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Malandros: Another Day in Rio

Hello all.

The video you find here is the raw online footage of a game of Malandros, designed by Tom McGrenery (thanks for the link, Tom!). Tom himself is hosting the game, which was part of Gauntlet Con 2017. This raw version is the complete game session, entitled Another Day in Rio. Click on the video window to run it.

And here is another link, this one to the first of a series of four sound-only & edited videos, pulled from the raw video, that are part of the Pocket-Sized Play AP podcast of The Gauntlet:



Actual Play


Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks for posting this, Pedro! I've been thinking a lot about this sort of role-playing and design. ... How to describe it? Lots of shifting-around scene setting, usually described as "no single GM" - a lot of attention to pre-play setup, usually with some procedure in there so that it's part of play - resolution mechanisms that include spoken methods with criss-crossing narration, creating a certain 'randomization' based on how much can be said per person; with varying degrees of randomizing instrumentation like dice; usually with some form of token or counter-based track or resource playing into it too. Some of the games feature softened or somewhat redistributed ownership of characters and some maintain strong "this is my guy." I'm focusing on the latter because that's what Malandros does.

Although a lot of their promotion and casual description claim to be system-lite or more socially-conducted than other RPGs, on inspection, they turn out to be rather dense in procedural mechanics, pertaining to turns/order of speaking, extent of permitted content, movement of tokens or counters, and the intermittment use of object-based randomization. It's a pretty long list of games, and very popular "design space" for about the last decade.

As it happens, right now two of my consulting jobs are in this vein as well, and so I'm working up some questions which are professional as well as intellectual - what is this, what games lie in this "family," does it work, when badly and when well, and what are the risks and pitfalls?

There's a bit of history to know about: the essay, from 1999. As it happens I didn't know about it at the time, but encountered the concepts in Ferry Bazelman's Soap, in its original free form. Until that point, any games like this that I'd encountered were more like Once Upon a Time, being more narration-based curiosities that played with 'pieces' of fiction rather than generating it.

For the moment, I want to focus on a couple of features. That's based on watching this session, but instead of commenting directly on their play or on Malandros, I'm thinking mainly about other games which I've played, and was reminded of in either positive or negative ways as I watched.

Thing One is setting up complex, criss-crossing goals and oppositions among the characters as part of preparation. I'm thinking of Best Friends, a game that I like a lot as an idea and alpha (it won a Ronny twelve years ago), but arguably never went through a final scorchy stage of design. It really baked that who's-against-who-for-what in, was founded on it - a bunch of female friends whose game attributes were set through "I hate her because" method, such that you were a really, say, tough character because more of the other characters hated her for being that thing.

This was and is clever as hell, but it passed over why and how they were really and actually friends. So in use, the net effect was to make every character an asshole, and for play to be about, and only about, how these hatreds (or dislikes or conflicts of interest or similar) set them all at one another's throats. Basically they weren't friends at all, just a bunch of characters who hated each other, and play became about hitting each other on the head or backstabbing in some way.

Thing Two is how a type of scene is announced, usually distinguishing between plot-advancement and character-portrayal. Primetime Adventures did this - first thing, for a new scene, was to say it would be about Plot or Character.

I have never understood this and completely agreed with one commenter, not a person I typically agreed with, when he said, hey, all I want is a role-playing scene. In other words, let however much "plot" (whatever that means anyway) get done as gets done, and let however much insight or portrayal of the characters proceed as we feel like at the time. To put it a bit more intellectually, there's no reason I can imagine why they'd be opposed concepts anyway.

The net effect in Primetime Adventures, anyway, was to do nothing. People said "plot" or "character" to type the scene, then it played into whatever it did anyway, and eventually people stopped saying it. In some other examples, the effect I saw was to permit non-systematic resolution in "character" scenes because they had no resolution mechanism, and to enforce "conflicts about nothing" in plot scenes because the resolution mechanism was required, creating an ongoing not-as-fun competitive dialogue about what was going to happen, rather than an agreed-upon and enjoyable system.

Thing Three is the interplay among dice (or similar) as a minor element of resolution, in the larger context of speaking-driven resolution and also of the movement of some kind of tokens from person to person. (In some of these games, there aren't any randomizing objects, in which case the interplay of speaking and tokens is more formalized, but I'm focusing on games that have them because that's how Malandros does it.)

The tricky part is that resolution at a fairly fine-grained level, basically skill-and-action, sticks out like a sore thumb. Say a character kills someone or steals something or dances a fine figure in public for some social goal ... is this a roll? Or not? Can it "get done" without a roll - typically the answer is yes, but there's the mechanic for a roll, just sitting there as well. In observing play across these games, I find myself unable to tell when and why some things were resolved just because someone phrased the outcome as part of "role-playing,' and others went to dice. I do not think the rosy group-dynamic answer, that the collective aesthetic sense at the table "just knew" which one to use, is accurate.

The games in this "family" aren't all alike, but there's a subset which, I think, are all alike, and for which certain trends are really clear to me through and in observing play. First is the tendency to play out loads of verbal fencing and bitching, but which only establishes the standing conflicts that we already know about. It's difficult to find a way to "go" past there, as if the initial crossed-interests were an assignment that doesn't have a "did that, move on" step. (There's a certain amount filling-in for the back-story of the standing conflicts, but it's usually uncertain because there aren't clear methods for how much to make or use.)

Second is the tendency for play to show a real break between two phases. The first is the initial enthusiasm, usually including really good, invested character portrayal - it's fun to play passive-aggressive, sniping villainy - and including one of role-playing's most valuable features, active listening to one another. The second is a drop into wearier play, not necessarily evident as outright fatigue or inattention, but evident in the fiction itself. Characters produce relatively arbitrary extreme actions, sudden dangers appear, and secondary characters tend to appear with literally no build-up or knowledge of them in the prior events who are either much more sympathetic or who are psychopathically upset and do wild things. There seems to be an urge to "make something happen" in some way which wasn't possible by playing one's character.

I'm speaking more about the general experience of games in the family, rather than the Malandros session itself. If I have to admit what I think about it, I'd say it leaned toward some of these things some of the time. What really strikes me about the session is how well every player brings it. Everyone throws himself into his character and 'performs' exactly as prep indicated. Everyone listens, and here I really appreciate the video rather than the audio, because you can see real reactions and real human interplay - not glumly sitting around as the spotlight moves about, for example. It has a lot going for it. The extent these trends show up, I leave to the individual viewer to judge, and they're not the topic for discussion here. The point is only that with this much good will and basically solid human attention involved, I think that extent is greater than zero, and it's worth considering why.

Here's a thought-exercise for me: why I liked the game Wuthering Heights so much better than a lot of the later games of this kind, especially since the characters are unutterable gits and the gore and soap proliferate rapidly, in just the way I'm sort of criticizing here. But it tends not to stall and sprawl, but rather to escalate in a more causal-feeling fashion, the characters seem more human-sympathetic to me eventually, and I enjoy the hell out of it ... why? How is it different?)

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