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Getting Our Surf-Boards Under Us At Last

On Monday, my partner and I played our fourth session of Champions Now. This is our fourth or fifth series of twosies together, games that have included PBTA (not my favorite for one-on-one), narrative OSR Trophy Gold, and (our favorite) Spire: The City Must Fall.

This time around, I am GMing and my partner is playing. Champions Now is incredible in this format. Reading Ron Edwards's 2011 essay "Setting and Emergent Stories" helped me see how Champions Now is the culmination of years of thought, and also gave me a toolkit for building narrativist play in setting-heavy games that I'm excited to use when playing Spire and others.

I'll say up front that we broke the rules around setting and situated our hero in the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender, rather than the real world.

The framing statements procedure worked beautifully to isolate the themes and dramatic situations that draw me to the show. After a few iterations, I settled on these:

  1.  Bending—whether it is silly, terrifying, or wondrous, is an expression of your inner self.
  2. Seeking balance while roaming a wondrous, mysterious world wracked by war.

We paid the cost of breaking the setting rules in our first couple of sessions. My partner's hero, Tapeesa, a vinebender of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, did not come pre-loaded with an "ethnic, national, and economic background, age, gender, somewhere to live, and some current or working identity" that we could immediately act on.

However, we've discovered her in play, mainly through her Psychological Situation "Afraid of open spaces (Frequent, Irrational)" and  her "Enrage: Witnessing ecological destruction (Frequent, 8-)." Tapeesa is a brave, principled character, willing to follow her righteous anger through to irrevocable action against ecological injustice and industrial colonization. But she is also in over her head, as likely to be thrown off balance by the situations she finds herself in as to bring them closer to equilibrium. An "Unusual Looks" Situation has also hammered home how her tribal background influences others' perceptions of her.

If the Now is an advancing wave-front, we've finally got our surf-boards under us and started riding the surge. 

This latest session, I began to feel the various systems of Champions Now snapping into motion as I played Yutaka, a Fire Nation warrior-scientist with serious anger management issues. The question I posed while building him was: What if a character's 'balance' was an ever-escalating spiral of anger? Here he is:

Situations 

  • Public Identity: Director of Fire Nation's extraction program
  • Unluck: 1d6
  • Hunted: Fire Lord Ozai's minister to the Earth Kingdom (large org, includes benders, manipulative)
  • Psych: The larger program outweighs small human costs (Frequent, irrational)
  • Psych: Unable to abandon an objective, once committed (Frequent, irrational)
  • Psych: Commander Kaori reminds me of the daughter I don't speak to anymore (Sometimes, irrational)
  • DNPC: Myuki, the daughter I don't speak to anymore (Secret Identity as my relation)
  • Enrage: Complications in Program (Common, 11-)
  • Side effects: Destruction of one of his machines (Drain 2d6, Ego-based)

 

Characteristics

  • Strength 2d6
  • Presence 2d6 
  • Defense 10
  • Body 11
  • Speed 2
  • Dexterity 11
  • Intelligence 13
  • Ego 13

 

Skills

  • Programming
  • Security systems

 

Powers

  • Wild blue firebending (Blast 5d6, explosion)
  • Constrained to high effect: 3d6 or higher
  • Stride through the inferno: Life Support (Hot environment, gas, radiation)
  • Blasting obstacles aside: Tunnel (3 hexes, vs Defense 3)

 

We've noted that the game seems to work well in an operatic style, with characters loudly soliloquizing about their Psychological Situations, vulnerabilities to subsequent Presence Attacks be damned. Yutaka is particularly appropriate at this volume. He's a ticking time bomb, the embodied antithesis of sustainability: Obsessed with meticulously laying out a plan, prone to explosive and (because of his Tunneling ability) uncontainable rage when that plan goes sideways.

Our confrontation between Tapeesa and Yutaka occurred at the worst possible time and place: In the dead of night, in the narrow hallway of a cliffside Fire Nation jail crowded with pressganged prisoners who Tapeesa was trying to lead to freedom.

The physicality of the powers' impact on the environment was clear from the get-go. Tapeesa tried (unsuccessfully) to slam Yutaka back into the warden's office with her waterbender octopus arm so she could use a Pushed Entangle to freeze him inside.

Yutaka managed to keep his rage under control for the first half of the fight, slamming Tapeesa backwards into the wall with a reined-in Blast of blue fire. When I first reached for the Blast dice on my successful hit I intended to use 2d6, but a glance reminded me that even under control, Yutaka was constrained to 3d6 of exploding Blast. This meant his most conscientious attack still put vulnerable prisoners at risk and lit the hallway up.

After Tapeesa and the other prisoners flatly refused to follow his orders, Yutaka's Enrage was triggered and he became a comet of wrathful violence, Pushing for Piercing damage on every attack and (as Tapeesa nimbly sidestepped with well-timed Dodges boosted by Acrobatics) blasting charred craters into the walls of the prison with his Tunnel ability.

In the tense conclusion of the fight, Yutaka burned through the last of his Endurance and Knockout to unleash a gout of Pushed blue flame, while Tapeesa made the wise decision to show restraint and sacrifice an opportunity for a counter-attack to Dodge. With Tapeesa's Acrobatics, Yutaka's OCV was 4 and I rolled...a 5!

Tapeesa managed to avoid his Blast, but only just, and a burned-out, smoking Yutaka toppled to the ground.

Much as I enjoyed the tense tactical decisions of this conflict, what has stuck with me is how Endurance, Situations, Powers, and the combat system come together to create a martial choreography that is fundamentally revelatory of character: Yutaka's Situations (and his Life Support power) prevented him from seeing the ruinous side effects of his actions. Once his Enrage was triggered, he didn't even have the option of balancing the safety of innocents with his combat goals.

Yutaka's every move forced the question of protection vs victory to the center of Tapeesa's Phases. And offloading difficult, morally ambiguous decisions onto others through forceful action is a signature function of antagonists in comics. In the aftermath of this fight, Tapeesa's fellow escapees looked to her for guidance and safety, and she accepted the role of protector, leading the battered, ragtag band toward the heart of the Swamp. This character development would not have occurred had she faced an opponent with different Situations and Powers that pushed different questions.

Now that we have most of Champions Now's engines firing, it felt like every choice we made during this session added more propulsive power to the wave.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

For whatever reason it's making more sense for me to address Alex's posts across these other posts.

... Endurance, Situations, Powers, and the combat system come together to create a martial choreography that is fundamentally revelatory of character

That's what I'm hoping anyone will see here and relate to Alex's Confessions of an I.C. immersionist (difficulties? conundrum? position?) regarding the negative use of the word "story" in the post and in the comments. I realize that he's describing a viewpoint he held in the past, but there is a serious cognitive knot to pull apart. I can do it but my methods are not gentle. Perhaps what I'm highlighting in these parallel posts can be a better way.

It's also relevant to his Action Adventure post insofar as "best" is associated with satisfying fight choreography, but is also embedded with considerable tension and dissatisfaction with what the fights are for or what they mean. (My own understanding of this post is quite low or bad, so I will be following up in comments there as well.)

Ron Edwards's picture

With four sessions in, that's 8-16 points, and I'm guessing it's closer to 16 than to 8. Have any been used on Tapeesa's sheet? If so, how?

Thank you for the question, Ron!

We have been slow to engage the rules in "You Must Change"⁠—partly a result of having so many new systems to juggle, partly because we were missing important knowledge of character and setting, as mentioned above.

Tapeesa is at 8 or 10 points right now. My partner will probably fold them into her sheet at the beginning of next session, and I am really curious to see what she does with them.

Her character has been very effective in conflicts, so I bet her first choices won't be 'fix'-driven and more about adding depth to her skill-set, hardening some favorite Special Effects into Powers, and moving points around in her Situations. I'll mention some of the concepts from the book, maybe even collaborate wit her on updating a Villain sheet, to give us a shared feel for the process.

I'm excited to see my Villains advance. I think Yutaka is just begging for a Situation that makes him a liiitttllleee more aware of the collateral damage wreaked by actions⁠—without, of course, being able to change them yet.

I will continue posting here if we observe anything interesting in our advancement process. This is getting me excited to pay more attention to the points and to start the continous process of revising our characters. 

Ron Edwards's picture

In hopes that you don't mind advice or reminders: although there are several options regarding villains' new points, I have found the default 6-to-10 addition to be very useful.

Ron Edwards's picture

Pasted from your comment below:

Even when I was reading the game, 6-10 points seemed like a lot to drop on an antagonist in one go. Is the idea that they might only be showing up every 2-3 sessions, so they need that much to keep up with the advancing Heroes? Is it to introduce rapid change into the world right at the outset, a subtle signal to players that the Now waits for no one? I'd be fascinated to hear a little more explication, if you have the time.

Well, I could explain - but given everything you've written here, it seems like the best thing is to say, "Trust me, try it, and see." That exact rule is the primary recommendation for villains' points because it's one of the criss-crossing causal features of the system, and its effects only make sense in application as other rules also firing.

For example, you pointed out the same kind of thing regarding Situations, maneuvers, and expressive choices during a fight. I submit to you that someone who hasn't experienced it but who has read some long explanation for it would think they understand. Based on my past experience, I know that the most common interpretation is that the Situations provide a menu or directive to "follow" during a fight, in a sort of pushbutton or automatic way, so the GM or player "knows what to do."

But you know that this interpretation is completely incorrect, and that the GM or player is instead employing an emergent form of cognition which cannot be reduced to terms like dramatic or tactical, especially if they were to be conceived as dichotomous. When I'm talking to someone who wants me to explain what's special about the game, and I see them nodding, saying, "yeah, yeah, I get that, I'm a good role-player, uh-huh, but where's the killer app, man," then I know the conversation is a waste of time. They will not get it through dialogue or reading.

The same can be said for the two statements and the three corners - there is a whole sector of backers and readers right now who blow straight past this process into their familiar territory of genre emulation and detailed negotiation-to-the-middle, and then say they can't see any difference in play except for a little system streamlining.

Obviously, you are absolutely not as oblivious or Dunning-Kruger-ish as the portraits I've painted above, but bear in mind that the people I'm referring to were not stupid, bad, or hostile to the game, but instead effectively self-insulated in a fashion that dialogue isn't going to change, and shouldn't be expected to.

I'm looking for a more positive way to say it. OK, I guess it's like the martial arts instructor teaching someone to punch without breaking their wrist, and the student is doing really well, they're punching the bag safely, but only just ... and then they ask the instructor in all sincerity why and how this works. It's a good question, but it's not a good time to ask it or to swerve away from what's being done right now. It's time to focus on what it feels like, to provide necessary points of refinement for what they're actually doing, and to engage systems of learning which that dialogue will only impair.

It's not because an intellectual understanding is bad, but because explaining it in those terms will make actual sense and help the training a few steps down the road, rather than now.

Anyway, so the one thing I'll say is that this particular rule about the villains, which is moderated a bit by the other options to make things easier and a bit more flexible, is related to the point-changes in heroes and to the content of the Now in the same way as the setup rules and the combat rules are each full of emergent features as direct experience in play. I'm not saying it this way as a tease or mystery but in anticipation of you understanding it through the best possible process.

I am very drawn to the notion of "employing an emergent form of cognition" in play. It's an idea I want to push on further as I play more.

And as someone who has in the past spent a lot of time reading about play over actually doing it, I am certainly familiar with how language-dependent understandings of play can create barriers to that "emergent form of cognition." Thank you for your detailed description of this learning process. I'll fold whisk the points procedures into the already potent brew we have boiling, and see how it develops! 

Ron Edwards's picture

I know all my examples are set in modern-day, right-now locations,and that I provide a lot of tools or language which lean that way too.

However ... I deliberately did not instruct this in my rules for organizing your game. The statements include a location that one of the plaeyrs must be familiar with ... without specifying that this location be real. I left the interpretation of "familiar" strictly up to the reader.

So you two are following the rules just fine.

No, I'm grateful for advice and reminders! It's one of the main reasons (beyond general excitement about the game) that I typed up this post. Could I ask a question? Even when I was reading the game, 6-10 points seemed like a lot to drop on an antagonist in one go. Is the idea that they might only be showing up every 2-3 sessions, so they need that much to keep up with the advancing Heroes? Is it to introduce rapid change into the world right at the outset, a subtle signal to players that the Now waits for no one? I'd be fascinated to hear a little more explication, if you have the time.

Also, I am glad to hear that we're not breaking the rules! On reflection, failing to build characters who are deeply embedded in their socioeconomic and cultural context has thrown up barriers to me successfully running games quite a few times. Your "Setting and Emergent Stories" essay made some insights snap into place, particularly the idea of building your own, localized setting handout, and using that as a basis for character creation. I think that could have helped me so much in previous games of Blades in the Dark and Spire: The City Must Fall

Ron Edwards's picture

See above for my reply regarding villains' points (to keep topics in their threads).

alanb's picture

Ron's comment about people ignoring the two statements and three corners has gotten stuck in my teeth a bit. Personally, I'm a big fan of the two statements, but I struggle a little accepting the three corners.

As far as I can tell, the issue is that I create different characters when I use the three corner approach compared to when I don't.

Now I know that the two are semantically equivalent if you start in the Powers corner and work out from there. But, naturally, that's not what I do in practice. Instead, when I use the three corners, I tend to start with Person and Problems. (I've just noticed that Powers is at the top and Person is on the bottom left in the text - I tend to swap them around. That might be a clue to what I am doing "wrong".)

Regardless of that, I tend to end up with more "elaborate", more realized personalities when I use the three corners, which seems to be the point - but I seldom feel the urge to actually play them. For actual play, I prefer simpler characters, whose personalities emerge through play.

I'm struggling to come up with why, except, perhaps, to notice that in play I am prone to say "I do (that)", rather than "(my character) does (that)".

Interesting, Alan! I'm curious: What would a "simpler character" look like for you, in terms of Situations? What details do the three corners add that make you uninterested in playing the character?

I could see how having tons of Psychological Situations could feel overdetermining, like a complete psychological profile of the character. For me personally, the the three corners approach is there to map the sociological side of the character.

The book puts a lot of emphasis on basic factors like "ethnic, national, and economic background, age, gender, somewhere to live, and some current or working identity." When I'm using the three corners approach, I'm thinking about foundational worldview stuff like the character's language(s), class membership, privilege, cultural expression, notions of gender, etc.⁠—characteristics that, in part, are imposed on them from the outside from an early age, rather than "discovered."

Answering these questions with the three corners doesn't predict how the character will react in play, because they concern the humdrum, everyday stuff, rather than the dramatic, operatic climaxes and confrontations that will occur durign a session.

As I see it, the three corners give me a necessary but not sufficient starting-point for understanding who this person is. Playing the character in a dynamically imagined Now lets me discover the living, breathing human within that socioeconomic framework, transforming them from a "he/she/they" into an "I" with personal agency.

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