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Indie-NetGaming Monday: Shadows!

Started by Paganini, October 22, 2002, 07:21:00 PM

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Pheeeeew, how do you find the words to describe something as absobloodyfreakinlutely cool as Shadows? I loved it when I read it, and now I finally got the chance to run it. I don't know if the guys enjoyed it as much as I did, but I think it's the most fun I've had at an Indie-NetGaming session, and that is saying something, because we've had a long line of fun games by now.

First, the background. I got home from Tai Chi last night and hit the chatroom. Bob McNamee and Chris Edwards (ThickEnergy) were there talking shop. A few minutes later JB Bell (TQuid) showed up. Tim Denee and Christoffer Lerno (Pale Fire) came a little later and watched a bit, but didn't play.

Since we hadn't planned anything ahead of time, the setup went more or less like this: "So, what are you guys up for tonight?" "Whatever." "Have you guys seen Shadows?" "Uh?" <links posted> "Oooh! Cool!" "Tight!" "Elegant!" "Looks Poolish!" Etc. for a few minutes. Everyone seemd to like the look, so I found myself running a game of Shadows with zero prep time.

So, I said, okay, let's do a run of straight Shadows: you guys are kids, in bed, you hear a noise and wake up. I laid down a quick setting: Steam Fantasy, a la The Golden Compass mixed with Sorcerer and a Gentleman, and a bit of Harry Potter thrown in. (The kids were all boys at a boarding school housed in an ancient stone castle.) JB asked "can my character do spells and stuff?" I said "sure!" And we went from there.

Since IRC isn't exactly supportive of drawing, I just had the guys describe their Shadows. I also had them come up with appropriate names for their characters. Being uber players and GM's themselves, they went a little further and gave short, to the point descriptions of their characters.

Here they are:

Bernardo (Bob) is quiet, industrious, bit of a secret prankster. His shadow is a whispering voice urging to trouble, appearing as a half-seen red-robed figure out of the corner of his eye.

Fennick (JB) is studious, serious, somewhat annoyingly sensitive. Very smart, though. Fennick's shadow is a bloated, drowned-looking boy with no eyes.

Carlosh (Chris) is smallish for his age, pale skinned, but surprisingly assertive at times. He has velvety grey eyes. Carlosh's Shadow resembles a ghostly paintbrush held by the hand of a Master, occasionally dripping paint onto unseen carpets.

I left it undefined whether or not the Shadows would manifest in the game, whether they would remain metaphorical, or have any kind of explanation at all. Turns out, the players took care of it. :)

And with that, we dove right in. The game absolutely dripped with atmosphere right from the start. This is partly, as one participant pointed out, because the players were a bunch of GMs themselves. But this also brings me up to the Shadows, the system, itself. The game is all about mood and imagery. It absolutely demands and promotes the kind of woundrous, enigmatic tone that you often find in fairy-tales and, in more advanced form, Patrica McKillip's writing. I'm reminded of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. All these strange and wonderful things are taken for granted. You're dropped into a setting that remains unexplained to follow along and experience the adventure.

In a more crunchy sense, the token and dice mechanic of Shadows is superb. It runs so smoothly and so quickly, and is fun to use in and of itself. At first the players were using tokens to help each other out, but gradually, as things got hotter, some started rooting for the bad dice and others for the good dice. There were at least two or three times where there were little bidding wars going on over which outcome would take hold. (We were keeping track of tokens using IRC nicknames, you can see several spots in the transcript where chains of nic-changes indicate bidding wars in progress. :)

Because of the nature of the IRC medium, I had the players summarize both possible outcomes in the OOC channel before rolling, then perform the actual narration in the narration channel once the outcome was decided. It saves time, when compared to doing two complete narrations before rolling, and keeps the game flowing.

An interesting function of the mechanics is that it keeps the players incredibly involved. One comment from JB (Fennick's player) was that even though his character was pretty much a wuss, he was still very protagonized. This is because there is absolutely no vestige of character effectiveness in Shadows. It's all about player effectiveness. The beautiful thing about the game is that if a player wants story power, he has it. There's absolutely no question that he'll get to narrate. The only question is whether or not the narration will be something that his character wants, or something that his shadow wants. The call "shadow roll!" abecame almost a battlecry from the players. I think they asked for almost as may rolls as I called for.

There's one place where I think I should have called for a roll but didn't (when Carlosh was digging under his bed for his FairyFly Lamp). I was afraid that staying in the dorm too long would drag the flow down and cause the story to get stuck. Really, calling for a roll would have done just the opposite. Either the good die wins, and he finds the flashlight uneventfully (hence moving the scene quickly towards its end) or the bad die wins and something interesting happens. Once I realised this, I didn't hesitate to call for rolls whenever it seemed like something interesting might be about to happen. Really, that's what shadow rolls are all about: at any given point the game has many potential interesting things that might happen. Calling for a shadow roll energizes and focuses the game to the point where something interesting MUST happen.

I'm going to do something unusual and include the entire transcript from the game right here in this post. It's not really that large, and the quality of play is so high and evocative of the mood that I think it's worthwhile to read it, even if you aren't that interested in Shadows. It's interesting to note that, if you read the transcript, it doesn't look like I did very much last night. Most of my input consisted of regulating the flow and calling for Shadow Rolls. Almost the only narration I did was for the three NPCs (Timothy, the Matron, and the Caretaker), and for transitions. I've edited it a little bit. Not the content, but the punctuation and time stamps, and so on.


<>Ambiance<> The three of you are asleep in your dorm, the ancient stone of the castle creaking softly as it slumbers around you. Tomorrow, like yesterday, promises to be another busy day at the Carlyle School for Boys, and you are all sleeping soundly. But something brings you awake. Something from deep down in the bowles of the castle, maybe in the main hall, or maybe even deeper. As one, the three of you awake.

<Bernardo_3> Bernardo crosses the dark room to shake the glow worm-jar, stimulating them to light the room.

* Fennick_3 is scared already. Slowly, carefully, he leans over his bed, unable to see anything in the room on this moonless night. He tries to remember the words to a light spell - he does it all the time, but his mind is all jammed up.

* Carlosh_3 sits up and rubs his eyes, looking around the room.

* Fennick_3 finally remembers the words and gesture, and a ghostly orange light is born in his right hand, revealing his cramped dorm room.

* Bernardo_3 rummages though his chests, dons his overgown, and grabs his trusty Swarden multi-knife... then cracks his door open... to see light from under other doors off the hall.

* Carlosh_3 slowly reaches under his bed grasping in the dark for his brass and crystal FaerieFly torch.

<*Timothy*> Sits up in bed rubbing his eyes. "What's that light for?"

* Fennick_3 quickly dresses himself, keeping his light muted so as not to disturb his roommate. He dons a coat in case he has to go somewhere cold.

(Ed. Note: I love that line about going somewhere cold. It's exactly the right approach, and captures the attitude of the situation perfectly.)

<Fennick_3> Shh!  I . . . I have to go to the washroom.  Just go back to sleep.

* *Timothy* rolls over

<*Timothy*> Oh, okay. I have rehearsal tomorrow.

<GM> He goes back to sleep.

* Fennick_3 pads out to the hallway.

* Fennick_3 waits for the other wakened boys.

* Bernardo_3 creeps down to meet the others in the hall.

* Carlosh_3 looking at Fennick and Bernardo, he hastily slips into his waders, grabs his favorite sweater and a sweetmeat he was saving.

<GM> You hear the Matron's voice from down the cooridore. Lights are gradually re-extinguishing under other doors.

* Carlosh_3 rushes to catch up to the taller boys in the hall.

<*Matron*> It was nothing. Just the caretaker's cat. Go back to sleep boys.

* Fennick_3 quickly heads down the hall, away from the Matron's voice, signalling the others to follow.

* Bernardo_3 whispers "Quick back into the shadows... Can't be caught after lights out..."

<GM> You can't see the Matron, but you hear her footseps retreating down the passage around the bend, back into the faculty wing.

* Fennick_3 is now known as Fennick_2
* Bernardo_3 is now known as Bernardo_4

<Bernardo_4> So intent on trying to whisper to the others while moving, Bernardo forgets about the tipped paver just past the washroom. Suddenly he is pitched face first down the hall... his multi-knife bouncing noisily down into the darkness. As the slide ends, you hear it begin a drop down one of the many laundry chute openings that drop the students clothes to the laundry room several floors below.

<Carlosh_3> as the last echoes of the rogue tool issue up from the stairwell, Carlosh hurriedly patters to where Bernardo lies on the cold stones, helping him to his feet and hurrying him down the stairs.

* Fennick_2 follows along quietly, keeping the light dim in front of him.

<Carlosh_3> Maybe we could tromp down the chute, it sure would be quicker than all this scamping about.

<Fennick_2> We could get hurt!

<Carlosh_3> Well, Bernardo almost cracked his noggin just walkin down the hall!

<Bernardo_4> I heard these chutes don't all go the same place!

<Carlosh_3> What do you mean?

<Fennick_2> Yeah, they're just laundry.

<Bernardo_4> But I'm game...

<Carlosh_3> Ok, I'll share my sweetmeat with whoever wants to go first...

<>Ambiance<> Your whispered conference is interrupted by shuffling footseps. Suddenly, you see the light of the care-taker's glow-lamp bobbing up from the bottom of the stairs.

<Fennick_2> Oh no!

<Carlosh_3> Confound it!

* Carlosh_3 looks at the chute, holds his breath, and climbs in head first.

<Bernardo_4> "Quick... douse your light and jump..."

* Bernardo_4 jumps in after him...

<Carlosh_3> As Carlosh swishes gallantly down the chute the voices of the other boys echoe down behind him. Suddenly, with a sudden kerplop, he finds himself swimming in days old undergarments.

<>Ambiance<> Close on his heels come the other boys, carefully silencing their glee at the forbidden ride. The laundry room is dark and spooky and very silent. The only sound is a slow dripping of water that seems to surround you from all directions and no direction.

* Carlosh_3 pulls the iris lever on his FaerieTorch, lighting up the room.

<>Ambiance<> The golden light dances in the air, casting black shadows in the sharp corners. The room is full of baskets, baskets of clean laundry waiting to be folded, baskets of dirty laundry waiting to be washed. There are buckets and soap and wooden wringers and a big drain hole in the middle of the floor. Beneath the iron grate the dark round hole seems to be reaching out to swallow you up.

(Ed. Note: At this point, Bernardo called for a shadows roll. Good die: He finds his lost knife. Shadow die: Some of the dirty laundry starts moving on its own!)

* Carlosh_3 is now known as Carlosh_2
* Bernardo_4 is now known as Bernardo_5
* Carlosh_2 is now known as Carlosh_1
* Bernardo_5 is now known as Bernardo_6

* Bernardo_6 drops down and begins fishing through the pile of laundy... he smiles broadly and pockets his handy Swarden multi-knife.

* Carlosh_1 avoids the drain grate.. There's just something not right about it...

* Fennick_2 clambers out of the laundry basket. "Where d'you think that noise came from?"

<Carlosh_1> From the bottom of the drain I'd reckon.

* Fennick_2 gulps.

* Bernardo_6 stands up covered with old sheets... "Ooooh...its the ancient ghosts... buried alive..."

<Fennick_2> Quit messing around!  We don't know what's down there.

(Ed. Note: At this point Carlosh called for a shadow roll. Good die: He was to divide his sweetmeant among his freinds. Shadows die: Something nasty would come up the drain and snatch it from him.)

* Bernardo_6 is now known as Bernardo_5
* Carlosh_1 is now known as Carlosh_2
* Bernardo_5 is now known as Bernardo_4
* Carlosh_2 is now known as Carlosh_3
* Fennick_2 is now known as Fennick_1
* Carlosh_3 is now known as Carlosh_4

<Carlosh_4> As Carlosh divys up the tasty snack, odd odors waft up from the drain.

<CArlosh_4> Here lads, eat this! It will give you strength for the coming trek!

<Fennick_1> Gosh, thanks Carlosh, that's awfully nice of you.

* Fennick_1 eats the treat hastily, obviously nervous.

* Carlosh_4 beams with the glow of generosity.

* Bernardo_4 goes over to investigate the grate... flips through the tools on his handy multi-knife to find one to remove the bolts holding the grate down.

<Carlosh_4> Thats just some scurvy muck down there.

<Bernardo_4> I swear there's something down here...

<Fennick_1> What do you think you'll find, anyway? Rats, most likely. Ugh!

<Carlosh_4> Nothin as fine as that sweetmeat Id wager!

* Carlosh_4 is now known as Carlosh_3
* Bernardo_4 is now known as Bernardo_5

(Ed. Note: Here Fennick asked to narrate his character's reaction as the first part of Bernardo's narration. Bernardo and I both agreed.)

* Fennick_1 looks over the edge, wiping crumbs off his face, completely missing a bit of jelly at one corner of his mouth. Bored, his face suddenly transforms, his mouth gaping, eyes locked open. He points with a shaking finger... "B-b-bernardo!  B-behind!" He is frozen with terror.

* Bernardo_5 intent on loosening the bolts holding the grating down is startled out of his concentration by Fennick shout. He starts and drops his tool through the grate... staring with open mouth at the appartition of an eyeless drowned boy advancing toward Fennick.

(Ed. Note: Enter the Shadows! :)

<Carlosh_3> Hoy mate! you dropped your bloody tool again!

<Bernardo_5> Only to hear a mocking laughter from below... and see a red robed figure climbing the ladder rungs on the side of the shaft under the grate... a suddenly long bladed multiknife in it shadowed teeth...

<Fennick_1> The robed figure easily smashes aside the grating, interposing itself between the drowned apparition and Fennick, who remains rigid with fear. "Not tonight, my beamish boy," the figure says, and attacks the thing with his knife! They fight ferociously, yelling and casting weird lights on the walls - finally, wrestling on the floor, the drowned boy is thrown down the drain, howling, the sound diminishing seemingly forever...

* Carlosh_3 stands, mouth agape, cold chill on his skin. The nightmare apparitions battle before him, his friends also shocked into inaction. With the sound of grating wind a dark form rises up behind Carlosh. It solidifies rapidly into the ghostly form of an old bearded man, holding only a simple paintbrush. Several drops of paint fall slowly to the floor. Smiling the smile of the damned, the old man begins to whip his brush frantically through the air, a blur of speed... and color. The nightmare figures are painted out of existence, becoming only a memory.  When all is over the boys have been painted back into their room, quietly, softly sleeping, snug in their beds. Somewhere in the depths of the Abyss, the devil hangs a new work from one of his favorite masters on his obsidian wall...

The End

Bob McNamee

It was a great game!

The thought to make it our Shadows at  the end all came from letting JB (as Fennick) narrate the opening line there near the end.

I was thinking of just having a creature or ghost or something at first...

then after reading his line I thought...gee, Fennick would sure be more scared of his Shadow than he said there was something "behind" Bernardo. My shadow roll was for something coming up from under the grate.
"Let's bring in the characters Shadows!" I thought.

and the ending narrration of Chris's (Carlosh) character's Shadow painting a scene of Terror to hang on a wall in Hell...Outstanding! Dovetailed everything together! (and I never would have imagined how to bring the paintbrush in!)

sure glad he got that ending narration (I would have spent all 5 of my tokens to make sure he got what he wanted)!
(If we knew how cool it was going to make it...I'm sure we would have All put Tokens out to win that one...)

Really liked it!
Shadows works really well for IRC-type gaming.
Players can control the scene intensity by how they frame the Self/Shadow how we started with little stuff like finding stuff in the room. Using tokens to control where the narrative goes (I still kick myself for using tokens to turn the sweetmeat roll into a Good result,  when I really had wanted the "something is attracted up the drain hole by the smell" result - I had so many Tokens burning a hole in my pocket though)

Very protagonizing...nothing happens in a player roll that you didn't choose!
Bob McNamee
Indie-netgaming- Out of the ordinary on-line gaming!

J B Bell

I definitely really enjoyed it.  I was only disappointed we had to wrap it up, and it might seem a bit trite just to read it, but there was great suspense as each die roll was a pivot point for interesting events.  The "gaminess" of the mechanic was interesting too, as the dice tended to wander further out to the ends with progressive re-rolls, and probability made it smarter to re-roll one or the other for a desired result.  That is, if you wanted a "good" result, you might elect to re-roll the Shadow die, if the probability were better.  I'm not expressing that well, the math wonks should have a look and analyze it.

I'd love to see a dice system that explicitly uses the four story outcomes outlined in an old octaNe discussion.  What was it again?

QuoteThe protagonist:

[*] Gets what he doesn't want
[*] Gets what he wants, plus something he doesn't
[*] Just doesn't get what he wants

I'm sure I'm not breaking that down rightly.  Anyone who remembers it, please correct me.

I also find the notion of having a Shadow interesting; I presume it was intended so children could have a sense of agency in the game for the "bad" events.  That way it's not the kid being nasty to his or her character, it's the fault of the Shadow, something known to be interested in trouble.  I'm interested how this plays out with its intended audience of children.

"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

C. Edwards

Shadows is a simple game with a very clean design.  It seems to me that players that are able and willing to just run with what the game text and the GM's basic setup supply will get a great return on their investment in the FUN! department.

With the re-roll and token mechanics the players can pretty much get the outcome they prefer ("good" vs. "shadow") if they are all in agreement.  When the players are rooting for different outcomes watch out!  The tokens will fly back and forth, heightening the already thick anticipation.

The game was really a blast.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well only four pages of rules and examples could promote such an excellent and focused play experience.



And this whole thread begs the question:

(Hey Zak, are you paying attention?)

A while back Zak said he was working on a commercial version of Shadows, and mentioned a King Arthur setting. What's up with that? Is it still in the board? I'd say you've got four guaranteed sales right here, whenever it eventually comes out.

Zak Arntson


Yes, a version is partly finished on my computer. It has the main Shadows games, plus tons of alternate rules. I'll respond to the Actual Play later, but here's a pair of the add-ons, cut 'n pasted. They're all unplaytested, but with this enthusiastic Actual Play, I'm inspired to find time to write the thing up and call for playtesters.

I don't have a King Arthur Add-on, but once I release the game, there'll be an easy way to write and publish 'em.

Pulp Fantasy:
Beginning the Game
Each Player receives three regular Tokens. One Player (chosen randomly) must replace one of her regular Tokens with a Doom Token. For even darker games, half the Players (rounding up) must replace one token with a Doom Token.

Dark Places always begins with the Heroes in the same room or within eyesight. The GM describes the Scene and immediately selects a Player who has a Doom Token and asks them to provide two Shadow Outcomes. The Roll is made normally, with other Players able to spend regular Tokens (Doom Tokens may not be spent), to determine which Shadow Outcome happens. After this, all Rolls are made normally.

Asking for Rolls
The GM should ask for a Roll anytime the Hero has a chance to perform a Heroic deed or is under danger from the Dark Place. Events should conspire to bring these two together.

There are two Outcomes, Shadow Outcome wins ties.
·   Heroic Outcome – What your Hero wishes to make happen.
·   Dark Outcome – What the Dark Place desires.

Doom Token
If you possess a Doom Token
·   You are unable to give anyone any other Token. If you give someone a Token, it must be your Doom Token.
·   Any Token given to you after your Roll forces you to reroll in favor of the Dark Outcome, however that might be. As a group, you should all determine which Die to reroll. For example, if your Heroic Die shows 5 and your Dark Die shows 1, the chances are better for a Dark Outcome if you reroll the Dark Die. If, as a group, you are unable to agree, the Player who gave the Token decides.

If you are given the Doom Token
·   Your Dark Outcome will occur.
Ending the Game
Dark Places ends only at the choice of your group, often when either the Dark Place is triumphant or your Heroes somehow bring a halt to the evil.


Under Cover of Wood (think Watership Down)

You choose two Outcomes, the Reason Outcome winning ties:
·   Reason Outcome – What your animal, thinking more like a human, wishes to occur.
·   Instinct Outcome – What your animal's fight or flight instincts dictate.

Force of Nature
Each Player may, once per game, declare a force of Nature and make a Roll. The GM can never ask for a Force of Nature, nor can she stop you from causing one. Nature's Paw wins ties:
·   Nature's Paw – Some benign event, such as a falling tree allows you to ford the river, or a gentle rain drives away the hornets.
·   Nature's Claw – A terrible Outcome beyond the control of the Players, such as a flash flood, a wolves' ambush or the Farmer's tomcat appears.
Players may spend Tokens on the Force of Nature as they would any other Roll.

Zak Arntson

Okay, I read the transcript ... and wow! It's really a delightful read. The hair even rose on my arms at parts. I'm floored and flattered that you all had so much fun. Thank you for playing.

Chthonian uses those varied outcomes explicitly. Check out the character sheet: Our group had lots of fun with the "Yes, And", "Yes, But" and "No, And" outcomes. I don't have the playtest package ready, but if you're willing to run an unpolished scenario, let me know.

QuoteThis is because there is absolutely no vestige of character effectiveness in Shadows. It's all about player effectiveness.
Exactly. I think it's a very valid game design approach to remove character effectiveness and replace it with player effectiveness. Many boardgames operate the same way - each pawn has the same attributes and rules.

It's also interesting that this game functioned so well in IRC. What aspects of the game & play made it so accessible to IRC?



Glad to hear the expanded Shadows is still incoming. I'm greatly looking forward to it! Those look like some snazzy addons in the works.  

As to your question about why it runs well in IRC, I think it has to do with the simplicity of the mechanics. Player effectiveness is measured by one resource (the tokens) which can be tracked using IRC nicknames. Paganini_3 becomes Paganini_2 when I call for a reroll. No fuss with extra paper / character records in Notepad, or anything.

The die mechanic is allso well suited for IRC, because it's a simple roll and compare. Our dice bot will roll both dice at once, so you get output that looks like this:

* DiceBot --> "Paganini rolls 2#d20 Good vs. Shadow and gets 3, 5."

So, it's immediately obvious which die is which. There's no counting or mathematical operations. There are no modifiers, or recursive die rolls. Some of the game we've tried are a little complicated in IRC. Other Kind, for example, you have to keep track of Color dice. In Vampiros, you have to sort the dice and look for ties. Universalis has many components to keep track of, and the coins fluctuate too rapidly to keep track of them with a nickname, the die mechanic has lots of counting and comparing dice. (Not that Unversalis is bad for IRC... it's a great IRC game for other reasons, but we did have those several logistical things to overcome.)

With a printed line, rather than physical dice, these sorts of manipulations can be somewhat time-consuming. With Shadows, you pretty much roll the dice and look at the result, just as you would playing it on a table.

Also, something else just occured to me. It happens that the game pretty much just blasted out of the blue. It was a very impuslive start, literally about 5 - 10 minutes between the time I suggested Shadows, and the time we started playing. When I said zero prep time, I really meant it. :)

But the thing is, it worked *without* prep time, because players can take narrative control whenever they wish, and I can give it to them whenever I wish. If I get stuck or something, I just call for a shadow roll to keep things moving. I had several ideas come to me during play that I stored up "just in case," but I never needed them because the *players* were in control. They were shaping the game to deal with the issues, and to provoke the kind of color and imagry, that they wanted.

Bob McNamee

The other thing that made the game great for IRC compared to other the Pool, Vampiros, and to a lesser extent Otherkind.

The results of the roll are already generally decided beforehand. No matter which way the dice went.

This differs from what we saw in the Pool (Banana Republic) where Nathan was probably scrambling quite a bit to figure out what to do with our failed rolls. (even though that came out great too)

There wasn't a sense of stuttering...oh god, what do I do with this roll...
(I saw this in my Face-to-Face "Super-kind" game too)
Bob McNamee
Indie-netgaming- Out of the ordinary on-line gaming!


Quote from: Bob McNamee
The results of the roll are already generally decided beforehand. No matter which way the dice went.

That's a good observation, Bob. Since players narrate "failures" as well as "successes," I never had to deal with anything unexpected. I could really focus on my part of the game without having to attend to any "busy" work. I think that helped keep the level of play up as well, because I was free to really concentrate on game flow and on creating the necessary atmosphere for the transitions and NPCs.

This differs from what we saw in the Pool (Banana Republic) where Nathan was probably scrambling quite a bit to figure out what to do with our failed rolls. (even though that came out great too)