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[Mountain Witch] What a mountain!

Started by Albert of Feh, September 11, 2005, 04:55:20 AM

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Albert of Feh

I ran my first session of The Mountain Witch tonight, and I'm still feeling really jazzed up from it some two hours later. I was actually really worried about running this game. Most of my GMing endeavors for the past year or so have felt bland and mediocre, and this summer I started having some serious doubts about whether I really enjoyed playing RPGs, or just enjoyed the thought experiments on designing them. Furthermore, I was feeling the weight of the game on my shoulders; it felt like a lot of people around me were saying, "Hey, The Mountain Witch! The game that is supposed to automagically makes things awesome!" (well what, my internal doubter asked, if you run the game and it's not awesome?)

Fortunately, it was awesome, and I can hardly wait to hit the next session.

I really went whole hog on setting up the room. A friend of mine had an empty bedroom in his apartment, so I appropriated it for use. On the bare wall behind me (that most of the players were facing) I put two bold-colored but plain-designed noren to dampen the visuals, and one smaller cloth hanging on the wall behind them. On the three hard surfaces of the room (a desk, a dresser, and a small bedside table), I placed small square ceramic Japanese-style plates with tea candles on them. Other than the candles, the room was lit only by a single 60-watt lamp. Hidden the drawer of the bedside table, I had my laptop playing a shuffled mix of traditional Japanese music (some Taiko, some Noh, some Shamisen music, some koto). Two mattresses were placed perpendicular along two walls, with a couple of sitting cushions on the floor across the center. In the center of the room, on the floor, I placed a rough shallow ceramic bowl with a slight spiral pattern. All rolling was done in the bowl, with every player having a differently colored d6.

The payoff:
The low light was wonderful. Most of the light from the single lamp was actually directed straight out the window, leaving just enough to read character sheets and dice. Even with the hangings on the walls, the walls were still mostly a light off-white. If the room had been well-lit, there would have been a lot of excess visual noise distraction to contend with. Also, I feel like it somehow compressed the space of the room down. Even though we were sitting on the floor, and thus there was lots of empty space above us, I don't think I glanced upwards a single time during the three hours of play. None of the candles were in my regular field of view, so I don't really know if they added anything. The hidden music was wonderful. It was quiet enough to never get in the way of anyone's speech, but loud enough to underscore a quiet moment with a wistful flute or a combat scene with a steady drum tempo, and always thematically appropriate. The bowl in the center for dice rolling was great as well. Making everyone roll in the same space at the same time in the middle concentrated everyone's attention on the rolls at the appropriate time. Furthermore, the rolling dice made a rather loud clanging noise against the ceramic, adding a significant aural flair as well as being a great sword clang-y sound effect.

The really key element of the setup, though, is that there was nothing in the room that wasn't supposed to be there as part of the gaming environment. Would that I could always keep a room on standby for such purposes.

Right now, it's late, but tomorrow, the mountain! Also, I'll see if I can't draw some of the players over to provide some more input on things.


What a tease! ;)

I really want to hear more now!
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I'm interested ... but I am one of those odd folk who really doesn't give a damn about adding Color to play via the play-space and props. I'm glad it worked for you.

What I'm interested in is the content of play and the interactions among you guys as participants. How'd that go?


Nev the Deranged

I think it sounds cool. Not so much in terms of Color, really, but just as a way of dedicating the space and time to the creative act of gaming and helping everyone not only get into a "Mountain Witch / Asian flavored" mindset, but just a "now we are going to focus on the game" mindset. Now hurry up and give us the AP, man!

Jason Morningstar

I'm very interested in the effectiveness of your careful preparation of the space, myself.  What impact did it have on the quality of the experience, and the general tone of the evening?  Recent posts about ritual have really had me re-examining the physical space my group plays in, and how that impacts our fun.  I'm looking forward to hearing more!



I'm one of the players in Albert's game.  I controlled Tanei Sukohara, a ronin who had been trained in the basics of military engineering by his former lord.

I definitely enjoyed the atmosphere.  I've always used music to set the scene in my own games, and I like it when others do the same.  I've never played in such a well-prepared environment as this, however.  I agree that it would be cool to have a room devoted to this sort of thing.  We could take turns decorating and using it for all of our games.

Another thing which heightened atmosphere somewhat was watching Kwaidan before the session.  Kwaidan is a rather slow-paced portrayal of four classic Japanese ghost stories.  For me, it was most useful for envisioning the clothing and architecture of the period.

The gameplay has been awesome so far.  One interesting thing of note: it takes a non-standard approach to the IC-OOC knowledge barrier issue.  I think of this as a smooth scale.  On one end, the players know exactly what their characters know, and nothing more.  On the other end, the players know a lot more than their characters know, and they are trusted to make decisions genuinely, as though they lacked this knowledge (i.e. no metagaming).  The Mountain Witch has elements of both.

In the Mountain Witch, you narrate what your character does while away from the rest of the group, and you announce which side in a conflict you are rolling for.  Ultimately, this means that the other players get a healthy chunk of info about your secret doings, while their characters know little or nothing about it.  On the other hand, you have your "dark fate."  You are encouraged to keep this secret from the other players (not just their characters), foreshadowing it and revealing it slowly.  Thus, you're working on both ends of the knowledge scale, differentiated by the nature of what you are hiding/revealing.

Unfortunately, the next Mountain Witch session couldn't be tonight, so it probably will be next week.


Albert of Feh

Yes, yes, Ron, I know. It was just getting on two hours past my usual bedtime and I figured it could wait for some sleep to catch up.

A bit of background on the players: These were not primarily indie-forge gamers. Daniel had played The Pool and InSpectres once. Peter had been in a Dogs one-shot. Peter and Jeff may have played in a Pool one-shot once, two years ago or so, which I've heard ended up getting very silly. As far as I know, Abby and Mark mostly play assorted WW.

For the opening scene, I tossed them the "Give us a shot of your character praying (or not praying, if you prefer) at the shrine at the base of the mountain, along with at least one detail significant to your fate". From that hook, I got a Significant bag, some scars, a letter, and some relevant facial expressions. Everyone's intro description also did a really good job of conveying the feel of a group of samurai all haunted by their pasts.

The first encounter I dropped was a variation on Ron's "dead samurai on the path and a dying one off the path claiming that they were attacked by other ronin." I further twisted it by picking a random player (Jeff, in this case) and having the dying man accuse him of being a part of the group that ambushed them. Some confusion and incredulity followed, with Jeff denying accusations and everyone else looking thoughtful, until I told Jeff that if he wanted to lay this issue to any sort of rest, he was going to have to take it to a mechanical conflict, with the stakes being the dying man's credibility. Jeff lost, leaving his character fairly permanently implicated. I think this whole scene came somewhere out of left field for the players. They weren't sure whether they were seeing some Dark Fate in action, or what it really meant. Jeff, in particular, seemed rather confused by it. All it really meant is that I was messing with their characters; my initial conception is that it was a fox or other spirit out to cause trouble. Maybe I should have saved it for a second encounter.

After that there was a nice set of conflicts centered around an ambush. One of the players scouted on ahead off the path and saw the ambush in planning, triggering the rock fall before the rest of the company arrived under it. I wanted to use this encounter to bring some attention on another Significant Prop, so I had the tengu leader of the ambush group make a grab for Peter's bag, while the rest went for straight fighting. The fight proceeded with solid, if straightforward, combat narration,  a decent flow of trust points, and with the bag changing hands two or three times (a goblin got his hands on it, but then was beaten the next round when he tried to get away). At the last round, however, the players decided to capture the tengu instead of killing it.

This tengu deserves a few extra words. First of all, when the players questioning it about O-Yanma's forces, stronghold, etc., narration of the tengu passed right through three of the players as they each dropped a Dark Fate hint. After that, he stuck around as one-part captive, one-part wisecracking sidekick. For most of the rest of the session, I used the tengu as my own voice in the company, pointing out weird bits of behavior (Peter's character asked him privately why he went after the bag, implying that the O-Yanma might find the bag interesting. A bit later, the tengu brought the topic up before everybody...), and as a cute method of framing conflicts (as group discussion about the bag was winding down, the tengu looks up ahead and says, "Oh, hey, it's the ogres." Everyone else: "OGRES?!?!?") All of these things could have been done with GM asides (as recommended in the book), but having an actual in-game vessel through which to give them made them all the more immediate, and forced the characters, as well as the players, to either take the hook or cast it aside.

After the tengu, the only other moment that lots of people seized on to drop Dark Fate hints was a bit of downtime. The characters decided to wait out a storm in a convenient little Buddhist temple nestled on the slopes. Immediately after setting up the watch order, three of the players jumped in and said, "Stuff happens during my watch." All little scenes that dropped some foreshadowing on the other players. Of course, this meant I had to shift my Weird Dream Sequence encounter until after the last of them took his scene, but it all worked out.

Abilities got some good play. My favorites: Daniel's "Rope Trick" helped catch and tie up the tengu and trip an ogre; Jeff's "Gunpowder Explosives" were used at the very end of the session to blow open a side door through the outer wall; Mark's "Bow and Arrows" tripped the ambush early from afar, as well as being generally useful.

Abby (intentionally or otherwise) did a really good job segueing into the kinds of Dark Fate events that should come in Act 2. Near the end of the session, sneaking up on the wall of O-Yanma's castle, she got a mixed success to avoid being caught by wall guards. The meat of the narration was along the lines of, "one guard turns his head and spots her." [agonizingly long dramatic pause] "His eyes widen in recognition, and something passes between the two. The guard turns away silently, raising no alarm." It was one of the first uses of Dark Fate Director Stance that a) concretely introduced an NPC (instead of implying one's existence), and b) took place blatantly and obviously in front of everyone else. Also, her delivery of it was wonderful.

When climbing the mountain, all of the encounters were pretty separated in imagined time and space (there was always an "A couple of hours of climbing later..." between scenes). I'll be interested to see how the actual pacing will be affected by the lack of this time dilation now that we've entered the fortress.

In one session that ran a solid three hours of play (not including chargen), we got up the mountain and ended with a fade-to-black on entering the fortress. At this point, enough hints have been dropped that I'm fairly certain about one character's Dark Fate (but without enough details to actually do anything with it), have another narrowed to within two options (with an NPC introduced at least in passing at the very end), and have some suspicions about two others.

Play was extremely focused. While there was an appropriate amount of OOC chatter about what was going on, there were only maybe two or three off-topic asides, and all of them were quickly shelved by mutual consent within a few sentences. It will be interesting to see if the group will be able to remain as focused when the characters are split up. I'll just have to make sure to keep things quick.

Thanks for joining the discussion, Jeff, and welcome to the Forge! Feel free to chime in more reactions or thoughts as they occur to you.



Hey, I have a quick question, did any of the players read the rules ahead of time, or did you (Albert) just explain them as you went along?

--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Albert of Feh

The group went to dinner beforehand, and I spent most of that time explaining/discussing the main gist of the rules. Some details were filled in as they occurred, but I covered most of it before play began. There was also a short period where they had access to the book to read it, but were mostly focused on the Character Creation chapter. Some of that I read out to them, and some I summarized; I don't know offhand how much, if any, they then read for themselves while I was out of the room making the finishing touches on the play area.

Albert of Feh

Followup thoughts, between the first session and the second:

In his thread First Time up the Mountain, Eric Provost mentioned that he should have had monsters use their stakes to influence the relationships between the samurai. I did that a little bit on a scene level, with the ambush scene designed to draw attention to Peter's bag, or the Dream Sequence scene, which integrated a Dark Fate detail from every player into one strange nightmare figure. However, I really should have pushed it on a round-to-round stakes level. Outside the fortress, on the way up the mountain, when all of the ronin are together, the monsters really aren't going to have much chance of killing or even permanently wounding the PCs. For me, too, the one straight-up monster fight (against the ogres) was probably the least interesting conflict of the evening. The ogres did get a few small victories, and using those to stretch relationships would have been much more interesting than simply tossing on a flesh wound. Looking back on this, I'm surprised that I didn't catch on this feature of the conflict stake system before, given that my first conflict of the game was basically doing exactly it!

tMW is the second game I've played now where the reward for winning mechanical conflicts is narration rights, instead of just straight conflict advantage as narrated by the GM. Maybe because of this, moment-to-moment play reminded me a lot of a more structured version of InSpectres (the first significantly narration trading game I played). Chatting with Daniel afterwards, he agreed with this too, and agreed that the additional structure did a lot to improve play. Without a very disciplined group, InSpectres can get very silly, very quickly. This isn't exactly a problem, and is entirely in the spirit of the game, but it rather limits its wider effectiveness.

I have to say, I really like the explicit mechanical success == narration rights paradigm. In more traditional RPGs, I (as the GM) have always felt like I was some sort of black box responsible for the state of the SIS. With the exception of the most basic and isolated character actions, all input had to go through me. While I could hand full control over to a player for spotlight moments, there were never any guidelines for  when to do it, what the scope of that narration could be, or anything else. It was really tiring to be that black box.

I've found that, with InSpectres and tMW, I get to open that box and let all the players muck around inside along with me. And suddenly I have effective guides for how to pass around the tools inside and let everyone have a go. Instead of pulling it all along by myself and ending every session utterly out of energy, everyone is putting work in, and so I end up with more energy after three hours of play than I had when I began!

You know, I think there's no going back.


Quote from: Albert of Feh on September 14, 2005, 09:38:08 PM
In his thread First Time up the Mountain, Eric Provost mentioned that he should have had monsters use their stakes to influence the relationships between the samurai... The ogres did get a few small victories, and using those to stretch relationships would have been much more interesting than simply tossing on a flesh wound.

I'm not sure I understand what exactly you mean here.  Would you mind elaborating on what you're thinking? Though the book doesn't say it, I *personally* would not allow stakes along the lines of "you will like/dislike this other character more/less". That's a type of decision I would let players decide personally. Stakes along the lines of "you will fear or weakness" is acceptable, because the players could then decide whether that's a good or bad thing. (That would be a good Conflict if one of the characters was constantly belittling(sp?) another character.) But I admit that's me, and whether those types of stakes are allowed is an issue of Social Contract.
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Albert of Feh

I was thinking more along the lines of "You will [show?] fear or weakness in front of the others" sorts of stakes. Similar to weakness, "You will appear incompetent in combat" is another one that's been on my mind, or maybe even "You will not appear to be fighting your hardest"; Stakes that test PCs' ability to rely on each other. Some of that could come through in narration on a wound, but hammering it in as the stakes brings it directly to the forefront of player and PC attention. When fighting mook fights, they could even go through on a mixed success, because it easily becomes Success With Wound.


Quote from: Albert of Feh on September 15, 2005, 01:45:26 PM
I was thinking more along the lines of "You will [show?] fear or weakness in front of the others" sorts of stakes.

Gotcha'. That type of stuff is all good.
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Eric Provost

Those types of conflicts worked pretty well for me during our last game.  I think they would have worked much better though if we'd played in the time-frame that's suggested by Tim.  If you've got more time to simmer over and reinforce the idea that the Red Ronin seems to be -showing- lots of fear then I think it'll have some interesting impact.

In our speedy con-flavored game it mattered a bit less.