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Author Topic: Spirit Tests in Vinland  (Read 8194 times)
John Kim
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« on: January 17, 2004, 12:36:12 AM »

OK,

I just completed the session summary for my last Vinland game, and I thought it was a particularly interesting case.  So this session members of the Brygjafael clan were going to undergo a ritual (a "vision-quest") to make the mustang a totem spirit for their clan.  This was an idea came up with by one of the players (Liz, Kjartan's player) -- as a way to bridge the cultures and religions between the native "Lagakin" tribes and the viking colonists ("Vinlanders").  The prophetess PC Silksif had come up to visit the Brygjafaelers around Christmas, and would conduct the ritual for them.  She had spoken to the mustang spirit, and it had told her that it would test them -- and that the test would be "whatever is most difficult for them".  

I have a session summary up at
http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/vinland/campaign/sessions/session48.html

The session came in two acts of a sort, which coincidentally were separated by a 40-minute break as I put our 3-year-old son to bed.  The first was negotiating a bit what the ceremony would be like and who would be a part of it -- whether the women of the clan would be a part (related to the viking tradition of prophetesses), or only the men (related to the Lagakin tradition).  

The interesting part to me was about the connection between the first act and the second.  The first was very detailed conversation and interaction within the real world.  The second was their spirit journey where they were individually tested by the mustang spirit.  At a simplistic level, one might say that the first half was Simulationist and the second half was Narrativist.  The first half had an example I referred to elsewhere, that a player was looking up online about hypothermia during the game.  The second half, though, had very pointed tests of spirit.  

Liz wrote a bit about what it was like to her:
Quote
this is hard to explain but in short:  John perfectly pegged us all with "quests" that were actually difficult for us in character and out, so, agonizingly hard choices for both our characters in-game, and tweaking us on some aspect of our real life personality.   I don't know how he does this....  The wolf actually tempted me to chuck it all and join the wolf clan instead by insulting the intelligence of herd animals... When I realized that I could not accept the Tree's offer to put down roots, drink from the well and grow taller by learning, and that on every branch and twig were all the different kinds of knowledge possible to know - this because I could not reach the damn rune sticks in the hollow of the tree...   I had to actually chop at the tree either to make the hollow bigger or (what I did) choose a branch and chop it off and use it as a tool to extend my reach.    Now, believe me that I nearly had my character chop his own hand off and leave it as an offering to the Tree in apology!  But I kept it to just cutting myself and letting it drip on the cut branch.  The character is a viking poet who is ambivalent about war and peace and great events.   This got to me in RL on many levels


Bjarni's player commented on this, saying:
Quote
After last night, I am in awe of John's GMing abilities. I was pretty much expecting the ritual to be a by-the-numbers test of bravery and strength, probably with lots of dice-rolling. I never dreamed the trials would actually transcend the game and become challenges for the players themselves, but that's exactly what they did. I was also completely fooled by the fake battle and I seriously agonized over Bjarni's dilemma.
 
Even after Liz's episode with the tree was over, I figured there was no way the same level of meta-game challenge could be repeated for me and Bill, but boy was I wrong.  


I would add the interesting thought on importance of system.  During Bjarni's test he was faced with the illusion of his family being attacked.  This was rolled as RuneQuest combat -- hit locations, disabling, and all.  The trick was that the two players who were rolling knew that it was an illusion, but the third player -- who wasn't in it but was being tested -- didn't.  I think it was vital for the combat to feel real to her.  I think this scene would have been totally different and most likely less powerful if we were using, say, Fudge or The Pool for combat.
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lumpley
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« Reply #1 on: January 28, 2004, 10:29:12 AM »

I've been meaning to get to this!

Quote from: Liz
John perfectly pegged us all with "quests" that were actually difficult for us in character and out, so, agonizingly hard choices for both our characters in-game, and tweaking us on some aspect of our real life personality. I don't know how he does this.... (my emphasis)


My question is: how did you do it?

It's clear you knew your players and read their subtle cues about what would engage and challenge them.  Can you talk about what some of those cues might have been?

And then, how did you create a challenge that would fulfill the player's want-for-challenge?  There was the player throwing clues at you, spoken and un-; how did you go about building a challenge from them?

And THEN, there you were playing the challenge out: how did you know when you'd grabbed the player?  At what point did you yourself go "...yeah! Gotcha!"?  How sure were you going into each challenge that you'd judged correctly?

This is great stuff you did, that's clear from how your players talk about it.  I'm curious about techniques.

-Vincent
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John Kim
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« Reply #2 on: January 28, 2004, 12:54:44 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
  It's clear you knew your players and read their subtle cues about what would engage and challenge them.  Can you talk about what some of those cues might have been?

And then, how did you create a challenge that would fulfill the player's want-for-challenge?  There was the player throwing clues at you, spoken and un-; how did you go about building a challenge from them?

And THEN, there you were playing the challenge out: how did you know when you'd grabbed the player?  At what point did you yourself go "...yeah! Gotcha!"?  How sure were you going into each challenge that you'd judged correctly?  

Well, I'll try to answer as best I can.  My guiding principle was exactly what the spirit told them their tests would be: "Whatever is most difficult for them."  For the most part this flowed out of the characters -- and that gave it power because the characters reflected the players.  I should mention that I had some practice.  I have run an adventure like this twice before in two Champions games (one in 1993 when I was at Columbia, and another in '97 in Chicago).  The initial one was definitely inspired by a Champions convention game I played in run by Brian and Susan Grau, and also the adventure "No News of a Thaw" by Phil Masters (part of "Champions Presents").  

Two tests were variations of tests that I had already done.  Bjarni's test was taken exactly from a test from the first game -- it has a fairly basic principle, and also an old fairy tale device.  Once you've defined that he has to stay on the path, the trick is to motivate him as much as possible to stray from it.  Bjarni is a hot-headed young man who last summer had fought his uncle Poul (who had gone berserk).  While others tried to wrestle him, Bjarni waded in with his sword and ended up disemboweling Poul -- which he since regretted.  Frankly saving the other PCs is always a good bet for temptation to stray from the path, but choosing that as the appropriate test made sense for Bjarni.  

Kjartan's test is a variation on one which didn't work the last time.  In the last Champions game, there had been a Freemason magician who was seeking enlightenment through probing mysteries.  I had thought that the test would be a puzzle box, where the trick was that you had to break it.  It was totally obvious that time that he had to break it, because the puzzle I made was very thin.  I was determined this time to make the solution a surprise.  At first I thought I would have a runic riddle, making clear that runic knowledge would be imparted from the puzzle box of sorts.  Eventually I felt that the box wasn't really appropriate for the type of test, and I switched instead to the Tree of Knowledge.  

The third was Poul's.  Poul had a lot of stuff going on which I could touch on, but I didn't really analyze it all out.  It just sort of struck me at some point that his test had to be one of trust.  Once I had that it became clear that the test had to be trusting someone whom he had no reason to, that he had no leverage on -- such as the wolf spirit.  

What I found difficult was that I wanted the tests to tie together... to make sense as actions rather than be arbitrary and disjointed individual pieces.  Thus, I wanted all three to tie together into some kind of task.  I just sort of turned it over in my mind for a while until I came up with the relay race, transmitting what Kjartan retrieved across great distance.  

Having that as a basis was very important, I think, for making the tests be real -- for the players to actually invest in the characters enough to feel the decision.  In all the tests, it wasn't obvious until a crucial point of what the test was.  There was a key point where the player's eyes widened as they realized what they had to do.  At that point they were already invested, though.  But if you start with "I'm going to test your love of family vs your honor" -- then it is there is no investment.  

For a while during Kjartan's test Liz was just stumped, and she asked me as GM essentially "Give me a hint here".  And I tried to drive it back into character: what would the character do?  I went over the physical setting: the tree, the grove, the axe.  This stalled play for a little while (I'm not sure how long), but I think that was good to convey Kjartan's dilemma.  Nothing would happen until Kjartan took action.  That indeed was the point of the test.
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lumpley
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« Reply #3 on: January 29, 2004, 08:08:02 AM »

Quote from: John
Poul had a lot of stuff going on which I could touch on, but I didn't really analyze it all out. It just sort of struck me at some point that his test had to be one of trust. Once I had that it became clear that the test had to be trusting someone whom he had no reason to, that he had no leverage on -- such as the wolf spirit.

Ah!  Now that's what I'm talking about.  What was going on with Poul's player that it struck you?  When the idea came to you to have the test be trusting someone with no reason, how did you confirm with yourself that you were on the right track?

It sounds like you went into the challenges quite confident - you'd chosen and adapted and created challenges that would suit your players well.  I've played lots of games where the GM had invented challenges and they didn't suit the players at all, they were lame, the GM was inventing challenges to suit himself and nobody else really gave a crap.  I think that a) you weren't doing that, and b) you knew you weren't doing that.  Am I right?  And if I am, how did you know?

That's a super-valuable skill, knowing when what you're planning will catch your players' interest.  I'm not sure I could say how I do it, so I'm kind of hoping you can say how you do.  Yes, it's kind of like I'm asking a magician how the trick's done.  I hope you don't mind.

-Vincent
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clehrich
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« Reply #4 on: January 29, 2004, 09:08:23 AM »

Quote from: lumpley
Ah!  Now that's what I'm talking about.  What was going on with Poul's player that it struck you?  When the idea came to you to have the test be trusting someone with no reason, how did you confirm with yourself that you were on the right track?
One thing that might not be obvious here is that John has been running this game for a really, really long time -- as in years.  By this point, I suspect that if Bjorn had simply said, "Oh, that's easy, I stick to the path, and screw the others," not only John but all the players would have been surprised and rather annoyed.  

What you describe here:
Quote
I've played lots of games where the GM had invented challenges and they didn't suit the players at all, they were lame, the GM was inventing challenges to suit himself and nobody else really gave a crap.
I think comes from everybody not knowing everybody else, in this particular game, fantastically well.  Of course, there's also a certain amount of the GM just not being very empathetic, but I think knowing everyone is crucial.

To get a little GNS on this, this is where Narrative premise (agenda, etc.) naturally arises from campaign length.  Sure, it sounds like John forced a premise sort of situation, but it became meaningful because all the characters were very deeply felt -- old friends by now, well established in their ways.

Chris Lehrich
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Chris Lehrich
clehrich
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« Reply #5 on: January 29, 2004, 01:29:25 PM »

After re-reading the session description carefully, one other thing strikes me about these tests.  Contrary to a fair number of RPG tests I've seen, each one of these requires the PC to do something "stupid."  I'm here thinking of the sense of "stupid" that commonly makes other players say, "Okay, you deserve to get hacked, Dave; that was really stupid."  For example, "There's an onrushing stampede of bison?  I charge."

Each of these tests requires this.  You have to choose among bad options, not find the right answer.  It's not like an old dungeon trap, where there's a valid solution that entails your doing fine.  In order to succeed, you have to fail, and you have to do so quite brutally.  Furthermore, there's nothing glorious about the loss: you don't get to sacrifice yourself grandly for everyone else in a big fight.

For Kjartan to succeed, she has to break the test.  Everything is set up such that there seems to be a legitimate and acceptable answer, but there really isn't.  You have to do a terrible, even criminal thing.  You have to want to succeed that badly.  The whole time the player is probably thinking, "I really hope this is a good idea, because if it isn't I'm offending just about every spirit being there is."

For the smith to succeed, he has to trust a wolf -- a symbol of folks who are not the friends of the mustang he wants to befriend -- and tear his arm off.  The whole thing seems like a temptation: you can let me do it, says the wolf, and all you have to do is lose an arm (player may think, but of course it's only a dream, so it's not a punishment).  In other words, you can do it yourself or trust somebody fundamentally untrustworthy and get off easy.  The right answer is to trust and lose your arm, not to blunder on stupidly and hopelessly.  He doesn't even get to sacrifice himself nobly, because he really has no idea whether it will work.  It's one thing to hand over your arm (if you'll pardon the pun) for a goal visible in front of you, but to do it on trust that a dangerous animal will actually keep its word is quite another.

For Bjarni to succeed, he has to ignore his basic responsibility to his friends.  Note the element of trickery here: the player actually believed that his character's friends really were getting hurt.  This is the trickiest to pull off, I would think, and I'd really like to know how you got this to work.

If I read this right, you set up tests which require the PC's to do terrible, criminal, self-destructive things.  They have to go against self-preservation, both in the short- and the long-term.  This demonstrates that they really mean what they say, i.e. that they really want the totem.

Am I reading correctly?

I do have one question, though.  Suppose Liz (Kjartan), for example, had decided that cutting the tree could not be a legitimate answer, and had proceeded to bang her head against the problem endlessly.  What would you have done?

Chris Lehrich
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Chris Lehrich
John Kim
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« Reply #6 on: January 29, 2004, 02:01:39 PM »

Quote from: clehrich
  If I read this right, you set up tests which require the PC's to do terrible, criminal, self-destructive things.  They have to go against self-preservation, both in the short- and the long-term.  This demonstrates that they really mean what they say, i.e. that they really want the totem.

Am I reading correctly?  

Wow!  That's absolutely correct.  I had just thought of it in terms of the simple phrase: "Do what is most difficult for you."  But that simple phrase really doesn't convey the power of what was called for nearly as much as your analysis.  

Quote from: clehrich
  I do have one question, though.  Suppose Liz (Kjartan), for example, had decided that cutting the tree could not be a legitimate answer, and had proceeded to bang her head against the problem endlessly.  What would you have done?  

Honestly, I'm not sure.  I think it would really depend on details and especially on feedback from the players.  I think I might have hinted more about what the test was if Liz didn't understand the dilemma.  However, if having understood it she refused to do the horrible task, then I think they just would fail the test -- i.e. the mustang doesn't accept being their totem.  First of all, I would probably ask if anyone had any Fate cards to play.  Assuming none of the players had any ideas, though...

I would probably have a conversation between Kjartan and the Tree of Knowledge wherein he re-evaluates his priorities.  He may decide to return to his family or he may stay with the Tree to learn -- in which case he may seem to fall into a coma in the physical world as he learns.  If he returns to the family, we would play out how he explains what happened.  The mustang would reject them, and the wolf would probably talk to them again before they awoke from their trance.  

I should note that the wolf is not evil or an enemy, although he is out for his own ends.  Earlier in the campaign they had allied themselves with a Mohican sachem named Rowtag, whose clan totem was the wolf.  With their help, he ascended to be grand sachem of the Mohicans.  They found him to be scary and dangerous in some respects, but agreed that he was a good ally.  The Brygjafaelers have had nothing but good relations with Rowtag.  So it is not at all unreasonable for them to pick the wolf as a totem, and some family members would approve.
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Sigurth
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« Reply #7 on: January 30, 2004, 08:55:15 AM »

John, went to check out game summary and wanted to find more, but was unable to acces through your website at darkshire. Can you put the link for all the summaries.

I've been interested in a Vinland-type game for some time, so maybe I can gleen some inspiration from yours.  Also, this is my first example of a RQ session.

Noticed the parallels between what you did and "No News of Thaw" which I may run for my Champions. However, I liked what you did better since it was so much more directed at the PCs.

thanks!
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John Kim
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« Reply #8 on: January 30, 2004, 10:40:19 AM »

Quote from: Sigurth
John, went to check out game summary and wanted to find more, but was unable to acces through your website at darkshire. Can you put the link for all the summaries.

Top-Level Vinland Game Page
http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/vinland/
Session Summaries
http://www.darkshire.net/~jhkim/rpg/vinland/campaign/sessions/index.html
The spirit tests are #48.  

Quote from: Sigurth
  I've been interested in a Vinland-type game for some time, so maybe I can gleen some inspiration from yours.  Also, this is my first example of a RQ session.

Noticed the parallels between what you did and "No News of Thaw" which I may run for my Champions. However, I liked what you did better since it was so much more directed at the PCs.  

Well, "No News of a Thaw" did have a specific personal stage in its spirit journey.  The PCs pass through the land of the dead, and there they should individually face dead people of personal significance.  But yes, you can get much more personal when you know the players and the PCs.
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