Annals of the sarcastic captain of a small, weird spaceship with a dysfunctional crew

I ran across Synthicide and happened to meet Dustin at GenCon 2017. He intrigued me by commenting that it wasn’t “my kind” of game, whereas my quick skim had shown me it probably was, and I suggested we follow up on that thought after I’d had a chance to look at it more carefully. By the time we had a conversation about it over Skype, I’d been pleased to find that it was full of playable techniques and general positions I was familiar with. When I learned that one of the inner circle who’d developed the game had a long Forge history, it was no surprise at all. I already really wanted to play it and we started scheduling, finally getting to it a couple weeks ago.

We could talk some more about the genre, especially the mash-up of Dune, Neuromancer (more Hardwired now that I think about it), and Blade Runner that has been assayed so many times in role-playing with slightly different spins. Here it’s a bit more brutal, more like the Dumarest novels and less like, e.g., Fading Suns.

So, at our game, I have to mark yet another score on the “wow, there are lots of really nice and fun people to role-play with in this world.” Here’s us having a great time! A lot of the little laughs or chuckles were accompanied by eye contact and expressions like this.

The ordering on the screen is a little misleading especially with Brady set at the right. They were all sitting together in real space, and the others were to Brady’s left, so a lot of his body language looks weird in the video, as if he kept looking away. If you flip him mirror-wise in your mind, then a lot of the interaction becomes eloquent – he’s a very “we’re here together” player, and reinforced a lot of the warmth that developed among us. So a glance from him gets a lot of response that you won’t see unless you do that.

A bit about the character-and-ship pack we chose, called the Knife’s Edge: they’re mostly a reskin of some of the Serenity crew, with personalities and skill-sets rearranged just a bit, and all tuned more cyber and dark (Dark Space Age) as befits the game. One might even think that that’s the game, grimdark Firefly, but even before playing, I’d been thinking the most useful reference lies back in the roots of that whole family of TV shows: Blakes 7, which I love to pieces and which all the rapscallious-crew, rogue or at least marginal single-ship, pointed-political, dubious empire/society shows have mined at length, e.g. Lexx, Farscape, Cowboy Bebop, and the one I’ve just mentioned. Dustin didn’t intend it as he wasn’t familiar with the show, but Synthicide feels more Blake-ish than anything else to me, in its many non-compromising features.

A few disconnected points intended to accompany watching …

Choosing characters: two of the five available had some sort of recent spell of amnesia, and those are the ones we didn’t choose. You can see we were willing to take it seriously as a plot element, but dropped it partly through character choices and partly through the way we played through. However, I am kind of wondering if that was a factor in Kulgari’s surprisingly lackluster performance during the fight at the end, rather than just a couple of bad rolls.

The discussion after the ship chase, figuring out what to do next, offers an interesting mix of our proactivity and Dustin’s proffer of direction. You’ll even see a joke about going off prep which was not all that joking. That section of play was a lot meatier than a summary could show; it included lots of orientation and set up a number of plot elements like Bale’s background.

I also want to call attention to how we talked during play. You can see that I chatter away while my character’s not there, providing pure table-talk. The others do it too, and then there’s a significant point when Brady and I do not do it, when Nick makes an important choice concerning which game mechanic he’s going to employ. It’s a very good case of what I’m trying to discuss over in the Tales of Entropy consulting play post: absolutely yes, to table-talk as a practice, concerning rules to use, what their character “would” know, et cetera … until it’s time for the person with that job to do it, and then, you talk only when invited to do so by them.

I’m not enamored of mission-based play, and it’s instructive how we all addressed “the mission,” with our characters being completely cynical about any of the parameters and willing to jump any which way. The neat thing is that our characters’ various interaction abilities played directly into the decisions we made, as each character is as socially as nuanced as they are with combat, or perhaps more so.

Speaking of combat, we got really cut up by some of the oddest foes I’ve run into lately. But learning the system through experience was instructive: fighting in this game is all about the dirty. You counter-strike, you set them up, you generally do anything except stand there and trade blows, and characters are very different in their profiles of options. Everyone fights nasty in his or her own special way.

I will fess up to getting confused about one rule and clipping that section out of the presentation, not to save face, but because there was some extra annoying sound-interference at that point too. So here’s my official confession to being a dolt about the phrase “back up” during the fight.

Pay attention to the role-playing after about a round into the fight. First, there’s the ripple through us as we realized how outgunned we are, including some piss-taking toward Dustin to let him know we get it. Then, the tactics all become about how we act when we think it’s the day we die. I definitely do not just try to fight my way into the ship and escape, and Nick and I subtly decide to sacrifice the NPC we’re trying to save (although we don’t as it turns out, but we were about to do it). By the time we got to the airlock, you can see that all three of us are playing right into the tense dynamic among Kira as protagonist, Mirin as somewhat negative mother figure, and Bale as dubious boyfriend. We retro’d the finalized actions just a tiny bit based on who had enough action points to do what, but if that hadn’t been available, Brady was very clear about who took precedence, Mirin (me) or Tchek. When he says “story standpoint,” he’s not talking about overriding the point-constraints and dice rolls.

Final point – that whole “trad game” concept is bullshit. Every RPG is different, even if it’s by accident, and good design can be found throughout the various families or trajectories of construction, both historically and right now. There’s a lot more Sorcerer in Synthicide than you may think, and the parts that look like GURPS are much more consequential and contingent-upon-the-moment than one may think. I can role-play the bejeezus out of you with GURPS; I did it a lot about thirty years ago. But with Synthicide, I can satisfy a lot of the same structural and creative parameters but also see that every little decision about which gun or which personality trait gets easily folded into play, and once there, it counts.


4 responses to “Annals of the sarcastic captain of a small, weird spaceship with a dysfunctional crew”

  1. Thanks so much for playing!

    I'm glad you had a good time, and saw a lot of value in Synthicide. I'm curious, though. How did you feel about the focus on combat powers and violence the game takes? That's what I felt made it feel "trad" and maybe not in line with a lot of modern RPGs.

    Also, did you have any more thoughts on the long story rules? Did you read anything that captured your interest?

    • I see lots of combat tactics

      I see lots of combat tactics and violence throughout the perceived range of game design, just like I see it through the perceived range of genre in books, comics, and movies. Not in every last example in any of these media, but certainly present throughout categories that people seem to care about a lot. I don't really see a binary shift between this-or-that type of game for violence, especially not when this-or-that seems to be based more on whose friends are who on what social-media platform than on much about the games.

      I think it's true that RPGs prior to about 2000 were tightly focused on, pretty much obliged to include skirmish rules, and that afterwards the content of what we see in the fiction, per unit time, fans out more broadly. I'm saying that violence doesn't seem to have left the picture, for any particular direction within the fan.

      So it might be that you're talking about skirmish rules, which emphasize movement, positioning, and number of actions. I see that as a size-grain issue, which could be applied to any situation of play, rather than strictly a violence one. It so happens that I like rules of this kind quite a bit, but also think most of the historical versions are not well-done, so that's why I am very interested in how they can become fun in the moment (see my current groups with D&D 4E, RuneQuest, and Champions; see also my own games Sorcerer and Circle of Hands).

      It may also be the case that such rules aren't fashionably sexy among those who've appropriated the term "indie" in the last five-plus years. But that's nothing to do with the longer history of the Forge which preceded it, or with me personally.

      I do like the long-story rules, which seem to me to steer away from pure "GM's saga, GM's control" logic and to focus more on sources of conflict rather than planned outcomes. In other words, you can only create a long story via the players making interesting decisions. So briefly, yes, I'd like to try those out and don't have any specific questions about them; they seem written for people with play-priorities like my own. But I do want to think about them in relation to what we played.

      In a single-session or otherwise demo type play, there is a very strong imperative for the GM or game-presenter to perform, to entertain – in a sales context, it's important because otherwise they won't buy it, and in a marketing context, it's important because you need people walking dizzily away saying "it was awesome!" to their friends. Such needs can override a given game's features which favor proactivity, character opinions as developed intuitively by players, and the unpredictable interplay among characters' relationships and their immediate emergencies. Few people are bold enough to go into a demo, especially a sales or highly public session, without reverting to mission + boss fight mode.

      In our case, it seems to me as if you were providing just enough of such a framework for us to do that if we needed or expected to, but were also GMing in such a way as to invalidate it, or rather, not to rely upon it yourself. The technique you described at the end is called "intuitive continuity," which is to say that the GM adjusts or more-or-less improvises one step ahead of the group based on the players' statements – e.g., if they question the serving girl, she knows X, but if they question the grandmother instead, it turns out that she's that person and the serving girl (who may not even exist because the players hadn't looked for her) doesn't know anything.

      Intuitive continuity is a dangerous technique because it all too often becomes merely hooking the characters to the planned information-and-fights "no matter what they do," i.e., railroading with a soft touch. It seemed to me as if you stayed away from that use, or tried to, with the possible exception of making sure there was a significant combat-barrier to our easy escape at the end.

      What really interests me, though, is that you were really careful not to interfere with our decisions. Not about what to do, not about where to go, not about whom to side with or about what, and (at a smaller scale) not about how we'd choose to address the fight. Mirin could easily have died in order to get Kira back into the Knife's Edge; during the interrogation/interview, Mirin really considered finking on Bale in order to buy favor for her and Kira to start working for the Tharnaxists; Mirin and Bale could very easily have backstabbed Tchek to buy their escape, if necessary (and if the priest-dockmaster hadn't fled).

      I could be projecting here, but the rather seamless way that the other players connected with such role-playing on my part (there's almost a telepathic "grunt" at the point when we decide Tchek’s expendable; you can see Brady really dive into whether Kira has to risk letting Mirin die out there), leads me to think that this freedom-to-be, freedom-to-choose is part of your GMing, and that Nick and Brady are very good at it. I think Synthicide is well-built to facilitate that.

      So to bring it back to the point, I see the long story rules as a way to keep that going such that player-decisions produce a unique story, rather than to impose a planned story which the player-decisions can't "ruin." Let me know what you think of that.


    • I did control it a bit

      Yeah as you point out, I did lead the horse in spots. My goal was to make sure you were fully aware of the conflict and mission available, but not force you to do it, nor force you to do it a certain way. I made sure you were aware of the assassination in a suitably dramatic fashion, and made sure you were aware sharpers were needed to cover it up.

      I definitely forced the final combat a little more than was necessary, and that was because of wanting to "demo the game." I put a lot of design effort into the combat rules, and would have felt that the game wasn't suitably experienced without seeing them.

      Overall, though, I think I engage in many GM practices that make things easy on me but allow players to still make choices. I'm not sure what the term would be, as it runs deeper than using "intuitivey continuity," but it's something that works well in practice. It's especially effective with players who are equally "playing along" and identify I'm going to take some liberties to keep things moving along. Players who view RPGs as storytelling chess where a scenario needs to be conretely udnerstood and geniusly conquered can be miffed by these techniques.

      What I tend to do is plan a general conflict (or a few), name some characters and decide their relationships, and then stat up some lethal risks (since I focus on combat and fighting in my games). I then plan literally nothing else. Based on what the players say, the ideas they feed me, the things they desire and fear, I start filling in the gaps of the session as we continue to play.

      For example, I hadn't fully decided where T-check would be, what he would be up to, nor his attitude toward the players. As you guys begain asking questions and trying to feel the situation out, I made decisions about those matters; namely, that T-check was open to liberation. And as you guys began wondering where to find him, I then decided he was available at his ship still, and not in isolation or interrogation. That decision was also motivated by making him accessible to the players; in the moment I realized he would not be accessible in a more fortified area because you were not playing with Kulgari as an actual character, and he has all the infiltration skills.

      I've heard this style of GMing described as "illusionism," which I'm not sure is accurate. There's definitely a bit of "don't look behind the curtain," as much of the events of the session are not set in stone and created on the fly. What makes it different than illusionism is how I try to emphasize players' decisions, and meaningfully alter details of the story to fall in line with where the players have gone and what they choose to do. And I never decide on the outcome of an event before it is encountered, though I might wedge it into the game and force players to engage it.

    • I think we’re talking about

      I think we're talking about techniques that can be used "fairly," i.e. without illusionism, as well as within it. It's just a shame that the latter is historically common and unfortunately encouraged in a number of historical texts.

      So … let's see, maybe to categorize …

      Intuitive continuity within illusionism – by definition, this means the end and goal of play is pretty much fixed in the GM's mind. The technique is used as a way to keep the players feeling active, i.e., that their investigations were "smart" (on the right track), or that their more-or-less random decisions were fortuitously bringing them to the significant place or right contact people.

      • The hardest version would be what I've called "roads to Rome," in that there really is a fixed location or fixed set of necessary information to gather or both, and no matter what they do, they'll get there.
      • The softer version would be the GM being pretty flexible about significant details, including major NPCs' actual roles, such that (for instance) the guy who they "figure out" is the major villain is, in fact, the major villain.

      Intuitive continuity without illusionism is a lot less weighted or fraught with power-issues at the table – it's basically just a form of prep which happens to be on the fly. Improvised content is not in and of itself a big deal; after all, fifty pages of maps and descriptive text was "improvised" too, merely prior to play. The boundary between the two is much more vague than we'd like it to be.

      The big danger is to keep the technique from being a circle, in that whatever they do, the world adjusts to make things be all about them. You can probably see that this circle is ultimately a little bit unsatisfying; although it works great for a single session or demo, there really is no "failure" or sense of risk after a few iterations. And once in place, this circle slides quite easily into one of the above illusionist forms, especially since GMs can actually buy their own bullshit and be convinced that "my players can do whatever they want" when the opposite is true.

Leave a Reply