Author: Memento-Mori Theatricks [Jared Sorensen]
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2003-02-13
At the moment, octaNe appears to be the flagship game of Memento Mori, the terrrifying little hot-house of game design that springs from (evidently) the shower experiences of Jared A. Sorensen. It just won Ken Hite's Outie Award, provokes all kind of raving praise from readers, and consistently gets people to run out to rent movies like Six-String Samurai and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Some people see it as one of the shining lights of the Forge and cite it as the clearest validator of the site.
Memento-Mori & me
I humbly claim some influence, although not the central one, on the history of Jared's role-playing design and publishing. The central one seems to be his shower, where he says he gets all his ideas.
When we met on-line, he had about ten idea-pieces posted at his website. They were almost all great startups: "What if we role-played and our characters were our eight-year-old selves?" [eight] "What if, you know, we played guys playing computer-D&D at work?" [gigantocorp] and more stuff like that. Not one was a playable game; Jared insisted that he didn't like finishing things, didn't really enjoy playing anyway, and was just dinkin' around. Albeit that didn't stop him from opinionating at the Gaming Outpost and RPG.net, as well as on the Sorcerer mailing list.
We met face-to-face at GenCon 2000, and we discussed ... Premise, which is the thing that makes a game worth anyone's time without getting into the details of Setting or whatever. Something seemed to click, and over the next months, Jared (still protesting that he didn't, you know, really care about game design) produced Schism, the first mini-supplement for Sorcerer, and InSpectres, the latter of which we forced him to GM at GenCon 2001. He posted a mission-statement on his website, including a system philosophy statement, calling his favorite engine (or its core) the "i-System."
About then, he got this funny look in his eye and games started to get finished: Squeam, Pulp Era, Clown Cops, and lots more. This was kind of his "whacked system phase," when anything was worth tossing into a system, including animal crackers, rubber bands, and milk. The scary part was that the games, by and large, were playable. The website became a Darwinist breeding-ground: mutations cropping up constantly, some "taking" and developing into new critters, and the critters being assessed, sometimes played, and some then grabbing themselves a big hunk of Memento-Mori attention and development.
octaNe was the one that seems to have prompted phase 3 - the "Yeah, I'm a game designer and publisher, what's it to you?" phase. It had glimmered a bit into existence when I insisted that Schism be sold, not free, but now InSpectres (very well-baked by playtesting) and octaNe are plain and simple commercial products - as independent as it gets, but backed by business cards, small-press print runs, and even a narrowed-eye, sidelong squint at in-store distribution.
Back to octaNe
No doubt about it: the text of this game brilliantly captures the source material. It's a great read, as well as supplying the reader with immense trash-film cred for coffeehouse or on-line chat. You'll learn all about Grindhouse and Psychotronic film, as well as Art-house and Cinema Verite to some extent, through enthusiasm rather than boring exposition. Even if you don't like this stuff, after reading octaNe, you will want to, and you'll want to play. One person in our group borrowed a copy, read it, dashed out to rent Six-String Samurai, watched it, burned a CD full of tunes that I shudder to relate to you, and insisted, for the first time in her life, that she was going to GM this game. Make characters. No negotiation.
All which boded well for our playing. I emphasize that we knew exactly what we were doing in terms of subject matter. We're all fans of whacked cinema and two of us were reluctantly squelched in our Grindhouse desires, in favor of Psychotronic. The Rule of Rock-and-Roll and the Rule of Treats are already part and parcel of our typical play style anyway. All of us do martial arts in real life, we're all a little too emotionally invested in the content and history of rock music, and we consider things like flying monkeys, cannibal rednecks, or sex-starved alien squids to be perfectly reasonable features of a cinematic experience.
News flash: we didn't like playing octaNe as much as we expected.
How could this be? This is octaNe! It's supposed to be the greatest thing! Did we miss the vibe? Did we do it wrong? Did something awful happen, such that cosmic rays interfered with our fun? Let's see.
Did we get the characters wrong in some way? Nope. The Alien Anthropologist who could Consult the Mother Ship and Waltz Through Mayhem, the lizard-like Mutant Trucker who could Rip Off Faces and Snuggle, and the Heretic Stunt(wo)man who could Kick a Group's Collective Butt were all on-target and full of beans.
Did we mess up the i-System concept of who narrates and who says what? Nope. The book very clearly articulates the role of the GM, and Maura did a fine job.
Did we not understand the rules? I'll cop to occasional confusions; the dice mechanics are spread over several parts of the book and the text doesn't help a person with spot-questions very well. Overall, the rules are so hyped about the narration-trading, that the actual mechanics get less coherent explanation. A rules-summary sheet would have been mighty handy. It would look like this:
Did we forget the Rules of Rock-and-Roll and Treats? Nope. Check, to both.
So what's the problem? The best way to explain it is to compare playing octaNe, point-by-point, to playing my favorite Memento-Mori game, InSpectres.
So during play, when actually rolling or speaking, there's no interactive springboard to work from beyond one's initial enthusiasm from reading the book. More specifically, there is nothing for a character to do or become besides what overcome the GM throws at you. This occurs because the narrating person provides an "And my character wins the fight" as a capper to the fight-situation the same person has just presented.
So you've made up this fun character (say, the lizard Mutant Trucker). The GM throws Huey and Louie, mob enforcers, at you. You roll, and you get the 6! Fantastic, you can narrate the outcome and you can grab a couple of Plot Points because you used a Style. "They leap at me with their big arms waving. I jump on Huey's head and rip Louie's face off!" H'm. OK, now the GM poses me a new problem: "Huey shouts, 'Moy bruddah! Moy only bruddah!' and rips back his vest to reveal a bomb built into his chest. He triggers it!" And then I roll again, and say I lose. The GM gets narration, and he says, "You throw Huey into the swamp, where the bomb detonates! Stinky water drenches everything in the immediate hundred yards."
You see? Where's the protagonism without the adversity? No matter what the GM tells me or vice versa, when I get to narrate, I have to state the circumstances of the character's attempted action as well as the effects, in the same narration. Where's the adversity when anyone can and will narrate the hero's success? Granted, the GM could've stated a negative outcome for my character, but so could I - and both of us are constrained to have the same long-term priorities for his or her failures and successes.
As play continues, in-game events provide nothing more to latch onto besides the Color of encounter after encounter. The system solely provides a round-robin mechanism for each person to contribute "stuff happens," which I shall now dub the Conch. (The "Conch" refers to the object in The Lord of the Flies whose holder had the floor in Parliamentary terms; a very useful term which I propose to adopt as Forge jargon regarding narration.) Significantly, the Fortune mechanics do not interact among player to player, as they do in Universalis or Pantheon, to pick very different games in other variables which nonetheless also feature trading-offs narration. Similarly, octaNe is not at all like Donjon in this regard, in which GM-narration is supposed to disadvantage the player and player-narration provides advantage.
The issue also harks back to some controversies in playing The Pool, regarding the dice's role in resolving conflict, an issue on which I take a very hard line. Without an understandable and coherent Fortune input into the outcome, the dice operate only to pass around the Conch. This is a fine thing, perhaps, but it does not constitute a Fortune System at all - in fact, it might be shocking to hear it, but octaNe's dice do not affect conflict or task resolution, the game does not include a Fortune mechanic at all, but rather a dice method for organizing the input of the Drama mechanic.
Here are some threads regarding adversity, Drama mechanics, and narration issues which I think are applicable.
How we played Chalk Outlines
Drama like your cold feet under my covers
What looks like the metagame won't do it either. Players continually amass and spend Plot Points, but they provide no "so what" in mechanics terms. All they do is move the Conch to you more often. Since there's no reason to care whether you or the GM narrates - you're both equally committed to the coolness of the content - the Plot Points suddenly become ... not much.
Finally, one can't even play different sorts of characters just to see how things turn out differently, because characters are all structurally identical (with the minor exception that some have Might or Magic, but even these ultimately only affect Plot Point outcomes, which is to say, not much).
Shocked yet? Is this the first pan-review at the Forge? Does octaNe suck? Well, we didn't think so. Too many fun things happened for that to be the case. We found it easy to establish "riffs" and to repeat them in new contexts, for funnier and funnier self-references. In our first game, it was the line, "You're not from around here," which graduated from being a bit of local color to near-cosmic levels of significance through judicious and often unexpected uses.
So we shook our heads a little and kept playing, and following some discussion, here's what I think.
GNS says "h'm"
This is emphatically not a Narrativist-facilitating game. Why not? It's simple why not, there's no general issue at stake at all, and specifically no means to generate one, or to prioritize it during play. The dice don't do it, and the dialogue won't do it, because "what happens" poses no special difficulty, adversity, or focus for what happens next.
It might look more like Character-Simulationism at first glance, based on the fun and enthusiasm that the game consistently generates during character creation. However, a second look reveals two things: (1) characters are utterly static, to an extent that Exploring them at time-unit A and Exploring them at time-unit B are identical; and (2) all characters are exactly alike in system terms. This latter point especially reduces the Character-Sim possiblities almost to nil.
The only GNS-interpretation of the game is to peg it as Simulationist with the primary emphasis being on Color. Which characters are in play doesn't much matter, what happens doesn't much matter, and what it means doesn't much matter - what matters is how the music jazzes you, what what-liners get thrown around, and how freaky it all is, all the time. That would, indeed, be Color.
Of course, Jared would flip to hear this. He dislikes Simulationist play to the point of occasional obsession, and in fact is the author of the Beeg Horseshoe Theory which suggests that ultimately this mode is impossible. He might simply be deluded, though, and would have to live under the horror of everyone loving his Sim-Color game.
However, one thing makes the Simulationist-Color interpretation tricky ... the System can only do one thing. By itself, it doesn't even facilitate the Color in action except to say who gets to deliver it. It is, if you'll excuse the expression, pretty limp Sim.
So what the hell is going on?
How to love octaNe
I suggest that this game is at its strongest when it isn't necessarily played as an RPG in the first place. It is, I think, far better served and enjoyed as Consensual Storytelling, or as near as makes no difference. To clarify, Consensual Storytelling is composed of several people contributing sequentially to a story in progress as full or nearly-full narrators.
I have decided that Jared wrote a Sim game, went "Ughhh!" in horror, and then broke the RPG box in trying to get the system out of Simulationism. It makes sense when I think back to the first version of octaNe, which used his original, very Sim-lite Pulp Era rules that focused on quick and easy task resolution. That first version was mostly about rolling to hit and whether it dies or not, so I think that he hated it, and his efforts to keep tweaking it until he stopped hating it ended with the current version - again, with most its anatomy hanging out of the whole box and well into another one.
Therefore, to enjoy octaNe, you gotta know what it is, going into it, and be ready to make a choice.
The first option is to stick with the role-playing box and play Color-Sim with lots and lots of Director Stance and Drama mechanics. If you do this, I suggest establishing some local negotiaton and adjustments to keep the adversity arising from one narration to the next. It would be fairly GM-heavy play, as someone needs to stay in tune with moving things along; whenever he or she gets the narration, major things should happen and many colorful NPCs should be introduced.
Also, everyone needs to know the intended scope of play, in terms of how many sessions, before it begins, as the extent of "what can" or "what should" happen per narration is not automatically obvious. During play, my character used his thermonuclear device for what I thought was a reasonably satisfying clincher-ending, only to discover that at least one other person at the table fully intended at least one more session. So either my explosion was to remain cool and the game was terminated, or it had to be relegated to a minor event and the game could continue.
The second choice, which I think is probably more reliably successful, is to do the Consensual Storytelling thing with no bones about it, making use of the system's structure for Conch-passing purposes and recognizing that the adversity/expression element of role-playing will be absent. The way to look at playing this way is not, "Everyone's the GM" but rather, "No one is a player." The thread Scene framing and octaNe presents some of the issues to consider when playing this way.
I strongly suggest taking this approach, as many features of octaNe suddenly all become advantages.