Author Topic: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle  (Read 1986 times)

Michael S. Miller

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[With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« on: February 24, 2015, 09:52:03 PM »
Hey, all.

BACKGROUND on me: This was originally a post on G+

Ron invited me over here for further in-depth discussion. I haven't spent much time over here since Ron remodeled, so I don't know anything about posting frequency, forum expectations, etc. I'll try to remember my Forge-etiquette. I doubt I'll be able to reply during the workday, as the forum doesn't load well on my phone. But I'll check in after work.

BACKGROUND on the Actual Play: The event was at Dreamation 2015, a gaming convention in Morristown, NJ. There were four players at the table: Jon "Buddha" Davis, Paul Czege, Adam Gastonguay, and Daniele Popelsky. I had personally played with Buddha, Paul, and Adam many times, and Daniele never before, I think.

The current state of With Great Power is this: It is based heavily on Epidiah Ravichol's Swords Without Master and I have no trouble calling it a "hack" of SWoM. I am very interested in the creative space that SWoM explores, a very different kind of thing than most games.
THE POST ITSELF: So a great thing happened in my 2nd With Great Power game at Dreamation and I want to pull it apart a little. I'm not sure how much was due to the group, how much due to the system, how much due to me having "hit my stride" in the convention. But it was a neat series of fiction building on fiction that I want to nurture and encourage.

I'm just going to stick to the most high points of this particular chain of fiction-building-on-fiction, although there was a lot of really great stuff in this game.

During character creation, +Jonathan Davis   created his hero "Hellfire" who had made a deal with the devil and now was a constantly-burning skeleton in an asbestos suit. He had a group of followers called "The Hellfire Club" that would support him. They hung out in a shut-down steel mill. Hellfire slept in the crucible.

The villain, Groupthink, infected others with her thoughts through touch.

The introductory heroic scene was a nuclear power plant taken by terrorists. I pulled this pretty randomly off a little oracle-like list that I made up as a replacement for the Thunder of Swords Without Master. The heroes capture the terrorists, but the reactor is damaged in the process. The heroes avert a meltdown.

Later, there is a personal scene featuring Daniele's hero, the Red Avenger—a hero who had lost control when she had first gained her powers and was fighting off being labeled a villain. Someone says that this scene should be about her love life. Daniele casts Buddha as the blind date, but +Paul Czege  suggests that a dating coach would be better. Buddha steps up with the dating coach setting Red Avenger up with a blind date with ... Dr. Cold, a supervillain that Buddha made up on the spot. During the small talk of the scene, we established he was on parole with an anklet.

Later, during a scheming scene, we learn that Groupthink is taking over the police. So, when it is time for a scene where the villain unleashes her might, I look at the heroes and see that Hellfire is only one with any sort of location established, so I target him with the police. Then I think "What are police going to do against a burning superhero?" And then I remember Dr. Cold and his parole. So I arm the SWAT team with cold guns, and have Dr. Cold there with his anklet as a consultant. The phase ends with Hellfire surrendering so the other heroes can escape.

Leading to finale, Groupthink visits Hellfire in prison. She is holding all those who have some measure of resistance to her touch in a camp. There is not enough power (due to earlier power plant fight) to keep the camp warm, so she will let them freeze unless Hellfire agrees to be the new power source. As he allows himself to be locked into the reactor core, Groupthink says, "Now the one being I could never touch has been taken care of."

What I am particularly pleased with is how the earlier creative contributions from the table were worked in and built on in later scenes. The nuclear power plant thing was a generic sort of problem to give the heroes something to show off about. It retroactively became part of the villain's plan. Dr. Cold was a throwaway joke supervillain name in a personal scene. He and his cold-based technology retroactively became part of the villain's plan. The interaction of Groupthink's touch-based powers and Hellfire's fire-based powers wasn't planned, but it became central to the main plot. This is what I want the game to nurture and promote.

It's always easier to tear apart things that went wrong. I welcome any thoughts on this thing that went really, really right.

Ron Edwards

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #1 on: February 25, 2015, 11:46:26 AM »
I totally get what you're talking about, how off-the-cuff input becomes solid situational content, and can grow into genuine plot - what was recently described in a Circle of Hands thread as appearing retroactively inevitable, even if it was completely open or multiply-branching before it happens.

Let's put aside all the intangibles - the individual or collective moods, that kind of thing - and see if any
techniques contributed. You mentioned the creative space fostered by the kinds of rules at work, and so that fostering is the real topic, right?

The one thing I would like to know more about is the starting "same page" process, especially one that would put Hellfire into the "yeah that's good" usable group-space. I am seeing enough confluence among the Red Avenger and Hellfire that I suspect something was going on there. Was making up Groupthink part of that too?

I'm asking about it because using the kinds of toss-it-in details you're talking about only occurs when the context is strong, and perceived as easy and fun. I guesss I'm saying, if the rules didn't help people do this, or actively thwarted them from doing it, then that's a design problem to solve. But since that was clearly not the case, then the only question is whether they helped.

If the game-as-written can help this happen, that might be enough success in the design right there. There's no such thing as designing to make it happen; that's a conceptual problem Paul and I have been talking about for years. So the question is whether the current design satisfies you that far.

Michael S. Miller

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #2 on: February 25, 2015, 08:22:49 PM »
Last point first: Does the current design satisfy me on this level? The answer is Yes, in this one instance. I don't playtest frequently. The event I ran the day before this one wasn't bad by any stretch, but was not as good as this session. My main goal in trying to pin down what is going right is that as I continue to refine the game and smooth out the rough spots I don't want to accidentally cut something fruitful if I can avoid it.

You asked about the "same page" process. I do an intro at every convention game I run. "Let's go around the table and introduce ourselves, and say something you like about a specific superhero or superheroes in general." To be honest, I don't remember exactly what everyone said,  but there was a lot of talk about the innate melodrama of the larger-than-life superheroic situation.

We then made characters. I was testing out a new process. I've made a few dozen cards that have evocative character creation questions, like "You struck a bargain to get your powers. What is your end of it? How does it still affect you?" (which I think was one of Buddha's). I hand each player four cards. They look them over and choose three of them to answer. I encouraged people to share what they were thinking while they were thinking about it. This resulted in some characters getting refined considerably from their initial concept (Paul's hero The Heir went through quite a discussion, if memory serves). I think both Buddha's a Daniele's didn't change too much during that discussion. Also during that character creation session, the table decided that this was definitely a mid-90s comic with all the dark and gritty and too many pouches that the decade implied.

While the players were thinking about their characters, I had also dealt myself four cards for the villain. They are from the same deck, but I simply interpreted them in the most negative, villainous way possible. One of the villain cards was "You are disabled. How? Do your powers make it easier or harder to deal with your disability? In what way?" so I thought a blind supervillain could be interesting, particularly if her powers weren't related to vision at all. I hit upon the image of someone offering an arm for help, and having that openness turned against them. Thus, Groupthink was born.

I wasn't really consciously thinking about the heroes while creating the villain. I certainly wasn't trying to aim her at anything about the heroes at all. Not because I couldn't, but because I wanted to test to see if gameplay itself could pull disparate elements together. Which it did.

I did throw out ideas and questions and suggestions while the players were creating their heroes. But without any agenda other than making their heroes as cool as possible, and making sure that everyone had a firm-enough understanding of the characters, their abilities, and their issues.

Maybe that's all I need to do is continue to get out of my own way and trust the players. That's really what drew me to Swords Without Master to begin with. I can't think of another game this side of The Pool that trusts its players more fundamentally.


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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #3 on: February 26, 2015, 04:49:10 AM »
Hello Michael

Sorry if I derail the thread a bit, but are you rewriting With Great Power? Has this anything to do with the current topic? I remember an AP report where Ron was raving about the Color-first, which you seem to have had all the way from character creation through to the end of the session.

Michael S. Miller

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #4 on: February 26, 2015, 10:17:44 PM »
Hi, Christoph.

Yes, I am completely redesigning With Great Power. This past weekend I got to do two playtests. One of them went extremely well, and this thread has been very helpful in picking apart what made it so fruitful.

For those familiar with the original game, almost no structural similarities remain. But there is a lot of thematic overlap, obviously. I may be older and have less hair, but I'm still me. Thanks for pointing out that thread. I had forgotten it. Ron's observations about Color-first are spot-on, and the new version has moved strongly in that direction, to good results.

Now to just write the blasted thing up and get it into external playtesting!

David Berg

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #5 on: February 27, 2015, 02:54:04 AM »
Hey Michael!  Wish I'd gotten to see you and play this at Dreamation -- maybe Camp Nerdly?

My experience with Swords Without Master has been just as you describe with your two Dreamation sessions of With Great Power -- sometimes it's just okay, and other times each player's fiction inspires each other player's fiction until you get an unstoppable snowball of awesome.  My assessment at this point is that the premise gives players enough orientation to "get it" and act freely, while the system "stays out of the way" very well and gives just enough prompting to always give the players something to do (as opposed to spinning their wheels)... but the specific inspirations informing any given moment are pretty light. 

By "inspirations", I'm not just talking about "we're playing angsty superheroes" and "right now we're Struggling against a telepathic badguy in a prison", but rather about the whole history of the character, the setting, and how the two fit together.  Perhaps it's inevitable that one-shot games will be a bit light on this (is WGP a one-shot?), but I mention it because I think connected inspiration is a frequent foundation of the fiction-snowball.  Not just "are the players all agreed that we're doing angsty supers" but also "we all know that this location means X to you and Y to me, and this NPC did A to you and B to me," etc.  I've felt that nothing in Swords Without Master (a) front-loaded that or (b) made us particularly likely to revisit fleshed-out ground.

So, in case either of these is useful to you, some recent examples of front-loading and ground-revisiting:

a) I recently joined a Pathfinder game.  The GM had a module picked out.  A powerful supernatural flame has been extinguished, a meteor has struck, the local friend-of-the-PCs went to investigate and disappeared, and the area around the crater has become infested with monsters of unknown origin.  I knew all this before I started making my character.  It was very helpful!  I made a character who's crashed onto earth himself, and doesn't know his origins -- accordingly, I'm oriented toward the specific places we'll definitely be visiting in play, looking for info about my own origins.  So, whatever color the GM reads out of the module, I can take that fiction and multiply it with my backstory and maybe get that snowball started.

b) The Guest Stars in Within My Clutches.  When one supervillain tries to seduce Captain Metropolis, and in the very next scene another supervillain is trying to frame her for murder, it's quite frequent to have some inspiration carry over.  At the very least, the player who's already been playing the Guest Star gets into a groove with it, so when she lowers a scowl, everyone at the table remembers how poor Doctor Farenheit cowered before that scowl in the last scene, and there's some extra juice there.  The villains could each have all their own Guest Stars, but it's better that they don't; the fiction deepens over play, rather than just broadening.  My less thrilling Swords Without Master sessions have seen a lot of broadening.

Michael S. Miller

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #6 on: February 27, 2015, 06:16:32 AM »
Hi, Dave.

Were you at Dreamation? I didn't see you. Kat and I are going to do our best to get to Nerdly this year. I can show off my ability to drop well-thrown Frisbees!

Those are good examples. Thanks for sharing them. The particular bit I want to reply to is when you said:
I've felt that nothing in Swords Without Master (a) front-loaded that or (b) made us particularly likely to revisit fleshed-out ground.

My experience with SWoM has agreed with yours on point A. There is absolutely no front-loading, unless one of the players chooses to take an interest in another player's Things Named. I'm trying to counter that trend in With Great Power by a more communal hero creation process. I'm not sure whether the villains need to be targeted specifically at the heroes, as was done in original WGP. My gut instinct is to resist that path, as I suspect it will make the fiction too restricted. Every villain will end up being someone's evil twin or something.

On point B, I have found the Motifs in SWoM to be extremely helpful in promoting a atmosphere of reincorporation, even before the explicitly-named "reincorporation" portion. The fact that at least one motif on later threads must echo a motif on an earlier thread keeps everyone in the headspace of looking for ways to build what has come before.

Admittedly, I have only played SWoM online. I find that the motifs work much better online than their WGP equivalent work face-to-face. I suspect it's because online there's no social awkwardness of reaching for a communal sheet of paper, you just switch tabs and type while you're listening to someone else. Writing down others' contributions is not natural, but it's a habit which can be learned.

David Berg

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Re: [With Great Power] Virtuous Creative Cycle
« Reply #7 on: February 27, 2015, 07:00:27 AM »
No, alas, I haven't been to any northeast cons since I moved to North Carolina in late 2011.  Fingers crossed on Nerdly!

Your thought about pre-game villain-connecting likely not being worth it makes sense to me.  I think one of the nice things about my Pathfinder experience was that the ties were indirect -- my guy, and maybe another PC, and a key NPC, and maybe some of the villains, were all tied into some places and events that functioned as shared context for play, without ever being the focus of play.  So rather than tie my superhero directly to the villain, I think what I'd want to do is tie both myself and the villain (and other fictional stuff, hopefully) to Manhattan, or the Daily Bugle, or Inferno, or Hydra, or Oscorp, or something else with the potential to pervade play.

As for Motifs, my groups didn't get much fictional coverage-deepening out of them.  Not sure why.  Maybe we just sucked at it, and would improve with practice (but in one-shot games I'm not a huge fan of there being something really important that you might not get right away).  Maybe it was because of when Motifs are invoked -- I forget.  Is that during scene framing?  If not, and you wind up wanting to use it mid-scene where it doesn't fit as a literal revisitation of the same fictional people/places/things/events, then you get more indirect, right?  "This reminds me of that other thing."  I remember enjoying it as an element of the telling of the story more than anything else -- I don't recall situation/setting richness increasing.