Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Digital Antiquarian

One of my favourite websites if Jimmy Maher's blog The Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy writes long articles about the history of computer games, with a focus on innovative games, and with occasional forays into the history of (home) computing in general. That would already be interesting enough, but what makes The Digital Antiquarian a must-read, in my book, is the combination of Jimmy's painstaking original research and the intelligence and perhaps even wisdom of his literary/ludological criticism.

I'm not being paid to say that. Rather the opposite, since I just signed up at Patreon to support the blog. But I wanted to support the blog in more than just a financial way, and hence I'm writing this to get all of you who are interested in computer games, gaming in general, or digital history, to click on the link and sample The Digital Antiquarian for yourself. It is totally worth it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

To judge or not to judge

I'm not sure whether I'll be judging the IF Comp this year. Mostly that is just because it is a time-consuming process and I'm busy, but that is a reason so banal that I would not needlessly consume your time by sharing it in such a public place. This post is about another, deeper reason. "Deeper" doesn't necessarily mean "more important", but it does mean "more interesting".

Here is the deeper reason: I'm no longer sure what judging something like the interactive fiction competition is supposed to be. And that's because I'm no longer sure what my relationship to the authors is supposed to be.

The relationship between reader and author can take roughly four forms. (There are undoubtedly more, but they may not be relevant to this discussion.)
  1. The author can be the producer of a product which the reader consumes. The demand that the reader makes on the author is to provide a product which pleases the reader's particular tastes, and judgement is given depending on how much it did in fact please. This judgement is unapologetically subjective.
  2. The author can be the creator of a work which the reader attempts to helpfully comment on. Instead of being producers and consumers in a market place, here we conceive of ourselves as part of a limited community of people who help each other out, and who share the goal of creating works that are as good as possible. We try to be positive, or at least constructive. We point out what went wrong, but with the aim of teaching the author to do better next time. And "better"doesn't necessarily mean "maximally pleasing to us," since we recognise that not everyone in the community has the exact same tastes. Our judgements are inter-subjective, and made with a view to community standards.
  3. The author can be the mostly irrelevant  person in the background of the work itself, of which we attempt to be the critics. We must let the work speak for itself, and we must then do it justice. Our aim is to understand the work perhaps better than the author did; to show its wisdom or its folly; to learn from it how our craft works; and to increase our understanding of whatever themes the work is about. Our judgements strive to be objective and appeal to the unlimited community of critics (which includes all of the future), even though we know that we will always fall short. And the judgement might well be that a work is entirely worthless. Achieving artistic success is hard.
  4. The author can be a person trying to communicate personal experiences, and we are the sympathetic audience of potential friends. We might get a narrative about a boy struggling to tell his parents about his homosexuality, and we understand that this is the author's attempt to work through his own experiences in this situation, or perhaps those of one his friends. We are not called on to judge, or at the very least, we know we have to be careful with judging. Generally, friends ought to listen; maybe give advice; perhaps help out in some other way; but, in most cases, not judge. And we are at least in some sense the author's friends; those with whom he or she attempts to talk about whatever is painful and hard to talk about.
Now, I have never had any trouble choosing between these relations when writing about books or works of interactive fiction. With books, I choose resolutely for number 3. The book is the work of art; I am the literary critic; and the author is irrelevant (and often dead). With interactive fiction, I have always tried to create a mix of number 2 and number 3, depending on the maturity of the author as author. Someone new to the form can use some encouragement from the community, so I'll try to do more of 2. (I know I have often failed at this, sometimes massively so.) An established author is probably more interested in real criticism, especially since quality criticism is often much harder to get than craft advice.

But the two relationships I've always resisted being in are 1 and 4. To judge a work simply by how much pleasure it has given me is shallow and overly subjective. And who cares? Nothing irritates me more than so-called reviews that merely expose the subjective likes and dislikes of the reviewer and then either congratulate or castigate the author for catering or not catering to them. And to not judge a work at all, but accept it as the tale of a friend -- well, I want to say, I'm not your friend. If you want to talk about difficult stuff in your life, by all means do so, but do so in private situations, not in the public channels that we use for the dissemination of art works.

And I still largely agree with that sentiment. But I also have to come to terms with the fact that this neat distinction between public and private has weakened, and will continue weakening. It is becoming routine to talk about your private life in semi-public places like Facebook, and completely public ones like Twitter, internet forums, newspaper columns, or, indeed, novels and pieces of interactive fiction. And so my blanket dismissal of everyone who releases a work of art in order to talk about his or her subjective feelings is no longer fair. I might still resist the trend. But it would be unjust to hold those who follow the trend accountable for not sharing my resistance. And indeed, given that public means of communication have opened up new ways for people in minority positions to find recognition and develop their voice, that resistance itself is becoming increasingly unjust.

Sharing your pain has nothing to do with art. (Pain can fuel art, but the pain must then be transformed into something that is no longer the artist's pain.) But I am not enough of a Nietzschean to claim that art is the ultimate goal, and that human suffering is insignificant compared to it.

And so, while I can still dismiss 1, I have to reconsider my position with respect to 4. Is it really the case that interactive fiction community is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? I don't think I am in a position to make that decision -- nor do I wish to be in that position. And is it really the case that the interactive fiction competition is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? One might think that a competition is not the channel for voicing one's pain or other feelings. But even that is not clear. The competition is like a megaphone; it amplifies one's voice far beyond what is possible outside of the competition. It is more than a competition; it is also the prime place for speaking in our community. Making it off-limits to certain voices and stories would constitute an act of injustice, even if one had the best arguments in the world for it based on the essence of competitions or the traditions that constitute "us".

I bring all of this up not because of an academic interest in different form of judging and not-judging, but because, if I am at all right about current trends, 4 has become more important in our community in the last few years. And this leaves me in a bind. For while I can see how to combine 2 and 3, I really don't see how to combine 2, 3 and 4. How can I judge and not judge? How can I focus on the person behind the work and strive to forget that person in order to see the work objectively? There may be some Hegelian synthesis waiting to happen here, but I'm not seeing it.

How to judge the interactive fiction competition? I don't think the organisers could solve my problem by giving rules for that -- those rules could still be unjust, and "Befehl ist Befehl" never exculpates -- but what they do say only makes things more difficult for me. For this is the current slogan of the competition:
An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.
This then is supposed to be, not just a competition, but also a celebration. But how do those things go together? How can we judge and celebrate at the same time? Isn't celebration an event in the realm of mercy, rather than one in the realm of judgement?

How to judge the interactive fiction competition?

How to judge at all? With the division between the public and the private gone, how can we do justice both to subjectivity and objectivity, to our being able to speak as well as to our being able to speak? How can we capture in one thought, in one discourse, in one work both our individuality and our transcending of that individuality -- both of which are essential to our humanity?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding

If you have any interest at all in pen and paper RPGs, you should get the Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding (for sale for another 20 hours, so be quick). It contains many of the most important games to start the indie RPG movement. So much so, in fact, that the list of games basically is a list of everything I bought and played between 2002 and 2007. I can assure you that the following games are all excellent, both to play and to study:
  • Breaking the Ice
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Trollbabe
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Inspectres
  • My Life with Master
  • Polaris
  • Sorcerer
  • Universalis
I have not played octaNe and Munchhausen, but they are well spoken off.

All for less than 23$! It's an offer you should not refuse. I didn't refuse, even though I already owned nine of them in physical book form.

Monday, May 19, 2014

[Trollbabe] Why trollbabes aren't dogs

This is a post about Ron Edward's RPG Trollbabe (2002) and Vincent Baker's RPG Dogs in the Vineyard (2004). I'm not completely sure which of the two I played first, though I think it was Dogs. It has definitely been the case that I've seen and played Trollbabe in the past as if it was a somewhat simpler version of Dogs, though of course set in a rather different setting.

Why would you think the two games are closely related? Well, Trollbabe is acknowledged as an important influence in the text of Dogs. But looking at the games themselves, we can see three very important similarities:
  1. The protagonists of both games are outsiders who come to a community in trouble, will influence that community throughout what is probably a single play session, and will then leave for a new "adventure".
  2. In both games, the GM prepares by thinking up something that is at stake or going wrong in the community, and preparing a couple of characters that have views about the situation and interests in seeing certain outcomes come true. Then it's time for Story Now.
  3. In both games, the player characters are only ever at risk if the player decides they care enough about a certain issue to put themselves at risk. Death is only possible if you decide that a conflict is worth dying for.
Given these similarities, I naturally assumed that Trollbabe and Dogs in the Vineyard were very similar games overall, and the GMing one is almost identical to GMing the other. This was a mistake, and I think my earlier lack of success with Trollbabe can be attributed to it. I didn't really get the game, because I was looking at it with the wrong assumptions.

So, what's the difference? Let's start by summing up a few things:
  1. Dogs is made for party-based play. The assumption is that you and your fellow dogs move from town to town together. Trollbabe, on the other hand, does something that always made me raise my eyebrows in surprise: at the start of the game, it lets all player choose a location on the world map. They can choose the same location, but they can also all choose different ones. Even when they choose the same location, the trollbabes are not assumed to form a group (though they may do so if they choose).
  2. In Dogs, conflicts are conflicts between a number of sides (often two) that all wish for a certain outcome. All sides roll dice, and all sides decide how far they want to escalate the conflict. There is no fundamental difference in this regard between PCs and NPCs, between the player and the GM. In Trollbabe, on the other hand, every conflict is one trollbabe's attempt to make something happen. Only she sets stakes; and only she rolls. The GM never sets a goal, never rolls, and never decides whether an NPC wants to continue the conflict or not.
  3. The dogs in Dogs have a very specific role in society; they are appointed to judge people's sins and set communities aright. That doesn't mean that everybody will always listen to them, or do what they say; but it does imbue them with authority. They are also responsible for the communities they visit; walking away on whatever mess they may find is not really an option, at least not for as long as they want to be dogs. Or rather, it may be an option, but an extremely radical one that implies the extreme judgement that a particular community is literally damned. And whatever the dogs judge to be the case is supposed to be true; after all, they're the chosen servants of god. The trollbabes in Trollbabe, on the other hand, have neither authority nor responsibility. They are powerful, and people will see them as threats or opportunities, which means that they act as destabilising elements in any tense situation. But they don't have authority or responsibility; their judgements are not sanctioned from above; and in fact they are under no compulsion to judge.
Now if you expect Trollbabe to be just Dogs with simpler mechanics and more fjords, all these differences will appear to be weaknesses of the game's design. What Dogs is extraordinarily good at, indeed what it has been designed to do, is to give you complex situations in which your players must come to judgements even though fair and equitable judgement may be hard or may have harsh consequences. They enter a town. Something is amiss, and it is their job to find out what it is and to make things right again. They'll start pursuing this job. As the GM, you can have NPCs drag them into conflicts. There will generally be differences of opinion between the players, and because they're all in it together, this leads to immediate in-game tension between their characters. There's one big huge conflict situation, and the players must -- and more or less automatically will -- go to the heart of it before the session can come to an end.

But how do you make that same thing happen in Trollbabe? Players don't have the same strong motivation to enter a situation; you can't drag them into it; and their fellow players might be somewhere else entirely. It just doesn't work! Only if you are very lucky will the good Dogs in the Vineyard stuff start happening! Ron Edwards, fix your game!

Except that, of course, you shouldn't be striving to make the same thing happen at all. The new edition of Trollbabe has a passage which made me write down "Trollbabe isn't DitV!". It is on page 88:
Judge as you please. Characters in the adventure location will be constantly in her face, and she will like them or not, and interact deeply with them or not. The adventure as a whole is not your problem. Although the Stakes exist, and your trollbabe's presence influences what happens to them, it is not your job to identify them and decide upon them in any way. Focus instead on the characters she meets and what she does with, to, or about them.
A trollbabe is not a dog. She really doesn't have to judge. And a Trollbabe player is not a Dogs in the Vineyard player. She really doesn't have to go to the heart of the conflict situation; and if she does, she can deal with it any way she damn well pleases, even if that means walking away from it all in disgust, or turning it to her own -- rather than the community's -- advantage, or taking a sudden liking to one NPC and taking care of them while they let the rest of the mess take care of itself.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM will build a town where if the dogs don't intervene, everything will become steadily worse. The town is on the way to Hell, quite literally. In Trollbabe, you don't have to do that as the GM. In fact, everything could end up just fine if the trollbabe doesn't come along. (And who's to say what "fine" is, anyway?) The conflict is a backdrop against which the trollbabe will come to life. Sometimes, that may mean she interacts deeply with it; sometimes, it may mean that conflict goes its own way, perhaps a completely non-climactic way, while the trollbabe pursues other interests. That would break a game of Dogs, because it would destroys the basic premise of its fiction. But Trollbabe is in a wholly different genre.

And when you stop trying to imitate Dogs and start playing Trollbabe, it actually works. In the game I recently played with Michiel and Erik, the two players chose radically different approaches. Michiel's character saw it as her mission in life to ease tensions between trolls and humans; she came to the conflict location because she had heard rumours of such tensions; and she involved herself deeply in it and tried to set things right. Erik's character, on the other hand, was an amnesiac only interested in finding out the truth about herself. She learned about the conflict situation, then killed off almost everyone involved in it because that would bring her quick personal advantage in gaining her goal. The original stakes -- whether a certain guy would be able to marry his love -- were resolved, I guess, when that guy was killed; but the killing had nothing do with his love. The conflict I had thought up was something Erik's character just didn't care about.

And it worked! Both stories were interesting, fun, and memorable. It just turned out to be the case that Erik's story was about how we and his character found out that she was ruthlessly in search of power (and in fact had recently turned herself into a trollbabe in order to achieve that end!), and not about some poor guy's attempt to marry. (Or about his relationship with his troll slave, a nice secondary tension I had set up.) It was still a good story that made all of us eager to see more.

Conclusion: it's really hard to read games without preconceptions, but those preconceptions can ruin your play. A good game text -- like the 2009 edition of Trollbabe -- can be very, very important in setting things right. A blog post like this may, perhaps, also help.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Item weights in DCSS

In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup -- one of the best current roguelikes --  there is a discussion going on about the removal of item weights. Even if you have never played DCSS, you probably know what they're talking about, because this has been a feature in D&D and all kinds of RPGs for a very long time. A player has a certain limited weight she can carry, depending on her strength; and item weights are needed to calculate whether that limit has been reached. So, does this mechanic add anything to the game? Here are my two cents, which I just posted to the crawl developers mailing list:
Inventory management is not a very interesting part of Crawl strategy, nor is Crawl the kind of game where it could become interesting with just a few tweaks.

Inventory management is interesting when it forces you to make tough choices. There are basically two ways to achieve this. One is to make sure that items are not retrievable once discarded. This can be done in several ways, for instance by having non-permanent levels (Angband) or a strict food limit that doesn't allow much backtracking (Brogue). In both of those games, inventory management plays a big strategic role. But Crawl is more of a move-through-the-dungeon-at-will game, with permanent levels and plenty of food. Which is good, but allows players to keep a stash and retrieve whatever they want, thus taking the bite out of inventory management.

A second way of turning inventory management into hard choices is by having a very limited inventory; so limited that the player must leave behind some of her basic tools. Suppose that the player can carry only three types of item. Then you suddenly have to choose between carrying scrolls of teleportation, potions of healing, potions of berserk strength, and that ring of fire resistance. If you leave the ring in your stash, you're in trouble when you get into a fight with a fire-breathing dragon.

Crawl's inventory limit is so large that the player can always carry all her most central tools, and the limitations only affect niche items, convenience items, and large stacks. And this too is something that probably shouldn't be changed, because a super-limited inventory is a better fit for a small, tight game than for a sprawling game like Crawl.

Thus, so as far as I can see, inventory management is never going to be a particularly interesting part of Crawl strategy. It still serves a function, though: it keeps things simple and convenient for the player. That may sound a bit counter-intuitive, because struggling with your inventory limit may not feel very convenient. But it is: better to have to discard a couple of items now and then, than to end up with an inventory of 472 things in which you can never find what you need.

Given that the Crawl inventory limit is mostly there for the convenience of the player, it should be as convenient as possible. The goals of an inventory limit are best served by having a limited number of inventory slots. Item weights & carrying capacity just add a second inventory limit which adds complications without any benefit.

And to speak from experience: I have sometimes increased my strength in order to increase my inventory limit, even though I knew that it was better for my character to increase intelligence; I did that just because frequent stash trips were boring and inconvenient. The optimal strategy should always be a fun strategy. Which means that in Crawl, item weights should probably go.

Now, I can see that this is already more or less the consensus, but perhaps this post can still add something to any discussion that might be going on. :-)

Anyway, thanks for the great game, and keep on the way you developers are going. I am often impressed by the quality of the design discussions here.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

[Trollbabe] Using a map

Last weekend, I finally got to play a game of the second edition of Ron Edward's Trollbabe. I played the original version several times, but never with huge success. This new edition, though, was something I really wanted to try. What we usually think of as "the system" hasn't changed a lot; but what has changed is that Ron now gives a lot of detailed description of how to actually play the game.

For a moment, I was tempted to call the new stuff "GM advice". But it's not advice. It's rules, it's system. It may not be about rolling dice and writing things on character sheets, but it is about things like:
  • Who gets to start scenes.
  • What information you can and can't add to a scene once a conflict has been declared.
  • Who gets to declare a conflict.
  • What the maximum stakes for a conflict are.
  • How you prepare a scenario.
  • How you share narrative control over NPCs.
  • What arc the narrative development of an adventure follows.
In other words, all the stuff that you need to make decision about anyway, but that many role playing games -- even great role playing games -- leave you in the dark about. Trollbabe really is the best introduction to "story now" role playing that I know of.

My plan, then, was to play Trollbabe exactly as written and see what would happen. (Spoiler: it was a success! I'll be writing more posts about that in the future.)

Now one of the things that didn't change, and that I never got to work well in the previous edition, was starting a new adventure. The idea is very simple. There's a map of the world, and when the adventure starts, each non-GM player picks a location on the map where they want their trollbabe to currently be travelling. (These locations can be the same for all players, but they can also be on different sides on the world.) The GM then creates an adventure for that location.

The problem I had with this approach is that the player's choice felt completely arbitrary. Sure, you could choose an island, or a mountain range, or a forest ... but those aren't exactly interesting locations by themselves. And there wasn't anything more concrete on the map. Also, as a GM, the map location didn't inspire me. "An adventure in the mountains... hm ..." Nope, no immediate inspiration coming.

The book does contain two smaller maps with some place names, but those didn't inspire me either; and I've never had a player choose to be in one of these smaller maps anyway.

While waiting for the players to arrive, I suddenly had an idea: I should draw my own map! I literally never do that for an RPG, because I generally don't care about detailed geography in my stories. But I had decided to play Trollbabe as written, and it uses a map. Plus, I gathered that a map might be needed in this game to give the wandering character something tangible to wander through.

So I started drawing a map. Islands, rivers, swamps, forests, mountains, hills, villages, towns, some special sites. I didn't have much time, so a lot of the map remained white. But I did make sure to give some of the locations interesting names, names that made them places that I would be interested to explore. There was a weirdly coloured plane near the coast called "de kaalheid", which means "the baldness". There was a tiny island far out in the sea named "Hargans dwaasheid", that is "Hargan's folly". There was a big forest called "woud der verwachting", which means something like "forest of anticipation".

Then, when my two players -- Erik (van Maanen) en Michiel (Bouwhuis) -- arrived, I had them both choose spots on the map, and I gave them the opportunity to add one or two new named features. Both quickly made a choice. Erik wanted to be on the beach of "de kaalheid", while Michiel chose a spot near a famous old battle field and added "de trolford" to the nearby river. We also gave the river a name. Erik decided that "de kaalheid" contained huge skeletons of ancient animals.

This time, the map locations actually inspired me as the GM. The player's choice of a place on the map also felt like a real choice, especially when they added a few details.

Now Ron Edwards makes it very clear that Trollbabe is not a game where the players and the GM co-create the scenario. What is going on, who the NPCs are, and what they want, all of that is up to the GM and is prepared in advance. (Though not long in advance. And of course, things can quickly go into unanticipated directions.) Well, wasn't I breaking that by having the players add stuff to the map? I don't think so. GM preparation of a scenario happens after the players choose a spot on the map to be in. So as far as I'm concerned, that spot on the map is fair game for player interventions. It's only after that that the GM gets full control over the setting.

Okay, maybe I wasn't playing Trollbabe exactly as written. But it worked really well, and in fact, this may have been the best use of a map in any RPG I've ever GMed. Also, drawing a map was fun. And I really want to know what that forest is anticipating. And why Olaf the Black's ruin is a ruin. And what the people in New Stormholm think of the people in Stormholm. And what was so foolish about Hargan.

More about the game soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kerkerkruip 9 released

The Kerkerkruip team is happy to announce the release of Kerkerkruip 9, by far the most extensive update of the game ever made. Kerkerkruip is a short-form roguelike in the interactive fiction medium, featuring meaningful tactical and strategic depth, innovative game play, zero grinding, and a sword & sorcery setting that does not rehash tired clichés.

With over 700 commits to the code repository, the changes made in Kerkerkruip 9 are far too numerous to mention here. But the highlights are:
  • Original theme music for the main menu, composed and produced by Wade Clarke.
  • An entirely reworked reaction system allows you to dodge, block, parry and roll away from incoming attacks. Successful reactions increase your offensive or defensive flow, adding a new layer of tactical depth to combat.
  • An entirely reworked religion system allows you to sacrifice absorbed powers to the gods. Worshipping gods grants lasting benefits, including divine interventions on your behalf; but losing absorbed powers makes you weaker in the short term. Religion thus becomes an important aspect of the player's overall strategy.
  • Grenades can now be thrown into adjacent rooms, opening up new tactical options. However, your enemies may sometimes manage to throw them back to you!
  • A powerful new grenade is the Morphean grenade, which puts people to sleep. If you become its victim, you'll find yourself drawn into one of several dream sequences: weird and dangerous adventures that have an effect on the real world.
  • The hiding system has been streamlined, boosted and made far more transparent. Stealth has now become a viable option.
  • The player now starts out with one of several starting kits, necessitating different approaches to the dungeon.
  • New content includes the angel of compassion, a radiant being that loses its lustre as people die around it; Israfel, a terrible angel that can split into two smaller beings for increased combat effectiveness before reuniting to heal; and the Arena of the Gods, where you can defend your god's honour against other divine champions.
  • A new Menu implementation which is both screen reader friendly and hyperlink enabled.
We are now also offering stand-alone installers for specific operating systems. While it's still possible to download the game file and run it in your favourite Glulx interpreter, there are also installers for Windows and Debian/Ubuntu. We will be supporting OS X in the near future.

Finally, we have a new website at http://kerkerkruip.org. That's where you should go for downloads, more information about the game and how to contribute, and a link to the wiki.

Kerkerkruip is presented to you by the Kerkerkruip team: Victor Gijsbers, Mike Ciul, Dannii Willis, Erik Temple and Remko van der Pluijm. We hope you enjoy the new version. If you've got any comments, or if you'd like to contribute to this free software project, please go the website for details and contact us!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vote for roguelike of the year 2013

It's that time of the year again: the roguelike of the year competition has arrived! Please consider voting for Kerkerkruip if you like the game. (Note: you can vote for as many games as you like.)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ludorama #2: "Fiasco" by Jason Morningstar

Title: Fiasco
Author: Jason Morningstar
Year: 2009
Price: 12$ pdf, 25$ book+pdf, link
Size: 130 pages

Genre: black comedy; slapstick; crime
Themes: great ambitions and poor impulse control; big dreams and flawed execution; lives that get fucked up by gigantic stupidity

Number of players: 3-5
Player roles: no differentiation; everyone plays one character
Preparation: none
Length of game: 2-3 hours

Rules complexity: low (but you need some big tables)
Resolution: specified number of successful and unsuccessful scenes; player's choose which scenes will be which
Online playability: medium/high

Capsule overview: An easy to understand, quick game about people with big ambitions and poor impulse control. You will go from a tense situation full of potential to an absolute mess in a very short time, as the characters get themselves and each other into more and more trouble. Do not expect happy endings, but glory in the absolute train-wreck that it all will become. The playsets and tilt do a lot to stimulate your creativity, and help you get and keep the game up to speed. Highly recommended. (Based on playing the game twice.)

Detailed overview: A game of Fiasco starts by choosing a playset and creating a situation. A playset is a set of four tables, each detailing 36 items organised in 6 categories of 6 items. One table has relationships, like "Family - grandparent/grandchild" or "Romance - former spouses". One table has needs, like "To get even - with this town, for what is has turned you into" or "To get rich - through tricking a handicapped guy." The third and fourth table define objects and places, respectively.

As a group, you roll a big pile of dice, and then take turns using these dice to assign relationships, needs, objects and places to the characters. On my turn, I might write down the relationship category "Friendship" between your character and mine. I would then take a 3 from the pile of dice, because this playset indicates that "Friendship" is category 3. If there are no 3's left, I can't choose this category. Then you might use a 5 to add the specific relationship "Friends with benefits," which is number 5 in category 3. Again, you can only do this if there is a 5 left.

This way, you'll end up with a situation that is partly chosen by the players and partly determined by the dice. You then flesh out the characters and what they want, and once everybody has an idea about what's going on, you start playing.

Play consists of discrete scenes focussing on one active character. That character's player can either choose to start the scene -- telling what his character is up to -- or end the scene -- choosing a black or white die from the pool in the middle of the table, which indicate failure or success respectively. (Dice are never rolled during scenes, they act only as black/white tokens.) The other players get to do the other thing. Obviously, if you choose to determine how the scene ends, they'll generally narrate how your character is involved in a really stupid plan that you probably don't even want to succeed.

Halfway through the game, two surprising events are determined using the Tilt Table. Some examples of tilts are "Betrayed by friends," "Something precious is on fire" and "The wrong guy gets busted." These events are then worked into the next scenes.

At the end of the game everyone rolls the dice they have collected. You count up the white and the black dice, then subtract the smaller from the larger number. The closer you get to 0, the worse you are off. ("You are probably dead. Other people, probably innocent people, are as well. There is no justice, there is no mercy, everything is utterly, painfully screwed and it is all -- all of it -- your fault." Rolling 0 is even worse.) Happy endings for a character are possible, but somewhat unlikely. Everybody gets to establish the fate of their own character by narrating a couple of short vignettes.

Context: Jason Morningstar is a prolific game designer, as can be seen here. His best known games, apart from Fiasco, might be The Shab al-Hiri Roach, a 2006 game about backstabbing academics and a mind-controlling roach (link); Grey Ranks, a 2007 game about young Polish partisans in the 1944 Warsaw uprising (link); and Durance, a 2012 game about a penal colony in space (link).

More good-humoured than Fiasco, but just as much given to slapstick, is Jared A. Sorensen's Inspectres. Just as bloody, but with even less rules, shorter and a distinct party-game feel is Great Ork Gods by Jack Aidley.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Ludorama #1: "Mars Colony" by Tim C. Koppang

The Ludorama is a new feature at the Gaming Philosopher where I present a tabletop roleplaying game. The first instalment is about Mars Colony by Tim C. Koppang, a game that I recently had the pleasure of playing online with Remko van der Pluijm.

I'll start by giving you the "vital statistics" of the game, and then go on to give a fuller description of the game. Since this is the first instalment, and I'm just trying things out, let me know what you would like to see in the vital statistics. (P.S. I've added several things since the first publication.)

Title: Mars Colony
Author: Tim C. Koppang
Year: 2010
Price: 6$ PDF, 12$ book, link
Size: 52 small pages

Genre: social science fiction
Themes: the toughness of social problems; inability to meet your own and others' expectations; the temptation of using deception

Number of players: 2
Player roles: one "Savior" and one "Governor" (see below)
Preparation: none
Length of game: 2-4 hours

Rules complexity: low
Resolution: some scenes are resolved using one or more rolls of 2d6
Online playability: high

Capsule overview: A short game for two players who are interested in exploring serious social problems, political struggle, and the moral and personal problems of a well-meaning politician who wants to set everything right but probably cannot succeed. Well-presented and easy to like, though I expect the stories will become rather repetitive if you play it often. (Based on playing the game once.)

Detailed overview: Mars Colony is a game for exactly two players. It tells the story of how Kelly Perkins -- who can be either male or female -- attempts to solve the problems of the failing human colony on Mars. One player (the "Savior") plays Kelly, sent to Mars by the Earth Coalition, whereas the other player (the "Governor") controls the other characters and the environment.

The game consists of three stages: preparation, play, and the endgame. During preparation, the players collaborate to set the fictional stage. They choose several real-world political parties to serve as inspiration for the political parties on Mars; they create NPCs on Mars, most of them important to the colony, one of them closely linked to Kelly and in trouble; and they choose the problems that the colony is dealing with. These can range from "radiation" to "terrorism," and from "population" to "funding."

The game proper consists of discrete scenes. The Governor and the Savior take turns framing scenes, which have to fall into one of three categories. Personal scenes are about Kelly's personal life and struggles; opposition scenes are about setting up trouble for the colony; progress scenes are the scenes in which Kelly attempts to solve these problems. Only the Governor can start opposition scenes, and only the Savior can start progress scenes.

Personal and opposition scenes are played out without any mechanical resolution. Progress scenes, however, involve the Savior rolling two dice. The sum total of these dice indicate the amount of progress the Savior is making towards solving the problem. The Savior can continue rolling dice as many times as she wants, thus making more and more progress ... but if a die ever comes up 1, the scene ends in disaster and she loses all progress she has made in that scene.

Unless she uses deception, that is. Kelly always has the option to cover up her failures by deception, in which case her progress is not lost. This progress is, however, marked as "lies." Lies can help the colony. But they can also come back to haunt Kelly. If the dice ever fall particularly unfavourable -- an outcome that becomes more probable when deception is used more often -- the deceptions are uncovered, Kelly is completely disgraced, and all Lie points are lost.

It is very unlikely that you will be able to get the colony completely on track without using deception. It is still pretty unlikely even when you do use deception. So Kelly's story will almost always involve an element of getting to grips with her own failures; with her own inability to meet the very high expectations that the people of Mars have of her, and the need to confront their growing disillusionment and contempt. Whether this involves humility, browbeating or high-stakes deception is up to the player.

When nine progress scenes have been played, the game ends. The Governor describes the state of the colony, based on the amount of progress Kelly has made. The Savior describes the situation from Kelly's point of view, and that's the end.

Context: Tim C. Koppang has published three other games. Persona, a "just in time" roleplaying game written in 2003 and available for free here. Clank, an extremely brief game about finding a stranger in your appartment, freely available here (2013). And, more substantially, Hero's Banner: the Fury of Free Will, a 2006 game about a fantasy hero who must choose which goals to reach and which to abandon (more information here).

For those who are eager to explore more social science fiction, there is Joshua A. C. Newman's Shock: Social Science Fiction.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] Results

The results are in!

I got distracted by other things halfway through the competition, so I played only about half of the games. I haven't played any of the top 3, and in fact only one of the top 7 games, so I guess that there is still some good stuff for me to try out.

I'm flabbergasted by the fact that Their angelic understanding has scored an average of 5.99. I changed my own mark to a 9 at some point. There can be some disagreement about marks, of course, but I cannot imagine how anyone could score it below a 7. This piece has beautiful writing, interesting thematic content and does new and impressive things with its medium.

It's a difficult piece, sure; but if you don't understand something, just refrain from judging. As a judge, you are called upon to judge a work of art, not to tell us how much you "liked" the experience of playing it. If you don't understand it, you shouldn't be judging.

(Yes, I'm kind of mad at this injustice, and guessing at the motives and thoughts of the people who misjudged Porpentine's fantastic piece. Those guesses might be wrong. Enlighten me.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Beta rules version 1 -- please playtest!

I have created a full set of beta rules for Comrade Stalin. It is a simple, yet (I hope) tactically and socially complex game that slightly resembles games like Mafia and Werewolves. Comrade Stalin explores the fear, paranoia and ruthlessness of totalitarianism ... while you are having fun.

To play, you need to download the rules and the roles. The roles are presented in an easy-to-print format: simply cut the pages in half to get role sheets.

Please playtest this game and tell me about your experiences! You can post here, e-mail me (victor@lilith.bb, except that it is "cc" instead of "bb"), or post wherever you like and put a link here. Thanks in advance! All playtesters will be credited in future versions of the rules.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

[3:16] Weak sauce aliens on Rubens and Rembrandt

Introduction

The first session of my 3:16 campaign was stellar. The second session wasn't as good. It wasn't bad, and fun was had, but in some respects it was quite problematic.

All the previous players attended, plus one new player, Lenny. I had her make a character as if an old character had died: start from scratch with weapons, but start with slightly higher abilities than a true starting character. Our team thus consisted of Lieutenant Sektor ("by the book"), Sergeant "Mad" Mina ("recalcitrant"), Corporal "Iron" Sue ("Rambo") and the new character Soldier Fabio ("man in the mirror," i.e., very vain).

Last time, I had prepared the planets in some detail. This time, I wanted to make room for more player input, so I rolled the planets on the random tables right in front of their eyes; except for AA, which I chose by hand.


Overview of play

Rubens

The first planet was planet Rubens, a radioactive planet with leaping plant life and an AA of 7. (During play, we forgot about the radioactivity.) Since our very first mission had featured a squad of soldiers sent out to test experimental weapons which unfortunately exploded, I decided to start the mission by an  R&D guy called Captain De Vries telling Sektor that his squad had been selected to test some new experimental weapons. Sektor asked whether they were really safe this time, and was assured that yes, of course they were. Also, that he shouldn't use them himself, because there's no use in risking the lives of the higher officers. Unable -- or rather, unwilling -- to believe that the army would contradict itself, Sektor accepted the orders as given.

The planet featured vast trees, and we had fights with explosive fruits in the canopy, with huge roots coming out of the forest ground, and finally with a super-massive root in a rain-soaked clearing. It turned out that the new experimental cartridges exploded when they came in contact with water ... ah, well. Mina used a strength to take out the gigantic root.

This strength was mostly used so that Michiel's character Sue -- an ally of Mina -- could get the level up for most kills. Sue was carrying a fully-upgraded 3d10 weapon, whereas Sektor was carrying a d100 one (the only one in the party). By a combination of luck and having a higher combat ability, Sue had scored far more hits than Sektor, and had exactly 1 more kill when the final encounter began. Annet had Mina use her strength precisely to ensure that Sue would remain in the lead.

The most interesting event in the mission was Sektor -- who had once again been wounded by Sue's grenades -- ordering her to hand over her grenades. She flat-out refused, and they got into a conflict that Sektor had to walk out from, but not after threatening her with a court-martial.

This did feel a bit like a re-hash of the previous session, where something similar happened. There wasn't much drama coming from the rules this time, mostly because I rolled rather badly for the aliens. Nobody had to use strengths or weaknesses (Mina's use of one was entirely tactical), and nobody had the opportunity to kill or save another trooper. The mission never felt dangerous, and without the pressure of an external threat, the rules do not kick in to suggest fruitful development of the intra-party relations.

Between Rubens and Rembrandt

Sektor did ask for a court-martial, and quite reasonably so. As a GM I had to improvise some plausible way of keeping Sue and Sektor together in a single party. I had Sue arrested, but then visited in her cell by a Captain McAulife, who turned out to be a sworn enemy of R&D guy Captain De Vries, and "his friends, like that ass-kissing Lieutenant Sektor". McAulife is very interested in the story about the exploding energy cartridge, and promises to free Sue. Which happens.

The next mission briefing is given by McAulife. De Vries is nowhere to be seen.

Also, Mina gained a rank and became Lieutenant. I tried to create an interesting romantic sub-plot for Fabio, but that didn't really go anywhere.

Rembrandt

This time I rolled a reefs & coral world populated by rays, sharks and fishes, with the special ability Lasting Wounds. I was like: yes! Lasting Wounds! That is one of the nastiest special abilities in the book! Finally, the difficulty will be ramped up. In order to give the players a chance of surviving, I chose an option that brought the AA to 6.

And then, during the mission, I went on to roll a 10 about 50% of the times (true), and a 7 most of the rest. The aliens literally never did any damage. Never! No wounds, so no lasting wound either. Thus the problem of having too little external pressure was not solved, but only exacerbated. Again, it gave the mission a bland feel; there was some bickering between the PCs, but with nothing on the line, little really happened between the characters.

The mission -- finding a sunken human spacecraft -- was fine, and I used it to establish that some of the higher-ups had illegal (?) business (?) interests here that they needed the party to cover up. Because of the utter lack of external pressure, I decided to fall back on an old GM trick: secret messages that only some of the characters received. Fabio got messages from an unknown person that he would be rewarded if he destroyed some crates that the team had been tasked with salvaging. (Which he promptly did.) Sektor was asked, probably by the same person, to kill the intelligent alien they met inside the sunken space ship.

Actually, that was a nice scene. The party enters the sunken space ship. There are three crew members: two human skeletons, and an alien -- purple, with tentacles, but also clearly humanoid and intelligent. The try to kill him, but he suggests that they listen to what he has to say, because boy are they going to be surprised if they find out what has been really happening here! So they all lower their weapons to listen and find out what their superiors are up to ... and then Sektor shoots the alien. The rest of the party looks at him aghast.

So, that was nice scene, but the rest of the planet wasn't too memorable. No strengths or weaknesses were used; and, as remarked, the aliens didn't ever do any damage.


Diagnosing problems -- and solving them

First problem: not enough opposition. The aliens need to be a real threat. I'm going to choose higher AA's next time. At least 8 for the next planet. (We'll assume I'm not going to roll 10 all the time again.)

Second problem: the missions themselves were a bit weak. I think I underestimated preparation, and will spend some time preparing good plot elements next time. Since the main plot is about the army, not about the aliens, those elements should fit any planet I randomly come up with.

Third problem: there was some evident player frustration about the unfairness of the system. With some of the players now having 1d100 weapons, and others being very far from getting those; and with the players having the better weapons also having higher abilities; and with everyone having a lot of Strengths and Weaknesses left -- well, let's just say that some people felt rather powerless and outclassed. They were experiencing the obvious and deliberate unfairness of the system in a negative way, which is of course a problem.

The solution to this only became clear to me when I thought about it after the session. It consists of two parts.

First, you need to realise that getting better weapons, and even getting higher scores, isn't very important. Your character can still be a protagonist, even a heroic protagonist, if she never gets a better weapon and consistently has the lowest amount of kills. Heroic, because you get to describe all successes and failures yourself, and can make them as heroic (or mean-spirited) as you want. A protagonist, because being unfairly treated by the army and your squad members is a great start for Story Now.

But the second things I realised is more important, because it showed me some possibilities for using the rules that we hadn't even thought of exploring. The key insights are these:
  1. The unfairness of the system represents the unfairness of the army.
  2. Thus, the system doesn't care about giving your character a fair chance of remaining as competent as the other characters. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  3. The system rewards those who exploit and keep down their team mates.
  4. This represents the higher officers being only to happy to use the friction in your team for their own gain. Divide and conquer is their motto ... and they'll make it worth it for some people in your squad, while leaving the rest of you in the mud.
  5. But that doesn't mean any of you have to go along with them. There is one way to combat unfairness: loyalty to your squad. Working together. Helping each other out. You've got to stand up for each other, because otherwise, you'll get screwed.
  6. If the game treats you unfairly, that is only because your fellow players allow it to treat you unfairly.
  7. But they always have a choice not to.
So, yeah, there is basically no way that Sue, with her 3d10 weapon, no weapon that she could ever get to d100, and very low NFA, is ever going to get most kills in a mission again any time soon. Unless her team mates help her out. They can lend or give their weapons to her. They can use their between-mission NFA rolls to request better weapons for her. Hell, the team could even come together at the start of the mission and give their best weapons to the player with the lowest abilities, agreeing to have their weakest member go level up.

That's possible! And if your team mates don't want to help you out ... well, that's a great opportunity for Story Now. And for grenades. And for sabotaging their weapons. And, who knows, maybe even for shooting them in the back in a crucial fight with the aliens. Because, you know what? They'll have deserved it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Roles

First draft of the roles! There are currently enough roles for a game with 9 players.

Every role, except Stalin, has the ability to spy. Once during the game, this allows to you look at one goal card of one person. You cannot show the card to anyone else, though you can of course make claims about what you've seen. Whether people believe you is up to them.

Once you have spied, rotate your character sheet 90 degrees to indicate that you've used up your one chance to spy. Some rules indicate that you can refresh your ability: this means that you get to rotate your character sheet back to the normal position, and you can use your spying ability again.

Every role also has two special rules.

The Favourite (King)
  1. True loyalty: If you have a single goal card which means that you must kill Stalin, it instead means that you must protect Stalin. If you have two goal cards indicating that you must kill Stalin, they have their normal meaning.
  2. Hated: If Stalin dies, all surviving players -- you excluded -- get to vote on whether they want to kill you as well. You die even in case of a tie. (This doesn't apply if you are the only person left.)
The Heir (Queen)
  1. Chosen successor: If only you and Stalin are left alive, you both win, independent of your goal cards.
  2. Poised for takeover: If Stalin dies, you can discard one of your goal cards.
The General (Jack)
  1. Counter-espionage: Once during the game, you can prevent a spy or expose action. The person performing it has still used up his or her ability.
  2. Backed by the army: When Stalin attempts to kill you, you count as your own defender. (So you need one fewer defender to survive the attempt.)
The Ideologue (10)
  1. Expose: Instead of the spy ability, you have the expose ability. This ability allows to you turn one goal card of one person face up. That card will remain face up for the rest of the game, even if it gets transferred to someone else.
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Assassin (9)
  1. Merciless: Once during the game, you can have your vote to kill someone count double. (Note: not your vote to defend someone.)
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Believer (8)
  1. Open book: You can expose your own goal cards whenever you wish, turning one or both face-up. Any card turned face-up remains that way for the rest of the game, even if it gets transferred to someone else. You can use this ability as often as you like.
  2. Betrayed: If Stalin attempts to kill you and fails, then from that point onward all your goal cards count as "kill Stalin".
The Interrogator (7)
  1. I have the dirt on you: At the start of the game, before goal cards are dealt, choose another player (not Stalin or the Protégé). If you are killed, you can choose to have that person die as well.
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Protégé (Joker)

There are no goal cards indicating that someone must kill or protect the Protégé. The Protégé is not dealt any goal cards.
  1. Powerful patron: At the start of the game, before goal cards are dealt, choose another player (not Stalin). As long as that player remains alive, Stalin cannot attempt to kill you. If that player dies, you immediately discard the role of Protégé and take over that player's role and goal cards. Any goal cards that used to indicate that player now indicate you. If the Interrogator had the dirt on your patron, they now have the dirt on you, unless they used it to kill your patron.
  2. Ambitious: You cannot win the game. (Note: you can of course win after you have discarded this role.)

Any thoughts?

Friday, November 08, 2013

[Shooting the Moon] Fleeing the Empire

Introduction

Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss is a game I've had in my possession for a very long time, but which I'd never played before. (I think. I may once have started a game with Jasper Polane, but if so, I don't think we managed to finish it.) Last Friday, I got online with Sam Ashwell and Emily Short to finally play this thing. Both of them had played it before. Emily once, I think; and Sam quite often.

Like Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon is a game about love. (At least it claims to be a game about love. See below.) Whereas the former game shows two people coming together, the latter gives us two Suitors fighting over the Beloved, who is also pursuing a dream of his or her own.


Creating characters: the rules

Character creation is where the rules of this game really shine. It is very much a group activity, so much so that we did most of it before we chose who would play which character. (We finally decided that I would play the Beloved.)

The three players first work together to give the Beloved six attributes that are, by definition, desirable in the setting. This at once establishes three things: (1) the Beloved's character; (2) what is romantically attractive in the setting; and (3) that the Beloved is attractive in the setting.

As the player of the Beloved, I found it very useful to know that my main traits were by definition attractive. During the game, your character gets into all kinds of trouble, and may look soiled afterwards. But I always had a way of re-establishing that my character was attractive: I just played up my attributes, and it was immediately understood that the Suitors and the rest of the world would fall for this.

Then the Suitors are created by giving each of them some attributes that are synonyms or antonyms for the attributes of the Beloved; after which a "but" is added to each of those attributes. This means you automatically end up with characters defined by traits that are interestingly related and that have a clear relation to the value system of the setting

Also, the characters are guaranteed to be completely different from what any of the players would have made up on their own. Like the web of association in Breaking the Ice, the shared web of attributes, synonyms and antonyms really gets you creativity flowing in directions you would not otherwise have explored.

Creating characters: the result

After some discussion we decided that our characters were passengers on a space ship fleeing from the Empire to impart important information to the Rebels. The Beloved would be the person with the important information.

Beloved attributes: mysterious identity, protecting an innocent, higher calling, crossing me means trouble, fierce, savoir-faire.

Synonyms and antonyms:
Fierce: forceful / physically cowardly.
Higher calling: idealist / cynical.
Mysterious identity: deep cover / famous.

At about this point, we decided that I would play the Beloved. I decided that me character was the Emperor himself, deposed in a palace revolution and trying to get the Rebel army behind him. The Suitors know that I have important information, but are in the dark about my real identity.

Opportunity (why is the Beloved available to these two suitors): We're the only known rebels on the chartered ship.
Obstacle (what is making life difficult for the Beloved): the entire Empire is after me.
Dream (what does the Beloved want even more than love): the rebels swear allegiance to me as the rightful Emperor.

Further creation led to the following two suitors, and, for completeness, the Beloved:
  1. Carmen Steel (played by Emily) is an ex-space-bullfighter.
    • Cynical, but secretly soft-hearted.
    • Famous, but glory has faded.
    • Forceful, but has an old wound.
    • Person: Fidelis Mandelbrot, ship's engineer and big fan of old.
    • Place: the ship's bar.
    • Thing: light sabre.
    • Conflict: angling to restore her super-wealth.
  2. "Clea Woolford" (fake name) is the ship's security officer.
    • Idealist, but bad conscience.
    • Deep cover, but identity compromised.
    • Physically cowardly, but not when protecting someone.
    • Person: Captain Erskine, the ship's captain.
    • Place: planetary combat simulator.
    • Thing: identity badge with real name on it.
    • Conflict: mistrusted by the Rebellion.
  3. "Peter" (fake name), a passenger, but in fact the rightful Emperor.
    • Mysterious identity
    • Protection an innocent
    • Higher calling
    • Crossing me means trouble
    • Fierce
    • Worldly knowledge, savoir-fair
The unfolding story




Almost a week has gone by since I played the game, so I'm sure I cannot reconstruct all the scenes in detail. But the main plot was as follows.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Someone has figured out that Peter is the Emperor, and anonymously tries to blackmail him. Peter and Carmen put the money somewhere, then ambush the person who comes to collect it: it turns out to be Erskine, the ship's captain. This means trouble, but for now they convince him that they have many dangerous friends and that he should keep quiet.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) Clea makes sure she can talk to Peter in private by disabling all the technology that the captain uses to spy on him. He tries to sexually seduce her, but without much success. Erskine's goons come to investigate why the camera's have stopped working, and before Clea accomplishes anything worth talking about, she's taken away by them and put under disciplinary supervision.

(Beloved scene.) When they're docked on some trading asteroid, Erskine sends Carmen and Clea to "retrieve" an old weapon that he claims to be his from a shady arms dealer. Violence follows, and the ship has to flee the asteroid -- but Carmen has grabbed lots of cool weapons in the process, and ends up with the trait: "Unknowingly owns a small-scale antimatter device."

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Carmen tries to give a great present to Peter: a personal energy shield. She doesn't really know how it works, though, and soon the two of them are trapped in a very personal shield. Peter believes the things is a weird sex toy, and suggests politely that this isn't really his kink -- but Carmen doesn't know how to turn the damned thing off, and finally they have to be rescued by the ship's nerdy mechanic, who is also Carmen's greatest fan and secretly in love with her.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) The three of us meet at a private place in the ship to discuss a plan Clea has drawn up. The aim of the plan is to get rid of Erskine, who is endangering our mission, while making it look like an accident. Carmen has by far the most dangerous role to play. Clea has a very reasonable explanation for that, but Carmen isn't buying it -- until Peter leans towards her, and whispers in her ear that he is in fact the Emperor. Clea only sees the look of shock of Carmen's face, and hears how she immediately acquiesces to the plan, but doesn't get the same information. She feels left out. (Sam wasn't rolling well, and didn't get many points during most of the game.)

(Beloved scene.) The Empire has found us! They're already on the ship, looking for us. Peter tells Clea that it is essential that he rescues a certain 8-year old girl that's also on the ship, though he doesn't explain why. Meanwhile, Carmen will bring Peter to safety. They both confront difficulties. In order to get an escape pod, Carmen has to threaten the mechanic who's in love with her with what she believes is a grenade; he recognises it as an anti-matter device that would destroy the entire ship, and quickly allows her to leave. Clea finds that getting to the girl is easy, but that all the marines on the ship are looking for the child. She finally decides to announce through the intercom that she's actually Lt. Rhea Stone, infamous rebel commander, and hated and feared by both the Empire and the Rebellion (because she once sacrificed an entire Rebel cell to save herself). In the ensuing chaos, they all escape, though Rhea and the child land on a different part of the nearby planet than the other two.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) The planet is low-tech and backwards. Carmen and Peter manage to get the local populace to help them search for Rhea and the girl, but only by promising to stay very far away from any villages.

(Suitor scene: Rhea.) Rhea finds the others. She is not amused, and demands answers. Peter explains that he is the Emperor Paul III. He also has to tell his Suitors that the girl is the daughter of the Rebel leader, and his own future bride. Carmen and Rhea are perplexed and scandalised. There's a harrowing scene between Paul and Rhea where she asks him what they're fighting for if they're even willing to use children as pawns in political games. Paul is forced to confront the depths of his own moral degradation.

(Beloved scene.) We arrive at the Rebel base, where Paul and the child are heartily welcomed. Rhea and Carmen, however, are met with open hostility and lots of guns pointed at them -- Rhea because the Rebels hate her guts, Carmen because she's carrying an anti-matter bomb. At this point, Paul asserts his authority; then the Empire attacks in force; and Paul leads his two Suitors in a heroic attempt to ward off the attack. "Let's fight! Let's forget the past! We'll start anew, and make the Rebellion something to be proud of!" They mount the anti-matter device on a rocket, and use it to blow up the gigantic Empire ship that is threatening the planet. The Rebels win, though, unfortunately, the Rebel leader has died.

Then we roll dice, and Sam, who rolls least dice, nevertheless wins. So he tells us how Paul becomes the leader of only a small section of the Rebel force, and never wins back his Empire. He is, on the positive side, a morally good leader, a point of light in a dark galaxy. And, of course, he has a romantic relationship with Rhea, who becomes his right hand. Carmen lives on as a shady arms dealer.

Thoughts about the system

As I said, I love the character creation system. Having Suitor turns and Beloved turns, in which different players work together or oppose each other, also works very well. The Suitor turns create a bond between the Beloved and the Suitors, while the Beloved turns serve to remind us that there is something the Beloved wants more than love.

I also like the dice mechanic, in so far as it is very, very random. I haven't done the math, but if you're rolling 6 dice against 4, there's still a very good chance that the person with 4 dice will win. As a player, you do not have a lot of control over who is going to win, and this adds an amount of unpredictability to the game that seems to be appropriate here. All is fair in love and war; but let us not forget that all war is chaos.

What I'm not convinced about is the whole system of Traits, both the ways that you gain them and the ways that you use them.

Traits are supposed to be rewards or failures. The Opponent in a Suitor scene can threaten you with a nasty trait, and you might not want to accept this; in fact, you may choose to gain less dice, simply because you wish to avoid a bad trait. But in fact, gaining a trait is never mechanically bad. Nor is it ever mechanically good. There is a strictly limited number of moves you can make in any scene to earn dice; and there will always be enough traits to make all of these moves. Neither you nor your opponents are ever helped or hindered by you having, or not having, certain traits. There is, then, no mechanical effect of gaining traits.

So why are we making them? How can we threaten each other with them, or gleefully give them to ourselves? It seems to me that if traits are mechanically inert, as they are, we'd be better off just using narration rights and forgetting about traits altogether.

Nor do traits have a clear story effect beyond the narration in which they get established, since they do not act as constraints on what can be narrated later. (The game text isn't entirely clear about this, but I think they cannot act as constraints, because there is no way to change them as the fiction demands.) So overall, the whole trait system seems to be pretty useless.

Also, I'm not too sold on the whole "think up three responses"-stuff. There's a notable pause in every scene while people try to think up not just one response, but three of them -- and in suitor scenes, each Suitor must think of three responses! That often makes the game slow down remarkably.

In the end, I decided that in Beloved scenes, I would make each Suitor describe one response; then I would narrate some more; then they would make another response; I would narrate some more; and finally they would think up the third response. This worked fairly well, but if this is how the game is meant to be played, I'd like to see it in the book. And I'm not sure how to apply this procedure to Suitor scenes.

I obviously need to play the game again. But my current feeling is that the rules for playing out scenes aren't nearly as good as the rules for character creation, and could in fact use some changes.

A game about love?

Don't believe Emily Care Boss. Shooting the Moon is not a game about love.

Of course it's not a game about love! Here are three characters playing a zero-sum game. It's not just the rejected Suitor who loses; no, one of the two others must also lose. The Beloved isn't looking for love, and getting together with one of the Suitors will ensure that he doesn't achieve his dream. The successful Suitor, if there is one, can only capture the Beloved by destroying his dream. That's not love. Love is not the situation where you conquer someone and then force them to give up their dreams. Love is not a fight where you try to beat someone else to a prize who has no say in the matter.

Just think about this: the Beloved has no say, no say at all, about which of the Suitors will win his hand. All he can try to do is make sure that neither of them does.

Shooting the Moon is a game about power. It is a game about forcing other people to do what you want, and to be what you want. The Suitors are trying to force the Beloved to be a prize, to be the desirable object they can show off -- primarily to their humiliated rival! The Beloved is trying to force the Suitors to help him achieve his dream, without giving them anything in return; without taking their needs into account.

This is a game that poses as a game about love, but is in fact a game about objectifying and using people. Is that a comment about how we often tend to think about romance, especially in popular culture? Undoubtedly. And the fact that Shooting the Moon generates stories that do look like romance on the surface makes that comment all the more believable.

Monday, November 04, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Alpha rules 0.1

Background: Stalin's Story

A long time ago -- late in 2005, it seems -- I created a role playing game called Stalin's Story. It combined the structures that Vladimir Propp found in Russian fairy tales with a totalitarian Stalin figure. One of the players is Stalin and has unlimited power to kill people and change the rules; the others are either actors trying to tell a Proppian tale or courtiers trying to use the tale's elements to have each other killed.

I never played it, because I had serious doubts about the game achieving my design goals. However, I just found a post by Harry Giles who says he has played it several times, and goes on to say that
“Stalin’s Story” is rich, multi-dimensional, original and scary fun[.]
He is definitely being too charitable in that piece, but I do need to talk to him about his play experiences! But this blog post is not about Stalin's Story.

Thematic content

Stalin apparently still occupies my brain. I've just gotten back into playing RPGs, and I already found myself grappling with a new Stalin game. It is so different from the former one that it needs a new name: Comrade Stalin.

The game is a bit like Mafia or Werewolves, but with a stronger role playing component, more tactics, and a bigger dose of paranoia, power games and backstabbing.

Comrade Stalin is all about paranoia and power.
  • The players will portray people at the centre of a totalitarian government. Their situation is characterised by paranoia, and in fact by justified paranoia. There's not just the fear that someone is plotting to kill you. Some actually is plotting to kill you.
  • A totalitarian leader has power, and it may seem as if this makes him safe. But in fact, it makes him vulnerable. Not just because other people want that power for themselves, but mostly because that power is inherently unstable and illusionary. The leader is wholly dependent on other people doing his bidding; if they refuse, there's nothing he can do except calling on yet other people to punish them.
You will easily see how these two thematic elements are incorporated it into the game rules below: everyone has a reason to be paranoid; and Stalin wields a lot of power, but is also completely dependent on other people for actually doing anything with it.

(It turns out that by making Stalin himself threatened, I was following advice given me by Troy Costisick. I had completely forgotten about that, but am happy to rediscover the thread.)

Materials

To play Comrade Stalin, you need a single deck of normal playing cards (or special cards for this game, but I'll write up the rules for use with normal playing cards now) and printed out character sheets for all of the characters you're using. (There are no character sheets yet.)

You need at least 5 players, and a table to sit around that is big enough to hold three playing cards and a character sheet for every player.

Preparation

From a game of cards, take all aces, kings, queens, jacks, 10s, and any further numbers such that there is one value of card for each player. Thus, in a five player game you take aces to 10s; in a six player game aces to 9s; and so on. Discard the other cards -- they will not be used.

Now take all diamonds. Shuffle them, and deal one card to every person. Once the cards are dealt, everyone reveals their card and puts that card face-up on the table before them. This card determines which role you play:

Ace: Comrade Stalin
King: Comrade Beria
Queen: ...
[Roles to be defined later. If you know of colourful members of Stalin's court, let me know! Beria was Stalin's notorious chief of secret police.]

Take the aces of spades, hearts and clubs. Shuffle them, then discard one. Nobody is allowed to see which one.

Then shuffle the rest of the spades, hearts and clubs. Discard some of them, so many that you are left with 2 * (players - 2) cards. So in a 5 player game, keep 6 cards. In a 6 player game, keep 8 cards. And so on.

Add the two spades you have left to this pile. Shuffle them again. Now everyone except Stalin is dealt two of these cards, face down. (There are exactly enough cards left to do this. The preceding procedures were for making sure that there are precisely two aces in the cards that are dealt.)

The players can only look at their own two cards. During the game, these should be kept on the table, in front of the player, next to the revealed diamonds card. These two cards are your goal cards, which are explained below.

Once the cards are dealt, Stalin takes an alarm clock of any sort (a mobile phone, for instance), and sets it to go off at anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes in the future. Stalin does not tell anyone what time he has chosen.

Winning the game

This is what the goal cards mean:
  • A black card (clubs or spades) means that you need the indicated person to be killed. So a king of clubs means that Beria must die; an ace of spades means that Stalin must die.
  • A red card (hearts) means that you must protect the indicated person. So a king of hearts means that Beria must survive.
  • If any card indicates yourself, it applies to Stalin instead. So if you have a card that means that you must die, it instead means that Stalin must die.
A non-Stalin player wins when the game ends, and (a) that player is still alive, and (b) that player has attained both their goals. If you have failed to attain your goals, this means that a deadly enemy is still alive, or a crucial ally is dead. In that case, you are doomed to die soon (though not during the game).

It is possible to have incompatible goals (when you need to kill and protect the same person). This means that you cannot win. However, you can get rid of goal cards by killing people (see below), so make sure you kill someone.

Stalin wins when the game ends, and (a) Stalin is still alive, and (b) nobody who is still alive has a card meaning that Stalin must die. If someone has such a card, Stalin has failed to purge his court of assassins. He will soon die (though not during the game).

It is possible for more than one person to win. It is also possible for nobody to win.

Ending the game

The game ends when any of the following conditions is met:
  • The alarm clock goes off. (If you're in the middle of an attempted killing, that attempt is aborted.)
  • Stalin declares that all traitors are dead.
    • At this point, any of the surviving players can still attempt an assassination of Stalin. If such an attempt takes place, the game doesn't end; though Stalin can repeat his declaration afterwards, if he survives and still wants to.
  • Stalin is killed.
Killing players

A player who is not Stalin can only be killed by Stalin asking the group in general to kill them. If at least one of the other players offers to perform the killing, and Stalin accepts the offer, that player dies. If nobody does, the player survives. For instance:
  • Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Nobody says anything in response. Kruglov is not killed, because Stalin cannot kill someone on his own.
  • Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Beria says: "I will take him out for you, comrade!" Stalin accepts this offer, and Beria kills Kruglov.
If more than one person volunteers to kill, Stalin must choose who performs the killing:
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria and Khrushchev both step up to do the deed. Stalin chooses one of them (or stops the procedure), and that person gets to kill Kruglov.
However, people can also step up to defend someone. If the number of people who defend the potential victim is equal to or greater than the number of people who offer to kill him, than the potential victim survives. The potential victim himself doesn't count towards this total.

If there are fewer defenders than killers, Stalin can order the killing to proceed. He can also have one or more of the defenders killed; and he can have this done even if he decides to spare the potential victim's life at the last moment. If more than one person is killed, Stalin must give each job to a different killer.
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev says: "But no, comrade Stalin! I am sure that comrade Kruglov is a true communist. We should not kill him." If nobody else says anything, Kruglov survives.
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev defends him. Malenkov now offers to kill Kruglov. The killers (Beria and Malenkov) outnumber the defenders (Khrushchev), and so Stalin can have Kruglov killed. He can also have Khrushchev killed, or have both Kruglov and Khrushchev killed. If he chooses the latter, he must let Beria kill one of them and Malenkov the other.
When a player kills another player, they first get to describe how they do this. A bullet in the neck; a show trial; deportation to Siberia; unknown tortures in the cellars of the NKVD building. Something that fits your character, and your relationship with the other character. Then:
  • the killer discards one of his goal cards; nobody gets to see it;
  • the killed person chooses one of his goal cards and gives it to the killer; only the killer gets to see it. It cannot be refused.
Thus, a player always has two goal cards, but he can get different cards during the game by killing people.

Killing Stalin

Anyone can attempt to assassinate Stalin, simply by saying so.

Other players may step up to defend Stalin. They may also decide to join the assassin. (Stalin cannot do either.) Once it is clear that nobody wants to join either of the groups any more (either because everyone has joined a group, or because all non-declared players remain silent), count the number of assassins and the number of defenders.

If the number of assassins (including the original assassin) is greater than the number of defenders, the assassins win. Stalin is killed. The original assassin, and the original assassin only, decides which of the defenders also die in their attempt to protect the great leader. They are effectively in charge of the coup.

If the number of assassins is equal to or less than the number of defenders, Stalin -- and everybody else -- survives. It is of course highly probable that Stalin will immediately start an attempt to kill the would-be assassin.

During an attempted assassination, Stalin cannot start an attempt to kill one of the players. During an attempted killing of a player, nobody can start an attempt to assassinate Stalin. Resolve the current attempt first, and try the other attempt thereafter. (Usually, the order doesn't matter anyhow. If more than half the players want to kill Stalin now, then they'll also not allow Stalin to kill one of the potential assassins.)

You do not get to discard a goal card after killing Stalin.

Character sheets
 Each character sheet will have a short description of the character on it, and several special rules and abilities pertaining to that character. For instance, the special rules and abilities of Beria might be:
  • Stalin's confidant: if you have a single goal card indicating that you must kill Stalin, it means that you must protect him instead. If you have two of them, you must kill Stalin normally.
  • Despised by all: if Stalin dies, all surviving players -- except for you -- immediately vote on your fate. If a majority, or even just half, of them want to kill you, you die and cannot win the game.
  • Killer: whenever you kill someone, your spying ability becomes available again.
  • Spying (ability): You can look at one goal card on the table. Do no show it to anyone else. (You can of course tell people what you have seen... but you might lie.) One use only.
Several roles will have either a spy ability or something akin to it. (For instance, a one-time "expose" ability which allows you to turn someone's goal card face-up. That card will then remain face-up during the rest of the game.)

This will make the game more tactical than games like Mafia and Werewolves, which are almost entirely about gut feeling, body language, and revenge for earlier games (and, at least for me, somewhat disappointing because of that).

Each character will have several rules or abilities to set them apart from the others, so that playing any of them will feel different from playing any other. Those with abilities or rules that specifically threaten Stalin will also have an ability or rule that makes them more useful to Stalin (otherwise, they would always be eliminated early in the game).

What do you think?

Comments and ideas are very welcome!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

[Breaking the Ice] The teeth of Mugabe

Another week, another Breaking the Ice session using Google Hangouts. This time I played with Sam Kabo Ashwell, prolific author of interactive fiction and reviews of works in that medium. We once played a game of Gloom together, which is almost a role playing game; but that's the limit of our shared gaming experience. However, we are both veteran RPG players, and years of contact in the online interactive fiction community have given us a good idea of each other's tastes in fiction.

Character creation

We therefore jumped into the game without much ado. Sam had read the rules once, but long ago. That wasn't a problem. Breaking the Ice works well as long as one of the participants know the rules.

As a switch we chose "being an immigrant" (Sam being an Englishman living in the U.S., and I being a Dutch guy living in the Netherlands). I would play an immigrant man, he would play a non-immigrant woman.

Sam's web of words contained: orange, [hothouses, false safety, firearms], [soccer], [paperbacks, publishing], [monarchy, [family, strife], [revolution, France, cheese]]. (The brackets show the tree structure. Ignore them if you don't understand them.) Yes, that's my Dutch background showing through there in association "orange" with "soccer" and "monarchy". His character became an aristocratic woman who despised her family and was active in anarchist publishing.

NAME: Ada
SELF: estranged aristocracy
WORK: artisan cheese maker; editor for Black Flag publishing
PLAY: Napoleonic re-enactment
CONFLICT: is going on this date to outrage her parents.

My web of words contained: black, [Africa, [dust, death], [nepotism]], [nocturnal, [vampires], [dance clubs, [XTC, water], [turntables]]], [sophistication, Oscar Wilde]. We decided that he was an immigrant from the Central African Republic:
NAME: Mwata
SELF: has seen war; wants to move up in society
WORK: tries to make is as a horror writer; voluntary fire brigade
PLAY: knows the best clubs in town
CONFLICT: my dealer thinks I cheated him.
My first impulse was to choose the conflict "is going on this date because he wants to move up in society," but we felt that that was too symmetrical with Ada's conflict. So I chose something completely different instead -- a source of distraction and possibly comic relief coming from outside, namely, a paranoid XTC dealer.

First date: her parents' birthday

Ada and Mwata met each other when he tried to sell her his manuscript. ("Sure, it's a vampire story, but it is also a symbolic critique of capitalism in central Africa!") Now Ada is taking Mwata to her parents' birthday party. That is not a usual choice for a first date, but, frankly, she is taking a black man to her parents' place just in order to outrage their racist sensibilities.

Mwata doesn't suspect this, and their first meeting is quite cordial. (+1 Attraction.) When they meet her parents, Ada's mother immediately sees through her game, but her father doesn't and is not amused. Mwata compliments him on his nice mansion and is generally oblivious to being disliked. Meanwhile, Ada is having second thoughts about her ploy, and not enjoying herself half as much as she had hoped she would. Relief comes when a torch falls down, starting a minor fire, which Mwata coolly smothers with a tablecloth.

Still not enough successes. I then got some rerolls by having Mwata go on about how he really liked Ada's father, which Ada didn't want to hear; but it wasn't enough, and I gave up. The date is not going well.

When they're sitting on a bench in the garden somewhere away from the other guests, Ada talks about Mwata's manuscript. She explains that it is too good for her minuscule publisher, and that she'd like to help him get a better contract somewhere else. He is happy with this, but also notices that she's not really enjoying herself. At last (Conflict dice needed) the truth comes out: Ada confesses that she took Mwata here just to outrage her parents. He is understandably upset, and they get into a hastily arranged cab in total silence, planning to separate as soon as they're back in town.

+1 Attraction. With this game, you have to accept that attraction is not always obvious. In this case, let's assume that Ada's honesty will turn out to be attractive to Mwata, even though he is currently upset. And read my thoughts about Attraction at the end of the post.

When they arrive at his appartment, Mwata gets out of the car -- then turns back towards Ada, and says: "Let's forget what happened and start this date again. There's a great pub down the street, and we can both use a pint of bitter." Ada is surprised and relieved, and they go to the pub. He asks her about her hobbies, and she explains that she is into Napoleonic firearms. He then displays knowledge about how to keep firearms working in the wet African jungle, and she is suddenly like, wait, this guy has probably been a child soldier. She feels stupid for playing at war when other people experience it for real.

Got some rerolls for showing this huge cultural gap between the characters. It was enough for a Compatibility: "We like a pint of good bitter.".

Later, they go to an off license and buy a bottle of cheap whisky, then break into the local castle ruins, climb to the top, and lie down to look at the stars. (+1 Attraction.) On the way down, Mwata saves Ada from falling down the stairs -- they're both very much pissed by now. Outside, they stop to kiss under a street light.

I didn't get enough successes, so I threw in my Conflict.

Suddenly, someone runs at Mwata with a knife, screaming: "Now I've got you, you double-dealing bastard!" Mwata runs away, with the dealer after him, and the date ends somewhat unexpectedly. (+1 Attraction.)

We talked about Ada's conflict a bit at this point, and decided that it should be changed if we wanted it to remain relevant. So we changed it to: "Has trouble with her family." Of the three Attraction gained in the scene, two became permanent.

Second date: the most anarchic club in town

On the next date, Mwata takes Ada to a club in the neighbouring town. It turns out to be an anarchic collective running a tekno club in a squatted building. Obviously, Ada loves that stuff. She's less enamoured about Mwata going off to dance alone. (+1 Attraction.) After a while, she takes him to a side room, where they talk about his book some more. She convinces him that he ought to make it more literary, and should change the title. Neither "Vampires in Africa" nor "The Teeth of Mugabe" is going to go over well with the critics, she explains. (Compatibility: we want Mwata's book published.) Mwata then impresses Ada with his knowledge about the weird blue drink she's been having -- it contains a small amount of soft drugs -- and they finally decide to go back to Ada's place and do an XTC trip together. (+1 Attraction.)

Back at Ada's place, they prepare the scene with soft music and enough water not to dry out, and take their pills. Up till now, most of their conversations have been very shallow -- indeed, the only topic they have talked about without feeling a sense of disconnectedness was Mwata's book. Now, under the influence of drugs, they finally open up a bit. Ada talks about how she hates her parents and everything they stand for. Mwata answers with a lecture about how you should never let yourself be ruled by hate; he tells about his childhood, about how the one thing he learned from all the killing around him, from his parents being killed, is that hate destroys everyone, including the hater. The only answer is love. (New Compatibility: they are political utopians.) Some more, less coherent, talking follows; they smoke a joint together, and finally the date comes to an end as they both fall asleep. (New Compatibility: We like getting high together.)

The characters didn't seem to connect at a deeper level. They can talk to each other when they're drunk or high, but otherwise they're living in very different worlds. Well, let's see where it goes! One attraction became permanent, so we're at 4 attraction dice and 4 compatibilities. That's going very well. But our rolling during the last date would turn out to be terrible.

Third date: London

The third date happens in London, after they've been to see a publisher who has agreed to publish Mwata's book. This calls for celebration, and they go to a very good restaurant. Unfortunately, one of Ada's cousins, a Tory backbencher, is also there, and when he sees Ada, decides to make her life a misery with sarcastic comments about her new lover. Our pair soon flees the restaurant. (Atrocious rolls do not give Sam 3 successes, not even after using the Conflict, so no Attraction gained.)

Looking out over the Thames, Mwata manages to calm Ada down. (+1 Attraction.) The two go into a bar, where they drink some pints of bitter. Ada attempts to explain her abandonment issues to Mwata. Again, they fail to connect on any but the most shallow level. (Sam managed to get only 2 successes out of 17(!) dice rolls.) Mwata in fact goes on to say that, sure, it will be very hard to have a relationship if he is living in London and she still in the small town they're living in now; a conversation which only feeds further into Ada's fear of being abandoned. After some more drama, they do manage to at least temporarily settle this issue. (+1 Attraction)

They both feel that it's time for a change of scene, and in what seems like a deliberate attempt to relive their successful first date, they break into an enclosed garden. Ada bends towards Mwata to kiss him, but he is surprised and pulls back. Once again, they manage to have a completely different feeling about the situation, and have to explain themselves to each others before they can proceed. Finally, they do kiss. (+1 Attraction, after many rerolls.)

Mwata then opens up about his crazy XTC dealer, and she chastises him for hanging out with the wrong people. They talk about how to deal with this guy. He suggests running him over with a car. Ada is somewhat shocked. Mwata tris to justify himself by pointing out that he doesn't really believe that the police will help him (she agrees), and that his experience in the Central African Republic has taught him to be self-reliant. When his father was killed, the government wasn't there to help him; he had to kill his father's murderer himself! Ada is rather freaked out by that confession, but still has enough presence of mind to tell Mwata that he should never ever talk about this with an immigration officer. She also convinces him to tackle the dealer issue in a less violent way, and he agrees with her. (New Compatibility: Don't trust the government, be self-reliant.)

That's when we end the scene, the unlikely pair trying to kiss mostly because they want it to be a situation where kissing feels good.

Aftermath

We roll dice, and two new points of Attraction become permanent. That gives us 6 Attraction (or 5, the book seems to be a bit confused about whether the level of attraction you start the game with counts) and five compatibilities. Quite a lot!

But not for a moment do Sam and I believe that Ada and Mwata will stay together. They just don't connect; communication between them is rubbish, unless they are under influence. We decide that they'll keep trying for six more months, both afraid to be abandoned and even more afraid to hurt the other person, until even they cannot deny that it's not working out. At all.

Mwata will settle down, work out his violence issues, and will find someone else. He's only 23, and can change. But Ada, who was somewhat older, is too set in her ways; the only possible happy future we see for her is one where she gives up on her anarchist principles and becomes a sour old reactionary who inherits her parents' estate.

Thoughts on the system

Something very interesting happened in this game. We rolled very badly during the last date, but consistently pushed for more dice and more rerolls. Thus, we had to bring in loads and loads of disadvantageous situations and complications, which led to the characters constantly miscommunicating, constantly alienating each other, constantly failing to connect. So much so that, even though we got attraction levels and compatibilities, the fiction made it painfully obvious that these two people were not meant for each other.

Suppose we hadn't tried to get attraction and compatibilities. Then the third date would have been much happier, and we might have believed that the characters would come together. So attraction and compatibility, which are supposed to be a measure of how well the characters fit, turned out to be anti-correlated with what they are supposed to measure.

That is the sneaky secret of Breaking the Ice. Attraction and Compatibilities do not matter. You just have to play as if they do.

Attraction and compatibilities do not matter, because when you answer the final questions at the end of the game, you're going to base your judgement on the fiction, not on the mechanical results of the game. They may seem to matter during the game -- if you fail your rolls, you'll narrate the date not going well -- but they don't, not really. A date can go badly on the surface, while it still becomes obvious to the audience that the two lovers are suited to each other. (Romantic comedies often work this way.) And, as our game amply demonstrated, a date can go well on the surface while the fiction nevertheless makes it clear beyond a doubt that these people do not belong together. Ada and Mwata were having a great time when they got high together during the second date, but we, the players, realised that they were fundamentally strangers. And the attraction during the third date felt very much like attraction that they wanted to be there, but that deep down didn't exist.

Still, you must play as if the mechanics matter. The mechanics are what force you to bring vulnerability and disconnectedness and awkwardness into the game. If you're lucky, you'll only have to bring in a little, and this will make it more believable that the lovers get together than if everything just went swimmingly. (After all, there's no love without vulnerability.) But if you're unlucky -- or rather, if your characters are -- you'll need to bring in so much that the characters are revealed as utterly mismatched, or as just not ready for any serious kind of commitment.

I love this game.

I love how you always end up with characters completely different from what you would have thought up alone. I love how they always feel real at the end of the game -- even if you've played for just three hours, like we did. I love how this game makes you and whoever you play it with talk about relationships, about connection and disconnection, about the difference between true love and imagined love; and makes you do that with all the subtlety a complicated fiction can give you.