Brezim ’77 Retrospective, Part Three
Hi all, I’m back to finish talking about Brezim, 1877!
Tracking the Game
I had a lot of fun tracking character scores, dungeon progress, and the like in a public document. The hope was that these trackers would encourage my players and me to lean into the game-elements here and anchor our achievements a bit more.
Elle’s character Petrova, who was around for sessions 3 — 8, has the highest score because she made it to a single session that Ivan and Jorah missed. At an exchange rate of 100s to 1G, she’s got approximately enough cash to buy a house outright or go into business.
I told my players they might think of 1G as $10,000 USD. It’s simultaneously an insultingly low amount of money to throw away your life for and an exceptionally large sum of money for a single day’s work. You can see why so many people from different walks of live become adventurers. This is an occupation that draws fear and admiration, and which seems to either draw or manufacture grim sociopaths and eccentric dropouts. Adventurers are people who repeatedly stake their souls against moderately-sized bags of coin—sort of like game show contestants. I’m curious what our characters would’ve done if they’d stumbled across a windfall of 10-20G in a single session, but our wealth gains were pretty moderate and reliable.
I initially wrote bare-bones session summaries and invited players to contribute stories, but this approach wasn’t a success for the first few weeks and eventually I ended up writing more elaborate summaries. Here are a few samples.
Brezim ’77 is over, but I’m excited to play it again with other groups in the future. Here are a few topics I’ll be giving special consideration next time.
It was a big disappointment to me that logistics and provisions were never a serious concern. I would’ve loved to see real importance attached to torch burnout, rest, and food consumption. We’d adventure for a single session spanning six to eighteen hours of game time, then return to town. It was smart play, and it was well-suited to our heavy use of one page dungeons.
I’d like to turn toward more serious, long-term exploration in the future while allowing shallow play like this to remain viable and rewarding. My approach will be to improve the visibility and value of my tent-pole dungeons: make them more fictionally important, and tell players about the treasures in their depths. Getting deep should feel exciting, triumphant, and profitable. It’s good for them to know up front that if they’re willing to put in multiple sessions of effort they’ll be rewarded.
Unique Puzzles and Obstacles
My dungeons tended to have lots of pressure plates, which are genre appropriate and encourage good habits. Unfortunately, they got boring fast— same descriptions, same solutions. I found that mundane obstacles and weird objects give quite a bit of mileage in such a description oriented game, whereas rote trap detection and disarming is more exciting in a skill-based, dice rolling system. This means fewer explicit traps and more unique objects and terrain.
GM Presence and Leadership
I enjoyed handing off responsibility for session leadership and pacing to players, and I feel players shouldn’t expect the GM to manage their interactions. Nonetheless, the GM is the highest-status player and has an important role as a facilitator. This includes checking in on player well-being, recognizing unspoken personal conflict, moderating stalled and rushed game states, and encouraging players to recognize and advocate for their own feelings. I think the correct mindset here isn’t “game leader” but something like “facilitator.”
Expanded World, City, and Society
Dungeon is the core gameplay. City is background.
Practically every city event I initiated fell flat. Players tended to think my events were hooks, following them and discovering absolutely nothing on the other end. The most fun elements, on the contrary, were reflections of players picking up random setting elements and riffing on them. Core examples were Roland’s attachment to the capital’s classical library and Ivan’s generosity to dead hirelings’ next of kin. I would like to make these elements feel less arbitrary or directionless. Roland’s 2G donation to the library ended with the librarian thanking him, but an even better move would be to declare that the library was initiating a 10G remodeling project—and that there might be a wing named after him if he supported the library further.
City life is background, but it doesn’t need to rely completely on self-dramatization. One answer is to prep more player-facing social resources (I think a status chart, or an award system would be especially useful here), and to reward their initiative in play by leaning into bargains, accolades, and organizational recognition in response to their actions. I’d also like to more forthrightly tell them that the city is their domain, and that they should freely contribute situations and details at the start of a session.
- “What kind of person are you going to hire?”
- “Tell me what your lifestyle looks like during your week off.”
- “How’s your relationship with the librarian going right now? Do you want to act out a scene?”
- “Have you made any rivals? Tell me what conflict you had during downtime.”
I think I’ll be creating an index of supplementary systems which are focused on social status, monetary gain and loss, and so on. I want to let them know that I can support their motivation with a simple and legible tracker, and that I can support their hobbies with some trivial but funny minigames devoted to legal trouble, goat racing, or business management. These should always feed back into player agency and status. Overreach is extremely tempting here, and threats must stay in the dungeon.
Some player frustrations would be ameliorated by changing to a more mechanically advanced adventure game like D&D 3.5. We’d gain lots of character customization potential, world management-rules, skill systems, advanced injury and recovery mechanics, etc. Things like the pit trap would gain new life because they’d be handled using a skill system instead of description. The cost would be increased handling time and emphasis on system knowledge. This is not the right direction for my group, though I’m sure it would be for others. I think supplementary rules will add depth here in future games without adding complexity to the system core.
My players generally agreed that high danger promoted risk-averse checklist play. Making player characters less vulnerable, however, would dilute the canny, gritty aspect of gameplay which I like most here. I think Into the Odd is already fairly forgiving compared to other old school games, so I’m going to try to encourage a more risk-friendly player attitude on a social rather than mechanical basis.
I will show respect for risky action, honor dead characters, and tell players explicitly that some risks are foolish and others are smart; the dice can let you down either way, but it’s heroic and exciting to make a clever gamble. Some groups will simply never be into this. Others will warm to it with experience.
If social approaches fail to solve the problem, I’ll have to finally give in and introduce mechanical solutions… like generous succession mechanics, resurrection, or a per-session “death defied” effect. I really think these aren’t what I’m looking for, and they’ll be a last resort.
There’s a lot of ground to cover before I dust off Brezim ’77 again, but it was a fantastic experience which blew away my expectations. I want to give thanks to everyone in the old school blog and forum world, and especially Luka Rejec (Longwinter) and Chris McDowall (Into the Odd) whose setting books and rules gave life to the experiment. I also need to thank my players for their patience and excitement as we shared this campaign and many others. I’d strongly encourage others to experiment with this style of old-school campaign.
I’d like to recommend two posts from Ben Robbins’s West Marches series. I think West Marches might be the most famous sandbox game of all time, and the whole series here is full of absolute five-star advice. You can follow the West Marches tag on his blog and read every single post–-I did this, years ago, but I wish I’d done it more recently as it would’ve made my Brezim ’77 prep much easier!
Ben Robbins/ West Marches: Running Your Own — Advice on the sandbox and old school genres and their logistics.
Ben Robbins/ West Marches: Layers of History — World design, use of secrets as world components rather than drama-fodder.