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Author Topic: [We all had names] The story of one family in the Holocaust  (Read 11984 times)
matthijs
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« on: May 07, 2005, 08:24:03 AM »

This is based on ideas from an earlier game, electrified spikes through the soles of your feet. I keep writing these games when I'm badly hung over; brings out the cynical and dark side in me, I guess. But it also brings out the moron-who-can't-write-properly side as well, so please ask if any of this is unclear.

In We All Had Names, players create the story of one Jewish family's struggle to survive World War II.
  This is not a role-playing game. It's a game of narration. You will, hopefully, feel for all the characters. You won't own any of them.

- - -

Character generation

Create the pre-war family. Use an entire evening on creating the characters.
  These characters belong to everyone, like the characters in a book belong to every reader. You will make them together.
  First, you talk a bit, getting a vibe for what kind of family you're making. Then, make a sheet for each character. Write their names on top. You should each grab a sheet at random. Write down stuff you know or make up about the character, a line or two. Put it into the pile, grab a new one, do the same thing.
  After each of you have done this with five characters, read them all aloud. Talk a bit. When you're ready, do the writing again.
  Make sure they all relate to each other. Provide them with a common history. Make sure they're all real people, with good and bad sides.
 
Play

In the game, you'll take turns being Holocaust. Holocaust wants to kill the characters. It's the coldest and most inhuman thing there is.
  Holocaust will frame the scenes. Each scene must have a threat to several of the characters, though the treat may not be apparent at start. Players will have to choose which characters they most want to make it.
  Some threats will be small, some will be deadly.
  Those who aren't Holocaust will be narrators - they say what the characters do. When you talk about a character, you never say "I". You will describe his thoughts and sensations, not only his actions.
  Holocaust will control everything that isn't the characters.

Mechanics

Players start with four dice each.
  Framing scenes: Holocaust says what characters are/can be in the scene.  
  In a scene, the first time a player describes a character in one of three specific ways, that character gets a die of the corresponding colour. These ways are:
- Thought/emotion: green die
- Action: red die
- Sensation: blue die
  When the hammer comes down - when the threat is revealed and it's time to resolve - all participants start assigning dice to characters present in the scene.
  Holocaust first assigns dice secretly from an unlimited Holocaust pool; never from his personal pool. Assign like this:
- Calculate your Max Threat Level: 6 minus number of dice in your pool. (Max is 5).
- Assign that many dice to one of the characters. One less to another, etc.
(So if you have 2 dice in your pool, your Max Threat is 4. Put 4 dice on one character, 3 on another, 2 on another, and 1 on another).
  The dice he assigns to a character are called that characters' Threat Level. Then he says the highest number of dice he's placed on any character. It shows how dangerous the threat is, and dictates the worst results Holocaust can narrate if a character loses the conflict.
  Narrators assign dice together; though they can only assign dice from their own pool, they're allowed to plan together.
  Show dice. Roll. Narrators roll the green/red/blue dice on the characters as well.
  Each even number is a success. For each character, find out if Holocaust or narrators win. Do this in order of Holocaust dice assigned, lowest first. If narrators win, they narrate escape. If they lose, Holocaust describes the horrible outcome, based on Threat Level (Holocaust-assigned dice on that character). If it's even, narrators narrate escape, but Holocaust narrates horror at 1/2 the Threat Level, rounded down.
  Narrator-assigned dice are spent; you don't get them back.
  After the scene, Holocaust refreshes back to 4 dice.

Threat levels

1: Personal - humiliation, panic etc.
2: Social - ostracism, kristalnacht etc.
3: Wounds that may heal with time.
4: Death, disfigurement, permanent damage.
5: Horrible death - by torture, starvation or similar.

Questions

I'm having trouble putting them into words - the right questions here would have the answer in'em, and if I could ask them properly, I wouldn't have to ask them, see?

Basically, they're all aspects of this: Will the system help players create an experience of love and desperation?
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matthijs
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« Reply #1 on: May 09, 2005, 12:12:00 PM »

ON THE GAME AND SETTING

The purpose of the "game"

First of all, to provide a strong emotional experience for the players.
Second, learning - about history, about things that matter such as love for your family - through personal immersion.
Is it a "game"? I don't know. It is what it is. It certainly isn't a pastime for fun.
I believe it could be played in an educational setting, with 16-18-year olds, once a week for three or four sessions.

The role of the players

Players should experience and express the love and horror of the setting through their narration.

The purpose of the setting

The reality of WWII and the Holocaust forces players to personally relate to the theme of the game. A fantasy game will make distancing yourself easy.

The purpose of the family

The reasons for having a family as a central element are: Giving the players many opportunities for identification and attachment. Showing how different peoples' fates could be. Focussing the theme on love and family relations. Making threats more real - threats to loved ones are horrible.

The role of history

Historical events will take place as they did in the real world. Holocaust must take this into account when narrating threats. Trying to get characters into a place where death is guaranteed is a level 5 threat, even if that threat isn't apparent to the characters at the time.

MORE RULES

Refreshing dice pools

A player does not automatically refresh his pool after being Holocaust. He has to earn his dice - one die each for the following activities:

- Describing a location in detail
- Describing an NPC's morally ambiguous actions
- Describing an act of love, kindness or help from an NPC
- Bringing a historical event or character into the scene

Character generation

After chargen, one session of normal family life should be played out in freeform. Scenes should involve as many characters as possible - weddings, funerals etc. The aim is to establish how life was before the war.

Example of play

Players are A, B and C. It's A's turn as Holocaust. A has one die left in his pool - threat level is (6-1=) 5, horrible death. The group knows that when the hammer comes down, Holocaust must assign 5 dice to one of the characters.

Holocaust frames the scene: Krakow Ghetto. Characters present are Aaron, Paul and Anna.

Narration starts. Players work to narrate inner life, sensations and actions of characters. This will make the characters more likely to survive the threat. Holocaust describes places, events etc. This gives him more dice to use when he's no longer Holocaust, to save characters.

The characters are lined up by a pit they've been forced to dig. SS men come out with pistols. Holocaust assigns threat dice: Aaron 5, Paul 4, Anna 3.

Players discuss and assign dice. They only have 4 left altogether, and assign 3 to Anna, keeping the last one for later. Through narration, they've earned 3 bonus dice for each character.

They roll dice. Anna has the lowest threat level, and is first; players win, and narrate her escape. Paul has second lowest; Holocaust wins, and describes the horrible outcome at threat level 4. Finally, Aaron; players win, and narrate his escape.
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2005, 12:23:14 PM »

The bolded topics are subjects matthijs asked me to address:

Initial gut reactions to the concept

Ack! It's not a role-playing game!
But cool! It's about the Holocaust.
Waitaminute... Why do you think this isn't a role-playing game? I think it is.

Thoughts about how the mechanics will work in actual play

Overall, the game text needs a lot more exposition to be ready for play. It's just too wide open. I'm sure you know this (it's a single, short Forge post, not a complete game). Most of the comments below are of the "this needs more stuff" variety.

There's not any system for /how/ to describe these characters.

Also, this game explores the WWII period but doesn't provide me with the setting material I need. I could go check out a book on the subject to supplement what I already know (a little), but I'd want the game to give me a good start.

What incentive does the Holocaust have to be truly cold and inhuman? A second ago, this person was cheering for the Jews. I can't see this working very well.

The game offers no System or advice for creating threats.

Which player controls which character? You said they're everyone's characters.

The players start with 4 dice. What kind of dice? The text doesn't say. How many sides? What colors? Each player has 4 dice or there are 4 dice for the entire player group? There are only three colors, but four dice? I'm confused. So a player starts with 4 dice then can add green, red, and blue dice when they describe a character in one of three ways. Only the first time though. Does this mean they only get one additional die, or up to three additional dice?

I'm not clear what the IIEE is. It seems to be: Holocaust describes a threat. Players immediately get four dice in a pool. Don't roll yet. Players describe characters' reactions. As they bring in thought/emotion, action, or sensation, they supplement their pools with additional dice. Then how does the Holocaust get to the part "when the hammer comes down"? Wasn't "when the threat is revealed" earlier when the Holocaust described the threat? Or are we talking about narration and when the narration actually cannot go further without resolving the threat? At that point, dice are rolled. Then more narration happens. The system doesn't really explain what kind of narration happens at any given point.

The Holocaust's dice pool is confusing. On one hand, you say it's unlimited, but it isn't. It's maximum 5. Right? And it refreshes to 4 after a scene. But the rest boggles me. Can you show an example of play?

Two best / two worst things about the game's mechanics and setting

Worst:
1) I can't understand the mechanics.
2) They don't help players create an experience of love and desperation -- that is, there's no support in the system for any of that. I'd say the system does create an experience of dread.

Best:
1) I think stories of the Holocaust are a great medium for really fantastic storytelling.
2) I like the thought/emotion, action, sensation thing you started. You should do more with it.

How to get people to play it; what angle to present it from

Dude, this is totally a role-playing game, isn't it?  Players create characters and use them as a vehicle to explore the setting of the plight of the Jews in WWII. Awful things happen to them and they somehow survive, their love and desperation keeping them going. This is a classic story that is rife with opportunity.

One twist you might make is to have each player roll dice or draw straws at the beginning of the game to determine which side he will play: Jew or Nazi. The game will then be able to better explore people doing horrible things to each other and explore both sides of play. What does it take to be a monster? What does it take to survive one?
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at foundry.legendary.org 7777
Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2005, 12:39:12 PM »

Quote from: AdamDray
One twist you might make is to have each player roll dice or draw straws at the beginning of the game to determine which side he will play: Jew or Nazi..


Or to make it bearable, everyone plays both. (I know I'd feel like hell after 4 hours of sending my friends' fictional alter egos to ghettoes and starving them, let alone gas chambers). And then to really drive the screws home, make a player resource-accumulation mechanic whereby playing your Nazi viciously against other people's Jews gives your own Jew a better chance of survival.

This could even manifest in giving your Jewish character an opportunity to collaborate, or just to save himself and the people he cares about at the expense of others: "The Germans want the ghetto council to provide 100 persons to go on the train 'to the east' -- you get to pick" or "Rations are being handed out -- you're given the allocation to take back to your blockhouse -- does the food for the other prisoners ever get there, or do you eat it all yourself?" or "congratulations, you're a sonderkommando, clean those bodies out of the gas chambers and bring us all their gold teeth and we'll let you live a little while." (All real examples, miserably enough).

Because the greatest evil isn't what makes you suffer and die. The greatest evil is what makes you decide to inflict suffering and death on others just to survive a little longer yourself.

Damn, though, I'm not sure I could play this game. But it's a worthy project.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2005, 12:45:08 PM »

If you use Sydney's excellent idea, there, I suggest you name the game "The Best Amongst Us Did Not Survive."

yrs--
--Ben
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #5 on: May 09, 2005, 12:57:12 PM »

Basically the rules are OK, meaning that you can go to playtest stage. I suggest considering a parallel rules system that defines some kind of progress through the reality of holocaust - some way for the game to end, that is. But that's something you have to find through playtest, I should think. You could plug in the MLwM theme about love breaking through horror almost unchanged, I think.

More importantly, your chosen pace is horribly too slow for my tastes. One session of chargen and another of freeform play for this kind of light, formalistic endeavour? I don't think so. I find this more appropriate for single session play all told. How come? It's all because of the lack of mechanics: I play to the mechanics of the game, essentially. If there's no chargen or peaceful life mechanics, I'll certainly go straight to the subject matter and invent all that freeform stuff when it's needed. No help to it, at least with these rules. I simply won't do it. Better stuff to do than sketching sentimental family fiction all night long. There's a real reason for my dislike, too. As you've outlined the chargen and first session, there won't be any kind of drama included. It's all just empty color in preparation for the holocaust.

Whether the above is a problem, that's your call. I don't think that I'm the only one to react this way, though, so you might want to address this abhorrence towards freeform play somehow. I suggest preconstructed characters or a phase of email preparation instead of wasting session time in it. I don't think that spending excessive time in chargen/development will anyway be the most efficient possible way to bring forth love and horror; if you consider how fiction achieves this stuff, it's not usually through a couple of hundred pages of preparation. Consider: what you're trying to do is invest the players in the characters, but don't you see that they won't do it just because plenty of time is spent on it? Everyone knows that the meat of the game will be in the holocaust, so the first couple of sessions are just warmup.

About mechanics: your chosen die-mechanic is linear. You might want to consider diminishing returns, instead. Something like high die winning (in the manner of Sorcerer) or something. Just a hunch, and probably the current thing works fine, too.
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Larry L.
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« Reply #6 on: May 09, 2005, 02:03:29 PM »

Gut reaction: Done well, this could create very powerful opportunities for catharsis. Done poorly, it would just be depressing, or worse, in bad taste.

I have a hard time understanding the incentive for the player of the faceless Holocaust to be antagonistic (other than that the game needs that antagonism to happen.) On one hand, the player's personal revulsion may cause them to pull punches and go easy; on the other, if he comes up with something particularly awful, the player may face a seriously unpleasant sort of remorse for his zeal.

I rather like Adam's suggestion of using Nazi PCs. If the "Holocaust" player is forced to work through the lens of individual Nazi soldiers, this brings a whole new level of human drama into the game. Really, it just requires a subtle change in emphasis; not a change to mechanics or stance.
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Adam Dray
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« Reply #7 on: May 09, 2005, 02:59:25 PM »

matthijs, my apologies. We crossposted. I didn't see your clarifications before I posted. I'll read them later and add my additional thoughts.
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Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
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Sean
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« Reply #8 on: May 10, 2005, 04:22:24 PM »

I recommend getting some books or websites with Roman Vishniac's photographs to the players before they play, so they can get a mental image of the culture that is being destroyed.

I'm not sure about the Nazi PCs idea. I think that having players be 'the holocaust' in a more abstract sense, being the ones who break down and humiliate the family they have created, is maybe more productive of pathos. When you have individual Nazis you have to deal with their humanity too. Some of them had such humanity, to be sure, but to put it on the table in play undermines what seems to me to be what this game's about. Or what I'd want it to be about if I played anything but old-school fantasy RPGs.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #9 on: May 10, 2005, 05:34:47 PM »

Quote from: Sean
I'm not sure about the Nazi PCs idea. I think that having players be 'the holocaust' in a more abstract sense....


I'd actually agree, on second thought; playing individual Nazis really diffuses the focus.
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Bill Masek
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« Reply #10 on: May 10, 2005, 06:16:55 PM »

matthijs,

I liked the ideas behind Electric Spikes The Soles of Your Feet and this game uses a lot of the same elements.  Even though I'll miss the big squeaky boots, I think this game has the potential to be very powerful.

Currently your dice mechanics works on a fairly linear scale.  The bad things happening to players do not seem to get any worse necessarily as the game play progresses.  So consider this variant:

When the players loose, the consequence are dire.  At least one character is going to die.  Players start with a small base number of dice with which to protect their characters.  This base never grows.  The Holocaust also starts with a set number of dice which will grow as play progresses.  Players may opt to have their character (who they are playing in the scene) to Suffer.  When this happens the player describes the embarrassment, pain, disfigurement, etc that they are enduring as a result of this threat.  When a player suffers they gain a temporary bonus to their roll against this threat based on the type of suffering they endured.  (There would probably need to be a cap on the total dice a player can gain for Suffering.)  The Holocaust will gain a permanent bonus.  Thus the scale of suffering will go up and up and up… until it all comes crashing down.

Also note that the Holocaust would be forced to assign all dice in the Holocaust pool.

Best,
        Bill
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matthijs
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« Reply #11 on: May 10, 2005, 09:40:16 PM »

I've been quiet on this thread lately, but it's because I'm reading and thinking. I want everyone to know that your input is very much appreciated; I'll post more in the week to come.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #12 on: May 11, 2005, 05:39:16 AM »

Matthijs,

Great concept, and good ideas.  In contrast to Eero's response, I especially like the playing out of scenes from before the war--creating memories for the characters and creating a contrast with the stark (un)realities of the prison of war (why don't we call them dungeons?). However, he's quite right that it could fall flat due to a lack of dramatic direction.

These scenes could instead be used as char gen to flesh out the issues and aspects of the characters that would inform life in prison. If I was playing this freeform with my group, that's what we would be doing instinctively. If you want to be sure that others get the same value out of it you might want to include guidelines that make clear what the players can get out of it, so that theydo.

Another approach would be to have flash-backs to the past during the time in prison.

Tangential: It occurs to me that rpg offers many interesting possibilities:  a scene from the past could be played out once prior to prison, then again in flashback, with scenes changed, emphasis different, stretched and warped by the traumas and attrocities.  Or the prison sequences could be played out in flashback, with overlapping and contradictory versions of the same events as is often the case in stories passed down.  

What I'm seeing as missing is more guidance for the Holocaust player and structure for scenes.  Would there be scenes focusing on each character a la PtA? Or free play with conflicts arising as they will? And how would adversarial characters be represented?

And, of course, what Sydney said:
Quote
Because the greatest evil isn't what makes you suffer and die. The greatest evil is what makes you decide to inflict suffering and death on others just to survive a little longer yourself.


best,
Emily
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Emily Care
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« Reply #13 on: May 11, 2005, 05:41:05 AM »

I forgot to comment on the emotional distancing of using third person narration. Good choice.
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matthijs
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« Reply #14 on: May 11, 2005, 10:00:52 AM »

Okay - thanks for helping me out! All this is really helping me getting the game into focus. It's like I already know what I want, but need to talk about it to see it clearly. (Like having a block of marble and chipping away all the bits that don't look like a statue).

This post is mainly a set of definitions on how the game should end up in actual play.

Playing the Holocaust/Nazis

Nobody's going to have Nazi characters. There will be no competition mechanism between nazi and jew characters. Nor will there be any reward for doing evil deeds in the game. I see how mechanisms like this could be fun in a game, but not in this one. Playing the Holocaust should be a cold experience.

Nor do I want the characters to face insanely tough moral choices - to collaborate or not, for example. The characters are good, normal people, who just want to live their lives. They want to do business, make babies, have religious discussions, etc etc. The Holocaust is trying to destroy all that. The conflict isn't inside the characters; it's between the characters and the setting.

I'm thinking that the Holocaust needs very strict rules - to the point that whoever is the Holocaust at the moment has very little choice of action. This is to free the player from any moral responsibility for what he describes. If there's too much choice, and the players like the characters (which they will if I do my job right), the Holocaust will have a really hard time giving the characters a hard enough time.

Character generation

This must be in the form of a pre-game. Not just loose talk, but actual engaging play by its own right. I'm thinking something like DitV accomplishments - but perhaps focussed on relationship building rather than character growth.

Pace

I don't envision this as a 'light, formalistic endeavour' - if that's how it reads, my point has come across incredibly poorly. People have different tastes in pacing. This will not be a fast game, rushing from cool conflict to cool conflict. It's supposed to be a game where we get to know the characters through and through, and dread the conflicts that have to come.

I believe that trying to run a story like this in one night would make it impossible to experience the story like I want. The escalation from a fairly normal life to an insane and murderous world would be too quick, so quick that player identification would be lost.

Linear die mechanic

Yeah, I know. In electrified spikes through the soles of your feet, I had a different version. I'll have to test this out to see how it works. I like Bill's idea of getting a temporary bonus at the cost of giving the Holocaust a permanent bonus. But I want a strict division of responsibility: The Holocaust describes suffering.

It would be good to have a mechanic that doesn't allow for death early on - social humiliation, material loss etc should be the start of the horror. Later, however, death would be almost inevitable. I would like the game to show a family of 10-20 people before the war, with only 2 or 3 survivors.

Flashbacks

This could be a great last-session technique. The escalation to complete horror must be slow enough to allow players to hang on; and then, at the end, they're presented with the extreme contrast to their earlier lives.

Other stuff

Sean, thanks for the tip on Roman Vishniac! Yes!
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