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Lives, yes; curious about the Legend

We are six sessions into what has become a rather dedicated, eventful run for Legendary Lives.

The leading illustration for this post is perfect for my character's sister's plight in session 4, but it's also way out of context for its original meaning, so follow the link stated in the image to see its proper content.

The embedded link includes the playlist for sessions 4 and 5; I'm working on session 6 now and will add it soon.

I don't know if anyone's following this game of ours, but if you do, I think you'll notice a little bit of "spray" in terms of the resulting plot. We are three hard-feeling, hard-living, no-holds-barred female fantasy heroes, but also rather adrift and shaping our desires in a dangerous mix of setting-based risks.

Ross is very careful not to front-load plot, but rather, instead, to fill the joint with every possible hassle from our characters' backgrounds and the available setting material, and to see what happens.It makes perfect sense for us to carom around a little while, finding trouble and causing it, and only now just beginning to do things because we want to, and in relation to a whole lot of other characters' priorities and pressures on us.

That's what I mean by the post title. Our characters as characters make sense - whereas how their situation and their assertive actions become a memorable, perhaps culturally significant saga ("legend") is still in progress. One thing I'd really like to address in reflections and discussion is what we each perceive as rising action at this point - not to consolidate, agree, or decree anything, but merely as comparison among the participants.

Usually, after each session, we chat a bit about the game or any rules details that have piqued anyone's interest. I haven't included those because they tend to be rambly or because my brain is melting by that point in the edits, but I hope to bring some of them forward in the comments, especially since we've logged so much play.

Some of that content includes:

The striking difference between the rules for miracles (available to all characters) and the rules for magic, in that the former are pretty generous and the latter are surprisingly stingy. I get the idea that the miracles were perceived as "helping" the GM lay down the next steps of plot and the magic was perceived as "interfering" with doing it. Since Robbie's character Grrl is pretty much treating her Divination magic and her "balance of the universe" spiritualist, non-deistic religion as the same thing, the difference in the rules for each comes out a little strangely in play.

The remarkable "bounce" effect afforded by the outcomes table, which in many cases - and if the textual rules are honored - create a completely unpredictable, yet causal, non-random-feeling plot. It's important to assess this, too, in terms of the stated character goals, which are a bit mysterious in the rules because character creation is all about arriving at these highly-individualized, player-written, passionate goals, and yet nothing about how-to-play or examples for play or scenarios for play taps into them.

The contrast between the clearly highly-playtested, absolutely pristine rules - nothing extra, nothing missing - and the game's evident obscurity, i.e., dearth of perceived presence and use in the general hobby. It evidently saw a lot of convention one-shot play, but its design includes a lot of content and rules which could only have been baked in long-term play. It makes me want to know a lot more about the home-game, i.e., the designers and their friends, about who the characters were and what happened to them, and how the rules arose from there.


Actual Play


Rod_A's picture

In the immediate situation, I'm seeing the action as about Grrrl's moral crossroads about whether she'll continue to be guided by emotional impulse and violence or find another way to be in the world. Shining Star's, uh, emergent relationship with impulsive violence over the course of events makes her an interesting foil for Grrrl. The natural thing I would expect is that we'll eventually reunite and whatever confrontation or reconciliation results will pay off in a big way. If that doesn't happen, will that feel like a fizzle? I dunno.

Other thoughts: It's kind of interesting that the alacrity with which Shining Star checked off her to-do list means that "Shining Star comes back from prison to settle scores" is just a prologue to whatever her own story will actually turn out to be about, as she rebuilds her family by salvaging the parts she likes and replacing the parts she doesn't.

I'm not sure I have much actual insight into what I'm doing with Christabelle, apart from tunnel-visioning on "get out of town" as an immediate goal. The harder it gets the more I want it, Ross!

Ron Edwards's picture

I completely agree about the prologue qualities of Shining Star’s events so far, and about the moral dilemma facing Grrl. I see the question of a reunion or not as open, and “story valid” either way – for example, imagine a film or novel whose two main characters encounter one another early in the story, then whose subsequent fates are separate, but from the audience perspective, can be seen to have been affected by that early meeting. No matter what, Christabelle’s interrogative conversation with Modthryth, as (mis-)overheard by Grrl, is going to be a retrospective lynchpin.

These topics potentially put a lot of pressure on Ross. The nature of the game (specifically the player-characters’ contribution to situation) leans toward, or risks, that he is expected to concoct some grand and great notion about how to wrap, sew, and deliver the bestest and most awesome ending, or at least climactic crisis. Particularly, the framing (or in-fiction, “coincidence”) responsibility carries a great deal of plot construction in it, too much if one is seduced by its directional power.

The Intuition ability would seem tailor-made for that side of play, except that it seems to me to be too much “one side,” i.e., it’s a GM-called roll so they can tell you what to do. Such things are born of the weird fear that players might not do what’s “best” for them (i.e. what the GM wants) and the other weird fear of simply telling them, or if you want it that bad, owning it and framing accordingly.

One solution might be using the Fate ability instead. It’s somewhat more tied to volitional statements or circumstances, and it can go both ways. By which I mean, a player might say, “Gee, I hope I don’t run into Pig-Dog the Bandit,” in which I guess a successful Fate roll means they don’t, or they might say, “Gee, I hope I do,” in which case a successful roll means they don’t. Or least I think so, based on the ability description.

I think that when-and-if I GM the game again, I’ll rely on Fate quite a bit for things like who gets somewhere first and whether people “bump into” one another, when external circumstances or intentions aren’t available to determine them.

robowist's picture

With more mishaps to sweeten the pot, the trio of misfits is together again and ready to rock. Appropriately, our effort to get out of Smith City was riddled with mishaps and complications, but it seems like we might actually be on the verge of some type of freedom. 

One theme that emerged out of our play: Legendary Lives is a teeter totter when it comes to outcomes. It’s gritty in some areas and surprisingly forgiving in others.

Here are my notes:

Combat and Healing on the See-Saw
At the start of the session, fighting was not on Grrrl’s mind. Her thought was to smuggle out on the dung-filled wagon with the Darum the Teti. Get past the city gate, say farewell to Fatima, and go merrily on her way. What could be easier?

But, like a needy dog, violence always seems to follow on Grrrl’s heels, and once blood is drawn she has a hard time controlling herself. This time, Grrrl stumbles on the road when trying to make her escape, and (thanks to an Assistance Miracle) two of Modthryth’s (her outlaw mother) gang plant arrows in her pursuers. Grrrl’s confused desire to prove herself to mom kicked into high gear, and out came her axe. The session gave us a chance to experience more of the combat system in action.

There is an elegance to the system, which is based on the same percentile dice and Action Results Table that govern skill checks, spell use, etc. The fight went south for Grrrl, and she sustained a Heavy Wound on her head and another one on her right arm. I realized in retrospect that she was very close to being out of commission. A Critical Wound anywhere incapacitates a character.

The combat system, however, proved ultimately to be forgiving for Grrrl. 

  • Legendary Lives has a hit location element, which I normally expect to be brutal, but in this case, it allows a character to sustain multiple nasty blows so long as they come in different areas of the body. It’s unlikely that the same body part is going to be hit hard twice.
  • I had a couple Catastrophic defense rolls, but there isn’t any added nasty consequence for this event apart from the column counting that dictates your damage. Catastrophic rolls are quite painful with certain skill checks and spell castings, but much less consequential in other areas.
  • The heavy wounds don’t have any added impact in the rules. Grrrl takes a heavy wound on her right arm, but the rules don’t talk about how it would impact her subsequent attacks. So she is able to heave her axe just as well as she did when she was fully healthy.
  • We didn’t have to go there, but the Critical Wounds table does dish out penalties. However, there is another forgiving and random quality here. A Critical leg injury, for example, can cause a loss of . . . Intelligence. The rules note this type of curious outcome, and tries to justify it: “This is to prevent any one skill from being reduced too quickly. If every critical leg wound caused a loss of Agility, a character’s Agility would quickly plummet.” Legendary Lives could be more honest here and let players live with the reality of the combat outcomes: Multiple critical wounds on the legs SHOULD quickly lower a character’s Agility. 
  • We had a small pack of dogs involved, and this resulted in Foe vs. Foe combat. The rules give the GM much leeway in terms of the outcomes of this situation, which played into our favor. 
  • As Ross noted, the combat system is heavily stacked against Foes when they are fighting PCs. Hits against Foes do not go against a body location, so they can be downed more easily.

The Healing rules governing the Medical skill are solid and quite restrictive. An injured character can get some level of restoration if someone has bandages and makes a good roll on the Medical skill. But you only get a single shot at this type of healing, and after that, you need lengthy bedrest, plants, or magic to do more restoration on those wounds. So under normal circumstances, if you sustain wounds, you’re going to play out the remainder of an adventure carrying those injuries (which usually, as I noted, don’t really have any added consequence in your abilities to act).

But plants and magic are so forgiving. Shining Star located a good quantity of a healing herb (Amaranth), and the rules don’t reign in the power. So, applying the rules as written, Grrrl’s heavy wounds get almost instantly dealt with, and she’s as right as rain. One idea would be to tie a time duration to Amaranth’s healing: For example, allow for multiple applications of the plant, but indicate that each treatment takes a certain number of hours before another dose of Amaranth can be applied.

Magical Musings
Though none of our characters started with spells, I have been banking up some of my Bonus Points, I’m hoping to get more magic into the mix. One problem with gaining a new spell is that it starts at a low level, which means many things. 

  • The chances of success are reduced (which also means the chances of some type of complication are increased).
  • The number of castings in a session is going to be low.
  • The impact of the spell is going initially to be curtailed. You can go for more impact, but that is going to make the odds of success very small.

From the outset, I like the fact that magic is costly and potentially dangerous. I also like the flexibility of the system. There are 22 spells, and the specific effects and cost of the spells can be negotiated on the fly with the GM. The spell mechanic uses the ART, so it remains elegant.

There are spells that I’d like Grrrl to play with, but if you want a spell to have a fair chance of being cast successfully, you need to look at those grouped under an attribute that has a high score. Our GM Ross, for example, noted the usefulness of Commune, but my Fate score is only 8, which means my score for Commune would start at 4. I’d need to roll 81 or higher to get a passable result, and if there was any spell cost, my chances would be even lower.

Spells directed against targets (like Illusion) are also more risky: Spell costs will reduce chances of success, but on top of that you are likely to need an even higher target column since you will be up against a target’s Magic Resistance, Intelligence, etc.

So, for Grrrl I previously chose Divination (which plays off her Alertness, which is 19). And for our next session, I think I’m going to take Plant Mastery (which will use her Nature score of 16, plus it fits into her status as a Ranger who has an interest in plants). These two spells can be used for minor effects at low to zero spell cost, so I hopefully can bring them into play with some chance of casting them successfully, even if those effects are minor. 

We noted that Miracles seem much more friendly to the players than spells. To give more balance, I’d like the rules to state what happens when a Miracle roll is not successful. For example, if you are trying for a Miracle and get a Feeble result, I’d like that to have some teeth by providing some negative impact on the player. But I don’t see any such guidance in the rules.

To summarize:The ART is wonderful in providing nuance and gradations to the roll outcomes, but the rules could be more consistent in providing guidance on reading roll outcomes for different types of actions (especially when dealing with the Catastrophic - Poor range).

Drama Delivered
Legendary Lives continues to produce spirited play. I enjoyed the way Ross handled the combat with the Clockwork Guard. Grrrl is involved in an increasingly desperate battle. Shining Star rolls a Catastrophic result on a Run check and falls into the water (which allows her subsequently to go searching for plants). Christabel also rolls poorly on her Run check and is then reluctantly pulled into the fight. All of this led to an unpredictable and exciting sequence.

I loved Christabel’s use of the Interrogate skill against . . . Shining Star! I was all prepared for that skill to be used against Grrrl, whose reactions were in such a jumble. That swerve of targets caught me totally by surprise, and the dramatic effect was awesome. The game doesn’t give much consideration to player vs. player actions, but the rules seem flexible enough to work. 

Shining Star’s confrontation with Grrrl and the revelation that Modthryth would never genuinely acknowledge Grrrl as her daughter (because “No daughter of mine would ever fight for the Nomads) brought reality crashing down in a tragically powerful manner. The Lifeline feature continues to pay off for us even though the rules themselves downplay this powerful feature of the game.

robowist's picture

One idea I'd like to pursue if others are interested: There's an invitation to "email me" on many of the documents at the Haunted Attic website. I'm intrigued to see if this e-mail address is still active, whether we would be able to contact Joe and/or Kathleen Williams, and where that might lead.

On to our game itself. . . 

Grrl's experiences in Smith City have a distinct phantasmagoric quality. I'm struck by how so many of her past traumas have resurfaced, and how fraught her efforts to find resolution have become. I just rewatched the linchpin moment in Session Two, when Grrl experiences a catastrophic failure of her Listen skill, compounded by a botched Sanity check. The cascade of events was brilliant: It was unplanned, unpredictable, and perfectly wicked. In terms of planting some potent plot hooks, nobody could have planned it better. Through a selective amnesia, Grrl is convinced that an emotional reunion with her mother Modthryth is somehow within her reach, but Grrl is repressing her mother's statement that "No daughter of mine could ever fight for the Nomads," which is, of course, exactly what Grrl did, even if it was against her will. From that point onward, Grrl has had a sequence of aborted plans which continue to echo and reinforce her tragic memories.

  • She uses violence in an attempt to impress her mother, but when she feels like she should be on the verge of gaining confirmation, she fails to gain her mother's attention and the ghost of her dead lover appears to bring the moment crashing down.
  • Her dead lover tells her, through a Guidance Miracle, to take a path away frm violence, but when she does so and tries to bury Sun Fox, those plans get derailed, Sun Fox's corpse is abandoned by a city gate, and Grrl is propelled into more gritty violence when she encounters a fighting ring run by Serpentines.
  • She frees a yeti, and tries to get him out of Smith City, but instead the yeti leads her to a Nomad, and Grrl decides to put her trust in someone frm a people whom she distrusts. (I imagine the repressed memory of her mother is operating on an unconscious level to convince her that Nomad's are the embodiment of evil, but the actions of the Nomad woman are proving otherwise).

Meanwhile, Christable and Shining Star have carved a separate path concerned with (among other things) the complex drama of the Starry Night family. There are thus ongoing strong thematic links and plot overlaps. This was apparent quite early in our saga, when we discover that some members of the Starry Night clan are involved in the weapons smuggling operation (Hydra's teeth) that brought Grrl's mom to Smith City in the first place.

The end result is a unique game. Yes, there are the trappings of various kinds of fantasy lurking in there, and we can make comparisons to other rpgs. But in terms of the narrative that has developed, this has turned into something that is nuanced, complex, and heady. Ther have been, for example, scenes of fighting and sneaking and interrogating, but the heart of our game has involved vulnerable characters coming to grips with some deep emotional scars and frought family relationships. The core concerns of our stories are not one's that I've seen coming up in other fantasy RPGs that I've played. It would be worth considering to what extent this is a result of how Legendary Lives is written versus how Ross has tactfully run the game.

Over at Ron's discussion with Simon Pettersson, they talk about whether games should be designed to deliver a good story. Legendary Lives bears out the wisdom of designing a game that provides no such guarantees. The game certainly provides key elements for good story building through the Lifelines, the Family Background, the Character Description, and the Goals. But it's clear to me that if the game went on to guarantee a good story, we would not get anything as surprising and satisfying as what Legendary Lives is dishing out. There are no doubt going to be threads left hanging and plot avenues left unexplored. I think we've all been wondering whether our trio of characters will even manage to reunite. I love the fact, however, that Ross hasn't forced anything or planned for any specific plot destination.

I've thought of this analogy: The story of Christobel, Shining Star, and Grrl is like the draft-in-progress of a Coen brothers movie if that duo had decided to make a bizarre fantasy movie. I'm thinking here of films like No Country for Old Men or Burn After Reading where you get these intriguing and broken characters, many of whom don't seem to have any initial connection with each other, but who get caught up in a maelstrom of evenst that allow thematic bridges and plot links to emerge.Note how those moveis have non-traditional endings where threads are not tied of in anything resembling a tidy fashion.

Getting to Ron's question about what I perceive as the rising action. I have two answers.

The answer with respect to Grrl: Ross has kept track of the chronology, and we know that Grrl is on the verge of finally remembering that her mother has claimed "No daughter of mine could ever fight for the Nomads." This memory, when it returns, is going to be inflected by the fact that Grrl has now met a young Nomad woman who has shown kindness to her and the formerly imprisoned yeti. So there's going to be some fallout, though we don't know exactly what shape that will take. Here again, keeping the uncertainty in play is part of what makes Legendary Lives compelling.

The answer with respect to the group: Well, there's the question as to whether we are going to manage to regroup, and, if so, where that will take us. Grrl is clearly going to have to reevaluate her understanding of Modthryth, the Nomads, and the conflicts that are swirling around us, and this is going to impact that group reunion should it occur. One thing working in the groups favor is that Grrl's brief experiences with non-kindred females (Grrl friends!) have been positive, so she's perhaps inclined to abandon some of those toxic influences coming frmModthryth and her mourning in favor of investing her emotional energy in these newly found friends.

In light of what has transpired I'm considering these revised goals for Grrl:

  • To prove herself to her new female friends
  • To exorcise the ghost of Tarrin (her lover)
  • To confront Modthryth and resolve that relationship (even if it means risking rejection)
  • To revenge herself on Numer (Nomad lawgiver)

I've been digging around the rules and looking at some of the published adventures for Legendary Lives. I'm going to try to gather my thoughts about the game specifically in terms of its sense of story development. And I have plenty of other thoughts about the game's setting, its sense of fantasy idioms, its resolution mechanics, and so forth.

robowist's picture

I wrote up some notes and reflections on Legendary Lives over at my blog.  (I acknowledge at the outset my indebtedness to Rod, Ross, and Ron, whose post-session reflections provided many of my ideas and inspirations). I thought it might be worth to include an excerpt about the Character Lifelines and Goals and GM Advice below. Here's the excerpt:

Revising the race section to update it might be difficult. But there is much that I like about the races as they are written.

Each race has a special ability that have rich possibilities in play. Bush People, for example, have Animal Vision which allow them to see through the senses of a target animal.

I love some of the more bizarre races. I'm currently playing a Wolfling, which is a shape-changer that can take wolf form. And I'd love to take an Entomolian for a spin: These are giant human-sized insects who have a hive mind . . . and they are a designated character race!

My heart also loves the number of races: The variety gives the game a special flavor.

But there are down sides. In particular, if you have a party comprised of vastly different races, then it's challenging to find the common ground that would give them a reason to work together. And the world of Legendary Lives doesn't entirely hang together. You look at the map and it's almost like a theme park with all these different lands you can visit, each of which will have its own cartoonish group of characters. The close of the book discusses the history of the Seelie court, but the game then seems to be unclear about exactly how much it wants to invest in the setting.

Deepening the Story
Despite the superficially cartoon-like elements, we have steadily carved out a curiously compelling story about broken people coming to grips with their tragic pasts and their fractured families. When I reread Legendary Lives, my sense is that the game is sitting at a crossroads in terms of how the GM should manage the game in order to allow the character stories to develop and unfold.

At points, the rules say things like "An adventure is a story, told by the referee, in which the players participate" (3).

But then in other places, it says things like, "During the play, you'll have to create encounters on the fly, allowing your plot to change as needed. The best events will twist the plot in a new and unexpected direction" (176).

One of the key strengths of Legendary Lives is that it is opening the door to a truly open-ended form of play that is more heavily driven by the characters' choices and the outcomes of the skill and attribute checks (and those checks come fast and furious!). My sense is that the writers of the game (Joe and Kathleen Williams) were making their way to a new approach and a new way of running a roleplaying game, but that the current style (i.e. the style of the 1990s fantasy rpg) was creating interference. So the door is opening, but it never gets fully pushed inward.

You can see this in the adventures that they published (and are available at Haunted Attic). On the one hand, they are more bare bones than what you might imagine to be a traditional scenario or module, but at the same time, they sometimes have elements of pre-plotting in evidence. Our group noted that this type of thing may be a result of the fact that the game made appearances at convention. So some of this conflict between old and new may be a result of the fact that some of the rules are written with a one-shot in mind, while others are thinking of more long term play.

Another sign of this interference problem: The game has you roll up 5 different lifelines, which give you glimpses of your character's back story. But the rules are largely silent about what to do with these lifelines apart from the various mechanical and resource benefits they afford. Similarly, the game asks you to write out character goals and says you MIGHT write up a character story, but it doesn't give the GM any advice about what to do with these elements.

Here's what I'd suggest (and what we've largely done in our own game): If you are the GM, go through a character generation session. At the close, tell the players to send you a character story (perhaps giving a strict word limit to avoid anyone from gushing) along with a list of character goals. Make these two things mandatory, and tell them to send them to you at least a few days before the next game session.  Make sure that there are some small connections and overlaps between characters. Maybe have pairs of characters think of one goal that they share. The GM should then use those character stories and goals to help design the first adventure or opening encounters on the following week.

This aspect of the game really needs more fleshing out than my brief suggestion here. But if this were accomplished--that is, if there was a more completely articulated procedure for working from the goals and lifelines into the initial adventure--the game would shift into an even higher gear. In our game Ross has accomplished much of what I'm suggesting here, but much of that is a result of his own instincts as a GM as opposed to specific guidance from the game.

Ron Edwards's picture

The GMing-crossroads you describe is a real phenomenon, in publishing-and-text terms. You can see it in many, nearly all of the games published in a certain period, peaking right about the time Legendary Lives was introduced and revised (1991-1994). I posit the distinction between Aaron Allston's Strike Force and Dennis Mallonee's The Coriolis Effect as a good mid-late 80s historical starting point for the "sides," and perhaps the tension as a thing in itself was codified in Cyberpunk and Amber (both 1989).

Some standouts from the peak period include Everway and the initial core texts of the starting four White Wolf games. Imagine yourself to ask, well, which is it, does story emerge from everyone's actions' consequences (NPCs included), or is it delivered via one person's prep and responsive improv? The response from "speaking for" the game text is simply muddled: both! uh, the GM incorporates what the players said (e.g. character creation), and the players adjust to what the GM is delivering. It sounds good, but when you press a little regarding the actual events of play, then it's, uh, well, you need someone to be in control, right? And the players have to vet anything they contribute with the GM first to see if it fits, right? And you can't just let the stupid dice determine outcomes, right? And we want the story to turn out good and fun-for-everyone, right? It's no surprise that Gareth Michael Skarka coined "intuitive continuity" exactly at this point, in the early-mid 1990s.

I also call attention to the "uneasy" texts, which structurally or verbally outright wrestle with the issue, including Over the Edge, Castle Falkenstein, The Whispering Vault, Maelstrom, and Zero. I sympathize with these because the vocabulary for consequential activity yielding the plot, as an outcome, including both contingent and motivated procedures, did not exist. In some places it even appears as if the game author is arguing with himself or herself. Legendary Lives textually fits into this zone, I think, due to the evident incompatibility among certain text sections, or at points of text compared with mechanics. That "Re-using Characters" section we discussed a couple sessions ago is a great example.

Ron Edwards's picture

And the playlist is renamed accordingly.

Here's the link directly to Session 6 Part 1 inside the playlist.

Ron Edwards's picture

This session brought us to the emotional climax to date, and my recording screwed up the sound. Here's our summary & reflection about it from the following session (direct link, now added to the playlist).

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