One Hit Wonders: Wilderness of Mirrors
This is John Wick’s simple story-game intended to emulate the spy genre, trying to fix what he felt was wrong in other spy games.
Unlike everything else we’ve had for our One Hit Wonders, I’d actually played this game before. A couple times, actually. Once at GoPlay Northwest 2007 and again about a year ago when I was considering using this system to try and do an Amber style game. I’d submitted it to the AmberCon US game book as “Wilderness of Princes,” but no one signed up for it. But I did playtest it out to see how it worked, mainly to find that it didn’t work the way I’d wanted it to.
This game was picked mainly because the person who bunnied up to GM offered to run this. Though we normally run these games straight out of the box, the GM chose to introduce a house rule to make it a little harder for players to get total narrative control in a situation. I’ll cover that more in the “In Play” section.
Character creation is pretty simple and ties in closely with the game setup as well. There are five stats describing five standard roles in the spy genre (Leader, Hitman, Faceman, Fixer, Shade), each with a special ability. As a group we decided on the setting we wanted and the characters we were going to play. The GM (known in this game as CONTROL) gave us a very simple mission and then we the players built up the details of the mission and the resources we have available our selves. The GM rewards us with mission dice as we come up with details. These mission dice can be used to supplement our rolls later on on the game. Once we finish the prep portion of the game, there’s only one way to get more mission dice, which I’ll explain farther on.
The setup we went with was a black budget agency in the 1920s called “Pantheon,” reporting directly to the president. Each of us had code names tied to a mythological figure (which got a little tangled since all of the attributes also have Roman gods associated with them). So our team had me as the leader (Mithras), our gadget girl (Athena) and our muscle (Ajax). Our mission was to intercept an agent (Janus, a master of disguise) looking to sell details of our agency to the highest bidder. Our backdrop was a science expo being held on a trans-atlantic steamship.
The mechanical portion of character creation is a little wonky. You have five stats rated on a scale of 1-5. You have a pool of points. The cost to obtain higher ranks decreases with each rank, making it cheaper to max out three of the five stats rather than try and have mid-ranking stats across the board. Especially since unspent points are lost. The two previous times I’ve played, we’ve just had people pick 3 stats that they maxed out. This time someone figured out that another way to get all your points spent would be a 5-4-3-2-1 spread. You end up with 3 less ranks than you would if you cheesed it out, but it was nice to try something a little different.
I’m of mixed opinions about this. While I can appreciate the work made to encourage min-maxers to create a certain type of character, it often feels like a lot of math to encourage people to “pick 3 things you want to be really good at.” I guess this is why I don’t design games.
The actual mission opens up with the team leader distributing out the mission dice to the different members of the team. The only way you get more dice for stuff is to do pass notes to screw over the other players. Mostly we did that through notes to CONTROL.
The dice mechanic is basically a roll for narrative control. You have a number of d6s equal to your relevant attribute, plus any you gain for mission dice or “screw your friends” dice. Then you roll them up and add them together. The higher you roll, the more narrative control you get. The main purpose of the person playing CONTROL is that they get some degree of narrative control if a player rolls low, he keeps track of everything the players are doing to screw each other over, he rewards you for screwing each other over and he has the option of opening the game with secret mission objects. (In this game my secret mission objective as leader was to ensure that Athena would die. An extra nasty twist, since I had just started dating Athena’s player.) The person playing CONTROL also house ruled it so that the target numbers for narrative control were higher, in hopes of making it harder for players to get full narrative control. (Which, in turn, makes those mission dice all the more valuable.)
I felt that my crowning achievement in this game was to mostly to screw over the other players by also screwing over myself. I opened up with being blackmailed by an unknown agency. The one I took the most pride in was secretly “revealing” to the GM that I was Janus. I spent the rest of the session playing the villain.
The mechanic is simple and basic and fun. We’ve had a couple hiccups we’ve run into the last couple times I’ve played it. First is that there is no player-versus-player mechanic. All of the dice rolls assume that it is a contest between you and the GM for narrative control. If you want to have a knife fight with another PC on top of a skyscraper… there’s no obvious way to go about it. We created an off-the cuff house rule to cover opposed rolls, but it seems like a weird oversight. The only other real alternative is to do something like use the Hitman special ability to kill someone without a roll once per session. Which hardly seems cricket.
Another is that there’s no attribute that “Intelligence Knowledge” comes under. If you want to narrate, “What my character knows about this situation,” there isn’t anything to roll it off of. If you want to know who to talk to, that could fall under Faceman. If you want to break into an area to get information, you could use the Shade. If you wanted to beat the knowledge out of someone, you could use the Hitman. Heck, if you wanted to hack into a database, you could use Fixer. But if you just want to know what sort of intel you have at hand, or what sort of intel you can get from your superiors, then there didn’t seem to be a good fit for it. We punted with rolling Leader, and that became sort of the catch-all “it doesn’t fit anywhere else” stat. Especially since there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of use for it during play.
Oh, how did it all end? Great big throw down between evil Latverian androids and Japanese origami transforming robots. (Robots in disguise!) Mithras/Janus was duly captured and Athena managed to avoid being killed by her superiors.
Compared to the Leading Brand
I sadly haven’t played much in the way of conventional “spy” roleplaying games. I think the only one really on the market these days is Alderac’s Spycraft. Aside from using more generic games, obvious games to compare it to are:
- Unknown Armies: In terms of system light games where you play spies, I think I prefer Unknown Armies. Though obviously geared more towards supernatural intrigue a la The Invisibles, I still mostly prefer the more conventional roleplaying style to be found in that game. They have a roughly equivalent amount of crunch, but if I’m going to go for a spy roleplaying game and those were my two choices, I’d lean towards Unknown Armies.
- Spirit of the Century: Depends. Both lend themselves towards a similar sort of story that they tell. If I’m going for, “I want a well designed mostly conventional roleplaying game,” I’d probably go for Spirit of the Century. Conventional roleplay and solid game mechanics are gonna win out. If I want a good pickup game, though, I’m going to go for Wilderness of Mirrors. The rules for Wilderness of Mirrors are so simple I’ve almost got them memorized. They’re easy to explain and it’s quick to get going. All of which is a stark contrast to the dense tome that is Spirit of the Century.
- Houses of the Blooded: You can see some of the ideas used in Houses in embryonic form in Wilderness of Mirrors. And Houses clearly fixes some of the quirks we tripped over with Wilderness of Mirrors. It would be painfully easy to either (a) use the wager-based dice mechanic from Houses to replace the dice mechanic from Wilderness of Mirrors or (b) replace the Virtues from Houses with the attributes from Wilderness of Mirrors.
Much like Corwin regarding Bleys, I like this game. I have reasons I shouldn’t, and yet I do. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s simple. If I’m going to run a spy roleplaying game, I’d use damn near any other system on the planet to do it: World of Darkness, Savage Worlds, a variation of the Amber Diceless system. Really, anything. Because, as I’ve repeated till my face turns blue, I prefer the immersive style of play you get with conventional roleplaying games. I just don’t get that same vibe out of storygames with narrative control mechanics.
But would I play this again? Oh, hell yeah. It’s a fun and simple game and I’ve had a riotous good time every time I’ve played it. I think the only thing I might be tempted to change would be to wed it to Houses of the Blooded. But I would probably wait till I actually get to play Houses.
Next up is Star Wars, using the old d6 version from West End Games. It started when I mentioned that I’d always threatened to play a wookie diplomat in a game and spend the entire session “speaking” only in Shryiiwook (the wookie language), but could not in good conscience to do so in a game where I liked the GM. But when the time to pick the next game came, people clammored to play Star Wars so I could play this character. Another player has offered to be my protocol droid, “translating” for me during play. Most of the players refused to use the d20 rules, so we’ll be going a little old school with this.