As discussed in part one, the game mechanics are pretty simple: highest number of successes wins the conflict, but the dominating die type has special effects.
The engine is pretty narrative. The GM has rough guidelines for how many Pain dice to roll for certain creature types, but the number of dice used is pretty arbitrary. The GM just determines where the PC’s opposition is on a scale between minor inconvenience and boss monster (i.e., 1 to 12 or so) and rolls accordingly. The GM also has lots of space to determine whether winning a challenge means total victory, a temporary reprieve, or just whittling away at the opponent’s resources prior to another roll. Similarly, failure might mean something terrible happening to the PC, but could just as easily mean that what the PC was trying to do is impossible without changing tactics but without further harm. In a lot of ways it relies on GM and PC either explicitly or implicitly agreeing on stakes before making a roll.
What’s interesting, however, is that any time it comes to a roll it’s generally not in the players’ best interests. Even if you’re rolling against 1 die of Pain, you could still see any dice you’re rolling dominate. Remember, only Discipline dominating is actually good, and that becomes increasingly less likely as the game goes on: even if you don’t personally have so many Exhaustion or Madness dice that they have an overwhelming chance to dominate over your 3 Discipline dice, the GM will be frequently rolling a similar number of Pain dice to your three colors. So if you’re rolling 3 Discipline, 2 Exhaustion, 2 Madness, the GM is likely to roll around 7 Pain dice for an actual challenge.
And that’s the behavior I saw in play. Once the players started to accumulate Exhaustion dice, they tended to be like a cancer, slowly growing against minimal difficulty rolls because the player has to roll them. Madness dominating didn’t happen very often at all: the player only has to roll it when using his or her Madness talent or when fighting a very powerful challenge (where Pain is more likely to dominate). This basically led to the cadence of the game being a slow build to increased Exhaustion, where at some point the players realize they’re close to crashing and begin throwing their now giant dice pools against the bigger problems facing them. At that point, they probably attract the biggest problems sufficient to require them to risk Madness dice (either because they need the bonus or because they need the superpower). This increases the probability that they’ll get led around by their fight or flight responses.
However, the biggest dice behavior I saw was Pain dominating. As soon as you’re up against difficulty 4 challenges, Pain dice will always outnumber any single color of player dice (except when you’re throwing in an overkill of Madness or it’s a lowball roll once Exhaustion has gotten really high). And this gets more and more pronounced the bigger the threats get: a maxed out character vs. a comparable challenge is 3 Discipline, 6 Exhaustion, and 6 Madness vs. 15 Pain… Pain is going to dominate in the vast majority of those rolls.
The special effect of Pain dominating, other than getting to describe even a success as a painful victory, is that the GM gets a Despair coin. Despair coins are spent to add more 6s (or remove them) from any pool on the table. Effectively, you get to pick which pool dominates (with only a coin or two spent, unless there are a lot of 6s showing). You can’t get another Despair coin if you spend in this way to ensure Pain dominates. So it’s often a means to ensure that Exhaustion or Madness dominates. And, by the time you’re racking up Despair coins, that tends to seem pretty arbitrary and mean spirited, because the players are getting close to crashing or snapping.
Ultimately, though, it’s zero-sum or worse: every time the GM spends a coin of Despair, the players get to keep it as a coin of Hope… which can be spent to reduce Exhausion dice or Madness checks. About all you can really do with a coin of Despair is force the players into a Madness response in the short term or maybe force one to crash if they’re rolling the full 6 Exhaustion (and that didn’t already dominate). And toward the end of the game, you’ll often have to spend multiple coins to ensure Exhaustion or Madness dominates (since you’re statistically likely to need to cancel out several 6s on your pile of Pain dice), so every time you exercise Despair you’re actually giving the players a bonus of several points of reduction. At the end of the session I ran, all spending Despair had done was allow players to help out one another by evening out the scores (e.g., a low-Exhaustion player gains a die and a high-Exhaustion one can buy down).
If I run the game again, I may experiment with adding different flavors of GM dice with their own effects that can be used to keep Pain from becoming so overwhelmingly likely to dominate toward the end of a session.
One last thing to mention about the game mechanics is that there is an advancement system in the form of Scars, which are similar to Lines of Experience from MURPG. Once per session, you can add a situation from that session as a personal memory (e.g., “Totally beat up a Horror in his place of power.”). In future sessions, once per session, if that memory is justifiably applicable to a roll, you can check it off for a reroll. You can also spend it permanently to change your talents or gain 5 Hope coins (to basically instantly buy off Madness or Exhaustion when you’re about to crash or snap). So while character power is really self-contained within the growth of Exhaustion in a single session, long-term play should result in PCs becoming subtly better if they stick to subjects relevant to their Scars.