Three of us gathered to play the newest revision of Weighting Rooms on January 21. The players included me (a middle aged English teacher), my daughter Lara (an 18-year-old senior), and Joe (an 18-year-old senior).
Our session lasted about 2.5 hours and we had to shut off the game a bit prematurely (due to a sports practice), but it was plenty of time for us to get a sense of how many aspects of the game with its newest revisions was working.
Everyone was fine with videotaping, so I finally have some rough footage to be able to view and analyze. Next fall, I should be getting some better equipment to record our actual play, but this provides a sense of how the game is working in a live situation.
Part 1: Setting up and Story 1 (Pursuits)
Part 2: More Stories (Things & Senses and Happy Times)
Part 3: Final weighing
Building the Setting, Characters, and Narrative
One of the constants for Weighting Rooms throughout actual play sessions has been its ability to generate valuable little pieces of narratives that build, coalesce, and synthesize as the game continues. The way that this happens is unpredictable, which keeps it fresh and exciting. This week’s session was no different. The game becomes something like making a quilt: New patches are continually being thrown into the mix, and they have the potential to be developed further (or not) as the players decide. Some details end up being more important, some less important, and some become detritus: But all responses to questions become facts that have the potential to become developed. All they need is for a player to pick them up and run with them. Even those like Joe and me who have played the game many times before are still enthusiastic to enter the fray because of the unpredictability and openness that is at the heart of Weighting Rooms.
In this session, we came up with three characters living in a pre-industrial society, but the characters belonged to three distinctly different classes: One was a fringe member of a more powerful landowning (and military) group, one was a member of the fishing profession, and the third was a member a more lowly cleaning group that spent considerable time underground. The characters were vaguely aware of each other in their previous lives, though we were also distant. As we wandered about in limbo, we were becoming aware of how we had distinctly different view of our importance, of our sense of meaning, and of morality. We were also becoming aware of how our previous views of our society were narrow and limiting as we became exposed to little stories told by others.
In previous games, we have been more engaged in forcing the characters into direct conflict with each other. For example, a couple weeks ago, we had one character who was actively involved in acts of brutal mob violence directed at cyborgs . . . and two other characters were cyborgs, so there was intense animosity brewing. This week was more subdued: We had characters who were living in separate spheres which only occasionally came into direct contact with each other, and the development of the narrative was thus more nuanced and subtle, as we became aware of how our own social struggles paralleled and contrasted with each other from afar.
So one revision to consider is this: We can force more direct relationships and even conflicts between the characters by changing the questions. For example, right now, we might have a question like this: “What person who was close to you became very distant?” As phrased, a player might identify that “person” as one of the characters in limbo, but that isn’t required. We could rephrase that to read, “Which one of us was once close to you but later became very distant?” Do we want to put some of those “forcing” questions into the mix, and, if so, in what proportion?
Another item to contemplate: We currently have a “Karma Card” category: These are cards which have questions like the other cards, but they are more tightly focused on questions of community morality and they do not activate the assignment of Karma Tokens. The purpose of these cards is to help the players to discover the type of karmic universe they inhabit. Since Karma Tokens aren’t assigned, I could answer them as I wish without fearing the repercussions in terms of how other players will judge me. The responses to these questions are interesting, but I don’t know that they actually serve to give the players any greater clarity as to determining the karmic universe than the other questions do. So do we need those cards as a separate category? Do they serving to do useful work that justifies making them a separate category.
Rhythm, Orchestration, and Choreography
Since this game is conceived as a single-session affair, there is great need for it to “move” at the table: There is a rhythm that the rules establish as a player walks to draw on the poster board, describes a memory, chooses a “seeker” (respondent), and the questions get answered. This is not an action-packed game (in part because all of the action is being recalled from past lives) but there are moments of discovery and intensity that develop followed by moments of contemplation as to what those new disclosures mean in terms of the unfolding moral universe. The newest revision (which severely restricts the asking of clarifying questions) was effective in getting the rhythm to click, and it also had the advantage of leaving details suspended and awaiting further activation by subsequent players.
One of the nice things about the video (as rough as it is) is that it will allow us to study more closely the choreography and rhythm around the table, which is so important to the game.
One feng shui point: My table circles are shaped like doughnuts. The posterboard (which serves as a note taking device and which promotes some physical movement) would be better served by a large table in the middle of the group. It would be good if all players had the posterboard in easy reach: I think it would increase the level of drawing and note taking, which would add to the experience.
We were able to test the use of a Google Form and it had some great advantages over the use of colored karma tokens on the side table. There was less dead time during the judgement phase that occurs at the end of each turn, and the form made the tabulation of the final weighing much quicker.
But one major downside: Having computers at the table is always distracting, and some players cannot resist the sirens call of texting and messaging. So next time around, I think we’ll try this: We’ll have some computers with the google form up on a side table, but also give the players a chart of the different terms of the karma chart and advise them to take notes if they are a watcher. I’m loathe to abandon the option of using envelopes with colored tokens entirely, but that way of assigning and tracking the karma does add to pauses in the game play.
Duration of the Game
For the Queen by Alex Roberts is a game coming out this year, and it uses a similar mechanic of using cards to drive the building of characters and a narrative at the table. The game is estimated to last 30-120 minutes . . . which is quite a bit of variability. And that game can run even longer. That is largely a result of how a player can determine the length of a response
I’d love to get this game reliably down to the 3 hour range. This playtest suggests that it will take 10-15 minutes to get up and running and then about 40 minutes to run through each story, so we are getting into the ballpark. We might consider adding one or two additional Passage Cards into each deck, which would decrease the length of time it takes to open a way to a new story and deck of cards. Varying the number of Passage Cards would be an easy and elegant way to control the game length.
Another area of down time occurs when a player is drawing on the poster board. We might want to look at those moments to see if we are happy with those moments of silence or if we want to try to expedite the movement and pacing of the game.
The Final Weighing: Determining the Karmic Universe
We had to break early, and I was thinking we would just pack up the game and go. but the players were excited about going through the final weighing. That’s a great sign!
We work through this part of the game in Part 3 of the video sequence. Despite our rush, you’ll see that this is a messy, dynamic process. Each character is coming with different ideas about what kind of karmic universe he/she inhabited, but then the characters have to confront each other and they are made aware of how their individual notions overlap, collide, and clash with other notions. A negotiation happens. Some universes are ruled out at the start. For example, none of us felt that Diabolical worked, so it was quickly eliminated. Then, the players are left with deciding which of the remaining options fit the bill. You might feel like your character would best fit into the Proletariat category, but when you see that that doesn’t work for the other characters in the game, you start considering options that might not be a perfect fit for your character but which would be able more fully to overlap with the entire cast of characters. We might be able to tighten up on the way we guide the players through this phase of the game, but I think it’s always going to be messy, and at least now, I think that is going to be a good thing.
The discussion promotes a recollection of what happened during the game and there is a reflection about what it all means. The players are excited to find out what kind of karma tokens they accumulated—and there are both confirmations and surprises in store for everyone with the final revelations.