I could almost imagine reading in a pulp novel about that moment where a piece of armor does or doesn't do what it was meant to. I think I remember somebody likening it to a timeslice from Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies; that's kind of what it's like.

As for non-combat gaming mode, I have to say that we as investigators played things too cagily. Michael himself said we "kind of came at things bass ackwards." That's our fault, not Michael's (who is a really great GM, BTW). Ironically, our bass ackward investigation style seemed to allow us to try out some of the games talents and skills that are meant to be used outside of combat... and it's the character types, their talents and skills, and how they require the player to get involved, which really breed the game's flavor. Take, for example, the kindler—a sort of "shaper" of the characters' preternatural energies, able to "borrow" this energy, "multiply" it, then lend larger amounts back to them. Or the scrivener, whose player is actually required to write small stories off-the-cuff at the gaming table in order to effect the character's abilities.

I'm definitely looking forward to where this game goes, and how quickly it gets there. I know Michael is still tweaking the character classes and the skills list, and I'm sure there's probably plenty of playtesting yet to be done, but I'd hate to think I'd have to wait for it too long before the final game (or at least a beta version) is ready. Intuition tells me this will likely find its way to becoming a Kickstarter at some point in the not terribly distant future (and one I'll be backing for sure). Worst case scenario, I get to play again at a future con in the meantime.

(BTW, Michael, if you read this and I've gotten anything wrong, please correct me. I took only the most minimal of notes during the game, and am going 98% from memory.)

ADDENDUM: I noticed that Michael wrote a new Shiverwhen post last night after I'd already drafted this one and schedule it in blogger. Hopefully I haven't said too much about anything he wants to hold close to the vest while the game is in development. Click here to read that post >>


  1. Any errors in the above are minor ones that don't require correction. Given the constant state of flux the game is in, even changing them to reflect what is currently written would be akin to writing one's name on the river's surface.

    Thanks for doing this. It's always useful and enlightening to see how the thoughts inside my own head are interpreted by those not living in there. From what you've composed, it appears most everything is surviving the transition and working as intended.

    And you're fine in regards to talking about the scenario without revealing any big secrets. It's all good!

  2. Richard -- I am an idiot for just now realizing that my playtest partner was also the author of a blog I regularly follow. Doh!

    Thanks for writing this up. I had a blast at this playtest and I think you did it justice. One of the setting elements that I really enjoyed (and that you alluded to above) is that "making a name for yourself" is literal in Shiverwhen. Everyone gets kicked out of the house at 18, drops their surname and all their wealth, and is responsible for making it on their own. I really liked this because it gives a excellent narrative motivation for the "adventuring lifestyle".

  3. @ Michael. You're quite welcome. I had a blast!

    @ Nakia. I'm sorry I didn't realize it either (your blog is actually on my blogroll). My wife told me I should have worn a New Big Dragon t-shirt the entire time. Or at least put my ugly mug up on the blog before the con so everybody knew who to look for. I'll know better next time. Did you get a button? At least tell me you got a button. Also, have you read Michael's post about the session on his Shiverwhen blog?