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[GenCon/L5R] 5 minutes of fun packed tightly into 4 hours of dysfunction.

Started by Eric Provost, August 25, 2005, 04:24:29 AM

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Eric Provost

Well, I debated some about the usefulness of actually posting this account, but the entertainment value it had for Ron has convinced me to press on and tell you all about the only moments of misery we had at GenCon this year.

Well, I suppose that's a bit too dramatic.  I mean, the game sucked, but our indie-Forgite-lexicon allowed us to see the dysfunction for what it was instead of just getting steamed up about it.  This post is about what went down in that session and the types of dysfunction we saw there.

Lisa and I just kinda picked the game out of the book 'o events.  It was billed as a 'Champions of Rokugan' event.  I figured what the hell.  At worst we'd be minor pawns in a story about the big names of the setting and at best we might get to play those big names and have an impact on the story (funny pipe dream!).

When we show up we find out that we're jumping into the middle of a long-term HUGE event that's been going on for years.  My first indication of trouble was when they took us aside to generate our characters.  When asked what I'd like to play, I was direct and said that I'd go with something simple, a Crab Bushi (for those of you unaware of the L5R setting, that means I stand there and get attacked while saying rude things about monsters).  The immediate reaction of the GM that was 'helping' me create the character was... well, somewhat like I'd just inserted a spoonful of my own bodily fluids into his mouth.  Alarm bells went off in my head.  When I explained that I'd played a Crab in the past and would have an easier time getting into character he seems slightly relieved and explained that he was afraid that I was looking to play a "basher".  Or some such crap. 

The important thing being that I should have known to cut and run right then and there.  But I didn't.  Tales of tragedy usually start out that way, don't they?  I mean, with the protagonist knowing that they're doing something foolish.  That was me.

As I write this I'm referring back to my little blue notepad.  I wish I had a scanner.  Ron was so tickled by my notes he had me passing them around.

Once the game got started, which took a while, we got right into the Click On This NPC For Mission scene.  Somehow all of our PCs were walking down the same road and met with the same famous NPC all at once (whom I'd never heard of).  Said NPC invites us to a... *ponder*  I think it was a drinking establishment for a meeting.  When we get there Uber NPC of Mission Statements comes out from behind the curtain to tell us what we need to do.  Which was basically a treasure-hunt mission where we were gathering the ingredients to some uber-kewl anti-Shadows spell.  When one of the players requested a 'gaijin lantern' from the mission-statement NPC (apparently to fight the Shadows, I dunno) the NPC informed him that he, the PC, couldn't possibly afford such an item.  Mission-statement NPC immediately disappears behind the curtains again and we're off.

Note of Annoyance:  The GM kept pronouncing it a "guy-jean" lantern.  I don't give a rat's ass if that is the correct pronunciation, he sounded like a pompous ass.

The rest of the session basically included our group of PCs travelling from one town to another to gather the essential items for the uber-spell.  Disappointingly, the "challenge" of obtaining the items for the spell basically came down to some annoying flavor text from the GM about how the local magistrates would keep us waiting for days at a time before allowing us to check their libraries and basements, and then was resolved with single Perception checks.  Checks everyone knew we had to succeed at.  Silly annoying shit.

Then there were the annoying and useless combat scenes we got into.  Scenes where, just before we actually defeated the meaningless baddies, the GM would announce "Well, you got them, so on to the next town..."  Very anti-climatic.  And frustrating.

To sum up the rest of the dysfunction, I'll give it to you more directly;

While travelling on a ship along the coast between towns an argument between a player and the GM broke out on how difficult it was to swim in 'light' oriental armor.  The argument lasted ten or fifteen minutes.  The 'scene' took about this long:  "You take a boat to the next town." 

The GM had a nice one-two punch of dysfunction when he had one player roll something like eight consecutive Void rolls.  When she finally resulted in a failure he informed her that she wouldn't regain any void points until we were done with the journey.  In the very next breath we were done with the journey.  Fascinating.

There was this one particularly wonderful moment of crap when, while travelling from town to town, we were haunted by an annoying and insulting NPC.  No matter where we went there he was with his bad attitude.  And the same lines over and over again I might add.  It was obvious the GM expected us to react to him right away and had nothing more creative in mind when we ignored him at first. 
Eventually I declared "Ok fine, I'll bite.  I walk up to him and tell him that I'm tired of his insults and I'd like to see him outside."
GM:  "Ok, he's outside."
Me:  "Um, he blipped outside?"
GM:  "Yup."  *annoying GM grin of stupidity*
Me:  "Ok, I'll stroll outside and..."
GM:  "Ok, so you run outside and bash him on the head..."
Me:  "Whoa!! No!  I stroll outside and I..."
GM:  "Right!  So you run outside and bash him on the head!  Before your weapon strikes him he shrinks down to this big and then disappears into the sand."
That was the end of the scene.  Fascinating.

At one point we had this wonderful fight where some big baddie, backed up by a smattering of shadow monsters, came along and smashed my character in the forehead with a tree.  Not quite sure how that happened.  I mean, we were in the middle of a rice paddy, walking along the raised path between patties.  Of course, I actually missed the rice patty thing at first.  When Lisa's character was thrown thirty feet away and was unable to climb up the steep incline in time to make an attack I naturally assumed that we were on the side of a steep cliff face.  Silly me.  After the baddie struck me in the noggin with the elm he made a break for the back of the back of the party (we had previously declared our marching order) to fuck with the thinkers of the group.  When I declared that I would catch up to the baddie and put a toothpick in his rear I was informed that "You can't get to him."  I hope you can imagine the blank and confused stare I gave the GM at that point.

Mostly I was dissapointed that I'd been robbed the opportunity to let my character die with honor.  I was really hoping to take a bashing by that timber again.

The last item of note on my list o' dysfunction from that session was my reminder of how many times we rolled to find clues.  Clues that were essential to the storyline.  Know what?  The same character got the best roll every time.  Which means that not only was rolling silly since we were all going to get the clue anyway, but it was doubly silly as we all knew who was going to get the best roll.

My own private lesson from this?

While it may certainly be possible to have fun playing non-indie RPGs at Cons it's simply too big of a risk.  I'm better off volunteering my time as a GM for games I know I'll be entertained by.  Not only will my own entertainment be assured but I'll also bring a greater measure of entertainment to those I GM for. (I should hope!)


Sounds pretty awful, yet familiar. I think it may be due to John Wick inspired Game master tactics, because I seem to have found my worst experiences in L5R and Seventh Sea when it comes to ridiculous deprotagonisation and 'railroading'.

Did the GM give his name and was it Travis or Geoff? Silly question, to think my similar dysfunctional L5R play came from the same person, but hey, it's worth a shot.

John Kim

Sounds similar in ways to my L5R convention experience, which I briefly describe in my Kublacon 2004 Report.  Chris Chinn, in his blog Deep in the Game has described his seemingly disastrous efforts to run a campaign. 

Based on what I've seen thus far, I'm mystified at the seeming popularity of the system -- though I don't want to delve further to find out. 

- John



Actually, the folks who I have been running for are L5R fans, one of whom I would call hardcore.  The hardcore player has plenty of stories about playing at cons with "big names" and knows all the metaplot NPCs in and out.  From his description AND yours- it sounds like standard kind of play (Big NPCs push around PCs, terrible Illusionism, etc.)




I'm not sure whether you're implying L5R just plain sucks, or that it just sucks at cons (I don't have the Forge lingo down completely yet)

if it's the former, I beg to differ

I've played a couple of games with some friends (one of which, the GM, is a L5R hardcore fan) and had a pretty good time (no particular railroading etc.)

if it's the latter, I agree 100% (I stay away from non-indie cons myself)

that being said, thank you Eric for that post

you had me giggling :)


GB Steve

Quote from: Gamskee on August 25, 2005, 06:33:07 AMI think it may be due to John Wick inspired Game master tactics
I've not played these games so I'm not sure what you mean by this, could you explain?


Christopher Weeks

Quote from: Eric
Note of Annoyance:  The GM kept pronouncing it a "guy-jean" lantern.  I don't give a rat's ass if that is the correct pronunciation, he sounded like a pompous ass.
I get most of the stuff about why the game sucked.  But I totally, totally don't get this.  Can you elaborate?

Quote from: GB Steve
Quote from: GamskeeI think it may be due to John Wick inspired Game master tactics
I've not played these games so I'm not sure what you mean by this, could you explain?
Wick wrote the two games.

Eric Provost


It was really just a minor annoyance.  The over-pronounciation coming from his lips just seemed to mirror and echo the argument over swimming in oriental armor.  That "I'm the GM and I know more about this culture than you do"-vibe.  That's all.  Just picking nits.


Ron Edwards


Eric, the new guys are floundering. If you can, please provide a topic for discussion that stems from this experience - maybe a comparison with another game, or something similar. I can see a "Well I had fun with L5R on Tuesday" mess looming.


GB Steve

Quote from: Christopher Weeks on August 25, 2005, 01:29:30 PM
Quote from: GB Steve
Quote from: GamskeeI think it may be due to John Wick inspired Game master tactics
I've not played these games so I'm not sure what you mean by this, could you explain?
Wick wrote the two games.
I know that. I wondered what the tactics were and why they were bad. Are they an intrinsic part of the games, will the games work without them and if not, what can be done about this?

Eric Provost

Sure thing Ron.

I was actually working on this post earlier this morning, but it kept turning into a rant about RPG design.  Not something that would be productive here.  :D

So, here's the thing:

Yes, it is possible to have fun with L5R.  I have had fun with it in the past.  I happen to be one of those guys that started with L5R when it hit the shelf.  We played with the first packs of cards and ran to our local game shop to pick up the RPG as soon as it was in our town.  So, yeah, lots of history and lots of fun games there.

I would like everyone to see that this thread is not intended as a slam on L5R.  I'd purposefully hidden my personal views on the game itself.  What it is is an observation on GMing techniques and styles that I think suck.  Techniques and styles that prevented me from having any real fun during that four hour slice of my life.  I think that you would all agree that No Fun = teh suk any day.

I also observe that all the indie games I play and enjoy have rules that prevent the techniques that I think suck (and replace them with fun techniques).  Therefore I know that I can trust Forgite games at the conventions.  I don't have to wonder if the GM is good or not, the game will prevent any suckage.

If you should read this thread and conclude that the purpose of this thread was to slam one type of game or revere another type then you are mistaken.  My purpose here was to observe and catalog specific behaviors in gaming that are regularly not entertaining to me.  And if those observations cause reflection on the text of L5R I would hope that it would inspire you to ask yourself;  "How could L5R have been designed differently so as to ensure that all players are regularly guaranteed a greater level of entertainment?"

It's productive reflection that's my goal, not destructive.


GB Steve

Eric, that's what I was asking about. Is there something inherent in the design of these games, or at least the GM advice that makes play difficult for certain CAs? From what you said in the first post I thought it was just a case of GMing that didn't suit your style of play but later posts suggests that there are perhaps more fundamental reasons.

It would be interesting to know whether you thought anyone enjoyed the game.

I had a very similar experience playing Vampire at Origins and I'm pretty sure that it wasn't the fault of the rules. Everyone seemed unfocused and the game kept stopping to talk about "other cool games I have played". As such it was an group exercise in bragging about "how cool I am" with the game providing a focus for that, rather than seeming to be the main reason for being there. This contrasted strongly with the Call of Cthulhu games I played where hardly a word was spoke OOC.

Ron Edwards


Maybe this concept needs to be parsed out a bit more, because I think Steve is driving at a good way to phrase it.

Eric, you wrote,

QuoteI don't have to wonder if the GM is good or not, the game will prevent any suckage.

Welllll ... the game-book doesn't have actual tentacles that reach out and make people play better or worse, or do this or do that. Perhaps the Big Model will be useful here, in that the social goals of imaginative play are being reinforced all the time, as we play. Which really is just a jargony way of saying "roxxor," but it adds a bit - it's a solid contrast to providing some kind of "long-term skill advancement" mechanic and expecting that to be a reward system for the overall enjoyment, for example.

L5R is worth attending to, specifically, because its reward system is, in my view, not exactly clear at all regarding how actually to use it. Unlike the Glory system in Pendragon (one of L5R's parents), the L5R system gets vague very fast and tends to become something of a clan-specific alignment system (i.e. behavior-forcing parameters) instead.

But still, I'm not talking about the book's tentacles; I'm talking about the group's shared understanding of the reward system and enjoying how we each individually put it into play, and see results appear. As far as I can tell, the bulk of the games that are published through various interactions at the Forge tend to rely on very strong understanding at this level, and the classic mid-90s heavy-metaplot, High-Concept game tends not to. In fact, I suggest that they instead reinforce or exacerbate Typhoid Mary Narrativist dysfunction instead, with a strong dose of luring players in by offering some Gamist opportunities. Not a good combination.


P.S. The defense would like the jury to note that "Sim" was not indicted in this post in any fashion whatsoever.

Mike Holmes

Interestingly, about the time this session was going on at GenCon, I was listening to a seminar by John Wick on setting and how to use it in design. And he was using L5R as his example, and speaking about how it is the concept of Glory that brings conflict from the setting to the players (for example how you might be told by somebody with a high Glory to edit your memory of events for political reasons).

Then he also talked about Seventh Sea, and how making the countries Pseudo-Earth nations was a bad, bad idea. He took responsibility on this (using phrases like "we made a mistake, when..."). But here's the thing. As I understand it from talking to John on previous occasions, his hands were really tied in many ways about this having to work with other people on the projects, and having to meet goals set by the company. Splat, Metaplot, Sim.

So Eric is right in that it's not so much John's fault - he knows good design. It's the fact that the games weren't produced independently that caused all of the problems. If there's anything that points to the importance of independent RPGs, it's the problems that you see in play of games like L5R and 7th Sea that are great ideas that get mired up in pandering to "gamer expectations." All good play of these games involves some heavy drift to some playable CA.

Check out John's work since he became independent. Orc World, Cat, etc. You'll see that those problems are gone now. Which, as Ron points out, doesn't make anyone a better GM. You'll just see less in the way of specific dysfunctions.

Eric, either I missed it, or you forgot to mention that you ditched the game. You'd played 4 hours already or something, and were supposed to come back for several more after lunch? Or something like that?

Anyhow, the dysfunction here comes down to railroading, right? That is, even for an educated player like yourself who could try to find some CA to participate in, there was none presented. It sounds like "Complete Participationism" if anything as a CA. Tantamount to storytelling (in the traditional use of the term, not the White Wolf meaning), but requiring the players to say "OK" every so often to indicate that they're complicit? Obviously no narrativism opportunities. No gamism opportunities - when you even tried to simply move in combat, even then you were over-ridden. No sim opportunities for portrayal - sounds like the GM cut you off and even played your character in many cases, and simply shortcutted all narration in other cases.

So, again, it begs the question what the GM thought the player participation was supposed to be? You didn't even seem to get to create window dressing. Here's an interesting excercise. Try to play the part of the GM seriously for a moment. If I asked him, "What is the player's role in your game?" what do you think he'd answer?

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Eric Provost

Quote from: RonWelllll ... the game-book doesn't have actual tentacles that reach out and make people play better or worse, or do this or do that.

Maybe not.  But I can look in the pages of some books and discover that playing by the rules means using a style or technique that I enjoy.  Conversely I can look in some books and find that playing by the rules means using a style or technique that I know I won't enjoy.  But there's also the game texts that I can look into and see that playing by the rules neither supports styles of play that I enjoy nor denies styles of play that I don't enjoy.  With this particular breed of book I might have fun with one group and hate the game with another.

Quote from: SteveIt would be interesting to know whether you thought anyone enjoyed the game.

I don't think that really matters.  I really don't.  I mean, the other three at the table could have been jumping up and down, cheering for the GM's descriptions.  It wouldn't have changed how entertaining it was or wasn't for me.  It wouldn't have changed the fact that we were all deprotagonized, railroaded, and subjected to arguments over causality.  Maybe the player that was on the other end of that argument about swimming in light armor was enjoying the debate.  I wasn't.

I don't think I'm prepared to go into what L5R and similar games do support in terms of style of play.  Perhaps because I always drifted the rules as a matter of habit.  But I am willing to say that they do not present text that does anything to prevent certain techniques.  Techniques such as direct GM deprotagonization, railroading/participationism, and causality arguments.  Therefore those techniques may or may not be present in a game and still be within the rules.

Although, now that I think about it, there may be one rule that's everpresent in these texts that supports the techniques I find less than entertaining.  It's that core rule that goes something like;  The GM is always the final arbiter... on everything.  When I see a game like that I know that I won't enjoy it unless we take some time to sit down and negotiate exactly what the session is going to be like ahead of time.  Which would almost certainly mean ditching that rule first.  And that's generally a level of discussion and negotiation that takes a bit too much time for con-games.

Finally, I don't think it has anything to do with different CAs.  Not a lick.  When the GM can veto anything then that can suck equally well for story-monkeys, challenge-monkeys, and causality-monkeys.


p.s. Mike posted while I was working this post out.

Yeah.  Lisa and I totally ditched.  It was scheduled to be a four hour game, from 9am to 1pm.  At some point around 11 or so, the GM said something about "...being here 'till 7."  At first I thought he meant that he and his AEG crew would be there all night GMing different aspects of this huge campaign.  I discovered soon afterward that he meant that our session would run an extra 6 hours.  Lisa and I just couldn't take it anymore.  When everyone agreed it was time to take a break to eat something we made up a pleasant lie about being expected somewhere else and prompty ran to the Forge booth for comfort and venting.

I feel kinda guilty about the lie and the ditching, but the truth would have been to stand up and say that we thought his game sucked before packing up our stuff. 

And yeah, you totally sum up the participationism issue much better than I did.  And I'd like to think you're right;  I was prepared for any type of game, but was denied the opportunity to do anything.

Lisa has a great beef about how she just tried to give an interesting narration to one of her attack moves and was cut off with;  "Ok, you hit him.  How much damage?"