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[Lacuna] Getting a handle on the pace of the game

Started by Christoph Boeckle, July 09, 2009, 11:23:49 PM

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Christoph Boeckle

Hi reader

This is my first time masterizing (btw, is that the verb for "being GM" in English too?) Lacuna.
I've just moved (geographically) closer to some friends who I've found to be very intrigued by RPGs. We played Zombie Cinema a few weeks back with some others, and tonight I called the two I felt where most eager to play more. We also meet up for drinking beer on the riverside every week or so, so we've got a rather good relationship I'd say.

The plan was: meal & wine & RPG.

We chose Lacuna, which I presented very succinctly as a mix between the Matrix and Cold War fiction. I had read the book a few times but not recently, and played once at a con myself, and I just threw up a a quick mission while giving out some information a bit confusedly (which really is rather convenient for this game full of contradictions).

I messed up the resolution rules a bit, but it should be okay next time: an action successful on the first try just added 11 points to the heartbeat'o'matic. I couldn't grasp why a player should be "penalized" for using 4 dice (it's usually overkill!): I had forgotten about the Commendation points... (when I realized this at the end of the game, I gave three points each).

I threw the mission together during character creation. I wrote up a quick and dirty Static-chart, and described a target to be eliminated (a paedophile) and off we went.

A quick overview of play

Both characters had scores of Force 3 - Instinct 4 - Access 2, so the start was quite messy. They had a bit of trouble getting the equipment and complementary information they needed so Static went up quite a bit in the beginning, causing Control to mess up protocol and stuff like that. After that, they car-jacked a man and went off to the industrial quarter of Blue City.
From then on, they quickly honed in on the target (I didn't make it too difficult, because we had some time constraints, about three hours to play). One player would often describe what he saw himself, and most of the time I rolled with it or made minor corrections. Very interesting, most experienced roleplayers would never allow themselves to "take the GM's job"!

I was regularly checking their heartbeats and as they entered the iron foundry of which their target was the boss (although the real-world person was just a photographer), they were already getting out of their ideal heartbeat range. A lot of Access and Instinct rolls quickly got them where they wanted by bluffing and manipulating various staff (little Static was gained then, so I could just drop in some minor weird stuff).
They needed to overpower some vigils and administrative personnel, which they quite easily managed with their violin-case and the "instrument" it contained.
At the target's office, they let off a hail of fire, then shot the boss in the knee (ignoring his offers for money to be spared) and then just zapped him with the Lacuna Device as he was transforming into some giant beetle.
At this point they were just out of their maximal heartbeat range and only 7 Static was garnered which allowed me to show some weird topological effect on the their target's office just as some other vigils came in guns blazing and our Mystery Agents ejected quite safely from the mission.

The criminal on the slab waked up just after the agents, and talked a bit, as if he were a child.

The agents' mentor came in, scolded them for their brutal manners, and we closed the session on the target asking one of the Company's medical staff if he could have an ice-cream.

Thoughts about pacing

So, I was slightly frustrated that Static didn't reach 10+, where I had planned some encounters with interesting people of the City. However, going so far would have meant forced ejection for the Mystery Agents because of their heartbeats.
All in all, this was a pretty straightforward "seek and destroy" mission. The players appreciated the interesting Colour of the game and nicely added to it, but hardly expressed any doubts at the legitimacy of their acts. They did point out Control for it's lack of professionalism in front of their mentor (Agent Duke for both), for which I was glad since it was an important point I wanted to get across.
Alas, with only 7 Static, I didn't feel like I could reveal too much funky stuff which could have hinted to some of the other obscure aspects of the Company (other Agents, Spider-Men, enemies that know more than they should, etc.)

All in all, I felt it was a good introductory mission, laying an important context for subsequent missions, but... I'd liked to have more "in-your-face" situations like one can have in Dust Devils or Zombie Cinema, where characters have lots of stuff at stake. Is there a tool I missed or is this normal for this game, which will probably run over another 4-5 sessions? Has the low number of players anything to do with it? They were rolling dice all the time, racking up on the heartbeat way faster than if the same actions had been split up amongst 3-4 agents, yet the Static was low.

My two friends said they enjoyed themselves, but would like some more unexpected changes in events. Am I missing something if I essentially rely on Static for guiding me in that? Would it be okay to completely scratch some details about the target just as they're going in for the kill, having them need to reconsider everything or would this be cheap manipulation?

Perhaps this was a good first session because it will give context to the next ones that will probably be much more nuanced and strange.

All in all, I enjoyed masterizing the game. With just a few notes (which proved to be superfluous in the end since the SIS was dense enough to guide me all the way through) inspired by the book's content, using the players' numerous suggestions and following Static and Heartbeat I managed to play my role in a rather interesting fashion nonetheless.


Did you devise your own chart for what actions cause static to increase? 

I find this to be extremely important as you should list actions that you find to be interesting and then guide play towards this.  Also, weird stuff may certainly pop up regardles of the Static score.  Think of Static as a tool, not as an inflexible pacing mechanism which must be inherently applied.
You can call me Charles


It sounds like a good first outing to me, if you have the time to run more sessions I think it's great for the weird stuff to come boiling up more and more as the game progresses, demonstrating that a) the Blue City is weirder than it seems at first, and b) the Company is not telling you everything. 

Making your own Static chart is a great idea.  Also giving the players more complex missions or missions that are intrinsically flawed will help keep them going longer and racking up Static.  At some point they may very well want to take a detour and try to figure things out for themselves without single-mindedly following the mission objective, and that's golden.
I believe in peace and science.

Christoph Boeckle

Hi guys, thanks for passing by!

I did have a Static chart, with some things I thought would be interesting. I listed 7 events, up to Static 18, with quite a few ideas on how I could pad in the remaining Static increases. I was also confident that I'd find plenty of colourful stuff to add in function of the game event. So a good outline and good idea of how to flesh it out. Alas, we only reached Static 7.
However, I'm not too fan of placing weirder events than those that would be okay according to the indications on p.30. While the game has quite a number of loose points about how the rules work (for example, it doesn't say who does the narrating after a resolution roll) and is intentionally vague about the setting, I have a feeling that if there's one thing that should not be taken lightly, it's the pacing mechanism, which, as I see it, is essentially about Heartbeat and Static. Ok, I'm also a living incarnation of sloth and dislike preparing more than a general thematic outline for the session, preferring to use the game's tools to play the adversity, just as the players play their characters. I find it much more fulfilling as an experience, rather than arbitrarily dish out the weirdness as I would deem fit according to a global plan, because if I'd do that, then Static would loose its relevance, as would the characters' actions that bring about the increase in Static. That's the horse I put my money on, encouraged by what I've read about the game.
And what I'm seeing is that the Heartbeat is going up too fast (even with the nicer rules I had applied), or the Static too slowly, given that we've just two players doing all of the rolling. Actually, as Danny suggests, this is probably a good thing for a first mission if others are to follow up (which is very probable).

Now, I do plan to go into more ambiguous territory for the next sessions, as Danny suggests (but still developing only the strictest minimum necessary), since this will help bring up situations where the Mystery Agents have more disagreements amongst themselves and will be more reluctant to carry out orders: that is to say, Static increase without Heartbeat Increase. I should start to think about a way to use the other Company members (for the while being, I've only specifically used Agent Duke and quickly alluded to Snyder) between dives into Blue City. There's some unclear information I could use to make missions more ambiguous, and have the Agents doubt more.
Also, I could add mission-specific sources of Static increase (which might be where I recover the practical effects of your conception of Static, Charles), as suggested by the example chart on p.31. Have you guys done that, and if yes, how did it work out for you?
The Mystery Agents have also gained a new Technique each, which could easily add another 2 or 3 points of Static to the mix "for free" over the course of a mission.

Anyway, as usual, this AP report and its discussion has helped me make sense of the mechanics of the game and shown me some directions to develop, thanks!


Ron Edwards

Bearing in mind that I've only played the first version of Lacuna, which does not use Static, the following points may still be useful.

In our game, getting ejected from Blue City to waking reality due to heart rate increase happened fairly frequently. I felt no need as GM to play differently if it looked likely. At one point, one agent even attacked two others in order to force them "out" so he could act independently.

Based partly on Jared's instructions, including an actual phone call during play itself (meaning he played Control for a bit), I played the agency as incredibly dysfunctional. The control communications during the mission were conducted by martinets or slackers, both incompetent; the mission resulted in the capture of a person who did not resemble the photograph in the characters' instruction file; and more.

I agree with you very strongly concerning:

Quotepreferring to use the game's tools to play the adversity, just as the players play their characters

... but I don't see how that leads to not hitting the characters with weirdness. Looking at your post carefully, I see that you don't want to do so based on a pre-play global plan, and that makes sense to me. So how can we resolve this strange difference in our rules use?

I think it lies with the NPCs. I knew what every single agency officer (the ones in the book) were up to, and I often had their machinations and maneuvers create adversity - even chaos - for the agents in the field. The players had no idea why such terrible things were happening on their mission, but it was indeed the result of me playing out how some NPC was interfering with it.

So maybe that can be a solution to your dilemma.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Ron

That's food for thought!
While we did play some scenes out of Blue City, I had the notion that most of the interactions between Mystery Agents and their superiors would happen in Blue City, which of course does not need to be the case at all.
Also, I need to give those NPCs more thoughts, I've drawn out a map of the hierarchy with the mentors on it, as you suggested in Nine Gram Medal and have started to see things. The way I read you I'm probably still missing how exactly I can use the information about the Company to effectively identify the NPC's aims and how they go about reaching them. I've also started reading Le Carré's The Looking Glass War, which will probably give me some extra references for the genre.

I'm still interested in any suggestions and recommendations, but overall this thread has given me enough material to play a new session with meatier stuff still. Thanks!

The Dragon Master

I ran into some problems when I ran it for my group, and maybe the fix for how I ran it would provide you some assistance.

I took the idea of Blue City as a waking dream very literally, and allowed dream logic to work freely, which I've come to think of as a mistake. An example was when one player wanted to get a note to another. He didn't have a high Access score, and they hadn't yet picked up any communication devices in Blue City, so he decided to rely on the other players high Access score. He wrote a note and tossed it into a trash can, then the other player rolled access to find the note in a nearby trashcan (not the same one). At this point Static was at about 5 or 6. I allowed it because I was allowing dream logic to function, and was trying to encourage them to realize that it did.

Were I to run it again I'd have Blue City function much like the normal world for Static up to 10. I'd have dream logic kick in for Static from 11 to 20. And anything above 20 would be a Black zone, either they've stumbled into one, or they created one, and all the rules of a nightmare would function. That much at least I'd done at the session. The players managed on one of their (3) missions to get to Static of 22 before completing the mission, so when they pushed to eject, I had them roll to do so. (they failed). I kept playing through them going through debriefing (which we'd done after each mission so far), and... been a while, but I remember an access roll coming up, and when they were told to roll (which they'd been informed up front you never do outside of Blue City), they freaked out and ran to find a phone (they were all very near the lethal heartbeat range) to eject.

Sadly I also had the problem that we couldn't get Static high enough to get to the good stuff. At Static 10+ I began introducing things like the Girl, and the Spidermen, and the Rogue Agents. But we just only got there the one time, and didn't introduce enough. I'd also tried to introduce the idea of recurring Personalities (a newspaper vender in this case), but they killed the guy in their first encounter ("you don't know where the target is? Well maybe if I break your legs. /legs broken/ Still not talking? then you don't need that jaw do you? /jaw broken/ Still not telling me anything? Then eat lead. /poor bloke shot 4 times before another PC showed up and stopped him/).

How did you handle the Dream Logic thing with regard to Static?
"You get what everone gets. You get a lifetime." -Death of the Endless
The names Tony

Sorcerer Workshop, Phoenix Comicon, May 27th - 30th 2010

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Tony

Thanks for your contribution!

I've used overt Dream-Logic only as manifestations of increasing Static. I did make use of the malleability of Blue City when the players contacted Control. For example, they wanted a photograph of the Hostile Personality, so they could show it around. Control said they'd be sending it right away. Nothing happens, and the two agents go into the canteen of the factory who's boss was, unbeknownst to them, the HP. There, the guy at the counter takes their order, and instead comes back with a manilla envelope, with the requested photograph inside. I had spontaneously decided he was an informer working for Control and had him "conveniently" appear right in the next scene the players wanted to play out (the same character also played the role of giving them some more indications about where the HP worked, bringing together two functions into one character). In a lot of other games, this could be considered more or less cheap winging, but it felt good in the context of this game.

Oh, and when they used the Lacuna Device, the HP transformed into some huge disgusting beetle and as Static went up another die, the HP's office became all elongated. But otherwise, I keep it to a pretty standard "retro-futurist" setting.

Now that I've well progressed in my reading of the spy book I was mentioning in my previous post, I see that genre expectations allow me to introduce much more incompetence, bad luck, selfish, infantile and vain behaviour than I ever though was admissible for such "illustrious" people. In this regard, it is definitely not The Matrix. I mean, if the tone and the context were different, this would be slaps-stick comedy, but it's actually panning out as something very tragic.
Putting the players into situations where their superiors pull dirty tricks on one another at the risk of the agents' security, have blatant delusions of grandeur, etc. the agents will start doing their own things and this will rake up the Static more often than not (going against Company orders!)
In my opinion, torturing an innocent newspaper vendor is worth Static, because the agents are supposed to be as discreet as possible (killing a public figure in a gruesome way is definitely not discreet). Plus, the rather healthy unity my two agents expressed will rapidly dwindle in such a situation, and they'll start having arguments, stacking up the Static way higher.

It hadn't occured to me that the Black Zone could be tied to Static. I was using the notion that the agents get promoted to higher and higher Clearances as per the rules in the book (first by acquiring Commendation points, then by spending them to reduce Static in exchange for Personal Static) and that this in turn decided where they'd be sent on missions. In all evidence, neither of these rules existed as such in the first edition of the game, yet Ron made use of it in an efficient manner nonetheless. I suspect I need to do more reading of genre-related literature (Spione should arrive soon for another approach on the topic).

The question still remains how the balance of Static vs Heartbeat evolves in function of the number of player characters, but I'm confident going into the next session with what I've gathered on this thread discussing with you guys, and I'll probably answer that question by playing anyway.

Ron Edwards

Group hug!

I think The Looking Glass War is one of the finest novels available of this type. The real horror is that by, oh, thirty years later, senior officers in the SIS and CIA admitted that during the 1950s literally hundreds, possibly well over a thousand agents were set up in this fashion - as badly and with similar results. The only justification they could come up with was, "Well, it felt like we were doing something, and we couldn't 'do nothing.'"

Um - it's clear to you what the Mystery Agents are, right? Meaning, where they came from, and who they were before?

Best, Ron

The Dragon Master

It is to me. And that was part of what I was trying to get across to the players through the static events. Sadly we never hit enough static for it to come through.

What about you Christopher?
"You get what everone gets. You get a lifetime." -Death of the Endless
The names Tony

Sorcerer Workshop, Phoenix Comicon, May 27th - 30th 2010

Christoph Boeckle

Yes Ron, I'm aware of their true nature (it's explicit at least in Second Attempt, page 39 for example, and in your Nine Gram Medal writeup). I'm going the route of not telling the players about that and letting them discover it over the next few sessions, with some quite in-your-face situations where the issue cannot be ignored. I'll be using an approach similar to that which we discussed in some of my Sorcerer threads for suggesting possible backgrounds to characters.

By the way Ron, you said you played four full sessions in Nine Gram Medal. If I understand the rules for progression correctly, reaching the Black is directly correlated to being a Special Agent (that is, with clearance level black). This in turn takes at least 3+1 sessions, likely more. Is this only pertinent for Agents remaining faithful to the Company? Or did you base the progression on other things?
Tony you tie this to Static level. Did you chuck out the progression rules from the book or did you combine them with the Static rules?

The Dragon Master

Keeping in mind that it's been about 9 months since I ran the game, I don't recall where I'd read this at, or what the exact reasoning was. After reading the book a couple times I came to the conclusion that Blue, Deep Blue, and Black locations within Blue City were geographical splotches that were (perhaps) caused by too much static buildup in an area, and that the clearance levels were an indicator of which locations you were cleared to start in and what you were deemed capable of handling. That it was nonetheless possible to stumble into a location you didn't have the clearance for.

I had kept the progression rules from the book, and just used them with the static rules from the book, coupled with my own interpretation of what I'd read.

I had been (at the time) playtesting a scenario I'd wanted to run at RandomCon 09, and the progression rules played heavily into that. I'd wanted to have a session consist of 3 missions, and allow recurring players to bring the same character back for the next session. That way the information they gained in each run-through wouldn't be lost, and they'd pick up some new info as well, dragging with them their personal static as they gained ranks. It never got past the playtest stage though.
"You get what everone gets. You get a lifetime." -Death of the Endless
The names Tony

Sorcerer Workshop, Phoenix Comicon, May 27th - 30th 2010

Ron Edwards


I'll have to review the pamphlet to be sure, but as I recall, the first version of the game had no specific rules about access to the various color zones. Or if it did, they were not easily distinguished from Agency rhetoric, as opposed to what could happen.

Best, Ron

Christoph Boeckle

I gave this some thought, and I like your viewpoints. I'm making a note of them and see how future sessions develop.

Jared A. Sorensen

jared a. sorensen /