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[TSoY] (June Retreat) Meaning, story arcs, GMing techniques, stakes neg. (long)

Started by JMendes, August 09, 2006, 12:17:21 AM

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Ahey, all, :)

Man, this report is loooong overdue. Anyway, the following is an account of the TSoY story arc I played during my June Retreat. It focuses on techniques, both play and GM-prep, and harmony at the game table, rather than actual in-game events, so expect comparatively few of those, for a report that covers character creation plus a full seven sessions of intensive, highly charged play.

Players were me as GM, my wife Ana, Rogerio, the house owner, and Rui, author of The 101, currently undergoing playtesting. Here are the characters they played:

Rogerio played the Maldorite human named Greedo, a semi-successful grifter that earns a living conning people out of their well-earned goods. His house is in a large city in Maldor.
Initial keys : Impostor; Glittering Gold; Coward
Initial secrets: Hidden Pocket; Scribing
Initial skills at 2: Deceit, React

Rui played the Zaru ratkin named Ken-Aru, a escaped slave turned pacifist who roamed Near until settling in the ruins of an ancient Maldorite .
Initial keys: Pacifist; Faith (Son of Hamish)
Initial secrets: Rat Familiarity; Disarm; Zu
Initial skills at 2: Discern Truth, Endure

Ana played the Khalean human Annabelle, a hot-headed baker who solves more problems with her baker's peel than are usually associated with making bread. She eventually left Khale and wandered south, settling in Tandrim City in Maldor, and selling her skills to the local army.
Initial keys: Bloodlust; Vengeance (Ammenites)
Initial secrets: Signature Weapon (her baker's peel); Mighty Blow
Initial skills at 2: Scrapping, Endure

Based on these characters and some group discussion, I came up with the conflict web detailed here, in A Not So Civil War.*

Right off the bat, I noticed the awesome potential for conflict between Ken-Aru and Greedo, so I pitched them against each other from moment one. I had Madeleine visit Ken's ruins and convince him to act as guide and possibly a mediator in the upcoming peace talks, and I had Lu Liao contact Greedo and have him sabotage said peace talks. In the meantime, I put Annabelle in Suvara's guerrilla force and prepared her for an upcoming ambush on some Maldorites disguised as Ammenites.

Thinks fell rapidly into a hectic pace as Rogerio, with a no-nonsense "might as well start right away" kind of attitude, immediately had Greedo take on the persona of Lu Liao and proceeded to convince everybody and their mother that he was Jean Darfour's special envoy, sent as arbitrator in the peace talks to "keep the other side honest", then occasionally switching back to his Greedo persona to plant seeds of distrust and even outright assassination plots.

In the meantime, Ken, moved by his own desire for peace, finds himself scrambling all over the countryside, trying to undo the damage Greedo was making, and to keep his own credibility intact in the process. He converted a Tandrim soldier to the cause of peace and the Sons of Hamish, then joined forces with Dritza to fight Melian and The Tree, in the name of peace and the safety of his adopted ratkin family in the ruins.

All the while, Annabelle was running ambushes with Suvara. She eventually got charged with protecting Ken, got suckered into Greedo's plots, faced off against The Tree and won, got used to seeing the world in shades of coincidence, got herself converted to Ken's faith and beat the crap out of the real Lu Liao and the rest of the Ammenite delegation.

Thinks escalated pretty consistently, up until the point where Greedo confessed his double dealings to both Ken and Annabelle, whereupon they switched gears and worked jointly for a successful peace conference between Hathor and Tandrim. During this conference:
- Greedo forged proof of his indentity as the true descendant of Absolon, transceded and ended out his days as the joint ruler of Hathor and Tandrim, destined to reunite Maldor;
- Ken faced and defeated a ratkin bully who'd been taking advantage of the presence of Melian and The Tree, transcended, then proceeded to assemble and lead a new spiritual order dedicated to peace on Near;
- Annabelle discovered an Ammenite assassin intent on killing Absolon II, defeated her, transcended, then went on to join Ken's new order, developing within it a new martial art, based on the use of a baker's peel as a weapon;

As it often happens, we came up with a bunch of cool keys during play. I'll be posting them in the CRN section soon enough, and when I do, I'll link to them from here.

All in all, I have to say that this was an extremely successful seven days of play. By the end, all four of us were emotionally and creatively tapped out, utterly satisfied by the story-line that emerged and the way it concluded, and simply content at having found a system that does what it promises, and at having played it to the hilt.

However, play was not without its problems, and that's what I want to discuss here.

PART I - Meaning and game content in arc beginnings and endings

The first play session was fun and all, but regarding key engagement and high-impact scenes, it was comparatively weak. By the same token, the last session was actually incredibly flat.

From an audience standpoint, there was a lot going on in those two sessions. In the first one, the initial situation got established and we got to meet all the players and begun to understand their relationships. In the final session, there was transcendence galore, final conflicts and showdowns and huge, world-shattering events.

From a participant standpoint, however, there were no meaningful decisions and there was no actual engagement.

This could all be hand-waved away by saying that we weren't up to speed in the first session and needed some warm-up time, and that we were already too tired for significant contributions on the last one.

The actual explanation is perhaps simpler. We were playing with emergent themes, and in the first session, well, they just hadn't emerged yet, whereas in the last session, they were already resolved. The climatic events that occurred were certainly important from a narrative structure standpoint, but they were no longer meaningful from a thematic standpoint.

That disconnect is all kinds of interesting.

This can be discussed along several axes:
- Is there any way to generate emergent themes faster, so that the first session doesn't feel so flat? Is that what Sorcerer kickers do?
- Is there any way to strengthen the bond between narrative and thematic structure, so that climatic events are more meaningful?
- Has anyone else experienced, or even just noticed, that disconnect? At all? Would anyone care to comment on it anyway?

PART II - A study in contrasts on TSoY GMing techniques

If you don't already know, you should be aware that Rogerio, Ana and I are playing TSoY in a semi-regular fashion. I've posted extensive AP reports here, and if you haven't read them yet, you should, as they are full of interesting points. If you don't feel like it right now, though, no problem, as they're not relevant to the point I want to make here.

As GM, Rogerio comes up with NPCs for the game through a bandoleer of bangs, and said NPCs come up to the game with full stats but no motivations except one of three: help the PCs, hinder the PCs or ask something of the PCs. The specific motivations for each NPC come up in the form of active stakes negotiation. The player will state his goals and the GM will come up with appropriate counter-stakes, which he will then flesh out into full-blown NPC motivations, through play. This has worked out wonderfully for us.

However, this requires large amounts of prep time, especially to come up with a suitably large and well-seeded bandoleer, that I clearly didn't have available. The character creation session was on Friday night, and the first play session was on Saturday night, and we played 101 on Saturday afternoon.

So, I decided to go for building a formal three-sided conflict web, fleshed out with some side conflicts, but with all NPCs fully motivated, so as to have something to start from. This too worked pretty well, but with a weakness. I ended up being much less flexible with regards to coming up with interesting counter-stakes. In fact, at one particular point in time, I actually had to block Rogerio's intended stakes as he was having Greedo try to convince an NPC to help him sabotage the peace talks, whereas I had that NPC firmly in the pro-peace in the web. This was a bit of a disconnect at the table, as we were well into the arc by this time, and it was the first time I blocked stakes. Fortunately, I'd shed the bad habit of keeping "seekrit infuhmation" from the players, and so had no qualms about explaining why I was blocking, and it took Rogerio all of two seconds to come up with a new game plan for Greedo.

So, flag framing, bandoleer of bangs, conflict web, R-maps, these are all cool GM-prep techniques, but they don't all seem to perform equally well when used with certain play techniques, specifically stakes negotiation. This realization surprised me somewhat.

Again, multiple axes for discussion:
- When faced with this GM technique menu, how do you chose? Why?
- Have you ever noticed this relationship between stakes negotiation and conflict webs? How did you resolve it? (Actual AP, please, no 'I would do this' stuff on this one.)

But most importantly: was I using the conflict web in a wrong way?

PART III - Stakes negotiation and tension at the table

This is a minor point, but oddly enough, it's gonna take the longest to explain.

Stakes negotiation, and especially setting counter-stakes, has its pitfalls. Even though play as a whole was extremely successful, there was one particular unfun moment that I want to analyze.

Here's the in-game setup: Greedo, as Lu Liao, is trying to stall the scheduling of the peace talks. At the table, we have him, Cardigan and his advisers, and Ken-Aru, who is proposing to Cardigan he be made the arbitrator of the talks. At this point, in Cardigan's eye, Greedo (or rather Lu Liao) and Ken-Aru are equals.

Rogerio and Rui roll against each other. Rogerio loses and goes into BDTP. Now, it should be noticed that Rogerio's character Greedo is the ultimate social animal, but doesn't have a shred of a physical skill, whereas Rui's character Ken is semi-competent at best socially. And thinks turn grim indeed when Rogerio finds a way for Greedo to stick some bullshit into the conversation and thus roll Deceit, his best skill. So, Rui decides to have Ken escalate and go physical and assault Greedo right there at the negotiation table.

Now, this surprised the hell out of all of us, coming from this supposedly pacifist character, and it might have been really cool, but unfortunately, I mishandled the situation as GM, had Cardigan, his advisers and his guards just sit there and do nothing for a bit too long, and things got sort of sour at the table, which, again, was a bit surprising.

But anyway, things finally calmed down and were under control again, when Rogerio states that he's having Greedo try to get Ken expelled from Tandrim City. Now, situation-wise, this was actually pretty logical, but from a game structure point of view, I saw the opportunity to have a PC kicked out of one of the major story locations, which seemed sort of drastic. So, in my drive for balance between stakes and counter-stakes, I advanced the equally drastic proposal that, should Rogerio lose the roll, Cardigan would simply feel inclined to disregard the unfortunate incident and treat them as equals again. Now, game structure wise, these are about equivalent, but situation-wise, my counter-stakes are just short of outrageous.

Here's the thing, though. I think everyone was so stunned with my suggestion that we just rolled with it. Rogerio voiced some feeble disagreement, but ended up just going for the dice and hoping for the best. Alas, it was not to be and he lost the roll. At this point, there was a huge disconnect between my vision of the game and Rogerio's vision of the game. For him, it was simply broken.

Fortunately, Rogerio is an articulate guy and he was quick enough to explain the problem. Even more fortunately, everyone else was in total agreement with him in that I had simply screwed up the stakes setting. So, it became real easy for me to simply retcon the game up to the physical escalation part, have the guards intervene right away, then continue the game in a way that its structure would not change so drastically.

So there it is. Sometimes, a game is at a place where a small evolution in the situation will lead to a drastic alteration in the structure of the game. Stakes negotiation is especially critical at those junctures, and what looks like an obvious solution to someone at the table may actually be game breaking for other players.

Points to ponder:
- Have you ever come across a situation with the same potential for disconnected stakes? What did you do about it?
- Have you ever been faced with actual game-breaking stakes? How did you deal with them? (Again, actual AP, please.)
- Is my tendency for balance between stakes and counter-stakes appropriate to TSoY's game structure? Why or why not?


Like I said above, I consider our seven-day TSoY play (or eight-day, if we count character creation) to have been a complete success. We totally had fun, created a way cool story, watched those characters grow and make their mark on the world, and dealt with interesting themes of treachery, war and peace, faith and leadership, and even good and evil.

Still, there are lots and lots of chewy, meaty stuff to discuss here. (Perhaps too much, even, but what would you expect from a post covering all those sessions?)

So, pick your angle and go to it! I really wanna hear what you think about this stuff. Also, if you have any questions regarding the game, feel free to ask.


(*) The actual initial situation did not include Dritza, who came up in play. Also, because of an error in judgement on my part, I started all the Maldorite soldiers at 2 points of Infantry. The posted version seems both more fun and more solid, and therefore, more useful.
João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer


Your problems with the disconnect between narrative and thematic value are just a part of story telling.  From a narrative point of view, nobody gives a rip about anything outside of the dramatic events. Once you're past them and their immediate fallout, you don't need to be telling that part of the story.  The important thing to do there is stop telling the story once the important conflicts are over.  Let it rest until you have new important conflicts to introduce. If that means that a day of your retreat is spent fishing or drinking fruity rum drinks on the beach, so be it: don't waste your time with stories that aren't interesting. 
Clay Dowling - Online Campaign Planning and Management

Josh Roby

In terms of character motivations and stakes, J, I immediately think of Dogs. When I run Dogs, I play the NPCs as if their only motivation in the entire world is what they want from the Dogs.  The characters have no shame or pride when it comes to what they want (unless what they want is shame or pride).  So I get characters who will do anything -- often including pulling a gun, or throwing rolling pins in one case -- to get the Dogs to abort their pregnancy or recognize their spiritual authority or help them massacre the indians.  This can lead to somewhat strange situations, but I find that the Dogs setting sort of allows this sort of thing; you're in a town that's been warped by pride and sin and it's supposed to be a bit eerie like that.  So while it is a little weird, it feels right.

Contrast that with FLFS, where NPCs fill slots in a conflict, and only operate in terms of what they're supposed to do for a conflict.  Antagonists are antagonists and victims are victims, and my counterstakes as GM have more to do with keeping them in their places than actively accomplishing anything on their own.  It's also significant to point out that all of that changes as soon as the players throw dice to change it.  I've seen victims turn into allies and rivals turn into antagonists by a die roll, and as long as I rolled with it, it always seemed to work out.  Which makes me wonder about your comment regarding your vision of the game and Rogerio's -- did the both of you have some sort of pre-conceived idea of what the game would be like and the shape it would develop into?  In my experience, when you start with a situation, it's free-range development from there, and you never quite know where things might go.  Was it that the story was developing in ways that didn't match your expectations, or simply that the story was developing in ways that were not interesting to the two of you?
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog


Hey, :)

Interesting thoughts...

Quote from: Clay, about part I, on August 10, 2006, 11:46:48 AMLet it rest until you have new important conflicts to introduce. If that means that a day of your retreat is spent fishing or drinking fruity rum drinks on the beach, so be it

This is generically sound advice. Doesn't quite apply to the retreat, as we were all particularly agreed on having that one last session and nothing more after it, but still, this can be read as, "Nar GMs, better to pause between sessions than to play without prep". Coolness.

Quote from: Joshua BishopRoby, about part III, on August 11, 2006, 01:50:19 PMWhich makes me wonder about your comment regarding your vision of the game and Rogerio's -- did the both of you have some sort of pre-conceived idea of what the game would be like and the shape it would develop into?  In my experience, when you start with a situation, it's free-range development from there, and you never quite know where things might go.  Was it that the story was developing in ways that didn't match your expectations, or simply that the story was developing in ways that were not interesting to the two of you?

Neither. The story was developing along interesting lines for everybody, and there was no pre-conceived idea in anyone's mind. There was, however, a tight constraint on adversity resources on my part. Because the situation was basically composed overnight, and because we were playing daily, I was (perhaps overly) cautious of drastic changes in the basic structure of the situation.

This led to my oddly-placed counter-stakes, which were responding to leverage rather than situation. You see, at that point, Rui put his character in a situation which gave everyone a lot of leverage over him. A small, logical evolution in situation (getting him kicked out) would lead to a major change in structure (robbing me of using those NPCs as adversity for Rui).

It was one of those moments where you can set counter-stakes that are either situationally apt or structurally equivalent, but not both, if you follow me...

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer

Josh Roby

I think I'm missing something, J.  TSOY doesn't have a structurally-limited adversity (does it?), so you meant that you'd lose those NPCs in terms of the time and effort invested in them, rather than you'd spend them out of a budget or somesuch?
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog


Hey, :)

Yes, but not the way you think. The "budget" was my limited off-game creative time. Not only were we playing every night, we were also playing other games in the afternoon. Which comes back to Clay's advice, I suppose. :)

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer


Ahey, :)

Quote from: JMendes on August 09, 2006, 12:17:21 AMAs it often happens, we came up with a bunch of cool keys during play. I'll be posting them in the CRN section soon enough, and when I do, I'll link to them from here.

Because I said I would: linky thingy.

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer