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Author Topic: [The Roach @ Gateway] What's the Premise, Where's The Fun?  (Read 5635 times)
jburneko
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« on: September 05, 2006, 11:03:44 AM »

Hello,

So, I brought The Shab-al-Hiri Roach to the Gateway con this weekend.  Ten people total showed up and some had played before so we split into two groups of five.  My group consisted of myself, my wife Meghann, Christopher Kubasik, Judson and Stacy.

In short: It was a disaster.  And there were a million things that lead up to that disaster and I'm not sure I really want to discuss them all.  Suffice it to say that about half way through event three Christopher said, "You know, I'm really just not engaged with this."  Judson and Stacy agreed.  We had some discussion and then decided to just kill the game rather than continue.

However, I then spent about three hours discussing the thing with Christopher trying to figure out what had gone wrong and this sort of rambled over into the nature of fiction and storytelling in general.  Anyway the whole damn thing has been haunting me ever since.  I've tried to let it go but I can't.  Every moment where I haven't been occupied with something else my mind has come back around to this.

Here are the key phrases from the game that really put all of what I'm about to say in my head.  Early on after a rather over-the top action by my wife's character Christopher asked me directly, "Is this a game about doing depraved outrageous things or is it about things we care about as people?"  He meant individually but I misunderstood the question and tried to offer an answer about what the gobal expected buyin of the game was so I said, "It's about commenting on academics and their power struggles."  Much much later when we were discussing the game Judson said, "If this game is about Power and Status then why is there an Everything Else category of conflict at all?"  At various points Christopher kept coming back to the fact that he felt that many of the actions that had happened in the game had nothing to do with power and status and even brought up a certain political figure that "many attribute status to but I don't."  Finally, and this was the point I was sticking on until my drive into work this morning, "Christopher said, the only time I really felt I was getting at something was when my character kept beating on your character."  His character and my character were both in the Poetry and Drama department.  He was a full professor.  I was an assistent professor.  Whenever they were in a scene together his character would berate and physically assult my character.

And while driving here it clicked.  What Christopher seemed to be looking at was direct issues of power and status within the individual relationships between the PCs.  If my character and his character were the only two characters on earth, him beating me would still be about power and status.  Where here I'm defining power as the supressing of others wants or turning/using their wants in service of your own and status as an individuals perception of their "place" relative to someone else.  And at some point I think we may have even been ascribing the word "Status" to the chips we were collecting.  All of this is about the reality of the relationships, emotions and wants of the characters within the fiction.

But all of that is not what the chips represent.  They represent Reputation which has fuck-all to do with the reality of the situation.  Reputation is about the perception of the PCs by the fictional body of students and faculty as a collective community, not individuals.  This to me is why all the Events are large public occasions.  This is why you are allowed to narrate in multiple NPCs.  The key is that there should be witnesses to all conflicts and actions regardless of what they are about which is why "everything else" is still a valid conflict category.  All of this is ultimately because the juice in the game for me is narrating the spin of public opinion once the dice hit the table.  The "what we care about as humans" for me is when someone throws down a justifiction for why whatever good or bad thing they just did jacks up their Reputation and I can smile and nod and say, "Dude, I know someone who would totally think that!"

An example I kept coming back to in my discussion with Christopher happened in another game.  My character basically became the sexual slave to another character.  But I was able to frame conflicts related to this relationship but that DID NOT affect the power or status of the relationship and I would rake in the Reputation.  So even though my character was constantly and clearly LOSING power and status relative to the woman who was dominating him he was GAINING massive Reputation because the student and faculty kept lauding him for "being so modern and progressive in his gender roles."  And I've totally met people who use such bizzare academic reasoning to justify what is otherwise a completely disfuctional situation.  And that's the cold cruel irony of The Roach.

And looking back on all this, I think what Christopher and Judson seemed to be looking for (and they can correct me if I've missed it) plays a ROLE (and our game broke because I think we failed to get that role going at all) in what I'm talking about but I think, for me at least, that the game seems to be much more about the later phenomenon I describe.  Does this make sense?  What are others experiences with these issues within The Roach?

Jesse
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #1 on: September 05, 2006, 11:46:42 AM »

Hi Jesse,

I promise to come back to this later. I just don't have time right now.

A few quick things:

1) I saw this weighing on you. If I have anything to do with that please let it go. It wasn't a "disaster" for me. I knew I wasn't having fun, intuited Judson and Stacy weren't having fun, and put that on the table. Just like when Ron and his Boyz shut down their first pass at Bacchanal a couple of weeks ago. I played a game, I learned some stuff. I'd moved on well before the post-game conversation ended.

2) So that no one gets confused about what I was looking for from the game, please note that one of my PC's enthusiasm's was Status. I think, Jesse, you may be overstating one thing over another, or misreading a data point. The beatings and insults my PC inflicted on a junior prof. in my PC's department had everything to do with connecting to my character. I would have been fine with, "supressing of others wants or turning/using their wants in service of your own and status as an individuals perception of their 'place' relative to someone else."

3) The big issue for me was the absolute unmooring of reality from the game pretty early on. For those not there -- which is, you know, everyone pretty much reading this! -- Meghann responded to budget cuts in the academics in order to build a lacross team in the following manner:

She gathered up all the chemisry students (her PC was a chemistry professor), chem supplies, set up under the bleachers and declared she was going to blow up the bandstand. (Or the bleachers -- I can't quite remember.) She wasn't going to do harm. She was just going to make a big explosion ot make a point.

I can tell you right now, that's when I pretty much checked out. (And I'm pretty sure Judson was right behind me!)

You know that moment in The Daily Show, when Jon Stewart introduces a new story, and they bring up the Graphic/Title fo the new story, and the crowd goes wild, and Stewart glances at the monitor with the graphic, and turns back to the audience, which is still cheering, and goes, "Really?"

That's that that moment was to me.

Remember that Judson, Stacy and I had not played before. We were looking to Jesse and Meghann for clues about tone, purpose and play.

And I watch something that had so little bearing on reality -- it was cartoonish, outlandish and something (but I do not know what) -- that I thought, "Oh. So this is what the game is about. Doing big outlandish things so divorced from consequence, logic and reality that -- um... this game can't possible matter.

Hence the question Jesse has already quoted that I asked at the table I thought, "A game with all this praise heaped on it can't possibly be about something that simply doesn't matter." So after I felt Judson, Stacy and I spinning for about fifteen minutes of game play for some manner to connect back into the game I asked, "Is this a game about doing depraved outrageous things or is it about things we care about as people?"

I can see now the question wasn't specific or clear enough, but you can kind of see the purpose buried in there. Of course the game would "involve" doing depraved outrageous things, but is that what the game would be about? Becase as it stood, a PC did something big and outlandish with no connection to, as far as I could tell, anything. And Jesse approved with laughter and Meghann seemed very happy with it.

Of course, Ron's already covered this (the bastard) in another thread.

Quote
For whatever reason, the group I played with during GenCon last year (to whom I introduced the game) were also pretty oriented to keeping the character's academic priorities firmly central to play. It may have been due to my "verbal one-sheet," which I recall did emphasize the professorial and in-game nature of Reputation.

In a lot of actual-play threads and general discussion of the game, I've been a little surprised to see people build pyramids to the roach god, massacre whole football fields, and basically abandon the institutional, professional context entirely. To me, that loses a great deal of the point of play. It seems that Reputation is being utilized strictly as an out-of-game scorecard and not an in-game feature. If so, no wonder that Premise is lost and people are treating it as pure Gamism, and to be blunt, the Roach rules ain't Gamist enough to support that approach (nor do I think they should be).

Which to me is where I table went right off the rails. For Jesse and Meghann this was typical college hijinks.

Now, Jesse and Meghann said, "You don't understand, this is the kind of thing that the student would CHEER! They're crazy, They're Academics!" And in-joke-knowlege-requried-to-have-fun logic aside, Judson, Stacy and I simply didn't buy it.

There are, as Jesse pointed out, a lot of little things that added up to the shutting down of the game: not enough detail on the PCs leaps to mind, lack of clear NARRATIVE goals outside of "getting chips" (as Ron says, the "game" of the game ain't going to help you there...)

But as Ron suggests above, the issue for me was, "Um, does this thing have ANYTHING to do with being on a campus?"

I think the Roach requires the aethetic boundry of the Campus being played straight -- and the Roach is the weird thing that subtly and secretly enters a fairly straight-forward and purposeful reproduction of academic life and competition. The amount of humor or horror are dials to be set withing that boundry... But I do believe it is a boundry that must be respected.

Thanks, again, Jesse, for running the game. REALLY!

Christopher

PS Finally, Anne Coulter is not a "political figure." I don't now fuck-all what she is, but she's not a political figure.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: September 05, 2006, 02:46:19 PM »

Um, you stole my quote from the other thread I was gonna use.

Maybe I can put a couple of other pieces together, though. I think, perhaps, what's made the Roach playable and even delightful for me, is that I can't help but love the silly bastards, meaning the player-characters. I guess I really would like at least one of them to establish and enjoy his Reputation, in-game, if at all possible, un-Roached. Now, the game makes it quite possible for this to fail (in my first game, one of the meanest characters de-Roached just in time to win), but to me, that adds spice to the whole thing - either you get a rather roach-shit-speckled kind of unlikely success, or you get a howling existential paean to the meaninglessness of things, in a humorous way. I'm good with that.

But as I was saying, Jason's text refers to the pleasant and slightly dilapidated campus with its pleasant and slightly dilapidated faculty. You know something? I kind of like them. Even when they get a little too tempted with the lure of the Roach and even when Regina Sutton meets whatever unspeakable fate she meets ... I have a soft spot for their ol' school ties and their carefully-dusted diplomas on their office walls. When I combine that liking with my own extreme familiarity with the pettiness and intensity that academic reputation-struggles can engender, well, for me, that's a potent mixture. It has people in it, and the stuff people do. So to me, I don't have much trouble staying connected to the humanity in the game.

That said, this next bit is important. There is a necessary element of fantasy in the Roach, though. I can see that the conflict about blowing up the bleachers was silly in a lot of ways, but maybe I could have nodded and gone with it, if I said "Well, this is like Son of Flubber and hence zany-Hollywood-campus." The early-20th-century setting provides enough distance for me that, for instance, blowing up the bleachers might be OK. Perhaps ... and this is based on some years of discussion with both of you guys ... both of you might consider what distance is even possible for you, which yet maintains connection to the protagonists and conflicts?

Perhaps you both have a tendency to get either hyper-close, in which case everything's impossibly fragile in the face of potential disruption, or to get hyper-far, in which case nothing matters because they're just dots on the horizon. What game-experience has actually succeeded in being close enough, yet robust enough, for each of you?

(Damn. I just channeled a great scene from Father Ted, in which the title character is buttonholed by bishops as to whether the lay community should be involved, or whether a certain distance should be maintained. Terrified, he says, "uhhhh .... we should involve the lay community, but keep a certain distance!" I am such a geek. Pardon the channeling.)

Best, Ron
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1351


« Reply #3 on: September 05, 2006, 03:12:52 PM »

Hello Christopher,

Everything you say about the specific game is true.  And I've noted that filed it away and let it go.  But there's something else eating at me that I wanted to try and hash out here because I can not let go of the bigger issue that session brought to light but that extends beyond the specifics of that session.  I've thought about it and I think I need to step back another layer of context to fully illuminate it.

The night before at Denny's over ice cream and cofee Judson, Josh and I had been talking about games like Capes and Polaris and to a lesser extent The Roach.  And one of my observations about Capes is that there are elements of what makes great superhero stories that Tony has so internalized that not only does he not articulate them well he has trouble understanding that there are some people in the world who don't "just know" whatever the thing is he has interalized.  This has been my observation from reading and participating in numerous threads down in the Muse of Fire forum.  It doesn't help that he is very good at acting on whatever this internalized thing is that he can catch any floundering or misteping that happens by the other players and pull the whole thing back to center.  But anyone who HASN'T internalized the thing is going to flounder.  I think it took three full sessions of Capes play before I found the magic ingredient I needed to bring to the table to make the game work.

Judson and Josh confirmed that they had the same feelings about Polaris.  That there is perhaps something deep inside Ben that is required but doesn't appear in the text of the game.

Despite not being the game's designer I fear that I have internalized something about The Roach that I just assume is obvious to anyone playing the game.  Even with Meghann's out of scope, too much, too soon, disconnected over the top action I was able to justify, refocus and see a path to recovery particularly once Judson said, "I want to use this as ammunition."  This is similar to what I've read about Tony doing if a not-quite-in-touch player decides to destroy the planet earth in turn one of a Capes game.  It's also possible I've internallized the wrong thing and even if I've internalized the right thing it's possible I lack the skill to properly act on it.

The unease that won't go away is that I don't like (even the thought of) being the thing I was just criticising the night before.

But now I'm seeing a trend.  Capes, Polaris and The Roach are all GMless.  All RPGs are to some extent Garbage In/Garbage Out systems but ones that have a central GM have built in filtration system, that if you run slightly murky water through long enough will everntually come out clear.  So, now I'm able to articulate the real topic of this thread.

When playing The Roach what does good input look like?  How do you articulate that to other players before play begins?

Note: Cross-posting with Ron.  I think all my points still stand.

Jesse



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GB Steve
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« Reply #4 on: September 05, 2006, 03:45:54 PM »

And I watch something that had so little bearing on reality -- it was cartoonish, outlandish and something (but I do not know what) -- that I thought, "Oh. So this is what the game is about. Doing big outlandish things so divorced from consequence, logic and reality that -- um... this game can't possible matter.
I think for us part of the joy was in doing all these silly things.

Some gaming is meaningful and deep and resonant, and sometime you just want to go wild with a turkey baster, drown professors in the lake and sacrifice cheerleaders. Much as we used to like to kill the orc and take his pie, except that we thought that was meaningful when it wasn't really.

But underlying all this silliness, and the one thing that held it together for us, was the fact that it's a competitive game. We did seek to do each other down and grab the trophy, but we didn't lose sight of the silliness either.
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #5 on: September 05, 2006, 04:00:11 PM »

Hi Ron,

I suspect the following is true about me:

Quote
both of you might consider what distance is even possible for you, which yet maintains connection to the protagonists and conflicts?

But I'm not sure. Either way, could you unpack what you mean by "distance." As soon as you do that, I'll give an example you're a looking for.


Jesse,

I think you've raised a really good point about GM-less games -- but I haven't been around the block enough times with them to be sure.

I'll say this: You were in a fucking tough position.

The Roach has no GM -- and yet, in many ways, you assumed and/or had imposed upon you the "role" of the GM. You owned the book, explained the rules, moderated rules questions and disputes, and, most importantly, I believe the three new players looked to you for clarification on tone, style and content of the game. "Are we doing this right?" was an unverbalized question put to you through the game. (Though I did verbalize it a couple of times.)

Given all that, you were in fact not the GM. That's strange load to carry.

Now, I have my idea of what the Roach should work like (post-play), but I suspect it still might be different than what you'd like. (And my idea of it looks a lot like what Ron's been describing. And yes -- I would see it easily having a fantasy element -- the every day is perfect, the trees always tell the seasons artificiallity of "A Beautiful Mind" leaps to my imagination as a starting point... The Roach simply is not set a real campus!)

I think you're on to something. Five people with equal power having five ideas about the nature of the game might tug-of-war it to a bad degree. (Or not -- I dont' know!)

Compare all this to Primetime Adventrues: Rotating (but not shared) narration control; time spent building the shared environment ahead of time. But one player (The Producer) still has a GREAT DEAL of authority over tone and style and focus. The Producer provides the conflict, the producer narrates the opening of the scene... that's big stuff. By the time someone else begins narrating how the conflict plays out, that narration has already been heavily loaded in ways that are sort of forgotten about by that point.

So, in GM-less play, everyone's going to be turning to that text to do what a GM (of any stripe) would normally do -- to give us boundries and course corrections and such.

Christopher
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #6 on: September 05, 2006, 04:10:57 PM »

I think for us part of the joy was in doing all these silly things.

Hi Steve,

Cool. And when you write, "Some gaming is meaningful and deep and resonant, and sometime you just want to go wild with a turkey baster..." you're just right, so I don't kow what more to say about this.

But I think Jesse's point is still really interesting in light of this.

Look at Seven -- there are a LOT of depraved, outlandish things that happen in that movie. But I was never thinking, "Silly."

A tone and style was chosen for the film. (And let be really clear right now -- I don't think of The Roach as a really dark game -- at all.)

And in many ways, the GM of an RPG reinforces a style, tone and so on. Players pick up the lead and follow.

BUT, in the Roach there's no one there to channel these choices. I obviously have no problem playing with a group playing The Roach any way they want. My issue (and Judson's) was that we simply got bounced out of the game because we couldn't square our expectations of what made any kind of sense with what clearly made sense to other players.

Note that in Ron's stolen quote above, he's clear about his "verbal one-sheet" setting the parameters for these issues for the other players. In that moment he made choices about that the game would be like and led the players into them (much like a GM.)

So when Jesse asks, "When playing The Roach what does good input look like?" my answer might be, what the group decides it looks like.

When Jesse asks, "How do you articulate that to other players before play begins?" maybe the players articulate it all together, picking a list of dials off a menu, for example, to establish these things so there's no confusion.

Christopher
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GB Steve
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« Reply #7 on: September 06, 2006, 12:53:49 AM »

Look at Seven -- there are a LOT of depraved, outlandish things that happen in that movie. But I was never thinking, "Silly."

I disagree with you on this, I thought Seven was very silly, and not in a good way, but the point about tone is well made. Even so, given the way Roach is set up, I think I'd be hard pressed to play it straight with no silliness (even the good kind).

That said, Flaming Taft, one of Brennan's Gen Con Mortal Coil games was played straight by us as characters, but us as the audience of our game hardly stopped laughing the whole night. It was a strange dissonance, but one that worked.

When Jesse asks, "How do you articulate that to other players before play begins?" maybe the players articulate it all together, picking a list of dials off a menu, for example, to establish these things so there's no confusion.
That sounds like the simple solution. Is this a dark game of exploring the consequences of giving in to one's desires, or is it about turkey basters?

I can see that this mismatch might get you into some trouble playing the game, but I wasn't under the impression that it was the only cause of failure of yours. There also seemed to be something about care and identification with one's character and something about the extent to which winning matters.
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #8 on: September 06, 2006, 07:05:04 AM »

Hi Steve,

When we reach a point in the conversation when we're trying to decide whether or not there could be "any" sillyness in a game of The Roach, we're gone round the bend. I don't see The Roach as a "dark" game. At all. As I said in my previous post.

I fear that whatever position I take will be stripped of all nuance and someone will be pushing my point of view for me into one extreme or another.

I'll stick with the quote I started with from Ron. I read that, thought, "Yes, exactly."

If I were to play again, I'd make sure everyone spent some time working out the details of their character, a little bit more of the campus -- not to make it "real" or "dark" -- but to provide enough grounding for the character's ambitions and give them something about their lives that would make them want to struggle to get ahead. Even comedies need that.

Jesse, again, thank you for introducing me to the game.

Christopher
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #9 on: September 06, 2006, 07:27:38 AM »

Final note, for clarification: I believe The Roach is a comedy. But even comedies need to the know the lines of their world and logic and point of view.

When I asked Jesse, ""Is this a game about doing depraved outrageous things or is it about things we care about as people?" notice that this doesn't push the matter at all into "serious" or "silly." It asks what is the foucs of the game. Comedies, the one's I like at least, are all about things we care about as people.

Christopher
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #10 on: September 06, 2006, 07:28:55 AM »

After playing the Roach a number of times, I've had the most fun when we've emphasized the academic aspect of the situation.  (It's like InSpectres in that it becomes less compelling if you just focus on the horror/fantasy elements and ignore the "everyday" stuff).

More practically: Things will escalate, so it can really help to start small - characters don't need to be so outlandish to begin with (they'll start acting outlandishly soon enough).

Also, I've found that the "I hate him/he likes me" piece of character creation can really help to provide some firm grounding for the early scenes.  I've had the best results when we've tried to make all the hates and likes tie into the academic situation in some way.  For instance, my character T. Rogers Mosley hated Sebastian Montague - the son of a manufacturing mogul - because he felt Montague had used his father's money to buy his academic reputation and hadn't paid his dues.
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