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Cold Soldier: Crusader horror

Moreno and I have been meaning to do this for a long time, and finally got around to it: Cold Soldier, knives out.

[see the attached file for the rules we're using; rewritten but mechanically unaltered. This is the third instance of recent play I'm posting as a rapid-fire experiential bath in the game.]

Riffing between us, mostly him, we arrived at the Dark Master being a powerful sorcerer, setting play in the past. We began by Moreno saying Middle Ages, and I specified a bit to Italian (because), and then to the 13th century. This put us right into the Crusades from Hell, a period I never fail, in continuing to browse and contemplate, to find yet another horrid detail.

Moreno said the Soldier died of homicide, his weapon is his fearful gaze, and he fights in a small group. He was already talking about a crusader, a literal soldier, but I held up a bit as I told him that would be part of play.

I began by describing the sorcerer in an unused area of the extensive Orthodox Church holdings in Ravenna. He was obviously a rogue priest crossed with a rejected scholar, surrounded by piled manuscripts and scribbled-on walls, using a babble of bad Hebrew, weird Arabic, and educated Greek. He carried out a fiery ritual which resulted in the corpses rising from a battlefield in the outlying provinces of Jerusalem.

Briefly, we played through six commands, and I confess the Dark Master was pretty much a non-nuanced, despicable source of heretical horror. It began with the crucifixion of helpless villagers and went into the creation of a mucus-y demiurgic "Garden" of Eden. I put most of my humanizing efforts into the responses of different power-groups in the region, including a joint effort between a naturalized Crusader Kingdom and Salah ad-Din. 

I also went full metal, as by about mid-game, this totally Alan Moore looking sorcerer was presiding over the Roger Dean-esque except not beautiful landscape with his floating blazing pet skull.

Moreno did not miss a chance for memories, but that also meant a lot of strategizing regarding his cards relative to success. The dynamic is composed of simple parts but isn't so easy to manage: (1) if you declare a memory, you get to put your current card into your hole and draw a new one; (2) if your attempt to serve the Dark Master fails, you lose a card from your hole; (3) if you resist the Dark Master, you must lose a card from your hole which beats his high value; and (4) the cards in your hole are added to your five-card draw at the end for you to build your final hand. 

This particular game offered, I think, the richest assortment of draws I've yet seen, meaning, the most nuanced options trading off among success or failure, whether to resist, and the varying outcomes in terms of who ends up with which cards. Moreno didn't ever use the Soldier's weapon except for colorful narration, so I ended up with no cards. It's also notable in my experience that he resisted the Master's command in the very first scene, sacrificing the hole card he'd just gained via memory.

His accumulating memories were strongly linked as sequence, basically building a linear flashback leading up to the Soldier's death out of order, but were not very detailed, e.g., no names or complex interactions. But they were extremely visceral, emotionally, and added up to a very motivated attempt at breaking the Master's hold at the end.

Moreno called for the ending and I agreed that we could go right to it. This one didn't include a specific command to the Soldier, as he and his cadre were merely witnesses to the sorcerer transforming a captive woman into his terrifying Witch-Queen.

Moreno had played at least as strategically as anyone I've seen, and went into the final scene holding some high cards and with me holding none, forced into five-card stud. But the final draw screwed him over something terrible, and although it was very lowball poker, my cards won. The Soldier's regret remained un-corrected, and he remained in the sorcerer's thrall.

It's true that the game is slightly skewed in the Soldier player's favor, as he or she is the only one empowered to engage in card-counting. But the fact that part of the deck is not accessible (however much is beneath the Joker) and the well-known wicked probabilities of poker keep that skew decidedly slight.

Moreno's pissed. He's demanding we continue, which is of course what the game's built to do. And I absolutely love the reason why:

I could say that I want to test the game for multi-session play, try the rules about changing the old memories... but no, really, to be honest, I simply want to kick that sorcerer's ass ...

Villain. Tragedy. Sequel. Oh my!

===

Moreno wrote,

Hi everybody! I am the undead crusader, how are you? I kept notes during the session (we had video problems so I wrote even the cards we did draw), so now I can post a more detailed account.

First, the players. You know Ron, and about me... I have already played a lot, really a lot, of gaming sessions with "story now" games. It was interesting reading the observations of people who are just discovering these games in the previous Cold Soldier actual play posts here, but in my case: I know these games works.

I already did play even Cold Soldier in the past (but always in the role of the Master, and using the original rules. Ron's rewrite is much more clear, about who can/must decide what). So I did play trusting the procedures, and even not worrying a bit about using narrative and visual clichés.

I have learned that playing these games, clichés are not your enemy. You can always subvert or go past them during the game. Often your real enemy is "trying too much", trying too much to be innovative, to surprise the other player. For most people, usually the ones who are used to be "THE GM" role-playing games are a performance, and it can be difficult to leave these bad habits aside.

About the way I usually play: I am a very "strategic" player, it's "what I do best", but it's not what I like best: I like emotional and engaging stories, as the results of playing. So I like games that give me the latter when I do the former (my personal explanation of a "coherent game" is "a game where you don't have to play badly to play well", after years playing games in the past where "playing well" meant playing with sub-par strategies "for the story"...).

Looking at the Cold Soldier rules, what it's very easy to notice is that the cold soldier strategy is very clear: if there are no reasons for not doing that in a particular scene, you should try to have a memory every single scene. About the use of the Weapon and/or rebelling, it depends on the card on the table, but it's usually simple to play strategically. This doesn't bother me, because "I don't have to play badly to play well", and I like having the strategic parts dealt with easily so they don't occupy too much of my attention.

Returning to the game: I did choose the Dark Master as a Sorcerer, Ron did choose in turn to play in the past, I proposed "generic middle ages" and Ron agreed about the middle ages part, but not about the generic one. He did suggest the crusades (without specifying which one) and in play we both used the third one. I did choose the undead gaze as "the Weapon" (specifying that it was so terrifying that somebody unable to flee could die of fright under that gaze), plus the "mundane" weapons (small "w") of a soldier (sword, armour, shield, etc.), "murdered" and "in a small group". Nothing more was decided at this time.

1st scene: Ron already described this scene: the Dark Master ritual in Ravenna, and the corpses rising from a mass grave in the "holy lands". We quickly solved a doubt ("probably valuable weapons and armours would have been looted from the corpses?" by agreeing that in any case the undeads would know where to find new ones, and then the DM (Dark Master, not Dungeon Master... even if the coincidence is amusing) issues the first order: to build an unholy church with a unholy altar, with a real live human crucified on it.

We start describing what happen, I talk about days or even week passing with the CS taking rock after rock and taking them to the "church" in construction, day after day, never stopping, and Ron described the situation around, until at the end a captured woman is dragged screaming to the wooden cross still on the ground Ron's draw of three cards is: 4, 5, 7 (I will not list the card suits when they are not important), I describe the Cold Soldier dragging the woman toward the cross and I draw a King of clubs.

I obviously want to keep that King for later so I narrate a memory: dragging another woman, screaming, accused to being a witch, to a cage. I take the king and draw another card, a 3. It was a really unlucky draw: I had hoped to be able to beat Ron's bad draw with my new card (I just needed a 8, or a 6 if I used the weapon), but with a 3 I would have failed in the task, no matter what I did, so I would have lost the card I wanted to keep for later.

At that point, seeing that it was lost in any case, I decided to use the king to save the woman, and I did my "first rebellion": I described the soldier opening his grasp on the woman's arm, and she running away. The other cold soldiers try to reach her but they are too far away. I take a rock and continue to walk toward the altar, continuing to build it, ignoring her and everything else.

A successful "resist" means that "The dark master's intentions are fully denied", so Ron added that the woman was able to reach a nearby village and alert the Muslim authorities, and that the unholy altar was destroyed a few days later by an attack of Saladin's troops.

2nd scene: The DM ordered to attack a nearby small Muslim village in retaliation. Ron pointed out that in this village there were Jews and Christians too, as was usual in that territory at the time, but the order was to kill everybody. Ron's draw was: Ace, Ace, 8.

I described the attack on the village, with the cold soldiers acting as a military unit, attacking as they did in life. My soldier running and opening his mouth to scream, but with no sound coming out of the corpse. I did draw a 3.

Following the simple strategy I talked about before I should have narrated a memory here, too. A 3 is better than nothing. I don't remember why I didn't. Maybe I did not want to risk having the DM win (I did not remember at the time what exactly the rules said about this case, I checked them again after Ron's final narration of this scene), but I don't think so, it would have been improbable to draw another ace. It's more probable that I simply didn't want to stop the narration for only a 3, seeing that probably I would have had to relinquish it anyway at the end of the scene if I did not draw an ace. With a 3 the soldier failed at his task, but I didn't remember that in that case "The dark master's intentions are denied in the short term, but not ultimately subverted."

Ron narrated the village fall on a later, successful attack, and every single person killed. Not having any card in my "hole", I didn't lose any. In one of these scenes (I don't remember exactly when , if during the 2nd, the 3rd or the 4th) the Dark Master did appear in person, having travelled from Ravenna to the "holy lands" by arcane means.

3rd scene Saracen soldiers travels in the land, escorting "someone" (my notes are incomplete here, I did miss their description at first and thought that it was simply a group of travelling soldiers. I am not used to talk or hearing speech in English, my knowledge of English is limited to the written words and if I have to speak it my spelling and pronunciation is abysmal. Ron talks in a very clear and deliberate manner so I am usually able to understand him even without subtitles, but i usually can't with most people, and sometimes I miss parts of what even Ron says).

The DM orders are to ambush them Ron draws a 6, a 7 and a 8. I describe the cold soldier waiting hidden under the ground, not needing to breath, under they erupt in the middle of the Saracens causing panic and confusion. I draw a 10. Seeing that I am winning, i describe the soldiers killing and killing, and then a memory, with the cold soldier remembering another fight, side by side with his friends (that are probably the other corpses fighting beside him even now) and it's a happy memory.

I keep the 10 for later and draw another 10, so the ambush is successful, Ron narrated how the saracens are killed and the head of "someone" taken (I realized at this point that there was someone whose head the DM wanted, but I did not stop the game to ask explanations) 4th scene The DM uses the head(s) in an unholy ritual to summon even more dead spirits to his command, but these are "lesser" undead. At this point the initial small group of "cold soldier" becomes like generals in his undead army, each one with a lot of lesser undead to command, and I receive orders to attack a city nearby.

Ron draws a Ace, a Jack and a 6. Thinking about the rule that says that the cold soldiers can't communicate with anybody in any way, I narrated that the way I "command" my armies is like a dog commands a group of sheep: these lesser undead would attack and kill anybody, but are afraid of me and my gaze, so I can steer them in the direction I want and push them to fight, because they are more scared of me than of their opponent.

I draw a King of Diamonds. I narrated a memory, of another attack to another city. I was the one afraid of my commanding officer at the time, a very nasty guy who barked orders from the rear, never risking actual combat, but flogging afterwards anybody that had not fought with enough "courage" in his opinion. The memory ended remembering how much the cold soldier hated the guy.

I added the king to the 10 I already had from the previous scene, and I did draw another card, a 9. This was a losing card in any case, so Ron narrated as the attack failed, but the city fell at the end in the following days after other undead armies arrived. I had to relinquish one card and I did discard my 10, remaining with the King.

5th scene The DM saw himself as a sort of new "god", so he did want a new Garden of Eden, and to "seed" it, he did order to bury all the remaining people of the city we had conquered alive. Ron did draw a 2, a 5 and a Jack of diamonds.

I described the soldier moving towards the pens where the survivors were kept, women and children mostly, dirty, starving and desperate, and how the soldier opened the door and grabbed the one chosen for that particular spot by the DM (I imagined him being very particular about who he wanted to bury in each part of his "garden"), and i drew a 10 of Diamonds.

I narrated a memory, the Cold Soldier remembering when he was dragged as a child away from his mother to be fostered in his lord's castle. I add the 10 of Diamonds to the king, and draw another card: a Jack of Spades. Jack against Jack: the rules don't say what happens if there is a draw. Looking at the rules he uses for Poker Ron decides that spades beats diamonds, so the cold soldier win. I decide to not rebel (to keep the cards for later) and so the terrible deed is done.

6th scene Grotesque "fruits" grows from the DM's terrible garden. Ron describes monsters rising from it, and then an attack from a coalition of Saracen and Christian forces (united against this undead army that is attacking and sacking the cities of both). The DM flees, taken away by one of his winged monsters, ordering us to fight to protect the garden.

Ron draw a 6, a 7 and a Ace. I draw a 5. I narrated a memory anyway to keep it (already planning to give it up if the next was a losing card). A memory of another attack, and another officer fleeing away, cowardly, ordering his troops to fight to protect his flight. The officer was the hated one i already used before, and the memory end with the soldier's death.

I add the 5 to cards in the hole, but it's for a little time. The next card I draw is a 2, the soldier lose, and I have to relinquish a card (the 5 of course) Ron narrated how the united Muslim and Christian armies crush the undeads resistance, "killing" everybody again, and how the DM is killed, screaming, before he could flee away.

7th scene: The DM plans can be denied in the short term by a lousy draw from the soldier, but not ultimately subverted. Ron narrates how, after a uncertain amount of time, the cold soldiers rise again. Summoned by their Dark Master, and joined by other undeads, most of whom are the DM "killers", cursed with his dying breath to become his undead servants too. It's an unholy ritual to make the DM returns, burning people in a desecrated church. Ron draws a 2, a 3 and a 4.

I draw a Queen of Diamonds, and I narrated another memory, tied to the one in the first scene: the same woman accused of being a witch, and I am ordered to take her from her cage and bring her to the place where she will be burned alive at the stake by the commanding officer I hate (that accused her of being a witch). I remember looking at her, and deciding to leave her flee, telling her to run away and not look back.

The next card I draw is another Queen, the DM order are followed, and he return to this plane, an undead himself. At this point in the game, I have a Queen of Diamonds, a King of Diamonds and a 10 of diamonds in the "hole". I never used the Cold Soldier Weapon (apart from some colour narrations) so Ron has no cards in the hole.

I would frankly prefer to continue playing (I am enjoying the game, and I want to increase the cards advantage to be sure to beat the DM), I have taken note of every card played so I know that there are still 18 unused cards (+ the joker), so we could still play 1-3 scenes (depending on where is the joker). But it's getting late, Ron has to go away in a few minutes and I think it's better to end the game here than to rush the last scenes, so I declare the endgame.

I choose for the endgame "Whether a regret will be made right.", and the regret was that I was not able to save the woman from the pyre (she was captured before she could run away), Ron narrate a new ritual where the DM choose a "bride" among the women we did capture, and the ritual includes killing her (to make her an evil undead...) We rush a little in this scene, i have few notes, but at the end when we draw the cards... Ron wins!

Now, do you understand why I want a rematch? It can't end like this!!!

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Cold Soldier

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Moreno and I continued, for our second and as it turned out, final story.

Continuing is easy. The only thing to do was  for Moreno to say whether the Soldier gains an additional weapon (he didn't); there's no summoning introduction, and you just move into more commands.

From the GM point of view, however, this means more than it looks. "Continuing" how? Especially given the dynamic concerning the Dark Master we'd established, which I'll talk about later. It seemed to me that full discontinuity was called for, and it was afforded a certain freedom since we'd set the game "in the past." 

Well, the past is a big place, isn't it. So I kicked it a few centuries further on and from the center of one world to one of the centers of another, on the shores of Lake Huron during the 1600s. I wasn't sure where I was going with this or why, but I kind of felt like the sorcerer had some reason to start anew. Moreno was a bit surprised at my initial description - "What year is it?" he asked, and I enjoyed being that GM for a minute by saying "You [the Soldier] can't count."

Not to go into major details, I'll simply say that the sorcerer wanted to become the Dark God of the New World, but really had a terrible time. Not only was his Cold Soldier as intractable as he was before, he lost the favor of his Witch Queen, was forced to admit that his power came from the Soldier rather than the other way around, and was eventually caught and tortured. Ultimately his Soldier grabbed him and walked to the bottom of the Great Lakes, where he (the Dark Master) perished, and the Soldier froze into a deathless but permanent sleep.

This time, Moreno grabbed a memory every single turn, and about half of them utilized black cards from the initial draw, hence he was supposed to tie it to a currently-listed memory. He and I agreed that the player was almost certain to be doing this anyway, so whether this rule (an add-on, post-Ronnies) is really necessary strikes me as an open question.

I want to compare Moreno's play regarding memories with the other games of Cold Soldier I've played in 2017. He fell on the far end of a spectrum, meaning, the memories he provided were like snapshots of the Soldier's life which corresponded strongly with the current command the sorcerer had given him. They did not, however, represent a narrative unto themselves, i.e., they did not have a cast of characters undergoing recognizable plot, and they did not tie into the currently-played events in a causal way. It was all very "long ago and far away."

Whereas compare with the other three:

  • Zac (from a game in February, which I'll post about soon): we learned the Soldier's immediate past life and complex ties to the Dark Master, and as that deepened, the forward-moving events, the A-plot if you will, were clearly outcomes of the past. It was very coherent, causal, and detailed.
  • Santiago: we learned about two days of the Soldier's former life that composed an entire value system, which had everything to do with the Dark Master in metaphysical terms but penetrated into the A-plot only internally for the Soldier.
  • Angel: we learned about a sketchy but intense love story, which came together with the A-plot in the final scenes via the entry of a character from the past.

Moreno's approach had a significant consequence: I was pretty much on my own regarding each new scene, meaning the sorcerer's new circumstances and the next command. That's one reason that I kept getting more hard-core and metal; I was enjoined to command things I found repellent, and since I had nothing given to me to work with, I had no one to one-up but myself.

Yet that's no criticism of Moreno's choice, as the Soldier's memories were extremely rich in emotions and moral crisis; one got the idea that inside this cold, lethal, hulk was a genuine inferno of former perceptions, judgments, and frustrations. The one in which the living Crusader paid for a prostitute whose torture-burn scars showed she'd been a victim of either him or people like him - that really hit me hard, and I cheered aloud when Moreno chose that turn to resist. I'm typically not demonstrative when GMing Cold Soldier, as I don't want to influence the other player's internal journey, but this was a point when Moreno really put me on the Soldier's side.

Keep that in mind as I describe how Moreno would play the cards this time. I was already a little curious about it when we started, considering that he' d embraced the strategy-makes-story features of the game, and because I knew he was prety fixated on endgame. You see, it's at least conceivable that a player might have to make a choice between doing something they really wanted vs. optimizing for the final hand. Ordinarily, this is not an issue - and that's part of the point - because "winning" is subordinate to a compelling and - dare I say, for such a grim and grey game - beautiful experience. But Moreno was afire with not only author's high, but audience's high of wanting it to "turn out right."

I'll get a little more detailed with the events and card-play. 

  • Ordered to slay and subdue the Huron village  - the Soldier obeys and succeeds
  • Ordered to submit his energies to the sorcerer - the Soldier obeys and succeeds (a bad thing for him)
  • Ordered to kill the rebellious Witch Queen - the Soldier resists
  • Ordered to come home - the Soldier obeys but fails (the point here however, is that the sorcerer gained his goal of getting the Soldier back under his power, and we never learned what happened to the former Witch Queen)
  • Ordered to have undead sex with the gender-transformed sorcerer - the Soldier resists
  • Ordered to slay the people who'd crucified and tortured the sorcerer (Joker) - I think he resisted this one too

Amusingly, Moreno said that he went all the way to the Joker not because he was seeking to gain as many cards as he could, but because he was enjoying seeing the Dark Master suffer.

In the final round, Moreno chose "unfinished business." He had, I think, four cards in his hole, making nine cards to build his five-card hand from, and just as before, I had nothing, remaining with five-card stud. This time, more sensibly from a poker standpoint, he won easily with two pair vs. my utter crap.

I don't know if I'm making my point. I'm talking about getting past these two mistaken responses when I talk about Story Now play.

  • "Play bad strategy for the sake of a story"
  • "It's an automatic story-maker [or the GM takes care of it] so it doesn't matter how you play"

I'm convinced there is literally no better way to kill this whole nest of crazy misperception dead, than to play Cold Soldier.

==

Moreno wrote,

About my strategy this game: I changed the way I played and became much less fixated on the end-game, after the previous session had shown me that I had misjudged this game.

At first (last session), I considered this a game to be played like My Life With Master: you play a servant of an evil overlord, you carry out his evil orders, until you rebel and kill the master. A lot of the "reward" of MLWM is tied to the catharctic end-game, and I simply assumed that Cold Soldier was the same. So I played the first session trying to keep as many cards as possibile, and rebelling only when I would have lost the card anyway.

The catastrophic hand that I got at the end (and losing to the Dark Master) made this image of the game crumble, and I re-evalued the game in the time between sessions. This is a game where the defeat of the Dark Master at the end is NOT assured, in sharp contrast with MLWM. In MLWM, the Master WILL die, the minions WILL rebel, and one of them will kill the Master. The game doesn't actually guarantee that the minion will defeat the Master, ma if all the other players will not run to help him and he doesn't get the sincerity die in the last scenes, they are not playing it right.

But in Cold Soldier:

  1. You play one-to-one, and you play poker: no amount of stashed-away cards can guaranteee victory (at most you have 4-5 extra-cards at the end, and I did check with a site that listed the chances of poker hands with different numbers of cards: even with 4 extra-cards, your victory is very far from secure)
  2. You can ALWAYS rebel, you don't need to get x points of love or a certain point-value.
  3. By rebelling you don't start the endgame, and even if you don't destroy the Dark Master at the end, you can try again next session.

So, this time, when I found sometimes the chance to defeat the Dark Master's plans (or simply make him suffer), I took it. To get my satisfaction right then, without saving it for an uncertain final.

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