A couple of months ago, I invited patrons to play Bret Gillan’s game Cold Soldier with me, using my slight re-write of the text (no rules revision; see attached), and to talk about it. Santiago and I did so shortly afterward, via Skype between Sweden and Argentina.
The question at hand, based on the points I’m raising right now in Seminar, is the distinction between fiction as medium vs. story as content, cognitive-communicative content if you will. Santiago also wrote at the Patreon, and I’ve included in the Seminar post, regarding Greg Costikyan’s writings on the topic, as a contrast-and-compare with mine. Briefly, I regard Costikyan’s position not as a position at all, but as agonized writhing, a perfect example of trying to square a circle in order not to admit – even to see – that circles exist.
This particular “circle,” if you will, is that a few people are perfectly capable of creating a story together, given the shared desire, communicated/reinforced inspiration, and a protocol (emphasis on “a,” meaning thousands or an infinite number are potentially available). And I do mean creating a story, i.e., originating it, authoring it, making it. That’s what I want to write about here with our game as an example.
I was the Dark Master, so it was up to Santiago to decide that the said being was a vengeful god, in the present. I asked him if Argentinan Catholicism had any local versions – I referenced the local variants in Mexico, which I’m familiar with – and sure enough, there is an interesting fellow named Gauchito Gil (see . He also determined that his cold soldier’s weapon would be a command of freezing cold, and that there was a small team or squad of such beings. I was interested to learn that his home city, La Plata, includes the biggest Catholic cathedral in South America.
We played through several scenes of what turned out to be a very focused story, analogous to an episode or film short rather than a long saga. I’ll hold off on the scene by scene account, in order to focus this post on process.
1. Anticipation is the death of story. Santiago mentioned he had several notions of who was right and who was wrong, and how things would go and perhaps how they would end – but none of which actually occurred, as the decisions he made during play emerged from moments instead of planned points.
On a related note, he observably adjusted, about halfway through, to the idea that he did not have to motivate, explain, or prepare me in any way for whatever he said the soldier did or anything else in the sphere of his influence on the fiction.
2. A crucial concept in the game include that the Dark Master player (the GM) is supposed to make the commands posed to the other player be things that the GM finds repugnant, i.e., him- or herself. Note how different that is from trying to discover or infer or make or influence the other player’s emotional response to the commands.
3. The crucial mechanics in the game – and it is a very simple one compared to many role-playing games – all interconnect, so you can’t identify one as a “killer app” (a phrase I despise for many reasons). I call attention, in terms of the interconnections, to the rule that if the soldier player fails the card-match, it doesn’t mean the Dark Master doesn’t somehow get what they want. In other words, you can’t punt – either you defy the Master or things will go his or her way, period.
Santiago, can you write about what happened in our story, and about what it was like to play? Let’s be visceral and descriptive at this point and return to the analysis of story-creation and perhaps Costikyan later.
Here it is! Cold Soldier Actual Play I’ve roleplayed less than 20 times in my entire life (and never campaigned). I was really excited about the prospect of playing with Ron. I had no idea whether Skype was gonna work, whether there’d be other people, what would we play. I had barely used Skype before, like, half a time.
I knew Ron from his writings. I’ve been a reader of some Forge discussions for the past 10 years (I’m 30 years old). Last year we started exchanging e-mails when I discovered his comics blog, becoming an avid reader and commenter. I guess I’ve always liked the way Ron writes, because when I finished his comics blog I read almost the entire biology blog as well. By this I mean that while I share the interests of gaming and comics, biology is more of a curiosity for me – but it’s still a great blog.
Ron connected, greeted me in Spanish, and told me I was standing too close to the camera – I giggled a lot while we were greeting each other. It was really easy to get comfortable. We started playing almost right away; Ron asked me what I remembered from Cold Soldier, put me up to date with the game’s concepts and started gamemastering. I discovered that it’s really easy to take notes and doodle while Skyping – here, look. For me, it was a lot of things happening for the first time at once – one of my first times roleplaying, my first time roleplaying through long-distance, the first time I played a Narrativist game, the first time I was speaking to Ron, even one of my first times speaking English with a native speaker for over an hour (my guess is it was, like, fourth time ever).
It’s weird to have the other person talking to you through the screen. In many ways, it’s liberating – like I said, I was able to draw and take notes. It’s a bit like watching a video – maybe because Ron’s a teacher, really didactic – but suddenly the video talks to you, responds. There’s a bit of delay, so it’s not really that casual way of talking over each other, the way we enjoy in Latin cultures like Spain’s, Italy’s, and Latin America’s – especially where I live, where our culture is strongly shaped by Italian immigration. It was more like speaking in turns. Still, I found no problem in interrupting Ron and getting him to repeat himself if I had misunderstood something – just waiting the few seconds for the signal to travel from Argentina to Sweden and back.
Ron told me I was going to play basically a zombie, a corpse that someone purposefully reanimates and has under his or her will. He made me choose the cause of death, the nature of the master, the cold soldier’s supernatural weapon. My mind went blank for a few moments in this last task – I couldn’t think of any cool power. I was, if you get what I mean, using a lot of concentration on not pressuring myself, not getting nervous – I was heavily invested in things going well, not just because I wanted to impress Ron and wanted him to like me, but because I was finally doing it: What if, after all these years wondering, I found out it was actually boring to do this, what if I didn’t like it?
I knew the supernatural power could be any simple thing, it didn’t matter that it was unique or flashy, it just had to be anything. I looked down at the drawing I’d made of my zombie and told Ron what about being invulnerable – we both spoke at the same time saying that was kind of par of the course with being a zombie, and then he reminded me: It had to be a WEAPON. I kept looking at the drawing, thought about how corpses were cold, about how the freaking game was called Cold Soldier, and remembered one of my childhood favorite characters was Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. I told Ron I had the power to freeze things, all around me. I liked it.
So Ron and I had arrived at the Gauchito Gil as the master. I had chosen “vengeful god” over “crazy scientist” and “evil wizard”, because it spoke to me somehow. Then Ron had asked me to choose between setting the story at the present or the past, and I went with the present – I told him I figured it was a good match with vengeful god, ’cause most gods aren’t worshipped in modern times, so they have a reason to be pissed. He told me that depends on your definition of god – now I wonder if I overstepped a boundary, like maybe saying that can be read as an expectation for future play. I was really chatty, and wanted to explain myself so much! Sometimes mixed up with the very real situation that I wanted Ron to get stuff about my culture. Other times it was simply me liking to talk about myself and appear creative and smart. It didn’t occur to me to do those things THROUGH the story we were both telling each other – which in retrospective seems the obvious option. Dazzle your collaborator with your contributions, if you’re so invested in that – not unlike when your trying to impress someone by telling a joke or playing an instrument. I was happy to read Ron’s post where it says it only took me halfway through to the game to adjust.
I had told Ron about the little Gauchito shrines at the side of the highway, and since I had chosen injury as my cause of death, he started the first scene with a car that skids off the highway and crashes near a shrine. An expensive car, he specified. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but for me it was a rich contrast with the humble shrine. Suddenly, I knew that the guy driving the car, my guy, was an upper class Catholic lawyer. I struggled to get this information to Ron – that’s one of the great rules of Cold Soldier, you can’t simply do it! The zombie player is limited to describing sights and sounds, like a movie. (This is a partially false statement and me being lazy, because you can also describe smells, etcetera, anything external.) The cold soldier literally has no mind, so you can’t say “I feel this”, “I think that”, “I want to X”, “I am Catholic”. I got away with communicating he was a lawyer because you can say someone wears an “upper class lawyer suit”, different from other suits, but that was it.
I started describing my guy was crawling out of the car in fire, not paying much attention to the 30 feet tall Gauchito spirit that was talking to him, surprised of being dead – and Ron told me to scrap it, I couldn’t be surprised, the cold soldier has no mind. That’s when I got it.
The Gauchito told me to go to the city, enter a church and paint its walls with blood – Ron emphasized I could describe the zombie doing anything that was physically possible. (Like driving a car, something I asked him later.) It wasn’t that I had to play the soldier as stupid or primitive – It’s really interesting where this game lands you, as a player, because you can have the zombie do all sorts of clever things, infused by the will of the master, but you’re not really playing the master – or the soldier, ’cause he/she doesn’t exist. It’s like you play a corpse animated by someone else, but you’re not playing an entity following orders from another – it’s weird. To me, it’s worth studying. I told Ron about the Cathedral and was a bit bothered by him calling it a church half the time. It’s really huge, I tell you! I wanted to ask the Gauchito how the hell was I going to find enough blood to cover all the walls, but Ron told me there was no asking the master – he never got to know what I wanted to ask, he just told me to describe what the soldier does at the request of the Gauchito, that it was going to be fine. I figured the Gauchito might be pleased by just a gallon of blood on one wall, and after all – who was going to stop Ron and me, if we wanted to tell that story?
I told Ron I took the two other corpses that were on the car, and started walking towards La Plata. Ron asked me if I wanted to declare who these people were and I declined. I would be so happy about this later in the game, you’ll see.
I told Ron I hid as best as I could as I approached the city, but that I would steal a car when I could. I narrated the soldier trying to stop a moving car, only to have it speeding up and driving around him. Then the soldier finding a parked car, where a guy was waiting for his friend to buy cigarettes. I killed the guy, put the two burnt corpses on the back of the car, put the same guy as a third corpse with them, and drove away.
I don’t think I had to use any conflict resolution mechanic to accomplish that, but I’m not sure. I think it was all a given, up to the point I narrated breaking down the Cathedral’s huge (HUGE) wooden doors, and taking blood out of the bodies the way you twist a mop to get the water out. It was then where Ron took out a deck of cards and told me security guards were coming to stop me.
I had to beat the few cards he drew, or else the guards would be able to interrupt the cold soldier. (I narrated him as ignoring their shouts and bullets; Ron told me they started to physically prevent me from interacting with the corpses.) I had a few cards of my own, but they sucked. Ron explained I could narrate a memory, a flashback from a time when the lawyer-turned-zombie was alive, and that would give me an extra card. He said I could do that at any time, but to pay attention because he wouldn’t remind me again (but he did). I also could get an extra card from using my weapon. So I narrated freezing… something, I don’t remember. Did I kill one of the guys? I do remember the memory: I told Ron the lawyer had gotten married in the Cathedral, in a very religious wedding, the kinds you only get if you’re upper class – not everyone gets to marry at the Cathedral.
Oh, I guess I should’ve said this earlier? It was the Gauchito’s will to be known among all the people of the city, to take down the Church. As a player, I freaking loved this. I don’t like Catholic upper class La Plata lawyers very much, and I have much sympathy for the Gauchito.
Anyway, Ron got really lucky on his draw, and the police arrested my guy. The mission was unfulfilled. Ron narrated that the cold soldier got out of the car by freezing it in a kind of explosion, and got back to the Gauchito.
The next thing the Gauchito asked was for the soldier to kill a guy. Ron made up this character – I didn’t fully follow him, and it was hard to interrupt him via Skype, but it was like an important preacher guy. I wanted to tell Ron we don’t have people like that in Argentina – but I let it slide. Besides, I had no trouble picturing him. It was supposed to be a guy who was really Catholic, but also an important academic figure, like a university professor. That I liked; in La Plata we have the National University of La Plata. (College is free in Argentina; the best colleges are state-owned. Though now that I think about it, that guy would probably fit better in a private college, which are commonly owned by the Catholic Church.)
It was up to me to figure out how to kill him. I really didn’t want to make it complicated, and I had seen how things might get out of hand when you’re a zombie. Plus, attacking a public figure? But I came up with this: This guy would be at a rally in Plaza Moreno, the central town square right in front of the Cathedral. It was a rally against abortion, which I explained to Ron is illegal in Argentina, but we still get rallies from people that don’t want it to become legal. The Gauchito wanted me to dismember the guy, I think; I narrated that the soldier stood amongst the crowd pretending to be a living person, and that when the guy arrived kissing babies and shaking hands like a politician, the soldier shook his hand and tore his arm off. I was delighted with this plan! I remembered that I could get extra cards from narrating a memory, and also for using the weapon. I told Ron I had already thought of a memory and that I planned to freeze the guy, and asked if I had to narrate either of each before the other. He said no.
So I narrated it like a flashback: The cold soldier shakes the guy’s hand, then suddenly remembers being at a similar rally a few years before. I told Ron the character was a religious lawyer, I suddenly invented he had been the father of two teens, and he had dragged them to a pro-life rally at Plaza Moreno on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon. Instead of, say, visiting the forests of La Plata. On the spot, I declared those two teens where the other two corpses on the car on the first scene. Then I narrated how I killed the guy – I said something that sounded delightfully macabre to me, which was that as I ripped out his arms, the guy started to scream but suddenly couldn’t because I was freezing the breath out of him.
Ron narrated how everyone else fled the scene, horrified. (My cards trumped his.) For the next task, Ron remembered my guy was supposed to be working on a group all along. He said the Gauchito told me and four other zombies we were supposed to burn five religious buildings around La Plata, not necessarily Catholic, and on the same night. He narrated the social and political consequences of my previous escapades and warned that the places would have increased security. He also said my building had to be a cemetery , but I got to choose which one… I think? I remember I told Ron about the pricey cemeteries right out of town, usually Catholic only, and we laughed about how the people there don’t want to be buried among the common folk: the guy who picks up the garbage, say.
I started to think strategically about how to arson a private cemetery, and when I caught myself I told Ron I was psyched about following the Gauchito’s plan, and that concerned me. I was a bit worried that the game was supposed to be played with the goal of rebelling against the master. Instead, I just couldn’t get enough of this upper class, prejudiced, Catholic lawyer being reduced to a puppet of the humble Gauchito Gil. For reference, when a few days later I talked about this experience with a female, upper class Catholic lawyer friend of mine, she tried to correct me and said that the Gauchito wasn’t part of a local Catholic custom like Ron demanded – that the Gauchito wasn’t ever officially sanctioned as a saint by the Pope – that recently a female coworker of hers had complained about “the Gauchito Gil and all those superstitions of [racial slur that means brown skinned, poor, uneducated Argentinians]”.
Anyway, Ron told me to stop talking about it and just narrate what the character did without worrying. I asked if I could tear down the cemetery’s wall – then I interrupted myself and said no, I dig a hole on this side of the wall and come out from the ground on the other side, that’s how I enter. Ron narrated policemen and police dogs coming after me. I narrated a flashback, in which my guy remembers being at that very same cemetery, a few weeks before, alive, in the funeral of his wife. I decide the guy’s brother approaches him to tell him he shouldn’t drive in his condition; the lawyer shrugs it off, tells his two kids to get in the car and drives off to La Plata. He drives badly, crashes and burns the car near a Gauchito Gil shrine, and that’s how it all got started.
I had been fighting a pretty good draw by Ron and thought my extra card from the memory would help me overcome those damn dogs, but Ron explained that since he was winning I could only use the extra card to rebel against Gauchito, not to overcome this adversity. (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember the rules details, but the point is I was unpleasantly surprised.) I said I didn’t want to rebel and got arrested again. (Actually, got mistaken for a corpse, but I’m saving you the details.) I got back to the Gauchito.
I think it was here when Ron talked about endgame. He reminded me there was a Joker card somewhere down the deck, and when it gets drawn, poof, game’s over. I thought, “Awww man, so I can’t keep on playing indefinitely to see how the Gauchito gets to rule over La Plata.” Then Ron got really serious and reminded me as well that I, as the cold soldier player, could call for the endgame at any time. It meant the next round would be the last, going all in for an end to the story. He asked if I wanted to do it now, I immediately said no, then he stood silent for a few moments. I was silent as well. It was uncomfortable! He seemed intense. Was he giving me time to reconsider? Was Skype malfunctioning? Did Ron want me to end the game earlier because it was getting really late in Sweden and he wanted to go to sleep? Was this a test? I thought about these possibilities and a few more, but I can’t really say I reconsidered whether I wanted to end the game right there. I knew what I wanted, so I stood as serious and silent as I was able to, and after a few more moments of awkwardness I repeated clearly, “I want to go on”.
Ron kept on as if nothing had happened and I guessed it had all been a Skype thing after all. He said the Gauchito was expanding his army and sent me and my zombie crew to get more bodies out of the cemetery. He pointed out it was the same cemetery as before, and that my wife was buried right there. I narrated that I had found myself by chance at my wife’s tomb, and that as I dug her out I had a flashback of her burial – doing that thing I’ve seen in the movies where people throw dirt on top of the casket – and that the flashback had, like, a VCR tape rewind quality, in that it was clear to the soldier he was digging out the very same dirt he had put in.
Ron narrated an adversity that took me by surprise: The very mystical force of the graveyard was acting against me and my crewmembers, and the corpses we were trying to dig out suddenly sprang from the ground and pulled us in. I was like, great, what a good ending, the guy gets to be buried with his wife. I told Ron I didn’t want to fight it – he said “Fine, but you can’t lose your way into winning!” We agreed the next scene was going to be the final one, and the cold soldier was going to rebel against the Gauchito, for the right to rest in peace with his wife.
I remember being thinking out loud, double-checking with Ron for the rules, saying that it’d also be fine by me if the wife got turned into a soldier and worked alongside her spouse, but that there was no way for me to make sure this was going to be the case. I couldn’t know what the Gauchito’s plans were going to be for her or me.
Ron told me I had inadvertently gone into rich endgame territory, because the rules say something about special conditions,with options like having something you cherished endangered, or setting a regret right. The details didn’t really matter, but I was calling for the endgame, I had the corpse of my wife endangered, and I had the regrets of killing my kids in a car accident and forcing them to attend to a pro-life rally, so it was all more than good, mechanically. We each drew more cards than usual and played a sort of simplified Poker, and I got the best hand.
Ron did something wrong that didn’t really change the outcome, but later I wondered if his mistake wouldn’t be a good house rule. I think it was that he took a powerful card I had gotten on a previous round, using my freezing powers, and used the card against me. Instead, he was supposed to keep his own card from that round, the one that lost against my powers, and reuse that one against me. I think his mistake makes sense in that me using often the powers vested in me by the Gauchito makes him all the more powerful in the end, but I dunno.
Ron told me that if I had lost, he would’ve gotten to narrate the ending, a bad one in which the Gauchito prevails. But since I had won, I got to end the story myself, in a success! Ron had declared the ending situation was that yes, my cold soldier didn’t resist getting dragged down by the corpse of his wife – but the Gauchito made the other four soldiers try to dig him out from it. I narrated that they simply couldn’t, because the earth repelled them, and that the corpses of the guy and his wife started kissing and hugging passionately, under the ground, and had hot corpse sex. After the orgasm, they became regular corpses and rested together in peace. The End!
Afterwards we talked about the same points we’re raising here: What’s it like to create a story whole-cloth intertwining our collaborations, how we managed our expectations and how I could just relax and trust – I could be enjoying the contrast between the lawyer and the popular icon, intellectually, but I was also weaving a really raw sentimental story about a guy who put social customs over family and turned out to be a bad father.
I had so much fun!