So, we recently finished book 1 of my Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine campaign, and apparently people liked it enough to keep going (after a brief Dogs in the Vineyard break). It’s been a lot of fun and really eye-opening in terms of the realms of possibilities for tabletopping mechanics. I thought I’d take some time to write down some of my scattered thoughts and musings.
Quests! Quests are great. I love quests. A++, would quest again.
I guess I should probably say more than that.
Storyline quests are this brilliant evocative point of conveying worldbuilding/feel through symbolism and narrative elements without getting bogged down in specifics. Finding a spring of clear water or telling stories about the death of the sun or whatever helps establish a certain part of the Chuubo’s feel, but is also super-flexible so you don’t feel like you’re tied to some railroad tracks of the True Jenna Story.
Anytime quests were cool too, but less distinctive from other systems I’ve played.
Pacing was a bit weird for quests relative to our natural progression of play. One of my players said “For Chuubo’s I thought that the lack of convergence between the quests we had and the events in the story was a problem in that there wasn't any reason for a quest to end when we achieved what we were working towards in-story or vice versa.” The first arc quests seemed a bit long, in that they stopped being interesting before we hit XP targets. The second quests ended up being the other way around, where we hit XP targets before the quest felt narratively complete. (I don’t know if we just got better at generating XP or what.) Obviously in this second case being on more quests at once is an option, but it still ended up feeling a bit weird narratively.
It does make me wonder how the XP targets for storyline quests are determined, other than the “about half of XP can come from major goals” guideline. They seem pretty variable and arbitrary. It also makes me wonder if it’d make sense to have XP targets/totals for arcs but not individual quests, and move onto the next quest based on narrative appropriateness.
(I also have vague ideas for a quest progression more general than the eight arcs, but that’s for another time.)
Issues I’ve had a lot of trouble with. They’d hang around for a while, and it wouldn’t seem like it was ready to move to the next step yet, and then they’d get lost track of. Or the next step wouldn’t seem to make sense, like “It Never Stops” requiring making commitments for some reason despite the summary making it seem like it was more about irrational stuff happening to you.
Part of this might be that I should’ve been using Issues for smaller stuff, not for major Book plot stuff. Honey’s Calling issue got stuck because her relationship with Fairyland was a major, long-term plot that’s been gradually evolving, not something that should be pressed to resolve quickly. Maybe discussing smaller and/or more pastoral stuff for issues would’ve worked better.
But also, I think a lot of my trouble was that I was treating the cards as if they should be sufficient information for how to play the issue, like they are for quests, when actually the guidance from the book would’ve helped me conceptualize things a lot better. (I also had the “Which Issue Should I Give?” table on a reference sheet, but that didn’t prepare me for later levels of an issue either.) I’ve prepared one-pagers for issues that I’m going to try for Book 2, hopefully those will help things go more smoothly.
Issues are also weird in that they play in a similar space to Quests, but in a different way. They remind me of the Bond/Affliction dichotomy in that respect. For example, if a character gets poisoned and eventually finds a way to turn that into a source of strength, is that the Sickness Issue or a quest like Poisoned? It’s not necessarily bad to have two different mechanics for a character’s narrative progression, but I think this helped make Issues, in some ways the more general/less tailorable/less active mechanic, harder to grasp for me.
Issue timing is also a bit weird for me. I was attempting to use the “Simplified Implementation”, as recommended for tabletop games focused on in-character play, which has you assign Issues once per chapter or natural breakpoint. In practice for us, this mostly meant between sessions. This worked weirdly with the “Lowering an Issue” rules, which would have each player also lose a point from some issue after each session. I pretty much ignored lowering issues, mainly because it seemed like it’d result in an issue that didn’t feel ready for, say, Level 4 ping-ponging between levels 2 and 3, which would generate lots of MP but not make a lot of sense. Certainly there are some issues that should’ve gone away at this point that I’ll probably clear for book 2, though.
Intentions I was familiar with from Nobilis. That doesn’t mean I’m actually good at them. Largely we formed intentions backwards: a player says “I want to convince the Duke to set the rabble rousers free and have them accompany me as ambassadors.” and I look at the ladder and figure out what level of ladder success that seems to need and any relevant Obstacles and say “well, you’d probably need an intention N”. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but it doesn’t really use the full expressiveness of the ladder, and it doesn’t seem to be the intent.
Also, I’m really bad at remembering the “get 1 Will back when you succeed or fail” rule.
Arc powers were really cool in an evocative metaphysics way, providing flexibility while also giving you lots of guidance and idea seeds. They also have lots of hair. I think we definitely used miracles less than we otherwise might because that meant paging through the arc printouts, finding the relevant power (possibly among several versions), reading the text to make sure it applies properly, and trying to remember how many times we’ve used this power and how long ago that was. I definitely feel like simpler cost structures would make it easier to use arc abilities in play. (Or at least, if cost structures tended to work the same way for different powers, it’d be easier to remember.) And I still like the idea of simplified “playbook” reference sheets so it’s easier to find a power and quickly get an idea of what it does.
That said, the miraculous arcs definitely added a lot to the game narrative-wise. At Arc 3, it creates a feel of “the PCs can solve pretty much any problem, but it’ll be interesting to see how they do it”, which I quite enjoyed. But it seems like it would have played similarly with more simply-worded and -costed abilities.
When I went into this game, I had the intention of trying to stick closely to the Pastoral genre, as it seemed the most different from what I’ve played in the past and it reminded me of, like, Ghibli movies, which I love. I was… partially successful? In practice, we ended up swapping into another genre, maybe Adventure Fantasy, periodically. Our miraculous powers and the arc baggage, plus the ambient excitement in the setting, plus our natural inclinations made it easy to get into exciting situations that didn’t want to play out over the course of weeks with Pastoral actions. But I do feel like having the default be “two XP actions a week, skip time between scenes” really helped me get a handle on pacing for tabletopping, which is something I’ve struggled with before, and that default structure, the festival calendar, and the other incidentals made us hew much closer to a Pastoral feel then we’d have gotten otherwise, even if we didn’t stick strictly to it.
(I’m inclined to formalize the genre split for Book 2, though I’ll see how the players feel.)
For a bit, I was trying to be more aggressive about bonus XP for in-genre XP actions, because the Quest 1s felt like they were taking too long to complete. But it ended up feeling intrusive and disruptive to play to prompt players with the bonus XP conditions, so I gave up on that. The Quest 2s felt too short, and XP actions work fine without paying attention to the bonus XP conditions, so I feel like leaving them out entirely is totally fine.
Despite it being helpful, I’m still a bit mixed on the strict week schedule. It lead to pretty strict tracking of what week of Spring it was and what day of the week, which felt a bit out of place; in Steven Universe or Totoro you have time passing and seasons progressing, but you don’t pay attention to exactly how many days have passed. Having chapter transitions vary between “it’s several days later” and “some weeks have passed and it’s now the night before Celdinar Day” and “some months pass, and the days are getting longer, and the flowers are blooming on the cliffs by Big Lake” seems potentially more evocative and natural, but possibly harder to systematize.
Also, particularly in the Adventure Fantasy sections, tying XP action refresh to Will refresh seems a bit weird. Being out of XP actions is comparatively boring, so I’d be tempted to call a new chapter even if exciting stuff was in the middle of going on. But, that could make a character go from “exhausted and battered” to “doing pretty well” without in-game passing, which is pretty uninspiring. One option that might work for this game structure is that you only get Will/MP refresh at the start of a Pastoral chapter; if you’re off storming the Bleak Academy you can take lots of Wicked and Decisive actions but you’re not going to get your Will back until you get home and get a good night’s sleep, or at least find time to have some Slices of Live or Shared Reactions in the shadow of the Bleak.
(Another concept I had was, rather than having XP Actions be a resource, just have a dinosaur or something you pass around with the person with the dinosaur next in line for an XP action. I feel like this tears out the structure supporting Pastoral timeskips, though. A related concept is doing bonus XP actions at or during genre-shifts.)
Another thing that I think would’ve worked well with a Pastoral feel was more focus on little problems somewhat easily solved but with emotional content or other significance. Lost kids, outside storms, a confused fire elemental. Stuff not necessarily or obvious connected to a Big Book Plot. We did some of this (Honey going to Fairyland to get Hope Flowers for the school festival, Nicholas getting Sessily enrolled in School), but maybe in my habit of trying to tie everything together I missed out on opportunities for more stuff along these lines.
With this, something that felt missing because of my preconceived notions of Chuubo’s was system support for things going wrong and unintended consequences. If you’ve got Chuubo as a PC, his MWGE has built-in ways and parameters for wishes to backfire, but the Chuubo's rules as written generally seem to assume that miraculous abilities will work according to your intention by default. Having mechanical support or incentive for powers to go wrong, have unintended consequences, or complicate things in general seems like it’d work well with Pastoral Chuubo’s’s juxtaposition of simple, honest life and reality-breaking powers. It'd give lots of opportunity for simple Pastoral exploration of the consequences of over-the-top things. At least, it seems like you should get an MP discount when you use your powers in a way that makes things worse. (To be fair, we did a fair amount of this anyways with Honey’s involuntary uses of her Called Away powers to get her into trouble.)
(Hmm, maybe this is part of the concept of how Frantic is supposed to go? I don’t think our Frantic PC ever used it.)
On an unrelated note, one thing I like doing is having players whose characters aren’t in a scene temporarily adopt NPCs, particularly NPCs they have a connection to. Having XP actions be explicitly a player-level so you can use them even when acting as an NPC or whatever could be interesting support for that, though it’d also be a little weird, and it doesn’t seem like it’d come up enough to be important.
One thing that I really liked that might be more subtext than actual text in Chuubo’s is player-driven scene framing. The XP actions and quest stuff motivates players to sometimes say “can we have a scene where X happens?” instead of focusing just on in-character actions, and I quite liked that collaborative approach.
Beyond that, and mostly outside the system, we ended up with some “dictated scenes” (a term from Microscope) where one player talks about what happens when they’re off on their own, including the environment and what NPCs do. This most notably happened with Honey, in part because her player has a much clearer concept of Fairyland than I do, but I think Nicholas did something similar at some point, and I as HG did a similar thing a few times as a sort of “cut scene” to bridge to a scene I actually wanted to play.
Rituals and Transitions
Rituals are a good way of advancing the plot when no one has a predefined power that does what you want and are fun and collaborative. The rituals we used tended to be improvisational one-offs, rather than set predefined things, but that was fine. I certainly could’ve used them more, but with the amount of miracles we were throwing around and not being Full Techno there didn’t seem to be much need to. Like, we could’ve done the Sailing Big Lake ritual every time we went through Big Lake, but it seemed like it’d slow things down in a way that wasn’t quite right for Nicholas’s implausibly-effortless approach to sailing.
Transitions I often ended up in one of two situations: not having appropriate material prepared when I wanted to do one or forgetting to use my material when it would be appropriate to have a transition. I mean, I prepared all this Charon stuff before the first session and never used it despite all the Charon-flavored Underworld nonsense we got up to! But it’s all good. I feel like they’re cool conceptually, but also not all that different from a more standard described transition (which has some conceptual overlap with “cut scenes”).
Chuubo’s has a lot going on and has certainly given me a lot to think about. It’s certainly up there with Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist in opening new venues of thought on game design for me. While I’m sure sooner or later I’ll try to abstract some of my favorite parts into something simpler, the mechanical elaborateness hasn’t kept it from being amazing, and it’ll be interesting to see where Book 2 goes with perhaps a bit better understanding of things.