Archive for November, 2008

Passionate Play #4: Epic Fail… Maybe Not So Epic

Posted in Actual Play on November 7, 2008 by jburneko

I very recently had a Sorcerer game fail. It didn’t fail because of scheduling conflicts. It didn’t fail because of lack of creative synergy or social cohesion from the group (Will and Laura whom I play with a lot). It just plain came to a screeching halt in a dead end of No Fun. Sorcerer is a game that requires the GM be a strong leader. Therefore, I take full responsibility for what happened. This article is my letter of resignation.

The biggest mistake I made was forgetting that neither player had every played a full, from scratch, game of Sorcerer. So there were some choices I made based on my experience with the game that don’t work well with beginning players. Probably the biggest of these was neglecting to come up with cohesive look & feel for sorcery.

A lot of people get worked up about defining Humanity as the central point of Sorcerer prep. I much prefer to start with flavor. What kinds of people are Sorcerers? What does sorcery look like? What shape and form do demons take? When strong enough that kind of stuff tends to cluster around some general issues from which some notions about Humanity become apparent. Whether you need to spell it out or not varies from group to group.

I didn’t do that. Nor did I customize the descriptor list. What I did was ask the group what kind of Sorcerer game they’d like to play. It was decided to do something historical set in the American Civil War. I thought this was very similar to when I ran my game set in New Orleans just after the Katrina disaster. Except that time I DID come up with a coherent look and feel for sorcery and I did customize the descriptor list. I just forgot I did that.

The result of this was the players ended up creating two very different “schools” of sorcery. Laura’s demon was the ghost of her dead brother and Will’s demon was the fire that burned Atlanta. That by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What went wrong is that I failed to properly consider the two schools. This made it very easy for me to play the brother demon but I struggled to play the fire demon in any meaningful manner. It wasn’t even until near the end of the second session that I had any inkling regarding what it wanted or even how it communicated.

Another mistake I made was not enforcing the zero humanity means the story is over for your character rule. I’m not a fan of that rule. I much prefer the suggestions in Sorcerer Soul. In my New Orleans game there was a ritual where THREE PCs went to zero humanity simultaneously and we gave each one of them different consequences for doing so. I tried to apply the same methodology here and it didn’t work.

What happened was Will’s character ended up going to zero Humanity as he murdered a Union Captain in order to force his ghost to give up some information. I had made it clear that I wasn’t going to use the “game over” rules. Instead I unbound the fire demon and sent it on a rampage. I also had the contact ritual Will’s character performed to talk to the Union Captain’s ghost be stuck open. I liked the metaphor of Will’s character being “haunted” by his actions.

Now all of that was fine. However, when you allow a character to go to zero Humanity and bounce back that should be a character redefining moment. The problem was there wasn’t enough established in the fiction or from character creation for Will to find a new direction for his character. In fact, the immediate circumstances now facing him, given his original drives and motivations would only send him bouncing back up and down and up and down against zero Humanity.

I found out why allowing characters to go to zero Humanity is an advanced technique first hand. Will found himself creatively stuck. Not being experienced with the game he found his character lacking the nuances necessary to bolster his Humanity or reverse direction in his current crisis point. I think had I enforced the zero Humanity means game over rule that wouldn’t have been as big a problem. It would have been easier to brainstorm alternatives to killing the Union Captain or to decide that it was a short and swift end to that character than it was to deal with the more complicated situation given how the character was conceived.

Laura’s character suffered from the opposite problem. Her character had lots of nuances but lacked the drive that keeps a sorcerer moving forward. In this case I had failed to make it clear that a Sorcerer game really is all about whatever it is you write on your character sheet. Laura’s character’s parents were dead and she was living at her aunt and uncle’s place. Her Will descriptor was “Rageful and Vengeful.” Her demon was her brother hosted in her own body. His Desire was Competition and his Need was to go whoring. Her Kicker was that her cousin who helped her summon the demon had gone missing.

What I saw here was a woman who was so angered by what the war had done to her family that she was willing to do anything including summing the dead to keep them together or avenge them. So I thought I was speaking to all of that when I had her missing cousin entangled in a plot to refine his “gift“ to raise an undead confederate army and when I played her brother as a willing-to-do-anything for the cause but confounded by his rivalry with a fellow soldier over the affections of a prostitute.

Instead I ended up locking Laura into a place of creative confusion as well. She made it clear that these elements were way too intense and she just wanted her character to go home. I do have a tendency to drive my Sorcerer games very hard which may have contributed to the “intensity” being louder than it needed to be. That’s a problem I have in general.

In the end Will’s character had the drive without the nuances necessary to prevent his character from being a villain. Laura’s character had the nuances but without the drive to be a protagonist. When I saw both players were absolutely struggling with “what to do next.” I asked a few questions which uncovered these problems. It was clear the game had dead locked into a zone of No Fun. So I suggested we call the game.

Here’s the point I want to make about all this. We failed. It sucks. But you know what? That’s okay. Next time, Will will make a more subtle character so that he doesn’t dive into humanity zero land. Laura will construct a more driven character with elements she doesn’t mind being the absolute focus of the game. I will bring more focused prep and try not to play so loudly. We learn. We move on. We practice.

Overly Processing Play With The Rules

Posted in Core Principles on November 4, 2008 by jburneko

If you asked me ten years ago what I wanted out of an RPG I would have said this: “I want a game that when played optimally by computers will produce a compelling narrative.” I’m not joking. I was a firm believer that a system more or less has to compel players to do interesting things, otherwise they won’t.

That may sound absurd but I still see variations of that attitude taken to different extremes lingering in the hobby. I see people who interpret the fact that you get a bonus from applying a trait in a game like Primetime Adventures means traits are about getting people to “act like” those traits. Or indeed I see people stretching (quite painfully) in every scene to try and make their traits relevant.

Basically what I’m seeing here is a system foremost (rather than a system matters) attitude. I see attempts to engage the system directly and see what it “wants” the person to do fictionally. This article is about how that process is backwards.

Some games are robust enough to handle a system foremost approach. Dogs in the Vineyard is an example. You can pretty much grind out the rules of that game in a semi-mechanized manner and something interesting will likely result. I think this is because Dogs in the Vineyard puts in so many other social constraints that a mechanistic approach to system works. Everyone knows they are Dogs. Everyone knows a Dog’s job is to solve the problems of the town. Everyone knows the four major moral “break” points of conflict are Talking, Physical, Violence and Guns.

So if you basically go into every conflict starting at Talking and the GM always pushes and pushes as hard as he can and the player constantly assesses at each break point, “Is this worth the next step?” then you get a fairly straightforward narrative. I mean, after all, that’s what the system clearly “wants” you to do, right? Well, the game doesn’t disintegrate if you play it that way but it makes for a fairly boring game. It also misses on some fairly nuanced and exciting application of the rules.

One of the things some people are quick to point out is that you don’t need to go all the way to Gun Fighting to get all your dice. So if I mechanically don’t NEED to go to gun fighting doesn’t that weaken the temptation? The fact that you don’t need to go to gun fighting to get all your dice makes the decision to start shooting more powerful. It turns the spotlight AWAY from the dice and firmly back on the player as an emotional entity. There are enough dark circles and bold underlines around guns in the game that their relevance as a component of the fiction is loud and clear. Does your engagement with your character and the fiction warrant shooting?

Another thing to take note of is that escalation is not a linear progression. You can start in of the four arenas and “escalate” to any of the four other arenas and even return to arenas you’ve already been to. From that perspective “escalating” is really more about unifying different conflict methodologies (by keeping their application consistent via the Raise system while changing their severity through different size fallout dice) than “temptation.” Considering shooting, then talking, then shooting some more then dropping your gun and throwing a punch makes for a much more dynamic conflict landscape.

Finally, my personal favorite emotional tool is Giving. You don’t have to Give only at the “break” points. You can Give anytime you want and that includes the GM. When Giving is on the table at every point it becomes one of the most powerful thematic markers in the entire game. It allows the “target” of a Raise to socially acknowledge that they’ve been emotionally defeated. The chance to say that what’s been said, fictionally, is compelling enough, to them, that there’s no point in going on.

Applying these nuances requires a fiction first approach to the game. Instead of looking at the system as what shapes the fiction look at how to express the fiction through the system. That’s why system matters. It’s not because systems constrain player behavior to an “appropriate” set of fictional input. It’s because they shape how your fictional input gets mechanically expressed. The commitment to quality fictional input has to come first. This approach requires thinking, feeling and doing what feels emotionally right to you as audience and author and then reaching out and applying the tools given to you to express that commitment.

As I said earlier Dogs in the Vineyard is fairly robust as to not disintegrate if you play it in the mechanistic manner. However there are some games that will disintegrate if you don’t treat them in a fiction first manner. Sorcerer is an example. From a fiction first approach it’s fairly clear to see that Demon Needs and Desires, Humanity, Kickers, Price and Descriptors all work in a fairly sophisticated concert even though there is no mathematically connection between them. They are rules and design but require artistry and skill to apply. Sorcerer would not be better served by giving demon’s Need points that fuel their Abilities and when the demon runs out of Need points you can recharge them by transferring your Humanity points and narrating some awful thing you do to justify the transfer.

Dirty Secrets is similar. That game is fueled almost entirely by the player’s opinions of the characters and their willingness to express them. The grid is less about generating a surprising random outcome and more about voting. Because the grid is used for all the crimes you’re voting for a given character to be guilty of something. It’s the height of being judgmental. The scary thing about Dirty Secrets is that the only thing you are given to form your *initial* opinion is demographics. That’s by design. But if you don’t put your feelings at the forefront of the application of the rules then the game falls flat.

My point here is that viewing rules and design as a “story sausage grinder” that so perfectly limits the player’s input and so perfectly processes that input to be “thematically acceptable” ultimately leads to predictable and flat play. When it gets discussed it appears to be a well meaning effort to eliminate the possibility of creative failure or perhaps an attempt to “unify” players such that “anyone” can play successfully (together) as long as they follow the rules. To all that I can only say without emotional and creative risk there is rarely as great an emotional and creative reward.