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[Nine Worlds] The Anvil of Dike

Started by Harlequin, October 26, 2007, 11:01:48 PM

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"For truly the injustice of him who has unjustly transgressed the sovereign majesty of Zeus lies on the ground trampled under foot. The anvil of Dike (Justice) is planted firm. Aisa (Destiny) fashions her arms and forges her sword quickly, and the famed and deeply brooding Erinys (Fury) is bringing the son into our house, to requite at last the pollution of blood shed long ago." – Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers

This is the key quote, for me, off of which I'm hanging the campaign.  Nine Worlds, biweekly, four players plus myself as GM.  What follows is a summary of chargen and first session.  Players are myself, James Brown (blankshield), Fox West, Thea Sack, and my wife Star.

We have some unusual constraints.  For one thing, between Star & I and James and his wife, we have a total of seven kids seven-and-under draggin' peoples' schedules down.  Sessions tend to start late (post-bedtime) and run short (kids that young don't sleep in).  We're starting to adapt to this.  One adaptation, particularly observed with Star, is that in addition to the regular sessions, we like to preserve the option to play "catch-as[-catch-can]", ad hoc with one or two players.  This necessitates some tweaks to many setups, including Nine Worlds' – I'll get to those later.  (This, by the way, is a phenomenon I'd like to discuss more at length; some games do okay on this arrangement, some thrive, and some die a painful death.  Since I vowed at the altar to tell story for milady 'til death do us part, and this is her favorite style, I feel it obviously warrants study purely on its academic merits alone.)

As collective style and setting go, we established that the game would center on a common journey/quest, and the PCs would be shipmates.  I've played "open secrets" games and I've played "keep secrets" games, and find both versions useful; since this game uses a mix of both, and I'd like to encourage my players to read this thread, I've tucked the spoilers away behind this link so that those of my players who want to be surprised will in fact be surprised when things come out in play.  I gave a short briefing on style and dynamics, and have discussed the game individually with each player to reinforce this, centering on this point:

Nine Worlds reads, to me, like a game which is designed to be gamed.  The reward systems are there for a reason.  So out front, on the table, I want all my players to be aware that not only are they not "pushing the social contract" if they try to use the mechanics to their utmost advantage, but they are in fact playing the way I want to see us all playing this game.

There's not a lot of that in this first installment, but there's some, and what there is points to some interesting questions about autonomy in a game of this type, and to some points where two of my campaign goals conflict with each other.  More on each as it comes.

So – The Anvil of Dike – Player Characters

Noah Nikomedes (Arete 6 / Hubris 3; Chaos 2, Cosmos 0, Metamorphosis 5, Stasis 2) – Fox West
Acquire leverage over Captain Trim (see spoilers) so I can keep my hand (4)
Repay debt to Helios (2)
Get the Chorus off Sol (3)

Noah is a gambler, a dilettante, born wealthy on Sol.  He's got an expensive classical education at the very best schools the Nine Worlds has to offer; I drove this home by suggesting that Noah probably speaks five languages fluently, plays four instruments, and can extemporize epic poetry in his sleep.  His initial let's-show-you-the-system conflict pitted him in a high-stakes card game against an unknown stranger, ending peculiarly – he's unsure whether he won or lost, and if he lost he owes the stranger his right hand, but was (for nothing?) given six months' respite before revealing that one last card, and the keys to the strangers' stakes – an aethership – in the meanwhile.

The Chorus is his idea, a weird take on a greek chorus adapted to the setting; it's like a collision between Channel Five News and a barbershop quartet.  He wants to get them off Sol because the wasting plague has him spooked.

"Xerae" (see spoilers) (Arete 6 / Hubris 3; Chaos 2, Cosmos 3, Metamorphosis 3, Stasis 1) – Thea Sack
Locate the Golden Fleece (4)
Delay discovery of my identity (6)
Obtain leverage over Noah (1)
Obtain leverage over ____ (TBD) (1)
Locate my parents (1)

Xerae's background is a spoiler, and the other players have figured that much out already, they just don't know what it is.  Ostensibly, she's onboard ship because she is a famed Martian marine, veteran of the land war on Jupiter, the aethersea battles of the mid-war, and highly decorated in the reconquest of Mars.  Muse values represent points from her own intro conflict, which she won, prior to game start.

One of her Muses is of particular note.  "Delay discovery of my identity" [as long as possible].  We discussed this when she was coming up with the character concept, and decided that even though the muse could only be resolved in failure, that was okay – it would still drive her actions in the meanwhile, and provided fertile hooks to everyone on board with a functioning curiosity bone.  I'd be interested to hear Matt's reaction to this.  The leverage angles are variants on this theme.

Rue (Arete 5 / Hubris 4; Chaos 2, Cosmos 0, Metamorphosis 2, Stasis 5) – Star Newman
Get off Saturn (4)
Evade family nemesis (spoiler) (2)
Obtain mythic bow (1)
Find true love (2)

Rue's background is entirely a spoiler (do by all means follow that link), and in addition she was absent for the first session.  She's an interesting character, though, and should mix in well when we introduce her next session.

Her muses gave us quite a lot of trouble, and I'm still not happy with them.  Star doesn't like to pin down foreign elements right away; she likes to have time to get to know the universe first, before committing herself to things.  (She'd be right at home with Hero Wars' name-it-first-define-later style.)  So, for instance, her ambition to "find a mythic bow" is one that I'm not happy with at this time.  This provides an incentive to me and the other PCs to weave one in, so that she'll have a better-defined objective here; until that happens, it's almost a null muse.  The true love one is arguably worse, but in practice is Star putting her love of romance plots (ANY romance plots!) into muse form; it's a "hit me!" to me (or, it occurs to me, to any one else at the table).  Which is a very different kind of story seed than a Muse is intended to provide.  I'm hoping that once she's in the story and more comfortable with the setting, we'll be able to go back and tighten those up and/or invest her more in new ones which have more meat on them.

Romulus (Arete 3 / Hubris 6; Chaos 0, Cosmos 2, Metamorphosis 4, Stasis 3) – James Brown (blankshield)
Prove that I am better than Remus (4)
Seeks evidence of his sister Agatha, kidnapped by Daedalus (3)
Get on _______ (TBD)'s good side.  (2)

Romulus is an Atlantean, hired on as navigator.  James has his concept down as "Aspiring Pirate King" which is beautifully evocative.  His background other than that is pretty nebulous (unlike the others, he was statted on the quick, as we started the first session); we've established that he has both a twin named Remus, that he's not yet saying whether they're the "original" pair by that name or namesakes, and a missing sister.  I'm looking forward to seeing Romulus' background come into sharper definition as things from his past start to surface.  His muses are straightforward and have good pull.  The TBD in his and Xerae's muses refer to "someone onboard ship, but I want to see who's there first", which I'm fine with – I like to throw NPCs out and let players latch on to the ones they find interesting, and this is just mechanising that.

– The Anvil of Dike – First Session –

I opened the session with a summation of recent history (out of the rulebook) to frame events, and then narrowed in with a physical description of their ship: the lavishly outfitted Argos II, built like a bireme with two decks, one facing "up" and one "down", with sails on each, and one row of oars pointing "up" from the "down" deck and another vice-versa.  She has the characteristic upraised prow of Greek ships, except repeated sixfold in radial symmetry around the prow, which is a long narrow beaked ram out the center of it all.  A brief tossout of the crew NPCs I'd assembled, understood to be just a sampling of a larger crew, included Captain Trim (enigmatic, middle years, a bit feckless), Gaeolcus (a veteran sailor whose stats – they get to see all stats – are anomalously high), Kim (an impish sailor from a culture of biological androgynes located in Red Spot Directorate), Pallites (a lava-scarred marine from Venus), and Aigisthea (a shipwright / ship's carpenter from Argus Industries on Mercury).  A little "life onboard ship" to get everybody into the mood, a quick recap of recent recruitments including Xerae's on Mars and Pallites' on Venus, and then pulling into Eos Port to crack things off.

Trim gave a pep talk which left more head-scratching than pep.  They're searching (he asserts) for the legendary golden fleece, long missing from Iolcus.  They have come to Sol in search of an oracle, a profession which (esp. given Apollo's patronage of the type) is not unheard-of or even necessarily rare here on Sol, to seek advice on the next leg of their voyage.  He has a few leads himself, but... go to town, see what you can find, bye!

After a bit of initial legwork from Xerae and Romulus, Noah (a stranger to them) comes walking up the ramp.  Questioning of him is tame until... he shows the keychain.  Trim's cabin, the helm, the anchor locks, etc.  Chaos enters the discussion – what the hell's going on?  You won it in a card game?  Where's Trim?  Is he abandoning us?  Why?

A couple excellent conflicts play out before anybody even leaves the ship.  One has Romulus tossing Trim's cabin (mysteriously neat, today, where normally it's a firetrap), winning, and declaring that he finds a bundle of papers which he hides before the new captain(?) can see them.  New muse, "Unravel the meaning of the hidden papers", two points.  Nice.

Number two comes when I decide to pick up the pace and interrupt their dialogue with a visit from "Mitch" Pereles, an enforcer working for Helios, and a gang of his thugs.  Everyone's expecting some kind of conflict to erupt between him and Noah, but Xerae jumps in – suddenly this Martian "marine veteran" is haggling large amounts of cash, quoting black-market prices, naming names, and shushing Mitch when he seems to recognize her.  I think there was a conflict in the negotiations, but it was a minor one, basically settling advantageous/difficult terms on what was otherwise a rhetorically done deal.  They buy an extension, in exchange for a promised shipment of fancy guns, a sample of which Xerae apparently in her personal effects.

The real conflict comes when Mitch steps off the ship, satisfied.  Kim kicks it off from the rigging: "Okay, babe – what the Hades was that?  Who the hell are you?"  Xerae's fending it off, conflict opens.  Noah, now owing Xerae big for saving his ass (Xerae ticks off "Obtain leverage" muse), jumps in on her side.  James thinks about it for a minute, and then Romulus jumps in – versus everybody – with the stated goal of proving Xerae innocent to Kim, by way of finding Xerae complicit in his sister's kidnapping.  This is really interesting apart from the mess of adversaries, because of what it implies (and we rule on) about Muses and authorial control.  Think about it.  One, James brings in a Muse, not because it's obviously relevant to the conflict as posed, but because if he wins it's with the stated intent of tying another conflict to his muse.  Cool!  Two, James has just asserted the right to dictate truths about another PC's backstory should he win narration.  And, y'know, as far as I can tell, it's legal.  He can't kill Xerae, there are narration limits on that, but shy of that the narration rights in Nine Worlds really do appear to be that absolute.  We've done edgy mechanics before, but this change in control-vs-autonomy is thought-provoking in its simplicity and impact.

When the cards come out, however, Romulus is last – no narration, especially not over Xerae, means no dice.  Not even a hint of the proposed connection exists; it never even came up.  Noah beats Kim, Kim beats Xerae... so Noah allays Kim's suspicion with the mystical invocation "really, really, stinking rich" (as in, we will be, if we find and sell the Fleece), Kim remains suspicious but shuts up.  Thea fills in her TBD muse... dirt on that meddling androgyne is definitely target #1 for Xerae now.

Further discussion ensues, the chief interesting bit of which is that Fox suggests (outside of any conflict), and I back up, the idea that his Chorus should have the unexplained and not-needing-explanation property that when singing all in concert, they have the same kind of "external viewpoint" that was the function of the classical Chorus – not that they see the future, mostly, but that they see the present.  Everybody likes this and he goes off to liberate his pals hoping to riff on this to direct the next step of the quest.  (The idea of the characters listening to the chorus is a neat PoMo kind of thing if you think about it in context of the classics.  I think I want to do more with this later, it's stylish.)

Expecting this, I've set Fox up what he declares "a soap opera of my very own!" in the muses of his chorusmates.  Conflicts ensue: he convinces their soprano/reporter addict that she'll be able to get her fix enroute; he convinces her emotionally abusive bass/anchorman boyfriend to care about her enough to come; then he runs up against their alto/composer, who he finds sitting beside her young son.  In his bed in a plague hospital.  Conflict with her kicks his ass.  He just can't do it – can't come up with anything that out-argues the simple desperation of a woman sitting in one of the best medical facilities in the Nine Worlds, looking at him with haunted eyes.

Onboard ship, Romulus dives into the papers, looking for clues on what Trim's up to here.  I declare conflict with "the owner of the papers" and draw a frickin' mittful of cards.  James is game, but gets his ass handed to him in turn.  In my narration, I describe him finding ... something ... in those papers, a pattern in apparent chaos, and being unable to put his finger on it, for now... but of it settling into his hindbrain and pulling the covers over itself, to come out more later.  Papers' owner ends up with a five-point muse to "Push Romulus all the way to the end of the riddle-path."  It's like chess – here's James' narration, with uncertainty left open, and a muse to boost his chances when it unfolds later.  Here's a later conflict, shifting the uncertainty one step further, with the advantage slewing the other way.  Either of us could have wrapped it up, but neither is interested in doing so; it's like we're sculpting what will end up there, gradually, though whittling away only small amounts of uncertainty and opening up new space as we go.  Neat.

As the session wraps up, postgame chat turns to the question of whether Xerae's "Delay discovery" and/or Noah's "Get the Chorus off Sol" have been resolved as failures.  The conflict surrounding Xerae's was understood to be about whether they found anything out, not whether they were suspicious at all; Thea eventually makes the call that no, even though they know there's more here than meets the eye, they've seen nothing yet that implies that she's less than she claims to be, so she's leaving it open for now.  Similarly, Fox decides that even though Noah failed, he's not giving up on it – and James and Thea are looking at one another and visibly thinking "single mother, can't weigh much - you hold the arms, I'll get the legs".  I get the feeling that we're not dealing with a pair of characters who believe a lot in absolute morality, here.  Next session should be ... interesting.

Highlights in terms of points for discussion:
1) Muses, even though the manner of defining them is well-explained, imply a style of play (lots of Director stance up-front before game has developed) which may not suit all players.  We'll see if this is a big deal or not as play unfolds.  A compromise version, where a muse is left partially TBD among a defined set of targets, seems to work well to bridge this gap.
2) Muses which can only end if they fail, but which inspire action until then, appear to work well – that one of Xerae's drove some of the best moments, and bids fair to continue doing so.
3) Holy narrative authority, Batman!  If I'm missing something in the rules which says "don't mess with other peoples' PCs using your narration", I don't think I want to hear about it.  I think we're basically finding out that with such a clause absent, this game has teeth right from day one.  I'm sure we'll be seeing this more.

Saved for later discussion:
Nine Worlds rewards conflict.  With Muse-increasing being where 90% of all Points are going, unless it kills you either you gain currency or your enemy does – there's not much personal downside.  I'm okay with that, it's what I want to encourage.  But this does possibly cause problems when combined with ad-hoc play, where one player may end up with noticeably different amounts of play time and thus conflict.  When combined with the explicit "to the victors go the screen time" functionality of the narrative authority, I'm a little worried that this may breed resentment, and would like to take action to fend this off before it can start.  I'm just not sure how.  As I say, however, that's a big discussion in its own right, and I may just take it to another thread... for now, let's keep things focused on the above points, all of which are interesting in their own right.


Nice! I love the chorus and the dual-decked Trireme. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

Your style of Nine Worlds play is a lot different from ours. I'm very curious to see how it comes out for you, particularly with the mix of open and closed secrets. Given that Nine Worlds allows players to grab a lot of narrative control when they win narration, are you concerned that people are going to narrate out other players' secrets before the reveal happens?

The style we follow in our group is that when a player has a secret with a particular reveal in mind, the secret is kept open. If something is kept closed, this is considered a wide open invitation for someone else to take the theme and run with it. The same goes with hanging muses like the epic bow. We've gotten some really great play out of this practice, though your mileage may vary.

Also, when you figure out the secret of balancing gaming and having small children, let me know so I can apply it as well!
"Come on you lollygaggers, let's go visit the Thought Lords!"


Quote from: Harlequin on October 26, 2007, 11:01:48 PMOne of her Muses is of particular note.  "Delay discovery of my identity" [as long as possible].  We discussed this when she was coming up with the character concept, and decided that even though the muse could only be resolved in failure, that was okay...

This can be gotten around by putting a conditional aspect to the Muse.  For example, "Delay discovery of my Identity until I am ready to move against New Sparta."  or "...until the crew will back my play."  That way, a victory is possible without the secret being kept.

Also, a suggestion for the "Mystic Bow" style of Muse.  Maybe restate it to say something like "Gain the Mystic Bow that Artemis promised me" or "Find the mystic bow the Oracle of New Crete told me I was destined to use". 

I like your mention of the HeroQuest idea of "name it before you know what it is".  Maybe a Muse of this school for the above would be "Delay discovery of my identity until I am secure and back at Pointsdown Docks."  That way, you have a second goal that the Muse can pump while maintaining secrecy as well.

Just some ideas....  Sounds like a GREAT game starting up there!
Judd M. Goswick
Legion Gaming Society

Ron Edwards


I wish I could bring more to this thread, but all I've got is unabashed admiration. That sounds great.

Well, maybe a thing or two ...

1. After a fair amount of play has gone by, and if it hasn't been derailed by child-rearing schedules, I'd really appreciate some discussion of how busy parents can still get some great role-playing into their lives. I'm especially curious about how the game itself does or doesn't facilitate success.

When we played Nine Worlds, a given session tended to have only a couple of rather complicated, rather crazy-quilt conflicts - or rather, we brought several conflicts to a head simultaneously, and then resolved them as one big whacked conflict, even if the characters were not in direct contact with one another and their conflicts were not necessarily related. How are conflicts (how they arise, how they are resolved) work out in your group? Small quick ones, or honking use-up-deck ones? One player-character at a time, or all of them at once? Lots of conflicts per session, or few?

2. I love the Chorus. I have a terrible desire to go even farther and make a Nine Worlds player-character who is, in fact, the Chorus. Who says the Chorus never has an agenda? Ha!

Best, Ron


Thanks, guys - good comments all.  Ron, our sessions have tended to be basically an even mix of tiddly little conflicts and massive ones (by count), which means leaning heavily by time towards the biggies.  About two per seems to be about right, depending on how much of the session is exposition and consensus stuff vs. how much is conflict.

I'm working on a post to follow this one which will recount sessions two and three.  I'll fork off that to a new thread with the thoughts about roleplaying with babies in tow - it's definitely an interesting and nontrivial issue!   But I wanted to say thanks first, since the session report may take me a couple of days to write up, depending on work.


(Or I could just get inspired and write fast.)

Session two – In which we contrast High Priests and the people to whom the gods really must listen

Xerae's player, Thea, was out of town for this session.  We started off with a couple of bookkeeping bits; first, Romulus took a stab at convincing the last chorusmember, but again the cards said that he had a snowball's chance in Athens, and she walked all over him.  I'm not even sure she said a single word, except perhaps, after hearing him out, "Get out."  Then we introduced Rue to the group.  This was mildly jury-rigged, but rested on an agreeably realistic meeting of similarly ironic wits between herself and Romulus.  It was fun but actually quite low-key; she ended up being hired (by Noah) for a generous wage, as a mercenary, despite being blindfolded, with no credentials or tests except the bow across her shoulder and one sidestep of a peevish spear from Pallites.  Force of personality, basically.  How she ended up on Sol to be hired there was the outcome of a couple of one-on-one sessions which I'll let leak out as the group discovers 'em.

Session really got rolling with the journey to Jupiter, to Iolcus, whence the fleece was stolen.  The mix of naval imagery and celestial beauty is one which gets me waxing poetic and I think everyone enjoyed the trip from sheer lyricism – a trait which we often overlook in the interests of egalitarianism and conflict, I think.  Writing games which promote beauty of expression is something we should really talk about more around here.  I am told that it's a big part of why I'm a popular storyteller, and it seems to put an interestingly shifted perspective on situations which would otherwise look like unqualified uses of Force on the gamemaster's part.  Nontrivial rhetorical question - is it still Force if everybody's spellbound and urging you on?

Anyway, in Jovian orbit, their odyssey is interrupted by a black arrowhead of a ship – Aegis customs officers.  I've given them (as a group) starting-PC-grade stats, maybe a little lowish on the Muses, which after even one prior session means they're just about everybody's bitch.  This is, incidentally, deliberate – it's an invitation to the players to step up with buy-in to the game and an opportunity to chip in.  A device which is very useful and I will definitely be using again... and the absence of which is also a device, as we'll note next session.  Not only do the customs goons get almost nothing (though they do manage to snag enough points from Romulus to acquire a two-point "Bring that arrogant cocksucker Romulus down"), but the PCs extract (and the players generate) substantial useful intel on their own.  Most notably, it turns out – per Star's insertion, I believe – that the ship Melpomene, captained by one Jason the Younger (a direct descendant), was here within the last couple of weeks.

They moor to a high tower over Iolcus, which is very old-fashioned and classical in style.  I've prepped three sets of tensions for their sojourn here, three Bangs, and they end up mostly ignoring two of these hooks, and going full-on for the third.  So the tension for rule of Iolcus, between the High Priest of Zeus for the area [Tychis, Power 4 (current 7, lock(2)), Talisman: Zeus' curse upon Iolcus] and the sickly king [Iocreon, Power 5 (current 1, lock(4)), shucks who coulda put that there?] is ignored, as is the risk of Aegis intervention at Tychis' behest if he's mishandled.  Instead, we get the madman, Marenus.

The PCs meet Tychis, who comes across as bookish, a history-buff windbag.  He shows them the shrine to Zeus where the Fleece hung during its time in Iolcus; the shrine is old, half the objects in it have their own fancy quasiGreek names, and – inexplicably and unexplained – it has a dirty, spitting madman chained up at the foot of its stairs.  Noah and Rue represent themselves as academics, and Tychis appears to fall for this line entirely, invites them to supper, tells them tales recent and ancient of the shrine, et cetera ad nauseam.  Later, Rue follows up on this invitation but spies about the house while waiting to be received, and overhears Tychis contesting authorities (as equals with only slightly different portfolios) with some Aegis agents, who obviously know something about the PCs' mission here.  She plays dumb and basically scene-frames past the dinner, wanting to get back and discuss this.  Noah does have an amusing sideplot here with being seduced by the Queen, but it's the furthest thing from conflict – he's all for it!

With Tychis judged untrustworthy, they decide to go give the madman's intriguingly cogent ramblings a hearing.  They head down in the middle of the night to look into it.  With many years' LARP experience playing one kind of crazy or another, I'm playing this to the hilt, dribbling snippets of real info (key suggestion: "You will go to a rock that was once a goddess") in between his pleas to "just go home, send me home, I'll go home" to New Mycenae in Hellas Basin on Mars.  And sly hints that he knows names, names of important people, you'll see...

...and eventually they push a little too hard and he flips.  It's nicely convergent, actually; they decide to push it to conflict resolution to get more meaningful intel out of him at the same time as I was about to push it to conflict resolution to get to the drama.  It's looking like he may actually be outmatched on the odds, until Romulus' approach – look deep into the crazy man's eyes and see the world through his perspective – triggers a Muse I'd given Marenus on a whim, "Drag some other soul into madness".  This puts him over the top, and when the cards come down, Marenus wins.  And his pleas to go home, and his hints of knowing names, converge... as he invokes first Euros, god of the East Wind, by his secret name, and then Cymopoleia, giantess (or nymph) of storms, by hers, beckoning them to take him home, Euros to hurl him out the airs of Jupiter and Cymopoleia to wash him ashore at his doorstep.

What this gets him is a hurricane.  As two humanoid shapes become apparent, the rising winds snap his chains and hurl him skyward like a rag doll... whilst devastating the shrine, the nearby countryside, and everything for many leagues around.  The PCs, as his cries began to ring out, had sensibly taken the precaution of running like hell (except Rue, who had stayed out of this phase of the conflict, IIRC), but this doesn't matter.  With seven Metamorphosis points, Marenus' storm sends the Argos II (a power-four Talisman which I've given Muses to make up for its absent and unspecified owner) crashing end-over-end across the countryside, and also drops a stone wellhouse on poor Noah's head, forcing them both to burn Muses to survive and leaving Noah comatose anyway.  The points that killed them get pumped partly into the stats of ruddy Euros and distant Cymopoleia, bumping them from power 7-8 to power 9-10, and partly into whimsy (bumping Noah's Hubris up to six after he bought it back to three with a Muse, after having been killed in it – iffy on the rules, but we were running wild by then and it totally worked for us).

We end the session there, with me declaring that this conflict ain't over, folks; Cymopoleia (Power 9, Chaos 6, "Destroy the Argos II (2)") stands on the distant horizon like a feminine ice shelf, and Eurus (Power 10, Chaos/Cosmos/Meta all 4-5, two relevant Muses) is standing simultaneously over both Romulus and Rue, his right hand outstreched and fingers spread grasping before their faces, roaring "You will render back to me my secret name – I will tear it forth!"  And... cut.

Session three – Of Storms and Poker Games

Thea is back this week, and is brought up to speed on what she missed; Noah's player (Fox) is deathly ill and not coming, but that's okay, he can just stay in his coma from last time, easiest absence I ever rationalized in my life.

We pick straight up with the conflict, of course.  Xerae's on board ship, and she and the Argos are contesting with Cymopoleia, as the latter attempts to destroy the ship and everyone on it.  Rue and Romulus are out by the shrine, as Euros reaches out to steal back what is his from their minds.

Here we have the opposite case to the customs agents scenario, and I touch on it explicitly as we're declaring muses (the players invoke just about every one they've got)... that I had thought about putting some low-point entities into the conflict, to help them out (by their very existence as possible foes and sources of points) against the big guns, but I'd had one insight which decided me against it.  There are lower-powered entities around they can use for this purpose... all they have to do is be willing to throw each other, or their shipmates, under the bus.  Xerae decides that that's an excellent point, and that she will achieve her goal of leverage over Kim by saving the latter's life during the tempest; this drags Kim in, vs. Xerae (Kim still has a Muse vs. Xerae as well) and also versus Cymopoleia, who isn't sparing anybody named in her half of the scene (but not bringing in NPC-versus-NPC unless invoked by players).  When the chips hit the table, it's Rue over Euros over Romulus, and the giantess over Xerae over Kim (and over the Argos II).

So, onboard the Argos, it's head-over-teakettle all the way, smashing the roofs off buldings and cracking the keel on oak trees bent double.  It's a low-points hand, though, and Cymopoleia only has enough to kill the Argos II (again), one left over for a "Destroy the Argos' survivors" because they're pissing her off.  The Argos II burns its second and last Muse, and the giantess isn't done.  Xerae does indeed haul Kim back onboard with a marlinespike, as the latter was about to go over the gunwales – or, more accurately, vice-versa.  Over near the shrine, Euros finds Romulus, ever practical and canny, feeling sincerely "dude, the secret name of an angry god is the last thing I need right now, I'm putting it here by the front door for you"... but Rue removes her blindfold, wind and dust obscures them, and when it clears Euros is toppling like a stone.  He's clearly not dead, she's using Stasis, but she's definitely declaring this half of the conflict done as they pick up their comrade and run to intercept the bouncing boat.

Second hand of this conflict is just the giantess (as expressed in the storm) versus everybody, but Xerae's also going to keep on after Kim (for the points) even in the midst of it all.  I don't honestly recall the exact lineup on the outcome, except that what it basically meant was that all of the people survived to walk away, but the nymph managed enough points to utterly and finally get rid of the Argos II for good, leaving it lying sideways, cracked in half, in the street, and – for good measure – opening up the skies to the aether for an instant and bringing down the lightning to finish it off.  And that Kim won over Xerae in their private little gig, which I thought about for a moment and played out thus – Xerae is narrowly missed by a sharpened spar; Kim is not.  The androgyne is pierced broadly through the shoulder, bleeding enormously, unconscious and being dragged from the wreckage.  Xerae's win got leverage; Kim's win gave her too much leverage.  We're done; Rue's player has, I believe, exactly four cards left in her deck.

We take this opportunity to declare all the nameless sailors dead along with the Argos II.  Only the named characters survive, and as they lick their wounds, they get into a somber discussion of where to go next.  "Steal the agents' ship" is one favorite, "steal the Melpomene" is another, and "reveal my identity by using my contacts to acquire one" is Xerae's possible contribution.  Where, before, they may have been in doubt about their mission, now there seems to be no doubt at all.  Excellent.  They end up deciding that, in each case, they need to get to a non-ruined city, and so take train (picture the Orient Express, in grecian style – Doric columns holding up oaken tables between cedar seats, marble arches along the sides of the cars...) towards Thessaly Minor, several hours inland.

While onboard the train, I inadvertently hand them the keys to the world.  It all begins with the simple, distant shout: "Show me your papers, citizen!"  The black chariot brigade is here, very possibly looking for them.  Conflict and buggery ensues.

The players have learned that when they oppose each other, as well as the bad guys, they tend to be able to bring in more of their Muses, get dirt on one another (especially in a situation like this one), and generally do better overall.  They use this trick now to spectacular effect.  The Aegis agents, once again, get nothing for their efforts.  The players, armed with a high Metamorphosis total for Romulus and a higher Stasis total for Rue, effect a careful allocation of the available points and reduce the hapless Aegis organization (local branch, anyway) to no Urges higher than 1, and then lock them down that way.  They have now officially rendered the Gestapo their bitch, and this – they realize – is the ticket.

So they declare conflict not over.  Not content with fooling and spoofing and canoodling the Aegis contingent on the train, they scene frame forward through an increasing series of corruptions, intertwined investigations, duelling questions and what-does-the-questioner-reveal sessions, to... a poker game.  High-level local agents on one side, and Rue, Romulus, and Xerae on the other.  The statistical neutering of the local Aegis gang, it becomes clear, expresses a systemic corruption problem which has long run deep into the core of the organization.  This poker game is the last stage of a bare-faced intrigue-fest pitting the players against the top self-interested parties left standing in the agency around here, and it's rapidly passing money as stakes and entering into the realm of personal secrets.  I incarnate one cunning Lieutenant Ebeon as a personality in his own right (same stats as the original un-neutered Aegis), just to give the bad guys a little more chance at the table... but it's still basically hopeless for them, and it's all about how much dirt on one another the PCs can obtain, and how many points (and in-game bennies) they can rape these gentlemen for.

By the end of it, Romulus has Xerae's real name (but no identity to link it to – yet), some hint of Rue's nature, or at least her perceptions, as definitively supernatural, and an Imperial shitload of money.   And the group, as a whole, has taken this Aegis branch for a ship (an impounded yacht), provisions, arms, maps, and every last inch of its pride.  They leave the poor Aegis locked down and hapless, just in case they might need to do this again later, and have at least one boosted and locked Urge each.

And now they're off... to find an island that was once a goddess.


These have been very fun sessions and it's definitely a good game.  Star comments that it doesn't tend to feed her primary urge in roleplaying, though – it doesn't support deep interpersonal character and relationship development, at least the way we're playing, simply because it so powerfully assists the creation of conflict and plot development.  This is an interesting thought and one which I plan to discuss with the gang – this is a taste thing, and if everybody's feeling the same way then I think we can all agree to back off a little, turn to our characters' voices more (instead of actor stance summations and scene frames), and so forth.  A balance which often lies too much the other way, in our games; even Star agrees it's refreshing to be so enabled with respect to plot, an area which normally (esp. when GMing) she has trouble getting a really good handle on.  But a balance which we'll be discussing nonetheless.

The potential of the system for injecting backstory into other players' tales remains, thus far, largely unexplored, although it has transpired that Xerae learned of the Argos II's visit (in time to impersonate the real Xerae) from Romulus' brother, who Rue seems to have a crush on, although Romulus doesn't know this.  So there's a certain amount of that sort of thing going on, but not a whole lot, simply because the story at hand has been sufficiently compelling that we've been busy with it.

As I was hoping, encouraging the players to game the system to the hilt is paying off by giving them control and pushing them to invent connections, insert Muses, and take charge via narrations.  They're still shy of actually doing the big-scope narrations themselves, mind you, preferring to outline what they want and then have me narrate it.  I think that's a combination of the hints of old-school GM-player relationship that still emerge from our gestalt, and an appreciation of my narrative style, on top of a reticence which I trust will fade as they get more used to the amount of control they've got.  This phenomenon, by the way, makes it feel like Nine Worlds may be a good recommendation for groups transitioning from more traditional styles and player-GM relationships towards the indie scene.  It handles a gradual increase in player authority and comfort level well.

The one downside I'm finding is that the reward mechanics' positive feedback loops do seem to have the same kinds of effects positive feedback usually does in nature - that is, bad ones.  James has been having poor card luck fairly often, and this (combined with a couple of muses which don't enter play as readily as others) has resulted in him winning very few of his conflicts thus far.  Looking at the character sheets, his (Muse + Valour + Pride) total is actually the second-highest in the group, which makes sense given that he's the only one to have not missed a session.  Rue's, however, with one missed session but a couple of one-on-one sessions under her belt, has skyrocketed - her (Muse + Valour + Pride) total is 33 to Romulus' 17.  This is what it's felt like in play, too... Star is consistently winning even over major NPCs, while the others are somewhat improved over starting PCs but not nearly as far.  In part this is because Star is more aggressive about bringing in Muses, and in part it's because even if she calls merely the same number of them, her Muses are (after just a couple sessions of positive feedback loops) on average twice as large as anyone else's.  This, combined with James' poor card draws, have left him ever so slightly tetchy (though some good draws during the poker game helped, I think), and I think I'm going to see if I can get Star's buy-in to some way of reducing the disparity somewhat.  I think she'll probably be amenable; I did discuss the risk of this problem with her when we started out.  The shipboard/odyssey format - enforcing proximity to one another - undoubtedly contributes to this, since they're continually comparing themselves against the same yardsticks and opponents.  I may focus more on things within the ship, to reduce this effect as well.

But that's a minor issue.  The "Muses + Valour (incl. valorous attribs) + Pride (incl Talismans)" total is a good metric, and one which I'll keep an eye on.  How hard it is to justify bringing in a muse will probably be inversely proportional, very roughly, to this measure.  That by itself may suffice.

Matt Snyder

(Scratches head.) How the hell did I miss this originally?!?

Fantastic stuff. I'm still chewing on it. Thanks for sharing this!
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra



Tony, the way we seem to be handling the closed secrets thing is working out where, frex, if I win a conflict where I (or my character) would get information, I would say "and I learn... what?" and hand narration to the 'owner' of the secret.

For open secrets, we're just running with those as we go, as with regular narration.  As another example, Romulus has implied that he's the Romulus of legend, and when (on the losing side of a conflict, having presented fake ID to the Aegis) forced, produced ID that named him as a citizen of Mars, and son of Ares.  But the actual truth of that is still up for grabs, having never been tagged in a conflict.

Regarding the card luck and such, a good part of it is just getting used to a new system, and adjusting to how it works.  The feedback loop issue is definately a factor, though.  As an example, in the second session, the conflict I lost trying to get the alto off of Sol.  I'd brought in a couple of muses, and didn't have bad cards; I just didn't have good</a> cards.  She out-reached me simply through draw strength, because her muses were pumped from beating Noah already on this.  And if someone had gone for a third try, they'd be even further behind the curve.

However, if I'd been paying more attention, or known a little more about how to make the system work with me instead of against me, I could have had a lot of options.  Enter Romulus into conflict with Noah; scene framing this to a public squabble on the deck of the Argos II could have given me easy tags to draw in all of my muses, pretty much.  Berate him for not trying hard enough, and not caring about his new ship or mission, and then, armed with those points, go after the Alto with much better odds.

The only system note that's still niggling at me is that points, at least so far, tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition.  In cases like the conflict with Cymopoleia, where she was opposing everyone, setting up sub-conflicts with each other or NPC's may gain us some narration, but mostly just adds fuel to the fire, and increases the risk of doing some serious damage.  In situations where the opponent is bigger than any of the PC's, you're kind of hosed, because you don't have time to set up pre-conflicts or sub-conflicts - odds are the big dog will win, and grab all the points.

I write games. My games don't have much in common with each other, except that I wrote them.


Session Four – A Little Honesty

In meta discussion before the session, I brought up the issue of Muse disparities, and also that I'd realized something about how we'd been handling them... we've been playing that what's necessary to bring in a Muse is that it pass a test of relevance and motivation, but but that upon reflection there's another side to it.  It's also a commitment to work it, not just passively but strongly, into the narration.  This is explicitly in part to make bringing in multiple Muses a more significant act, and partly to weave the Muses more aggressively into events.  Minor but possibly important for how well the system behaves for us in future; we'll see.

On our little yacht, and away from Jupiter proper, the question arises of where to go next.  The cryptic clue does not, by itself, mean anything to anybody; arguably Noah should have simply gotten the reference, but I had something classier prepped for him.  Noah's player had been given, with his permission, this snippet to recite on behalf of the chorus:

QuoteWeep, Melpomene, weep, for thy enemy,
Soul-destroying fast-flowing Lethe,
Hath borne away thy plangent memory.

Weep, Melpomene, O Muse of tragedy,
For fair Asteria, Coeus' pride,
Whose fear of the lust of the Lord of Oaths,
Mighty Terminus, King Zeus, defied.

Weep, Melpomene, sweetness of sorrow,
For forgotten pathos.  In winged form
Asteria cast herself into the waves
Became a stone, Delos named, and now
It seems her tale is lost.  Here sing it.

Here remember, and weep no more.

It worked okay.  Cheesy but mood-setting, I think.  I'd use the technique again.

(As an aside: I cannot recommend the resources at highly enough.  Puts all other online sources of Greek myth, and most of my printed sources as well, to shame.  Asteria/Delos' story is just one of many things I've used it for in this campaign, although the doggerel above is my own.)

Well, Delos is a name which Romulus, as an experienced navigator, knows; it's a barren island off in the trailing orbit of Saturn.  So they make their way there.  Enroute, a couple of interesting conversations arise, in parallel, with Romulus and Xerae coming to some kind of blackguards' entente (I missed most of the details) and swapping stories, while Rue was approached by Encareos about joining their little quartet, and they discussed art and commitment and suchlike with Noah for a while – not as deep as Romulus and Xerae's talk, but interesting nonetheless.  For the record, Rue agreed to give it a shot, but remains very skeptical.  They also chose a name for their new ship, a term Star picked out, some bit-part begat'ter from Homer whose name means "Unknown Name."

Frame forward to the approach to Delos.  It's a long way from anything and everything, drifting in the aether – a planetoid without signs of life.  As they draw nearer, spyglasses show it to be covered in hulks, remnants, shipwrecks... packed into little forests and hillocks, standing up like towers or lying like loam.  Age upon age of them.  No sign, oddly, that they actually crashed here... no bodies, no violence to the landscape or each other.  It's like this is where dead hulks go when the drama's done.  Their kitschy little yacht (quote: "Oh, and it's got a kitchenette at the back." "You mean a galley." "No, this is definitely a kitchenette.") approaches and even as they get close, there's no sign of life or habitation.

Then they spy a light.  Firelight or candlelight, in a window, high up in the topmost wreck of a local hill of rotting hulls.  As they approach, a female figure, backlit, sees them and makes gestures of welcome.  They moor the yacht and approach, climbing up to a door limned in the same light which is opened for them as they approach.

The shapely lass who greets them gives her name as Nausithuos; her stats list her as a daughter of Circe but she doesn't give her parentage here.  She offers them hospitality in an informal kind of way, seems mildly (but not hugely) surprised to see them here, and leads them up into her home, which proves to be a kind of hall roofed by a hull overhead and decorated – fairly nicely – with what is obviously found wealth; tapestries and weavings of varied origin and style, goblets of hammered brass, almost enough matching stoneware to sit their party of ten, and so forth.  There's a savory-smelling stew cooking on a tripod above the central fire; she brings out an amphora of fragrant golden wine – both a welcome change from ship's rations and Aegis-supplied beer.

After they've blunted their hunger and thirst, she takes a deep draught of her wine and says, "I can no longer lie to you; this is the wine of Aletheia, and it will not abide deceit or omission.  I am here to stop you in your quest.  Romulus – if you do not swear an oath, which the wine in your blood will make binding upon you, to set aside this errand forever, then you shall never see your sister again.  Noah – the same of your mother.  There are other inducements I can supply, but it seems to me that these should be sufficient."

I mention that from this point on, they're welcome to try and lie (by commission or omission) – they just have to challenge the wine (Talisman, Power 4, Cosmos 10) to do so.  This is potent enough that any of them is certainly going to have trouble matching it.  There are a few moments of consternation.  Eventually Xerae asks, "Why are you doing this? Who are you working for?"  Nausithuos responds by asking graciously if she may answer that with a question, and directs herself to old Gaeolcus with a question direct: "Why does this quest exist?"

Gaelocus opens his mouth to speak, draws his short stabbing sword, and – more swiftly than anyone would expect a man of his age to move – lunges across the table to kill her.  Boom – conflict.  Technically it's NPC on NPC, but I hardly expect the PCs to stay out of it, and I'm right... Romulus, Noah, and Xerae all jump in to try and stop Gaeolcus, Xerae with a side dish of trying to keep noncombatant Noah the heck away from the fight (opposing him and drawing on a Muse).  No doubt Rue would have been in on it as well but Star was curled up on the floor after a very long week, lulled by good company and a roaring fire, sound asleep.  We let sleeping Starlings lie.

Conflict went two rounds.  Gaeolcus was drawing on all his Muses, tailored for this circumstance – Journey to the Golden Fleece (7), Hide the true reason for the voyage (6), Kill all sorceresses and their ilk (2).  On top of already strong stats.  He then added to this by bidding for trump in Chaos; Fox decided to oppose this, and they both spent heavily – five points each – ending up with both of them being broke and no trump.  Personally I think Fox overinvested in this, but he was really worried about that being their only lead, and wasn't thinking in terms of strong player-authority.  To take the round for sure, Gaelocus went with his better hand in Stasis (yelling "Let me DO THIS" in a voice of greater command than any of them have heard since they were babes), pumped his Muses by about eight points, and then rolled that into a basically guaranteed kill using Chaos on the next round.  I'd deliberately made Nausithuos a vulnerable target by making her an Archon, with low Arete and high Hubris; he killed her, she blew her one Muse to defend, and he had enough points to kill her again in the same round, with lots left over.  I'm still not sure if this kind of point-by-point sequencing is Matt's intent with the system – Matt, had you meant for this to be legit?  Anyway, for now at least we'll go on as we started.

There were things they could potentially have done to save her, and we did discuss those (more after than before)... oppose another player (or even just Nausithuos herself), using say Stasis or Cosmos, win, and even though Gaeolcus took the points in-hand, burn Muse points into Urge points, make her too hard to kill.  I don't think the players entirely realized this kind of tactical play was possible, even though they'd learnt all the individual rules, and even so I'm not sure whether they'd have decided that saving this chick's life was really worth blowing their precious Muse points on.

In any event, she died, weaving silver lights frantically (with a rather startling but still insufficient Chaos Fate value of 10, using an Urge of 2 and a ten-card hand) as he knelt above her with a single stroke to her swan-like neck.  Conflict ends, Gaeolcus stands, looks down, and says – still constrained by the wine – "For revenge."  The PCs confront him and he answers them in a steady, monotone voice...

"Treachery!"  "No."

"What, wouldn't it have helped the quest to know who she was working for, who our enemies are?"  ... "I know who our enemies are."  "Yes?"  "Zeus.  Athena, probably.  Mulciber.  Possibly Trimegistus.  I could keep going.  There's no shortage."

"But she might have known where the Fleece is!"   "Doesn't matter."  "Why not?"  "Because I do."

Then he walks out into the night.

Romulus acts swiftly, walking to the severed head, unhooking the cauldron and hanging the head above the fire in its place.  With a very classily (and classically) done invocation, kudos to James, he conjures her shade to return and answer his questions.  I'm, like, she's dead, Jim, but okay, conflict... and the only opposition I can think of is Hades himself.  But you've got the wine on your side, I suppose.  Throw down.

Hades – Stasis 10.  The Wine of Aletheia – Cosmos 10.  Romulus – Metamorphosis 11.  Hot damn.  James passes narration to me, reserving veto rights.  "Where is my sister?"  So she opens her eyes, showing the whites and veins of their undersides, and speaks.  "I do not know... but I know who does.  A spy in the pay of your enemy, Dardanes ibn Bashir by name, resides in a cave on this island, beneath eight banners rotting, ten miles hence.  He knows where your sister lies."  And then the flames rise up and consume the head.  Romulus (James adds), with an almost contemptuous gesture, motions to the body and it, too, is consumed, leaving not even a trace upon the wooden floor.

There is a very, very long pause.

Then Encareos, ever the journalist, leans over, nudges Rue's sleeping player, and says... "Rue, honey.  What are you?"

Close session there, mid-moment, while everybody takes stock and figures out exactly what they'd like to ask whom, while the wine is in everyone's blood... which shall be the opening for our next session.


Well, Matt's design is still firing on all cylinders for us – I'd say it's seven-oh so far, excellent sessions every time, including two sessions (both in this post) which were driven not by the usual schedule but by the players colluding to pick a date, free up their schedules (not trivial at all), and arrange the extra session.  Contrast with our play of My Life With Master, where "scheduling woes" bit into even the normally scheduled play, masking discontent.

So, three more sessions (warning - long), and discussion therefrom:

Session Five (Extra Session) – Aletheia's Drinking Party

With the Wine of Aletheia (Truth) in their blood, and Gaelcus gone out the door, the PCs and the remaining crew sat down to pepper each other with questions.  It's been a few weeks so I can't recall all of them, but the significant highlights (and pull quotes) include:

(Encareos) "Rue, honey... what are you?"  Rue fights Encareos + Wine, loses to the Wine... lifts her blindfold up over her head, and in the wake of the gesture her hair is revealed as a nest of slender, glossy black serpents.  Suddenly the table, or their hands, seem awfully interesting to everyone.  "Oh."  (Rue marks off a nine-point Muse as "seem normal" goes the way of the dodo.)

(Xerae) "Am I the only one here who is motivated in this entirely by greed?"  (Kim) "Nope!  Me too!"

(Romulus) "I have just one question.  Kim – which orgasm is better?"  (Kim) "It varies – but most of the time, the women's.  Sorry."

Xerae managed to social-engineer the conversation away from her own identity, so her secret is basically still safe.

(Xerae again) "Romulus... you're obviously very worried about your sister.  Does your brother care about her too?"  Romulus fights the Wine, buys Trump for a point, which given the Wine's unipolar scores, gives him the win, as well as emphasizing that (a) Romulus is an intensely private person and willing to spend real currency to keep it that way, and (b) there are hidden currents to his family relationships which will be very interesting to develop in play.

Romulus and Noah eventually grow impatient to be back about the quest, and Romulus takes on the wine directly, buys Chaos Trump (again? I may be misremembering the order here), and destroys the Talisman in conjured fire.  Everyone feels their throats burn intensely, as though swallowing coals, and the effect is gone.  They turn to planning for a minute, and are interrupted by screams from outside.

Rushing to the windows and doors, they see Gaeolcus, standing up on the rise where the Ceuthonymus (their yacht) is moored, sword drawn, hand and sword waving before him as though to ward off a foe... but there's nothing there.  He's backing away, horror in his eyes, feeling for the rope ladder of the boat.  Someone glances at the NPCs list and notes a Muse of Asteria/Delos (the island itself)... "Cast into the void the bringers of war, that they shall perish."  The sword Gaeolcus is swinging is still bloody with the girl's blood, and we open conflict – Asteria is trying to make Gaeolcus leave her soil and perish, he's trying to get away without the perishing part.  In the 'free and clear' phase of things these aims get clarified a little together with the PCs' goals, and the end result is that Asteria still prevails over Gaeolcus (forcing him to flee) but the PCs beat him as well (preventing him from doing so with their boat and without them).  Specifically, Rue puts an arrow into his hand from the window, most of a mile distant, while Noah (running) and Romulus (borne upon winds) close the gap and prevent him from getting away with the ship.  This prevented, Gaeolcus' panic (obviously supernaturally induced, hallucinations are suggested but never established) ascends to a sharper peak, and he turns and literally runs, as though up a stair, off the ship and off the island, into the rarified and deadly aether.

Rue (highest Fate value) opts not to let it end there, though, and continues the conflict – this time, having secured the yacht, they're all focused on preventing Asteria from actually killing Gaeolcus.  A little Trump and it's done; they reel him in, just as he's about to "go under" – which I describe as being a fading away into the aether – for the third time.

Rue's still pissed, however, and she decides to press Gaeolcus for more information.  They conflict, and she literally nails his balls to the deck with an arrow, and he stops putting up a fight over such trivialities as words and motives.  "Why?  Because the gods deserve to suffer too."

Gaeolcus also tells Romulus that his next step should be to plot a course to the Isle of Stymphalius, sacred to Ares.  Romulus does so (and James' lovely sorcerous interpretations continue unabated, as his charts come to life and orbit themselves glowing above the map table, before settling into a configuration which flattens onto a page).  They ask him about why they're not going straight to the Fleece, if he knows where it is, but (rather surly!) he won't say, other than to confirm that their route is indeed not direct.

Then Romulus steps to the edge of the boat, and says that there's still a man down there who knows what happened to his sister.  He wishes them gods'speed, and steps up to the rail... then looks at, and holds out a hand to, their shipwright Aigisthea.  "Care to join me?"  She looks down at the world full of the bones of ships, enough raw material for twenty fleets, and takes his hand.  As the Ceuthonymus sails away, they watch Romulus and Aigisthea waft down to the isle behind them, wondering what will happen now.

Session Six – Hospitality, with a Side of Feathers

We start with the Ceuthonymus and the majority of the crew, as they sail insystem towards the Isle of Stymphalius.  The voyage is uneventful, and the isle (aka planetoid) comes into view – craggy in the extreme, but with valleys of green and blue tucked into the crevices.  Before they can approach, however, a vast flock of specks comes up over the horizon and off the peaks, and begins to converge on their ship; it's the Orinthes Areoi, the Stymphalian Birds, great raptors just under the size of a man, with glossy bronze plumage.  They converge into streams of birds flowing over, under, port and starboard of the ship, near to filling the skies.

Then the birds begin the assault for which they are famed in legend – one by one and ten by ten they beat their wings strongly together on a downstroke, and bright bronze feathers come raining toward them like a hail of deadly arrows from all directions.  They sink inches deep into the decking, or into flesh, when they strike.  I've set up the birds as an interesting tactical choice for the PCs... they have two substantial Muses and I've left the question of how to arrange the conflict (one big one? many smaller ones?) up to the PCs.  The gotcha is that the birds' Muses apply to opposite situations... "Cripple the irresolute (no Muses called) (6pts)" and "Slay the passionate (more than 4pts of Muse called) (7pts)".  So they go back and forth over whether, for example, to protect the more helpless of their crewmembers, thus triggering both enemy Muses, or to keep separation between them so as to trigger only one (or neither) of these conditions.

Eventually it ends up as one big conflict, and although the birds do manage a large enough Chaos total to 'kill' one of the weakest of their crew (Encareos, whose drive to kick her addiciton just won't seem so important anymore as she recuperates from massive wounds), several of the PCs topped by Rue do manage to beat their total and drive them away.  Rue keeps one of the birds' corpses, to find in it a weakness in some of her own family's similar (and, she narrates, related) beasts, out of her backstory.  They proceed to the surface.

(In retrospect I think this would have been a deadlier encounter if I'd insisted that everyone face the birds individually, allowing them to help each other in one anothers' conflicts but targeting each of them with one conflict.  On the other hand that would have used up more time than I'd have liked.  In this case my version of the setup deemphasized the hazard in favor of other stuff in the session, which is OK, just not what I'd had in mind.)

Back on Delos, Romulus finds a cavernous space beneath a hill of wrecks, and in it the expansive lab/study/workspace/residence of the affable and swarthy Dardanes ibn Bashir.  Dardanes is a spy in Daedalus' service, but is also conflicted – he wants both to rise in Daedalus' sphere, and to escape it.  He's accompanied by an iron raven, who is obviously here as a political officer of sorts, spying on the spy.  Romulus accepts hospitality and they have a remarkably congenial chat about his sister (she's probably in Daedalus' citadel, upon Mulciber's [Hephaestus'] isle, on Venus) and other topics.  Daedalus is unable to figure out what Romulus' quest is, but the 'get out from under' side ends up winning, and they elude the bird long enough to reach at least an agreement in principle.  Dardanes will help build a ship to get off Delos, and gets (at least) out from under his keeper, to make more final decisions later.

Romulus then pushes into a very interesting conflict type we haven't seen before.  He wants the ship-building to be a conflict, but at first isn't sure how.  Then he decides to engage the shipwright herself in conflict – declaring as his stakes that he wants her to do a better job than she could ever have thought she'd do of building a ship to his specs.  This is cool and we totally run with it; Dardanes and an additional 'hazard' NPC who hadn't come into play much are in on it too, but basically it's Romulus and Aigisthea, fighting over creative control of a ship which is gonna get made in either case.

Romulus wins, racks up the points, pours them into an existing Muse, achieves it in his narration.  He's gotten the better of his brother for sure... because he's a captain of his own ship, first, before Remus.  Hah!  James is now sitting on a decent chunk of Pride points and I fully expect the ship to get a name and Talisman status before long.  The description is interesting, though we go back and forth to get compatibility between Dardanes' style (he was working on a kind of steampunk engine for aetherships) and the vision James had.  The net result is quite cool, a mostly-enclosed-deck design like a seed, with three huge Archimedes' screws mostly (but not quite) contained within the hull, powering her flight.

Speaking of Remus... on Stymphalius, the crew approach and see a ship in one of the valleys.  Getting a little closer, they see the outlines of her, and how she's broken, and those little dots are probably repairing her.  Rue, inexplicably, runs to the rail, and clutches it white-knuckled at the sight.  They descend and moor nearby; it's the Agonist, the pirate ship Rue sailed on out of Saturn (and just before the PCs met her), and to whom Xerae sold a cargo of heavy arms in exchange for the tip that got her here.  Remus is navigator and first mate, and actually negotiated the contract with Xerae – so he knows who she is.  He is (of course) among the ten or so survivors of the Agonist's run-in with the deadly birds.  How they got here, and why, and what will happen next – those are all fodder for the next session.

(Continued due to length limits)


Session Seven (Extra Session) – Tales of Agon and Glory

James is unable to make this session due to family stuff, so it's all about events on Stymphalius.  The PCs land and greet the crew of the Agonist.  Rue tells them about it and her history with them, by way of explanation for her reaction.  Remus greets Xerae as they're getting off the ladder – "Well, you do lead an interesting life, don't you?"  She blackmails him back – "I do, don't I?  But I don't think it needs discussion, any more than certain other things might."  (She's threatening to expose the fact that the Agonist is looking for the Fleece also, and has been out front all along.  We have an interesting discussion of what may happen should this information come out... including that Xerae's blackmail balance would become inoperative.)

Captain Telemator is quite the character.  He greets them while reclining upon a divan, carried off the Agonist for this purpose and set up in a clearing, eating grapes and hummus off of delicate stoneware.  He's expansive, warm, knowledgeable, sophisticated.  Greets Rue with obvious pleasure – "We thought we'd lost you, my dear."  Is congenial to the rest; invites still-nominally-captain Noah to sit ("Remus – bring us another couch off board, will you?"), eat, be welcome.  He's like a little island of Athens all by himself, and the PCs warm to it, Noah in particular.  But he clearly wants Rue back.  He ultimately challenges Noah to a contest of verse, improv epic poetry, for her services; Noah accepts, and it's set for sundown.

(Pull quote here.  "If you're uncomfortable with the form, we could shorten it.  An epic-ette?"  Rue: "Hey! I'm worth more than an epic-ette!"  Telemator: "Shorter doesn't mean unworthy.  Perhaps a vign-epic?" Winces all 'round.)

Rue 'greets' an old rival, Alaea, a sexy bitch pirate who Star knows (but Rue does not) is responsible for drugging her on Sol and causing her to miss the Agonist's departure there.  She has her sights on Remus – in fact, both women have the exact same Muse, "Be the only one Remus truly wants."  They exchange not inconsiderable verbal barbs.  Remus is obviously being kept too damn busy to get into it just yet.

Before sunset comes, Kim also alerts Xerae (and, oh yeah, Rue, and you too, Cap'n – Kim's biases are becoming obvious) to a figure seen in the distance.  It's a hiker – too far off to make out gender, but with a jacket tied around its waist, a pack on its back, and a walking staff in hand.  Navigating an obviously very hairy path across the shoulder of one of those brutal mountains.  With deadly birds on them.  On Ares' sacred island.  Nothing to be done about it yet; this is foreshadowing for later.

As sunset comes, they all gather 'round a bonfire (set just the right distance from Telemator's couch, of course – they've yet to see him do anything except relax).  Alaea takes the spot next to Rue, forcing Remus over to sit next to Xerae instead.  Both sets of conversation are highly amusing sparring matches.  Remus is asking Xerae polite questions about her "sister" – the real Xerae – and she's hitting them right back across the net at him.

The conflict for the epics is kicked off by Alaea, however, as she stands and goes over to where Noah is sitting.  And makes him a bet.  If he wins, she'll kiss him (she whispers this breathily on his ear); if he loses, she'll stick a knife in his arm.  I declare conflict.  Much like Romulus' conflict with Aletheia, she's trying to push him to do better than he could and moreover to owe her the credit for the victory. It's clear that whoever wins this prelim conflict will be rolling the points into helping Noah against Telemator; it's just a question of how.  Rue jumps in using Hubris, a single blindfold-lifted glance to Noah that chills his soul, with the object of having him reject her offer in a way that shames Alaea before everyone.  Rue over Alaea over Noah... Noah gets a stat boost, but smiles and says quite loudly that although he'll accept the penalty for failure, he declines the offer.  It would... cheapen... it.

(It is at this point that we get the second pull quote of the night.  Rue bursts forth with, and I quote, "a little gorgonish squeal of delight."  I leave that as an exercise to the reader's imagination.)

In any event this rolls us into the key conflict of the evening, a conflict where I've chosen not to pull my punches (even though Alaea is stacking the deck a bit).  If Telemator wins this, Rue's formal allegiance will revert to the Agonist – a substantial split in the group dynamic.  Noah's naturally very motivated to keep her, all the more so now that he knows her nature.  (Telemator also offers a side bet to Noah – name your stakes; if I win, I want you on my crew.  Noah is extremely tempted, but for mechanics reasons – Telemator's bidding to bring in a Muse – regretfully declines.)

Everybody's cards go down.  Alaea is continuing to try to win narration for herself, to redeem her embarassment; Rue is still trying to shoot her down, without affecting the actual contest by targeting either Noah or Telemator.  Rue – Metamorphosis nine.  Alaea – Chaos ten.  Noah – Metamorphosis ten.  Telemator – Cosmos ten.  High cards: Alaea eight, Noah ten, Telemator ten.  Again: Noah ten.  Telemator ten.  Again: Noah seven.  Telemator eight.

Before I get into how the narration came out, may I just say, Matt, that although it doesn't look like it at first, your system does an abso-frickin'-lutely amazing job of pulling the tension out in cases like this.  Because, in practice, the parameter space of winning Fate values is quite narrow – I would say that 90% of hands get won with an eight to eleven, at our current scale – ties are pretty common.  And because it's high-stakes conflict resolution (at least the way we play it), those ties are grabby, they draw out the uncertainty.  This series – three ties in a row – had us on the edge of our seats to see who'd pull it off.  Emergent property.  Kicks ass.

Here's how it plays out in my narration.  When Noah speaks, it becomes clear for the first time just how well-educated he is.  He's got a professional-grade trained voice for oration, similar but distinct from his lovely singing tenor.  He's improvising epic verse on the spot, and his meter and rhyme are flawless.  They've chosen the Argonauts as their topic; Noah was gunning for a revelation of the Agonist's mission should he win.  And as Noah tells the stories, which overlap a great deal with their trials to date (Iolcus, Delos, and Stymphalius are all destinations the Argonauts of legend visited on their quest), you can tell that he's investing it with their own story.  When he speaks of Heracles driving away the Stymphalian birds with his mighty bow, you can tell it's Rue he's talking about, and he's honoring her, and everybody knows it.  When he wraps up there's a breathless silence in appreciation.

Then Telemator speaks.  His voice isn't trained, but it's full, edged with a rasp that speaks to years upon the open sea.  His form and meter are perfect.  And where Noah's retelling spoke of the crew's adventures to date, Telemator's builds upon the same space of metaphors, and somehow – indefinably but clearly – tells the story of their journey to come.  The clashing stones, where they will be saved by wit alone; the isle of wild men; the death of a brother.  His conclusion is harshly incomplete – it's like a slap in the face, bringing you back to reality with a shock, when you hadn't even realized that you were lost in the hysteria of verse.  And the silence is thundering.

And.... wrap.  Except for another hour or more spent talking it down, wondering where we're going to go from here – does Noah try to spirit Rue away and just leave, before the Agonist can be fixed?  Does he accept Telemator's offer and defect, himself?  Do we end up merging the crews?  If so, what the hell's going to happen with Romulus and Remus on the same side?  The world seems utterly full of fascinating possibilties at this point.  "Why are you in this place you find yourself?" seems to be one of our underlying themes, and it's just been cracked wide open.  Somehow, by losing Rue, they've lost their easy assumptions about how they go about things – and that's freed them up to consider anything.

It's awesome.


What in this is worthy of discussion?  Well, the use of the mechanic to contest someone in order to accomplish something better than they could do alone... that's cool.  It's opening up the options of conflicts where the underlying outcome isn't really in doubt – what's in doubt is who gets the credit, and how it happens, what style.  Which is neat, and (shades of Vincent's assertions about rules) is a neat place we wouldn't have gone without the mechanics.  In fact, we wouldn't have gone there without gaming the mechanics – pushing them for in-game advantage.  That's once again in Nine Worlds that we get a gamist-seeming approach to the mechanics which yields distinctly narrativist rewards.  This is a cool game that way.

And the other one is the drawing out of tension.  This (IMO) is a big part of why Riddle of Steel works – the combat system is a hard-edged task resolution system where the tension of when the conflict's gonna end is brought into high relief.  Ditto Dogs – Dogs' mechanical questions like "do you escalate" or "do you give" come in the middle of an overarching sustained-tension mechanism.  I believe that this underrated property is why "classic" task resolution systems and Fortune-in-the-middle remain powerful in many games; in striving for conflict resolution, we all too often distill it down too far, to the point where the answer is known (even if it hasn't been narrated yet) too soon.  At which point the narration is, in some cases, almost a chore; it takes place after, not before, the peak of tension.  Brilliant narration with vivid colour (such as Nine Worlds does seem to produce) can mitigate this a great deal, but it's still present, even there.

More indie games should take note – whether it's task res or conflict res, fast answers are cheap answers.  And we value them less.  Make me wait!  Keep it interesting, keep the tension dial rising within the conflict, until I've had a chance to sweat.

This is, I think, easily as important and impactful as (say) your game's distribution of narrative authority.  Yet it escapes our analyses constantly.  Let's fix that.

Oh, and Matt – your game rocks.  "Little gorgonish squeal of delight."  Ye gods.