At long last, I ran a game. It’s been a crappy year for me and I admit my heart hasn’t always been in it. So got off my lazy duff and finished a project, the Tibetan Corpse Racing Olympiad (TCRO). A not-very-serious attempt at an old standby of mine, a racing game.
The premise of this game is both evil and mystical. An ancient Tibetan order of wizards has been waylaying travelers, particularly travelers with children, and taking them up in the hills for their decadent ritualistic sport of Corpse Racing. Periodically, but not on any set schedule, there is a major event where every one of the major powers in Tibet – Warlords, Merchants, Evil Masterminds, Confucian scholars.. enter a team to compete. The organizers are the Unseen Audience. The race is conducted on a secret highland plain in the mountains, witnessed by the Unseen Audience, who view the race remotely by sorcery. Some parties enter their own teams; others are just guests who are there to wager. The Olympiad, for so it is called, is not to be taken lightly. The secret destiny of many has ridden on the outcome of this sordid event.
Why Tibet? Because “Tibet” is a pulp standard for a mystical forbidden land of ancient mysteries, not meant for Western eyes, and I wanted the game to have a firm pulp theme*. As I have recounted in other posts, this game had a long gestation period. Almost 12 years from an initial discussion in the parking lot of a defunct gaming shop to actually playing painted figures on a table. Version 1 of TCRO was from the classic Walt school of game design– throw in everything and add a kitchen sink. I recently found that version of the game on an old yellow legal pad. It’s kind of charming but a whole lot of work– and I’m done with games that add complexity to add a bit of chrome that only a few people (besides me!) appreciate. I kept a few ideas from the earlier game, particularly the idea of a zombie following a cart and a child being used as a mobile “bait” for a team, and worked on a variant of a proven popular racing design, GASLANDS. Think of TCRO as being Gasland’s idiot relation. The basics are all there– using templates, hazards, and terrain– but the physics are very different, so some things had to go. For one thing, Gear Shifts– as I say repeatedly in the new rules, these are carts. They don’t go fast, they aren’t going fast enough to flip and burn, but collisions are still possible. The heart and soul of this game is the Team.
A team is comprised of the elements labeled in the picture above: a Yak (or Ox) Cart (who transports the Bait). A Driver (who uses his Driver Skill to navigate and fix the cart damage), a Bait (kidnapped child) with a bucket of rocks. Last but most important, is the Team Ro-Leng. A Ro-Leng is a form of Tibetan Zombie. The Ro-Leng (dressed as undead jockeys in team colors) has been attuned to his specific cart’s bait. He will focus on it and try to advance on the bait to get a bite. The cart prevents that by continuously moving forward. The tension in the race is maintained keeping the ideal distance of “attunement” between your Ro-Leng and the cart as it moves forward. Go too fast and far, and your Ro-Leng will slip from his attunement and attack others. Go too slow and your Ro-Leng will climb aboard and start feasting on your bait. Since victory medals are given for moving INTACT teams across the finish line, the player has many elements to be concerned about.
First Race, then?
We set up the game for four players, but I added myself for a fifth player. I think the game might handle up to six reasonably well; Any more might make for a crowded game that is slowed down. A game turn is Initiative (rolling 2D6), then two Actions (one of which must be a Move* action), then Admin phase if applicable (when elements uncontrolled by teams move and attack), then advance to next turn.
The game terrain was simple. Four steep table rocks and a flat plain in the Himalayas. The Rocks were the four corners of the race and boxed the event in nicely. I will, in the future, add more terrain in the center, for reasons we’ll get to.
With a crunch and rumble, our racers were off, with their shambling Ro-Leng right behind them. For the first leg of the race, the carts were well spaced and there wasn’t much in the way of direct contention between teams. I made a set of Maneuver dice (to replace the “Gearshift” dice). These are the black cubes with silver writing. I had planned on painting on mystical symbols in the Tibetan script on each side in bright red paint– ha ha ha ha! That idea was a bust. After ten minutes a side, I opted for a silver Sharpie and I finished the lot of them in five minutes. Each dice had a symbol for a watered down Swerve or Skid, from Gaslands, also Terrain Hazard (roll again), 2 Cs (for “counter”) and a Phi Symbol. No, the Phi doesn’t represent the Golden Ratio in this game. It means “no result”. As I say many times in the rules, these aren’t cars with engines, they are carts with yaks. That doesn’t mean that things don’t happen to them as they move- hence the counter sides of the device. When a player gets a counter, they are either accruing a level of damage to the team cart. When enough counters accrue, something more permanent and serious happens– like fatigue, or damage, or offending mystical entitites.
As this Gaslands conversion doesn’t really map one to one with Gaslands, there were some issues we need to resolve and invent or reinvent processes on the fly. That’s okay; that’s what a playtest does. Through the gracious assistance of Steve, Jared, Joe and Francesco, we revised a lot of the original idea and streamlined the game a bit.
There’s always someone who wants to cheat in a racing game, and this game was no exception. Francesco drove sideways across the course, and that raised the question of how to prevent it. I mean, okay, you will cross the finish line before everyone else, but in a game that is monitored through sorcery, the person who does that wouldn’t be winning, per se, would they? In doing so, Francesco basically abandoned the Ro-Leng part of his team to become an unattuned zombie wandering the field. Under the victory conditions I recited at the start, the best he could hope for would be a silver medal. However, he went off course and got such a lead over other players it was ridiculous. Francesco himself said there should be more stringent penalties than “not winning”, so I had to invent some on the fly…
One of the counters from the “Counter” result on the maneuver dice is “mystical”.. the idea being that the assemblage on the racing course is building up mystical energies as it maneuvers around the field until a condition is met and POP! the energy is discharged and there’s this giant semi-amorphous supernatural beast to deal with. I added this to the mix to keep the race from getting stale and less formulaic. The problem is I wrote a very specific set of criterial for dispelling them and that didn’t work too well. The other element that needed a rewrite was I was using a mystical beast (a shambling Cthonian type creature) to be the instrument of retribution for Francesco’s cheater habit, and it clearly wasn’t enough. It couldn’t catch up– so it got one attack on Francesco’s cart and another several on his Ro-Leng, which he missed every one of, repeatedly stunning but not harming the Ro-Leng. This severed the Ro-Leng from the team and Francesco just powered on. I resolved I would add a section in the rules about cheater response.
There was some back and forth over rules. We added some wild ro-leng. Joe bounced off the edge of the world. Francisco came closest to winning but he did cross across the map to do it, so it really wasn’t a victory per se.
People were entertained, and not in weird way, like you might assume from a game that involves kidnapping, extortion and a death race for a secret organization of depraved mystical masterminds. I think it’s a wacky concept, but it should be explored. I’ve kept the design elements I wanted from the first game– keeping the Ro-Leng distant. Using a pail of rocks to keep him from eating children. Adding mystical monsters to break up the game. I’m pretty happy with it, in truth. I’m working on revision based on this playtest and plan on running it at HISTORICON 22.
About the problem of stereotypes. I'm aware that the early 20th century pulp publications from I'm referring to promulgated some awful stereotypes about "inscrutable Asians" that were pretty racially insensitive (I'm looking at you, Sax Rohmer). I assure you this game is a broad pastiche and send up of that mindset, and I apologize for any misconceptions in advance. Obviously, I don't believe that evil masterminds from Tibet can raise the dead to hold races with animated bodies, it's only a comedic device to stamp a theme on a silly game.