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Author Topic: [We all had names] The story of one family in the Holocaust  (Read 13045 times)
matthijs
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« Reply #15 on: May 11, 2005, 10:47:06 AM »

Quote from: matthijs
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.


That means there must be clear-cut rules for:

- At what time the scene is taking place (i. e., what historical event we're witnessing)
- How many and what characters are in a scene
- How the scene starts
- How the scene progresses - especially: who narrates what when (imo, good rules for structured buildup of a scene are few and far between)
- When and how the hammer comes down
- What threat levels will apply to what characters

What else?
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Walt Freitag
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Posts: 1039


« Reply #16 on: May 11, 2005, 12:27:34 PM »

I have a problem with this game, and I can't tell if it's a real design issue or mere personal taste.

The problem is the apparent contradiction between your stated intent to create an emotional experience, and the many steps you've taken to distance players emotionally. You're calling for no tough moral choices; no "personalizing" of the Nazis; no first-person character identification. It's like turning up your stereo because you like it loud, then wearing ear plugs because the loud music would hurt your ears. Why bother?

Conflicts that are purely between characters and setting are inherently limited in interest. If I'm not mistaken, you could play using the very same rules, but the scenario could instead be about people trapped in a burning skyscraper, or on a lifeboat with dwindling supplies and no hope of rescue, or in a terminal cancer ward, or any other setting where people face annihilation from implacable impersonal forces. I have a moral objection to portraying "Holocaust" as such a force (that part clearly is a personal taste issue), but accepting that that's what you want to do, it appears to make the exercise rather meaningless. The players do not (and cannot) experience what it's like to be a holocaust victim or survivor. They do not compete to test their survival skills. They do not explore why the Holocaust happened or what to do to prevent it from happening again, let alone emotionally challenging questions like "how far would you go to survive?" Players aren't confronting their own hidden depravity as in the torture RPG "Twisted Sicken" (aka Chamber) discussed here last year. The Holocaust player is to be bound by strict rules, so as to limit his choices (and responsibility). The outcome is completely predictable in its broad outlines, and completely random in its details (e.g. who survives). So, what are the players there for? That is to say, what makes players' decisions (including Holocaust's) during play at all relevant or revelatory?

Ron's current characterization of Simulationist play within the Big Model seems particularly penetrating here: "confirming one's input, via the output." That appears to be what you have here: Holocaust in, Holocaust out. If the players know different historical anecdotes of the Holocaust (or if one knows the history well and the others don't) then they can convey that knowledge through play (especially when acting as Holocaust), which might be useful for some educational purposes. But it appears to me that a book on the subject (many are available that tell the stories of actual victims and survivors rather than invented ones) would serve those purposes better.

I've designed and run far more games that push (or outright fall outside) the boundaries of many definitions of RPG, than I have conventional RPGs. So I'm the last one to care whether or not a game is "really a role playing game" by any particular definition. I also try not to let what I personally do and do not enjoy affect my critical judgment of a game design. But in this case, I don't see the point at all.

- Walt
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Wandering in the diasporosphere
matthijs
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« Reply #17 on: May 11, 2005, 01:58:12 PM »

The aim of the game is not primarily to educate. It is to provide a specific experience of empathy with characters that suffer and love.

I believe that immersing totally in the subject matter is impossible, and trying to achieve that would be counter-productive. A game in this setting must be very clear on the distinction between player or character; otherwise the players will, after a while, completely refuse to identify. To rewrite your metaphor, it's like deciding to go into a blast area, wearing ear plugs to avoid going permanently deaf.

Quote
Conflicts that are purely between characters and setting are inherently limited in interest.


I don't think I understand what you mean; I'm pretty sure I disagree, but could you give an example of other setting vs character games?

Quote
That is to say, what makes players' decisions (including Holocaust's) during play at all relevant or revelatory?


That's a tough one. I'm glad you asked it. I'll have to sleep on it.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #18 on: May 11, 2005, 02:26:03 PM »

As the person who first suggested a"screw over others to survive" temptation mechanic, I have to say: Matthijs's clearly got a different design goal, and it's totally valid.

Matthijs, correct me if I'm misreading you, but I see your goal as elegaic, a game where players are asking is "how would I feel if it were me and my family?" and the answer comes from "trying on" the perspective of the victims. And, in response to Walt, I'd say creating your own characters, inventing their story, and living, albeit at a remove, through their/your experience gives a very different experience from reading a book about someone else's experience, however well written.

Now, you could also make a great game based on a "collaboration and betrayal" mechanic of the kind I suggested, but it'd be a radically different game. You'd gain tension and moral dilemmas, but I really think you'd lose moral clarity and the sense of elegy.

Even take Matthijs's title vs. the one Ben proposed for a betrayal/collaboration game. "The Best Amongst Us Did Not Survive" is an Egri-style Premise slam-bang right in the title and right in your face; that'd be a game about people making brutally hard decisions. "We All Had Names" clearly focused on memory and empathy; that's a game about people having a certain experience [EDIT: specifically one that is erasing their identity -- their names -- which the players then try to recover or recreate].

I think the difference is in fact Simulationism versus Narrativism, interestingly (which I finally began to understand in this thread), but that may be straying too far in theory to discuss here.
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #19 on: May 11, 2005, 03:45:39 PM »

Hi Matthijs, looking good. When you know what you want, it's half the design right there.

However, I'm still seeing a big problem in your conception, and am a little sceptical about the game working as long as it's not addressed. Here's the problem:

Quote from: matthijs

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.


I know what you're trying to gain: player immersion and investment in the characters and the situation. I just don't think that this is how you get it, especially in a no-GM game. You're assuming here that the players will immerse and invest when given enough time to do it. This is actually something I see pretty much in Finnish immersionist designs. And the goal is important: if the designer manages to cause immersion, that's a tremendously powerful tool.

However, in my experience pace does not equate immersion. You need something more. From observing rules-light immersionist play I'd say that usually committed Finnish immersionists get this something from mutual, definite orientation towards immersion as a play goal. It's also enforced in all kinds of ways socially. Usually the players write character diaries between sessions and such, too.

This is a valid method of play, but I don't think that it's very good design. I don't think that this immersionist method of play is very common, or easily grokked by the majority. Your game will play just fine if the players accept and go for nearly systemless immersion, but the game won't even start if the players aren't on to that wibe. That kind of immersionism requires that the players are already invested in the idea of playing this particular setting/situation. They have to be enthusiastic. All that character detail has to just... spring out of their little heads like water from a fountain. It's possible, but I don't think that it's certain in any way.

So: the question you should be answering is, "How do I get the players to invest in the characters?" And that that can't be answered by "I'll force them to play those characters for a couple of sessions, so they learn to love and cherish them." Not likely, IMO. What you're doing here is hoping that immersion and character investment flow in when there's nothing else to do. No system to fiddle with, no defined adventure goals or anything, and when players are thrust in this situation they just start immersing and investing because there's nothing better to do? Will it work out like that?

That's the key to your design, right there. Work out how the player investment happens, especially as the player knows there's much unpleasantness coming for his character, and you have something pretty strong. This is not trivial, and it can be done through rules. Many games concern themselves with this kind of thing. Somebody already mentioned DiV and it's initiation challenges, which serve a similar role. Other possibilities are Sorcerer kickers, that saga writing bit in Questing Beast, Cyberpunk random past tables and so on.
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matthijs
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« Reply #20 on: May 12, 2005, 12:45:26 AM »

Quote from: Sydney Freedberg
Matthijs, correct me if I'm misreading you, but I see your goal as elegaic, a game where players are asking is "how would I feel if it were me and my family?" and the answer comes from "trying on" the perspective of the victims. (...) I think the difference is in fact Simulationism versus Narrativism, interestingly


Sydney, yes and yes! This is definitely a sim game - at this point, at least. It's about identifying with the family.
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matthijs
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« Reply #21 on: May 12, 2005, 12:55:59 AM »

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
That's the key to your design, right there. Work out how the player investment happens, especially as the player knows there's much unpleasantness coming for his character, and you have something pretty strong. This is not trivial, and it can be done through rules. Many games concern themselves with this kind of thing. Somebody already mentioned DiV and it's initiation challenges, which serve a similar role. Other possibilities are Sorcerer kickers, that saga writing bit in Questing Beast, Cyberpunk random past tables and so on.


I think you're absolutely right - this is a crucial part of the design. (What I found in "electrified spikes through the soles of your feet" was that the mechanics worked OK, but without player investment in characters, it became a Monty Pythonesque dice game).

Thanks for your game tips - in fact, I'm the one who mentioned DitV. I'm thinking something like Accomplishments, but something that focuses more on character relationships, and less on a character's inner life/personal growth... though perhaps the latter would make identification easier?

This might be a writing-intensive game; I definitely think character backgrounds and session writeups are mandatory. (That fits in nicely with possible educational use). Loose idea: Perhaps even parts of the narrative in a scene could be written, and the role-playing occurs when the hammer comes down...
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #22 on: May 12, 2005, 04:49:47 AM »

Sydney and Matthijs, thanks for addressing my concerns about the game. "I don't get it" is harsh criticism and difficult to answer, but I think Syndey's single word "elegaic" goes a long way toward clarifying the game's purpose for me. For other kinds of Sim play I accept "celebration" (of the imagined content) as an attractive aspect of the Creative Agenda, but for obvious reasons I couldn't see "celebration" in this case. "Elegy" fits right into "celebration's" place.

As for this:

Quote
Conflicts that are purely between characters and setting are inherently limited in interest.


Oops! Wildly overstated point. I'm talking about conflict between characters and aspects of the setting other than characters. Such conflicts are rare in literature and difficult to maintain, because we tend to character-ize even inanimate forces of nature and abstract conditions when they come into conflict with characters. Fire becomes a pursuing ravenous beast; poverty a stalking killer, and so forth. So two questions arise about Holocaust in this game: One, is it possible to sustain, over time, treating Holocaust as an impersonal abstraction without local villains (whether Nazis, citizens sympathetic to the Nazis, or citizens just going along) arising in the narrative? (Because once they do arise, then they must be portrayed somehow -- whether as mindless evil automatons, or as more complex human characters.) Two, is it appropriate to portray Holocaust as an impersonal force even if it proves possible to do so, given that in fact it was not "Holocaust" that broke shop windows and forced people onto trains, but people. You seem to want to convey the experiences of the persecuted while leaving the persecutors as much out the picture as possible, but I doubt this detachment can be sustained during play.

- Walt
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Wandering in the diasporosphere
matthijs
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« Reply #23 on: May 12, 2005, 05:24:00 AM »

"I don't get it" is perfectly legitimate. It means I have to keep working on presentation and design; it also means that the game isn't for everyone.

Quote from: Walt Freitag
You seem to want to convey the experiences of the persecuted while leaving the persecutors as much out the picture as possible, but I doubt this detachment can be sustained during play.


I've been very unclear. When I wrote "nobody's going to have Nazi characters", it was in response to a suggestion that players actively portray both Nazis and Jews.

What I meant was: The characters we describe, play and care about will not be Nazis. They will be a Jewish family. Nazi NPCs will only be tools for the Holocaust player.

A Nazi NPC may have a name and a personality. He will not, however, be portrayed in a sympathetic fashion (unless it is to provide a contrast to his bestial actions). Nor will he become a nemesis to overcome. Nor will he be used to put the characters in difficult moral positions ("But how can you kill that young soldier? He didn't choose this war! He has three children!"). He will emphatically not be used to give the Holocaust a human face, or show any moral grey zones.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #24 on: May 12, 2005, 05:25:49 AM »

Quote from: Walt Freitag
....is it appropriate to portray Holocaust as an impersonal force even if it proves possible to do so...


Now, I personally tend to see evil not as an abstract force but as something  inextricably mixed with good in every individual. But part of the Holocaust's horror was how impersonal it was, how much of it was people "just going along" or "just following orders." And I'd suspect that, from the standpoint of many individual Jews, very few individual persecutors stood out from the grey mass.

In fact, imagine the horror of someone newly relocated to a ghetto trying to (for example) apply for ration cards, and every single time you go to the appropriate office in the German occupation government, there's a different bureaucrat there who's never heard of your case and has a different reason why he can't possibly help you. While your kids are starving.
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Sean
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« Reply #25 on: May 12, 2005, 10:43:35 AM »

Matthijs - glad to be of help! Those are some powerful photos.

I can see this game as heartbreakingly interesting to play - actually, I'm not sure I could play it, given my family ties - and agree with this:

"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."

But the issue about character identification is absolutely key. How do you get people to like this family? In the classic RP setup, they would do something together first to build a group identity. One way to do that here would be to play several pre-holocaust sessions with the family doing positive things together, under the shadow of the Nazis, but that's turning into a big time investment for the game. I think several sessions is appropriate, but like ten or twenty? You'd need to give people more structure for that to work out in that case, I think.

The thing is, you need buy-in to make the elegy or tragedy work, but how do you get that buy-in without giving the group something they can invest in together to accomplish? I think that's the trick. (I'm sort of following Eero and Walt in my ruminations here.)

I have this idea that playing a short PTA campaign using the holocaust as a background might help you fill in what you want to do with the game. Set up the family and their issues and episode importance in advance, the way it happens in PTA, and then play it out from there.
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Valamir
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« Reply #26 on: May 12, 2005, 12:03:12 PM »

I'd like to see some sort of stat for the family...call it "Ties" or something.  Each family member (and sketched out extended family) might be worth a point, the family business might be worth a few points,  the family home and any additional affluent property would be worth points, each of a list of Jewish Traditions / Customs would be worth a point, positions in German society would be worth points etc.

Then the ultimate goal of play would be for the family to preserve as many of these ties as possible in the face of a force dedicated to erasing their very existance.

The Holocaust player would then be attempting to destroy these Ties, essentially erasing the family as if it had never been.  First the business and the home and the property and the occassional distant relative who disappears.  Then the traditions, the memories of loved ones seperated, etc. etc. until everything that an individual could identify as belonging to or to them is gone and they are lost and alone.

Something that mechanically represents desperate efforts to preserve as much of their family, their identity, their culture as they can.
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Larry L.
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aka Miskatonic


« Reply #27 on: May 12, 2005, 12:11:49 PM »

Quote from: Valamir
The Holocaust player would then be attempting to destroy these Ties, essentially erasing the family as if it had never been. First the business and the home and the property and the occassional distant relative who disappears. Then the traditions, the memories of loved ones seperated, etc. etc. until everything that an individual could identify as belonging to or to them is gone and they are lost and alone.


This would certainly better convey the pathos implied by the name of the game. I strongly prefer this angle to "Holocaust doles out violent atrocities."
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #28 on: May 12, 2005, 04:39:25 PM »

Ralph stole my thunder, I was going to write about the mechanics next. You see, my take on the identification/investment issue is that you can't get the identification to happen through pre-holocaust play, because the players know what's coming. That makes all the difference. It could as well be subconsicious, the way the players would shy away from real investment, when they know that nothing there ultimately matters: the point of play is still to come, and it will be to debase anything they care to build now.

Now, Ralph has latched onto the key solution here: what the chargen/preplay phase needs to generate is not lots of detail, but instead something to defend. There needs to be something for the family to protect. I suggest that Ralph's solution is elegant, powerful, and easy to latch onto the mechanics as they are. (Each Tie bestows dice to characters expressing that Tie in the scene, but also sets up that Tie as something to potentially get destroyed. The strength of the holocaust in this scene is secret, so the players won't know whether they should invest their Ties in defense of themselves, or whether it'd be pointless here, now. Give in now to defend later, or not? And characters die only when there is no other Ties to remove. Holocaust of course removes one Tie per success.)

The primary goal here would be to realize a couple of player drives:
1) the motivation in the preplay phase is to build a family strong enough to survive in some form through the holocaust.
2)the motivation in the actual play is to draw on the preplay to survive.
I don't think that this approach is antithetical to the sim focus, but some might disagree. The point is, you have to motivate the players in the preplay, and that doesn't happen without setting goals, unless they're hard core simmers with a fetish for Jewish family life. This way you give meaning for the pre-holocaust events, and IMO also the holocaust; I think that the players are much more likely to distance themselves from the events if there is no rules for "winning", if there is no hope to save even a little scratch of what the family was. Many jews in RL lost all their hope in the holocaust, but we don't want the players to fall into the same apathy, because then they just stop playing. Like MLwM, you need to have mechanics in place for carving out a victory, even if it's a small, pointless and bitter one.
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Sean
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« Reply #29 on: May 12, 2005, 05:38:10 PM »

I'm really diggin' what Ralph and Eero are saying, a lot. I'll be curious to see if it's going the way Matthijs wants to go or not.

I did want to add this, though: when I was thinking about this game this afternoon I thought "now, that's actually a game where in a sense you could 'win' by quitting early or not finishing this. Where saying 'I just can't go on playing this' might itself be a pretty meaningful thematic statement by the players about the content of the game."

Although the ideas that are on the table now give the players something to 'play for', not just leaving them there watching a train wreck, could make this less important, I still think it's worth considering. Like a rule that lets the group end the game at the end of any session with a majority vote, if they feel that things have gotten too hopeless to continue. This could do two things: let groups get out of a situation that's gotten too wrenching to continue with (lines/veils), and give players a real-world interaction over the content of the game and whether they want to go on.

I still have this gut feeling that playing a PTA game, with one of the players playing 'the Holocaust' as a character along with the others playing the family members, might help sort out some of the possibilities here.
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