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[Lacuna Part 1] "Nine gram medal"

Started by Ron Edwards, November 30, 2005, 10:47:48 PM

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Ron Edwards


That does it. I'm outing Jared.

1. He does too role-play, just like I do - both a variety of existing games, and his own. In fact, he does it all the time.

2. Most of his games, excepting octaNe, are typically bull-goose Narrativist engines based on his adherence to classic, original, unadorned GNS thinking - he understands the Forge theory just fine, thanks, and agrees with it.

3. He thinks about his games deeply and with great care, adjusting and refining them through actual play over a long period. They are not spur of the moment, off-the-cuff castoffs on the model of the fictional Mozart.

I've known all this for years, and I can no longer hold my peace. I must speak! Lacuna Part 1: the Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue Citywas the last straw.

The public image of Lacuna Part 1 is the hip, postmodern "incomplete" game. "The setting has gaps!" says the delighted reader of Jared's hype at "It's a game but it's not meant to be played!" Jared even says it's an unplayable idea-piece.

To which I say, incomplete, my pink ass! Lacuna Part 1 is no different from Sorcerer, Polaris, HeroQuest (yes, I'm not kidding, not a misprint), or any game which requires you to brush up or deepen the setting a little in order to play at all. Its setting is only unusual relative to the tradition of highly canonical and metaplot-heavy supplement design. By the standards of most independent RPGs, it's blindingly normal. It's way closer to "real setting" in the traditional-gaming-sense than InSpectres, for instance. And Jared plays it all the time.

Clearly, the widespread, false image both of the game and its author represents Jared's cunning marketing device directed toward people who like to fancy themselves "smart" but not "intellectuals." They want to be edgy and ironic. They don't want to think, "thinking too much" is their common cry of disdain. They do want to buy games, and Jared knows how to get these people's money. He has used his clown act for years, including the "I'm don't play my games" line, the "not an independent" line, and the faux "schism from Forge" of 2002, to cultivate the notion that he's just a funny guy with funny ideas. You can be hip with Jared and you don't have to think, like those other guys say you have to. Rubbish. I'm onto him. He just knows how to sell, that's all.

All right, enough about Jared - time to talk about the game. Lacuna Part 1 is the first and only[/] Cold War spy role-playing game. It is, in my view, the best work from Memento-Mori by a considerable margin, and if you haven't been paying attention, that means I think it's one of the strongest RPGs in existence. But weaklings cannot play such a strong game. I didn't say it was friendly to people who pick it up on a lark and expect hand-holding to get through their bogus habits. They'll say, "Tee hee, the funny incomplete game," and revel in their ignorant edgy-ness. Fuck them. I'm talking about the game that you only might be man/woman enough to play, and that's not a joke.

All that said, the title is apt. The game does rely on a crucial gap. However, the lacuna is not present in any aspect of the setting, but rather in the most significant spot imaginable: the characters. They are voids. Their codenames are not their names. Their memories are summarized colorless statements in files. Their origins are explicit in the rules, but the characters do not know them. I'm not going to tell you; just read the rules and setting-material and you'll know. Of if you do, and you don't get it, then I have no use for you, not even as Kleenex. It's not supposed to be "secret," it's supposed to be obvious. (Jared and I share the creator-aesthetic of 'take it or don't.')

OK, I'll give you a little help. From The Spy book, by Polmar & Allen:

QuoteCold, The

The psychological terrain of a spy in enemy territory - beyond the easy reach of his "side."

In the fiction of authors like le Carre, Ambler, and Littell, one's own side is the Coldest of all, due to incompetence and what can only be called ideological madness. This is central to great spy fiction - the Cold is not a function of the enemy.

It's criminally easy to see this right there in the Lacuna Part 1 rules. Take the list of mentors and draw a little hierarchy-diagram of authority. Then write the current status for each one next to it (missing, dead, nervous breakdown, etc). You will see the direct path along which the Agency has been penetrated, and exactly how that's resulted in disarray. You couldn't have a better le Carre social-setting and source of adversity for the hapless on-the-ground agents if you lifted it right from his novels.

At first, I only planned to play on session as a lark, for a get-together in which only two of the usual four other players could make it, Julie and Tim. So in setting it up, I built six pregenerated characters to choose from. It's pretty easy, and less dictatorial than it looks, because choice is minimized during character creation anyway. You even roll for the character's names, among many other things.

Tim chose Sexton, a tough and ruthless bastard, mentored by an old-guard hard-case. Julie chose one of the more normal-looking female characters, Coleman, and played her very much as rootless, seeking vision and goals.

During play, I put a lot of effort into drawing from the book as much as possible, using setting information and role-playing personalities very much as given. My primary goal was adversity, and my secondary goal was evidence of dysfunction in the power structure the characters are relying on for everything: their mission, their identities, and their lives.

The setting material that got the most use included:

- the contrast between (1) the Lacuna Devices carried by the agent and (2) the effect of meeting the Girl, especially relative to the so-called Hostile Personalities.
- the HPs themselves, which at present in the game-setting are certainly more broadly conceived by society than the original experimental subjects, who were psychopaths.
- the spidermen, for whom no better representation of the demonized Eastern Bloc may be found; I especially like the observation that, in the rules, no spiderman has attacked a Mystery Agent or carried out any other demonstrably hostile action.
- the Black Zone, which is tailor-made for my special skills as a GM, namely to warp the circumstances of play between surreal, psychological, and "real" to good effect.

I did add one key component to the setting, or rather, provide my personal answer to an explicit in-setting mystery. I identified the "Wine" level of clearance with Counterintelligence, with its chief Robert "Bob" Moses Karlshorst. Spy buffs will know who he's based on.

Otherwise I stuck very, very close to the text and extrapolated only one step outward in as few instances as possible.

Without reservation: the system and the setting, with those "void" characters to fill, produced amazing play. It generates the same rabid intensity to discover & author real-characters as I've observed in playing Zero.

The heartbeat-based resolution system is fantastic! It's right there in the same group with Trollbabe and Dogs in the Vineyard, and to some extent bidding in HeroQuest, which is to say, you enhance the impact on play by taking on risk to the character. Unfortunately, its writeup is frightful and entails intensive flipping back and forth, which is a bad sign in a game that size. With any luck the upcoming rewrite will reorganize it.

For the second and later sessions, we added two more players, who also chose from the remaining pregenerated player-characters. Tod chose Heard, a very weird, naive, geeky, fucked-up techie-type guy; Maura chose Skinner, a sickly but deadly, rather spooky type. It was hard on them in that second session, because Julie and Tim had somehow managed to get very viscerally, non-verbally committed to their characters and come up with agendas for them without wanting to say anything about it. Maura and Tod were effectively hammered instantly by what must have seemed like psychotic partners. They trusted me enough to continue, though, and in the third session, everyone was equally ferocious.

Starting with the second session, I brought in various dysfunctional and confusing missions and controllers. I took Jared's suggestions to make their handlers completely unreliable (the stoner, e.g., among others), but also enjoyed tossing in terrible evidence that the whole function of the Mystery Agents is clearly utterly-screwed-up.

We ended up playing four full sessions, resulting in some of the darkest and rawest material I've seen since playing The Whispering Vault or Sorcerer. For those of you who've taken the trouble to check out the rules, here's what happened to each character.

Sexton tracked down Miner's network in the Black Zone, discovering a movie studio that collected the real memories of Mystery Agents. He fell in love with the woman who made them, and tried to figure out a way to bring her into the waking world. Ultimately, to save her, he embarked on a voyage of harsh raw self-discovery, ending as her pet monster, never to return to waking.

Coleman focused on the issue of how the Hostile Personalities affected the society of Blue City, encountering the fast-developing local Resistance and learning what the spidermen were doing there. Her story ended with her eventual defection to the spidermen, or as an NPC put it out of her hearing, a "nine-gram medal" awaiting her. I kind of liked the fact that we never found out her character's history - only that NPCs who knew thought it was inconceivably heinous.

Heard, somewhat the dorky guy, was buffeted about by every other character: alternately bullied, privileged, confused. His revelations in the Black Zone were especially awful, ending with an offer to defect, but also with the bleakest reality-check ever regarding what awaited him: institutionalization and lifelong medication. He committed metaphysical suicide by zapping himself with his own Lacuna Device.

Skinner became a Wine agent, which went well with the player's (Maura's) innate ruthlessness. She followed up on the horrific hints surrounding her name, which led to her eventually meeting the Girl, and recognizing the only role she could possibly play toward the little girl she used to be.

In this game, players love to separate from one another during play, which offers great opportunity for Crosses - specifically, references to other characters out of their scenes, but with everyone listening. That's the key skill for GMing Lacuna, along with a flair for surreal horror and providing constant, shifting adversity.

I said it was Narrativist, right? Well, here's the theme we produced. "In dreams, there is redemption - but you only get one chance." And since the player-characters have met the Girl prior to play, as per the rules, they've therefore already had their chance - and missed it. They did not become better humans at all, but simply another form of subhuman: spies in the Cold, effectively, damned souls. The only hope for them now is strictly found in what they can offer to others.

I wish le Carre could have been there.

Go buy and play Lacuna Part 1: the Beginning of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City. If you've got what it takes.



For me, at least, that game was one of the best I've ever played. Again, for me, it was incredibly visceral and powerful. I'm not sure if it affected the other players as much. My character, Sexton---excessive in Force and deficeit in communication---fell in love with a woman that most likely didn't exist.

I felt bad for Tod and Maura, who joined us that second session. During the first session, Ron gave Julie and I both our own secret material, which I dug quite alot. Both Julie and I were very much interested in doing our own thing. So when Tod and Maura joined us, either one of us were in the mood for talking about what was going on, and each of had very obvious agendas.

It's interesting, my character falling in love was a bit of a fluke. When I first met her, she asked me to help her escape. At that point, I thought we were playing a one-shot, so I said whatever she wanted to hear (which was also in-character for Sexton). When I heard we were playing a second session, I thought, "Crap! She's going to be pissed!" But when we found her in the second session, she wasn't---in fact, she embraced me and said, "I knew you would rescue me!" At that point something just clicked.

Anyway, at that point I didn't trust the two new agents (Maura and Tod), so I used the only skill Sexton had to get rid of them, raw agression. I suddenly turned on them, bullying them to the point of physical abuse, hoping that their heart rate would increase to the point where they had to eject. I was successful. Like Ron said, it was hard on them.

I wanted to say, I think the heart rate system really clicks when the characters get over their target heart rate, and start getting close to to their maximun. Since a character's heart rate increases whenever a character does something, when the character approaches maximum, players have to start making hard decisions about what's important to do, and what you can let lie.

--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Matt Snyder

Um, who knows how to sell exactly?


Ok, to be a proper post -- can you share any specific crosses? I think that would be instructive to people.

P.S. Jared always tells the truth.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra

Jared A. Sorensen

Ron is mistaken, there is no Wine level.

That said, I hope that "second attempt" improves and clarifies the rules (the biggest obvious changes are the removal of "risk multipliers" and alteration of "challenge points"). There are other bells and whistles as well, but I'll reveal those when the book is done.

The thing about Lacuna Part I. that pleases me the most is how the game is like a Rorshach test, a meaningless blob that only takes shape when experienced by someone else's perceptions. Neat.

- J
jared a. sorensen /


Why are you removing risk multipliers? I liked those, I thought they worked fine. Challenge points, while good in principle, were a bit clunky to keep track of.
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Ron Edwards


"Meaningless blob" my pink ass again.

Count me in as a fan of the risk multipliers too. I especially like the way they turn the heat way up on narration.


Jared A. Sorensen

In "second attempt" a player who fails a roll (or doesn't get the degree of success they like) can re-roll, ramping up their character's heartrate and increasing the chances of succeeding (or doing really well). IIRC, at 4 rolls, the player has 0% chance of failing...the lowest result they can achieve is a mediocre success. As for narration rights:

A result of Success or higher is necessary for the Mystery Agent to achieve her desired outcome. Mediocre Success means that Control has the right to marginalize the Agent's success in such a way to complicate the situation, cause additional stress or otherwise throw a wrench into the works.

Failure means that the desired outcome was not achieved and a Disastrous result means that Control has the right to highlight the Agent's incompetence in such a way to complicate the situation, cause additional stress or otherwise throw a wrench into the works.

Exceptional results allow the Agent to perform equally exceptional feats, bordering on the superhuman.
jared a. sorensen /

Ron Edwards

Ah! Much more nuanced, and clearer, for the narration. More like the straight-up I-system rather than a vague simplification of it.

Tim, does that seem like a good remix for the risk multiplier? It gets rid of the whole "roll twice, even if you know you failed with the first one" thing.



Ahh, that works. Though am I right in assuming that the player automatically gets to narrate a "second attempt"? I liked that about risk modifiers.
--Timothy Walters Kleinert

Jared A. Sorensen

Quote from: timfire on December 02, 2005, 03:54:05 PM
Ahh, that works. Though am I right in assuming that the player automatically gets to narrate a "second attempt"? I liked that about risk modifiers.

The new edition of Lacuna Part I. is called the "Second attempt" (rather than "revised" or "second edition") for obscure reasons. Players get to say what happens when they succeed. Exceptional success means they can go beyond their original intent (to superhuman levels).
jared a. sorensen /


I played The Second Attempt with Jared, Thor and Dro this weekend.

Holy fuck. The new heartrate bump for reroll mechanics is excellent. The game is incredibly simple to understand procedurally. But I felt like I was on the edge of a subtle precipice...


Ron Edwards

Well? What happened?

C'mon, man, actual play and so on.


Jared A. Sorensen

During the RL debriefing, Luke mentioned the word "static" to describe the relationship between the Agents and Control. I like that word so much I might add it to the mechanics.

Another observation of Luke: I use random reward systems a lot. Whoodathunkit?
jared a. sorensen /


I own and have perused the original Lacuna. I have not played.
Dro and Thor played in a game with Jared last April. They obviously knew what to expect.

Jared initially offered to run a playtest, but once he understood that I wanted to play, he protested that he was tired and had no ideas. But the transformation from no ideas to "I'll show you the life of the mind" was interesting.

He gave us a broad overview of the game to start and then asked, "You want the full Lacuna experience?" We responded, "Hell, yeah!"
"Remove all items from the table."
He then took us through the paces of character creation, chastising us for acting without permission. It took me a minute or two, but I realized that as soon as the table was cleared, we were actually playing Lacuna. No characters yet, no setting, and only a budding SIS even. But we were playing. It was an exciting feeling.

The nature of our mission was actually pretty boring. One goal, no twists. But it's worth noting that as Jared described The City, I would seize on his details and use them as leverage for further information -- so I wouldn't have to test to increase my heartrate. And I did so idiomatically, channeling Alain Delon from Le Samurai. Gitanes, the trenchcoat, fedora -- but no cheese. My character was all Instinct and I gunned him in that direction.

Which brings me to my next point. During character creation, we players got nearly no input into our characters. The one point Jared allowed was to increase one stat and subsequently decrease another. Allowing me this input allowed me to invest in the game and to have a sense of self in the game. With the options before me, I decided I wanted to play a predator -- a creature of Instinct -- an homme dur. Instinct to Proficient, Talent to Deficient.

Dro upped his Access to Proficient, Force to Deficient.
Thor kept everything at Nominal.

Dro and I were more forceful with our characters in play. Thor followed our lead. Thor will have to say why that was, I can only speculate.

After play, Jared professed he was pissed at me due to the way I played the character -- because I had a particular concept and image of self and used it to shape The City. He then proposed removing the ability for the players to choose to modify their stats. I was shocked. I would have had no investment in my character whatsoever.

We talked about "what the game was about" much to Jared's annoyance. And we lambasted Jared for the success-gradation system. He had a marginal success and an exceptional success result in the resolution mechanic. They were, from what we could tell, mechanically meaningless. And, in fact, contributed to the feeling the game was a little too easy on the players. We strongly urged him to rework it into a pass/fail system that played to the strengths of his reroll/bump mechanic.

There you have it, in a nutshell, where it belongs.

Perhaps Thor and Dro would like to add feedback as well?
Or perhaps I should have started a new thread...

Sydney Freedberg

Okay, I'm sold. Want want want want.

But: should I rush out and buy the current version or wait for the new-and-improved version? (And, uh, no, as much as I love to support Indie games, I don't think I'm going to buy both).