Author Topic: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest  (Read 1426 times)

Ron Edwards

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[Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« on: July 16, 2013, 06:50:31 PM »
I realized I'd never posted this account of playtesting at Forge Midwest, so brushed it up a little, and here it is. Players included Raven, Todd, Larry, Dan, and another guy whose name escapes me … it's a little confusing now because one of the characters had the same name as one of the players, and now I can't remember either, or if it was even him. I totally remember everyone's face and their distinct ways of contributing to play.

OK, so the way you start playing Amerikkka is for everyone to identify something right now that they think is institutionally deeply wrong, I mean, really criminally wrong and real-world disastrous. It could be utterly legal or someone might be getting away with it, either way, but it has to be established in the existing power structure – and apparently immune to any sort of standard redress.

Then walk it back to the 70s. What did it look like then? What harbingers of its eventual horrible effects existed then? What kinds of activist groups might have been interested in it? What groups missed it when they shouldn't have? What reforms failed to nip it in the bud, if any?

You make up a group who saw the problem clearly, back then. And realized that it wasn't going to get dealt with effectively. And who realized that if they didn't stop it, didn't bring it to others' attention, that it would be disastrous for America's future. In other words, they are 100% right.

The issue that got going at our table concerned military accountability, basically a desire to see military come under political review, civilian processes of justice, congressional impeachment, and any other way to break the "fuck it up and get a general's star" and the "retire and get out of criticism" dodge. Clearly a deep, deep rage regarding Eisenhower's famous warning about the military-industrial complex and how it was profoundly ignored in practice, especially during and after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

The fictional group shaped up to be pretty wild. They conducted lots of veteran outreach, lots of detox from heroin and alcohol, albeit also favoring deep acid trip encounter group meetings. Their more direct actions focused hard on industrial collusion with militarism; they totally foresaw the destruction of local industry jobs and their replacement by military-hardware and menial base jobs.

So we each made up a character, getting Ned the Moral Center Pal (veteran), Brother Yang-Zho the Scary Visionary (communist; incidentally, very white), the Scary Old Guy (veteran), the Rebel Old Guy, and Lanie the Scary Chick (women/veteran); the mechanics allowed us to add Officer Carson the Scary Face in play.

Those designations come from the eight terms called Roles and a character is composed of two of them. The only constraint is that no two characters can be Roles duplicates. A given Role is specialized in Inspiration, Experience, Action, or Voice – for example, the character I made, Ned, could initiate action in Experience (from Pal) and Inspiration (from Moral Center).

As I described in a couple of previous threads, playing this game at its most mechanical stage entails a specific effort at direct action by the group. We found we had time for two such actions, called Episodes. I think everyone was pretty pumped at how well they played.

You play the character you made in the first episode, but you can’t play the same character two episodes in a row. Therefore I played Ned in the first Episode and Officer Carson in the second; Raven played Brother Yang-Zho in the first and Lanie in the second, and so on.

OK, here's a brief and with any luck clear soundbyte about how it’s done. Recall that every character has two roles, and each Role is associated with one of Inspiration, Experience, Action, and Voice. For example, a Visionary Face would have Inspiration (from Visionary) and Voice (from Face), a Scary Rebel would have Action twice, and so on. Here's the way those terms are arranged on this little Playmat thing. Here, those four terms indicate four scenes which occur in that linear sequence from Inspiration to Voice (actually one of three linear sequences depending on whether Experience is used, Action is used, or both). I call them Steps because what really matters fictionally are the arrows – play is all about generating a causal chronological sequence of that kind. Here's the thing: although in the fiction, it's linear, the scenes are actually played ad-lib. You "open" them by playing a card to that Step, which you can do only if one of your Roles lets you. (Anyone can add to an open scene though, but less effectively.) So the first opened could be any of them, and later play allows any opened Step to be made longer, i.e., to keep playing that scene.

The Establishment accumulates cards too, and sooner or later a total is achieved for both sides, and further play occurs after that too. Basically, the action in question either fails or succeeds in the essential way, whether the Voice step can be validated to the mainstream.

Mechanically and with sufficient color and characterization, an Episode plays really fast in real time. Too fast, I think. We even had time for a discussion in which I held forth on my notions about the Symbionese Liberation Army, which in the eventual book is going to be the finishing Profile. Fun as that was, I need to open Episode play up a little for more relaxed and exploratory play inside scenes, a little more characterization beyond the minimal, and especially character visuals.

The first Episode concerned protesting a dedication or opening of a workplace under military contract, Dow Chemical if I remember correctly. One of the subtlest yet most productive features of the game is the Chick role, deeply problematic in real-life history and also in the fiction/non-fiction/media of the time. I typically distinguish between the Voice and Chick roles as the first being about proving the point to the mainstream, and the second being about displaying the point to the mainstream. Think of the iconic photo of the woman crying out over the body of one of the people shot at Kent State. (Nothing stops a character from being both, of course.)

One of the features within the Chick concept is painful … the possibility of martyrdom in one fashion or another. We were really hard on our Chick! Lanie got her face broken during the scuffle with the police, and it even turned out that beating her for the cameras was planned.

That emerged from when, in this Episode, one player used a Joker card to convert an Establishment character to the cause, which also allowed add-ons to the Experience scene to show how that character had become "turned" to the activist cause. (I realize with some pain that this game could fairly be called "Now let's re-make Billy Jack and have it be good.") This was a serious and surprising twist which introduced a hell of lot of content, maybe even too much. I realized that I wasn't sure just how far I wanted to let that go. (The latest rules changes provide a lot more structure to Establishment characters and Jokers can't be used, only banked, in the first Episode. So the equivalent act using the current draft would be possible, but much less out of the blue.)

I say all that to impart to readers here that card play is present in the game. It's present in both Shahida and Spione too, at very precise points, although to my aggravation more than one person has claimed the mechanics have no choices in them.

I mentioned further play once the preliminary totals are known. Mechanically, the group’s current aim is made more effective through exploiting the social breakpoints in the group, i.e., being dicks to one another. What this genuinely represents is subtle: I’m not saying that dysfunctional internal interactions makes an activist group more effective; rather, the point is strictly that people are too often careless with one another when making snap decisions, which in this case of this particular fiction might end up being effective. I’m going for the historical and difficult fact that these groups’ internal stresses ramp up swiftly just when their message to the general population actually starts being articulated successfully. Some of this historical effect was due to agents provocateur, but some of it was not, and that latter is what I’m doing mechanically in this case. (Said agents are in play too, but that's a feature of the Action step.)

The second Episode we played was about stealing some files from the FBI liaison at the police station to bust on Dow some more. This was a big deal in that era; a famous "extraction" from a rural FBI office broke open tons of operations that were clearly carrying out COINTELPRO tactics despite the agency's lengthy denials and reassurances that all such things lay in the past. Who did it remains unknown to this day, but from that point forward, files became a major target of direct-action groups.

Even worse, the Chick got bushwhacked yet again. In this case, the only way to overcome the Establishment score was for Lanie to burn her Scary Role to add points to the Experience scene, in doing so, being allowed to enhance the fictional arrow from Experience to Voice. So from now on, Lanie is Scary no more, just a Chick. The fictional content was quite horrible by today's standards but could easily have been found in the literature and values of the time – to what extent the hard-acre, equally-touch female character uses her body as an object to further the objectives. Reminded me of the scene in Hair when Sheila actually fucks a guy in public as part of her head-games with Claude … it's not "free love," it's not "sexual liberation," it's basically emotionally very unhappy.

The game's fundamental dynamic is sound, just as I found in a preliminary very-alpha playtest last year, and sessions like this one allow me to refine bits and pieces, tweaking a few minor mechanics as I go.

I've been daydreaming about using music during play, along the lines of a player choosing an album or making a play-set of the era, per character. I can't really think of an elegant or easy way to do that, but putting that aside for the moment, the idea would be that if you opened (say) the Action step, then you set the music going, and it plays until play-attention shifts to some other step, and when and if you revisit the Action step, you play that particular music again. Or something like that. It might contribute to slowing play down, too.

So you know, the 6-CD combination in my car at the moment is the C.A. Quintet, A Trip Through Hell; Dragon, double album Universal Radio and Scented Gardens for the Blind; Harsh Reality, Heaven and Hell; Gentle Giant, Octopus; Camel, Moonmadness; and Uriah Heep, The Magician’s Birthday. It's not just Creedence and Stones hits I'm talking about.

I don’t want play just to be Episodes, though, I want a more complex starting point and a larger card-oriented activity at work too. The first one is nicely met by the fantastic book American Nations. For the second, I've written the alpha version of inter-Episode play, which will round out the whole political spectrum and afford a deeper, novel-like perspective on what’s going on – as well as rigging play in the favor of the Establishment deck, naturally.

Best, Ron
edited to fix Sheila's name; I mixed it up with the song "My Donna" initially
« Last Edit: July 18, 2013, 10:23:34 AM by Ron Edwards »

Miskatonic

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Re: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2013, 03:07:19 AM »
Yay! I'm glad you posted something. I couldn't quite piece together enough of the details to recap, but I was really pretty impressed with the game. Thanks for running it. It sort of haunted and excited me for days afterward. Wow.

The players were just Ron, me, Troy, Raven, and Dan K. I had to check the photo! (I was the one who accidentally named my guy "Dan K______" as though it emerged out of my subconscious FOR SOME REASON which became embarrassingly obvious as I glanced at the name tag across from me. Oops.) Victor sat in and watched a while too, but didn't play.

The second episode with Lanie was just heartbreaking. Was this the first character who burned a role? Because ouch, this game gives you a nasty little incentive to make sad things happen to characters you've starting to care about.

The way the mechanic assembles the story non-sequentially is possibly ingenious. I was amazed by how well it worked.

I guess I rather liked the time-economy of the episodes. It's clear you could get through several of them in a row, and get a real sense of the longer-term story arc of your radical group. See progress in the cause. See the characters starting to fall apart, break down.

I've got thoughts on why I think this is an important work, but not for tonight.
Larry

Ron Edwards

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Re: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« Reply #2 on: July 18, 2013, 10:37:56 AM »
Hi Larry,

I'd very much like to know your thoughts on its importance.

Regarding the mechanics, I've rigged it so that if the activists neither Putdown one another nor Burn any Roles, then they have about a 50% chance of succeeding in the first action, and then it incrementally gets harder and harder. I still have to playtest my ideas for doing this via content rather than just "add one more Establishment card per Episode" or anything else brainless like that. Anyway, the point is that if the group wants a real chance for success, then they'll have to find a way to deal with in-fiction Putdowns, and also to weather the Burning of Roles, including the possibility of Burning Out characters.

I'm quite fond of my rules for which Roles can Putdown which others, and for what happens to Burned Roles. Basically, once Scary is Burned, it's gone forever. Pal can only be Burned into Scary. Everything else can only be Burned into Pal. (It is also possible to leave a Burned slot empty, if you prefer, which is what Lanie  did.) So if you do transform your Roles via Burning, you'll end up as a Scary Pal, and eventually just Scary.

I think this works nicely with the Endgame conditions too - if the group succeeds in an action, ever, then the players can simply stop and agree that they're done and the group is historically finished. The urge not to do this, upon succeeding, is very strong. But if the group fails twice in a row, then they can't sustain their commitment and play must end. Also, if everyone active in an Episode is Burned Out, the game must then end. And finally, if among the existing members, there is no way mechanically to generate Voice, then the game must end.

It seems to me that my bite-sized summary of the simultaneity of scene-play doesn't quite do the job. I'll work on it.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns

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Re: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2013, 02:47:04 PM »
When did this game start happening? This is mind-blowing. I've been looking for / tooling around with making something like this since I started playing Liberal Crime Squad, a brutal and hilarious computer game inspired by the SLA, made by the guys that do Dwarf Fortress. As one might expect from the Dwarf Fortress people, its approach is very simulative: you engage in various activist/terrorist (there's room for choice there, but the game leans hard to the terrorist side, and deliberately so for the sake of black humor) activities in order to sway peoples' opinions on various political issues (for example, to sway people away from the death penalty, you can disguise yourselves as judges to sneak into the courthouse, and execute a hangin' judge with a sword), while the people elect officials throughout based on their opinions, and the officials enact and repeal laws based on their agendas and poll pressure. It's deliberately unilaterally black-and-white extremist (frex when a character is in peak condition, their health is displayed as "Liberal"), lacking moral nuance, and played for laughs on the whole, but it's still fascinating in its narrative potential (much like Dwarf Fortress -- the simulation is so complex that events take on an unpredictable life of their own, and players are drawn to assign motivations and such to turn it into a story) and fascinatingly intricate (and difficult). And, while you're laughing, your curiosity gets piqued, and it makes you want to learn about the SLA, which turns out to be a rabbit hole if you're at all interested in history, because it turns out activism in the 70s era was not adequately covered in school, At All. And then there you are, looking for an instrument to play around these themes with all the ambiguity and nuance that the computer game lacks.

But THIS. This hits all of the narrative potential that LCS had that appealed to me enough that I wanted to RPGify it, with elegance and moral nuance. Everything you say about the rules, I'm over here saying, "yes, that's exactly it! That's what I've been looking for!" I want to know more about it!

Also, the semi-synchronous resolution of chronologically occurring but achronologically played scenes is of special interest to me, because I've secretly been exploring the idea of a William S Burroughs hack of Spione. Can you tell me more about that process?

Ron Edwards

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Re: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« Reply #4 on: July 18, 2013, 09:42:51 PM »
Hi Marshall,

You'll want to read these, I think: [Next Story Now game] Music and [Next Story Now game]Piecing it together.

The simultaneity works like this. Well, first, remember that everyone at the table is playing one character each (at this point), and that each character has two Roles. And each Role is associated with one of the four Steps.

OK, to begin an Episode, anyone Opens one of the Steps his or character is associated with by flipping a card (ordinary playing-card) face-up next to it. That moment, and the events described by that Player, becomes the Now. Keep an eye on the Now.

If someone wants to extend that Step, they can - this would be basically add-on, ordinary play that continues the Now in that particular location. Once Opened, a Step cannot be re-Opened, just extended. Cards which do this are laid down face-down and will only count for 1, not for their face values.

Opening another Step is fine. Opening new Steps beyond the first require focusing on the causal arrows - you're showing why what happened before causes what happens later.

If the newly Opened Step precedes the Now, then this is a flashback and the Now remains unchanged. Opening a Step that occurs after the Now moves the Now to that Step. Cards for Opening and extending any Step, and narrations, are handled the same no matter what. Note that any previously Opened Step can be extended; whether in Now or otherwise.

So you could, hypothetically, have all the Steps Opened and still be extending each of them through play. Or, again hypothetically, you could start with the Inspiration Step and extend it fully, then play utterly linearly into whichever Step you decide comes next, and so on all the way out into Opening Voice and extending it. Or go utterly backwards, fully doing Voice, then fully whatever one comes before that, and so on. Obviously each Episode becomes its own, very different presentation in terms of fictional time and creative input.

So you know, a given character is allowed to have one face-up card and one face-down, maximum. But note that if someone else(s) Open the Step(s) that you were eligible to Open, then you aren't going to get a face-up card. This is really no big deal, due to certain other mechanics.

There comes a limit based on the mechanics of the Establishment (oppositional) cards and certain other things. After the first Episode, Establishment characters will be a big part of play as well. There are also nuances that arise if you use the Action Step, in terms of opposition. And perhaps most important, Putdowns and Burning will alter the face-up cards considerably. But ultimately the point is whether you beat the Establishment's score or not, and that's something you either do or you don't.

Best, Ron

greyorm

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Re: [Amerikkka] Playtest at Forge Midwest
« Reply #5 on: July 27, 2013, 02:23:52 PM »
"...an Episode plays really fast in real time. Too fast, I think."

Based on our couple episodes, I thought the session length was just fine. I don't know that you need to tweak it at all.