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The Situation In Silent Sound

Started by jburneko, November 18, 2008, 04:09:27 PM

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So I finally got over my terror and pulled together some people to play test my game Silent Sound.  The game is inspired by much of the color and thematics of the Silent Hill video game series and in particular the storyline of Silent Hill 2.  However, while the video game is largely about exploration, surviving monsters and solving puzzles, my game is about addressing guilt.  That's much more fun.

Basically, the PCs are characters who have all committed a moral crime (which may or may not also be illegal).  Silent Sound is a supernatural place of judgment that has lured the PCs there to face their crimes.  The game is about whether or not these characters come to terms with their crimes through the metaphor of whether or not the town metaphorically devours them.

Last night we did character generation and it went very, very well.  The players I have assembled are Christopher Kubasik (CK!), Eric and Colin.  The first step of character creation is picking a Theme for the character's crimes.  These guys don't pull their punches and went with: Kids.  From that CK created a man who lost his son while he wasn't playing attention.  Eric created a school teacher who when he was a kid took one of friends out into the woods and then left him there, never to come home.  Colin created a priest who broke his vow of celibacy and then abandoned the child that came from that.

The next step of character creation is for the players to create Memory of a time when they visited Silent Sound before and Lure which is something that has happened and compels them to come to Silent Sound right now.  Both of these must imply a character who is effectively a player created NPC for the GM to play with.  CK's Memory was of playing in the sand with his son and his Lure was a letter from someone in Silent Sound claiming they have his son.  Eric's Memory was of his first kiss at the Silent Sound carnival and his Lure was that the brother of the kid he abandoned in the woods and who has been looking for him most his life thinks he may be in Silent Sound.  Colin's Memory was of fishing on the lake with his dad, and his Lure was that the mother of the child Colin abandoned has called asking to meet him in Silent Sound.

The final step of character creation involves discussing The Shadow.  Silent Sound exists on two planes of existence.  The normal world which may be odd or weird but not overtly supernatural and The Shadow Plane which is can be a full on nightmare. The mechanics of the game involve the characters shifting back and forth between these planes.  During character creation a Look & Feel for this shadow plan is decided upon.  The group went with: Rundown Coney Island-esq Amusement Park.

From that the players take the NPCs they've created and describe how they appear in the Shadow Plane.  CK's son appears normal except with a broken jaw, and the mysterious man who sent the letter appears as a clown.  Eric's first love appears as a doll, like you'd win at a carnival game, and the brother he's catching up with appears as a security guard for the amusement park.  Colin's father is a carnival barker and the mother of his child is a lion tamer.

I'm very pleased with how it all went and Colin said it best: "Before I was interested in the game, and now I'm *excited* about the game."  And so am I.

Points of Consideration

One of the questions I asked was, "Do you think your character feels guilty for what he did and do you think that's important."  There was a unanimous "YES!" heard round the table.  Everyone thought it was super important not only for their character to feel guilty but that the Lure directly scratches the "itch" of that guilt.  This was very interesting to me as I had intended the game to be neutral on whether or not the character felt guilt.

Last night I couldn't quite properly articulate why but today I have clearer thoughts.  First of all there's a mechanic in the game called Judgment.  Judgment is a resource pool that can be spent on *either* side of a conflict your character is NOT involved in.  I'm curious with such sympathetic characters if Judgment is will ever be played against one another.  I obviously won't know until play.

Second, what the three guys created last night was three characters struggling to come to terms with what they did.  I had originally intended to support a second kind of character who believed there was nothing wrong with what he did but Silent Sound has a different opinion.  Such a story would be a character struggling to *defend* what he did.  A character who stands up and says, "Fuck you, Silent Sound, I don't give a shit what you say there's nothing wrong with what I did!"

Question: Is that second idea workable?

That second character (theoretical) character concept dovetails with my second thought.  The players were really excited about these characters and so am I but as I was driving home something was gnawing at me.  Something seemed "off" about the characters and finally realized what it was.

In all my thinking about the game it has always been about character's who have a crime in the past *that they have no way of ever dealing with in an external manner.* It's over and done, with no hope of ever going back.  But that's NOT what I have with these characters.  With these characters people *directly* related and involved in the original crime are still present and active in the situation.

This is an issue because I'm not 100% sure my situation creation process as formulated supports that.  The basis of my situation creation system is predicated on the idea that the situations are *reflections* of the character's crimes without actually *being* the character's crimes.  Essentially the game as originally formulated was about people confronting their crimes over and over and over again from an objective and ultimately *outsider* perspective.

That's where that second character type above comes from.  Silent Sound constantly confronting the character with situations similar to their crime and forcing them evaluate, "Would you do the same thing in this context?  How about this one?  How about that over there?  What about NOW?  Would you?  Would you?  Would you?!"

Now what the players did was so easy and natural and exciting I WANT to support it.  In fact I'm pretty sure what they did was BETTER than my original idea.  I've never been happy with my situation process and I think perhaps that's because I knew this was going.  In fact even BEFORE things started I knew CK in particular was probably going to do something I hadn't anticipated because of his passion for creating these uber-focused characters.  Notice:  Crime: Missing Son.  Memory: Missing Son.  Lure: Missing Son.

Here's the basis for my situation creation.  Right now the GM is expected to create two NPCs from each of the player's crimes.  The names are dumb but I call one The Rejecter and one the Perpetuator.  The Perpetuator is victimizing someone because they are committing a crime similar to that of the PC.  The Rejecter is someone who is victimizing someone because they are *not* committing a crime similar to that of the PC.

So each PC has 4 NPCs associated with them.  You basically then take the Perpetuator and the Rejecter and have them victimizing one of the 4 NPCs associated with a different character.  Next you create a stressor which is someone or something that is putting pressure on that victimization.  This yields essentially two micro-situations per PC that are reflective of their crimes.  At this point you combine and collapse any of these characters.  The only rule is that the original Memory and Lure characters must remain distinct but they may be combined with Perpetuators, Rejecters or Stressors.

Finally, you transform the whole thing into the The Shadow like you did with the two Memory or Lure characters during character creation.  In particular at this stage Stressors become Monsters, truly horrible demonic things that are making things really bad for the situation.

I'm going to more or less stick to this process for now and see where it takes me with these characters.  But all this was created with the idea that the players would be facing only *reflections* of their crimes, not actually engaging elements from their crimes. 

Another thing I noticed was that the players were leaning towards making pretty much their own Monsters during character creation, the clown, the security guard, at one point Colin proposed having his father be a huge spider like thing which I clamped down on because of the Stressor to Monster mechanic during situation creation.  Perhaps I shouldn't have done that instead, simply noting the fact that the players have handed me monsters and that I should simply endeavor to reverse engineer them into Stressors in the normal town.


Eric Heisserer

First off, let me echo Jesse's enthusiasm: I am really excited about this game. In the span of creating our first characters I went from curious to committed.

To your question of whether or not the game could support a character who believes he/she is not guilty of the crime, I think it's a tough sell. I'm not saying it can't be worked properly, but I feel you're shifting tone. The characters we generated for the game last night are all motivated to come to Silent Sound by the emotions of fear and guilt. We are all afraid of what we might find there, but we're compelled to that place because there is now suddenly the clear chance that we might be lifted of the guilt that has haunted us in the years since our crimes. The horror of the town and its denizens in the shadow world are rooted not in physically what the monsters are (although they will be horrifying in the superficial level of 'monster') but what those monsters might force us to see-- scenarios presented as consequences of our crimes, at least one of which will exemplify our worst nightmares about what really happened.

With a character who believes they have not committed a crime, the player seems to be denouncing one of the first stats on the character sheet: "CRIME." But even so, this kind of character can't be pulled to Silent Sound with fear and guilt. If, for example, I play a man who pulled the plug on his wife's life support machine, and the crime Silent Sound judges me with is murder, I cannot be coaxed to Silent Sound with idea that I killed my wife. At that early point in the game/story, my character believes otherwise, and in order for Silent Sound to present its case to me I have to agree that I might be wrong. That just seems like a less dramatic starting point than the idea that my character has been haunted by images of his wife waking up in the morgue or horrible false memories of her waking the next day after I chose to keep her plugged in -- that sense of "If only I had done the other thing."

So yeah. Tone. If you start with characters who are haunted, and their fear drives them to Silent Sound, well... Sounds like you have an actual horror game on your hands, versus an action-oriented debate game.

In terms of the monster character stuff... That's a good question. My gut reaction is to keep the monster creation on the GM side for two reasons. One, it allows the GM some real fun during the character creation stage. And two it could be more fun for players to get anxious and worried about what their monster will be instead of knowing what they will see when they venture into the shadow world.

Along those lines, have you thought about collapsing one of your common NPC monsters into a kind of single Pyramid Head-esque villain? A monster who is the personification of the worst fears of each PC, perhaps? That way you have a kind of recurring character in every player character's story, and the players will feel more of a desire to help each other out when up against the monster because if it wins a conflict or something against one PC that means it's stronger against the others... Okay I'm just making up rules now, I know, but did I mention I'm excited to play? And I'm drawn to this idea of a "boss" kind of monster that embodies the worst possible version of what could have happened.

Without having played a single session, just going by the stats on that character sheet and our brainstorming session last night, the game sort of feels to me now like a war of realities. We are fighting to decide the truth and then face those consequences, whatever they may be. Silent Sound may be saying to CK's character: You were neglectful, and because of your neglect your son was abducted and abused for a week before he was murdered and left in a ditch. (Because, Jesus, that would totally break me down as a person.) CK's character will fight to reveal something like: I wasn't being neglectful, I was actively tricked. Or: My son did not obey my order to stay put and he fell off the railing into the river. Or something. It's still bleak but it presents a perspective that allows the father to absolve himself of the guilt and emerge from Silent Sound no longer broken or haunted.

Ah! That's it! That's why I don't like the "I'm not guilty" approach. Because then if my character wins at the end of the campaign, I haven't grown. There's been no arc, no absolution (one of your stats, ahem), no real change. The character is essentially the same leaving as he is going in. And I think it works when you KNOW the character will be changed at the end, and the game is about fighting for what that change will be.

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Jesse,

A question:

In your conception of the game, are Judgment and Absolution "objective" states?  Or will Judgment and Absolution thrown at a character be a lot like the Humanity definition in a game of Sorcerer, in that every once in a while there will be pause in the story (but not in play) as everyone at the table does a kind of mini-conference on morality to figure out if something is a matter of Judgment or Absolution.

I bring this up because I suspect that these thing simply cannot be objective, that the game at the table will engender discussion of what a crime is, what guilt is, and what Judgment or Absolution is for a particular character in particular circumstances of the moment. 

To this point I simply add this: Never underestimate the ability of committed players to put the screws to PCs at the table for dramatic purpose.  That is, my guy is sympathetic... and he's sympathetic because we all know the feeling of feeling guilty for something we failed to do.  My guy turned away from his son for five minutes as he raced into a 7-Eleven... he was in a rush.  It was only a minute.  He knew the neighborhood. He'd parked in that lot a gazillion times... and he came back to see his son gone and never saw him again.

And I fully expect Eric and Colin to completely drive the screws into his guilt with whatevertheheck Judgment turns out to be.  Because that will be entertaining. 

Which is why I ask if you're expecting these qualities to be objective. Because, in my view, like Sorcerer's Humanity, they need to be a bit slippery and demand all of us trying to come to grip with these issues.  And slamming characters with this stuff for DRAMATIC purpose is what allows us to explore these issues and grab at them -- though our grasp is often futile and the issues escape us time and time again as we wrestle with them.  So, sympathetic or not, I'm expecting Judgment to come flying at my PC.  Because that makes a better story, and that's how this group of players is wired.

As to this: "With these characters people *directly* related and involved in the original crime are still present and active in the situation."  I'm not sure I agree with that.

When I created the note, I assumed it came from the Shadow version of Silent Sound.  I have NO idea if the actual kidnapper (if there even was one) sent it.  I mean, I see the Shadow version of the town as being this netherrealm of emotional guilt that creates manifestations of moral and emotional forces within the PCs... and may or may not have any bearing on "reality" as a concrete thing.  I'm assuming that will come out in play.  But until then, I'm open.  But the point is, I have no expectation my PC will actually be able to "deal" with the disappearance of his son.  He THINKS he can... but in reality -- I have no idea.  We'll have to play to find out.

Given what you wrote below, I think my PC will get caught up looking for his son -- and during that he'll become involved with the NPCs you described.  Either he'll think that by engaging with their lives he'll get closer to his son, or he'll see them as distractions from his pursuit, but won't be able to help himself (if he sees a father who simply doesn't pay much attention to his own child, or example).

As far as being focused (or uber-focused) I say this not as a defensive move, but simply to be clear: each of those elements simply popped into my head as the most engaging things I could think of. There was no attempt to "unify" any of it.  It simply made sense.  And to step backward and somehow become less focused would have seemed an attempt to be "coy" or something.  (Not that you're suggesting that or suggested that last night.)

I'd offer only this: Don't confuse the focus I've created for my PCs situation as requiring some sort of execution of focus in play.  I'm seeing all of this stuff as very much like Kickers: Here's a thing that sets my character off on a path of action, tied to other elements on the characters sheet, that serves as a thematic issues that will be resolved one way or another through play... but I have NO expectation of how that should be resolved, what elements will be involved in that resolution, nor what sort of story or "plot" or key actions will be involved.

So, my guy can be in Silent Sound and seeing and getting engaged in reflections of his crime... but still be dealing with his crime (even if it's on the level of some sort of ethereal-moral-mystic landscape).   The advantage of the way I frontloaded my guy's answers to your questions is that he's engaged, he's moving forward, I'm not going to be wandering the city looking for some sort of vague reflection to affect his soul.  He'll take actions on purpose, meet and interact with people, and THAT STUFF will affect his soul.

I suspect it will work just fine.

But we'll find out.

I will say this, however.  I think your game is going to surprise you.  I don't think your expecting that.  I think you have an idea how it's "supposed" to work.  I think you will be wrong.  I also think it will be very good.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


So what I'm seeing here is that the game's premise is crystal clear and everyone gets it and I need to just calm the fuck down and play the game.  Which is usually the case with *any* game I play, let alone one I've written myself.

Regarding Judgment and Absolution.  They're basically what happens when you take Sorcerer's Humanity ideas and smash it together with Sorcerer's bonus dice rules.  When you succeed at conflicts in the normal world you earn Judgment.  When you succeed at conflicts in the shadow world you earn Absolution.  You then *spend* Judgment to give bonus dice to affect the outcome of a conflicts involving the *other* players either by giving the die to the player or to the GM.  You spend Absolution to generate bonus dice for you and your own conflicts only.

My thematic reasoning is thus.  By engaging in the lives of the "residents" of Silent Sound, you're dealing with the problems of others no matter how reflective of your own problems they may be.  Therefore, you earn the right to judge others.  By engaging the horrors of the shadow world you're basically confronting your own demons and thus earn the right to absolve yourself.

That's the idea anyway.

We've only gone through character creation and I only have the first few wave of notes for situation creation and the game is already surprising me in pleasant ways.  I suspect there will be more to come.