Archive for August, 2008

Game Spotlight: The Shab-al-Hiri Roach

Posted in Game Spotlight on August 29, 2008 by jburneko

I really enjoy The Shab-al-Hiri Roach but rarely do I see it played to its full potential. Often it is played as a very mad-cap game of escalating campus hi-jinx. However, the potential for meaningful academic satire and Lovecraftian horror lies beneath the slapstick veneer. Unlocking that potential requires approaching the elements of the game from a somewhat more grounded and serious angle and allowing the comedy to emerge.

Start by considering the characters in their basic un-roached state. The key here is that no matter how quirky, ambitious or even ruthless the character is, he should still carry some degree of sympathy and likability. The starting characters are not evil or monstrous in their own right. The group should understand and like them. They should not be cartoons but actual human beings.

A second point to consider is to view Reputation points as a real, in-fiction thing and not simply a meta-currency. Whoever has the most Reputation really does command that much attention within the fiction. Take that into consideration when setting up character interactions. Also take that into consideration when deciding how much reputation you’re going to wager in a spotlight scene. Ask yourself how favorably/badly your character’s Reputation will be affected by the outcome of the conflict at hand.

Following from that it is important to understand the distinction between Status conflicts and Everything Else. It can be easy to make everything seem like a Status conflict but those conflicts specifically mean “Status within the University hierarchy.” That makes wagering easier. But Reputation is lost and won on Everything Else conflicts as well. If Reputation is a real in-fiction thing then what does that mean? It means that people talk and rumors happen. When Reputation is won or lost on an Everything Else conflict consider how those events might trickle out into the general populace of the University and what other situations might arise because of that.

From this perspective anyone who becomes roached is elected the default antagonists. The roach does not understand professional rivalry and mistakes the “power struggle” among the characters for actual plays for domination and submission. Players can now go ahead and pursue their character’s goals with the sympathy element turned off. The effect of this is that when an unroached character’s actions cross a certain monstrous line they stand out. Similarly, when a roached character actually achieves something human that stands out as well.

Finally, because the game has a “win” condition people automatically assume the game is competitive. However, as a competitive game I think the game is a total failure because who is and isn’t roached is entirely arbitrary. There is no way to strategize effectively. Instead, consider the “win” condition as a thematic marker. Look at the character that “won” and ask yourself what that “win” means about that character. Consider who *should* have “won” from an audience sympathy standpoint.

Basically, if you play the unroached characters and their professional rivalry straight and the roached characters as incomprehensible Lovecraftian horrors, the comedy writes itself. You might also surprise yourself with a little thematic commentary about academic life.

Passionate Play #2: It’s Worth Risking What You Want

Posted in Actual Play on August 18, 2008 by jburneko

I’d like to share a couple more scenes from my recent Grey Ranks game that hopefully illustrates my points about Character Advocacy, legitimate tension, and emotional vulnerability. Throughout the game my character, Roman had been staving off the advances of Ludwika (“the patriotic slut”). He in turn had been trying to get across to her why his faith was so important. As mentioned in my previous post about this game it came into play that Ludwika was pregnant.

To acknowledge the parallel with my sister that Laura wanted I set up a scene where Roman was going to tell Ludwika that he’d marry her when the war was over so that her child wouldn’t grow up with without a father. Now, understand that I, personally, wanted her to say, “Yes.” Indeed I probably could have just narrated her saying, “Yes” and made my goal for the scene something else. But that’s not very interesting. My investment in the scene was in whether or not Roman would convince Ludwika to marry him. That’s what he was trying to accomplish in the scene. Any wiggling on my part would have constituted an emotional dodge.

So that’s what I set as Roman’s goal, “Ludwika agrees to marry him after the war.” My target number was seven. I was rolling a d10. Things did not look good. I rolled. I got an eight. I literally cheered. My stomach finally settled after doing a back flip. That’s the tension of playing passionately.

Now, I want to draw attention to the immediacy of that goal. All that happened was that right here, right now, Ludwika agrees to marry Roman after the war. Nothing says she will. There’s nothing about her state of mind and nothing about her loyalty to Roman. We have no idea if she wants to marry Roman. We only know that she has agreed to do so. This is important.

Later in the game Colin frames his own personal scene with Ludwika and his character Grom. Grom has had his eyes on Ludwika. The scene is Grom basically seeking comfort from Ludwika. His goal is to get Ludwika to sleep with him. I saw in his eyes he very much wanted it. I hope he saw in my eyes how much I did not want it. He rolled. He won. That bastard.

We played passionately.

I deliberately left it vague and unstated whether Roman ever found out about Ludwika’s betrayal. They did get married after the war.

Character Advocacy: Part II

Posted in Core Principles on August 18, 2008 by jburneko

I hear a lot of stories about people who get tripped up in games because they want their characters to fail and don’t know how to work that into the system. A couple of questions that comes to mind when I encounter this situation are, “What is wrong with your character that you want him to fail?” or “Why is the situation so bland that failure is the more compelling option?”

First, players wanting their characters to fail can be a sign of player driven railroading. The player is invested in how the story “should go” and not in the here and now tension of the situation. In all likelihood they are trying to build a specific story arc which requires failure at this juncture in order to setup some future situation they are looking forward to.

Going a bit deeper, when a player is committed to his character’s failure it expresses to me a lack of emotional connection with the character. The player seems more interested in the fiction as a structural artifact than as an emotionally compelling narrative. Again, it represents that desire to always stay in author mode and never experience the situation as an audience member. Does the player have so little sympathy for the character’s plight that he would so casually will his failure?

Playing passionately is about building and playing characters that we are personally invested in. This is not about avatarism where the character is some thin proxy for ourselves. I’m talking about just a simple basic connection with the character as if he were a real human being. This is where the trust and vulnerability enters play because, in my experience, when you’ve got that connection, seeing the character fail will be emotionally jarring if not outright painful.

When that personal connection to the character enters play Character Advocacy becomes not just something the player does as a feature of the rules but something the player WANTS to do as a function of his emotional commitment to the character. Again, this is why well designed rule sets are critical. The fact that the rules are consistently applicable and not subject to the whims of a single player acts as a shield to that player’s investment. The success and failure of his character is a legitimate and fair outcome of the system and not simply his investment being toyed with by someone else. Failure is narratively satisfying when it is most unwanted and when it is legitimately unexpected.

Character Advocacy: Part I

Posted in Core Principles on August 17, 2008 by jburneko

Tension in fiction is created when two characters come into conflict. That tension arises from the uncertainty of the outcome. All we know is that something is about to change. In order to bring that same tension into role-playing that uncertainty must be present and it must be legitimate.

That means that something within the game must be representing the fictional interests of the characters in conflict. That representation is what I call Character Advocacy. In simplest terms when Protagonist meets Antagonist something within the game must be fighting for each side, either outcome must be within the realm of possibility and no one player should be able to guarantee an outcome either way. In the classic Player/GM setup, by default the Player is the advocate for his character and the GM is the advocate for any adversity that character encounters.

This is not the same as playing to win. Winning and losing is a wholly real world social thing. Winning is about the real player demonstrating that they are a superior games-man to another real player. Character advocacy is purely a fictional concern. Indeed the player and GM may have very well colluded heavily to bring the fiction to this point. The player and GM may even be rooting for the same side. But without legitimate representation for either side, the conflict is a straw-man and no system at all might as well have been deployed.

Different games handle Character Advocacy in different ways and indeed some unusual and grey area applications exist. For example, in My Life with Master it’s pretty much a given that the Master will die. That’s not where the tension is. The tension is in who will be the minion to kill the Master and what epilogue conditions will each minion be left with when that happens. In Spione character advocacy is only specified during the Flashpoint phase of play and is lifted during the Maneuvers phase of play.

This raises the question of strategy and rules mastery. Character advocacy is one of the main reasons why well designed rule sets are so important in supposedly “story oriented” games. Well designed rules with story creation in mind allow players representing characters in conflict to push as hard as they want for success. No one has to hand wave away rules to guarantee an outcome and no one player has the authority to “keep the story on track” or ignore rules for “the sake of the story.”

It is the system’s fair and legitimate representation of the fictional character’s interests that opens the door for the kind of emotional investment and vulnerability that play passionately is about. That emotional investment is what Part II will cover.

Passionate Play #1: The Unwanted Pregnancy

Posted in Actual Play on August 13, 2008 by jburneko

Here’s an example from my recent Grey Ranks game that illustrates some of the ideas I’ve been discussing. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Grey Ranks is about the failed Warsaw uprising during World War II and the child soldiers who fought in it. My character, Roman was a very religious 16 year old and had a hero worship of his similarly faithful sister. During setup I noted that Roman’s sister had been raped by the Nazis during the initial invasion of Poland. I made it clear that this had not shaken her faith and that’s why he idolized her.

Early on I setup a scene where her fiancé was threatening to leave her because he was equally as religious and saw her as “tainted.” I asked my friend Colin to play the fiancé for the duration of the scene (the game is GMless). After some setup banter I described my young character (this was a flashback scene) running into the room crying and begging his “brother” not to leave. And that’s what I set as the goal for the conflict, “I want them to stay together.” I rolled and won.

Then Colin did something I did not anticipate. He described the fiancé embracing my sister and telling her that he would stay for the sake of the family. He made it VERY clear that while I had succeeded in keeping them together I HAD not dissipated the fiancé’s bitter and angry feelings. Additionally he noted that the source of the fiancé’s bitterness was that my character’s sister was pregnant. None of this is what I wanted at all. In my mind I was trying to heal their relationship. But I got my goal and Colin spun it (within his rights by the rules) in an unanticipated and initially unwanted (by me) direction.

That move by Colin has totally redefined how my character’s relationship with his sister and her family progressed. It has even influenced my character’s romantic relationship with Ludwika (an NPC Grey Rank with a reputation as “the patriotic slut.”). Laura choose to declare Ludwika pregnant (not by my character) in order to parallel that with my character’s sister. And none of that would have happened had I pre-roll narrated the entire outcome I wanted beyond the initial knee-jerk intent of “I want them to stay together.” At each of those two points I was forced to completely re-evaluate where I wanted my character to go.

The Slippery Slope of Stakes

Posted in Core Principles on August 12, 2008 by jburneko

Stake Setting is a technique that has become fairly popular over the last few years. At its most basic Stake Setting is simply clearly articulating before the core mechanic is deployed what will be resolved in the fiction by that mechanic. In the earliest games that used this technique it was pretty clear that Stakes were about the in-fiction intentions, goals and wants behind the actions of the in-fiction character. However, over the years Stakes Setting has slid down a slope that is actually detrimental to playing passionately.

The slope takes Stakes away from being about the immediate in-fiction character concerns about an in-fiction conflict and shifts it towards a focus on the player’s desired outcome. For example, we may see players strategizing for character failure. “If I win, the villain kills my guy.” Sometimes the group resorts to hashing out in full what will happen for BOTH success and failure. “If I win she marries me, but if I lose she marries Joe.” At its most extreme sometimes Stakes will concern things wholly outside the character. “If I win the monster is really the ghost of Captain Roberts!”

Most often what the trip down this slope is about is protecting the player’s vision of how the story “should” go. The simplest form this takes concerns pre-deciding whether the character should succeed or fail at the conflict at hand and then Stakes become about negotiating what the consequences of that are. This is done in the name of avoiding “disappointing” outcomes when the players are clearly invested in how things “should” go.

When this happens, Stakes stop being concerned with short-term resolution of at-hand conflicts and become about resolving huge chunks of story all in one go, so that players start competing over how much story they can carve out for themselves. It’s no longer about whether NPC Alice right here and now is receptive to my character’s flirting. Instead it’s suddenly about whether or not Alice marries my character. Soon that becomes, if she doesn’t marry my character then she has to marry NPC Joe because then at least my character can fight him and so on and so on.

That investment in outcomes and how the story “should” go is what I meant by player-side railroading in my previous article. What’s happened is that the players have cut off their ability to participate as an audience member (with no idea what’s about to happen) in favor of being pure authors (imposing what you WANT to happen).

Constantly coming to vigorous creative agreement about how the story “should” go and always going for what the players *want* to have happen means the players never challenge themselves. They never let themselves be surprised (in the audience sense) and are never forced to re-evaluate where they want to go next (in the author sense).

Playing passionately is a delicate two-step between being an author and being an audience. It’s about participating as an author in the short term while preserving all the excitement and anticipation of being an audience in the long term. That happens by being invested in the tension of the situation at hand and rolling with the outcomes the system delivers.