Metatopia 2014 Recap: Part 3, By the Book

The one game I preregistered for at Metatopia was Mark Diaz Truman’s By the Book, a Powered by the Apocalypse game of straight cops in a dirty city with a budding vigilante/superhero loose on the streets. The major influence here is Gotham Central, a comic book focusing on the detectives of Gotham City. Of course, it’s easy to see parallels with the new TV show Gotham, which is similarly inspired by Gotham Central.

My fellow players were Joe Zantek, Rachel E.S. Walton, and Misha Bushyager. Mark was the GM for the sessions. Yes, plural. Mark wanted to get two sessions of the game in to see how a second session goes. We played Friday afternoon and again the next morning. Both sessions were three hour slots.

Mundane Drama Powered by the Apocalypse

At the start of the session we took a few minutes to go over everyone’s experience with Apocalypse World and its derivatives. I feel like I had the least experience with it, though I would say I’ve got a good handle on the system and what it does.

Mark guided us through a discussion on the setting and themes of the game. The most prominent note I have about this is that the game is larger than life but not over the top. As the premise is clean cops in a dirty city, the game was going to be much more down to earth than most PbtA games (i.e., characters aren’t vampires, werewolves, or wizards) but there is a bit of a comic book element brought to the game by the the vigilante.

The City, as we described it, was very much like Chicago: a city on a lake with a central loop of downtown then a middle ground of sprawl and decay before the affluent suburbs. It was assumed to be a modern setting; I don’t recall any specific questions or discussion about time period but in play there were mentions of detectives having cell phones. I almost feel like it would be better if we the game were explicitly pre-information age for reasons I’ll cover later after the play report.

One thing to note here is that the competence level of the PCs is generally lower than most PbtA games. Our characters started out with a -2 in a single stat and the other three stats had to even it out to a net zero. That -2 is rough considering there is no way to improve or change stats at this point. This is mitigated somewhat by having a partner. Partners can work together and cover one another’s weak spots but that’s not always going to work and eventually the -2 is going to bite you in the ass.

Each character has a dark secret that their partner knows – whether they know the partner knows or not. When we did the round-table character creation, Mark asked about our secrets and then asked our partners how they knew that secret and whether it had been discussed.

The detectives all work for the Major Crimes Unit, a specialized cadre of clean cops who have been given greater operational leeway. Think Gordon’s band of misfits in The Dark Knight or the Flying Squad in The Sweeney. In play we came across more like the detectives of Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Street.

Characters

-Detective Patrick Sullivan was my character. (Interestingly, both I and another player named our characters after a cousin.) He was from Boston and I described him as, “The latest scion of the Kennedy family if they were cops.” He came from money and strong political connections. I described his uncle as being the current commissioner of the Boston PD. Patrick came to The City as part of a PR move from the mayor (“The Sullivans have cleaned up more cities than anyone.”) and to have a chance to prove himself outside of Boston. His dark secret was a drunk driving fatality in college that the family swept under the ruG. He’s been sober ever since. Bailey looked into Sullivan when they got partnered and looked into the car accident death of Sullivan’s girlfriend in college but got stonewalled as soon as he started asking questions. Hasn’t brought it up to Sullivan yet. I pictured Patrick as Mark Wahlberg’s character in The Departed. Focus -1, Grit -2, Polish +2, Wits +1.

Detective Jason “Bruiser” Bailey was my partner, played by Joe. He was a local boy, a bully who grew up and cleaned up his act. Bounced through the foster home system as a kid before finally making good and joining the force. He was a beat cop before getting called up to the big leagues with the formation of the MCU. Sometime before Sullivan showed up, Bailey was chasing a suspect and caught up with her. He got a little rough in the struggle and she took a fatal tumble off a catwalk. While he was never formally charged with misconduct, IA has him on the radar and the rumor mill abounds at HQ. Sullivan has heard the rumors but hasn’t broached the subject with Bailey yet. Focus +1, Grit +1, Polish -2, Wits +0

Detective Lisa Hamilton was Rachel’s character. She was an out-of-towner and a bit of a bookworm. I think Rachel described her as being of mixed race. Hamilton transferred to The City and the MCU after a shooting incident where her partner was killed. Her dark secret was that she abandoned her partner when the shooting started. Focus +1, Grit -2,  Polish +1, Wits +0.

Detective Dara Johnson was Misha’s character, a hometown girl through and through. A bit of a local hero who was brought up to the MCU after some accolades. Her dark secret is that her grandmother is the head of the Gulf Cartel but no one knows. Hamilton figured this out by investigating the Gulf Cartel and noticing that the one mug shot of the Cartel’s leader from fifty years ago is the spitting image of Dara. Johnson’s dad went straight before she was even born, so she’s mortified that someone will discover her abuela is the head of a notorious crime syndicate. Hamilton and Johnson have a bit of a cold war going on with their dark secrets. One night at the bar, Johnson asked if she could trust Hamilton in the middle of a firefight. Hamilton just replied, “I dunno. Let’s ask your abuela about trust.” There was a bit of a pause, they clinked wine glasses and that was that. Brilliant. Focus +0, Grit +1, Polish -2, and Wits +1.

As we did the round table thing Mark asked each of us a specific question about our vigilante, whom he called the Shadow Man. Rachel was asked how the Shadow Man got his name. She said he could manipulate and move through shadows. She was way creepier about it than that blurb, though. Misha’s question was “What is the MCU’s official line on the Shadow Man?” She said that their official stance is a non-stance of ” there is no evidence that the Shadow Man exists but the MCU will not tolerate vigilantism in The City.” Mark hit me with, “You’ve met the Shadow Man. What surprised you about him the most?” My answer was how reasonable he seemed. You’d expect a dangerous vigilante to sound deranged or unhinged but he didn’t. To me he sounded like someone who knew what The City needed.  Lastly, Joe was asked what the cop rumor mill says is the way to get information to the Shadow Man. He described a dead drop on top of headquarters.

All these details were used in play, it was really cool to see that come into concrete use.

Basic Mechanics

Like most PbtA games, By the Book uses moves as the structure for taking action. These moves are broken into two categories: Investigation Moves and Case Moves. To make a move, you describe what your character does in the fiction then you roll +stat. The four stats are Focus, for mental challenges; Grit, for physical challenges; Polish, for being a good cop; and Wits, for figuring out clues and cases.

The Investigation Moves include analogues for PbtA standbys in the form of push yourself and resort to violence, which are pretty much exactly hold steady and go aggro. You can also give chase to a suspecttalk an NPC downask for help from other cops, scope out a crime scene, and reflect on the answers

The Case Moves are different in that they create Evidence, Leads, and Witnesses; these are the tools the detectives use to solve the cases. Each case begins players making a catch a case by rolling +Integrity. The City’s Integrity is a stat and starts a campaign at -1. Rolling well on this move means you can have your case be normal, non-urgent, or not be missing evidence. The other Case Moves are haul in a witnessshake someone down, and call in forensics. These let you generate the Evidence, Leads, and Witnesses but may come at the cost of media attention, tipped off criminals, escalating conflict, enemies, and favors owed.

Lastly, there are two ways to close cases: turn a perp over to the DA or turn a case over to the Mask. Getting the DA to help prosecute is harder but can actually improve The City (which has its own advancement track, the way most PbtA characters have advancement). Getting the Mask involved is easier but it doesn’t clean up The City and you may never know what really happened. Either way, the detectives mark an advancement when they close a case. If you got a 10+ closing with the DA you can pick from one set of moves. If you got a 9- closing with the DA, you pick a different advancement. If you handed the case off to the Mask there’s a third set of advancement options. This has an interesting texture but I wonder how functional it will be in long term play. With only nine options and a case closed every session or two, this could put a pretty finite cap on play. Even if it doesn’t, I could see this being frustrating if you keep getting the same class of advancement every time. Something to think about.

Helping works differently in By the Book. Rather than having bonds or Hx with other PCs, you simply have Stress. You can check off stress to help your partner with any Investigation Move provided your can provide reasonable narration to do so. When you help, roll+stress checked off. On a hit, your partner gets a +1. On a 7-9 there’s a cost exacted on you.

Player Turn – Initial Cases

We broke for a few minutes while Mark put together our first cases.

The way the game is structured is in discrete turns, similar to a session of Mouse Guard. Detectives take turns investigating until each team has had two turns. Then it’s the GM’s turn. Mark roughly framed the player and GM turns as day and night, respectively. The detectives are given as much spotlight time as they want to interview witnesses and move about in the investigation. When they make a Case Move, their turn ends and play passes on. So play goes: Team A, Team B, Team A, Team B, GM.

Even though only two players are given spotlight at a time, the whole table is kept engaged because the other players are given NPCs to play. When a witness or suspect is introduced, the GM deals two face down playing cards to a non-spotlighted player. That player picks one card and shows the GM then starts playing the scene. The suit of the card you show the GM determines the NPC’s motivations and approach to the scene. Clubs are people pursuing their own interests; Diamonds try to take advantage of the situation; Hearts are open and honest, even helpful; and Spades are up to something unrelated to the case and don’t want to be caught. Each suit has a small set of Principles to use in play, very similar to Principles in Apocalypse World. By and large, this worked out well but there were some rough edges in play the way this interacted with some of the moves.

Misha and Rachel caught the first case. A coffee shop blew up early in the morning. They botched their catch a case with a 4 so the case was weird, missing evidence, and was urgent. Joe got to play the owner of the shop and pointed the detectives toward a protection racket. Johnson scopes the crime scene and notices this is Falsetti territory, which sets off the owner. Hamilton manages to talk him down and gets a card for Leo Falsetti. Mark deals me some cards and I toss him back a Diamond, which directs me to “aim the cops at an old enemy or annoyance you can blame.” The detective hassle Falsetti and he plays the role of the legitimate businessman, points them at a Polish gang that’s been muscling in lately. I point out it’s bad business to blow up a shop in the protection racket. Broken legs work so much better. The detectives got a mixed result on talk down and my condition was that they leave Falsetti out of it. (We’ll come back to this with my critiques and feedback.) There was some great color narration about Falsetti’s inept secretary being very confused about handing over files to the cops. Hamilton and Johnson end up hauling in Falsetti with a 7-9, choosing to mark Evidence and gather a Lead. On the way out, Falsetti tells his secretary, “Cancel my appointments for the rest of the day” which was me playing with the idea that Rachel didn’t pick the option “the witness doesn’t tip anyone off.” Since that was a Case Move, play passed to Bailey and Sullivan.

Joe and I caught a case with similarly disastrous results. Ours was investigating the murder of a Gulf Cartel enforcer named Oso who had his head smashed in with a sledgehammer outside a bar. We interviewed his best friend Flaco (played by Rachel) but didn’t get much other than Oso’s brother Lobo liked Oso’s girl. Mark also had a non-MCU cop bust our balls about being on the case; Sullivan tried sticking up for his partner but failed and Sullivan got completely stressed out in this turn. Then we got a call about a known Cartel meth lab burning down. This did not go well for us; while trying to scope a scene, we were accosted by a Jamaican daycare owner (played by Misha) and made a bit of a spectacle. In the end we hauled in the daycare lady and chose to mark Evidence and gather a Lead at the cost of a media shitstorm.

Back to Johnson and Hamilton, they’re following up on some leads about a construction company that had some explosives stolen and an employee that went missing. They investigate the missing construction worker’s apartment and interact with the landlady (played by Joe, who played a Spade). It took some talking to get in without a warrant (mixed success on talk down). The place seems abandoned, hasn’t been lived in for a while. A creepy, threatening message on the answering machine is found. They ask the landlady for some paperwork and she ‘goes to get it’ but really grabs a box from her office and runs for her car. Hamilton tries to give chase but blows it and gets hit by the car on its way out, suffering harm. From there the lady detectives got the phone records and found out the call to the guy’s apartment was from a laundromat in the middle of the night. They went there and interviewed the owners, the Vongs. I played a Club and tried directing them at a red herring I invented of a black guy who comes in the same time as the guy who placed the call. (Again, we’ll come back to this.) My notes are a bit sketchy here but I think they called in forensics to look at the apartment and end this turn.

That was the end of the first session.

Saturday morning kicked off with Bailey and Sullivan in the boxing ring working out some aggression as a way to clear some of Sullivan’s stress track. We did some free narration and then Mark had me resort to violence to see how well I did. Well, Sullivan’s -2 is in Grit so he got laid out by Bailey but he was able to clear a stress box. Mark gave us the information from the Jamaican daycare lady: a dude who looks like Magnum PI, a lawyer named Whitney Rothberg (Lead); and a white guy guy in a hoodie with a heavily scarred jaw (Evidence). From there we headed to the barrio to check out Oso’s place and look for Flaco again. Some people were sitting on Oso’s stoop and gave us the cold shoulder but eventually Sullivan talked them down and we were directed to a bar. At the bar, we got another lead from the bartender about a guy named Javier Armijo we should talk to. The MCU lieutenant called and had us listen to a voicemail they got about how the Gulf Cartel was going to be very sorry in the next few days. It also provided three bank account numbers that the Gulf Cartel was going to be clearing out once shit got bad for them. This case just got weirder. We follow up on the lead to Rothberg and he’s a complete shitweasel mob lawyer. I finally let Bailey off the leash and he shakes him down, pulling him across the desk by the tie. This is possibly the only dice roll Joe made in the two days that wasn’t a 6-. It was a 10+ so he chose to gather a Lead (license plate number), discover a Witness (scarred white dude), and not escalate things. This meant, of course, that he made an enemy.

The GM Turn

Mark kicks off the GM turn with the four detectives doing paperwork at their desks, which are set up in a quad. Some other cops are busting Hamilton’s chops by ramming into her with a remote control car. Misha and I were busting up over this and even threw a few one-liners into the mix, offering to buy here one of waist-wrap kiddie flotation devices.

Shit got real when Johnson got a call from her abuela asking for information about the Oso case. Dara did her best to keep the conversation neutral but blows her attempt to talk abuela down and had to promise ever so obliquely to get some information on the Oso case.

Sullivan calls in the plate number they got from the shitweasel lawyer and got a mixed result, so the results won’t be back until the next day.

Some IA jerks showed up and harassed Bailey and I trolled the shit out of Joe by going to get coffee and then slurping it obnoxiously while he was talking to IA. Apparently the shitweasel lawyer called the department to complain about being manhandled.

Then Hamilton got a call from the Vongs. The dude they were asking about was at the laundromat. She and Johnson head that way and they see the black dude I tried using as a red herring. Misha has Johnson call in backup but blows the roll hard, something like a 3. No help is on the way. Hamilton goes in ahead of Johnson and all hell breaks loose with a firefight. It’s a tense couple of minutes as both Johnson and Hamilton take multiple harm before finally killing one guy and wounding the other. After the shooting, there was a great moment where Hamilton and Mrs. Vong are crying together over a wounded Mr. Vong. I think Hamilton was at 3 harm and Johnson at 2. But they haul in the survivor and bring their evidence to the DA: 7-9 result and the perp walks after trial. They mark one Integrity on The City advancement track and they each get to choose an advance for themselves. Hamilton took copious notes, which lets her use Polish instead of Wits to solve mystery. I think Johnson took The Hard Way which lets her intimidate witnesses and suspects using Grit.

Player Turn 2

Mark hits Bailey and Sullivan with another case. This one is an exsanguinated jogger. We talked to a witness, some sort of university professor played by Rachel. Bailey blew his Scope a Scene and Mark’s hard move was to escalate the Oso case with a call to Bailey from Oso’s girl because she’s afraid that “Scab” is going to kill her like he killed Oso. He then blew the talk down roll and she refuses to come into police custody. At this point, Sullivan is completely stressed out and needs to close this fucking case so he takes the Evidence we had and drops it off for the Shadow Man. …except I blow the roll with a 6- and it’s too late. Scab kills leader of the Gulf Cartel, Johnson’s abuela, before the Shadow Man leaves Scab beaten and unconscious in front of Police Plaza with evidence pinned to him.

Our last scene was Bailey trying to get to Oso’s girl and finding out he’s too late. Scab killed her, too. He’s confronted by the Shadow Man with some awesome moving, physical shadows that grab him and throw his gun away. Shadow Man accuses Bailey of not doing enough and tells him, “Your partner gives me nothing. This could have all been avoided.” The shadows disappear and Bailey picks up his gun. Joe and I both advance, I took the devil you know which is all about building a relationship with the Mask and Joe took bloodhound which about making the Mask a pet project.

Feedback

Mark did a great job running the game and I think it runs really smoothly for most of the situations. There were a few hiccups.

Pros:

  • Having the inactive players play the NPCs is great. Giving them Principles and action items was really good.
  • The game organically builds a mystery.
  • The detective partner dynamic really added to the story and introduces interesting mechanical choices.
  • City creation was neat, I’d like more of it.
  • Advancing when a case is closed is a nice mix of story and goal for me.

Cons:

  • Having a permanent -2 to your character sheet is rough; PC competency is much lower in this than most PbtA games. There is no way to advance stats but you can take injuries that reduce stats when you take enough harm. Ouch.
  • The relationship between Witnesses, Leads, and Evidence could be explored better.
  • Having inactive players play the NPCs leads to a strange thing where what the player portraying the NPC intends isn’t what the GM does with the actions. I tried creating a red herring because that’s what my action items included. Mark turned that into the actual solution to the case.

General Feedback:

The fiction really sang when we got into framing it as comic book panels. It works for Marvel Heroic and it works here, especially if you have a visual aesthetic for the comic in your head. I pictured a gritty, fairly minimal style like early Fables with lots of cigarette smoke pooling around character heads and intense shadows. I told Mark that at the end, after he asked for what did and didn’t work. We talked a bit about art direction and how having the art in the game actually be comic/graphic novel art would really encourage this sort of description.

I don’t like the help mechanic but it’s personal preference on my part. It’s too high a cost for too little gain. Marking stress or harm, as appropriate, and then roll+whatever was marked for a +1. You’ve only got four of each of stress and harm and it’s hard to mark harm outside of a firefight so you’d likely just be marking stress. Marking more than one means you’ll be helping less often. If you get to four stress you can’t help at all until some stress is cleared. You have to take a scene in the fiction to clear stress. On top of the high cost we have the relative impotence of the move – it only applies in edge cases where your partner misses a roll by one. I much prefer the newer mechanic where a successful help roll bumps the initial roll by one degree of success – a miss becomes a partial hit and a partial hit becomes a full hit. I’d be much more okay with the stress cost if the benefit was bigger.

Some of the moves and social bargaining in the game didn’t amount to anything because it wasn’t held up strictly. Falsetti laid down the stipulation that Johnson & Hamilton had to leave him out of things if he gave them the info from his files. Then they hauled him downtown for questioning anyway. That didn’t sit well with me because I like a little more teeth to these sorts of moves.

Similarly, there can be a disconnect between the NPC’s intentions and the GM’s interpretations of the NPC’s actions. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the NPCs are directed to lie to and misdirect the police. It’s perfectly fitting. What fell flat is the red herring I was putting out there became a real thing and not a red herring at all. That broke the fiction for me a little bit. I’m not sure if there’s a way around it but it’s something to consider.

Even though I enjoyed playing the game, I had a hard time with how abominably Joe and I were rolling. There came a point in the second session where I blew a roll and Joe tried to help me… and blew the roll. He tried to do use an investigation move and blew the roll so I tried to help… and blew the roll. It was really frustrating. The reason we didn’t close our case is because we kept blowing all our rolls, which advanced some timers Mark was keeping track of. Argh!

Final Thoughts

By the Book is a very tightly designed game. There are some rough edges yet but those can be smoothed out with some more playtesting and design passes. Mark is onto something with this because the game just works on a fundamental, procedural level and has an engaging premise.

I want to see more of the rules for the GM because Mark was doing some pretty involved tracking of the cases with some timers. There were two for each case: a Mask timer and a Case timer. The Mask timer kept track of where in Shadow Man’s attention the case was. The Case timer was a measure of how close to cold the case was. It seemed cool and easy to use but I didn’t have any specifics. My guess is advancing a clock is one of the GM’s hard moves as Johnson & Hamilton’s clocks weren’t nearly as far along as Sullivan & Bailey’s.

Specifically framing the setting as being in a slightly historical setting would help it out. Putting it pre-information age (even if it’s just the 70s or 80s) would help avoid some of the weird edge cases of cop procedurals where we just wanted to look up information on a database. Got a plate number? You have to call it into the DMV and have them run a search because cops in the 70s and 80s didn’t have computers or access to databases directly.

Keep an eye out for By the Book. It’s a hell of a game and I think it’ll make a splash when Mark gets to the point where he can release it.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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