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Cold Soldier: Home for the Holidays

After the opening of Christmas presents, my daughter (home from college) and I sat down to play our first trial run of Cold Soldier. Not your typical holiday fare, but the mulled wine in my glass helped to keep me in the holiday spirit during play. 

Given that this was our first stab at Cold Soldier, we were trying to get a feel of the game and the mechanics, and I was especially trying to get a sense of the “logic” behind the rules--to get a sense, for example, of what it means for a card in play to get moved into the Master’s or the Soldier’s hole.

We set the game in the present. I took on the role of the Cold Soldier, who was a military paratrooper killed in combat, but whose death was accidental--the result of a parachute malfunction, which meant that I died at the very moment my boots hit the ground. My weapon became, appropriately, the “Kiss of Vertigo.” The Master was a one-eyed restaurateur who was a weird combination of Plankton from Sponge Bob and Albert Spika from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There was some humor in the Master, but it was tempered by an underlying grimness.

Some issues and questions that emerged from our play:

If the Cold Soldier succeeds at the task, there is a narrative benefit for the Master (the GM gets to narrate the outcome), but there is not, at that point, any mechanical payoff or cost for either player. This makes that result different than the other two possibilities: If the Soldier fails at the task, he loses a card from his hole. And resisting the Master’s order also requires discarding a card from the hole. In other words, failure and resistance both require a loss for the Soldier. Oddly, a success can mean no card benefit for the Master, even though the Master had his order successfully carried out.

Consider these two sequence: 

Sequence #1: The Cold Soldier starts to pursue the Master’s plan and, off the bat, draws a high card. The Soldier allows the success to stand, so neither Master nor Soldier ultimately gets a card.

Sequence #2: The Cold Soldier starts to pursue the Master’s plan, but draws a low card. So the Soldier activates a memory, gets that card for his hole, and then draws a success, which he allows to stand. So the Soldier ends up with a card in his hole and the Master strikes out card-wise (though he does get to monologue).

We were considering this revision to the game rules: 

If the Soldier succeeds in the task, the GM gets to narrate as usual, but the Master also gets to choose a card remaining in play for his hole (an advantage for having his task accomplished), and the Master in turn gives the Soldier a card from his hole (a “reward” from the Master).

This rule revision would give the Soldier an added motive for carrying out the Master’s orders: Not only does he avoid the cost of failure, but he gets a card. However, this revision also might be giving the Soldier a reason to resist or fail, because he doesn’t want to give the Master an opportunity to choose a card in play. So the Soldier might be considering whether it is better to give up a card from his hole, or whether it would be better to retain that hole-card and get another one, but at the expense of allowing the master to choose one of those cards in play.

In our game, the Soldier and Master were not previously acquainted: The idea was that the Master was taking advantage of a fresh corpse to be his tool. If we play again, we are thinking it would be preferable to have a pre-existing connection of some sort between the two. This wouldn’t need to be a friendship or family connection, but some acquaintance would have added to the drama during play.

One final note to self (as well as to other players): If you are the Soldier, you should start off play considering the specific stakes available to you the end game. This will give you an added edge and pathos to the memories you recall during play, and it will make the endgame more satisfying. In our game, I was too focused on simply trying to construct a memory using an element from the scene, and I wasn’t thinking ahead to how I could combine these memories into a compelling narrative that would contribute to the stake of the endgame.

On the flip side, if you are the Master, keep your agenda squarely in mind. It helps if you have a solid sense of the repellent goal you are trying to accomplish, and you should use the scenes to build and add layers to this goal through the framing and description of the scenes.

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Cold Soldier

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

... I was especially trying to get a sense of the “logic” behind the rules--to get a sense, for example, of what it means for a card in play to get moved into the Master’s or the Soldier’s hole.

I’m going to be a little off-season and disagree with you – maybe brutally. I think trying to find “what it means” in terms of strategy, whether player-vs.-player or story-building, is misplaced thinking for this game.

There is no strategic balance or trade-off between the two players. Therefore all discussion of “benefit” is irrelevant. The Master’s player’s job is merely to provide more and more consequence, using the Master character’s vileness as the guiding principle, to whatever degree of clarity or explanation may emerge. Nothing else; there is no way to do this “well” or “badly” relative to the choices of the other player.

Furthermore, the idea of narration being a benefit, in the sense that one of us benefits at the expense of the other, is also misplaced. The plot-relevant issue, whether the Master does or does not see his or her immediate goal met, does not rely on the choice of whoever’s narrating, but on the Soldier player’s available cards and how they use them. Therefore the breakdown of outcomes looks like this:

The Soldier player succeeds at the task with or without using the weapon, fails at the task, or tries but fails to rebel (and thus loses a card): the Master gets his or her way in the short or long run.

The Soldier player successfully rebels (and thus loses a card): the Master does not get his or her way, now or ever.

That’s it. The card-play is all on the Soldier player’s side, even the single way for the Master player to get more than five-card stud at the end (using the weapon). And that’s where the card-play belongs. The Master player is not, if you will, playing the same game in terms of “wanting” card outcomes.

That’s why I regard your considered revision with stark horror. It turns the entire game into a strategic battle between the two players, as to who can “win” the draw at the end. The draw at the end is not a win; it is crucial for the Master player to be uninvested in making any kind of outcome happen, so that he or she may concentrate solely on the Master character’s perfidy and the understandable consequences of whatever just happened.

Similarly, it is crucial for the Soldier player to concentrate on the Soldier character as a person, whatever kind of person they may have formerly been, to whatever degree of coherence or clarity may emerge. It is not “the point” to beat the Master player or for the Soldier character to “beat” the Master character, not in the sense that see whether you can do it is a component of play. The minute you put any strategy into it – whether giving the Master player some kind of card reward for the Master character getting his or her way, or forcing a harder game-theory trade-off onto the Soldier player – you shift the game into this “can you beat it/them” goal.

OK, so that was part 1. Part 2 concerns plot, character, story, conflicts, and related matters, and if anything, I’m going to be even more non-holidays brutal.

You’re describing straight-up play-before-play, the death of what the game is for. “Let’s make sure the Master and Soldier knew one another previously.” If either of you wants that to be the case, then it’s provided during play through the ordinary rules, whether free-and-easy descriptions and dialogue by the Master player, or the memory mechanic by the Soldier player. Front-loading any such thing robs the potential for play to do it based on inspiration in the context of a current situation. You’re not letting it be inspired (or not), you’re “making sure.” You’ve replaced inspiration with a mandate or template, much as a movie mogul growls, “putta girl in there, you gotta have a girl,” to the hapless contracted screenwriter.

Furthermore, even saying that gives too much credit to the value of such a connection in the first place. It isn’t a goal of the game to construct a fully-coherent, clarified, justified, motivated, and basically Hollywood-ready plot. The extent to which any characterization of the Soldier character emerges, is sufficient. I’ve seen it go either way during play: at one end, a rich and detailed back-story revealed in pieces, coupled with highly motivated individual actions across a substantial cast as play proceeds; at the other, an expressionistic tone-poem that lets us know this wretched Soldier had a life, of some kind, before all of this happened, and nothing else.

When you write,

 I wasn’t thinking ahead to how I could combine these memories into a compelling narrative that would contribute to the stake of the endgame.

My response is, “Good!” Because any effort to do that would instantly make playing with you god-awful. It’d betray me as your fellow participant, because you would not be riffing off what I am saying, but instead retreating into some writer’s studio deep in your own head.

I do agree with your point about playing the Master, to know and drive toward the repellent goal, or better, the repellent steps or details or responses this character proceeds through in light of whatever repellent goal got them started. But it’s not so the “story” can be constructed in a more coherent fashion, it’s so the Soldier player experiences a working context of causal events as play goes along.

... this announcement has been brought to you by the Ghost of Christmas Bitterness, perhaps too much so. Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m interested in what you think of the topics.

robowist's picture

What I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is this question: What should (and should not) be motivating the Cold Soldier?

Things are brutally clear for the Master: He or she is giving an order which the Master’s player finds repellant, and there is a solid, monomaniacal agenda being pursued. Moreover, the Master’s player doesn’t need to be concerned with the cards, because all those decisions are up to fortune and the choices of the Cold Soldier. As far as the cards go, the Master’s player’s only act is to construct the best poker hand during the end game.

But if I’m playing the Cold Soldier, I’m filled with questions. What is supposed to determine whether I should use my weapon, resist the master, obey the master, or recall a memory? 

Say that the Master gives me my first order in the game: Maybe he wants me to go out into a field and kill all the gopher tortoises in sight. If this is the opening of the game, I only have flickering memories, and I gather that those memories are tied to my cause of death, my weapon, and how I fight. There is intentionally not much to go on. 

Is the sense that I should be drawing upon those meagre memories to guide me in my first action? Should I assume that, as a Cold Soldier, I will want to build upon my flickering memories? To what extent should I feel compelled to carry out the Master’s wish and to what extent should the Cold Soldier feel a need to resist the Master? What is triggering the decision to resist the Master, to employ the weapon, or to activate a memory? 

You write:

It is crucial for the Soldier player to concentrate on the Soldier character as a person, whatever kind of person they may have formerly been, to whatever degree of coherence or clarity may emerge.

My sense is that this statement is the one I need more fully  unpacked. At the start of the game, exactly what should the Soldier know about himself or herself? For example, if I decide that I was killed by an act of homicide, how far do I go in imagining the circumstances of this homicide and how far to I go in determining what those circumstances imply about the Soldier as a person?

During the game, the Cold Soldier will typically acquire more memories, so does this mean that Soldier’s actions will become more motivated as things move along (because the player has a more complete sense of who the Cold Soldier is/was as a person?

Ron Edwards's picture

But if I’m playing the Cold Soldier, I’m filled with questions. What is supposed to determine whether I should use my weapon, resist the master, obey the master, or recall a memory? 

Say that the Master gives me my first order in the game: Maybe he wants me to go out into a field and kill all the gopher tortoises in sight. If this is the opening of the game, I only have flickering memories, and I gather that those memories are tied to my cause of death, my weapon, and how I fight. There is intentionally not much to go on. 

Is the sense that I should be drawing upon those meagre memories to guide me in my first action? Should I assume that, as a Cold Soldier, I will want to build upon my flickering memories? To what extent should I feel compelled to carry out the Master’s wish and to what extent should the Cold Soldier feel a need to resist the Master? What is triggering the decision to resist the Master, to employ the weapon, or to activate a memory? 

Spoken like someone who’s never played the Soldier. I assure you that nothing you’re talking about is relevant. Should I, should I, should I! There is no “should.” It’s not there strategically (as discussed above) and it’s not there in the fiction. In fact, I suggest that your first step to understanding the game is to realize that no such mandate or framework or orientation is in play. Especially not at the outset.

So, is this some Sphinx Zen bullshit I’m throwing you? “It’s not there, so it is truly there,” blah blah? No. It’s pretty concrete and let’s see if I can actually blurt it forth this time.

At the start of the game, exactly what should the Soldier know about himself or herself? For example, if I decide that I was killed by an act of homicide, how far do I go in imagining the circumstances of this homicide and how far to I go in determining what those circumstances imply about the Soldier as a person?

All of this happens during play. You must let go of this notion of being “ready with the material” so you can “use it” during play. Instead, whatever kind of content you are (literally) worrying over here, in both senses of the verb “worry,” think of doing that later in the context of action and visualization that is in motion. It may sound high-pressure – but it’s not. What you are talking about now, setting it up and planning and being all ready with XYZ backstory, that is high-pressure.

The good new is that it already starts without you knowing when you describe the Solder’s appearance, which is your job, not the Master player’s. And the deep, unreflective, and non-articulate work of doing this begins right as play begins. In fact, as Santiago discovered a while ago, the extent to which he was planning and motivating and building was literally blown away, disintegrated, by another kind of creativity that he didn’t even know he could do, and which took over his input – and permitted play actually to happen, instead of being swaddled in his mass of (sorry, Santi) anxious intrusive over-controlling babble.

Really, what you need to do is play it. I am struggling not to reach into the cheap analogy of the over-talky plan-it-all what-if-what-if stereotype of the nervous virgin, but also struggling to tell myself that it does not apply, when it seems to so well.

During the game, the Cold Soldier will typically acquire more memories, so does this mean that Soldier’s actions will become more motivated as things move along (because the player has a more complete sense of who the Cold Soldier is/was as a person?

Yes. As only one component of many, many other things undergoing a similar process, and also as a positive feedback loop with the moving-forward events (what later will be called “plot”). And also in the context with my point that the extent that we get to know the Soldier as a person is very much up for grabs and has a very low working minimum. And, finally, only if you do not say, "oh, then I better plan up the memories so I can pluck them from my bag and put them into play as we go along."

But don’t take my word for this. Play.

Santiago Verón's picture

As the saying goes, la verdad no ofende. To me that's one of the draws of the game, to let go of those worries.

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