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[GenCon][Unistat] Crazy surreal western/Americana and "Tesla: Dead or Alive"

Started by Andrew Morris, August 14, 2006, 07:12:13 PM

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Andrew Morris

For some reason, I didn't do much role-playing at GenCon. I had lots of fun just hanging out and doing random other stuff. But I did get a chance to run Unistat twice. Through those two sessions, I found out a few interesting things about the game. First, Unistat actually does work for two players, much to my suprise. Second, Unistat most emphatically does not work for more than five players, much to my suprise as well. Third, Unistat has a distinctly recognizable "shift" point, where it goes from playing with the mechanics and just talkin' to something that seems to have a life of its own.

Dust clouds and apple pie
First session of Unistat

I sat down with Remi and Eric to run Unistat for them. I was tired and maybe a bit grumpy, so my GMing skills were certainly not all they could have been. Concept creation took a long time (maybe 30 to 45 minutes). This was mostly due to my not understanding all the reference material they put forward in their suggestions. Eventually, though, we settled on this strange concept of old west drifters, but incorporating elements of Americana, with weird chaos powers used for good thrown in for good measure. I wasn't entirely jazzed about the concept, but I wasn't so opposed to it that I felt the need to negotiate or veto it.

We went on to character creation, which went off normally, taking about a minute or two. Unfortunately, I can't recall the character names. We threw in some extra NPC characters like "El Mariachi" and "The Man With No Name," to flesh out the band, but they were discarded fairly early on. We selected our dice, and we were off and running.

The first scene opened with the drifters emerging from a dust cloud on a dirt road. Children were playing nearby, and they spotted the strangers, running up to check them out. They were all playful and carefree and innocent, laughing and skipping along, but when they saw the faces of the strangers, they screamed in terror and tore off back to town like the devil himself was after them. The drifters stoically marched onward. In what I felt was the best moment of the game, one of the drifters kicked a discarded doll off the road. We narrated a slow-motion scene of the doll spinning and dancing about before toppling to the ground. This foreshadowed the big event of the game.

Later on, the drifters come to confront Death, who rides into town in an RV with a wagon top. They fight Death and essentially break her. She limps off, never completing her mission. They fought her off to protect a young woman, but end up killing the girl in the end. She dances and falls just like the doll in the first scene.

I'm leaving out a bunch of cool stuff, so hopefully the players can add their perspectives on the in-game fiction.

The big thing I learned was that you can run a session of Unistat with just two players. I didn't think that would provide enough conflict for an interesting game, but it worked just fine. I did notice that Unistat has a clear moment when everything clicks, and starts to really take off. In a two player game, this takes longer to happen (at least it did in our game), but it takes off even faster once the shift happens.

Tesla: dead or alive
Second session of Unistat

This was the worst session I've had of Unistat, and it was still good. We had six players, which I thought would work just fine. TonyLB insisted I was wrong, but I figured, "Hey, what does he know?" Apparently, he knows a lot, because he was totally right. Five players is the absolute max for Unistat, at least as written. Multi-way conflicts get out of hand rapidly, otherwise.

The game concept was a sort of clockwork Victorian empire that had conquered the world, except for those upstart American colonies. Now the crown was looking to take them back, and only the scientist Nicola Tesla, with his strange technologies posed a threat. An airship was dispatched to capture Tesla, dead or alive.

Shawn de Arment played the clockwork AI computer, which I thought was pretty neat. It's the first time a player chose a non-person character, even though it's completely fine within the rules.

I also noted some play style clashing, as TonyLB's "Muy Macho" attitude and Frank M.'s less confrontational, "let's not use the mechanics for everything" approach seemed to cause some friction. That's only my perception, of course, and the other players might be better able to clarify what they thought.

In the end, the characters had a climactic confrontation with Tesla and his doomsday device, but he managed to escape. The players all narrated what I thought were very nifty ends to their characters' stories.

Download: Unistat

Remi Treuer

I just wanted to fill out a bit about 'Dust Clouds & Apple Pie'. Eric and I were playing different aspects of the Wanderer archetype. I was the Vagrant, a Dr. Gonzo-as-played-by-Benicio-Del-Toro-in-the-movie party guy. My stat was 'I just want to make people happy'. Eric was playing the Locksmith. El Mariachi (the musician) and The Man With No Name (the gunfighter) were our companions, and it made sense that Death was one of our number, but did not run with us directly.

I was sleep deprived and loopy and looking for a big, crazy game and Unistat delivered. Eric and Andrew were quite game, although it took a little while for them to catch up to my energetic opening gambit with setting. Eric was especially game, matching my cryptic dialogue with equally cryptic answers and follow-up remarks. By the end he had authored an awesome conflict in which his character lost either way, but if he (Eric) won the conflict, the Vagrant's fight with him (The Locksmith) would lead directly to more conflict inside the club the Locksmith was protecting.

The opening conflict (in an Old West-style saloon with video poker and a quiz game on the flatscreen in the corner) was Eric trying to figure out what was wrong in the town by questioning the quiz game. Eric failed the roll, and found that the quiz had been tampered with. I went into conflict to find out who had tampered with the machine, and failed as well, the person's identity remaining shrouded in mystery.

A bar-fight distraction and the Locksmith went into a secret room in the back, like a server room, but full of actuaries banging away on abacuses. The Locksmith had a confrontation with the Men in the Back Room (shrouded dudes smoking big cigars), and I had my talk with Death, where it was revealed she was going to kill a girl I had defended at an earlier time.

The Locksmith and the Vagrant ended up at the club where the girl was (the Locksmith doing a cool Matrixey 'unlocking doors that lead to somewhere else' bit and the Vagrant riding with Death), and the Locksmith froze time inside the club, preventing Death from immediately hurting anyone inside.

Somewhere in here Eric suggested that we figure out who the girl was, and through a flashback sequence we figured out that I had saved the girl from Death, but she had grown up dissatisfied, distrusting, and unhappy. No matter what the Vagrant did, she would be unhappy, and so his powers broke against her, just as Death's had. The Vagrant decided she was too dangerous to live (a mortal who could stand against the immortal through force of will) and had a stand-off against the Locksmith to decide her fate. The Vagrant-is-the-killer aspect lead to a nice circular element to the story, with it being revealed that it was he who had futzed with the quiz machine earlier to prevent detection.

The girl ended up dead at the Vagrant's hands, as did the Locksmith. The final scene was a newly-resurrected Locksmith (who had become death) sitting on a rooftop with the Vagrant, cryptically discussing their actions.

I had a great time, and really felt like everyone was cooking together by the end, having finally gotten over the shock of a pretty weird, somewhat surreal setting where the rules of reality were hazy and had a lot to do with connection and will. It was neat, a type of game I've wanted to play in for a long time, and I'm grateful that I got to do it with two guys as awesome, original, and game as Eric and Andrew.

Eric Minton

"Dust Clouds & Apple Pie" was pretty awesome.  From what I've seen, Unistat is all about everyone getting on the same frequency and riffing off each other's contributions to the SIS, and while it took us a while to get there, the game took off like a rocket once we hit that point.

For the first half hour or so of the game, Remi and I sort of puttered around, getting a feel for the characters and the setting, while Andrew threw conflicts at us in order to press us into action.  We were all tired and our individual views of the setting had yet to mesh.  But as Remi and I pushed our characters into various surreal activities, we could feel things clicking into closer and closer alignment.  Play between us was almost all Pull, which was awesome!  And as we kept throwing out stuff that we felt was cool and responding to what we liked, the resulting feedback drew us together until, with the appearance of Death, everything snapped into place; we constructed her in a lightning-fast exchange of facts, ideas and sensory cues, each building on the other's contributions.

I really liked how the group is explicitly encouraged to bring about the endgame whenever it feels appropriate, rather than basing it on time available or the progress of a game mechanic; combined with the "riffing" effect noted earlier, this really helps to tie the pacing to the needs of the narrative.  With a shared sense of where the story was going, we were able to neatly fold several earlier story elements into the endgame, such as the Vagabond sabotaging the quiz machine, or the dying girl falling to the ground in the exact same posture as the kicked doll in the first scene.  The game ended exactly where it needed to end, with everything that needed resolution being resolved.

Sydney Freedberg

This is very cool. What I want to know is where's the system in all this, though? What's been described so far sounds like it could be the product of very cool "freeform" (i.e. all rules informal and implicit) brainstorming. I'm looking for the impact of the "one stat" and any other procedures in the text -- not just die-rolling, mind, but also situation-construction guidelines or a "say yes or roll dice" rule as in Dogs in the Vineyard, or collaborative brainstorming procedures like the "pitch" in Prime Time Adventures.

Andrew Morris

Quote from: Sydney Freedberg on August 15, 2006, 05:24:06 PM
This is very cool. What I want to know is where's the system in all this, though? What's been described so far sounds like it could be the product of very cool "freeform" (i.e. all rules informal and implicit) brainstorming. I'm looking for the impact of the "one stat" and any other procedures in the text -- not just die-rolling, mind, but also situation-construction guidelines or a "say yes or roll dice" rule as in Dogs in the Vineyard, or collaborative brainstorming procedures like the "pitch" in Prime Time Adventures.

Good questions, Sydney. It's kinda hard to highlight the system, because it's really only meant to lubricate the exchange of ideas and narration, and otherwise get out of the way. At it's best, you don't really remember it, in the same way you don't remember, say, the subtle negotiation that takes place in a conversation where two people share similar, but slightly different viewpoints. You look back on it and think, "We had a good chat about X." You don't think, "We had a good chat about X, after we realized that his Y was functionally the same thing as my Z." Most of the time, at least.

Unistat is very much like a freeform game, but with a skeleton of explicit rules to give it a particular structure. Specifically, the dramatic arc: the protagonists are highlighted (narration and dialogue), then they get whacked with some problem (GM-authored conflict), then they're on a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs where things mostly go against them (GM having and using bigger and more dice in conflicts), then they figure out what needs to be done and start working toward it (the players are an equal footing with the GM mechanically), then the climax (consensus and narration), and finally the wrap-up where things are reflected upon and the result of the story is illustrated (narration).

The "stat" in Unistat is, to be honest, really just a security blanket for people who feel the need for a character sheet, know....stuff....on it. The mechanical benefit of the character's trait is really just a way give players a slight edge in conflicts that focus on the core of what makes the character interesting. It doesn't make them more or less likely to win conflicts, but it gives them a bit more narrative juice. The game would work just fine without the "character sheet" (any blank scrap of paper) or traits.

The rules of the game (all four of them), are designed to facilitate player communication and agreement, nothing more. There's a certain enjoyment to the dice rolling in and of itself, but that doesn't change the facts that the rules simply help players decide who gets the right to say what happens when in the game.

The advice on GMing says that the GM player is responsible for pacing the story, and shows how to do that, by explaining that the GM should introduce conflicts early on, and toss lots of dice at the players (part of what creates the arc I mentioned earlier). There is an implicit "say yes or roll dice" rule (the Rule of Consensus), but it applies to all players equally, not just the GM.

There are two methods outlined for setting creation. The first is that someone who wants to run a game simply comes up with a concept and finds players who are invested in that concept and want to play (great for convention games). The second is the much more open method of proposing ideas, negotiating, and settling on a mutually acceptable concept. Since all players have full and incontestable veto power at this stage, the game can get shut down entirely by cantankerous players. This doesn't bother me in the slightest, because if you can't get along and communicate in a normal human way with your fellow players, you really shouldn't be playing this game.

Did that cover everything, Sydney? Let me know if anything's unclear or if you want more elaboration on a particular point.

Also, the layout is uploaded, so you can just right-click and save on the Unistat link in my signature.
Download: Unistat