Seeking Feedback - Hesitation at the Gate

Hesitation at the Gate, is an RPG where you play as seekers of Truth in a mystic order during the late Renaissance period. Conflicts are resolved using a trick-taking system with Tarot cards. Characters are built with goals, character affects, skills, personal/interpersonal bonds, and the art/technology they create. The game has themes of alchemy, hermeticism, the Enlightenment, and occultism but is setting pliable to allow players to tweak things to their liking.

I would very much appreciate any feedback people are willing to give. I have done a few playtests with my personal playgroup and we did not experience any logistical issues like lack of cards or excessive downtime at 2-3 players + GM, but they also had the benefit of the game creator explaining the game as we played it. I am aware that there are missing gameplay examples and summarizing charts, I hope things are not too unintelligible. Some specific feedback/suggestions I am looking for:

  • Are any of the rules just completely baffling?
  • Are there any clear holes/blind spots in the rules?
  • It has come out in play that there feels like diminishing returns in skills/bonds for ranks 3+, are there any attractive bonuses that could shore up this issue?

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Google doc here

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Theme is completely up my alley so I jumped on it as soon as I had some time. I’m half way through and so far the feedback I can provide is very high level.

  1. Twenty pages in and I still don’t know if this game is for me. It’s hard for me to get an idea of intended atmosphere of the game and part of that stems from unopinionated take on various mechanical elements. Monies can be tracked but don’t have to. What characters and orders have access to is up to people playing which is weird considering that vices are of vital importance here and many of the vices we know revolve around spending money. This is in stark contrast to the detailed description of types (sources) of magic, classes of magical creatures, etc. which I still don’t understand the in-game significance of (again, perhaps it’s detailed further down the document).

  2. I would very much appreciate rules starting with a high level overview of the gameplay providing info on how mechanics and interaction between participants pan out. It doesn’t have to be AP and could reuse the table image from the gameplay section. Something like: “Players control actions of characters dreaming of greatness. These characters are skilled in various arts and players will take turns describing how their characters try to achieve their goals. GM and other players may help with or impede these attempts in accordance to relationships characters have created with themselves and the world through their actions or personal flaws. All this will lead to conflicts which are resolved using tarot cards blindly bid by participants during conflict resolution”. I’m not the most colorful writer, I know. :wink: Basically what I personally need is a brief explanation of what happens during the game, why and what sort of story does it create. I’m not the best person to describe that though.

  3. This also reminds me that I’m still not sure if this is supposed to be XVIIc. with functional magic or sort-of-but-not-really reality. In particular: does King James bible exist? When we’re talking about divine books and what not, is this the stuff we know or some made up religious texts? I suspect it may be explained later in the document but I feel it’s important to get an idea of what this game is about early.

  4. From the reading there seems to be no sense of urgency. How acts end is up to table agreement which is probably why acts are advertised to take between 45 and 120 minutes (IIRC). This too seems to contrast with other parts of the system, namely the fact that people may grow old and die pursuing their ultimate goal without reaching it. Urgency was something I thought would make a bulk of drama until I got to the “Playing the Game” section.

  5. How headings are indicated is at times confusing. For instance it looks like personal bonds could very well be of antagonistic type so having antagonistic bonds as a separate section made understanding the whole thing hard. Misc bonds also seem redundant given that examples provided could easily fall into relationship or debt category.

  6. Terminology is confusing. Some things seem fairly intuitive, others - like trick - are impossible for me to grok. Most of the glossary would be better presented with some visual aid (even with the aforementioned table illustration). I don’t see anywhere mentioned whether ranks are open ended or there’s a 3- (or whatever-) step scale.

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thank you very much for taking the time to slog through it. If you don’t mind, I have some clarifications and will try to summarize what I am getting from your feedback

  • The setting is very much “Renaissance” without much further dictation. By the way the arts (skills) and cosmology is laid out, magic is very much real. The intent is, without player injected factors, to essentially be the 17th century but assume everything about alchemy, magic, demons, angels, etc. is completely real. I do not have a preference for games with highly codified settings so I wanted this to push players in the direction of a time period and themes as oppose to directing the narrative or providing a bunch of proper nouns. I realize there is not much “flavor” text but I think art would also serve this purpose quite well.

  • I have spent most of my time trying to refine and focus the rules, and I now realize the rules as a text are sorely lacking in organization. I would very much like to hear if your impression of the rules has changed after finishing the full text, but stuff definitely needs to be shifted around to explain better.

  • Sorry about the terminology! “Trick” is taken from trick-taking card games. I will review the explanation but so far it’s been hard to explain the concept without feeling like I’m going off on a gigantic tangent from the rules.

  • If I could summarize the gist of what I’m getting from your feedback, the game is missing a clear hook and concise summary? I’ve been focusing my writing on the rules as rules, it definitely needs better framing and more guiding hand of the author to point people in the right direction.

again thank you!

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Thanks for clarifications. I read the document through and re-read parts of it.

I don’t think that flavor text is needed in the way, say, World of Darkness had tons of low quality prose that was supposed to be moody. But what I’d like to see is pretty much what you’ve laid out above early in document. “The intent is (…) to essentially be the 17th century but assume everything about alchemy, magic, demons, angels, etc. is completely real” gave me half of what I needed to get a feel of the game. This is much stronger than what you have there at the moment given that the time period blurb is in the City section where you run through a bunch of questions participants should answer. I read that and became confused: how much of this is optional? Is it how 17th century really was, what you wanted to infuse into a quasi-17th century setting? It probably boils down to what you assume to be obvious (whether it relates to the game of real world history) and what I as a reader know.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that my preference for source material is to have very general description of everything expanded outwards further down the text. And yes, hook and summary are what I’d start with. You sort of do have most of the general stuff but it’s scattered around a bit. I’ll spend some time trying to provide more detailed examples. I don’t have a clear idea what should go where yet, mostly because I don’t fully grok how the game works just yet (even though I read it all). I’ll try and post some questions tomorrow.

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Some basic questions:

  1. Do participants (or fortune) contribute to the trick with at most one card or is it possible to add extra cards to the trick?
  2. Wouldn’t the initiating player be the one who declares that there’s a conflict and decides on a goal (or discusses goal with other players)?
  3. Trick is assembled face down, then cards are revealed. If major arcana are in play and major arcana have pretty fluid mechanic behind them, how do you resolve the conflict for/against players when two major arcanas are played? The example from “The Arcana” section (Once a player has played an arcana card…) reads as if players had mutual understanding of what cards they play. Is it assumed that major and minor arcana have different backs? But even then you don’t know what is on the major arcana face.
  4. Can players openly discuss what cards they are going to play?
  5. If great works are what characters create, should “I want a +1 damage doohickey” be on the list of character’s personal goals? Or do you see them more as something that characters pursue once they figure out what they need to increase the chance of success on the path to their major goal?

To expand on 2 above, I’ve got this broader problem understanding the flow of the game. People sit by the table and then what? Does the GM set up a scene that enables players to work towards their goals or is it up to the players to initiate something? Let’s say the latter, John is more proactive so he declares to pursue one of his minor goals, say, find an obscure info about a demon in a library. But this is likely in the forbidden section and head of the order rarely permits people to go there so this leads to social conflict between him and he higher up. Other characters can join him, e.g. group can concoct a fake story they will use in an argument. But the initiating player is likely going to be the one towards the goal of whom the scene is contributing, no?

Some other general comments:
a. I like how resources (arts and bond ranks, IP, cards) are handled in game. I’m not sure if it’s perfectly balanced but it seems like a solid base for the game.
b. I’d much rather see major arcana domains to be limited to a single noun. I can’t tell if this was the process but whenever I’m designing things I fall into a symmetry trap. There’s a lot of threes in this game so if I were you I’d be tempted to have 3 domains per arcana. But, as you point out in the text, this leads to conflicts of influence these domains have. This doesn’t strike me as particularly fun thing to resolve during the game.
c. GM holds a hand of fate so why not call him accordingly? (fate master, ref of the fate or something like that)
d. “What you need” has subsection “Players” which includes info on players and GM. I’d probably call it “Participants” so the term player is unambiguous.
e. I’d love to see a single place where everything about IP is assembled (how you can get it, how you spend it and so on).

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  1. Correct, one card possible. There used to be rules for playing more than one card but it gummed up the clarity of conflict resolution so I scrapped it, some of the references might still be lurking in the text though…

  2. Correct. The game is very player driven. As the GM I have mostly been playing a reactive game, filling in details when they need to change locations, responding to their actions, etc. I have also initiated a few conflicts against players in situations where they goaded NPCs to lashing out at them.

  3. I believe it’s specified that two arcana cannot be used for the same action, but they can definitely counter/complement each other. Those rules might not have the proximity to each other that aids understanding though.

  4. Sure thing! But any info you put in public is info the GM hears as well. You could theoretically make some kind of code to hide from the GM but when you draw 2+ cards every conflict, plans change quite frequently. In play so far having a hand of cards gives you a guide for what kind of conflicts you have confidence in beating but with the advantage mechanic you get a lot more ability to adapt and risk for better plays than it feels like from the rules alone. Not sure how I can communicate that in the text.

  5. You can definitely go for something like that! One of my players is playing a mechanic with the ultimate goal of “create a world free of manual labor with an automaton utopia”, his current minor goal is to create an automated brewery.
    “Works” exist both as necessitated by the flavor (You’re going to want to make spells, inventions, art, etc.) and as a way to interact with the card mechanics since arts and bonds are mostly a narrative interaction.

Regarding the flow of the game, I have tried it both ways, one in which I set up a scenario for the players to interact with and just letting them loose to pursue their goals. The scenario based design did not flow particularly well, there was a lot of “stuttering” for lack of a better word as the players felt like they had to guess what conflict I had laid out in their way. Letting the players just run wild has created a much more enjoyable experience; as a GM I had much less wasted prep material and the emerging narrative felt more natural. There is the issue that 1 of my players is not super proactive, they basically got left behind in the lab while the other 2 went out gallivanting.
One weakness I’m seeing in the game is that if players do not create at least moderately complimentary goals, it can create tension as people feel like their hogging the spotlight by chasing their own personal goals and expecting others to tag along. On the other hand it also means you have X plot threads to tug on (where X is the number of players) if gameplay every lulls.

last comments:
b. I pulled the arcana domains directly from the handbook that comes with the Rider-Waite deck. The handbook requires a little…interpretation… but I can see how there is too much info provided for such an open ended mechanic.
c. love it
d. I try to always stress that the GM is a player too, but I see your point.
e. yeah that’s very much necessary. I think having some sample characters would also help immensely in how someone is supposed to grok the style of game

Almost forgot, thank you for doing such a thorough interrogation of the text!

Made some updates, mostly adding clearer descriptions of what play looks like and expectations for players/GM

Gameplay overview

Hesitation at the Gate Is played with a Fate Spinner (what would commonly be called the Game Master) and one to six players. The fate spinner is responsible for running the world and all characters not controlled by other players. The players are each responsible for controlling a single character; a living, breathing person with larger-than-life desires, skill, and relationships. The FS will create adversity in the face of their desires, the success or failure against this adversity drives the drama. Events in which success is uncertain are resolved with conflicts; the tarots cards are bid in an attempt to take control and fates are set.

Description of play

Hesitation at the Gate is played through collaborative storytelling. The players will have characters with goals that inform what kinds of story they are looking to tell. The Fatespinner will create challenges that act as roadblocks towards these goals. The players will have their characters work to overcome or circumvent these roadblocks both due to and as a catalyst of character growth. As characters achieve or fail to achieve their goals, they will create new ones which the Fatespinner can create new avenues to explore. The FS and players are performing a dance in which each is pushing and pushed by the other in creating a shared story.
Each player is responsible for acting out their own character, the Fatespinner is responsible for acting out all other characters in the story. Everyone at the table should feel welcome to contribute details to the world around them. Character quirks, place names, and histories are all fair game for player development. The goal is to foster a collaborative space where each player feels a connection to the world their characters inhabit. It is the overall goal of the Fatespinner to ensure that each player is given equal opportunity to contribute and that content remains respectful of every player’s boundaries.
Gameplay takes place over multiple acts. Each act represents a collection of significant scenes in the story, usually one day’s worth of events. If an extended period of time is required, these acts can be changed to weeks, months, or any variable time. Regardless of the time period declared, gameplay occurs in the same way.

I’ve also did some remolding to give the arcana more well defined roles. I think for such an open ended mechanic they shouldn’t be too restrictive but you were right in that there were a lot of vague and overlapping phrases. Hopefully this new list makes them more distinct and evocative

The Fool – Freedom, divestment, and new opportunities
The Magician – Magic, knowledge, and secrets uncovered
The High Priestess – Divinity, prediction, and theurgy
The Empress – Growth, regrowth, and creation
The Emperor – Stability, protection, and hierarchy
The Hierophant – Alliance, cooperation, and mutual understanding
The Lovers – Attraction, passion, and beauty
The Chariot – Combat, vengeance, and determination
Strength – Power, courage, and energy
The Hermit – Caution, solitude, and concealment
Wheel of Fortune – Destiny, fortune, and luck
Justice – Law, order, and control
The Hanged Man – Sacrifice, endurance, and sacrifice
Death – Finality, destruction, and transformation
Temperance – Moderation, management, and mastery
The Devil – Evil, exploitation, and goetia
The Tower – Ruin, catastrophe, and imprisonment
The Star – Balance, ego, and the subconscious
The Moon – Fear, night, and spirits
The Sun – Wealth, happiness, and grace
Judgement – Absolution, decision, and execution
The World – Success, totality, and completion

Some other minor things, Game Master is now “Fate Spinner”, thanks for the suggestion :crossed_fingers:

Also elaborated on the “trick” entry in the glossary, does this help with understanding?

Trick – The collection of cards made by participants in a conflict. Each participant takes turns adding one card to the trick face down. Once all participants have played a card, they are all revealed. Achieving success is done by taking the trick.

apologies for the text dump, but I still want to reformat the doc and I figured it’s easier than asking anyone to dig through the entire text for changes.

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This is great, it fills most of the gaps that made it hard for me to grasp what this game is about. :slight_smile:

As far as flow of information goes, I think that Character Creation should go first-ish. The City and The Supernatural is simply a lot of text which purpose isn’t clear at that point in the handbook. But on the other hand it does serve as an idea generator for the character creation process, so what I think could happen is this:

  1. High level overview of what this game is about (that’s mostly covered above and in the original text) and tools of trade.
  2. Brief explanation of how characters relate to the order, city and supernatural aspects of the game. Shorter blurbs filled with flavor should probably be enough to spark an interest in some things while players won’t be overwhelmed with stuff they don’t find interesting. Players can then jump to a related, long form description of what they want to explore. (side note: while reading for the first time I had difficulty understanding whether all characters should come from the same order or not; somehow I felt like this was important to me)
  3. Character creation section.
  4. Bonds section
  5. Detailed description of the order, city and the supernatural.
  6. Playing the game and everything else that follows it.

This may very well be a suboptimal flow, but at least it tries to follow the high level to low level of detail path. Right now you front-load a lot of things that aren’t immediately important in some obvious way. Drilling down is bound to create some duplication but I think it will be much easier to grasp things this way.

There’s one more question that’s on my mind for some time now: which of the, uhm, areas for characters to explore (social structure of the city, structure of the order, types of magic and path to understanding) were the most successful and most often explored by players during testing? Perhaps some of the diversity that’s present isn’t actually contributing that much and the game would be much better off doubling down on something that’s already strongly preferred by players?

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Two players are heading into the magical aspects of the game while my third is digging into the engineering. We’ve got a plague doctor, a necromancer, and an engineer. If I had to point to one aspect, I would say the social is not really being explored, we haven’t engaged in any politics.you have a point that there is a lot of questions about “society” and not much baseline like the magic/supernatural chapter. I don’t want to completely jettison that since “society” seems like an important aspect of the Renaissance world, but it should be formatted like the other chapters in that it offers options as oppose to demanding a bunch of player input before they’ve even got a character.

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I don’t know if this is useful and I haven’t thought about this a lot yet but there are two major differences between social and magical here. One is that unlike magical, social questions are open and there is no rigid structure here to work with. But another is that a lot of social is either/or: is nobility hedonistic or conservative? is middle class skillful or shady? At the same time magical is presented as (as far as I understand at least) "everything is out there, just pick your focus.

What if players were to exclude certain supernatural aspects from their chronicle? Each could potentially be very different in terms of ambience, but I don’t really know if this would work in practice. This could either focus each game or completely derail what this game is about. :confused:

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the aim for that chapter is to encourage the entire playgroup to collaborate on what kind of world and thus what kind of stories they want to tell. A more explicit “please play session 0” if you will. I see how that’s confusing if it placed before the character creation section, since a reader is going to focusing on what they personally are creating at that point. I agree that putting that after chargen will help with readability, that will create a better segue as the new flow would be personal chargen -> players
's order -> entire group’s world

I’m a huge Tarot nut so I had to chime in here. Definitely interested in seeing where this game goes.

  • I totally agree with @dominik, you need a hook that tells me what the game is about. Is this a horror game, an adventure fantasy game, or a mystery investigation game? Having some examples of play and maybe an example module would be super useful.
  • I love your section on the different types of magic, and you’ve inspired me to write my own version of that for games that I’m working on.
  • Have you read the game The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power? It has a really good section on political fantasy world building and you could probably take some ideas from there.
  • In terms of formatting, I’ve found that it’s often helpful to have the rules set up in the order: Basic game concepts (glossary, general example of play, resolution rules), character creation, specific rules, setting. There are some exceptions but I’ve found that this is at least a good starting point for getting everything into an easy to follow organization.
  • I get where you’re coming from with IP, but it isn’t that mechanically different than XP and might just be a barrier to entry.
  • It’s hard to understand Arts during character creation. One thing that I’ve found to be super helpful is to put a copy of the character sheet at the start of the “building your character” section, so that people have a reference of “Ok, I just fill in these 5 bubbles for arts” and don’t have to keep flipping back and forth to the big section in the back…
  • The functions of the great works are interesting, but would link to the world much better if they had some kind of name or “flavor” to them. If I pick the “The trump suit is cups” function, what does that look like? If it had a name as simple as “Aura of the Mind,” and a description like “The item projects a field of energy that enhances the mental focus of those within it,” then I at least have some idea of what this item will look like or how it fits in with the world.

It has a lot of promise. If you’re interested in playtesting I’d totally be interested in trying this out.

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Have you read the game The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power?

I have not, but I’ll check it out, thanks for the recommendation!

I get where you’re coming from with IP, but it isn’t that mechanically different than XP and might just be a barrier to entry.

You’ve got me there, I’ll definitely be making this change

It’s hard to understand Arts during character creation. One thing that I’ve found to be super helpful is to put a copy of the character sheet at the start of the “building your character” section

Heh, I literally just did this before reading your comments, glad to know I’m heading in the direction.

The functions of the great works are interesting, but would link to the world much better if they had some kind of name or “flavor” to them.

Very good point, they’ll have to be somewhat vague as Works can take many forms, but I agree that it needs a narrative anchor to increase memorability

Thank you so much for the comments! Regarding playtesting, unfortunately my current schedule is full with running this for my own group plus playtesting another friend’s game and the BW campaign I’m in.

I am working double-time to have playtest resources ready for Pax Unplugged though, if you’re attending send me a message and we can schedule something!

Configured the character sheets to give them some actual design. They’re bare bones but at least it actually looks readable. Designed them to be a foldable pamphlet/booklet.

The biggest flaw right now is there’s no elegant way to track wounds (they accrue individually on bonds and reduce them by 1 dot per wound). I plan to laminate some sample sheets for playtesting so wounds and notes can be marked with dry erase markers, but that’s no good for a character that will actually track XP. Appreciate any suggestions or critiques!


the “outside” is on the right, “inside” on the left


Here’s a 20 pt. sample character I just rolled up.

almost forgot, art is by M S Corley, fantastic illustrator