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Author Topic: X-Games back in the Pool  (Read 4882 times)
Blake Hutchins
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« on: July 25, 2002, 09:43:57 AM »

Hello,

With the stress and long hours incumbent with founding a startup company, I've found little time for gaming.  Some of you may recall the short-lived X-games group I ran the Pool with last fall.  Our intent was to test some of the indie games on the Forge and to provide the post-mortem here.

Well, I'm pleased to say we've picked things up again, at least for the moment.  We ran The Pool last week, and tonight we're running a session with Story Engine.  The games are somewhat thrown together, without much discussion before play, and any premise isn't terribly deep.  It's more like, "here's the starting situation -- go!"

We're still using the Irongate setting I threw together for the last X-games session.  However, for this one-shot, I decided to try something a bit more focused.  After conferring briefly with the players, we decided to run a story taking place during the fall of the White City, with the characters to be defenders on the walls.

SOCIAL CONTRACT/PRE-GAME STUFF
We agreed that since this was a flashback story amid an already-determined history, that everyone knew the White City would inevitably fall to the Shadow.  For an up-front premise, I suggested "What will you pursue as your world crumbles around you: honor, glory, or hope?"

I took TQB's term Motifs instead of Traits, since I think the former term helps clarify the "story hook" function of this feature over "skill/attribute" function.

Swiping a piece from Fang's Scattershot discussion, I asked the players to write down Sine Qua Non elements to get a handle on what they saw the foundation of their characters, stuff they could then work into their stories and then to their Motifs.

We used the Pool with two dice gains on successful non-MoV rolls, and also included the MoD rules as well.

I pointed out some of what we'd learned from our Pool experience last October, particularly that the MoD need not be a "critical botch," but had to complicate resolution of the conflict.  I told the players I'd frame scenes, but that when calling for rolls, they could determine whether they were approaching the roll as a scene-based resolution or a task-based resolution depending on what they wanted to accomplish.

PL.AYER NOTES
Three players, only one with Pool experience.

Matt played Artus in our last Pool game.  He's interested in Narrativist play, has a lot of experience running PeBM campaigns with AD&D.  In my experience, he tends toward Author stance and Narrativist decision-making.  A thoughtful player, he took the MoD last time and really stuck it to Artus with terrible (awesome) consequences that carried great story potential and emotional, character-deepening weight.

Marion is a flamboyant player who tends toward deep Actor stance, lots of moving around, hand gestures, and the like.  She really gets immersed in her characters, so much so that emotional setbacks for the character have a potential to be mirrored in her own feelings.  Nevertheless, she approaches game decisions fearlessly and does not avoid hazards or challenges.

Cody is a new guy I hadn't played with.  He's totally new to anything Narrativist, but has a lot of SCA experience, so I expected him to incline toward Simulationist decisions and Actor/Tactical stances.

CHARGEN

KAI KEMLIS, Knight of Karakalas (Cody)                        
Kai is a good leader.  He cares for his men, yet understands that sacrifices must be made in war.  As a Knight of Karakalas he holds himself to honor that is lost on lesser men, to bear the banner forth and never give up.  But what if victory is impossible?

Sine Qua Non
1.: Kai Kemlis is a good and experienced leader.
2: He will not sacrifice men needlessly.
3: He lives by the code of his order.
4: He knows  his side cannot prevail.

Motifs
1: Skilled leader of armed men +2
2: Will not waste lives - 0
3: Knight of Karakalas +2
4: Respected for his honor. +2
5: Knows his side cannot prevail - 0


TYREE DHU, Paladin of the Unsheathed Flame (Marion)
Tyree, Paladin of the Unsheathed Flame, is pissed.  She was the last to be pulled through the gates of Karakalas, her small troop of soldiers at her feet.  This siege will be the last thing she ever does, by God; you will find her at its end atop a pile of corpses, dead upon the spear of her enemy.  Glory and Valiance to the Light!  There will be no tomorrow!

Sine Qua Non
1.: Pissed off
2: Leader of troops (banner)
3: Paladin
4: Doomed

Motifs
1: Berzerker pissed off-ed-ness +1
2: Determination +3
3: Paladin of skill +2
4: Leader of the (now decimated) Falconsway Regiment  - 0
5: Paladin Flame Sword (without Sheath) +1
6: Certain of her own mortality - 0
7: Unswerving dedication to the Light +1


COG, War Golem (Matt)         
The motivations of its creators still elude Cog, despite its best efforts to analyze their behavior.  Assembled at the city gates with its fellow war-golems, the brass automaton readies itself to fulfill its primary function, yet its attention continues to stray to the living defendersí continuing fight for survival.

Sine Qua Non
1.: Analytical
2: Mechanical noises
3: Curious
4: Imposing

Motifs
Artificial construct - 0
Massive brass-armored body +1
Student of human nature +1
Takes a licking and keeps on ticking +2
Motivated by curiosity +2


Pre-game observations
Interestingly, though zero discussion occurred among players about characters or premise, each player seemed to gravitate independently toward one element of the Hope-Glory-Honor premise, and I saw that as promising.  Given the "siege scenario," I wasn't surprised at the combat and action orientation of the characters.  I had to remind people to take zero-level motifs, and that motifs could include relationships, items, foreshadowing, or whatever they wanted for a way into the story.  Marion took her doomed unit as a zero-level trait, but decided none had survived.  I'd hoped she would have her some of her Falconsway unit members as fellow-travelers she could care about and use to propel the narrative in a more personal way.

The siege stuff with the Pool was risky, I knew, and had the potential to become little more than a combat riff where continued tactical efforts by players derailed any approach to the premise.  Nevertheless, I liked the "you are doomed, so whatcha gonna do about it?" aspect, and ultimately relaxed about it, realizing the players' choices would drive things whichever way they wanted.  Nice thing about The Pool is that if players don't like the way a story is developing, the next MoV or MoD provides a chance to make substantial changes.

My notes and prep for the session were sparse.  I had the situation, a pile of Magic: the Gathering cards with interesting critters and images, a short list of NPCs who might step up for color, assistance, or to push the premise, and a crude map from my initial experiments with Fractal Mapper.  My operational reminders were 1. Protagonize!  2. Use all Five Senses (a perennial reminder).  3. Offer Premise-relevant decisions.  I also had the Everway Fortune Deck handy should I need inspiration.

Alright.  Work to do.  I'll post the Actual Gameplay results later.

Best,

Blake
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2002, 07:28:41 AM »

Yay, Blake! The X-Games project was the endeavor I mourned the most when it seemed to have fallen by the wayside.

My first impression is, my goodness, what a stew. It's The Pool, nominally, but we've got some Scattershot theory in a big way, a bunch of Forge jargon about Social Contract and protagonizing, and a touch of Everway technique thrown in there too. It all works together well, I think, but geez, a couple of years ago, I never would have conceived of reading an Actual Play post like this.

One thing I'm curious about, is whether the Sine Qua Non for each character is fixed. It has been a staple of my role-playing experience lately that a player-character does well to be permitted to act against type/definition. This is the essence of playing Sorcerer, and the opposite of the "archetype" (if it comes with dictates about behavior) or "psychological limitation" approach to character definition.

Related to that, regarding the Social Contract issue (and I recognize that "social contract" is not Fang's preferred term), I'd like to emphasize that I do not endorse the idea that Social Contracts are "established" through discussion. My perception of the term is a very descriptive one - how the people treat one another, what social and personal goals are expressed through this behavior, and what ultimately happens among them because of these interactions. Social Contracts, in my view, are never fully verbalized. The furthest I'd go is to say that some discussion of goals may contribute to a functional Social Contract.

Best,
Ron
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #2 on: July 26, 2002, 09:56:57 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
One thing I'm curious about, is whether the Sine Qua Non for each character is fixed. It has been a staple of my role-playing experience lately that a player-character does well to be permitted to act against type/definition. This is the essence of playing Sorcerer, and the opposite of the "archetype" (if it comes with dictates about behavior) or "psychological limitation" approach to character definition.

"Fixed?"  I hope not.  Not "static" either.  The theory behind Sine Qua Non is how it is the "foundation" or 'most essential elements' of a character; preferably what makes the character the most fun for the player (sort of 'fun defense') in the 'this is what I want to do' function of character design.  How someone has fun changes over time and Sine Qua Non must 'evolve' to suit.  While I don't think that it is of much use as a Technique if it can be shuffled frequently, but we've seen that it becomes a yoke if it is not allowed to change at all.

Playing "against type/definition" is exactly a great use of Sine Qua Non.  That's almost one of the chief uses in thematically-ambitious Self-Conscious narrative play (roughly analogous with Narrativism).  You act against type often enough and the character's identity goes into flux.  This can be a good or bad thing.  At first it throws the counter-Sine-Qua-Non actions into sharp relief thematically.  Later, it calls for explicit character evolution.  If the Sine Qua Non is "fixed," character identity will fail to please and the player will probably lose engagement (or the character will be misused).

"Archetype" and "psychological limitation" are almost the opposite of Sine Qua Non.  Sine Qua Non tells you where to start, but not where to go.  An "Archetype" runs the character for you almost, but sometimes doesn't even give you a starting point.

I'm glad to see that Scattershot has been of some use outside of 'its borders.'  That was something I always wanted.

Fang Langford
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: July 26, 2002, 10:01:36 AM »

Hi Fang,

Awesome. That corresponds to my original reading of the Sine Qua Non, but it's definitely a stretch for folks who are used to saying, "OK, I'm the [fill in in-game term], so I have to role-play like thus-and-such." Certainly most game texts reinforce this rather static approach.

Blake, did you run into that kind of thinking particularly during your session? Or did the SQN get used (or seem to be potentially used) as Fang described?

Best,
Ron
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Blake Hutchins
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Posts: 614


« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2002, 10:44:05 AM »

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the comments.  It's fun to actually play again, not just talk about it or hang on Forge threads in hopes of a vicarious fix.

It certainly is a stew.  My typical style of play is to borrow a little of this, a little of that.  I'm a particular believer in Tarot cards and the like as sources of inspiration, either from the imagery or symbolism depicted on the card chosen.  Hence, yeah, I've kitbashed a bit here, technique-wise.

Regarding the use of Sine Qua Non, I felt it offered three things: (1) an easier way for players to identify the core character features they want to focus on, independent of dice allocation or the sometimes confusing notion of Traits/Motifs, (2) a black-and-white flag putting me on notice regarding what the player wanted as protagonizing elements, and (3) easier continuity should characters carry over between systems.  We'd planned with X-games originally to use the same characters in the same setting with different games, and I figured writing down core character concepts independently of game system expression would facilitate transfer from System A to System B.

As far as I'm concerned, if a player wants to change an element of the Sine Qua Non or add an element that represents a bedrock principle for the character, he or she should be permitted to do so.  What the Sine Qua does in my view (and I may be drifting from Fang's original intent) is make concrete expectations for character protagonization, essentially refining the overall concept.  I don't view it as a locked-in, "you can't violate this" agreement.  If a player wants to act against the Sine Qua Non, he or she should do so, provided it's done with the awareness that doing so might well be a form of self-transgression with consequences for the character's psyche.  That's a great engine for growth and increasing tension, in my opinion.

Social Contract was a mislabeling on my part.  I was up front with the proposal that the overall situation ("Fall of the White City") was not one where the players would carry the day.  In other words, the event of the City's defeat was pre-ordained, but the outcome of the characters' stories were not.  No one had a problem with that, and in fact Marion in particular seemed to find the notion liberating.  So yeah, I completely grok the broader context you're referring to.  Our group discussion focused more on the goals of play relevant to the players and how these expectations meshed with the set-in-stone fact of the City's doom.

PLAY NOTES
So how did the session go?  We started with fell things hammering at the gates, drums and screams coming from without the walls, body parts and nasty necromantic Greek fire sizzling overhead.  I let the players stage their scene entrances, worked on establishing mood.

Without going into a blow-by-blow, I'll say things settled down quickly.  There wasn't much between-character interaction.  Kai took command of a unit (to Cody's initial consternation, I didn't provide an NPC superior to direct things, so he found himself running the defense of their particular section of the city), and adopted a strategic approach to dealing with the conflict, addressing challenges as a general rather than a front-line guy.  Tyree immediately went to the wall, called for a roll, and took an MoV on her success.  From that point on, she was in the thick of it, pausing only to order the war golems (including Cog) around.  Cog just did what it was told, and made occasional asides about its conclusions and puzzlement regarding humans.

Initially, Kai's player seemed to have a tough time with the MoV, but by the end of the session, he'd adapted well.  The first couple of Monologues were severely limited in scope and color.  The final one of the evening ran a lot longer and included more overt drama.  He probably had the coolest one when he was unexpectedly attacked by a traitorous guard, just in terms of the terse burst of Yojimbo-style swordplay and Wesley Snipes freeze-frame moment while the traitor's body tumbled onto the marbled stair.

While Kai took a pragmatic, down-to-earth leadership role, Tyree went for the pyrotechnics.  When she took MoVs following the use of her Paladin Motif, the heavens opened and lightning smote the foe in a completely gratuitous, over the top display of divine smackdown.  Fortunately, I'd already established the enemy's numberless hordes, so there were plenty of dark gibbering things to fill the gap, but as Tyree used a few more MoVs to drop holy nukes over the battlefield, I began to wonder whether it might work better to require expenditure of a die before a player can access heavy-duty mojo.   My bitch wasn't that she was tossing nukes, other than that it sorta devalued the coolness of the effect, but that it sidestepped interesting story decisions.  Reliance on Pray and Zap! meant Tyree didn't have to interact with anyone or go out and do anything, and the descriptions she handed down left Cog and Kai without much action.  She finally hit an MoD but didn't do much with it, though the loss of her dice meant she took dice on a few rolls before she returned to MoV-ing.  She relied a lot on "Determination" as her biggest Motif, and to my dismay, never invoked her "Pissed off" Motif, which I thought offered far more interesting dramatic opportunities.

Cog had an interesting role in this game, sort of a quiet sidekick, the kind you end up liking more than the main hero.  Tyree adopted Cog early on and rode him into battle, and Matt played him with a sort of Iron Giant spin, which was pretty cool, especially the literal-mindedness -- which emerged during play and wasn't a specific part of his thinking in the Sine Qua Non.  His MoD when he and Tyree led a sally against the evil Chaos mage and his spike-armored toad-minions was nicely understated, a great use of the MoD to complicate the conflict without escalating everything to the moon.  Cog waded into a horde of mookage and was slowly covered in the rising tide of clawing, hacking bodies, at the last moment rallying to hurl Tyree ahead toward the Chaos mage.

Endgame
The City was doomed.  We all knew it.  Not having expected Tyree's nuke jobs, I started to worry I wouldn't be able to turn the tide against the heroes without deprotagonizing with a "OK, you killed the ebon dragon-thing, but now... um, another one appears" kinda lameness.  In other words, the transition to the setup for the story's climax.

It wasn't awkward at all, as it turned out.  Kai started to talk about other parts of the wall being breached, all on his own, and ordered a retreat to the citadels at the heart of the City.  Transition went smoothly, and they gathered up survivors as they went.  Marion planned for Tyree to go out with a bang, so she was fine with pulling back to another locale for her apocalyptic whiz-bang finale.  Cog just followed along.

Interestingly, they split.  Tyree chose the last stand at the White Temple avenue, and Kai opted to lead survivors out of the City.  Cog fulfilled his function, which was defense of the City, so he went with Tyree.  When the time came, Tyree got used her last MoV to describe the small hill of foes and trail of bodies that led to her corpse.  Cog, after having a fun, well-narrated battle with a dragon that used his Motif "Takes a licking but keeps on ticking" to great effect, had his severed head bounce into a dungheap, where the lights in his eyes slowly faded.  Kai fought his way out of the City, using MoD's to take heroic -- but not insane -- wounds, and then visibly struggled with the desire to make his own last stand.  In the end, he plunged into the waters of the river to make his way to the boats of fleeing survivors.  With generous dice donations from the other players, he made his Death's Door roll.

FINAL OBSERVATIONS
Everyone had fun, and enthusiastically asked to continue with the X-games run.  Everyone expressed continued interest in exploring the Irongate setting, in part because they liked the prospect of building the world through play, in part because they liked the heroic theme of fighting a hopeless war.

The Premise just didn't come into play much, other than with Cody at the end.  Marion had already made her decision with Tyree right from the get-go.  I could have done a lot better job had I offered a Premise that put moral quandaries before the players.  Cody did struggle a little with his choice, but it still felt a tad anti-climactic, since all his choices to that point suggested Kai would follow his duty to others and hope to make a difference.

I'm damn rusty as a GM.  Not running a game for ten months takes a lot of catch-up.  One thing that struck me was how hard it was to get into the right mood.  We had a lot of jokes and OOC asides that broke up the rhythm of play.  I have to conclude I talked about the game structure and plot/story arc and ignored the basic concerns of keeping up a (mostly) proper dramatic atmosphere.  I do have to say that Marion's slip during Tyree's death scene occasioned the most hilarity of the evening when she launched into a dramatic description of a huge pile of bodies culminating in a declaration of how she'd "whacked everyone off."  The expression on her face was priceless as she realized a shade too late what she'd said.  Alas, the words were out, and she couldn't take 'em back.

Did I have fun?  Yeah.  Despite the rust, I've begun to incorporate some ideas and techniques I've learned here, and that felt good.  The Pool showed its power as an easy-access system for great narration and fun gameplay.  We didn't have as many MoDs this time, because people gambled more dice and called for fewer rolls.  I focused more on setting up a Scene for resolution rather than a specific Task, and if a Scene led to immediate complication without resolution, I kept the focus pretty much Scene-based.  So we avoided the "melee round" pace, and I think it worked well.  My only gripe as far as the rules went was Tyree's deus ex machina use of her MoVs.  It worked and was fun, but pushed the credibility of the story out of shape in moments, avoided what I thought could have been more entertaining decisions, and felt more unilateral than what I'd come to think of as the "typical" MoV.  I had to jump in and offer something for Cog and Kai now and then, because the immediate conflict had been blasted back to the hills with holy MoV fire.

Next up:  Story Engine.  I'll post some of that material in a few days.
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Valamir
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« Reply #5 on: July 26, 2002, 11:55:19 AM »

Fantastic stuff.  Now that Universalis is going to be released, I hope you'll add it to the schedule.  Based on what you described above I think your group is well equipped to really run with it.  The idea of world building, the incredible power of MOV type narrative, plus built in mechanics that permit players to reign in MOVs that go too far over the top (plus you'd get to play too)...I think would really fit in great.  Plus one of the initial ideas of Universalis was the ability to design a world that could then be ported over into other games, which is what you're doing anyway.

I look forward to following the Iron Gate developments in Story Engine.
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #6 on: July 26, 2002, 12:21:56 PM »

Quote from: Blake Hutchins
Regarding the use of Sine Qua Non, I felt it offered three things: (1) an easier way for players to identify the core character features they want to focus on, independent of dice allocation or the sometimes confusing notion of Traits/Motifs, (2) a black-and-white flag putting me on notice regarding what the player wanted as protagonizing elements, and (3) easier continuity should characters carry over between systems.  We'd planned with X-games originally to use the same characters in the same setting with different games, and I figured writing down core character concepts independently of game system expression would facilitate transfer from System A to System B.

As far as I'm concerned, if a player wants to change an element of the Sine Qua Non or add an element that represents a bedrock principle for the character, he or she should be permitted to do so.  What the Sine Qua does in my view (and I may be drifting from Fang's original intent) is make concrete expectations for character protagonization, essentially refining the overall concept.  I don't view it as a locked-in, "you can't violate this" agreement.  If a player wants to act against the Sine Qua Non, he or she should do so, provided it's done with the awareness that doing so might well be a form of self-transgression with consequences for the character's psyche.  That's a great engine for growth and increasing tension, in my opinion.

Nope, you got it exactly as I meant it (and in fewer words too, darn it!).  Good show!

Fang Langford
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #7 on: July 26, 2002, 01:29:53 PM »

Thanks for the feedback.

Ralph, as I've said before, I'd absolutely love to give Universalis a spin.  We have another session of Story Engine to run, and then we'll move to something else.  I'm going to present some options to the group, but thus far, there's been a lot of interest in Sorcerer, so that's in the lead.  After that, Marion's going to art school in New York, so we'll give her interests priority.

Fang, thanks very much.  I've enjoyed reading your Scattershot threads, and to a kitbasher like me, stuff like Sine Qua Non just begs to be used.

Best,

Blake

P.S. Ron, I forgot to answer your post.  No, the players didn't view the Sine Qua Non with an eye toward transgressing or departing from the core elements they'd put down.  In fact, beyond chargen, the Sine Qua Non didn't come up at all for the players, as far as I could tell.  One reason may be the simple fact that this game didn't offer much opportunity to play against type.  It's my guess such decisions happen after a shakedown period wherein the player gets comfortable with the stereotype or the core character elements as written.  We'd likely have had to run a second or third session before players began to think in terms of playing against type.  When I gave Kai a chance to abandon his men, he saw that as a test of his resolve and thus stuck with his men.  Under the right circumstances, I might have provided some more tempting bait, or with time, he might well have chosen to shake Kai up with some violations of his core characteristics.  Does that address your question?
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