Crescendo: A Brick Wall

Zac was in trouble. Roisto, his con artist gravedigger, had gotten himself into a bind. He was bewildered, angry, confused, and he could feel fate had turned against him… and he was surrounded by an angry mob. Almeta, Martha’s character, was doing a heck of a lot better… but was still facing the mob as well. Now, in most games this would be a bit disconcerting, but not a problem. They’d power through, it’d be alright!

Crescendo is not like most games. Zac was entirely too beat up, which that makes the game meaner: Crescendo is deliberately built to kick you when you’re down. The harder you struggle the more ribs you break in the process. In the beginning of the game if you try to power through you’re just going to get hurt more and more.

I was hoping Zac and Martha would catch it. They didn’t. They doubled down, and the Conditions began to pile up on Roisto. And I could sense the frustration. It was understandable; most games they’d played didn’t get dramatically harder if you tried to do impossible things, not in the visceral way Crescendo does. If they kept going at the rate they were Roisto, Zac’s character, would die from a thousand cuts.

I paused gameplay. I explained that if they wanted to suicide Roisto they could, but Crescendo’s mechanics were deliberately designed against the tactic they were trying. If they wanted to keep going that was okay, but they would lose Roisto. That’s not a comfortable thing to hear. It’s not comfortable to say it. Zac asked what his options were, given that I’d deliberately made “steamrollering” through Crescendo almost impossible. I said there was, and that it would be fun

Zac and Martha managed to get away from the angry mob and hunkered down. Roisto had a ton of Conditions, including Doomed, which basically removed all mechanical protection the game gave him, allowing me to attempt to kill him at the drop of a hat. Given the nature of Crescendo I wouldn’t have to try hard. It was a grim situation. Zac and Martha were a bit emotionally worn out from the sheer beat down of the game, too. It’s not easy to have a game intentionally kick you in the face, over and over, and not be able to fight back. At least not yet.

I told them all they needed to do was narrate an hour long series of actions to recover one Condition. And that was it. No catches. Just announce your intent and roleplay to your heart’s content. I’m not sure they believed me. No die rolls? At all? But I reiterated one of the central truths of Crescendo: recovery was just as important as anything else. As long as they took the in-game time they could do whatever they liked, so long as it was appropriate to the fiction. Obviously that doesn’t apply to wounds and illness, but most Conditions in the game can be recovered by good narration and time.

Zac and Martha were intrigued. They decided to try it. What followed was some of the most wholesome roleplaying I’ve had the privilege of GMing. Roisto and Almeta, relative strangers, got to know each other, ate dinner, plotted revenge against the mob and its leaders, and summoned a ghost for information. Each of these actions got rid of one of Roisto’s many Conditions. No catches, no gotchas. The lack of rolls for everything but the spell allowed the table to cleanse out the pent up frustration, world build, and start developing a bond between the two strangers. And it played out organically. Because of how stressful the earlier scene had been the relaxation, the catharsis, was genuine. It was wonderful.

Eventually “the plot” came back. Cultists were using the confusion to achieve their own nefarious ends, and only Roisto and Almeta knew it, with most of the town disinclined to listen to them. It wasn’t a good situation. But it found Zac and Martha relaxed, content, and ready for a challenge. They knew it would be harrowing, if only because Crescendo’s dice rolling mechanics made it that way. But now they knew they had somewhere to go, somewhere safe. Dangerous as the game and the world could get, they had a release valve. Recovery, which is frequently skipped or rushed through, was an integral part of the experience. And it was fun.

And that’s exactly what I wanted.

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