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[The Shadow of Yesterday] Eating the Black

Started by Clinton R. Nixon, July 10, 2005, 06:03:14 AM

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Clinton R. Nixon

This post is part Actual Play and part True Confessions.

So, I don't play the games I write. There it is. I play them before-hand, sure. I mean, I playtest, sure. I'm not stupid.

But after they're written, I don't touch 'em. Why? They scare me. Before someone's given me money for a copy, the game can be crap. That's cool - I'm still working on it. After someone's bought it, I'm afraid to play and see that maybe it's not as good as I thought it was. What if we have a bad session? I'll feel like a fake. I mean, I hang out on a forum for masters of this craft, and it's not what I'm best at. I feel kind of a joke, a novice in the masters' house, when you set me up next to Vincent and Ron and Jared.

(Before we get too started here, if you're thinking about posting some affirmations, don't. I don't need 'em. We get cheerier later, plus I'm not an attention whore.)

But, my group convinced me to run The Shadow of Yesterday. I mean, I fought 'em on it. I argued for other games and put the game down and even tried to run HeroQuest instead, but my heart wasn't in it and the game failed. So, I cut down the group to two others and ran my game, nine months after I wrote it and nine months since I last saw it.

It's been interesting.

A Fortunate Incident of Memory Loss
The cool thing is that I have a completely fresh perspective on the game. If you've played it, I bet you've had an issue or two with Bringing Down the Pain. It reads good on paper, and when I playtested the game, it ran great. That's because the Platonic ideal of Bringing Down the Pain, the version in my head then, was great. I knew how to make it work. All the little problems with it were smoothed out by me running it.

But I forgot how to do all that. It's been nine months. And now, I have to re-learn it. I keep seeing places in the text where I'm all, "Huh?" and think "I really should have written how to do this better."

So that explains why I'm rewriting the game.

A Jewel in the Dark Water
So, what's our game all about? I started with one bit of setting - we'd play in a city, a bit of urban fantasy noir, set on a river. I didn't even decide where in Near we'd play, but with a Qek jewel-thief character and a Khalean character that hates other Khaleans, Ammeni was the obvious choice.

I built a city in the swamps, split by a river, called Marais (which is just French for "swamp", but it sounds nice.) The feel of the city, as all Ammeni should have, is about half decadent French and about half Southeast Asian. The government is corrupt and awesome: the House Desang, one of the seven Houses that control Ammeni. This is their city and home base.

I wanted to use a lot of stuff from my (temporarily) aborted book on cults in The Shadow of Yesterday, so the Noir Mange were born. That's a new name I made up for something referenced in the main text - the Revenant Cult of Ammeni. They are scary bad-asses and I manage to creep myself out with them fairly often. The other huge influence on the game - and this makes me laugh, as my players don't care for this television show, but like the game - is the TV series "Angel." We're in a big decadent city where money and power come up against cults and crime. We've got goblin ("Angel" demons, in a way) owners of opium bars. This is my favorite NPC, actually: I managed to blow away all preconceptions of the word "goblin." Bastien's about 6'2", strong, almost human-looking except a little green, and addicted to piercings. He's got rows of rings lining every straight body surface. Man, oh man, is he fun. The other players dig Jerry, the falafel vendor, who is so totally Woody Allen.

I'll get to what we've learned in a bit, but here's the quick run-down on play.

We're four sessions in. We've got two main characters. First up is Tlaloc Tinmar the Qek jewel thief (Keys: Glittering Gold, Unrequited Love). He started with Glittering Gold and bought Unrequited Love later when he saw an amazing Zaru animal-fighter woman. (This may be totally offensive to someone, but I can't imagine this NPC being played by anyone but adult film star Tera Patrick.) The other is Aonghus, a Khalean who has a hand made of moon-metal, the weird star-substance that infects northern Khale. He's more of a cipher, and has the Keys of Conscience, Vengeance (against good Khaleans), and Outcast (a new Key we've made up.)

So far, the plot goes something like this:

- The Desang government wants Aonghus to be their lap-boy, and teach them about moon-metal. In exchange, he gets more of it. Task one for him: do guard work for the yearly shipment of the black poiture harvest. Poiture is a flower - like opium - but comes in all colors. Black's the strongest and also deadly and insanely valuable. There's been reports that a local cult, the Noir Mange, might try and steal the poiture.

- Tlaloc gets wind of this and goes to check out the action. The Noir Mange shows up as expected, and gets away with one box of black poiture. While they fight the guards, Tlaloc jumps on the ship, rides it out to sea and sinks it, sealing a king's ransom in watertight boxes for use later. This is where he meets his big love, by the way, seeing a wild Zaru woman (and also the head of the Noir Mange) bite the cheek off a guard attacking her before throwing Aonghus against a wall hard enough to knock him out. He swoons.

- The Noir Mange want to get the black poiture from Tlaloc, as you might expect. So far, they've got a little bit. Akhaharu, the hot wild woman, actually strung Tlaloc up and tortured him for a while, but let him go. This scene was awesome to play - weird sexual tension as this character's lust-object tortured him. She's under the impression that he's bringing her the rest of the goods. He's under the impression he might.

- Aonghus is playing everyone against each other. He's getting played from a few sides, though. The government he works for supposedly is against the Noir Mange, but his contact's bodyguard is a member and he knows it. No one's brought it up so far, though. He's got two guys tailing him everywhere that finally revealed themselves and told him he has some destiny to restore the world to its former glory and all he has to do is take this magic mask. There's got to be more to that. And the girl he's sleeping with, and helping get her sister back from the Noir Mange (where she might be a member, or might be a prisoner), has totally double-crossed Tlaloc, so that's a problem.

- Aonghus is getting his Khale revenge, though. He's infiltrated the KLF (Khalean Liberation Front, which is strangely Fight Club-esque, as all Khaleans in the city are slaves and work in resturants, apparently), who plan an assault into the Desang fortress. (This was cool - he killed a Khalean in the Desang garden to prove his loyalty to the Desang. That Khalean's blood on the trees allows the rest to leap through with their hippie powers, so that's all on him.) Whether he tells the Desang about this yet is in the air, but my money is that he does.

- Oh, and last session, there was a goblin prostitute. And a ghost with no arms and a madam with two thumbs on her right hand. Last session was crazy.

That's the big stuff. There's other little stuff, but that's the main gist. I love, love, love the fact that the two main characters are not all buddy-buddy. Last session, we realized that Tlaloc doesn't even know Aonghus' name, which is funny.

Lessons learned
I'm not only learning good lessons for TSOY here. I'm also running my first game explicitly designed for a long(-ish) compaign in a while and I'm really digging that. The current story-line's probably got three more sessions in it, and the characters - well, I'm thinking 10 more sessions minimum in the campaign. Maybe more - maybe a lot more, depending on what everyone else thinks. I'm loving it.

The biggest lesson learned is this: quit holding back. So, I decided upfront that there'd be one cult that wants to take over the world involved, and one character would be invited to help lead them. That's big stuff, and kept wanting to wait on it. When I finally just dropped off that entire load in front of the player, everything got better. I probably wouldn't have realized this was a good idea if it wasn't for Mischa, Tlaloc's player. When he saw the head of the Noir Mange, an incredibly powerful woman who is one of the biggest movers in the city and could probably take on ten armed men and win, and then just said, "Oh, I take the Key of Unrequited Love with her," my jaw dropped. I was planning this whole wind-up and she might be the Big Bad many sessions later, when they were ready, and all that standard GMing stuff. Now, I have to use her all the time. The two of them have to confront each other every session, or I'm not doing my job. Because of that, I was able to throw the big stuff up-front everywhere, and it's so much fun.

I think we all have this feeling that so much more is happening than in the standard game, but it's not the rules that are letting that happen. It's the pacing, and more GMs need to do this: let go of trying to hide your plans.

Other things I've learned... hmm. The Fudge-iz-ation of TSOY works. I know there's doubters, but all three of us have found it to be awesome. From a designer/GM standpoint, I like the way it makes bonus dice much more necessary and penalty dice much more terrible. People get forced into spending pools or giving out Gift Dice and that rules. It's supposed to be a big mechanic, but before I changed it, they weren't getting used that often. We had only our second pool refreshment this last session - both were in the last two sessions - and that's because the pools weren't getting spent enough. The pool refreshment resulted in a trip to the brothel, which resulted in incredible NPC action, so that's what I wanted.

Anyway, more will come with more sessions, and I'll post again. If anyone's got any questions, either about the actual play, or about how the play's informing the TSOY revision, feel free to ask.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Bill Cook

Having Aonghus be Khalean and a traitor to his people is very interesting. And Akhaharu is another concept against cultural norms--a Zaru beserker.

QuoteI think we all have this feeling that so much more is happening than in the standard game, but it's not the rules that are letting that happen. It's the pacing, and more GMs need to do this: let go of trying to hide your plans.

True d'at. I know 'tis better to weave to bang, but I often cut to scenes that reveal the movers and shakers' plans unfolding, with the PC's intentionally off screen, powerless to engage. Then when they actually do cross paths, the situation's fully loaded.


Your 'Marais' trick is a good fantasy city naming one. Sometimes even English words will do - I picked 'Swale' for a town nestled amidst lush hills in a recent game, and I liked it pretty well. This relates to a point Ron makes in Sorcerer and Sword about fantasy hero names, that most of the best ones either are Earth names or are rather close to them. The trick is you want a feel that's just slightly archaic or whimsical or 'off' somehow. I've spent enough time in Paris that "Le Marais" wouldn't work for me, but whack off the article and it's good. Just a little different.

Likewise getting the information out there. There are situations where information hoarding is good: gamist play, puzzle to be solved, clues as something to be earned in play en route to the big payoff (the treasure beyond the riddle or whatever). In most situations though it's bad. The Dogs game text is good on this, as is your post above.

My question: what is the FUDGE-ization of TSOY? How does this work? What's the mechanical difference?

Victor Gijsbers

Clinton R. Nixon

Quote from: bcook1971Having Aonghus be Khalean and a traitor to his people is very interesting. And Akhaharu is another concept against cultural norms--a Zaru beserker.

I didn't intend that, but you're right - it does work well. In HeroQuest, Stafford talks about the "Orlanthi all" - that is, 85% of the Orlanthi are alike in culture, and 15% are different. That 15% usually makes up the PCs and interesting NPCs, I think.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games