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[Nicotine Girls] Daddies for Babies who aren't Baby Daddies

Started by Joel P. Shempert, August 11, 2009, 02:52:16 AM

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Joel P. Shempert

At Go Play NW I got a chance to play Nicotine Girls with Michael, Ogre and Johnstone. I'd been wanting to for ages, but shied away for fear of making a mockery of the material. Then Ron posted his awesome Nicotine Girls play here at the Forge, and it gave me just the kick in the pants to try it out. Reading that thread finally gave me a good understanding of how to approach the game.

But I still would never have actually gotten around to it if I didn't have a brave group of players to do it with me. I had mentioned online that i might be bringing NC to GPNW, so Michael cornered me and asked me about it. He was doggedly enthusiastic about playing the game, so I made sure to schedule it. The other two guys volunteered on the spot when the game slot came up; I think Johnstone might have been recruited by Michael. We had our group, and we dove in.

I first grounded the play session with a discussion of the emotional vulnerability of the subject matter. I didn't want this to be a comedy game or have the smug voyeurism of Jerry Springer or anything. We all briefly discussed our personal touchstones for this kind of. . .I dunno, life situation, both in our real lives and in fiction. It made a lot of difference in getting us all tuned in to what we were going to do and impress on us the vulnerability and seriousness of it, the grim-and-sad-but-not-mere-misery-tourism approach that's vital to the game.

I confess I felt a bit awkward, even guilty, about my role in the proceedings. After all, I was asking the players to lay themselves bare, to open themselves for an emotional gutpunch through these desperate characters, and "all I was doing" as the GM was twisting the knife. But I was straight with the guys about my feelings, they assured me it was cool, and we went ahead.

We set the game in an unspecified podunk Eastern Oregon town--the kind that has A burger joint, and A bowling alley, and A high school, and so on.

  • Michael played Priscilla, a 17 year old single mother, living with her Christian, alcoholic-in-denial mom. Her Dream was to find--NOT the natural father--to be a daddy to her boy.
  • Ogre played Taylor, a 17 year old bright but cynical girl, the only Goth in town, with a single working mom and hooligan little brother. Her Dream was to get a scholarship for ANYWHERE but here.
  • Johnstone played Janine, a 19 year old community college student, and tutor at the local GED/Vocational training center. Can't remember what her parents' deal was; my notes are illegible and they never came up in play. Her Dream was to become a high school Guidance Counselor.

We began with each Girl coping with a single problem/situation: Priscilla is trying to ward off her no-good baby-daddy who's demanding equal time with his son, Taylor is trying to maintain her schoolwork under the demands of watching her little brother, and Janine is trying to trade up her dopey sensitive-poet boyfriend for a cooler fellow tutor. From there things snowballed nicely; Priscilla cowed the ex-boyfriend AND his sanctimonious father and got some child support payments in the bargain, and spent the rest of the game seeking a replacement man while desperately guarding her baby from neglect by her mom. Taylor struck up a quiet, desperate relationship with a boy who came over to her house for babysitting help--one of the three punk kids in town--starting a torrid whirlwind of drama. Janine cruelly milked the old BF for rides and money while ferociously coming on to the new guy, only to find after she'd bagged him that he was a bore AND he was now to frisky for her to help her study to be a counselor.

The players were pretty proactive in taking on Adversities for more Fear to roll. The only awkward bit was that they at first were thinking about adding Adversity while a conflict was in progress, and retconning the Adversity in. I corrected course toward planning ahead and picking Adversities beforehand, and we ended up with some great Adversities that were powerful scenes in their own right: Janine scheming a promotion at the local Tas-Tee-Freez (Change in Work Responsibilities, 3 Fear) by planting Shemale porn on the computer of her creepy manager, and Taylor talking her BF Mike into beating up whoever sold her little brother pot--it turned out to be a biker gang, and Mike crashed his truck with his 2 punk buddies in the ensuing chase, only one of them surviving (Death of Boyfriend, 10 Fear). Taylor made a huge scene bawling her eyes out to get in to Mike's funeral, and was a broken and bereft person thereafter.

The Smoke scenes rolled right along, as well. I only participated in a couple; mostly it was the Nicotine Girls themselves advising each other. Taylor tended to give really level-headed and honest counsel, and Janine's advice was supremely manipulative and mercenary. The results of following advice--I don't think anyone disregarded any--were fifty-fifty: e.g. Priscilla followed the others' advice and got the deadbeat boyfriend off her back, but later followed Janine's advice to date the late mike's now-crippled friend, and ended up injuring himself in his crazy homebrewed wheelchair sport. I contributed to a Smoke scene at the very end between Taylor and Pam, the bitter clerk at the Voc center; Pam obliquely said, in essence, "Don't be like me--study like hell and get out of this place" without actually saying it. Cut to Taylor furiously scribbling on her SATs.

The fascinating thing I observed about playing Nicotine Girls (I explored it recently on my blog but I'd like to unpack it more) was that while at the outset Situation seems bleak and the characters perhaps depressing, there's an extraordinary nuance in the story that emerges. Acting out of Fear and Hope (of which only Fear can really improve), and only accomplishing things through Sex, Money or Cry seemed at first blush to be horribly defeatist. Ogre and I especially were shaking our heads at the soul-crushing circumstances we were narrating in the early game, and at the terrible things that came out of characters' mouths.

And yet the story wasn't a straight descent into emo-land. It had peaks and valleys. The events of the game seemed a natural out flowing from these girls' circumstances. And there was a lot of humor that emerged, such as the fun-loving punk trio that made a great counterpoint to Taylor's tight-lipped exasperation. Which made their deaths/crippling all the more painful. But it all felt very real, like we were being true to something. And when we hit endgame and all the NGs rolled their Hope to achieve their dreams: not one of them succeeded. But I found that all those "failure" endings encompassed a whole range of tragedy and promise: Priscilla kept up her cycle of baby-daddy after baby-daddy and her kids were taken away by the state, Janine didn't become a guidance counselor or anything else, and her empty life stretched on ahead of her, and Taylor didn't get her scholarship, but hit the Greyhound out of town to go to school on her own power, alone and burdened but still striving. We ran a whole gamut from tragically stupid to "got what's comin' to 'er" to brutal promise.

My conclusion: Nicotine Girls' constraints aren't mere fatalistic downers, they're a grounding force. There's still an incredible range of possible narration even within their narrow confines. They simply say, "This ain't no Cinderella story. No Fairy-fuckin'-Godmother. People don't get their dreams and you may not get yours. But what you do with your life is your own." Ron addressed this in his thread when he talked about class myths. It'd be easy to say "Well they have it terribly hard but then they transcend it all" like some goddamn J-Lo movie. But this game takes courage. Happily ever after isn't a given. But neither is the fall to self-destruction inevitable. This game is real; it's about people I've known. And it doesn't flinch. I feel that my friends and I did something valuable when we played, something beyond mere Emo Porn or "High Awht" roleplaying. We told a truth. And in so doing enriched ourselves and each other, and strengthened our friendship with an act of terribly vulnerable trust.

Nicotine Girls helping us do that was worth more than all my other thousands of hours of roleplaying.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.

Ron Edwards

Great post, Joel.

I'm very, very interested to see your next venture into Sorcerer now that you've done this. I suggest that you prep for it along similar avenues, regardless of genre trappings, particularly in terms of the real-person discussion beforehand.

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan

One of the things some friends of mine and I said when we first read Nicotine Girls was, "Jeez... this is about people we know." Great write-up, Joel. I have tried time and again to get a game of this going, and the intelligence and power I'm picking up on from your game secondhand cuts like a knife that I never got a chance to play it.

Joel P. Shempert

Thanks, Ron.

It's no accident that this game went so smoothly following our discussion of Color and Reward in my thread [Sorcerer] Cascadiapunk post-mortem. I can't emphasize enough my appreciation for our input and its effect on my understanding of how to do this thing, with any game, in whatever time and place, with whatever group of people.

For those following at home, Color + Reward is a powerful formula for facilitating group buy-in to a given game, where you discuss the fictional content, tone, etc. you're aiming for, in conjunction with the game mechanisms that facilitate that. So for Nicotine Girls we discussed real-life touchstones for desperate low-income teenagers, Christopher Guest comedies, etc, and the interaction of Hope, Fear, Cry, Money, Sex and Smoke that brings that about. NG is an interesting case because you don't even have to summarize the reward mechanisms; you can just describe them all and there it is.

Check out Ron's full-on breakdown in the link above to learn more. It's cool stuff, for ANY group creative activity, not just roleplayin'.

Ron, Sorcerer has never been far from my thoughts. Right now I'm engaged in a very satisfying game of Burning Wheel set in historic Ireland at the time of early Viking settlement (facilitated in exactly this fashion--we were all like, "Medieval Ireland and Vikings and community/family tensions, with Beliefs and Artha and Fight! and Duel of Wits, YAY!" practically in unison), plus playtesting of Jake Richmond and Nick Smith's Magical Land of Yeld and my own Spectre of the Beast. After the majority of those are wrapped up. . .I'd say look for some solid Sorcerer activity in 2-4 months.

+                      +                      +

Bret, it's immensely gratifying that you were inspired by my account. But I really must stress that I didn't do anything magical to get that "intelligence and power." Yes, I had some awesome, mature and committed players, but we arrived at that space of shared enthusiasm and aligned vision through exactly the process I outlined above and Ron alluded to. This doesn't mean that you can take Nicotine Girls and sit down with absolutely anyone and have a perfect game. You definitely have to match the activity to the participants. And that's the biggest thing Go Play NW did for me--put me in touch with the right participants, with the dedication, maturity, etc. And I'm sure I can find some more of the "right participants" here in Portland, if I seek them out. Especially since I've got slome experience under my belt, of what a rewarding NG experience looks like. But breaking through that barrier helped a lot.

I hope this perspective can be helpful in you (or anyone with similar fears) facilitating your own successful play, lof Nicotine girls or anyone else. Good luck!


PS I just recorded a Stabbing Contest podcast with Ogre about the game. I'll shout out when he gets it posted; I think it could help give an idea of our process and the different layers of the experience.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.


Hmm, you know how a flower for mara has those monologues, I can't remember where I read it, but doesn't it have something where the director puts their flower down first, which means that despite their "power" within the game they are making themselves vulnerable? I wonder if there is a way to do something like that in this game?

The difference I notice between this and a game like sorcerer, although again I haven't played it, is that the players are dis-empowered and reactive, on purpose. Because of this it feels like it has more ability to overbalance things on the social level, and so is more in need of that kind of mechanic. Not to penalise the GM, but to bring everyone onto the same playing field. The stuff you did about personal touchstones is probably a great help in this area, but I wonder if there is something else that can be built in to help, coming from the actual mechanics of play.

Joel P. Shempert

JW, that's a good example. It's definitely a case of the GM/facilitator not only taking the lead in vulnerability, but also in demonstrating how to perform a key game function. Leading by example in every possible way. Which is awesome.

I think, in retrospect, that Nicotine Girls compensates (at a player level, anyway) for the PCs' disempowerment by having the Players choose Adversities for their characters. Not that this does the characters any favors from an SIS point of view, but it does let the players drive a bit more than they might otherwise be able to. Though it's important to note that it's still the GM who narrates the Adversity once it's been picked, something we fell down on, 'cause I plumb forgot. The Players were by and large setting the scope and details of their own Adversities and doing a wonderful job, but it deprived me of a key source of input. I think it's important for the GM in this game to really play the world and NDCs to the hilt. And onc ean Adversity scene was set by a player, I certainly stepped in and did just that. But if I myself had been the one deciding on the circumstances of, say, Taylor's boyfriend's tragic death, I'd have a lot more opportunity to invest on the fiction and my role in it.

And that I think is the key to GMing vulnerably, in Nicotine Girls or in ANY game. You've got to be a fully invested participant, not just a cynical knife-twister. If I'm bought in to the struggle of the Girls and achingly longing to see how it resolves, then I can act in the fiction with as much conviction and emotional weight as the players, if from a different angle.

Or so I've just realized for myself, in retrospect. Does that make sense?

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.


Hi Joel. I saw you posted about this on your blog, but missed it here (and ZOMG somebody is talking about me on a podcast?!)

I read the rules through after getting back home, and I think the main awkwardness is that we (the players) kept trying to set our conflicts up so that we could introduce the tragedies in order to get the extra dice. I think we are just supposed to pick one to get extra dice, then the GM introduces it later on, after the conflict is over.

The short discussion we had up front made everybody comfortable with what I think we already wanted going in -- real characters in real situations. Like how you guys totally despised my character, yet you played both her boyfriends as exactly the kind of guys who would get used by that kind of girl. You're right about GM vulnerability -- you bought into every situation the players presented and played NPCs accordingly, even while we were all groaning and laughing and saying "I know people just like that!" And we were able to watch the story unfold, without judging these characters. Instead of thinking of her as a bad person, I thought about the premise of the game and figured I'd just have her fight hard and fight smart to get out. The limited choice of actions makes these girls a lot more manipulative than a player might like, so you kind of have to find something you like about your own girl and struggle on. You can't look down on another player's girl, because they can just turn that gaze back on your's, and you can't deny it.

The Hope roll at the end of the session reinforces a long-term game. None of our girls escaped, but they got closer. Janine got promoted, upgraded her boyfriend and successfully cheated at school, Priscilla found a prospective/possible daddy to go to work on, and didn't Taylor still got on the bus without the scholarship. Another few sessions, and they might all be above the poverty line!

Also, did you notice how that list encourages even worse things happening around the girls? The deadly auto accident helped show the world around these girls trying to drag them down -- are they like these fuck-up people around them (and look what happens to them, dead or paralyzed), or are they better than that? And they are already trying.

Anyway, I'm glad Michael did recruit me for a game I wouldn't normally be interested in playing. Good times, good times.

Joel P. Shempert

The Stabbing Contest Podcast on Nicotine Girls with Ogre Whiteside and Mickey Schulz is up! We talk about what made the game work for us, and the issue of handling emotional content with integrity--i.e. an answer to the accusation of "emo porn." Thought it might ber of interest to folks.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.