After a little while, the psilocybin kicked in

I suppose that could be a promo tagline? “Psilocybin role-playing …” no, probably not a good idea. But it’s true that this session of Cosmic Zap was well-supplied with my little rules handout that finally made some sense, even if I have continued to change it up since, and the players were more versed in what the dice and numbers really did. So we could finally concentrate on what we were seeing and feeling and wow really listening, have you ever really listened, like, uh?

Jokes aside, here’s what you’re looking at. It’s chain-GMing in some ways, but unusual in that the GM-person in each turn isn’t framing scenes. Instead, the … I guess, protagonist player for that turn does so, and the GM-person is mainly in charge of antagonism. But the big GM, that’s me in this case, in mainly in charge of turn-organizing and identifying when a contest (dice) is called for, and significantly, in charge of narrating outcomes.

I’ve been calling it “irresponsible authorship” because there is really no way to generate an arc, only to decide that you’re already on one and to go with it. This session is still hitchy or at least tentative, but it’s when we found that such things can happen.

For those just tuning in, this is my design in progress for the Chaosium, in their new SRD called “Questworlds” using the system, or a skeleton version, in HeroQuest. I’m using it for trippy comics very much in the sense that the original system was so wonderful for trippy fantasy. This is our third session, and I’ll probably edit the fourth one in or put it into a comment, as they work nicely together.

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14 responses to “After a little while, the psilocybin kicked in”

  1. This is terrific

    These videos are like Actual design in addition to Actual play. We can see early playtesting moments when a sudden rule change is called for, when things snap into place at the virtual table or in someone’s eyes. It’s kind of hard to follow in the last conflict though. It seems like Qin-Lao, the ability, wasn’t really in danger in the last conflict? (1:21:40 and forward) But Qin-Lao, the entity/force in the fiction, got contained in another dimension? If that is true, is it a problem that the ability changes didn’t align to the fictional consequences? 


    Wait, I guess I’m lost. I don’t understand what abilities were used exactly in what roles. One ability got attacked by another one, at least one was used to defend the attacked ability, and one or two abilities were used to help the others? And which side was Alex on now again?

    • Totally! I was so confused in

      Totally! I was so confused in the middle that the fiction/system interaction fell apart entirely. We had a really good time, but subsequent discussion and emails showed that everyone had lost track of how we were doing it. And reviewing the video was outright embarrassing – I posted it here in part to show just how absurd playtesting can become!

      Anyway, after this, I decided to write down how I thought we were supposed to be doing this. It resulted in throwing out what we'd been doing and replacing it with a much better procedure. The sessions since this one have made a lot more sense and also, unsurprisingly, generated an unplanned but rather sensible arc of conflict.



    I posted it here in part to show just how absurd playtesting can become!

    Yes! I think this is one of the things that makes the videos interesting, and a valuable and thought-provoking watch for people interested in this game’s design process and in game design as a whole.

    Looking forward to seeing the changed or new procedure in action! Some thoughts has been percolated while watching the videos.

    Do you think that the game needs some way to separate an ability’s power (score) from the player’s control of said power? And relatedly, I think it was in the first video you put out the question (for later evaluation) about if abilities representing for instance persons should be able to be “ascended” (to use phrasing from Circle of hands) into real mechanical characters? Is this question still on the table? (I saw the first video a while ago so I don’t know if I misremember). I think it is an interesting question, but the subsequent videos has shown that Diamonds feels like a real character with agency despite being an ability. What I guess I’m wondering is if you are contemplating some way for abilities to be spliced out of their current host characters into some other form, maybe on another character sheet or on a Gm-sheet of abilities? Or would that actually be counter productive, because it would give the GM a “master list” with elements that could become front-and-center despite having shallow or no connections to the protagonists, effectively making the GM a scene-framer again?

    • Let’s see how I do.

      Let’s see how I do.

      1. A couple of sessions later, we managed to figure out just how people did and didn’t control the abilities on their sheets. It’s more or less game design by Braille, but we eventually found the right phrases to use between the new spotlight player and the “attacking” player, depending on which abilities are being chosen. When speaking for an ability on someone else’s sheet, you have to work with what’s known, you can’t suddenly give (for instance) Diamonds an opinion or goal we didn’t know about before.

      2. Building NPCs and other entities is turning out to be the hardest thing for the players to wrap their heads around, although I think my vision of it is clear. The idea is that anyone can make a new ability, just by spending a Hero Point – so if, for instance, Alex wanted to put “Newly-birthed goddess” in his Cosmic abilities, then Diamonds (as a character) now has two abilities, not just one. And other players can do that too. Ideally, an NPC or entity becomes important literally by gaining a bunch of such abilities scattered all around everyone’s sheets.

      I think it’s so simple that it’s hard to see. I know it’ll work, and as of the sixth session, they kind of started to do it. Another way to look at it is that although Diamonds is “just” an ability, that’s no different from being a player-character, except insofar as they start with a bunch of abilities, and she starts with one. The more abilities she gets, the more like a player-character she becomes.

      And that’s fun, too, because the more sheets she’s on, the more opportunity for her to be picked up and played by more people more of the time.

    • […]we eventually found the

      […]we eventually found the right phrases to use between the new spotlight player and the “attacking” player, depending on which abilities are being chosen. When speaking for an ability on someone else’s sheet, you have to work with what’s known, you can’t suddenly give (for instance) Diamonds an opinion or goal we didn’t know about before.


      Cool, looking forward to seeing the playtest and design process that led to this! Has the playtest answered if the system needs a specific or fixed final arbitrer of, for instance, what goals or opinions Diamonds has indeed expressed (of what can and cannot be regarded as known)? I dunno, it’s possible that those things are so clear just from reviewing what has happened in the fiction that a fixed arbitrer-person isn’t needed? Hm, I should go back and see where and how diamonds got her half-goddess status and related goals. I remember that a player put her in the center of a cosmic conflict to begin with, but you (the gm) roleplayed her, and it felt like it sort of snapped into place, like her transformation to godess-like status was an obvious and functional consequence from one or several conflict rolls.


      Ideally, an NPC or entity becomes important literally by gaining a bunch of such abilities scattered all around everyone’s sheets.


      I didn’t see that (for example) different aspects of Diamonds could be represented by different player-created abilities across the sheets. Of course they could! And her abilities would or could double down as representations of the different player characters connections or even relationships to her. I thought I saw a possible problem if Diamonds could be represented by for instance 6 different abilities across four sheets, but I also can’t see that happening in practice unless there was a damn good fictional reason for it – the abilities would represent sides or aspects of her that seemed only natural from the experiences in play. Yeah, probably distinct like the personal friend or girlfriend Diamonds vs the cosmic godess Diamonds. 


      The system does funny things with player-character ownership. It’s not that there isn’t any personal player-ownership of things on the sheets, but the system procedure demands a sort of mutual or reciprocal aid when one player uses another’s ability to make his or her spotlight scene interesting or problematic, which apart from de-emphasizing ownership creates much of the tension and unpredictable fun. It’s anarchic and I love it. It seems like prolonged play would pose and answer questions about what the player character’s “core” or “person” really is (or what it becomes, or maybe what it is shown to have been all along), in mechanical and fictional terms. As I understand it, not even the character’s initial keyword abilities are safe from damage and eradication (and probable replacement), right?

    • Anarchic is right! You’ve

      Anarchic is right! You've stated it well.

      As for an arbiter or authoritative judgment at the table, there is "the" GM person who does not play a character and does not pose contests, except for identifying the difficulty-based ones. His or her role is mainly organizational, procedural, and archival, and so those judgments should be kicked to that chair without fail.

  3. Session 4!

    Here it is!

    Also, check out the attendance for the seven sessions so far:

    1. All four players

    2. Alex, Morgan, Gordon

    3. Alex, Ángel, Morgan

    4. Alex, Ángel, Gordon

    5. Alex, Ángel

    6. All four players

    7. All four players

    This is a big deal! Because almost all of the contests are generated player-to-player, not only does the attendance determine who's spotlighted (itself obvious), it changes-up the order of who's doing what to whom, potentially bringing characters into different relationship/conformations. In this case, the somewhat tighter and yet ever-changing focus during sessions #2-5 made an enormous difference, especially when Alex and Ángelwere basically forced to exchange "blows" for at least three turns, maybe more. Granted, it doesn't mean the characters have to be at odds, but it's likely they will, and even if they don't, it's a great creative surge – again, that word "focus" – for the events of play.

    It might be the first design I've encountered in which varying attendance is an enormous benefit.

    • I hadn’t realized about that

      I hadn't realized about that one, but it's true attendance shaped the development of the story pretty significantly. That's one thing I've noticed in this game, how a number of not so obvious factors affect game play. The most evident one is the order in which player write and draw scenes (I'm now sticking to that terminology, it's too damn perfect). But there are others.

      The number of players being one. As you said, having only two players in a session made the game pretty antagonistic. Of course, events from previous sessions had a big influence too. It could had easily turn out to be a "we join together to face a threat" kind of thing. But still, it mattered significantly.

      And most notably, how the decision made by "drawing" players before you of either bringing a threat from a previous scene or creating a new one affects your own choice, creating interesting symmetries and asymmetries. For example, there's a tendency to do the same thing as the previous player, creating entire sessions where the characters are either completely independent from each other or are all involved with the same raising threat (which creates pretty climatic situations). Also, in one of the latest sessions everyone decided to do the opposite than the previous player. And in a game with four players, that created two different story lines independent from each other but thematically linked in fascinating ways.

      I like how these seemingly unrelated procedures of play affect the story in unexpected ways. It helps to keep things both dynamic and structured without needing to have anyone in control of the flow of the story.

      – Angel

    • Yes, the rotating gm and

      Yes, the rotating gm and spotlight player procedure is neat! It creates a lot of cool scenes, and unpredictable contests, seemingly (from watching, at least) without putting a heavy burden on anyone, because you don’t frame a scene for another player, you just say where your character is and what he or she does. 

    • I have noticed, throughout

      I have noticed, throughout these sessions, that the spotlight player often states an action, and perhaps a visual of said action, before you immediately identify abilities and go to the dice/contest. What I’m saying is, sometimes, or quite often(?), the spotlight player doesn’t state an action with a clear and proactive goal before they get attacked. I haven’t gone back through the videos to really see if I’m right in this, so I’m not entirely sure. Am I right? And if that’s the case, is that a even a problem? It could be that the gm-player provides the proactivity that the spotlight player does not, in those cases. My worry is that the narrator gets to interpret and narrate too much of the “proactivity” from all sides after the dice rolling.

    • We finally figured out that

      We finally figured out that the stated "what are you doing" ability is (i) necessary and (ii) possibly irrelevant to the next step. In other words, the 'attacking' player can choose to address it, or not. But it's good to know, for many reasons.

      For one thing, the spotlight player gets to think about his or her character as proactive, and lets everyone know what he or she is doing, and how things would go unless something happens. It's not unusual (now that we're doing this with clarity) for the spotlight player to continue after the contest and get back to that initial activity, events permitting.

      For another, the attacking player gets a lot of context for choosing an attacking ability and a targeted ability. If he or she already has a plan for what to choose for those regardless of what the spotlight character is doing, well and good; but if he or she does not, then this information can really help focus the fiction so that the attacking player doesn't have to generate some kind of meaningful contest out of nothing.

    • It’s not unusual (now that we

      It's not unusual (now that we're doing this with clarity) for the spotlight player to continue after the contest and get back to that initial activity, events permitting.

      Yes, I saw this happening in the latest videos, and the continuing play-in-the-same-scene sees more proactivity from the spotlight player’s character (course/direction of movement is made apparent).

      I think the unusual structure of attacking player and spotlight player confused me a bit in what to expect, and when to expect it. You have lots of player proactivity, because the attacking player position is all about that (often in a gm-y sort of way, but sometimes in a character-y action/goal kind of way). I thought I saw less or maybe too little player character proactivity and explicit goal statements and actions from the spotlight player before the dice came out, thereby making the spotlight player character seem like a rag doll, hit by a storm of conflict resolution right after the exposition of his scene/panel or after the description of the visuals of what he was doing. The possibility for the spotlight character to continue to drive towards something (informed and constrained by the consequences of the initial conflict) mitigates my fears there. 

      It could also be that I saw a problem where the isn’t any, because the powerful fun of decision and action is welded by both the attacking and spotlight player at all times, through the capability to choose abilities (attacking, targeted, defended with) that inform the fiction, actions, and consequences.

    • That’s a good assessment. I

      That's a good assessment. I think we worked through it the hard (real) way, by refining the process with every scene. So what you're seeing isn't a demonstration of how to play the game, but sort of time-montage drama of figuring out how to do it well. The character proactivity you're talking about is the last step, and the next sesssions to post will show that. This particular game, in the totality of the sessions, won't represent "the experience" of the game as it will be seen as a product, but the product comes into existence through this particular game.

      That brings up an important point about all of this: so many RPGs in their final design and published form are dishonest about what happened during their development, being rather a new confection after, and divorced from, their early play experiences. It's easy to understand this when the early play experieces aren't very good or fun, but strangely, I think it happens a lot when the reverse is the case. Staying with good but still-in-progress playtesting as the game continues to be developed, and being willing to stay with play rather than focus on product as the development continues, require a lot of work. They require knowing that "wow, that was fun" isn't good enough, and to keep going with what's now revealed to be not working.

      Admitting that the game isn't working (yet), even when the thing you just did was pretty fun and some feature you worked on did work, is hard for many game designers I know. Especially now that alleged playtesting is now dedicated promotion ("yeah, this is my game, wanna playtest it, yeah, the Kickstarter's coming in November") – I take some blame for this exact phenomenon becoming common in the hobby. However, it seems to me that it replaced what was already an even worse phenomenon by the mid-1990s, design "in the dark" which usually led to imitation of some alleged industry leader (typically going bankrupt at that moment) and a really nasty degeneration of the form. It also seems to me that this new problem can be addressed, whereas the last one could only be fought.

  4. Session 5!

    This one is a wowser with just two players involved, as you can see them begin with separate threads in mind, then converge, and then get into an epic confrontation, strictly due to the back-and-forth between them as enforced by the ordering rules.

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