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Author Topic: [1001 Nights] Somewhat chaotic, somewhat short  (Read 4233 times)
Victor Gijsbers
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« on: September 08, 2006, 03:19:58 AM »

I played the charming little game 1001 Nights last wednesday with two friends of mine, Eva and Annette. The experience was pretty good, but maybe not 'good' unqualified. So, let me talk about the good and the bad.


Setting the mood

The advice for food and drinks in the game book is interesting, and something I would like to see in more games. Tell me how to set the mood for your game! Polaris does it, 1001 Nights does it, and I want to see more of it.

We had dates, dried apricots, grapes, mint tea, pistache nuts (I'm not sure about their English name) and chilled wine. The most oriental music I had available was Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail, but that was too distracting, so we settled for some melodic metal very vaguely inspired by oriental tunes. The music needs more work next time. Nevertheless, with all the food, the mint tea, and the bowl full of coloured dice in front of us, the right mood was there from the start.


Character creation

Another great part of the game is character creation. The five sense, the envies and the ambition are easy to come up with, but really help to define your character as a person. (It was while making a character that I realised that everything one thinks up here is Colour. None of it has a mechanical effect.)

I played Hasad, the Scholar of the Qur'an. He was 28 years old, and had the following senses:

Hearing: "I can recite from the Qur'an by rote."
Sight: "There is almost noone I dare to look straight in the eyes."
Smell: "I smell vaguely of fear."
Taste: "My love for sugar makes me too fat."
Touch: "I would love to caress the skin of a woman."

I was startled at how much this quickly assembled list implied about Hasad. Naturally, he envied the eunuch guarding the harem (played by Eva) his proximity to women; and his ambition was to kiss the female favoured musician (played by Annette).


Telling stories

The book tells us repeatedly that the courtiers will try to play out their envies and ambition through the stories they tell. So, when I started as GM, I had Hasad say: "I will tell the story of the beautiful Myriam and the foolish djinn. Eunuch, will you play the djinn? And you, favoured musician, will you play the beautiful maid called Myriam?" Later, I introduced a wise scholar of the islam into the story, who helped Myriam against the djinn.

This worked rather well. There was genuine tension between the player characters, especially between the scholar and the eunuch. The meta-level constantly intruded into the story.

However, the story suffered. My character constantly tried to portray the scholar of the islam as a wise man helping a young girl; the musician tried to portray him as a wise man doomed to fail, because noone appreciated his wisdom; and the eunuch tried to portray him as a foolish old man. In the end, he wasn't so much a mix of these three; he was none of them. A character without character, so to speak. In the same way, the djinn alternated between being foolish and being strong and smart, and ended up being none of them.

Because of the different interests of the player characters, the story also made some strange turns and twists. The result was chaos, rather than a fun fairy tale.

The game system didn't seem to do anything to help us here. It rewards people not for making additions to the story that will help it turn into a fun, coherent tale; it rewards people for declaring interests they can remember. And it rewards the GM not for ending the story when it has reached closure, but for ending it after an arbitrary time, namely, when he/she has amassed eight dice.

So - are we missing something here? Have other people had better luck with telling coherent, interesting tales? If so, how? How is the system supposed to help one do this?


1001 Nights? More like two of them!

Another thing we were not thrilled by was the short duration of the game. After the second story, all our characters simultaneously achieved their ambition. Two stories is too short to get to know your characters and play out an interesting set of events happening in the court.

But I would guess that two stories is a normal length of time for the game, no matter with how many players it is played. Observe the following strategy:

At the end of the first round, the first GM has at least 11 dice. He puts all of these into Freedom. If he rolls seven evens or more, he has won in a single round. Chances are, he will not roll that many evens. But every odd die is put back into his pool. Assume, then, that he manages to earn not even a single die during the second round (this is the worst case scenario). Now, how many dice does he have left? If he needs to roll 1 more even, he has five dice left. If he needs to roll 2 more evens, he has six dice left. If he needs to roll 3 more evens, he has seven dice left. And even if the unlucky guy needs to roll four more evens, he still has eight dice left, still giving him a 50% chance of winning the game in the second round.

Therefore, if the first GM plays the optimal strategy and puts all his dice in Freedom twice, he has a chance much better than 50% of winning the game by round two, irrespective of the number of players. Surely, this makes the game too short? How does this work out in other groups?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: September 08, 2006, 04:21:32 AM »

Hi Victor,

I'm basing my response only from my demo experience at GenCon, rather than a full-fledged game, so it may be skewed by that limited perspective.

My understanding is that the story told by the three characters is not really the point. If it meanders, goes awry, becomes absurd, or otherwise isn't a very good story, that's OK. Why? Because the real story is about the three characters. I don't care about Miriam and the foolish djinn - I care about Hasad and whether he gets to kiss anyone. The story-telling among the characters is their arena of social combat, and just as with real people playing Once Upon a Time, the story may or may not end up making sense or being good, specifically because the tellers are in combat. The story-events are their weapons, and sometimes the weapons are more visible (i.e. not well-hidden in the story's quality).

A good way to look at it is that one is more effective in the overall combat by hiding one's attacks well, that is, in a story that is amusing and coherent. I don't know the game well enough to say whether this principle is supported by the reward system, as in "who gets beheaded," but I wouldn't be surprised.

Or one could similarly say, it doesn't matter. Let the story about Miriam and the foolish djinn wander hither and yon, because those story-events are really just verbal sword-strokes or caresses among the characters themselves.

That's my take, anyway. I'm interested to see what Meg says, and also ... as you might guess, based on what I've said ... what happened to Hasad!? I'm really interested!

Best, Ron
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Emily Care
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« Reply #2 on: September 08, 2006, 05:53:53 AM »

Hi  Victor,

Glad you played and mostly had fun. : ) I'm sure that Meg will give her input on the mechanics. What were the stories, generally, that you told? The way I've seen the courtier level play out against the tale level has been by creating more tension and conflict for the characters in question.  I have my vision of how this character will be portrayed, you have yours, so when conflicts are rolled that is also at stake. I as gm throw things in your way that I hope will show your character in such and such a light, you as the courtier want to show you up and have the character look how I want it to. Did you roll the much dice to determine outcomes?

best,
Emily
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Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: September 08, 2006, 11:39:24 AM »

Hi Victor,

This has itched at me all day. Did you conceive of the activity/game as a Gamist thing, of the competitive/confrontational sort, or as a Narrativist thing with a lot of narration?

1001 Nights seems to me to be built mainly for the former. The interesting thing is that the characters are competing against one another to get what they want, but the players' degree of competition can vary wildly ... but the overall "loss" conditions of your character coming to a bad end are constant.

Or to break it down from the top, this is all about the two little red dials I talk about in my Gamism essay:

Players run their characters in a Gamist fashion primarily to have them survive, maybe gain status, and perhaps even win their freedom. Whether the players compete or cooperate in doing so probably varies from bit to bit of play.

The characters undercut and interfere with one another via the medium of the story they're telling together. This is brutally competitive in a lot of cases, again, at the level of the characters and what they want.

The fictional entities (characters, etc) in the story the characters are telling are mere weapons, or for that matter, truces and alliances, in the subtle game of Diplomacy they're waging, with their status, lives, and freedom on the block.

Anyway, that's how I see it, at this point. It's kind of a hard-ass game. I don't see it as a little eat-dates, smile-at-your-loved-one, tell-a-sweet-story kind of thing at all.

Best, Ron
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Nathan P.
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« Reply #4 on: September 08, 2006, 03:04:58 PM »

Hi Victor,

I've played 1001 Nights a couple of times now, with different groups. So, I'm going to say some stuff based on how I've played and what I've gotten out of the experience.

First, I don't think the game has to be hard-ass at all. I tend to play with my Ambition being the spice to my character, but I, as a player, am mostly concerned with two things: telling not necessarily coherant or meaningful, but rather interesting stories; and using the relationships among the characters as my guidelines for both subject matter and fuel for my stories.

I think that keeping your attention on both levels of story-telling while telling the story helps. When I play, I sometimes say stuff about my character as he's telling the story - like "I lean back and close my eyes, trying to come up with an appropriate zinger....how about, I say 'Then the Camel spits on the Mechants shoes'"

One key to the game is keeping in mind that, when you're the GM, you're the GM. This isn't a hippy, distributed-authority story-game....this game is ALL GM fiat, and the other players have exactely as much say about the story as you want them to have + their ability to stake dice. When it's my turn to GM, I'll talk for a while, then say "So what do you guys do/say?", listen to the other players have their characters play story-characters, then if I have an idea or something I'll cut 'em off if I have to.

The system kicks into gear thusly: I'm the GM. I assign story-characters and start talking. At some point, someone will stake a dice on something I say. Then I know that the story will eventually need to get back to that, in order for that person to enjoy this game. It may not be immediate, but that gives me a touchpoint to come back to, or an impetus for how the story should go, or both. So I use staked dice as signposts for how the story should run, which should then make it entertaining and appropriate for the other players.

As for the shortness of the game - I've heard multiple people say "why don't you just do (ambition/freedom) every time? it's the optimal strategy!". So, first of all, I think some people would rather go for Ambition, others for Freedom - depends on what flavor you like, I guess.

Second, I think it's smart to put at least some dice in Safety, cuz it's not beyond the bounds to take more than 2 rolls to make either Ambition or Freedom.

Finally, dude, how is it winning? You lose your character when you "win." If you like playing your character, just evenly distribute your dice. If you want to get done with him, concentrate your dice. Each player has control over the pacing of their character. Also, just because one person wins, doesn't mean the games over. Simply make a new courtier.

Anyway, I hope some of that resonates with you and is helpful!
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Nathan P.
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Meguey
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« Reply #5 on: September 08, 2006, 07:01:31 PM »

It looks to me like you missed a rule. After the dice are divided, you may spend one of yours to remove two from anyone else's Ambition. You can do this to multiple players, but not twice to the same player. In this way, you can block other Courtier's Ambition. That you *all three won* on Ambition means you were not blocking each other. That's ok, it just explains why the game was so short.

Ron's really right about the Stories being "weapons, truces and alliances"  and Nathan's dead-on about, well, everything. Especially the last paragraph. Want to keep playing? Keep playing! Make new Courtiers. Want to keep playing these Courtiers? Keep playing! What do they want now? Are there new envies based on how the relationships changed thus far? There are new Ambitions, certainly. If they are Beheaded or Free, you *must* make a new Courtier, but really, who ever was content with what they had?
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Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #6 on: September 09, 2006, 04:00:31 AM »

Thanks for all the responses!

@ Ron

We did use the in-game stories mostly as social tools for the player characters. But I had - and still have - the idea that the game is also meant to deliver fun and entertaining in-game stories. Observe the following text from the Introduction:

Quote
(First, a long paragraph about everything that was fun in reading the tales from 1001 nights: magic and colour and sensual language and desert oases and caravans and whatnot.)

That is what this game is all about.

What we make 'other', we find easy to dismiss or abuse. What we try to see as 'just the same', we risk making colourless and bland. We need the exotic, the fantastical, to lift us out of ourselves, out of our everyday experience. We need to delight in what is not familiar, exploring it for what it is - a strange and wonderful world not our own.

And that's the end of the introduction. It doesn't sound like the introduction to a game in which we should see the in-game stories as social tools used by the scheming, envying characters; it sounds like the introduction to a game in which we should see the in-game stories as offering an opportunity of escape and, perhaps, even redemption from their schemes and envies.

If that is the way to achieve the most satisfying play, I am willing to accept that the stories are merely social tools, the weapons used by the characters to achieve their ambitions. But Meguey's intentions seem to have been different; and I wouldn't want to miss out on that aspect of the game. Meguey?


What happened to Hasad? Good question. As I said, he achieved his ambition, and kissed the favoured musician. The eunuch achieved his ambition, which was to humiliate Hasad. And the favoured musician achieved her ambition, which was to be chosen as his first wife. However, Eva and Annette managed to tell their 'epilogues' in such a way that it was not established but nevertheless very strongly implied that Hasad would be beheaded by the sultan... (kissing the sultan's new wife is never a good idea, and it doesn't help when she screams "Behead him!"). That's what happens when you play with two women who enjoy teaming up on you, I guess. (Said with a smile; everything happened in good fun.)


As to G/N, I think we played the game with a definite Gamist agenda. Everyone tried to get as many dice as possible, and we were playing to win. (Though not necessarily to make the others lose.) So I think we are on the same page regarding the game.


@ Emily

I think we only rolled a die once, and resolved the rest by direct GM fiat. Do you think that had an adverse effect on play? It seemed pointless to declare outcomes and roll a die when (a) if the player characters are interested in the outcome, it stands to reason that the GM simply tells the story in the way is most to his advantage, and (b) if the player characters are not interested in the outcome, well, nobody really is. Nothing depends on the outcome.

I'll tell you more about the stories we told, but that will be either later this afternoon or tomorrow. (I'm running out of time.) (Nathan, I'm also skipping your post now, but will return to it.)


@ Meguey

We did use the Ambition-blocking rule in the first round, when Eva and Annette both spent a die in order to lower my Ambition from 9 to 5. If they hadn't done that, I might have won in the first round. But in the second round everyone had more or less the same chance of achieving his/her ambition, and in those circumstances it didn't seem to be tactically advantageous to lower someone else's ambition.
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lumpley
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« Reply #7 on: September 10, 2006, 05:16:51 AM »

Hey Victor.

Here's my advice for next time.

1. As GM, don't play to 8 dice unless you have to. If you take an early dice lead, end the story coherently as soon as you have the chance. If you end your story having won 5 dice while I've won 2 and Mitch has won 1, you're substantially ahead. Whereas, once you hit 8 dice, either you're going to give us more dice without winning any more yourself, or you're going to throw a die away to avoid it - there's no good choice.

Tactically, 8 dice provides a maximum length for stories, not a minimum.

2. That should take care of your "I can win in two turns" problem. (The answer is, yes, you can, but if you do, so will everyone else, because you gave them disproportionately many dice. Which is indeed how your game went.) But sure, try playing to ambition 10 and freedom 14, or 8 and 11, or whatever seems long enough. 5 and 7 worked for our games - and I'll stand by them as the right numbers generally - but it doesn't break the game to play to more.

3. I think (disagreeing with Ron, maybe) that the game offers solid opportunities to get exactly what you hoped for - a real story with real protagonists. When I've played, that's what I've gotten, and any given one of the stories might have turned out to be about redemption. However, and it's a big however, you don't get a story about your character's redemption just by wanting one. Moreso than most games, 1001 Nights never guarantees that your character is going to turn out to be a protagonist. If it guarantees that there will be one (and I'll look forward to discussing this with you, Ron, after you've played some more), nevertheless it leaves it up in the air who the protagonist will be. It might be the sultan!

-Vincent
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: September 10, 2006, 06:54:23 AM »

My thoughts do not require either Challenge or Submission. Please see the qualifiers in my first post. I wrote them for a reason.

Best, Ron
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Meguey
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« Reply #9 on: September 11, 2006, 02:39:57 PM »

We did use the in-game stories mostly as social tools for the player characters. But I had - and still have - the idea that the game is also meant to deliver fun and entertaining in-game stories. Observe the following text from the Introduction:

Quote
(First, a long paragraph about everything that was fun in reading the tales from 1001 nights: magic and colour and sensual language and desert oases and caravans and whatnot.)

That is what this game is all about.

What we make 'other', we find easy to dismiss or abuse. What we try to see as 'just the same', we risk making colourless and bland. We need the exotic, the fantastical, to lift us out of ourselves, out of our everyday experience. We need to delight in what is not familiar, exploring it for what it is - a strange and wonderful world not our own.

And that's the end of the introduction. It doesn't sound like the introduction to a game in which we should see the in-game stories as social tools used by the scheming, envying characters; it sounds like the introduction to a game in which we should see the in-game stories as offering an opportunity of escape and, perhaps, even redemption from their schemes and envies.

If that is the way to achieve the most satisfying play, I am willing to accept that the stories are merely social tools, the weapons used by the characters to achieve their ambitions. But Meguey's intentions seem to have been different; and I wouldn't want to miss out on that aspect of the game. Meguey?

The last paragraph of the introduction, in fact, most of the introduction, is about our need as people for the exotic. Not the Courtiers need. Although I see the logical extrapolation. My intent, and I hope this is more clear, is that players use the Stories as social tools, and also create fun, entertaining, tragic, beautiful, engaging coherent Stories. If the Story is non-sensical and disjointed, that, to me, is like a Once Upon a Time game being choppy because someone was just trying to get through their hand, instead of working to make a true story.

Also, the game has pretty heavy GM fiat in the Stories - if an interest is declared, that's a great indication of where to go, but it does not make it so. I have a question, as well: did people resolve their own interests? That's a place I feel it's not clear - don't resolve your own interests.
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