My recent games of Cold Soldier – with Zac, Santiago, Ángel, and Moreno – make a powerful comparison.The first, in real time, is the session I played with Zac about a year ago, when I visited him and his wife Jann in Washington DC. I mention her as well because she was supposed to be working on something while we played, “Go ahead, it won’t bother me,” and as play continued, she tuned in and became completely engaged in what was happening, so she counts more-or-less as a participant.
Anyway, this one was the first played, but I waited to talk about it last so it wouldn’t influence the others which were organized here via the Patreon. In a lot of ways, what happened with it is exactly why I chose Cold Soldier as my first lab-learning game for the run-up to Adept Play. It was Zac’s first, absolutely first exposure to playing anything but very 90s-style GURPS, AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, and the like.
Zac chose mad scientist, in the present. He decided the Soldier’s weapon was less of an object or specific power, and more of an attribute, of stunning and sudden speed for actions.
In the opening scene, I determined that we were almost right where we were playing, in the D.C. area, choosing Georgetown University in part because we were just coming off an impassioned mutual gripe session about the state of academic and political affairs.
Zac also went with interesting imagery: the Soldier wasn’t terribly visually horrific, although disturbing enough. He was doughy and dully impassive, in baggy unkempt clothes. Although evidently quite dead if you were up close, he could be mistaken for an ambiguously homeless person from a little distance, less likely to draw attention since he made no eye contact and he moved along purposefully if loosely. All the limitations still applied – he could not communicate in any way or be cognitively present enough even to try; he could not “pass” in ordinary interaction, let alone in a restaurant or on a bus.
We did a geographic and culturally specific story, in Georgetown’s characteristic power and academic structures. I stinted myself not at all in the Dark Master’s outstanding neurotic ambition to be respected and successful in the web of academia and political connectedness, similar but not identical to what I did later with Angel’s game. I am a keen hand when it comes to villainizing the Impostor Complex.
I also caused a rules problem: I had forgotten and did not use the rule that says failing a task means you lose a card from your hole. This is an important piece of play; without it, you can drop your investment in the commands, just letting success and failure fall where they may, and “fail forward” to accumulate memories, which you always keep the cards for.
I was using the version which Bret had released for purchase, and which I had in print form, and that rule hadn’t made an impression on me while reading and using that text. Based on an internet discussion from a while ago, which I looked up later, I was even under the impression that this version had eliminated that rule. However, in deciding to rewrite the text this summer – really, just rearranging the existing text into procedural order and consistent terms use – I actually found that the rule was in fact present, merely really buried in the ambiguous distinction between “hand” and “hole,” and (evidently) entirely invisible to a reader’s cognitive uptake.
We didn’t discuss it at the time and ran into no perceived problems during play, as I thought we were playing correctly. It does mean that Zac had an easy time of accumulating a killer hand, ending up with an actual straight. Upon realizing my mistake later, I became doubly determined to play the game a whole lot more with the complete rules in place, as one of my points to investigate in detail concerns how mechanical strategy and highly visceral, unconsidered story-creation are not dynamically opposed.
Now for the really distinctive part of our game: the consistency and depth of the memories Zac came up with, becoming a completely causal story full of names, events, places, and relationships. It put this instance of Cold Soldier very nearly at the formal level of Seth Ben Ezra’s Showdown, a game in which you play a climactic fight through forward, while intercutting with a series of flashbacks that lead to and eventually explain who they are and why they’re fighting. I wish we’d recorded it – I don’t see any way to convey in text the point when the Dark Master, in a drunken sentimental yet hate-filled haze, directed his hated former lab assistant (the Soldier) to dig up the body of the rival he’d had the Soldier murder. It was extremely emotionally complex and fully deserved the visceral loathing which Zac experienced and with which the Soldier refused the command.
This is the opposite of the disconnected snapshots Moreno employed in our recent two-part game, in which the memories were clearly what the current circumstances reminded the Soldier of, but nothing more. The full spectrum between these two ends, and including them, is viable for this game, and I’m glad to have seen the whole range during my 2017 play of it, done entirely undeliberately.
In this case, it generated a complex supporting cast who made lots of decisions from turn to turn, and in sum, something very much like a short novel or what you could think of as a six-episode BBC TV season. The Dark Master was one of many movers and shakers in it; I like playing the Dark Master as undergoing changes due to the events of play, in mood, circumstances, life-style, immediate goals, and sometimes even physical transformations, and the various card outcomes made that really easy. My favorite scene this time was when he dragged the Soldier into his car and went for a drunken rambling drive.
Zac had been, if you will, converted by our lengthy email dialogue, which I made available in its raw glory a couple months ago. But he didn’t really know what we were talking about, not via experience, not with praxis. I was suspicious that he still thought “make a story” was something you had to impose upon the dicey-numbery processes of play, rather than those very processes simply serving your unforced urges to do that very thing.
We didn’t debrief Cold Soldier much, but I could tell he was turning it over and over in his mind -wait, I played actual cards in what felt and evidently was a “card game,” but I was fully invested in the revealed/developing plot, and wait, all that stuff, I made it up, no one else did, and wait, was doing that a matter of the three oppositional cards Ron drew, or the stuff he said before he drew them? That’s exactly what I wanted, for a lot of internal processing without technical claims on my part, especially given the timing in that the next thing he did was sleep on it.
The next morning, Jann, Zac, and I played Trollbabe. clinched it with Trollbabe the next morning, still the single best way into “let’s do it, this is how we start doing it, oh my God I’m doing it” story-now role-playing. Jann was, as I suspected, fully on board from the start, as is often the case with a person who’s been at a lot of role-playing tables as the perceived “casual” participant, not the wholly self-identified gamer. Zac more visibly “felt” his way into it, but was soon totally there, and I maintain that playing Cold Soldier the night before was a big part of that.
Remember my abortive, ultimately sad and depopulated Adept forum? I’d begun it five years ago with a post about Cold Soldier for a reason, and it’s the same reason now.