Monday, July 22, 2019

Legendary Lives With Heartstrings Attached

Many of the ideas that I’ve developed here are drawn from the post-game conversations of the Legendary Lives actual play group. So Ron, Rod, and Ross deserve much credit. These reflections would not be nearly as insightful or plentiful without their contributions.

I’ve spent my Tuesday afternoons during the summer playing Legendary Lives, a fantasy roleplaying game developed in the early 90s. The game lives on at the Haunted Attic website and you can pick up a hard copy at Lulu. Legendary Lives was identified as a fantasy heartbreaker in Ron Edwards’ famous essay. It fits the categorization, but ironically, it is an outlier in that group . . . which makes it the most heartbreaking of the bunch. 

In three of the four “fantasy heartbreaker” categories outlined by Edwards, Legendary Lives doesn’t quite fit. It DOES demonstrate some critical perspective on game design (though sometimes that perspective is not sharply focused). It DOES contain some knowledge of actual fantasy (especially folk tales and mythology). And it DOES have some innovative mechanics (more on that below). 

So it’s truly, deeply heartbreaking that it didn’t have the ability to be a commercial success. Edwards’ fourth criteria fits like a gauntlet. Go to the gallery at Haunted Attic for some tidbits about the jagged economic and promotional road the game travelled down. Let me add one more side irony here: Edwards’ essays on fantasy heartbreakers have been widely misunderstood, debated, and attacked, but his arguments and his deep love for these games have helped save them from lapsing forever into obscurity.

So let me bear my heart on my sleeve and share some love for this game.

Mechanical Magnificence
Legendary Lives, for the most part, uses a single, elegant D100 percentile roll to resolve challenges and conflicts. This system, with small adjustments, applies to combat, magic, skills, attribute checks, and so forth. The game is “semi-diceless,” and is possibly the first RPG to put virtually all rolls in the hands of the players.

Moreover, despite the fact that there is basically a single mechanical engine for the game, it has great flexibility and nuance. When you roll, it is seldom a simple pass/fail result, but the outcome can take one of 10 different shades from Catastrophic to Awesome. It takes little time to understand the basic principle and that makes the mechanic quick to use. But the system also allows for some fine-grained interpretation of results.

Character Chemistry
There’s a direct, engaging, and multi-faceted character creation system, which gives you abilities, skills, family background, character type, race, lifeline (background), religion, etc. During our game, this was all done by rolling dice and consulting random tables (though you can choose many of the details if you wish to according to the rules).  At the end, we looked at what we had and wrote up brief.character histories. This was a quick process which resulted in rich, dynamic characters all around.

Writing and Design Clarity
In an age where some games look nice but are written poorly, it is nice to have a game like Legendary Lives. The writing is strong, clear, and on the mark. Careful attention was paid to the editing of the explanations, and it’s also clear that the skill list, the description of resolutions, and the explanations of play were carefully worked through after extensive iterations and play testing. This is one solidly built game system.

Foe Folio and Skills: This Is Not a Hack and Slash World
In Legendary Lives, there can be monsters, but the operative term it uses is FOES, and the rules emphasize that most of them are smart and open to non-violent interaction. When looking through the foe list, you are struck by the way that many encounters can involve more nuance than a straight frontal assault. I’d also note that most of the skills are not aiming at violence or combat. Yes, there can be blood, but Legendary Lives invites a variety of approaches to dealing with the Foes, and it points out that some “Foes” could in fact be friends. (Foe is really just the name for a GM-controlled character, so perhaps not always the most apposite term.)

I could go on, but to make this short: This is a great game at its core. If someone said they were interested in fantasy rpg design, I’d highly recommend that they read this book. And if someone was in the mood to play a “new” rpg that would not disappoint, I would send them to Legendary Lives in a heartbeat.

If you need a full-color coffee table book for your rpg, this one won’t work, but if you are interested in some brilliant, smart play at the table, this is a book that will keep you coming back for more. Not only is the game fun, but it produces story lines that are complex, deep, and satisfying.

So now to some quibbles and ideas for improvements:

Character Races
There is quite a mix here. 26 of them! The term “race” is antiquated, especially when you consider the humans in the bunch. Hill Folks, Easterlings, Corsairs, Bush People, Gypsies, Nomads, etc.--these all count as different races. Today, a different term such as kindred or nationality would be better.

There are stereotypes aplenty, which become especially jarring with those human “races.” Hill Folk seems to be people from rural Appalachia, Nomads are Arabs, etc., and some of the descriptions could be more sensitive. The suggested names give you a sense of this. For example, it suggests names like Mu Tan and Chi for Easterling characters, and Hill Folk get names like Daisy and Clementine.

Revising the race section to update it might be difficult. But there is much that I like about the races as they are written.

Each race has a special ability that have rich possibilities in play. Bush People, for example, have Animal Vision which allow them to see through the senses of a target animal.

I love some of the more bizarre races. I’m currently playing a Wolfling, which is a shape-changer that can take wolf form. And I’d love to take an Entomolian for a spin: These are giant human-sized insects who have a hive mind . . . and they are a designated character race!

My heart also loves the number of races: The variety gives the game a special flavor.

But there are down sides. In particular, if you have a party comprised of vastly different races, then it’s challenging to find the common ground that would give them a reason to work together. And the world of Legendary Lives doesn’t entirely hang together. You look at the map and it’s almost like a theme park with all these different lands you can visit, each of which will have its own cartoonish group of characters. The close of the book discusses the history of the Seelie court, but the game then seems to be unclear about exactly how much it wants to invest in the setting.

Deepening the Story
Despite the superficially cartoon-like elements, we have steadily carved out a curiously compelling story about broken people coming to grips with their tragic pasts and their fractured families. When I reread Legendary Lives, my sense is that the game is sitting at a crossroads in terms of how the GM should manage the game in order to allow the character stories to develop and unfold.

At points, the rules say things like “An adventure is a story, told by the referee, in which the players participate” (3).

But then in other places, it says things like, “During the play, you’ll have to create encounters on the fly, allowing your plot to change as needed. The best events will twist the plot in a new and unexpected direction” (176).

One of the key strengths of Legendary Lives is that it is opening the door to a truly open-ended form of play that is more heavily driven by the characters’ choices and the outcomes of the skill and attribute checks (and those checks come fast and furious!). My sense is that the writers of the game (Joe and Kathleen Williams) were making their way to a new approach and a new way of running a roleplaying game, but that the current style (i.e. the style of the 1990s fantasy rpg) was creating interference. So the door is opening, but it never gets fully pushed inward.

You can see this in the adventures that they published (and are available at Haunted Attic). On the one hand, they are more bare bones than what you might imagine to be a traditional scenario or module, but at the same time, they sometimes have elements of pre-plotting in evidence. Our group noted that this type of thing may be a result of the fact that the game made appearances at convention. So some of this conflict between old and new may be a result of the fact that some of the rules are written with a one-shot in mind, while others are thinking of more long term play.

Another sign of this interference problem: The game has you roll up 5 different lifelines, which give you glimpses of your character’s back story. But the rules are largely silent about what to do with these lifelines apart from the various mechanical and resource benefits they afford. Similarly, the game asks you to write out character goals and says you MIGHT write up a character story, but it doesn’t give the GM any advice about what to do with these elements.

Here’s what I’d suggest (and what we’ve largely done in our own game): If you are the GM, go through a character generation session. At the close, tell the players to send you a character story (perhaps giving a strict word limit to avoid anyone from gushing) along with a list of character goals. Make these two things mandatory, and tell them to send them to you at least a few days before the next game session.  Make sure that there are some small connections and overlaps between characters. Maybe have pairs of characters think of one goal that they share. The GM should then use those character stories and goals to help design the first adventure or opening encounters on the following week.

This aspect of the game really needs more fleshing out than my brief suggestion here. But if this were accomplished--that is, if there was a more completely articulated procedure for working from the goals and lifelines into the initial adventure--the game would shift into an even higher gear. In our game Ross has accomplished much of what I’m suggesting here, but much of that is a result of his own instincts as a GM as opposed to specific guidance from the game.

Miscellaneous Quibbles and Questions
I like the flexibility of the magic system and the way it is tied into the core mechanic. But, as Ron has pointed out, the power of miracles is such that some of the spells seem less special. All characters can ask for a certain number of miracles each session, and many of these miracles cover the same territory as dedicated spells. We haven’t explored spells much in our game, so I can’t really give anything approaching a good evaluation. This, however, is our initial impression.

Sincerity is an odd “skill.” I understand why the game would feel a need to include it, but Sincerity is nested under Charm alongside Bargain, Entertain, Interrogate, and Preach. Charm and Cunning are different attributes, but so many of the Charm attributes suggest careful attention to appearance, so it’s not entirely logical that Sincerity would be part of that grouping. 

Intuition and Fate (especially Intuition) are also curious skills. In many cases where an Intuition roll is used, I would instead simply decide as a GM whether or not to give information to the player. Fate is more complicated, but it’s description in the rule book could use some added explanation.

Final Consideration
The real heartbreaker is that many people who would enjoy and be enriched by this game have not experienced it. It has a trove of rich surprises waiting inside, and if you lean into the character lifelines and goals, some poignant and exciting stories will unfurl. I have dreams of a revised Legendary Lives: My optimistic heart believes that, if someone troubled to update the game and to add some GM advice, we would end up with a game creating new legends.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Empathic Gaming

It's been a while since my last blog post, but the reason is largely because I've been busy reading and playing games. Which means I am building up good material for further reflection and game designs. Below is a lengthy response I put together for an interview posted at Adept Play. I'd encourage you to head over there to see the original exchange between Ron Edwards and Simon Pettersson. There will be further commentary and insights there.

Here's my post:

I was all set to write a post on Legendary Lives, and then got sucked into the conversation (or seminar) with Simon Pettersson, and it put some hot ideas on the front burner. So I promise a reflection on Legendary Lives, but let me provide some thoughts and questions here . . . and then I’ll get back to what has transpired in Smith City.

Some immediate context first. In June, I ran a four-game series of My Life With Master with The Gauntlet (an online rpg community). This was my first time playing the game. And in a couple weeks, I’m going to be working through Emily Care Boss’s “Romance Trilogy” with The Gauntlet. Bret Gillan notes that Cold Soldier is inspired by Boss’s Breaking the Ice, Czege’s game, and Ron’s S/Lay w/Me. So many of the topics in this discussion are directly touching on issues of concern for me.

Scary Gaming
One of the reasons why I’m taking on the Romance Trilogy is because so many of the ideas and principles of the games scare me. I suspect that this is a reason why many other prospective players would avoid these games immediately upon hearing the elevator pitch.

Ask me to play a violent Wolfling on the edge of a mental breakdown who is set loose on a band of weapons smugglers? No problem.

Want me to play a game close to home--one where my own unvarnished experiences, desires, hopes and fears are potentially on display? I’m not so sure about that. While the rules don’t require this type of “close to home” intimacy, Boss regularly mentions and encourages it in her games.

Breaking the Ice (the first game of the trilogy) is a two-player game where a pair of characters work through three initial dates. It’s designed to deal with the awkwardness, sparks, setbacks, miscommunications, and building attractions involved at the start of a romance. During the initial character generation, Boss asks you to chat with your fellow player to find out about your commonalities and differences. You then take one of these differences and then use it as one of the core attributes of your characters . . . except you switch it with the other player. So, if you are young playing with someone a couple decades older than you, you might play the older person starting up a romance with someone significantly younger. The game can obviously get quite personal . . . just as Cold Soldier can with its requirement that the GM order the soldier to do things that the GM finds personally repellent. 

The last game of the trilogy, Under My Skin, turns up the heat even more. It is initially written as a LARP (Live-Action RolePlaying game), and the players take on the roles of friends, couples, and acquaintances who discover new loves and attractions and who then have to decide on how they will react. Even if they return to their previous partner, they will be changed by the experience. 

Scary stuff. These are games with a high potential for bleed (a spillover between character and player). And I could see things turning out very badly--badly on a deep, emotional level--for some players who come to the games with the wrong approach, expectations, or mindset.

Emotional Modulation (or Controlling the Bleed)
Here’s a provisional principle: For games with an empathic content, there needs to be a set of mechanisms and procedures in place that will allow players to modulate and manage the personal identifications they have staked. The higher the empathic content, the more important these mechanisms and procedures become. (Is there a term that describes the way that these mechanisms and procedures serve to manage the empathic content?)

For Breaking the Ice, the Switch requirement, is, from the start, one such device: You are, by definition, required to play a character who is, in at least one significant way, very different from yourself. So your character is clearly not you.

The mundane elements of the character sheet, dice rolls, and outcome evaluations are also key. If I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the amount of bleed in Breaking the Ice, I can focus more of my attention on these mechanics to settle me. The card mechanics of Cold Soldier seem to have a similar effect: If I’m slipping into an emotional valley which I’m not wanting to enter, I can think of the game in terms of the poker hand I’m trying to build

Setting can also be used to good effect. In My Life with Master, I suggested that we could place the game in the current day, but the players unanimously and vigorously vetoed that idea because they were afraid of the game cutting too deeply into the heart. This is one reason why Czege’s default 19th-century eastern European setting works well. 

I’m developing a four-player version of Breaking the Ice (which I’m calling Hacking the Ice), and in this one, I’ll have two players controlling a single character. One player will be responsible for the rational/practical dimension of the character, and the other will address the emotional/passionate side. Aside from opening the game to more players, the added focus will help to modulate bleed effects. In my hack, you won’t be your character: At most, you will only be half of your character.

To LARP . . . or Not?
Under My Skin adds additional challenges for me. I don’t know that I’d be equipped to play the game in its default LARP form, especially if it were played close to home. Boss writes, “In Under My Skin, players can choose Core Issues for the characters that relate to their own experiences. This is (relatively) safe space to explore what might be very risky to do in one’s own life.” 

That phrasing with the parenthetical “relatively” has me quaking in my shoes.

The fact that I want to play the game online, however, already defuses some of that fear. The kinetic and intimate nature of face-to-face LARPing along with its tendency to avoid some of the mechanics of ttrpgs, increases the possibility of bleed effects. VARPing (Video-Augmented RolePlaying) provides some technological distancing which for me is useful.

In The Romance Trilogy, Boss includes a variant of Under My Skin titled “Ere Camlann” which sets the game in the days of King Arthur. Players take on the roles of people like Lancelot, Guenevere, Morgaen, and Mordred. And I’m going to add some light tabletop roleplaying elements to the game for an added measure The literary-historical setting and the dice roll mechanic will give me some added ways to modulate the empathic bonds.

It is clear that the extent of empathy and bleed effects are variable in a game. I’ve been in games where some players have been impacted on a deeply personal level while other players are simply appreciating the fiction as a separate entity. This variability might in part be a result of how the players are (or are not) using the modulation tools that the game affords them. If one player wants to experience a more emotional or empathic game, they can direct their mind away from the mechanics and procedures that could tone down that dimension. Whereas another player might leverage those elements precisely in order to keep themselves in a zone where they are more comfortable. 

These game elements are analogous to the formal and aesthetic features of literary texts. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, touch on topics and emotions that cut deep, but there is a reason why we read him as opposed to listening to a heartfelt emotive rant on Youtube. Much of that has to do with the poetic qualities of Shakespeare’s work, which we can use to modulate and control the emotional content he is expressing.

Guaranteed Story?
There are so many other topics to address. I’m especially keen on the discussion of whether one should design a game that guarantees a good story. But that discussion actually touches on some of my thoughts concerning Legendary Lives, so I’ll plan to develop those thoughts in a separate posting.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Get Behind Me, Satan: “Demons are Social Media Junkies,” The Final Sessions

My maiden run of Sorcerer came to an end late Monday night. This was Session 8 of the mini-campaign, which means we actually ran it for nine intense sessions if you include our session zero.

Here are links to the final sessions:

Session 7

The Finale

All of us were grateful that we made it. The three players were invested in the game, but hectic and shifting schedules being what they are, we were having difficulty maintaining our initial Saturday morning times, and we were scrambling to keep the group together and to get in one final session to conclude the game. That desire obviously put some added pressure on me as the GM, as I wanted to give the group a chance to get some issues resolved without forcing a narrative upon them.

How did the group fare in the finale?

By the end of the evening, our naive sorcerer (Dylan) was sufficiently unsettled by his demon’s (Korybantos) increasingly violent tendencies to attempt a banishment. The first attempt failed But after another sorcerer (Chuck) knocked down Dylan’s demon with a volley from his M-16 (growing up a military brat has its advantages), the entire group got into the effort and sent Korybantos packing. Dylan--who had decided that he wasn’t cut out for being a sorcerer--succeeded in his humanity gain check.

Meanwhile, the gun-wielding Chuck lost some humanity: He prided himself as a fighter, but actually shooting a person (or a demon passing as a person) was something different for him, and he was deeply unsettled by the encounter despite his rugged, stoic mindset.

Our third sorcerer (Shawn) faced a humanity check from a different source. In this case, it was the result of a successful use of Taint directed at a burned-out husk of an NPC sorcerer who was clinging onto the last thin thread of her humanity. When Shawn witnessed the humanity loss caused by the Taint, he was reminded of a similar effect that he had observed previously when he saw his demon Hop from one person to another. Shawn managed to pass the humanity check, but there was a heavy price to be paid. Awakened to the awesome and disturbing power of sorcery, he acknowledged the demonic abililites at his command and, with a burdened soul, took ownership of his identity as a sorcerer.

Every time a humanity roll came up in our session, the players knew that something of consequence had occurred, and those moments were dripping with dramatic and narrative import.

In terms of the kickers, Shawn and Dylan both achieved closure on theirs. Chuck’s kicker would have taken another session or two fully to resolve, but there was good development in that direction underway, and the player was satisfied with the story that unfolded. He was also pleased with the climactic confrontation with Korybantos and the key role Chuck played in knocking the demon down.

To be sure, a number of key narrative elements remained unexplored or undiscovered. For example, the characters never got to the bottom of the mysterious Stewart Barfield, an entertainment mogul who never appeared in the flesh, but who seemed to be involved in some malevolent enterprises on the dark web. Likewise, they never found out who was behind the threatening photos that featured members of Chuck’s household being stalked. The players commented on some of those loose strings, but they didn’t see this as a weakness of the game or of our play: They realized that it was up to them to deal with the bangs and strands as they deemed fit. If they left some of those elements to pursue on another day--and maybe simply decided not to pursue others--that was acceptable. Sorcerer is NOT a game filled with plot tokens that the characters must collect.

I was worried about the slowburn pacing and whether the players would keep up the engagement level. It turned out my fears were unfounded, and the more deliberate speed resulted in an experience that was complex, nuanced and deeply satisfying. The characters started the game on separate paths, as they were slow to realize the sorcerous identity of the others. This led to some delicious dramatic irony, and my players revelled in the way that Lore rolls to pick up on telltales almost always failed, which then gave the ironies even more tension and potency. Once the characters did recognize each other, there were some wonderful roleplay scenes where I was able to take a back seat and enjoy the interaction and dialogue of the characters. My group was made up of members of The Gauntlet, an online gaming community. But I deliberately ran the game off calendar so that we wouldn’t be forced into the standard four-session run. In the debriefing, all the players commented that the longer time frame and the fact that we weren’t forced into a predetermined number of sessions yielded a far more satisfying experience.

We typically had a week between sessions, but for the last one, two weeks had elapsed. This also created some concern for me. Back in the halcyon days of my youth, my gaming group would play on Friday nights, but the members talked to each other during the week, so we had no problem keeping the fire of interest burning strong between sessions. Despite being mostly incommunicado during the week, my Sorcerer group stayed strong, and one player in particular commented on the importance of breathing space between sessions. Yes, we did require some time to review facts and events from previous sessions, but it turns out that my players kept Sorcerer on their minds during the week, and they consistently re-entered the game with intense interest and thoughts that had been brewing.

We were all impressed by the way that the game accommodated very different types of characters, and how the demon-character relationships were also diverse. In the case of Shawn, for example, it wasn’t clear who was the master in the demon-human relationship. However, in the case of Chuck, there was a more symbiotic relationship that had developed. Chuck’s demon had a need to witness scenes of violence, and Chuck’s cover as a bouncer put him in a perfect position to keep his demon happy. Meanwhile, Dylan made choices that worked against his demon’s need, and this resulted in a transformation of that relationship that became increasingly menacing and disturbing for Dylan. This rich variety was aided by the fact that the characters initially were pursuing separate storylines that only gradually became woven together

There’s so much more to discuss. It took us awhile to get a handle of the dice roll mechanics and to understand the meaning of the core attributes. The Sorcerer system allows a great amount of flexibility. Humanity, for example, is the key attribute of the game, but its meaning is left up to the GM and players to define. Beyond that, each character will have a slightly different relationship to Humanity, and the way that Humanity can play into the mechanics and resolution of specific conflicts within the game can vary. This richness is also one of the features that makes the games so challenging. Demon abilities seem like spells, but there is great leeway in terms of how they can be imagined and implemented, and the possibility of linking abilities together means that they will look very different depending on who is using them. That all sounds great, but it means that everyone at the table must work hard to determine whether or not they are making a reasonable interpretation of the abilities, and they must be creative in how they implement the rules.

What’s in store for the future?

I have a few ideas.

  • A solo Sorcerer adventure for training purposes would be an interesting and useful endeavor. Certainly, such a scenario would have to leave out some crucial aspects of the game that involve a conversation at the table. But such an adventure could take beginning players and GMs through a character and demon creation process and then lead them to varied conflicts to demonstrate how to think through the dice roll mechanics.
  • I recently received a copy of The Skyrealms of Jorune by Andrew Leker, and my initial reaction is that the setting would lend itself to a reskin using the rules of Sorcerer (with some ideas taken from Sorcerer and Sword. I might propose this as a project to my high school gaming group. If that project has legs, I’ll keep you updated.
  • I’d love to take another crack at a straight Sorcerer game. My “Demons are Social Media Junkies” ideas has potential for further development, and I’d love to run that concept with some implementation of social media into the game play. Maybe, for example, we set up a twitter or Facebook account and make periodic posts in between sessions.
  • Finally I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to lead or play in another campaign of Sorcerer centered around a new set of anchoring statements.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Lacuna Actual Play: Minding the Gaps

Lacuna Part I (second attempt). The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City by Jared Sorenson is a roleplaying game which lives up to its name. From the outset, the rules revel in the fact that there are gaps and absences. Sorenson uses a deliberately enigmatic approach both to add to the atmosphere of the game and to spark the creativity of the players and GM (called Control).

I had the opportunity to run four 3-hour sessions of Lacuna for The Gauntlet, an online gaming community.

Here are links to our sessions. Note that there is a lacuna: Due to my absentminded nature, I neglected to hit record when we played session 2.

Session 1

Session 3

Session 4 

For real pyrotechnics, see 1:35:30 of session 4 for the final appearance of "The Girl for Blue City" who has found her way into the real world.

I had neither played nor run the game before, and all the players were new to the game. The mechanics of the game, however, made it quite easy to manage. As per the guidelines of The Gauntlet, I ran an open table, which meant that players were free to sign up and to drop out over the course of the month. This created a dynamic situation, requiring flexibility from week to week. But the game is quite accommodating to the situation: Creating a Mystery Agent is quite quick, and explaining the rules is similarly breezy affair. Players only have a few attributes (Force, Intuition, and Access) to monitor, and they have to keep track of their characters’ heart rate. When faced with a challenge or a risky task, players roll a pool of 6-sided dice (impacted by attribute scores and a couple other factors) hoping to get an 11 or higher. Most roll results are added to a character’s heart rate. When climbing into a target heart range, characters become almost invincible, but this leads inevitably to a crash, as the characters move beyond their target heart range and into dangerous “maximum heart rate” territory.

What follows here is not a review but a list of some observations that emerge out of actual play.

Outside Blue City:
Blue City is the name of the dreamscape where the characters are sent to do missions. The idea offered in the rulebook is that characters are being sent to hunt down Hostile Personalities which are actually criminal aspects of a violent or otherwise dangerous individual. While these missions are being conducted, the characters’ body and vital signs are being monitored on a “slab,” and when the agents are extracted from Blue City at the end of a mission, they are returned to their sleeping bodies and woken up. The rules, however, are silent about the agents in the real world outside of Blue City.

In my game, two agents became convinced that Control was not a benign or competent entity, and they decided to rebel. In fact, they discovered that there was an entire revolutionary faction existing of former Mystery Agents. [Note: The rulebook itself suggest that something along these lines is going on. There is a Special Agent named Miner who went MIA, and who has been tried by the spy organization in absentia.] This operation required us to imagine that the revolution was being carried out both in Blue City and in the “real world,” but there are no rules and scarcely any guidance for how to conduct operations in reality. This didn’t stop us, but it did require us to be vague and to rely on some hand waving to move the plot along.

No Back Story:
The “default setting” of the game is for the Mystery Agents to adopt pseudonyms and to “forget” anything about their lives prior to becoming operatives for Control. One of the players who came aboard during session two had problems with the fact that the characters had no back story. The game seems to want the players to give their characters personalities, and other players in my game had little problem diving into the spirit of the game without an anchoring history or autobiography.

But following upon our session 2 debrief, I made this lack of memory a theme. I suggested in session 3 that the Mystery Agents should perhaps find it odd that they had no knowledge of their past lives, and that perhaps Control was responsible for some type of memory wipe. I introduced them to an NPC Mystery Agent who DID recall their past life, and who was surprised the the PC Mystery Agents did not have this type of knowledge. This immediately raised alarms. Why wouldn’t Control want some Mystery Agents to know who they were? Did they have a relationship to one or more Hostile Personalities? Were they possibly part of the insurgency against control?

GM Roleplaying and Static
Lacuna leads the GM into a rather unique and exhilarating roleplaying situation. During the game, the GM plays Control, who is an entity in charge of monitoring the agents and assisting them in carrying out their missions. Control’s role often overlaps with the GM’s role in a typical roleplaying game, so it becomes quite natural for the GM of Lacuna to slip in and out of that Control role in ways that are often subtle and ambiguous. That is, there are moments when it became somewhat unclear whether I was speaking as a GM or speaking as Control.

Adding to the spiciness of this situation, Lacuna involves a mechanic called Static. During a mission, various events can lead to the increase of Static which the GM monitors. These triggering events are determined in advance by the GM, and they can involve anything from “arguing with Control” to “ignoring a designated PC.” In my game, which was played online, I included “experiencing a technological glitch” as something that would increase Static!

The impact of increased Static is also GM determined, but the game suggests that sometimes this Static should result in erratic, strange, or oppositional behavior on the part of Control. This creates great drama during the game, as the players look to the GM to provide clarity at certain points only to discover that a “Static-charged Control” is now throwing other monkey wrenches and delirium into the mission.

Spiraling Story Arcs and the Mystery Girl: 
The default setting of Lacuna leads to an episodic framework. A game session will typically involve a small group of Mystery Agents being sent into Blue City to stick a “Lacuna Device” onto a Hostile Personality, essentially eliminating them. Afterwards, the agents get extracted, promotions might be in order (leading to increased talents and/or techniques), and the process then repeats.

But the game also leaves open the possibility of a wider story arc which might involve an insurgency within the agency supposedly running the operation. This happened in my game, and in a major way. Not only did the agents discover the existence of rebel Mystery Agents, but they also discovered that some of the indigenous denizens of Blue City (who normally act like automatons) were becoming “woke.” That is, there were some entities in Blue City who were NOT from reality, but who were becoming self-conscious. They were also becoming alert to the fact that their world was being invaded by conscious minds from beyond Blue City (i.e. from reality).

I picked up Sorenson’s idea of the “Girl from Blue City” as a pivotal figure in this developing narrative. Control regularly expressed concerns about this strange young lady with light brown hair and hexagonal glasses. She occasionally made an appearance in the adventures. During the inaugural mission, for example, the agents were instructed to plant bugs at certain banks around the city. They discovered mid-way through the mission that they were being trailed by a number of individuals wearing black jeans and t-shirts. During a climactic attempt to find an extraction point, the girl appeared and for some reason intervened in a chase which allowed the player characters to exit from Blue City.

In an even more momentous development, it became clear that the “Girl from Blue City” was making incursions into the real world. It turned out that the movement to Blue City might be a two-way street and that entities from the dreamscape might be able to make their way into our reality. In fact, the “Girl from Blue City” occasionally appeared on the video screen behind Control (i.e. me). My daughter just so happens to wear hexagonal glasses and have light brown hair, and I set her up to walk behind me at some key moments during our session. For he final star performance, start watching around 1:35:30 of session 4.

Genres and Play Styles
Given their intentionally fragmented nature, the rules of Lacuna can lead to a number of different types of genres and play styles. Gritty spy narratives, Lynchian surrealism, Matrix-inspired tales, straight mission-oriented sessions—these are all possibilities for Sorenson’s game. It is a remarkably flexible system. I could imagine someone writing out a traditional “city-crawl” scenario for a more traditional group. That’s not the way we went, but I appreciate the fact that Lacuna is so accommodating if the GM and players are willing to put their creativity into the effort.

In the case of our sessions, we were freely borrowing from a number of genres, but effectively weaving them into something fresh, new, and unplanned. Our last session pitted one rebellious Mystery Agent against two others who were willing to go along with the desires of Control. I hadn’t fully planned for a player vs. player scenario, but the game accommodated the development. Again, we had to fill in some gaps in the rules, but when Lacuna is the name of the game, we had a sense that we were squarely in the spirit what this wonderful oddity is all about.

The close of our final session involved a rather intense and moving scene as the rebel tried to persuade the others to join the revolution. The lead agent was wavering over the momentous decision, but then—in poignantly noiresque fashion—he opted to remain true to Control and placed a Lacuna Device on the other player. 

I loved the melancholic ending, and there were some heady philosophical and dramatic vistas opening before our eyes. Embedding the notion that the line between Blue City and reality was dissolving within a story exposing the rather dysfunctional nature of Control made for some wickedly delicious fun.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Demons are Social Media Junkies, Sessions 4 and 5

I am again cross-posting this actual play report over at Adept Play I'd encourage you to check in over there if you are interested in possible further discussion or commentary.

I continue to play Sorcerer with three players from The Gauntlet, an online roleplaying game community. We are now through five sessions (plus a session zero) of our “Demons are Social Media Junkies” campaign. For reference, here are the links for the most recent gatherings:

Session 4:
Session 5:

I’d like to focus this actual play report on two topics:
  • The flexible nature of the Demon Abilities, using Hint as a specific example.
  • Players grappling with the idea that the GM wants them to do something (when the GM is in fact simply offering opportunities for the players to do with as they wish).
I have three players whose characters know each other, but are unaware of their identities as sorcerers. For sessions 4 and 5, I used a heavily modified version of the “Training Scenario” in Sorcerer. The characters were each invited to a classy party at the mansion of a reclusive, behind-the-scenes executive producer named Richard Barfield. Barfield is known for brokering deals between entertainment companies, but he is mysteriously absent from his own party.

Taking a Hint and Running with It

Shawn is an Apprentice Sorcerer who has bound a Possessor Demon named Aaron. Aaron’s need is to influence people to believe and to act in irrational ways. When choosing abilities for his demon, Shawn selected Hint, with the idea that this ability could be used to implant suggestions (or hints) in the minds of others. Being relatively new to the game, I had not fully drilled into this ability, so didn’t know enough to warn the player away from this choice. I’m wondering if my ignorance about Hint was actually fortuitous--either that or I was just being daft..

At the big party, Shawn was looking for an opportunity to satisfy his demon’s need, and the issue of using Hint came up. So we read the book, and it was dawning on us that the original intent of Hint was to have it serve as a type of divination: The target would typically be the sorcerer or another player character, and it would be used so that a character could get some truthful information from the GM.

But Shawn wanted to do something very different with the ability. He spied a young celebrity couple which had recently reconciled after a period of conflict. The relationship had been in the tabloids. He would walk up to the couple and engage one of them in a conversation. Meanwhile, the demonic Aaron would set to work and use Hint on the other half. But he would use the ability to implant a false idea--namely that Shawn and his interlocutor were engaged in heavy flirting with the intention of making the other partner insanely jealous.

We rolled Aaron’s Power vs. his target’s Will, and Aaron succeeded, so we interpreted this to mean that some hallucination would be involved, and that this hallucination would reinforce the idea of heavy flirtation. The target succeeded in the second roll [and also a subsequent Taint was ineffective]. But since the target’s Will had been overcome by the demon’s Power in the first roll, I ruled that the Hint had some impact, and that the target was overcome by jealousy, creating an embarrassing public scene caught on Aaron’s smartphone camera.

This sequence raises a more general point about other Demon Abilities (and, even more generally, about how other games conceive of spells and other supernatural influences). I like the fact that Sorcerer demands work from the player and the GM to define the details of most of the demon abilities in actual play situations. This is especially the case when abilities get used in tandem, but even when used individually, there are delicious possibilities available.

I’m sure some would take issue with the way Hint got used in this case, but I would point out that the usage did not violate the strict stipulation against mind control: The target was already susceptible to the suggestion that his partner might cheat on him, and the Hint was used as a communicative ability to implant an idea that would amplify those pre-existing doubts. One issue is whether the demon using Hint in this way could also use it in the more normal prescribed manner: I’m tempted to say “no” since these two types of Hints are so different in intent and operation.

What Would the GM Have Me Do?

All the characters came to the big party at the Barfield mansion under different pretexts. One was serving as security; another was there to provide entertainment; and a third was there as a young minor celebrity. The players knew that the party might offer opportunities for the characters to recognize each other as sorcerers, and I allowed them to observe events that put them into the orbits of other characters. In some cases, those orbits were quite close. Chuck saved Dylan from the clutches of two demon thugs, but neither of them were fully aware of the demonic identities of those thugs or of the sorcerous identities of each other. They did note the sharpened teeth of the thugs, but they assumed that maybe that was just some strange practice or oddball cosmetic choice. And Shawn (a somewhat naive member of a new age cult) was able to see Dylan’s demon running off to help after a rather vicious bludgeoning assault of a party guest . . . but Shawn wasn’t understanding the import of all this (though, of course, the player of Shawn was).

At one point, Shawn’s player asked me if I wanted his character to do something or to move in order to be part of a dramatic scene in progress and thus to force some type of revelation. I was adamant in insisting that I really didn’t need his character to take any specific course of action and that he should play the character as he saw fit. So Shawn stayed at the soiree, mostly taking note (with wide eyes) of a sequence of puzzling events swirling around him.

The characters are now in the process of leaving the party, and the air is laced with dramatic irony. The characters are still in the dark about what exactly was going on . . . and they still do not realize the identity of the others as sorcerers. So the flood waters continue to rise, and the suspense for the players is mounting! At the end of the session, the players were excited about what was in store. After some high action scenes, they are looking forward to some “hanging out” time where the characters will begin (perhaps) to piece some things together. That will potentially lead to some humanity-shattering revelations. But this is still only potential.

When it comes to aesthetics, I’m a fan of the slow burn build-up, so this gradual development is my jam. During the session, Shawn’s player (who was asking if I wanted or needed Shawn to act in a prescribed manner) was perhaps thinking of other games (or GM styles) which involve shunting characters down prescribed narrative paths.

My answer to the question “What would the GM have me do” is “As you (and your character) wish.” Many of us were thinking that the play session would involve major revelations and that sorcerer characters would pick up on the demonic powers swirling around them.

That didn’t happen.

The end result was an action-packed session ending with plenty of future developments waiting in the wings. The conclusion of session five wasn’t planned, and it’s all the more exciting and satisfying because it wasn’t forced. As a GM for Sorcerer I see my role as one of constantly reviewing and revising the character diagram, and using that to create situations filled with potential for the characters. The operative word is potential. It’s ultimately the players who must make the decisions to activate those fireworks.

I was worried that the players would be disappointed with the session as I worked through the mechanics and tried to figure out (partly on the fly) the Hint move. The fact that there was an almost palpable deferral of major revelations was also weighing on me.

But my concerns were not justified: During the debrief of session five, all three players were excited about where the next session would lead, and they quite enjoyed the fact that their characters were brushing up against each other yet not making the connections. [Side note: The same may not hold true of the character’s demons: I will be making some rolls to determine how that side of the equation works out.]

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Pool and The Snowball: Forward to the Past

I’ve been running a sequence of four game sessions working with James V. West’s The Pool. Here is the video of our session.

 As with recent play reports, I'm going to cross-post this at Ron Edwards' Adept Play site which has provoked much of my thinking of what is going on in this session. Feel free to comment here or over there!

The mechanics of The Pool are lean and streamlined: Players start by creating a 50-word story introducing their characters. Traits and attributes are derived from those stories, and a players can assign points to those traits according to a simple formula. They leave some points (usually 3-5) for their “pool” which they can then use to boost the number of dice they roll in the case of a challenge or conflict. The number of dice involved in a roll is the sum of:

  • The points of the trait involved
  • 0-3 discretionary dice awarded by the GM
  • Gambled dice from the pool

If a player succeeds in their roll, they can choose to deliver a Monologue of Victory (which gives them the power of controlling the narrative for a short period of time) or to add another die to their pool.

For our first session, we used the rules as written by James West, and on subsequent weeks we have moved to variants. To get the players in the same head space, I sent them some pictures with the statement, “These are some of the inhabitants you see around the village in which you live.” One player used the term “rustic fantasy” to describe the kind of setting and atmosphere that developed from that seed.

I am focusing this Actual Play report on our most recent session (Session 3), which incorporated some rules from a variant of The Pool called The Snowball (by  Alexander Cherry). The most significant changes to core rules involve:

  • The LOSS of gambled pool dice on a SUCCESS (in the original rules, you lose those gambled dice when you fail a roll.
  • The addition of a Monologue of Defeat (in addition to the core rule’s Monologue of Victory).
  • The playing of the game in reverse chronological order. 

[Note: We are not incorporating all the rules of The Snowball, in part because this is part of an ongoing campaign whose previous sessions were run the proper rules of The Pool and the Anti-Pool Variant.]

I hope  to produce a summary of the entire 4-session series when we have completed it, but I wanted to make some specific observations about this curious Snowball session because the reversed chronological order touches upon some other issues recently raised at Adept Play. Those issues include those of “knowing the future,” the requirement to roleplay in terms of a necessary goal or terminus, and improvisation within increasingly rigid structure.

I’m including a diagram to help with establishing how the session was organized. Sessions 1 and 2 were already “in the can,” and they established a known and unalterable backstory for the players (who had participated in those sessions). For the first scene of Session 3, we lept to the future.

As the GM, my procedure was to give the players a setting and some detail. I then went around the table and each player could briefly establish where their character was and what their character was doing and/or feeling as the scene opened. From there we roleplayed to a point where we were satisfied that the scene had come to a sense of closure or conclusion.

I then transported us back to Scene 2 using the same scene framing technique: The GM provided a setting and some interesting details, and the players inserted their characters in the scene. We then played out the scene with a major objective in mind: Namely, we needed to end at a narrative point close to where Scene 1 began.

Play proceeded in this manner until we ended with a scene that was in close narrative proximity to where we had ended in Session 2.

A few things to note:

  • The starting point of Scene 1 was constrained by the basic “facts” established by the first two sessions, but otherwise was open in terms of content. Likewise, the end point of Scene 1 was determined by play and not planned. Scene 1, in other words, was very similar to the way we had been playing in previous sessions with the exception that there was a notable time gap that had elapsed. As a result, Scene 1 begins with a disorienting in medias res moment as the players try to figure out what has been happening. But this “figuring out” follows the “pump” model (State 2) of play as described by Ron: That is, it proceeds “from a pressurized position into a unique and unplanned circumstance.” 
  • The later scenes, by contrast were much more constrained. We had some freedom with the starting point of the second and following scenes, but the end points were largely predetermined (by virtue of the fact that they had to fit in with the starting point of the scene we had previously played). That said, we found that we could modulate the difficulty of the play by considering the details of one scene and then deliberately framing the “next” scene with some of those elements in mind. To illustrate: 
  • Scene 1 was set in the middle of an ancient stone circle. A plinth in the center was covered with the shards of a broken blood-red gem, and a hot war hammer lay on the ground. During the scene, an earth golem was discovered to have been involved in the act of destruction, and one of the characters (Auntie Pine) notifies the company that she is leaving her role as the firekeeper of the village.
  • It eased the way in Scene 2 to frame things such that some of those key elements were already in play or explained. 
  • The final scene of the session was the most heavily constrained: We had to start near the end-point of Session 2 and end with the starting point of the last scene we had played. (Hopefully the diagram helps to make all this clear!)

This way of play required us to move from the  pump model to a funnel model of play, and this is one reason why the players were challenged. Note that we could have been taking a form of funnel approach from the start, but my play group was happy to begin with some basic aspects of setting and then work out a story in the course of play without any predetermined end point. So Sessions 1 and 2 along with Scene 1 of Session 3 all followed with this pump approach. But with the retrograde chronology of “The Snowball” in place, Scene 2 and the following scenes have to abide by the funnel.

This made for a curious experience, especially since the trajectory of our story had not previously been decided ahead of time. Now, we were playing a series of scenes where a specific goal was in mind. Unlike a usual funnel, however, this goal was now a narrative necessity: Had we decided to pursue a different goal, our story would have fallen apart, and we would have been left with two scenes that no longer meshed with each other. Normally, the funnel is more optional.

This style of play also required some special focus and deliberation on our part. You will particularly notice this towards the end of the recording when one of the players who was battling fatigue realized that it was on him to do something with his character to preserve the narrative continuity, but memory lapses were making this task virtually impossible. I had to provide some prompting for his light bulb to go off.

I don’t think our play required any extensive fudging of the rules as we set them up at the start of the session, though with a more merciless or deadly rules system, that would change. For example, if you were following a reversed chronology and you knew that a character was alive in one scene, then what if the mechanics of your game dictated that the character died in the scene that immediately preceded that one in time? That would face you with a gordian knot, with the easiest solution being to massage or alter the results.

A few general observations about our experience playing with The Pool and some variants:

  • Using magic as a trait in a fantasy setting provides so much power within this system, and there are times when I wish that we could limit it because it can so effectively overshadow some other attributes which are more unique and curious. Traits like old age, storytelling, and cooking are interesting to put into play, but once the magic gets rolling, those traits are getting forced to the wings. 
  • The Monologue of Defeat and consequences of failed rolls motivate interesting narrative twists, but when they are the result of GM-forced rolls involving perception or knowledge, they get more tricky. To explain: Imagine that the GM asks a character to roll because they want to see if a character realizes something about an event taking place. If the character fails the roll, then it can be hard to think of some narratively consequential impact (i.e. something more than simply that the character remains ignorant of something). 

Questions or comments about The Pool, The Snowball, or issues raised by our play are welcome.