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[It Was A Mutual Decision] [Forge Midwest] Scared by rats

Started by GreatWolf, April 26, 2007, 12:12:41 AM

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So, yeah, I'm cross-posting this from another forum.  I figure that it's still my writing and, honestly, I'd like to get a conversation started over here.  So, here goes....

"It Was A Mutual Decision" scared me, but I wanted to play. In fact, it was one of the games that I specifically wanted to try out at Forge Midwest. So I played

The game is really well done. The were-rat angle is particularly fascinating. As Ron notes, it is a distancing mechanism. However, it's rather difficult to get one of the characters to become a were-rat. I know; I was trying! So, instead, what you get is a mechanic that tempts the players to dehumanize their character. At the same time, the gender swap (where the guys play the girl and the girls play the guy) encourages empathy with both characters. On the one hand, you want your own character to do well, but your common experience is more likely to line up with the other character.

So, from a design perspective, it was quite clever.

And I found it very unsettling to play.

Now, I need to say that I've never gone through a break-up like that which is depicted in the game. So, as I was playing, I was poking at the built-in assumptions of the game, comparing it to some of my friends' experiences. And, sad to say, I think that the game maps quite well to those experiences. So that was part of what made it unsettling.

Honestly, another part of what made it unsettling was my lack of close connection with the folks at the table. As a result, I was nervous about where the game was going to go. For myself, there were some Veil issues that I was concerned about. We didn't really breach my Veils (except once), but I found myself a bit on edge in case it did happen.

But, more significantly, there was another player who appeared to me to be increasingly disturbed as the game went on. There were several times that I was afraid that she was going to burst into tears. Honestly, when I figured out that I couldn't get my were-rat result out of the game, I immediately began to try to navigate towards whatever happy ending we could get out of the game, for her sake. I was afraid that a bad ending would have broken her. This is the sort of thing that I'd feel more comfortable doing with people that I actually know.

At the same time, when we actually pulled off a happy ending (more or less), the relief was incredible. When Ron started the applause at game end, it dispelled all the tension just like that. (Aside: I'm guessing that he did that deliberately, for just that reason.  Care to confirm or deny, Ron?)

So, it was an uncomfortable experience. At the same time, I walked away with a deeper understanding and empathy for people in these situations. And surely that's a good thing.

But would I do it again? I'm really not sure.

So, yes, Ron, I would agree that it is your edgiest game.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


As the player in question (and I thank Seth for his kindness and consideration), I was more angry than about to cry... but it was because it seemed like the game was sliding into a game of domestic violence.  I have... baggage.  I'm also cursed with a face that reveals *everything* I'm feeling, and not necessarily accurately.

That said, I found the game intriguing, and would like to try it out with my local gaming circle.  It was... enlightening.

Jae Walker


I thought the game was a good experience. I've been through breakups myself but felt more distanced from the game in spite of that - more like I was watching/creating an interactive movie while working with the game.

Really what I think I liked about the mechanic was joint ownership of the characters.  Getting to share your ideas with other players at the game table, so that everyone on your side takes responsibility for what the character does, I feel, made me more open to express ideas than it would if the character's fate was only in my hands.  Sharing the character made me less afraid to do interesting things or make interesting suggestions; since the mechanic involves a little brainstorming in the team, good ideas survive and bad ideas are forgotten, so there's less worry than I had feared that you might embarrass yourself with a bad idea.

I would've been equally happy with a were-rat result but liked the way the game concluded rather happily for our group, all the same.  For anyone who wasn't there, it seemed like both of our characters were on their way to developing new relationships. (Would they be better? Who knows... but the game ended on a high note at least.)

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Jae, remember our conversation about the difference between I Will Not Abandon You and No One Gets Hurt? You described how your group uses safe-words, which is a perfect example of the latter. My little love-and-rat game is definitely pitched to the former.

Now, that said, narration is always in the group's hands. No one can out-and-out announce a violent action within the story, or any action, unless the group playing that character owns it. The only thing that's not consensus-based is using black dice - and even that doesn't dictate how their effects get narrated in.

All that leads to my confidence during play that your real concern about domestic violence in the story was valid as a concern (i.e. emotional issue), but that the game itself and the dynamics of the rules would not, in fact cannot, trap you as a person into a game/story about something you don't want to see or imagine. And as you indeed saw, those rules kept humming along, with no need for anyone to protect or save you (or for you to save yourself or to escape from the game), and it worked out fine. In my eyes, that's the best - actually to raise the issues and to see them resolved for these fictional people, rather than to avoid them.

Seth, I think it's worth pointing out that "gee, here's a rule, I think I'll push it to see where it goes" is all well and good - but not when it's disconnected from participating in the SIS. We weren't playtesting. You were expected to be 1/5 of Steph, not Seth-who-pushes-rules-buttons. And again, I'm proud of the game mechanics and dynamics themselves which made it clear to you, pretty quickly, that unless you got engaged in the story, your button-pushing would prove a source of genuine human pain to another person at the table.

I liked Steph. I've liked every character I've helped to play in this game. Steph was a down-to-earth person; I thought of her as "a strong-backed woman" and found myself pushing out the muscles of my back as I played or discussed her with my partners.

Now, here's the neat part - Seth, when you were going for black dice "just to see what happened," then by definition, you were turning Steph into a bit of a bitch. Or bringing in a side of her, or a set of things she'd potentially do or tap into, that the rest of her (i.e. me and the other guys) were less willing to do. So instead of that creating conflict among us, it only meant that Steph herself was a person whose darker side or bad behaviors tended to swim up out of nowhere and surprise even her. Which is often how it feels in real life, you know? So I liked it, too.

It was a fun game! As usual, I liked the dialogue and identification and chit-chat across the teams even more than within them. I really liked the way Terry would narrow her eyes (as 1/3 of the guy) and say something like, "That's not enough," when arriving at a conflict for us to cope with in the During phase, because she was quite irked with whatever Steph had done or how she had reacted to something. She was really into playing him and sympathizing with the famous-blog aspiring writer guy, dealing with (as he saw her) pushy and penny-pinching girlfriend.

Yeah, it was a nice story, too. No one died, no one turned into a were-rat, no one really hurt anyone - merely a couple of people struggling through one another's feelings as they both became professional writers, and how they had a relationship along the way that just didn't work out, but also how both of them were OK with that, eventually.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

I recommend checking out the thread Seth referenced: Best game I played that tackles gender issues. John's initial post expresses the love and fun we experienced in the game that is not apparent from Seth's re-posting of his reply to it.

Best, Ron

(edited in much later: clicking on the link gets you a "not found" message at Knife Fight, but you can see the thread if you persist and sign in)


Hmm.  I certainly wasn't trying to be a griefer, and I hope that the rest of the table didn't take me as such.  But I think that I need to clarify something.

I wasn't pushing rules buttons just to see what would happen.  I was trying to get a were-rat result in the game, because I wanted to have a were-rat in the game.  Now, that's a function of what was interesting to me about the game.  You might be in a relationship...with a were-rat!  Hilarity ensues.

Now, that's not actually how the game works.  However, having never read the rules and not knowing anything about the game aside from "You might be dating a were-rat" and "You play on teams", I was actually trying to engage in the SIS by pursuing what was interesting about the game to me, while trying to be interesting to the rest of the table.

So then, as the game went on, the mechanical aspects of the game became clearer to me, and the cost of getting a were-rat into the game became apparent.  This isn't really a "romantic comedy" game; it's a very serious game.  I think that the switch flipped somewhere about the time when Steph and Stanley were fighting about flowers.  When Steph's stat flipped from "Stubborn" to "Cunning", I thought, "Ah.  That's how that works."  And then, mentally, I nodded.  "Yep.  That's appropriate."  It fit with my image of the worst parts of Steph:  controlling, kind of bossy, manipulative.  Things began to click in my head.

Then, when we entered the "During" phase, everything connected.  I could continue to try to get my were-rat result, but hilarity would not ensue.  The descending Relationship value was obviously a bad thing, even though I didn't yet know exactly what it meant, and I thought, "We need to get out of this as fast as possible."  Drawing on black dice wouldn't help us escape the "During" phase.  When I say "us", I mean the characters and the group itself.  Did we really want an extended During phase?  No way!  I didn't want Steph and Stanley to keep limping along the way they were.  So we needed to wrap things up quickly and escape the awfulness of the "During" phase.  And, thankfully, that's what we did.

So, yeah, the game quickly revealed its true nature, and so I began to pull in a different direction.

At the same time, I do tend to approach first games of anything as experimental.  The mechanics are tools, but I can't really know what they do unless I've already read the rules or have an opportunity to try out their effects in play.  Once I know how they work, I can better work within the SIS to collaborate effectively.

Finally, I do stand by my personal assessment of the game that we played. I'm not saying that it was BadWrongFun or anything or anyone dissed me at the table or somesuch thing.  Rather...hmm.  I think that it's like this.  In general, I mostly enjoyed the experience of play, but my post-game reflection on the game was deeply troubling to me, as I explain above.

And maybe that's the best way to put it.  I would gladly game again with every player around that table.  The camraderie was high.  We laughed together.  We hurt together.  We overcame together.  It was a bonding experience.  I'd love to do it again...with some other game.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards


I was going to ask you about the "troubling" or "disturbing" part, actually. You've mentioned it, but I don't really know what you mean. What was disturbing, or troubling upon reflection?

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on April 26, 2007, 11:50:20 PM
I was going to ask you about the "troubling" or "disturbing" part, actually. You've mentioned it, but I don't really know what you mean. What was disturbing, or troubling upon reflection?

There are two parts to this answer.

Part one is that the game was pushing buttons of players at the table who I didn't know.  Having some exchange with Jae, both here and on Knife Fight, has alleviated my concerns in this regard.  I also had to leave pretty soon after the game, so I don't know if there was more debriefing after I was gone that might have addressed my concerns sooner.  But, when I walked away from the table, I was sure that we had strayed onto dangerous territory with her, making the experience a painful one for her.

Here's my analogy.  When I was much younger (say, five or six years old), I went for a ride on a kiddie roller coaster.  It was really small, but it made the circuit several times.  However, they stopped after the first go-around to let off another kid who was scared.  I wasn't really sure if I liked this roller-coaster, but, I figured, I can punch out whenever I want.  They let this kid off.  They'd let me off if I wanted to get off.  So I went around again.  Now I'm sure; I want to get off.  But now I can't.  I'm stuck on this ride and it's going faster and faster and I'm scared that we're going to crash....

To this day, I cannot enjoy thrill rides.  I have tried a couple of times since then, but each time I have the same experience:  I'm trapped in a dangerous place, and I can't get off.

From where I was sitting, that's what I saw on Jae's face.  Apparently I was wrong, and I'm very glad that I was wrong.  But when I left the table, that's what I carried with me.

Part two is simply connected to the structure of the game.  As I mentioned, I've never been in a break-up like we were gaming through.  Rejection, sure, but not a break-up.  I've also not read the rules of the game, so I didn't know where all this was going.  So, over and over, during the game, I'm looking at the characters on the white board and I'm thinking, "We're killing them."  So I start whacking at the game's assumptions about break-ups.  But as I thought about it, especially in light of some situations that I've seen, it all made a lot of sense.  Those assumptions are pretty bleak, especially in a context where the relationship cannot be saved.  This relationship is doomed.

Now, it's funny, because, as I type this, I'm thinking about Polaris, which also is about doomed characters.  I guess, in part, when I've sat down to play Polaris, I've known from the beginning where the game's arc goes, so I can begin to plan for it.  Also, I will admit that Polaris is a bit further removed from "reality".  It Was A Mutual Decision is all about reality...well, except for that were-rat bit.

Except, this.  In Polaris, your death can have meaning.  In It Was A Mutual Decision, the death of your relationship has no meaning.  All that you have left is how you pick up the pieces afterwards.  And this, after spending most of the game playing out the death of what was, at least at one point, a beautiful relationship.  Actually, it's a bit worse.  It's not just that this relationship died.  I killed it.  At the beginning of the game, I looked at these two happy characters and said out loud, "We're going to break them."  And then we did.  They were doomed from the start.

Even at the end, I didn't necessarily feel like we had accomplished a happy ending.  Rather, I felt like we had dodged a bullet somehow, that it could have been much worse but we had managed to evade a disaster somehow.  But that's not a really happy ending for me.

I wanted some possibility for redemption.  All I felt that I got was survival.

Does that explain it, Ron?

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards

Yeah, that explains it.

However, the only thing that is guaranteed to be broken in this game is the relationship itself. The characters do not have to die, be traumatized, behave terribly badly, or anything else, except as the real people at the table want them to. It is only the relationship which is doomed, nothing else.

The game says, if a romantic relationship fails, it is not necessarily and always a human disaster. That's not Premise, it's foundation. Now, on that foundation, the systemic question is how much self-demonization is involved in finally coming to admit that, or even, does that self-demonization swirl up and drown the question? If the relationship ending must be a human disaster (in one's mind), then someone has to be a real shit, right? The betrayer, the bad person? It must be you! Oh, it's not? Well, then it must be me!

It surprises me that you don't find meaning in their breakup, or see it merely as a survival tale. Both characters (and a third) have found happiness in a way which they never dreamed. Stanley, Steph, and (the stripper/grad student, Victoria, what that her name?) all discovered they could be real writers. They ended at different stages of the process, but they weren't competing about it or putting it down any more. Without the breakup, Stanley would have remained a useless blogger and Steph would have remained hoisting boxes and filling out manifests until she retired.

We participated in a blindingly inspirational story, as I see it - the birth of at least one author, and strong signs of the gestation of two more. If Steph and Stanley don't hate one another and/or themselves because of the breakup, why should we mourn that relationship, now? It's their business.

I liked both characters to start; we all did. Halfway through, the absolutely crucial comment emerged, from Amanda, I think: "I'm not sure I like them any more." That's important in the game, because group has to work up from there to discover the people who aren't defined by the relationship, inside it, struggling to get out as the relationship dies around them. For me, Stanley's turning point - when I started to like him after the breakup was under way - was when he and the stripper/grad student went on their date, and he was such a gentleman. Steph's turning point, again, for me and in that particular way, was when she honestly cried to Stanley's mom even though her worse side was manipulating Stanley by doing so.

I look forward to your reading the text. It's explicit about this and other features.

Best, Ron


You know what?  I think that it came together in my head.

It Was A Mutual Decision isn't about making the story of a doomed relationship.  It's about making the story of two people in the context of a doomed relationship.  The relationship is "simply" the motor that drives the story; it's not necessarily the focus of the story.  And, to quote you:

QuoteThe game says, if a romantic relationship fails, it is not necessarily and always a human disaster.

I can agree with that.  Some people weren't meant to be together, and it's better for both of them if they accept that and move on.  However, a parting of the ways needs to be clean.  If there is still mess lying around, then, to the degree that it remains, it is a human disaster.

So Stanley, Steph, and Justina (I think that was her name) discovered they could be real writers.  I look at that and say, "So?"  Sure, that's an accomplishment.  But does that overwhelm the fact that Steph was manipulative, pushy, and demeaning towards Stanley?  Or that Stanley was dishonest towards Steph and ultimately a two-timer?  Did they ever deal with the fallout of those choices?  I didn't see it happen "on screen", and so, for me, the story is incomplete.  Any personal triumph that may have occurred is still overshadowed by these unconfessed evils perpetrated towards each other.  There was no forgiveness, nor was there any justice.  I needed those things to have occurred to really be able to embrace this story as having a happy ending.

Now, I don't know if that means that I'm questioning the underpinnings of the game.  Honestly, I rather suspect that I'm not.  I would be very interested in checking out the game text at some point to see what it says about these things.

But, I think that comprehension has dawned for me.
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


Oh, just a couple more words, especially directed to the audience of this thread.  (Ron, I know that you are already in tune with what I'm about to say.)

I want to make clear that my comments aren't criticisms of the game.  Rather, this sort of conversation is a form of post-game reflection.  Ordinarily, it would be a face-to-face conversation.  My guess is that, if I hadn't left the con immediately after this game, Ron and I might have had this conversation there.

The reason that I'm mentioning this at all is that I think that the practice of post-game reflection and discussion among the players is a good practice to encourage.  By considering the story that we have created together and our individual reactions to it, during in the midst of creation and at the end, we can come to know and understand ourselves and each other better.  So, an actual play thought from this thread:  consider having a debrief at the end of your roleplaying sessions, and particularly at the conclusion of a story.  Then you too can have conversations like this one!

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown


I need to play this game, I think.

Since I got divorced about a year and a half ago, and my player group also comprises the support group for both myself and my ex during the divorce and everything leading up to it... yeah. I'm never going to play it with them. Just wouldn't be fair.  Or comfortable.  Or even good-uncomfortable.

Ron, I should have taken you up on your invitation.  I'm kicking myself now.
Doyce Testerman ~
Someone gets into trouble, then get get out of it again; people love that story -- they never get tired of it.

Nev the Deranged


This was my second game of IWAMD, I played last Forgecon too. I have yet to get anyone else to play, the one time I thought I had it cinched, it turned out one of my prospective players had just gotten through a rough divorce, so the game was DOA. Alas.

I really, really, really like this game. I have been thinking about that, and a big part of it is because it's short. I liked playing Primitive, and TMW, and whatever else I played that weekend, but every one of them, even the playtests, left me wanting to know WHAT HAPPENED??

IWAMD has an ENDING, that can be gotten to in a couple hours, that engages a solid four to six or more people in a fun way that is both social and structured- the table chatter sort of blends into the game chatter, so it's not distracting to the game-focused, but still lets the socially-focused get it out of their system without interrupting.

So there's that.

I was going to say more, but I don't really know how to express it without seeming like a jerk, and I don't think it would contribute to the discussion. So I'm done.

I am definitely going to try pitching this to a different group of friends who are all writers and actors... they have a dim view of role playing games in general, and I'd like to show them it's not all "my half-orc thief tries to pick the king's pocket" and such that they've described to me. I think IWAMD stands a good chance at that, along with possibly Bacchanal, and maybe later Polaris.


I think by the end, I liked the characters again! It's just hard, as Ron said, to see someone as seperate from the bad things they might do in a breakup situation, where as humans we aren't at our best.

The "Thrill ride" analogy above is interesting.  I love thrill rides myself. But to me the thrill ride or "risky part" of roleplay isn't so much the game itself, but the initial act of sitting down to play an unfamiliar game.  I actually think the part to me that feels "riskiest" is character building, because I'm put on the spot to come up with some kind of great idea... and, well, I'm the sort of player (like Jae) who can't come up with a brilliant idea right off the cuff for a character, especially with an unfamiliar setting and system, and prefer to develop in play.  For convention one-shots I'm happiest if I get a pregenned character rather than having to do some kind of quick generation, because that way I know I'll be handed a character that's got some plotwise/personality reason to be involved in the scenario and will be moderately effective in it.

In that sense, IWAMD was surprisingly comfortable, not just because I could share in the process of creating a character (which took some creative burden off of me personally while allowing input and building a cool character overall), but because the characters did develop as they went instead of being all out on the table at once. Indeed it's part of the point of the game.