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Author Topic: Stranger Things at Forge Midwest  (Read 9668 times)
Matt Wilson
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« on: April 10, 2006, 06:06:59 PM »

Those of you who weren't at FM and are all, when is Stranger Things going to be done? Keep yelling, because that fucker John needs to finish his damn awesome game.

We didn't get very far in play, but what we did was suh-weet.

So, the game: You play half-human, half-demon characters in the last city. You have prophetic dreams about people who need help, and that's what your adventures are about. So in prep, you write down fragments of your dream, and then you pass your sheet to the person who's your director (John says 'Director' instead of GM because he's all sophisticated), who takes all those bits and makes situations out of them.

Here's some other cool parts. Like in Trollbabe, you have a number. It determines your level of human/demon. The group decides which kinds of actions are more demon in nature and which are more human. In our case, demons had qualities associated with them that you'd associate with traditional Christian sort of demons. Being deceptive, or brutish, etc.

And of course the map tiles. John's like, "but I got the idea from you," and I'm like, "no, I got the idea from you." In any case, there's a real satisfying tangible quality to having them on the table, like being able to point at the drawing of a building and saying, "that's the inn where I wake up," or "I'm walking along the river right there." Andy and I were both going, "yeah, I want to play multiple times so I can build a big map."

I liked every game I played, so like I said with Dust Devils, get excited for this game and save up some dough.
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hive_mind
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« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2006, 06:16:22 PM »

I'm not sure this is posted in the right spot, but I have to sat that Stranger Things is at the ABSOLUTE TOP of games I'm waiting to buy.
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Keith
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« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2006, 06:26:38 PM »

Ditto.  I can't wait for this game.

I got to look at some of the map tiles and material and it looked fabulous.  I'm kicking myself for not getting to play.

Regards,
Daniel
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joshua neff
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2006, 07:54:18 PM »

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I haven't been so excited about a game in ages. I seriously want to play Stranger Things.

So, questions: when you played at ForgeConMidWest (BiMonSciFiCon?), did you play with one person as the Director, or with everyone as another person's Director? Do the players all decide by consensus which qualities are Human and which are Demon, are is it up to the individual player per character? And if the Director takes the Dream fragments and makes situations out of them...is it as surreal a process in play as it sounds?
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--josh

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: April 11, 2006, 04:49:10 AM »

You beat me to it, Matt! This game was held Saturday morning. It included me, John Harper, Tim Kleinert, Andy K, and Matt Wilson, which is a lot of people for the game as currently written. I think each of us got about 20 minutes of actual play, which wasn't a terrible problem at the time, but if it were, then this post might offer a couple of solutions.

I promised John I'd post some specific feedback here, and I hope it attracts some folks to check out the game. For those of you who don't know, Stranger Things is a new game inspired by Trollbabe, but not merely a retread of it. Trollbabe has had mad sales lately, and that means Stranger Things oughta get a ton, because it takes some of the same principles and puts a different spin on it. And not just "half-demons instead of trollish chicks," either. [this is a bit redundant with Matt's post, but I left it in]

OK, h'mm, I'm not sure I know just how much you want me to describe, John. The game takes place in an odd city at night, with lamps and crude guns but otherwise a lot like Lankhmar, or better, a cross between Clark Ashton Smith cities and any number of places Hellboy wanders through in the comics. Characters are half-ish demon-human beings, a lot like Tieflings in Planescape but not so pinned down to a specific setting and set of ideas. They are capital-P protagonists, again, using Hellboy as an excellent reference point.

One thing you'll notice from the sheets, available at the website, is that like Trollbabe, there are three types of action, but unlike Trollbabe, each includes a list of specific applications, each categorized as human or demon by the group. The prep-effect is fun - you get a group view of what "human" and "demon" are for this particular story or set of characters, shared by all. In our case, the demon-stuff was all brutal, fast, raw, and powerful; I was a little tired of arcane, mysterious demons that day. For clarity's sake: since people kept coming up and joining the group, the last couple were just handed the specifications so it wasn't as consensual as it might have been.

But the really distinct feature of Stranger Things is a detailed prep sheet for each character which really is a practical outline for what the GM is required to do, have, play, and prioritize. The first person to use it is the player, who assigns a couple of concepts and some words from lists to various points, and then the GM fills out the rest to derive an NPC, an obstacle, and what's at stake. Each PC sheet has three such tracks, with separate elements and stakes. For those who've felt at-sea with Trollbabe or Sorcerer scenario preparation and GM decision-making during play, this is a dream come true, providing characters, conflicts, flow-chart steps, and more for use during play.

Josh, it's not really surreal in play so much as meaty, which leads to the next point.

Four player-characters in our case, with three tracks each, means twelve distinct stories. Which was a lot of meat, even if we'd had many sessions to work with. I had at least a session's worth and probably more from just one track. I did like the point that the scenario is concluded for a character when one of the tracks is finished ... this suits my Heavy Metal sensibilities, that often you see only bits or glimpses of other interesting stuff going on. However, tuning the number of tracks to the size of group and to the expected length of play seems like it'd be a good idea.

Oh! I forgot to mention the tiles! These are beautiful little squares with city-bits illustrated on them, with cool names. Each player picks one and they're connected up to be the map for the parts of the city that are the setting for the stories. You can add place-names from them to your prep-sheet, too. These are so unutterably cool that I cannot begin to do them justice. My present point is that, given the immense contribution from the tiles, three whole tracks of "NPC crisis" per PC becomes even more to manage.

So how to do that? Well, the simplest is to reduce the number of track used per character, with increasing number of players. One track per character might be a bit rail-ish during play, I dunno, but then again, with more player-characters, that permits a lot of Crossing and Weaving that might make up for it. Another idea is to "fail out" a given track under some circumstances during play, so that the number being addressed is reduced over time. That sounds like a bit of a pain to manage, but I rather like the effect I'm currently anticipating.

It so happened that we didn't have a single GM for this session. John stayed at the table as facilitator and rules-explainer, and each of us acted as GM for the player on our left(s), using the prep sheet. Given a certain amount of necessary waiting (and hence a probable future emphasis on Crossing), it worked extremely well. With, say, three people total, it'd be wonderful, I think. Therefore, I think that Stranger Things simply doesn't need a single GM without a character, period. I recommend "GM to the left" as a feature of play.

If you go that route, John, I'd be curious to see some useful mechanism for changing-up the order, if anyone wanted ... also, if two Strangers are together in a scene, it's still one particular one's "scenario sheet" in action, and hence has its own GM. Is that right? Or maybe there are other options.

My next points concern the reward system and stuff like "stakes" as a term and as a rule, especially since they do seem rather different from Trollbabe ... and the role of Color does too, actually. Those are pretty heavy topics, so let's chat about the game itself first, then move on to them in a bit.

Best, Ron
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joshua neff
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« Reply #5 on: April 11, 2006, 04:56:02 AM »

The "GM to the left" aspect is one of the things that excites me the most about ST. Well, that and the character sheet, which looks brilliant. And the map tiles.

Thanks for the write-up, guys.
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--josh

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
John Harper
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« Reply #6 on: April 11, 2006, 08:56:11 AM »

First, the sheets Ron mentions, for the curious:

- Character Sheet
- Dream Sheet

Second, thanks to Ron, Matt, Tim, and Andy for giving the game a try. The game has seen a lot of playtesting from various groups and is feeling pretty fully baked now. Our game confirmed that four players is the absoulte largest group you want. My own playtests have been three players, which is perfect.

Thanks for the detailed feedback, Ron. Feel free to talk about any and all aspects of the game here. I'm not keeping any secrets about this one.

I really like the idea of tuning the Dream prep to the number of players and expected play length. One NPC track seems like too little, but an option to do two or three would be good, I think. I'm also interested in hearing more about your "fail out" idea for tracks, Ron.

"GM to the left" has worked in every playtest so far, which was a bit of a surprise, given the very short prep time given. I think this means that the Dream Sheet is doing its job. I'm sold on providing "GM to the left" as the default mode of play in the text. I also like the idea of presenting an option of switching up player/GM pairs between Dreams.

If two Strangers are in a scene together, one of them is the "star" of the scene and has its own GM, yes. There are actually three player roles in the game: Creator (who plays the Stranger), Director (the GM), and Audience. The Audience gets to contribute color on-the-fly during scenes, like naming a tavern or pitching ideas about the look of an NPC or location. The Audience also contributes to free-and-clear and narration phases during a conflict. And, like Trollbabe, an Audience player can insert his Stranger into a scene by asking the Director, or join any conflict during free-and-clear by narrating the Stranger's entrance.

Joshua, I think Ron covered your questions, but if not, let me know. I'm happy to hear that you're excited by the game.

I'm very interested in talking about Color, the reward system, and "stakes" next.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: April 12, 2006, 05:02:50 AM »

OK. this was the meatier part of the post that I was working on, and then the thread started so I chimed in with the first part. John, I think you can see that I primarily used Trollbabe as a point of reference and comparison, which I figure is reasonable and also puts us and many readers on the same page.

1. The payoff for play is very different from Trollbabe, to the extent that we really are talking about two different games. In ST, caring about the Stakes/NPC is probably the core to the whole thing, whereas in Trollbabe, the Stakes are not articulated to the players and function more-or-less as a GM focusing device.

In fact, the Stakes as defined are very different. In Trollbabe, the Consequences and the Stakes can be tremendously distinct and not obviously connected. The Stakes might be buried treasure, and the consequences be whether a beggar lives - the two become interlinked but may not directly intersect, and conceivably, the beggar doesn't ever even know about the treasure. What happens to the treasure is totally up for grabs and by the rules must occupy a lot of attention from most of the NPCs, but that's not the Consequences (the beggar's life).

In Stranger Things, if I'm understanding correctly, the two things are effectively identical - what each of the designated NPCs (3 per Stranger) wants, and whether they or at least one of them gets them/it.

That's pretty damn focused! If so, then a great deal of ST play concerns judging the NPC - what he's done, why he's having trouble with the obstacle, and whether his desire is worthy of respect. (For instance, when I GM'd for Andy, the NPC street-urchin had just stolen a valuable key from a temple; his desire was to end up with a pile of loot! What would she make of it?) That, as I see it, will tie in very well to whether, and how, the human side of the Stranger is "touched" by the NPC.

Remember what I said about the sheet, that the fourth "score" is the sigil, and its attributes or whatever they're called are the relationships? I betcha that corresponds to that "touching" I'm talking about. I'm also seeing that play starts with a disproportionately-high demonic Stranger (regardless of Number) - look at the circle, with "demon" on the bottom, and see how all three scores partake of demon-ness and are near to that demon label. Whereas the sigil and its relationships are the only ones that are directly near the human label.

The Stranger becomes familiar (human). He or she does it by building relationships and therefore the scores around the circle "balance." Those relationships are built specifically by investing in NPCs' concerns. By the rules, the NPC is trapped in those concerns; the question is whether he or she cares.

John, does that fit? If you're interested in rounding out any GM advice, that might be an issue to hit with a little hammer. It's way different from Trollbabe. For instance, in Trollbabe, it makes sense that named characters aren't automatically eligible for relationships ... but in ST, it seems to me as if that rule ought to be reversed.

2. I'm also concerned a bit with Color in the game, in two ways.

i) The trollbabe is, well, color-ful, and a big part of that is that she and the other player-characters are unique. There are no NPC trollbabes. They will never encounter a trollbabe little-girl NPC. They're it, and the rest of the world is pretty damn normal allowing for a jot of Nordic or Celtic fantasy here or there.

ii) More importantly, their Color is consequential in a highly predictable way - they're women, they're big, and so on ... individualized as they might be, the impact this Color has on a given scenario is one, solid, single thing during play, for trollbabes.

Whereas ... well, Strangers are strange, and they're half-and-half, but dude, the whole city is really strange. So how strange is a Stranger, really? And secondly, more importantly, given a really colorful Stranger, so what?

For example, there's been lots of MIddle East on my mind these days, so my character Mustav was strongly based on my concepts of Palestinian and Syrian espionage officers, using a lot of not-disguised Islam, with Fire traits of Ideology and Grief. It seemed to me, and yes, this is based only on very brief play, that it was all irrelevant. Colorful, yes, but the color's details can't really go anywhere. Was all my highly specific middle-eastern Islamic stuff just a funny hat? It wasn't Tim's GMing that I'm talking about, either - it applies to all the characters at a conceptual level. Was Andy's character's "lust tongue" just another funny hat?

It probably will surprise people, although it shouldn't, that System is actually not my touchpoint when designing a game. It's Color and Reward, period. In my designer-head, System only exists to facilitate these. I had a hard time seeing how they were related in terms of playing Mustav. Perhaps that's a function of limited play time, but John, I think I'm going to push you very hard on this point. Talk to me.

3. Finally, we can talk more about the three tracks per character. By the way, is "tracks" the correct term? I just made it up in order to describe what I saw on the sheet, but unfortunately it makes me think of heroin, and I don't remember if you used a specific game-term for them.

Bluntly, I find the GM sheet over-tight - yes, it's great training-wheels, and makes sure that everything in the game is something that someone wants - almost like a Tenets phase in Universalis, but focusing on actual "what happens" content as well as motifs. It swaddles me. It's safe. I can't move.

So, I see a couple of approaches that might be worth trying out through playtesting. I already mentioned just starting with less, but that's not very dynamic.

Another approach is airing them out, encouraging new NPCs and similar things to get added during play and to have "sheet-status." Say if I wanted to characterize the captain of the temple guards in the bit I was GMing, to get written onto the sheet. Scribble all over the thing. Draw a big arrow from this guy way across the other tracks to some other guy on another track, or even to an element like "Rain."

This way, the key NPC might take a bullet very early on, and the story of his or her obstacle and stakes could easily continue with a lot of dynamism remaining. (Yes, I know you have the ghosts and all, but in this case, I mean the key NPC is really really gone, and it's still OK.) But more importantly, what this "air-out" permits is for play itself to create priorities - including, most importantly, a range of NPCs to choose among regarding whom to care about. A big deal!

The third approach is actually eliminating them creatively during play. This wouldn't be the GM just letting the NPC get his or her desire, but rather taking a big sharpie and squiggling out the whole track, at one point or another. "This one just isn't flying for me, nix." It'd be almost exactly the same as what happens to a track when a given NPC does get through the whole track, but as an option prior to that point.

Why would I want to do that? I can tell you - I'd really like to be able to do that. It would mean I'd have all kinds of room now, to focus on the one I wanted to deal with. It would mean getting to look over the tiles again during play and coming up with ideas rather than saying, "Damn, I never brought that old guy in, I guess I gotta do it now." It would mean more opportunity for Crosses and Weaves.

Well, those are my current thoughts, and many of them (especially #3) ought to be investigated specifically through play, rather than held as principles from on high. What do you think?

Best, Ron
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John Harper
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« Reply #8 on: April 12, 2006, 08:33:05 PM »

Ron,

Thanks a lot for all the detailed feedback. I really appreciate it.

First, you are spot-on regarding the reward system, being "touched" by the NPCs, and the completion of the fourth quadrant of the sheet. It makes me very happy that you spotted those things so quickly, since they're really the key feature of play to me.

Now, about Color. The Stranger PCs are unique in the city (there are no NPC Strangers), but in terms of "strangeness" they don't stand out as much as a Trollbabe does in her world. I can see that.

I'm not sure I'm following your point about Color and how it "goes somewhere" with regards to System. I'd like to talk more about that. The way I see it, your choices about Mustav's appearance and re-roll items were similar to choices of horn and hair style in Trollbabe. In other words, they say something about the character at a glance. And the re-roll items say something about the character when he or she is desperate, too. I think Andy's "Lust Tongue" makes a very different statement in conflict than Mustav's "Grief-sense," in terms of impact on the fiction and the players.

My gut-feeling is that no, those things aren't just funny hats. But, like I said, I'm not sure I'm understanding your point. Color is important to me, too, and I'm interested in your thoughts. Please elaborate, if you would.

Regarding #3... well, like you say, those are some good things to investigate in play. My own preference for the game is to create a pretty tight package for the GM to work with, situation-wise. Your thoughts on adding NPCs as you go are very interesting though, and I do think some testing with more open sheets (with blank spots at the start) is worth trying.

Oh, and the GM does have authority to use only some of the "paths" (that's the rules term) offered on the Dream Sheet. If one (or more) of them needs to be pruned as you go, that's perfectly kosher by the rules.
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Thunder_God
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« Reply #9 on: April 12, 2006, 11:29:40 PM »

I'm intrigued by the quadrants on the Character Sheet, could you explain what we're seeing so I'd have an easier time following the discussion regarding "Touched"?
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Guy Shalev.

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John Harper
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« Reply #10 on: April 13, 2006, 09:55:31 AM »

The upper quadrant, "Empathy" is one of the two reward areas on the sheet (the other is "Relationships" in the lower left). When a Stranger completes a Dream Sheet, they can take a trait from one of the NPCs on the Dream Sheet and add it to their Empathy box. This trait becomes a free re-roll in future conflicts. This makes the Stranger more effective and also represents the way in which they have been "touched" by the NPC from that Dream story. The Stranger also has the option of changing their Number to reflect a "humanizing" effect (number down) or "demonizing" effect (number up) as a result of the episode.
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Thunder_God
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« Reply #11 on: April 13, 2006, 01:54:00 PM »

How do Blood, Shadow, Flame and the adjuscent box-marks operate?

Also, I really like the map.
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Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
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Darren Hill
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« Reply #12 on: April 13, 2006, 02:40:50 PM »

Ron's point about colour:
I've also felt this about Strangers: exactly what makes them strange in this city of strangeness?
I was glad to see in the latest version of the rules how Prophetic Dreams come into play - that seems the main thing that marks Strangers out as different.
Certainly in play, I haven't felt that Strangers are anything like as pivotal as Trollbabes - they wander around, doing their own thing, but the city itself is pretty unchanged, unlike the world of trollbabes after they have done a few adventures.
John, does Trollbabe-style scale survive in the latest version of the rules, and what effect does it have?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: April 13, 2006, 02:47:02 PM »

Darren's pretty much on-track with my concerns about Color, John, barring the issue of constrained character gender. I'm not very interested in discussing the latter because that's about Trollbabe, not Stranger Things, and I'd rather discover and underscore the latter's strengths without turning to Trollbabe's strengths.

Best,
Ron
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