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Daisho and dishonor

I presented several titles to play or try with the Spelens Hus group, and this is the one that received the most votes. I sometimes forget how well-established the voting practice is here in Sweden, especially for small project-oriented groups and workplaces. Once that vote hits the discussion, wham, that's settled, sometimes unsettling in how thoroughly everyone moves on.

Briefly, The Mountain Witch is a multi-session but relatively short-term game with a distinct ending point. It concerns a group of ronin who have been hired to ascend Fujiyama (Mount Fuji) to slay the being who dwells at its peak, O-Yanma (the Mountain Witch). The logistic sequence of traversing the mountain and eventually confronting the Witch is not absolutely destined to occur, but its structure is in place as long as it can occur. Therefore,"can we get there, can we do it" is not a difficult task or even an strategic challenge.

What happens is what becomes of the individual ronin along the way: who they are revealed to be, what they want to gain, and what they may strive to become. The core mechanic is simple: fighting alone gets you injured and likely killed; fighting in groups gives you a somewhat good chance a lot of the time, but no more; aiding one another via trust triumphs. But trust is also the doorway to betrayal, and no one involved is "just" here to do the obvious job.

I came up with a clever tagline for the YouTube video captions, something like "A gathering of scum to do a hero's job, or maybe it's the other way around." Surprisingly good if I say so myself, and now my permanently installed summary when preparing to play it.

Playing and posting about this game brings up a lot of hobby history for me. It may represent the cresting of the "first Forge," from 2001 through 2005, across a whole range of variables which I might manage to articulate in a presentation for Seminar.

Enthusing about the game itself is easy. I can bullet down a bunch of true things without rehearsing or drafting them:

  • It's another example of peak design from someone who happened upon the Forge rather than founding it or defining it.
  • (I think) It's the first example of a role-playing game which does not distinguish among player-characters: not by play-function role, by socio-ethnic types, nor even by any specific abilities or qualities.
  • Playing this game turns friends and acquaintances into stronger friends.
  • It provides the essential example of "the fruitful void," in terms of the thing for which there is no game mechanic, and which is not once mentioned in the text.
  • It provides one of the best and most insightful statements for RPG design: "All conflict is a form of combat."
  • It provides well-organized distribution of backstory authority with a formal but not laborious means of getting that content into (and from) play.
  • It firmly distinguishes between a character's life/death state vs. a player's ability to participate. Put simply, if your guy dies (and the damage/killing rules are savage), you keep playing with almost all the same mechanics, and some of them more powerful than they were before.
  • It's one of the early examples of good "scorching" by me throughout its design, when I'd learned the lesson not to intrude upon what the designer wants to do.
  • It demonstrates celebration of a genre based on a faraway culture without lapsing into orientalism or other forms of objectification.

There's also some negative history, as it was embroiled in one of the signature toxic moments which led me radically to alter (some say "ruin") the Forge in 2006, and to announce its eventual, then unscheduled closure some day.

Well, no game text guarantees anything, so don't expect insta-awesome fireworks in a box. But let's see what Spelens Hus (including new participant Nathan) does with it.

Lead image is by Cornel Vlad; click the image to see the source page.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Or as I tag-lined at YouTube, "We ascend Mt. Fuji and the learning curve."

Here's the direct link into the playlist.

While editing, I decided that we'll have to begin next session with one more foray into using the sheet for Trust. It's completely simple and straightforward, but I think it needs to be approached via sheet management. As in, "write this number here, find what number person X wrote for you and write that here, then put that same number on the line here. Don't touch the numbers in the circles during play, just change that last number instead." Like those exercises where you have to write all the steps of something we consider simple, like making a sandwich.

The other mechanic that care as we go along is damage. Damage is always taken in units of 1, or rather, -1; what matters is how long it lasts. The minuses accumulate with multiple injuries, and the lower your results are, due to that, the more chance you'll be Taken Out - which is to say, usually, killed.

But the really important insight is that you will be taking a lot of injuries, even when you win the roll. You have to get a difference of 4 or higher to be fully safe, especially since I dislike the cognitive hoops of "mixed" and "partial" success and prefer to shift each to its textual option of taking damage in addition to your success. The game mechanics will hurt the player-characters; if they aren't chopped up all over the place, then you're doing it wrong. Even in a relatively easy encounter (in this case, three weak foes and two Able ones, against four Strong player-characters with an advantage in terrain), more than one ronin shed blood.

In reviewing this text, which is excellent in so many ways, I think I've identified a feature which has often misled readers - it continually tells them to "put pressure on Trust, put pressure on Trust," when the really good GM advice would be simply to "attack, attack, attack" (which includes dangerous geography). Harm and the risk of more harm are a big deal, per chapter. Trust and distrust take care of themselves after that, as the Dark Fates get going. Forcing the latter is bad - limping, artificial, genre, pro forma. All the GM has to do is continually present the ongoing details about the Dark Fates which the players have introducd, and the ensuing dynamics evolve/emerge however they will ... but again, only if the adversity is savage, and more than one ronin is looking at one, two, three, and more -1's to that 1d6 roll.

Ron Edwards's picture

This mythological creature or being is called mikoshi-nyudo, and I could not resist bringing him/it into the fray as soon as I had the chance. Here's the link!

We've moved into Chapter 2 and will complete it next session, defined as "the slopes of Mt. Fuji" before gaining to the peak's crater and sight of the Witch's fortress.

You may note two things during the session: one of the creatures in this session is played differently from the other (and from the first session's foes), and that the ronin are rather effective this time. The latter observation made perfect sense against the mikoshi-nyudo considering how thoroughly they ganged up on him/it. However, I curse my dice because for the fukuru (owl), I rolled a 1 and therefore was unable to scar the ronin's souls with freezing fear.

It is probably not as apparent that some of the decisions or statements the characters have made are loaded with player-only subtext. We'll see how much of that continues, i.e., in terms of incomplete information from player to player, and, and how much of it becomes more explicit.

One point I've been intending to stress, upon playing both Primetime Adventures and this game, is how well - meaning better - they do with multiple sessions. The same goes for My Life with Master. All three games have a fixed structure and ending conditions, yes, but nothing about that implies single-session play (even for a single episode of PTA). To the contrary, because all of them rely heavily on playing one's character quite intuitively, in response to whatever else is going on around them, and in the context of highly focused stressors upon each character's explicit points of vulnerability. Just because there's a structure doesn't mean you have to climb it fast, and I strongly recommend abandoning any assumption you may have harbored that these are one-shot games. They really, really aren't.

LorenzoC's picture

I'm really loving this series. Part of it is due to the quality of the rules (this is one of those games that are so elegant and so well written that they inevitably make me look at my own stuff and think "why do I even bother?") but the way you're playing it as a learning process makes it feel like a shared process, if that makes any sense. It's full of "I would do this right now!" and "I wish I was there playing" moments, and that's not a given with let's plays, even enjoyable ones.

I have a couple questions about the rules (I have played tMW before, but I don't own the book):

- is there anything in the rules that suggests that the prize money for dispatching the witch is shared among player characters? I remember the GM insisting on this concept in one of our games (probably to foster mistrust and put the players in competition with each other) but looking at you guys playing it feels like every player has her own "contract" and the stereotypical "kill all the others and get all the prize" scenario isn't part of the premises. 

- there's a lot of insight on what narrative authority actually does in these sessions. In a couple moments it got me wondering about the extents of it, however. Say that in the scene where Max's character was fighting the younger samurai in the dark house (in session one) combat didn't end with all 3 of the opponents dying but just two, the person who gets to narrate (I think it was Helma) could decide that the survivor would flee out of the house, placing them in a mor exposed position for the next round?
 

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

... the stereotypical "kill all the others and get all the prize" scenario

This is not part of the rules. The presumption in the rules is that ronin who complete the mission get the money they needed/contracted for. There is no mention or implication of the tontine problem ("the fewer who come back, the more money each gets"). Adding this to the context of play strikes me as heinously stupid and destructive to the design.

Say that in the scene where Max's character was fighting the younger samurai in the dark house (in session one) combat didn't end with all 3 of the opponents dying but just two, the person who gets to narrate (I think it was Helma) could decide that the survivor would flee out of the house, placing them in a mor exposed position for the next round?

Yes. Narration in this game is extremely substantive, approaching the extent that you might see in S/Lay w/Me or Cold Soldier. It can be very tatical, e.g., splitting up a group of foes so that they can't team up as well, or quite antagonistic, e.g., spending Trust to take over narration to put that ronin in a bad spot. Or it might address important phenomena in the situation, e.g., someone might take over Ola's narration to say that sure, Tagachi did indeed decapitate the oni devil with a single sword-stroke, but the lock(s) of hair fall out of his pocket and go tumbling down the rocks.

At the beginning of this session, we talke a little bit about narration and I stressed that it works very well to re-incorporate things that have already been established. An obvious example would be, if you strike a foe but receive a wound in the process (success but with a low difference), then you might narrate it as opening a prior wound from the exertion rather than taking a new injury. This sort of distinction matters enormously for characterization and for the vividness and "sense" of the immediate moment.

I hope you can also see that Backstory Authority is also more "intrusive" than one might expect from other games, whenever Dark Fates are involved - e.g., you can be Desperately in Love with or out for Vengeance against another player-character, including that character's actions in the backstory, and that player has to suck it up and like it.

LorenzoC's picture

This is not part of the rules. ...  Adding this to the context of play strikes me as heinously stupid and destructive to the design.

I suspected as much. The insistence on that notion from the GM definitely affected the experience in unpleasant ways.

At the beginning of this session, we talke a little bit about narration and I stressed that it works very well to re-incorporate things that have already been established. An obvious example would be, if you strike a foe but receive a wound in the process (success but with a low difference), then you might narrate it as opening a prior wound from the exertion rather than taking a new injury. This sort of distinction matters enormously for characterization and for the vividness and "sense" of the immediate moment.

Add this to the list of potential "I wish I was playing this!" moments.
It really is a intense in the use of authorities and I think what I really like (let's say that it's close to my heart, in terms of design goals) is how much narrative authority becomes "meaty" when it's used to deconstruct what a roll and its outcome actually meant in the fiction. The perception that because the roll happened and the outcome is decided what you do now is cosmetics couldn't be more wrong, in my opinion.

For example, going back to the scene I mentioned with Max, I couldn't help but imagining myself getting to describe the scene - and given Max's ability, what I "saw" was him hopping from beam to beam and disappearing through a hole in the roof, the young samurais stepping into the light shaft looking up in disbelief, and the devilish grin of Nathan character's face emerging from the shadows of the house as he swiftly cut them down while they were distracted. And without noticing you've put people in places, holes in the roof, possibly characterized people and set up future interactions. It has powerful momentum and it's one of the most interesting aspects of the activity, for me, when it's implemented in a way that is consequential and not merely aestethic. And I've found that for me this happens when we use it after we already had to accept the outcome of a roll.

I hope you can also see that Backstory Authority is also more "intrusive" than one might expect from other games, whenever Dark Fates are involved - e.g., you can be Desperately in Love with or out for Vengeance against another player-character, including that character's actions in the backstory, and that player has to suck it up and like it.

It's one of the things I'm looking forward to see the most in future sessions. It looks like the players are on the tipping point of starting to really pull each other's characters in.

I'd like to thank everyone involved in this series of videos. It's one of those things that rekindle your passion for roleplaying just by watching it.

 

Helma's picture

Lorenzo, thanks for your kind words, this will not be an answer to your thoughts but I hope that is ok.
Some musings about Mountain Witch, ever changing groups and playing online from a not quite normal human being.
Yesterday we played our third session of Mountain Witch, ending the second chapter and being online to long and fighting to hard, don’t know about the others but I had difficulties calming down. Still, I’m not completely wasted today which is new for me. Being who I am I desperately need to analyze that, maybe some of it will be interesting for you. Everybody in the group I’m playing with is living in Sweden, most of us in Norrköping and under normal circumstances we would meet at Spelens Hus. Ron and I have been around for about a year but the rest of the group changes more or less with every new game. People move away, new people find us, we find new people. Most of us (right now) were not born in Sweden but how long we have lived here differs widely. Two people
joined the group when we started playing PTA (though Max had been around listening for a while) and the latest addition joined us for Mountain Witch. For me this is quite exhausting, handling people (especially if I do not know them well) is a skill that needs some effort and a lot of energy. Don’t get me wrong, in the long run I most certainly get out more then I put in and I really like everybody I play with.

The first sessions of Mountain Witch were influenced by the usual learning by doing hiccups but even by us trying to figure out who we are as a group (at least that is what I felt). This last session was different, we (maybe it is just me) started to feel comfortable around the table and we got play rolling more naturally, it went from good to great.

Things fell into place and the fighting was just awesome. The flow was nice and the result was quite cinematic in my opinion, it was gore-geous with a nice choreography, perfect for "in your head cinema". There only was a little moment of concern when somebody started musing about the consequences of permanent injuries (not their own) and other players started having “tactical thoughts” of the wrong kind (in my mind). As it was my characters well-being people were concerned about my little dragon self felt the need to intervene. But this time (I think) her and me managed gracefully and the moment was over as fast as it occurred. One more “perfect thing”.
W
hat more? Dark fates and how they get into play. I had some concerns about the pacing and how to put things into motion, especially because somebody during the preparation said something about them not being very many so if reading them you could easily figure out what may have been assigned to whom and it still is not entirely clear for me if that was a joke. I think it would be wrong, for me it would take away much of the fun I have in playing. But given the whole picture right now I think we found the perfect pacing.
And last but not least, Trust. Do we handle it right, no idea what right may be, but so far it feel logical and natural how it is adjusted.
I’m looking forward to getting further up the mountain and maybe die in the process and to find out how our dark fates will play out and I hope those who watch will enjoy it as much as we do.

LorenzoC's picture

Thanks Helma. 

Your comments (and Ron's on discord) on the action components of the sessions are really interesting to me. It's not about "building hype" (as kids say) because it was already evident in the previous sessions that the action and the narrative were gaining momentum and confidence. But this is interesting for two reasons.

The first is that I've only ever played/seen play tMW as a "one shot" game or a convention game (the same thing, really). I'm seeing that letting people getting at ease with the rules and more importantly their characters helps everything gelling together better, for me. Watching session one I had very little to go by in order to tell one ronin from the other, except the most obvious and potentially superficial elements (like weapons or abilities). In session two already I started to see personality pouring in and the characters looking like somebody. I don't think this is something granted - in fact, I think it took us a bit more to actually go and find our characters' voices in Undiscovered, and I've run (and been in) games where it never happened for somebody, so I would credit that to the ruleset in some significant capacity. 

The second is how highly you speak of the combat scenes and their visual/narrative power. There's a lot of games that go through a lot of pain to try and make combat work like you describe, and it's interesting how (apparently) tMW gives you almost nothing (with very, very basic core mechanics) but manages to produce this kind of vivid and felt confrontations. It flies in the face of a lot of things I spent a lot of time unlearning and it's a joy to see. I'm really looking forward to it - session two was great already in this aspect, and you make this one sound even better. 

I'm considering something (and pardon me if I think out loud here).
Imagining a game (any game) where combat works more or less like this and setting aside what I feel is an incredibly crucial element to the cinematic results this game produces, which is how players interact and help each other, I'm picturing two scenarios:

1. Player describes what he wants to do in some detail ("I'm trying to shoot the general's sword out of his hands") > rolls > succeeds or fails, his statement became true or false depending on the roll

2. Player describes an intent ("I fight the two monks by the riverbed" or "I help the other ronin with my bow") > rolls > depending on the roll, a statement is made

My impression is that the less defined what comes before the roll is, the more willing to formulate and accept statements after it we will be, even if the roll was a failure. Going along with the long chain of discussion on failed rolls, I may even be suggesting that "failure" as a word may influence our way to approach outcomes and "negative outcome" may be better. Failure potentially implies inaction or an unproductive process. 

The placing of narrative authority in this game makes it so that since someone has "won" the roll and someone will get to describe the outcome, an unproductive result is impossible. Perhaps that is one way to approach the "what we do when we fail" problem.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's session 3!

I'm a little tired (3 rather intense games in 24 hours + parenting & house stuff), so much of what I'd like to post here will either have to wait or have to vanish into the Not.

However, I have recorded some thoughts about this game so far, which will be shared after the whole thing is done. We have a lot to discuss about incomplete information and how to rely on differing perceptions and judgments as a positive feature of play.

Helma's picture

We have a lot to discuss about incomplete information and how to rely on differing perceptions and judgments as a positive feature of play.

Yes, I look forward to that.

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