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General Forge Forums => Playtesting => Topic started by: Joel P. Shempert on January 28, 2010, 10:15:54 PM

Title: [Spectre of the Beast] the structure of play, from text to practice
Post by: Joel P. Shempert on January 28, 2010, 10:15:54 PM
Awhile back Paul Czege told me he was planning a playtest of Spectre of the Beast (, my game in development about grand ambitions fueling the bloody march of civilization (you can find the rules questions he raised pre-game here ( He recently emailed me to let me know he had run the game, and that he had some feedback for me in the form of a series of questions. I thought it would be valuable to have that conversation here, with more eyeballs and more voices.

And so, here's Paul's first question:

With my own culture, I was inclined to push the limits of the game. I created a culture of naked wood nymphs, isolationists who just wanted to be left alone. If you were hosting the game what would you have said to that proposal from me? Anything?

To which I reply:

What I would say would probably depend on the whole-group tone that had emerged for the game, either from a general vibe or explicit conversation. I'm still struggling with how to have that conversation for SotB, with all the creative paralysis that "go ahead, make up anything you want" usually provokes. I kinda feel like Culture creation is the game's weak point for that reason.

Now, something like "naked wood nymphs" can fly no sweat, in itself. One game I ran (definitely not a "serious" session) included hermaphroditic seahorse-riding merpeople who rose up from the depths to regularly dispense justice to surface-dwellers. And I've used SotB to run a Political Realist Super Mario one-shot ( (that one did take itself seriously; or rather it was silly, but also in earnest). So the only issue is, as I said, tone. If everyone's making steppe nomads and merchant sea-traders and sun-worshipping pyramid-builders, then naked nymphs is jarring. But if everyone's on board with weird elements, go for it. My primary playtest run had airships and lizard-man slaves and fights with monstrous beasts. It's all good.

The other element, "isolationist," is worth looking at separately. That would worry me more than the naked nymphdom, I think. If the Culture is really passive, then I'd make extra sure to keep an eye on the Champion's Ambition, to see that it's nice and proactive. That's not to say that the Culture can't stay Isolationist, though; it's no crime to avoid contact with the other Cultures. Especially since the Culture has multiple Epochs to develop in. I think seeing how one Culture develops cut off from the others, and even moreso observing the clash when they finally meet, would be lots of fun.


PS This thread is primarily here for Paul's feedback, yes, but I would delight in others' input as well; questions about gameplay, insights on the rules or the play itself, all is welcome, on the condition that I may want to channel discussion if it gets unfocused. I'm mainly interested in hearing about the issue of how play is structured, socially and creatively, as a whole.

Title: Re: [Spectre of the Beast] the structure of play, from text to practice
Post by: Paul Czege on January 29, 2010, 09:36:02 AM
Hey Joel,

Cool. I just first wanted to be sure I hadn't created a problematic culture that would taint the usefulness of my feedback. (And for what it's worth, the group did encourage me to transition "isolationist" into a more concrete goal; my Champion wanted to redirect a river, thereby irrigating an area into which we would expand our primeval forest, a goal which put us in conflict with river nymphs.)

So here's what I think I want from the game that I'm not getting:

As a player, I want to feel like my Champion is amid a situation that's pregnant with consequences, if I don't pre-empt them, and rewards, if I can just grasp them. I don't want to spend my time authoring goals and fabricating conflicts. (I'm lately increasingly irritated by workshoppy games.) I want to be surrounded by circumstances that compete for my attention, by too many options to address. In the "players author conflicts" games our group has played we barely ever seem to have enough situation to make a conflict. We struggle creatively forward until we scrape together just enough situation for a conflict, resolve it, and then fall back gasping onto the mattress from the effort. I want gameplay to have more situation than I know what to do with, more than I can address on my turn. I want to feel the anxiety of knowing there's more situation than I can handle, to be forced to choose how I'll spend my energy, and hope desperately that I've not chosen unwisely. When I'm playing my Champion I want to react to situation, not author it.

And I'm thinking there's no reason each Champion in Spectre of the Beast shouldn't have more situation. Right now the Champion creates the conflict, or defers to the Nemesis, and either of them invite the other players to play supporting cast. Instead I think every other player should be advancing the situation in a Champion's culture. The leftmost player can have a "buck stops here" creative gatekeeper role if necessary, to veto if a player advances a culture's situation with an unfortunate alien invasion or something, but otherwise I think the game currently squanders the attention and creativity of non-Nemesis players on "maybe you'll get to roleplay a little bit of what a throwaway character does". The other players ought to be doing their best to tempt me to roleplay with them.

What do you think?


Title: Re: [Spectre of the Beast] the structure of play, from text to practice
Post by: Tim C Koppang on January 29, 2010, 10:30:45 AM
The other element, "isolationist," is worth looking at separately. That would worry me more than the naked nymphdom, [...] I think seeing how one Culture develops cut off from the others, and even moreso observing the clash when they finally meet, would be lots of fun.

I don't know too much about Spectre, but it sounds interesting.  This whole idea of playing an isolationist culture, however, is bugging me.  Paul, why would you want to play an isolationist culture?  Is there something about the game that allows or specifically encourages this?  Given Joel's comments, it would seem that culture clashes are actually an important part of the game.

Title: Re: [Spectre of the Beast] the structure of play, from text to practice
Post by: Joel P. Shempert on February 02, 2010, 06:35:53 PM
Thanks, Paul!

That's a tough issue you raise, for sure. In my own experience Spectre games have usually had a quality of "carving out" the SIS in play, as if these protagonists wink into existence in a void, and the world has to be grown around them, nothing existing until its spoken into being. Which is kinda true for all roleplaying ever, but in this case it's kind of bald. And I've never terribly liked that aspect of play.

I've focused on keeping the rules structure of SotB as simple as possible, but that does make it difficult to lend weight to elements of Situation--the Protagonists are facing hardship and their dreams are in peril, only because the players say so, and everyone hopefully runs with it. I've had pretty good experience with people running with it, but it would have more teeth if it was supported more by rules constraints. My challenge, I think, is adding just enough rules-scaffolding in just the right places, without adding too much or in unhelpful places.

You also shone some light on the role of other players at the table--you're right that SotB doesn't give "side players" much to invest in except "do a bit" here and there. And that low investment has caused some awkwardness in play--often even when a player DOES have a role, even a major recurring one, the portrayal ends up a bit screwy: inconsistent, disengaged, occasional clowning, etc. Your solution is intriguing--I've never considered an "everyone brings the Antagonism" model. I'm interested in trying it, but it does strike me that it would itself require some structuring of the social dynamic of play, such that everyone both has the requisite investment in Antagonism-bringing, AND knows what, in practical terms, to do about it.

I wonder if the Shock: method would serve here--put every player in charge of some thing, so that while person A is bringing the antagonism everyone else is still involved by keeping an eye on X element of Setting, Situation or whatever. Polaris does this to with the Moons being in charge of different constellations of relationships. So far I've kept each Culture more or less the province of its creator, but maybe I could spread it around a bit.

Hi, Tim,

I think what Paul was going for was a "stress test" of sorts; pushing at the boundaries of what Champion and Culture choices work well, to see if the game can handle it. As to what excites me about isolationist Cultures in SotB: well, the basic structure of play, detailed more fully in this Storygames thread (, each player creates a fictional Culture in a World-like-our-own, beginning in, say, Bronze-age times, and plays a Champion whose Ambition will change the world and its cultural development. You play out scenes of each Champion taking actions toward that Ambition, gaining Victory or Defeat points, until they ultimately succeed or fail. Meanwhile the outcomes of conflicts are generating points toward various areas of cultural development, as well as contributing to the Spectre of mankind's bloodshed, murder and oppression. The Epoch concludes and we use al this data to chart how the cultures evolved in the wake of these tumultuous events, then create new Champions in a lter Epoch, with Ambitions grounded in that milieu. We keep going until either humanity's collective Hope or violence's Beast gains an endgame total, then resolve whether the world has achieved utopia or drowned in Armageddon.

So given that framework, any permutation of interactions between Cultures is going to have its own unique effect on development. In this case, a Culture developing for several Epochs in isolation could end up in a very different state than the other Cultures that are mingling, clashing, conquering and so on. And it'll probably make it all the more compelling to see the inevitable encounter (say, between Aztecs and Conquistadores), between fundamentally alien societies.