Story Games Glendale: Hearts Blazing

Another Story Games Glendale Wednesday meetup. It was David, Mark, Lucas, and myself, and after pitching a few games, we went with Hearts Blazing, a lovely little box I brought from a Kickstarter I funded a while back, by Games by Play Date.

The premise is that you collaboratively generate a fictional (sci-fi) setting together, and play what amounts to a season of binge watched drama, a la Battlestar Galactica or Firefly.

We started by setting some caretakers (bold terms = game terms) for different backdrops to the story. Mark started by effectively taking Technology & Ability by saying he envisioned space travel being performed by extremely rare psychics. As we fleshed this out, we ended up with space "ships" being amplifiers for a rare condition which allows some people to warp space and time, and effectively hope from world to world. This could take some time, but mostly days to weeks, and because the ability is so rare, we knew that governments and power brokers would do almost anything to control it. And hence a little bit of dystopia. We also went with a synch type mechanism, where a pilot needed to be trained to aim the ship, and the psychic (which we termed "warpers") as more of an engine for travel. The two needed to work together to pilot the vessel.

We chose our Archtypes, which included (David) Hugh, the Veteran and owner of our ship, (Mark) Bricks, the Engineer who manages the hardware, (Lucas) Ler the Ace pilot, and (me) Cloak the Rookie. 

From there we kept spiraling through Settings & HistoryOrganizationSupporting Cast (which included a sweetheart for Ler, named Aurora, who is the actual warper of the crew; Doc Dahab; Relay Dominic, who is our mysterious boss; and the Red Baron Dusk, who is Aurora's twin sister, who is also a warper, on the run and working for a shadow organization).

We played some more and made some great triangular relationships for most characters. Some had ailments taken care of by the Doc, some worked together in the past, some had jealousies or infatuations. Oh ya, and we're all pretty much smugglers, as having a warper is pretty restricted by large governmental bodies.

But then, how do we smuggle? And that's where we came up with "dampers". Basically my rookie is a new type of psychic which can cloak our ship from other warpers who try and intercept and control this mode of travel ("firewalls"), implemented by big gov't.

A little more, and we were ready to start with our pilot episode. We drew the pilot epsidoe card "Milk Run", and started with a good old smuggling run gone awry. We started straight in with klaxons blazing, and then later a flashback to "12 hours earlier" to start fleshing out the episode. It was fun talking about what the audience sees, and how to introduce them quickly and succinctly to concepts we had defined, without going too in depths. It quickly felt like we were writing a TV series, and I was pretty impressed with how well that came through.

Hearts Blazing, and our relationship chart.

Hearts Blazing, and our relationship chart.

Now, although the back of the box says "swift playing 1-2 hour RPG romp", and the instructions say "2-3 hours", it really felt like it'd fit better in a full 4 hour con slot. With little structure, it's easy for an episode to devolve a bit into finding where to go. Although a high bidder will be able to structure the Launch (premise) of an episode and controls the Wrap (goal / end), it is the Bridge which is the meat of the episode, and often precludes a bit of discussion and exploration. 

In theory you should play 8 episodes: a pilot, 5 mid-season, and 2 finales.  We got through three.

In theory you should play 8 episodes: a pilot, 5 mid-season, and 2 finales.  We got through three.

The best part of the game was the setup and first episodes. We really dug doing the world building part, and it was a fairly collaborative and exciting process. We additionally got a finale that really felt like we got to tie up the story fairly neatly, but left it wide open for season two.

Some of the down sides:

One issue is that the lack of concrete structure left me feeling like I had to do a lot of creative work, constantly, so around the 2 hour mark my brain was starting to get a little tired. 

Many of the cards used to "bid" for an episode provide ideas to run with for your character, but they aren't technically needed, and there isn't any mechanical motivation to use them. We discussed this after the game, and agreed that adding a mechanic there would have been nice, such as getting +1 points for each card you had bid and used, in relation to who "won" the episode (and therefore gets the rewards, keywords that are then later helpful in the epilogue at the end of the game.

I think it would be good to have some options for short-form play, such as how to really get the game going in a shorter slot by having fewer episodes. I mean, you could just cut down the number of episodes (which is what we did), but there appears to be a similar removal of Cliche cards that should be performed if this is done. I.e. you can break some mechanical aspects of the game, so some guidance would be appropriate.

Additionally, some more structure around the Bridge scenes, for new players, would be very useful. Such as setting the bridge as 3 (or so) sub-scenes, so that you can just role-play through it confidently. For example, in our first episode we had a Bridge which consisted of: 1. Get a delivery job from the boss, 2. Fly to Beta Origai Four, 3. Get the package, and 4. Head to Beta Origai Six, where we are waylaid. These were all very short little scenes, but by setting up what we wanted to do, roughly, we then had a blast role-playing quickly through it. Adjustments were made where necessary or ad hoc, but it really helped us first creating this loose structure because jumping into it.

All in all, I liked the game, and would definitely play it again, but I may add some tweaks when doing so to help facilitate play, especially with players who aren't familiar with the game.