[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.

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.


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.


  1. Yes, I was super impressed by the mechanical fake-out there. I love it when a game's mechanics lure you into a behaviour that you don't fully grasp the implications of until afterwards. (At least, when they do this fairly, as opposed to OH NO THE ZOMBIES WERE CHILDREN ALL ALONG.)

    By the end of this I was reading Attraction as, basically, chemistry - how much irrational attraction, lust or admiration or or intuitive sympathy or whatever, the two characters had for one another. By midway through the third scene there was this awesome sense that Attraction, the thing we'd been working for the whole game, was all that was holding these two together, in spite of their better judgement. And the Compatabilities, which seemed like small promising steps early in the game, began looking pathetic once viewed in the context of a maturing relationship - really, is that all you've got in common, you work together and you both like getting stoned?

    And, yes, this was a really good example of dice creating a story arc that wasn't entirely expected, but that worked very nicely indeed.

  2. They were also both into self-reliance. Which must be the worst compatibility you could possibly have...

    I should note that in other games of Breaking the Ice I played, de disconnect between Attraction and matching was much, much less.

  3. Yeah. One of the things I love about trait-based RPGs is how nailing a general concept down into a particular word or phrase can shape it in unexpected ways. At the point we wrote down 'self-reliance', we could have phrased the general idea of a dangerous, oppressive world in much more mutualist, solidarity-supporting ways - but in the event, we didn't.

  4. Intriguing -- thanks for writing this up!

    Incidentally, did you see that Joe McDaldno just came out with a game about initial meetings, called "Three Days"? http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/little-games/

  5. That's interesting, Emily. Though finding someone who can knit ... probably not easy.


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