Archive for September, 2008

Passionate Play #3: Zombies Move Slowly

Posted in Actual Play on September 23, 2008 by jburneko

I recently had the opportunity to play Zombie Cinema. Before playing I had heard about the suggested house rule that the Zombies start off the board and there is a round of scenes where there can be no conflicts. The claim was this lead to a richer game. I took one look at the board and realized this house rule is completely unnecessary.

Here’s why: The zombies start five steps behind the players. In a four player game this means there are potentially up to sixteen scenes before anyone is in danger of getting eaten assuming there are no conflicts in those scenes. That’s more scenes than whole episodes of Primetime Adventures I’ve played. That’s plenty of time to have several setup scenes of the characters just interacting.

But this assumes that people are willing to walk, not run to conflict. It assumes that people are simply enjoying the character interactions and willing to *identify* rather than try to make or contrive a conflict (especially for the sake of trying to “get ahead.”). I would point out that the sacrifice rules and the audience sympathy mechanic pretty much destroy any notion that this game is about “winning.”

One of the games I played in was set as a western. I drew “Macho”, “Injured” and “Secret In My Past” as character cards. I decided that I must be the outlaw whose gang was just wiped out and I barely survived. Morgan played a wealthy rancher. Will played an angry kid bent on being his own outlaw. Laura played the school mistress of the town.

Early on Morgan established that his character’s son had been killed and I latched onto the idea that my character had been the one who killed him. Shortly thereafter it was established that Will’s character was his other son. Awesome, I decided that I needed to try and have Will’s character survive. This play priority is important. I didn’t care about my character’s own survival. I cared about his redemption and the possibility of Will’s character surviving is what motivated my play.

Well, Morgan’s rancher was the first to fall to the zombies and shortly there after my outlaw knocked out Laura’s school mistress when she refused to believe in the zombie threat and carried her off over his shoulder. I noticed at this point we were one of those lovely non-family families that tend to form in fiction where the father stand in, the mother stand in, and child stand in had better learn to operate like a family or they’re all going to die. Awesome. The stakes got higher. My play priority changed. We all have to make it. The family must survive. I said as much at the time.

Over the next few rounds I sacrificed my character numerous times to keep either the kid or the school mistress from getting eaten. There came a point where all three of us were on the same square. I pointed out that we could theoretically survive if we had no more conflicts. All we would have to do is narrate scenes without conflict until it was Morgan’s turn at which point we gang up on the zombies and advance. We live together or we all die together if we stop having conflicts. Fictionally the state of affairs would have accommodated this lull in the action quite nicely because we were locked in a second story room of the inn, a fairly secure position easily justifying a few scenes of just talking.

Well, no one listened to me and they jumped right back in with the conflicts. I would like to point out that according to the rules I had the right to “Back Down” but what was proposed my character was genuinely opposed to, so I stood against it… and won. This would have gotten both the kid and the school mistress eaten. Finally the point had come where my character had to choose. He saved the kid.

It was then pointed out to me that the zombies move on the next turn which meant that sacrificing myself to save the kid only meant that we died together. I was fine with that. The outlaw and the kid were partners at least… in death.

It was extremely satisfying. However, I think that satisfaction was due to some very lucky setup that established the characters very rapidly even with people jumping to conflict. The second game we played was not so fortunate.

We decided to play a game set in a Renaissance Faire. Will played one of the guests and said he had a nagging wife. I decided to play the nagging wife and we had two kids. Morgan played a woman swashbuckler and Laura played the Asian girl bitter she was never cast as Queen Elizabeth.

Early on there was a lot of potential for an interesting story about a man stuck between his family and two potentially younger more playful women. It didn’t happen. We jumped out of the gate over whether Will’s character was going to get his nagging wife lemonade or not and all that room for character development pretty much got squandered. The result was an interesting action-movie romp ending with Morgan’s character in a 300-esq standoff with horseback ridding zombies but it just didn’t carry the weight that first game did.

Walk, Don’t Run To Conflict

Posted in Core Principles on September 23, 2008 by jburneko

Fictional conflict is often the centerpiece of game design and as such the texts advocate “getting to the conflicts.” I believe that historically texts have over emphasized this central point from bad play experiences characterized by players spending whole sessions describing their characters shopping or having their characters sitting around chatting about their fictional lives. These kinds of play experiences were sometimes lauded as “incredible” because “we never had to roll the dice.” The central play skill was *avoiding* conflicts so as not to resort to “roll-playing.” These texts were written to show that dramatic confrontations that turned on die roll could be as emotionally engaging as any “pure” role-playing experience.

Unfortunately this idea of “driving to conflict” has been taken to a problematic extreme. What I’ve observed is groups struggling to introduce conflict into a scene if it appears that scene is about to end without one. The central play skill has shifted to *making* conflicts. This leads to all kinds of weird pseudo-conflicts over things like whether or not someone realizes something, or notices something or even feels one way or another or worse whether it’s ninjas or pirates that attack. They feel forced and contrived… and that’s because they are.

It comes down to the fact that play can be about “driving to conflict” without every single scene having a conflict in it. Indeed, for conflict to occur characters must have things over which they conflict. The difference between the kind of role-playing that early indie-texts were afraid of and good solid story building role-playing is that the scenes without conflicts point towards what conflicts will arise later. These non-conflict scenes establish key beliefs, priorities, loyalties, and passions which later elements of the narrative will threaten. With out scenes that first establish and then later update and develop these character elements “conflict” is essentially a meaningless term.

When you let go of the “must have conflict NOW” urge then play progresses much more smoothly and much more naturally. Establishing scenes becomes more about feeding curiosity, “I’d like to see how X and Y interact” or follow up action, “Given what’s just happened I’d like my character to do X.” The play skill involved becomes about *identifying* conflicts when they occur.

Sit back. Relax. Play Passionately.

Encultured Systems

Posted in Core Principles on September 8, 2008 by jburneko

Imagine for a moment that you are playing poker. After the round it’s revealed that you have the high hand with two pair when all of a sudden the guy across from you says, “Ah! I’ve got the Ace of Diamonds!” and collects all the cards on the table and places them in front of himself. Just to make it a little weirder he doesn’t even stop you from taking your winnings. You might rightfully ask, “What are you doing?” To which he replies, “I always like to take tricks in my card games.” You might then carefully go over the rules of poker and this individual smiles and nods and says, “Yes, I understand that you won the hand, I just find that trick taking really enhances card games.”

You would assume, I hope, that the person you were talking to was insane. So, why, I ask, do we as role-players not blink an eye when a fellow role-player says something like, “When I GM I usually have the players submit a detailed character write up for approval. I generally like at least two pages.” without any context as to what is being played? Role-playing games are the only games I can think of where players carry around with them huge systemic behaviors from game to game. The GM who *always* has his players submit detailed character write ups for approval is going to have a hard time with “In A Wicked Age…” in a shocking way and will probably be confused on a profoundly disappointing level with something more subtle like “Sorcerer.”

These encultured systems have their roots in the very dawn of the hobby where play was a highly individualized amalgam of rule-books, magazine articles and house rules. It probably reached the height of formalization with games like Vampire where rules to “do stuff” were provided but to what end, what emphasis and under what structure were *intentionally* left “up to the individual group.” Play groups *had* to develop individualized systemic techniques to make functional play happen at all. These personally developed techniques then got carried around from game to game as a matter of course often unacknowledged. Sometimes players would go so far as to claim these techniques were how the game was “supposed” to be played despite the total lack of (unified) textual backing.

Now some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t this just System Matters all over again?” or maybe the idea of purposeful design? Yes, yes it is. Then why bring it up? Because the community has forgotten. I see people carrying around Kickers, Bangs, Relationship Maps, Scene Framing and Stakes just likes Detailed Character Backgrounds, The Party, Faction Maps and Rule Zero got carried around. “Say Yes, or roll the dice” has become encultured as a particularly poisonous mantra. This has lead to the idea of “Forge-style” or “Story Game style” games. People aren’t playing the game at hand; they’re playing some weird amalgamation of every game they have ever played.

However just like it was toxic to bring all your Vampire techniques into Sorcerer it’s equally as toxic to bring all that “Story Game” stuff as some kind of unified play-style into other games. How many people know that The Producer always frames scenes in Primetime Adventures? Don’t believe me? Look it up. How many people know that there’s a perfectly functional and more basic way to play Sorcerer without a Relationship Map? Read Chapter 4 carefully. Look at how people’s ideas of Stakes has lead to mass confusion on how to play “In A Wicked Age…” and yet the text is rather clear on what to procedurally do.

To address this I offer two pieces of advice. To designers, I say consider what systemic (social and mechanical) techniques are required and/or work in your game and say that in the text explicitly. Don’t hand wave it away as, “It’s a story game. People know how to play those.” To players, I say read the text. Do what the text says. Don’t drag encultured rules into play. Stop taking tricks in your “card games.”