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[Improv] Past Glories: Adventures in Ritual Lang.

Started by Jonathan Walton, April 16, 2005, 06:50:37 AM

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Jonathan Walton

So I got up this morning with a real hankering to play something, so I log on to IRC and try to recruit some folks for a pick-up game.  I get Ashera and Paganini interested, we go to town on some brainstorming, as if we were playing Primetime Adventures, just throwing stuff down.

We end up with: a game of urban animals, sort of like Vincent's Nighttime Animals Save the World, but as if it was written by Gaiman; the animals are all old gods that have lost all the power that the once had, and are reduced to miniscule forms.

Ashera plays a stray cat who's really Jeslyn, a goddess of grace and power.

Paganini plays a sewer snake who's really Slyx, a death-god.

I play a luner moth who's really Zyg, a god of the harvest and lovers.

We needed a central conflict, but it kinda emerged by us just throwing out interesting background stuff, as in:

Quote<Paganini> There's a place. It's old. Wet and slimey, green blocks. Black water
 runs through it, a pit filled with the bones of the dead. It's my temple.
<Paganini> It's connected to the river by a tunnel.
<Paganini> Soon, the new Lock & Dam will be built there, which will flood it.
 Maybe even crush it in the construction work.
<jwalton> cool.
<jwalton> I don't think I have a temple.
<jwalton> I survive because of too old ladies who still sing my songs in the
 late afternoons, remembering their dead husbands and the harvest dances when
 they were young and lovely.
<Ashera> i think i'd almost forgotten myself until recently
<jwalton> what happened to make you remember?
<Ashera> when some young women started getting into crafts and heritage and
 started making jewelry and things with my symbols on them
<Ashera> and wishing and dreaming about beauty as they did
<Paganini> I will eat them.
<Paganini> Foolish happy symbols.

So the first scene ended up being Jeslyn confronting Slyx in his former temple; he had eaten her symbols as a way of getting her attention to his construction problem.  It went pretty well all told.  Funny thing is, we started out planning to use Otherkind and/or Shadows as our game mechanic of choice, but we were having such a ball just freeforming things that dice rolls never got called for.  Here's the first scene:

Quote<Paganini> The temple is very square, dark. The only light shines down through a
 few drains in the celing, grated with crusty bars. The walls are slick with
 green slime.
<jwalton> Enter the cat, stage left.
<Paganini> A ribbon of black water flows down the center of the temple, like an
 aisle in a church, glistening with sludge.
<Ashera> Jeslyn enters, hesitantly picking her way through the slimy patches
<Ashera> She's not happy about being down here where it's so wet, but she knows
 she needs to be here.
<Paganini> On his dais, Slyx shifts his bluk. His scales whisper in the muck.
<Ashera> She approaches the center and stops, trying to collect herself
<Paganini> "Iss that you, ssisster?"
<Ashera> "It is, brother."
<Ashera> "Certain tokens of my power have been destroyed recently. I believe you
 had something to do with that."
<Paganini> Slyx opens his outer eyelids. Their faint glow casts a shade of pale
 green over the temple.
<Paganini> "Mm, yess. Very... tassty. Ssuch little happy thingss... Why do you
 make them, ssisster? Foolissh vanity."
<Paganini> Slyx flicks his toung out and back, as though savoring a lingering
<Ashera> Jeslyn arches her back in annoyance, then settles back down. "You know
 that such vanity brings me power."
<Paganini> "Little powerss for little peopless. Ssuch have we become, ssisster."
<Paganini> "Thiss place... it iss my my vanity. And the unfaithfull sscheme to
 take it from me."
<Ashera> "And that is why you call me with your destruction?"
<Paganini> "Ssss..."
<Paganini> "Your vanity makerss... old women... they know. Assk them yoursself."
<Ashera> "And how is this my concern?"
<Paganini> Slyx opens his inner eyelids, a balefull viridian grin. "You will
 ssee, ssisster. Ssss...."
<Ashera> "I tire of this place. Must you always live in such surroundings,
 brother? Perhaps if you had surrounded yourself with beauty it would not have
 come to this."
<Ashera> She gets up and begins to walk out, then flicks her tail and turns back
 to Slyx. "I will see what may be done."
<Paganini> Slyx dives from his dais, slithering into the pool.
<Paganini> "The offeringss of the faithfull, ssister," he hisses after her.

So that's all pretty damn cool, right?  We're off to a very good start.  Then I say that I'd like a scene on the human part of this story, where Jeslyn's college student artists meet Zyg's old ladies and they get involved in the whole construction plot, due to Slyx's manipulations.  And I say we should each control our various factions, but that the animals can also subtly influence the humans around them.

However, overall, I think we all found the second scene fairly unsatisfying.  Nothing really happened in it.  We found out some neat information about the college student, the grandmother, and Simon (the character that Pag had intervene), but it felt rather unsatisfying, as if the focus on the god-animals was being lost and the action wasn't really moving forward.

Read the scene below and see what you think.  Maybe you can spot some of our awkwardness:

Quote<jwalton> "Why, my dear!  These earrings are SO BEAUTIFUL!  Why, if my late
 husband William had lived to see such things.  He could sing the Song of Cat's
 Eyes as well as anyone in town."
<jwalton> She winks at the college student.  "That's why I married him, after
<Ashera> "Thank you, Grandmother. It took me a lot of tries to get the design
<Ashera> (i'm thinking they use "grandmother" as an honorific)
<jwalton> "These look just like a necklace he used to wear, in fact.  I'm pretty
 sure he was wearing it when we buried him, but I'm not sure."
<jwalton> "You know how the mind goes..."
<jwalton> She glances out the window, in thought.
<Ashera> "What was William like?"
<jwalton> She looks back over, her eyes full of joy and a little sadness.  "My
 William?"  Now she smiles more fully.  "He was tall, but not too tall.  And
 his eyes were full of light.  You know..."
<Ashera> "I wish I had a boyfriend..."
<jwalton> "He used to prance a little when he walked.  So full of spirit, that
 man.  And everybody in town knew who he was.  He would walk down the street
 and have to shake 6 hands before he got 5 blocks."
<jwalton> "Aw, my dear..."  the woman says, taking her by the hands.
<jwalton> A little moth settles on her shoulder.
<Ashera> The student moves to flick it away. "Grandmother, there's a bug on your
<jwalton> The woman snatches her hand quickly.
<jwalton> "Don't, honey.  Don't you dare!  Don't you know that moths are the
 lover's hope?"
<jwalton> "No wonder you ain't got a boyfriend."  She smiles.
<Ashera> The student smiles back at her. "I've never seen a moth like that one
 before, though."
<jwalton> "hold out your hand, dear."
<Ashera> she holds out her hand
<jwalton> the old woman gently coaxes the moth off her shoulder and onto the
 student's palm.
<jwalton> It's creamy white, with long silver antenna.  And tiny dinnerplate
 moons peek out of darker clouds on both wings.
<Ashera> She cups her hand gently, making sure not to crush it as she examines
 its wings
<Ashera> "That almost looks like one of the necklace patterns you showed me."
<jwalton> The grandmother nods.  "Moths are the moon's children.  They come
 around harvest time, to keep the gatherers company when they bring the crops
<jwalton> (Pag, you wanna intrude?)
<Ashera> "I've never made that one. It uses too many pearl beads."
<Paganini> (Yeah.)
<jwalton> "Well, it might help you catch a boyfriend.  Harvest time is for other
 things than just eating.  There's the dancing, and laying in a field
 underneath the stars..." she trails off and winks.
<Paganini> The front door bangs open, and a young man bursts in. He's disheveled
 an grimy. Mud cakes his black boots and smears his calf-length duster.
<Paganini> "Grandma!" he shouts. "Grandma! You're never going to believe this!"
<jwalton> The moth flutters to the cieling.
<jwalton> "What is it, Simon?"
<jwalton> "What's happened?"
<Paganini> "There were some divers out this-morning exploring the site. You
 won't believe what they found!"
<Paganini> He thrusts forward a muddy palm.
<Paganini> "It's just like that stuff you were making such a big deal about at
 the art fair last week."
<jwalton> The old woman goes over to examine closer.
<Ashera> the scrawny gray cat that was lapping water from a bowl in the corner
 moves forward and rubs against the student's leg
<Paganini> There are two stone amulets rolling around in the silt on his palm,
 obviously ver old, but still bearing visible marks.
<jwalton> She takes them over to the sink and rinses them off, to see the marks
 more clearly.
<Paganini> "The divers said there's a whole *building* full of this stuff. Not
 just jewelry, but statues, stone pottery. It's like an underwater
 archeological site. In the middle of Big River!"
<Ashera> The student moves to the sink, craning over the old woman's shoulder to
 see the amulets
<jwalton> In her palm, the old woman can clearly make out a spiral that emerges
 from a circular design.
<Ashera> "Those patterns do look kind of familiar..."
<jwalton> She mumbles, "The serpent and skull."
<jwalton> She clutches her heart, "No."
<Ashera> "Grandma? What is it?
<jwalton> "Simon, call the construction company."
<jwalton> "Tell them they have violated a burial ground and must stop.  Now."
<jwalton> She drops the shards in the student's hand.
<Paganini> Simon looks at her in astonishment
<jwalton> "Here you go dear.
<Ashera> "A burial ground?"
<Ashera> She takes the amulets and examines them.
<Ashera> "They're like the ones in that book you showed me..."
<jwalton> They're made out of bone.
<Paganini> "I can't do that! I'm just an assistant engineer! Besides, this is
 the 21st century. I thought you'd be interested in a fascinating historical
 discovery. I should have known you'd start off with all this mumbo-jumbo."
<Paganini> Simon stomps out.
<jwalton> "Well, sort of a burial ground.  But we didn't use to bury our dead.  
 We did... other things."
<jwalton> "Simon!  Si-MON!"
<Ashera> "I can call, but I don't know if they'll listen to me."
<jwalton> She smiles, "Every little bit helps, dear."

So, not very satisfying, somehow.  And we immediately tried to have a quick discussing about why the scene didn't work, but Pag had to go to sleep soon and I had to go to a soccer game, so finally I suggested:

Quote<jwalton> we could have the next scene be a flashback to the fall of the
 original temple, when the animals were still gods?
<jwalton> and maybe we could figure out that there's some ancient enemy who's
 encouraging the company to go ahead with the construction?
<jwalton> and then quit for the night?
<Ashera> sounds good
<jwalton> Pag, what did the People used to do with their dead?
<Paganini> They gave them to the river.
<jwalton> And the temple was built on the river, as a place to throw them in?
<Paganini> Exactly.
<jwalton> cool.
<Ashera> how about the bone amulets?
<Paganini> Then the current would take them down to the domain of Slyx
<Paganini> I think the amulets were a source of power for Slyx, just like they
 are for Jeslyn.
<Paganini> That's why he understands them, and likes to eat hers.
<Paganini> So, the amulets were the payment for Slyx to accept the dead.
<Paganini> They're sad little vanities, like Jeslyns are happy ones.
<jwalton> and the People started burying their dead with Christianity, or
 because they were seduced by a rival god?
<Paganini> Right.
<Paganini> And the temple was eventually flooded.
<jwalton> well lets do the flooding of the temple.  all the gods are meeting
 there and the water is rising.
<Ashera> okay
<jwalton> and the old priests are trying to get out.
<jwalton> and some people are trying to save some sacred stuff
<jwalton> and they're asking the gods why they could let this happen.
<jwalton> and so the gods show up.
<Paganini> Cool
<jwalton> and maybe we can finally get to roll and show off our god-powers.
<jwalton> :)
<Ashera> heheh
<Ashera> so why *are* we letting this happen? figure out in scene?
<jwalton> yeah, I figure some rival supernatural power.
<jwalton> who's grown more powerful than us.
<jwalton> like Jesus or the guy upstream.
<jwalton> or maybe both.
<jwalton> maybe it's unclear at this point.
<jwalton> or maybe Slyx is mad because he's not getting his quota of bodies.
<jwalton> and so refuses to save them once the flood starts.
<Paganini> Wow, that would be cool.
<Paganini> All this has been Slyx's fault all along!
<Paganini> He ends up living in a sewer with crap for offerings, because he was
 too ticked off to stop the river from flooding.

So,  basically, more group brainstorming got us out of the mess that we had gotten ourselves into, which was less satisfying, and into something with a lot more potential to be cool.  Personally, I was kinda blown away by how well the last scene worked, maybe because we just put our heads together and thought a bit more about what we wanted before the scene started.  

However, what was totally unplanned and exquisitely beautiful was this kind of ritual language that Ashera began developing and I quickly latched onto.  I would say something as Zyg and then she would match the structure and say a complementary phrase as Jeslyn.  And this quickly went beyond spoken words to include actions as well.  It became clear, without either of us saying anything Out-of-Character that Zyg and Jeslyn were complementary brother-sister deities, sorta like Apollo and Artemis, and also re-emphasized the mythic nature of this scene, long ago when the gods were powerful.

Read the scene for yourself and see what you think.  Watch as the patterns of language emerge:

Quote<jwalton> The moth circled the rising waters before settling on the roof of the
 temple.  There was a flash of moonlight amid the evening darkness and then a
 young mad stood in its place, clothed in white, carrying a hollow reed.
<jwalton> He blew into the reed and a eerie note rang out over the river,
 sounding deep into its depths.  The note said, "Where are you, brother?"
<jwalton> He blew it again and a high screech emerged, traveling across the
 lands along the riverbank.  The screech said, "Sister, I call out to you."
<Ashera> A sleek panther slunk into the temple from out of nowhere. A perfumed
 mist surrounded her, and there stood a young woman, with night-black hair
 shimmering. "I am here, brother."
<jwalton> "Our people suffer, yet our brother does not show himself.  Is there
 something amiss?"
<Ashera> "Recently he has been more withdrawn even than usual. There must be."
<jwalton> The young man gestures with his hand and a flock of moths plucks a
 child from the flood and carries her to safety.
<Ashera> She raised her hands and clapped her wrists together. The bells on her
 bracelets tinkled, the sound echoing. "Brother, I call you."
<Paganini> Slyx spears his head up through the river surface.
<Paganini> "What iss it now?"
<jwalton> The reed becomes two and then four and then more, a raft atop the
 current.  Zyg stands before his brother's emerged head, a palm facing upward.
<jwalton> "Brother, why do you allow this?"
<Ashera> Jeslyn walks serenely over the waters on a strand of light until she is
 in front of Slyx.
<Paganini> "Iss thiss my land? Are thesse my peopless? Where iss the tax that
 musst be paid?"
* Paganini wags his head over the riverbank.
<Paganini> "I hunger. The people have forssaken the price. Let them pay with
 their blood."
<jwalton> "Brother, the people turn away from you, from my sister, from me.  
 They do not pay the tax because they are no longer ours."
<Ashera> A cat leads a small boy out of a mass of debris and into the arms of
 his mother.
<Ashera> "If we would keep what little we have, we must help them."
<jwalton> "The ones who are ours, they drift away with the water."
<Paganini> Slyx thrashes his tail.
<Paganini> "What iss that to me? The people live sso that they may feed me in
<Paganini> "Sstop the river yoursselvess, if foolissh peopless are sso dear to
<Ashera> Jeslyn gestures and a shimmer rises, protecting the walls of the temple
 from the water caused by Slyx's thrashing
<jwalton> Zyg gestures and rocks emerge from the sea, fortifying the foundation
 against the crashing waves.
<Ashera> "If the people no longer live, there will be none to feed you."
<jwalton> "If the people no longer live, we will not be long for this world."
<Paganini> "Then I will ssurvive on the muck of the bottom crawlerss ass I have
 thesse many monthss."
<Paganini> Slyx is begining to sound angry.
<Paganini> He thumps his head on the bank and the ground shakes.
<jwalton> The rocks disappear into the sea, the foundation falters.
<Paganini> "I have flessh! Human food iss tassty, but I will ssurvive without
 it. Will you?"
<Ashera> The shimmer fades away, and water sloshes against the temple walls.
<jwalton> "Brother, you have hurt us all."
<jwalton> A moth drifts above the waters, towards the fading light.
<Ashera> "When you are tired of the muck, remember this day."
<Ashera> A misty panther stalks away from the temple.
<Paganini> Slyx dives into the river, eyes burning bright with rage.

SO BEAUTIFUL!  I love it!  Did you see it happen?

It starts with the musical sounds that summon Slyx from the depths.  It continues with the moths and the cat saving people from the flood.  It follows through with their words to Slyx.  The first intentional effort I made to match Ashera was the rocks rising out of the sea to fortify the temple, mirroring her shimmering wall.  

And you know the moment that made the game the most delicious for me?  The moment that made me want to jump up and down and dance?  It was when, after Slyx thrashed his tail: first, I made my rocks fall down; then, a few lines later, Ashera made Jeslyn's shimmer-wall fade away.  That's when I knew we had it.  We were on the same page without even having to say a word.  It was glorious.  The most important part of this, perhaps, was that we were making efforts to show that we valued and appreciated the work the other person was doing, using their language structures in our own play.  Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  At that point, the mirrored language at the end, when they gave up and departed, was a foregone conclusion.  We were already in synch.

Pag did a great job playing along, being his selfish, hurt death-god snake and even, for his part, getting into some of the ritual language, especially once we got to the departure at the end.  The scene was really about our two characters confronting his and he did a bang up job holding his own and forcing the tragedy that we knew was coming.

So, after a good start and a mediocre middle, we really nailed it home at the end.  And I think Ashera deserves most of the credit on that one.  I helped set the tone, I think.  Pag played a great antogonist.  But without Ashera just going on a limb with the mirrored language structures, it wouldn't have had nearly the magic or the oomph.  Thanks so much!

In any case, it's gotten me excited about the potential for structure even in games that seem freeform.  This works especially well, I think, in chat formats, since everything is about words and language, and you can see exactly what the other person wrote, even if it was 5 minutes ago.


That's a really neat example of people working off of different goals and techniques, but still working (somewhat) together.  From my view-point (which is not to say that it's the truth, just a different viewpoint on the same facts) it looks like Paganini was the key player in the game.

He was providing you and Ashera with your chances to make your characters shine, by picking just the right ways to antagonize you.  And the one time he stopped doing that (the scene with the humans) your story immediately faltered.

I'm hugely impressed by how flexible he was, and how well he read you guys.  "I will eat them.  Foolish happy symbols."  WOW.  And there were several more that he dropped out there, and nobody picked up on.  "Your vanity makerss... old women... they know.  Assk them yoursself."  That would have been a cool scene.

Paganini:  I'd love to hear what you were thinking during play.  In the second scene, why did you wait so long to get involved?  Were you conscious of the Stakes and Conflicts you were establishing, or was it intuitive?
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum


Hey Tony,

Mostly, I was method acting. I was imagining this big old snake who was the leftover of some unknown mythological construct. Every time Jon or Selene would say something, I'd revise my take on how Slyx fit into the whole "religiousn economy," but without revising his essential nature. As soon as I had the name and the place where he lived, I knew exactly how he'd behave.

The reason I took so long in the second scene was this:

Basically, Slyx is a conniver. He's cunning. He likes intrigue. Now, his behavior in the first scene looks really heavy-handed. Like clumsy blackmail type stuff. So, I was trying to figure out what that was really a cover for. Slyx obviously actually wants the dam to be built. Getting Jeslyn to try and stop the construction must be some clever ploy, either to get her to expose a weakness to him, or to try and make sure that she turns against him and *doesn't* stop the construction.  So, it took me a while to come up with a suitably Slyxy plan.

Also, at the start of the game, we defined Slyx's minions as some elite albino gator enforcers. So, I was also trying to figure out how they could show up at the granny scene without it seeming ridiculously cheesy. I eventually gave up and invented Simon.

As far as stakes and conflicts go, well, at this point it's sort of intuitive, because I've had a lot of practice. I firmly believe that every important character in a game needs to have something that he's trying to accomplish. Even if that goal hasn't been articulated to the other players (Like me and Slyx... I decided early on that what he really wanted to do was kill everyone in the city) it gives you something to work with as a player; it helps you know how your character will act. Assuming that your character's sphere of influence overlaps with the other characters, it's almost a given that interesting relationships and conflicts will form. We didn't have to *decide* that the Moth and the Cat would ally against the Snake. It just naturally flowed that way.

Selene Tan

Hi, I'm Ashera. :)

I have to admit, I'm surprised that last scene turned out as well as it did. See, what was mostly going through my head was "Crap, I don't know what to do! Hey, that was neat, I'll copy Jonathon."

I think there were tell-tales that Jon and I would be allied and Nate wouldn't be while we were discussing setting and situation. Basically, we tended to buy into each other's suggestions, while Nate was sort of being contrary.

Quote(22:41:23) jwalton: cat, snake, and moth?
(22:41:32) jwalton: maybe we were once a local pantheon?
(22:41:42) jwalton: so antagonistic, somewhat, but also family, in a way.
(22:41:51) Ashera: okay
(22:42:33) jwalton: and our people just don't exist anymore, except for maybe a few, who occasionally will recite minor rituals, on special occasions.
(22:42:47) jwalton: Ash, you have a name?
(22:42:49) Paganini: Very cool
(22:42:51) Ashera: Jeslyn
(22:43:03) Paganini: So, the three of us are like all that's left?
(22:43:04) Ashera: (was thinking of one)
(22:43:10) Paganini: All the other fallen gods have faded away?
(22:43:35) Ashera: maybe there are others, sort of, but they've almost wholly reverted to their animal natures
(22:43:38) jwalton: well, the other gods are just equally fallen. those of other pantheons might be around, but the rest in our associated group probably just faded away.
(22:43:45) jwalton: yeah, what she said.
(22:44:11) jwalton: so what're our problems? other scheming ex-gods?
(22:44:18) jwalton: the city trying to destroy us?
(22:44:45) Ashera: how about there are a couple of people left with the "old blood" in them, and they're in danger?
(22:45:07) Paganini: I don't think I care about them.
(22:45:12) jwalton: okay, and if we lose them we totally revert to being animals?
(22:45:25) jwalton: hmm... that may be okay.
(22:45:34) jwalton: but maybe you have a different problem.
(22:46:00) Paganini: Forsake me? I'll kill everyone in the entire city. Once they live in *my* realm, then they'll know, won't they.
(22:46:00) jwalton: maybe, you still draw power from the spirits of our dead followers.
(22:46:14) jwalton: you sure are an uppity snake.

And the alliance also came out somewhat in the second scene; both our "followers" were friends, and it was sort of symbolic of our relationship.

Anyway, it's definitely an interesting setting. I'd like to do more in it, hopefully with more conflicts.
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