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Cold Soldier: I am the Zombie Woof

Hey, more Cold Soldier in action! This time with Ángel, for a slightly less intercontinental session - Sweden and the U.K. But also, like the session with Santiago, placed in reference to a Spanish-speaking setting, based on Angel's home city of Madrid.

Our starting context used genius scientist and the past, specifically early 19th-century Spain. Angel decided his soldier had died of an injury, was bestial in form and function, and was utilized alone. In play, the soldier was pretty much a zombie werewolf, of the stealthy and fast variety.

I'll leave the story's details and step-by-step events for the comments, with any luck from Angel, but I want to contrast it here with the session I played with Santiago. In this case, the events revealed by memory spanned a considerable period, and for the most part were vague (although vivid), and not immediately obviously connected. Whereas in the previous session, they basically narrated two days in detail, including the day of the man's death. It shows how structurally diverse the outcome of play can be for this game - tremendously so.

A couple more things.

Insight #1: when you're prevented from providing an internal monologue or even descriptions of internal states, you must focus instead on action and outcomes - this game must produce fiction.

Related to that, it puts the soldier player into a slightly tense/curious state of mind regarding who this person was - the tiny glimmers of memory, any scrap or indicator of identity, is valuable. Not in some currency-based way, but in terms of pure cognitive engagement with fiction: fiction is happening, so who is this - who is this? It's a nicely reliable feature of the human mind. 

And that, I think, is why the mechanic of memory - which the player can do once per turn, at any time, and always gains a card by doing it - works as more than a currency shifter. That aspect, the game mechanic, takes on value because this kind of fictional content already has power - and in this case, the scarcity principle of value does seem to apply, i.e., it's genuine value per unit. Thus the mechanic works only because the reward is already real, which is a statement I've been making about "reward mechanics" for over a decade.

(And that's why it does not work the other way - you don't give some fictional content value because you make it worth +1 to hit, or anything else with the arrow pointing that direction.)

Insight #2: resisting the Dark Master is mechanically constrained - you have to have a card in your hole which can beat the high card currently showing. That means you have to have built at least one memory in order to have a hole at all, and it also means you haven't losing too many rounds, which loses cards from your hole.

In our case, Angel received no, zero, moments of opportunity to resist the command. This was, I think the first Cold Soldier game I've played in which that happened. It made for a very grim sequence of events, as succeed or fail, the Dark Master kept on advancing with his sinister plans. (Oh - and as a former academic, I have a very fine touch with all the nastiness a "genius scientist" can get up to. Not much fiction at work there, beyond some fantasy-horror trimmings.)

This is, I think, important: that although resisting the Dark Master is certainly a crowning moment for any soldier player, it doesn't have to happen in order to make the game enjoyable. In fact, I direct your attention to the phrasing of endgame: the soldier player chooses only which phrase will apply: Whether a thing you cherished will be placed beyond harm; whether a regret will be made right; whether unfinished business will be completed. But that player does not specify this decision in fictional terms - that's up to the Dark Master.

Think about it: let's say someone plays rather cynically, even nastily, never resisting, never even choosing a memory (or perhaps creating memories that make the soldier a really despicable person during life), basically defying what seems to be the obvious expection of the game to make the soldier sympathetic. 

... Guess what, it still works, because it's the GM who decides how that endgame phrase is framed as fiction. And since the GM has been, all along, defining the Dark Master and his or her agenda to be personally repellent, the GM's sense of, respectively, cherished, unfinished business, and "made right" will be, when expressed fictionally, consonant with that already-played material. 

In other words, the game is robust vs. griefing or, rather, vs. its own potential for the soldier's past life to be literally anything, across the whole moral and/or likeable range. It means the soldier player really is free to come up with memories, as in, free for those memories to be absolutely anything, with no soft/hinted expectation to make them a certain way.

And finally, a mechanics point. Going into endgame, I was looking at a pretty good hand, with two aces and king, and my final draw brought me to two pair, aces and tens, plus a king. A pretty damn good hand for five-card draw poker (more or less). Angel went into endgame with real crap, just a seven and eight of unmatched suits. Given the odds, my gears were already turning a bit toward the obvious GM-driven ending: Irena would fire her pistol, but Cristina had leaped in front of the soldier, and taken the bullet ...

But it turned out Angel was looking at a nice solid straight, which beats two pair, and he narrated an equally stunning and direct outcome in which Irena's head-shot ended his cold existence forever - including, very much as I was also contemplating while he talked, that his soldier had been carrying an incriminating document concerning the Dark Master in one clenched hand. (Creepy after-thought too: how long had he been holding that, mission after mission, not even knowing he had it?)

Here's the point: that although Angel had called for endgame voluntarily, i.e. without being prompted by a Joker draw, we were apparently close to the Joker after all, because it showed up in his five-card draw. That's what made his straight possible, as I decided on the spot (without knowing his cards yet) that the Joker in the final draws would be a wild card.

That's a pure table-call - it's not in the rules at all, about what to do with the Joker if it shows up in your final pull from the deck when you're constructing your final hand. The harshest call would be to discard it and get one more card. But I decided it would be wild, mainly because that's typically how I prefer poker (incidentally, with absolutely no other funny-card rules).

It's relevant to this game especially because it's been mentioned, over the years, that it's a little too favorable to the soldier player, resulting in too few utterly tragic outcomes. And I allow that I typically do see the soldier player win that final hand.

However, I think that's confirmation bias. In this case especially, there was no reason to think the Joker would have shown up - if at all - in his hand rather than mine, and it's also clear that the weapon and memory rules, when properly played, actually favor the master player in terms of high cards.

Hey, more Cold Soldier in action! This time with Angel Garcia Jiménez, for a slightly less intercontinental session - Sweden and the U.K. But also, like the session with Santiago, placed in reference to a Spanish-speaking setting, based on Angel's home city of Madrid.

Our starting context used genius scientist and the past, specifically early 19th-century Spain. Angel decided his soldier had died of an injury, was bestial in form and function, and was utilized alone. In play, the soldier was pretty much a zombie werewolf, of the stealthy and fast variety.

I'll leave the story's details and step-by-step events for the comments, with any luck from Angel, but I want to contrast it here with the session I played with Santiago. In this case, the events revealed by memory spanned a considerable period, and for the most part were vague (although vivid), and not immediately obviously connected. Whereas in the previous session, they basically narrated two days in detail, including the day of the man's death. It shows how structurally diverse the outcome of play can be for this game - tremendously so.

A couple more things.

Insight #1: when you're prevented from providing an internal monologue or even descriptions of internal states, you must focus instead on action and outcomes - this game must produce fiction.

Related to that, it puts the soldier player into a slightly tense/curious state of mind regarding who this person was - the tiny glimmers of memory, any scrap or indicator of identity, is valuable. Not in some currency-based way, but in terms of pure cognitive engagement with fiction: fiction is happening, so who is this - who is this? It's a nicely reliable feature of the human mind. 

And that, I think, is why the mechanic of memory - which the player can do once per turn, at any time, and always gains a card by doing it - works as more than a currency shifter. That aspect, the game mechanic, takes on value because this kind of fictional content already has power - and in this case, the scarcity principle of value does seem to apply, i.e., it's genuine value per unit. Thus the mechanic works only because the reward is already real, which is a statement I've been making about "reward mechanics" for over a decade.

(And that's why it does not work the other way - you don't give some fictional content value because you make it worth +1 to hit, or anything else with the arrow pointing that direction.)

Insight #2: resisting the Dark Master is mechanically constrained - you have to have a card in your hole which can beat the high card currently showing. That means you have to have built at least one memory in order to have a hole at all, and it also means you haven't losing too many rounds, which loses cards from your hole.

In our case, Angel received no, zero, moments of opportunity to resist the command. This was, I think the first Cold Soldier game I've played in which that happened. It made for a very grim sequence of events, as succeed or fail, the Dark Master kept on advancing with his sinister plans. (Oh - and as a former academic, I have a very fine touch with all the nastiness a "genius scientist" can get up to. Not much fiction at work there, beyond some fantasy-horror trimmings.)

This is, I think, important: that although resisting the Dark Master is certainly a crowning moment for any soldier player, it doesn't have to happen in order to make the game enjoyable. In fact, I direct your attention to the phrasing of endgame: the soldier player chooses only which phrase will apply: Whether a thing you cherished will be placed beyond harm; whether a regret will be made right; whether unfinished business will be completed. But that player does not specify this decision in fictional terms - that's up to the Dark Master.

Think about it: let's say someone plays rather cynically, even nastily, never resisting, never even choosing a memory (or perhaps creating memories that make the soldier a really despicable person during life), basically defying what seems to be the obvious expection of the game to make the soldier sympathetic. 

... Guess what, it still works, because it's the GM who decides how that endgame phrase is framed as fiction. And since the GM has been, all along, defining the Dark Master and his or her agenda to be personally repellent, the GM's sense of, respectively, cherished, unfinished business, and "made right" will be, when expressed fictionally, consonant with that already-played material. 

In other words, the game is robust vs. griefing or, rather, vs. its own potential for the soldier's past life to be literally anything, across the whole moral and/or likeable range. It means the soldier player really is free to come up with memories, as in, free for those memories to be absolutely anything, with no soft/hinted expectation to make them a certain way.

And finally, a mechanics point. Going into endgame, I was looking at a pretty good hand, with two aces and king, and my final draw brought me to two pair, aces and tens, plus a king. A pretty damn good hand for five-card draw poker (more or less). Angel went into endgame with real crap, just a seven and eight of unmatched suits. Given the odds, my gears were already turning a bit toward the obvious GM-driven ending: Irena would fire her pistol, but Cristina had leaped in front of the soldier, and taken the bullet ...

But it turned out Angel was looking at a nice solid straight, which beats two pair, and he narrated an equally stunning and direct outcome in which Irena's head-shot ended his cold existence forever - including, very much as I was also contemplating while he talked, that his soldier had been carrying an incriminating document concerning the Dark Master in one clenched hand. (Creepy after-thought too: how long had he been holding that, mission after mission, not even knowing he had it?)

Here's the point: that although Angel had called for endgame voluntarily, i.e. without being prompted by a Joker draw, we were apparently close to the Joker after all, because it showed up in his five-card draw. That's what made his straight possible, as I decided on the spot (without knowing his cards yet) that the Joker in the final draws would be a wild card.

That's a pure table-call - it's not in the rules at all, about what to do with the Joker if it shows up in your final pull from the deck when you're constructing your final hand. The harshest call would be to discard it and get one more card. But I decided it would be wild, mainly because that's typically how I prefer poker (incidentally, with absolutely no other funny-card rules).

It's relevant to this game especially because it's been mentioned, over the years, that it's a little too favorable to the soldier player, resulting in too few utterly tragic outcomes. And I allow that I typically do see the soldier player win that final hand.

However, I think that's confirmation bias. In this case especially, there was no reason to think the Joker would have shown up - if at all - in his hand rather than mine, and it's also clear that the weapon and memory rules, when properly played, actually favor the master player in terms of high cards.

Hi! I had a great time playing with Ron the other day. It was my first time trying out Cold Soldier and I liked it a lot. So anyway, here is the retelling of the story that emerged in play. Since my memory tends to remember only the broad strokes of the story, this is far from exact. I've "edited" many things, and I'm pretty sure some scenes have been rearranged or even completely left out. But I think I got the gist of the story. Also, I could not bring myself to write it plainly. That would have been boring and, you know, useful. Instead I went for a more "literary" approach. So be prepared for the corky, amateurish, over the top story of something that may or may not resemble what actually happened in the game.

=======

Ron played a mad scientist living in early XIX century Madrid (Spain) called Alonson Villavieja. A man with some kind of military background and a taste for climbing up the Academia ladder. For that purpose he created me, the reanimated corpse of a man deceased by some kind of injury and brought back to life with the addition of the physical attributes of a predatory animal.

My first task was to find a fellow academic, Doctor Sevilla, and kill him while making it look like an accident so my master could take its place in the university. I was able to track him down using my acute senses and found him pacing on the second floor of an accommodated house where he lived. I climbed up to the window and knocked swiftly on the crystal to call his attention. When he approached, I opened the window and grabbed him violently with the intent to make him fall with me and kill him.

I succeeded at the former but not the later. He survived the fall and, before I could do anything else, his daughter appeared and saw me. And started to scream. So I had to run without finishing my task. This did not please my master.

After this, the next deed to complete was getting rid of a Basque emissary sent to reach an agreement with the Spanish government. He died indeed and I completed my job for a change. This time master was pleased, and he decided that it was time to replicate his creature. For that, he needed to get hold of a live female subject to experiment upon. And of course, he decided that it would be fitting to kidnap Sevilla's own daughter, Irene. She had retired with his now impaired father to a villa outside the city.

There, I attempted to lure her into the woods and [capture] her. But I failed once more and she got away, alerting everyone in the vicinity and prompting me to run away; which I did, not before getting shot numerous times. But as a result of this, Sevilla finally died of the sheer terror caused my lurking presence and Irene swore revenge to my master and me.

As time went by, my master became more daring. First he made me kill one of his own students, who had become too ambitious even for my master's taste, and did horrible experiments on his body I will not describe here. And next he commanded me to desecrate Sevilla's tomb, dig his body out and bring it to him for a final mockery. This caused Irene to start a full on crusade against my master, denouncing him to the University and causing an investigation into his research. Although ultimately fruitless, it made the situation ever more dire and force my master to give me a final order in an act of desperation.

But before I continue, I must tell you something. Through all this misdemeanors, despite having been stripped of all concious thought, I occasionally experienced brief flashes of memories from a forgotten past. They happened without any order, going forward and backwards haphazardly. Initially they made not much sense. But with time, a story started to emerge. One of love and tragedy, about a boy of low stand who befriended a highborn girl when they were both little more than kids. And as they grew, so did their love for each other. And so, when they finally decided to get married and the boy went to ask for her father's blessing, he was instead received with rejection and disdain. And as all young couples do in this kind of stories, they run away together and got married in secret. But it wasn't long before they got found and their romance came to an end when she got taken away and he was shot down death. And so my master found me, remade my flesh and raised me from the dead to serve his bidding.

With this lingering memory trapped in a corner of my mind, I received my last command: to kill Irene and everyone else who stood by her side, and be done with all this trouble once and for all. It wasn't hard to found her. By now her smell was familiar. I followed it to the park of The Retiro, where she was meeting with a cousin to confide her problems to her.

I approached them without being noticed and launched myself forward to attack them both with my usual mindless fury. But as I emerged from my hide, something stopped me dead on my tracks. This time it wasn't a pure instinctual reaction, but an actual human thought. I saw a familiar face. The woman from my memories. My dear...Cristina! Yes, that was her name. I remembered then.

For a brief instant, I was myself again. But in my my deteriorated condition, all I could do was stumble a couple of steps unto her, reaching with my hand as if to touch her. In her face I saw a look of recognition, shock and horror. But before I could do anything, Irene took out her gun and fired at me. A single bullet straight to my head. Not even my monstrous physique could survive something like that. I fell down to the floor, dead once more. But as Cristina kneel down to touch my cold body, she found something clutched in my hand. A few pieces of paper ripped from a journal. The incriminatory notes of Villavieja, describing all his terrible experiments. A posthumous revenge against my terrible master.

I do not know since when I had had it in my hand. Not do I know of the fate that befell my former master, the poor Irene or my dear Cristina. For I have embraced oblivion. I rest in peace now. For ever. At last.

=======

I think the thing that stood out more for me was the constraints the game placed on me. Not only did a great great job establishing the Premise, which is a form of constraints too, but the actual limitations in the way I could narrate my actions really affected my experience.

Not being able to express the inner world of my character made the story move forward constantly. No time to reflect, not to speculate. That is, no time to form a story. I mean, the story was being created, but it felt like I was a passive observer with little control. And so, every time I was able to narrate a memory, it was a precious opportunity. We have the need to form a story from any kind of random series of events. So being denied that need, it makes for a very desperate form of storytelling once we are able to do it. As a result of that, the story that came out was pretty stereotypical. But also, possibly, very in tune with the rest of the play experience.

As a player I was feeling limited by the narrative constraints of the game. And consequentially, the story I crafted was of being limited by your born-given standing and not being able to attain what you want. Again, not very original but powerful. I think being on edge when it came to create the story of the memories, made unconsciously reach for whatever themes I had close to me. And since, as a player, I was feeling constrained, I formed a story about that. 

Another interesting thing I noticed was the way the memories affects the final scene. Up until that point, the memories have been a oasis a storytelling freedom not touched by the GM. But when the last scene comes, they are suddenly put in danger. If you lose in the poker match, the GM takes this previously untarnished piece of raw story you have crafted and gets to bring it to a terrible end beyond your control. On the other hand, if you win, you can take full control of it. And this time there's no time limitation. And, when previously you knew it was going to end in tragedy (because one way or the other you had to die), this time you can make a happy ending. You have created this tiny thing that is only yours and is very close to your heart. And now is put into question. That felt really powerful to me.

And regardless of who wins, these two stories that have grown out of each other in some kind of codependent relationship, will come to a satisfactory conclusion, merging into one and achieving closure; be it a pleasant or a tragic one. So yeah, I think an important part of it is having constraints that push you into creating a story. In fact, maybe into needing to create a story. And by leveraging your need for a cohesive story, it prioritizes some positions on the play space that produce precisely that. For example, since you need closure for your story, the game clearly tells you "this is how you get closure" and lures you into putting an end to the story in the way the game intents. I imagine that's why you need to play with a narrativist agenda to create a story during play. The game needs to use your pre-existing need/want for a story to direct you into a position where you can get it. If you don't want a story, it's almost impossible to entice you this way.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Cold Soldier