Defiant to the end

I love that cover. It was the first issue of The Uncanny X-Men I bought with my own money off the stands, and even Cyclops’ entirely unnecessary gesticulating is perfect. But … uh … why is Storm saying that? It is a very silly thing to say, and fortunately our heroes in the Defiants say precisely the opposite as you shall see here.

Nine long sessions were way too long a game relative to my goals in organizing it. The edited videos posted here total (just) over twenty-one hours! I can’t possibly expect anyone to peruse them – it’s the equivalent of two years of 70s-style newsstand comics publishing and could be two whole Netflix seasons, more likely padded to three if it were adapted. However, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d watch any one of the nine and tell me in the most straightforward terms, what you see in the play procedures and in the fiction.

This post closes it out with our final three sessions. Session 7 is below,  nothing but unmitigated socializing and soap. You might get the wrong idea from the videos that we alternate between social and combat sessions, but remember that 5 and 6 were both single sessions cut in two for viewers’ sanity. So this is the only one that featured no action. I hope you can see that it was not time wasted, however.

Session 8 includes plenty of action in an unusual way: I was rolling frequently from the very start for when Cortex would locate Finn and teleport in to attack, but my rolls were terrible! I even ruefully show the players an 18 at one point, and that was one of several. Meanwhile they were carrying out all sorts of things including trying to locate Liam (not knowing he was now Cortex), and as it happened, he succeeded in the roll to find them just as they were finding him. It created the false impression that I was holding out on them for pacing reasons, but really, the fight could have started five minutes into the session under very different circumstances, especially location, if the rolls had gone a different way. Given that outcome and my desire to play shorter sessions, I stopped it mid-fight to continue later.

Session 9 completed said fight and closed out play, and if I may say so on behalf of the players’ amazing participation, justifies all that has gone before and exemplifies pretty much everything I hoped the Champions Now project is aimed for.

Much as I may complain about the hours involved (asterisk asterisk to non-existent footnote full of complaints in very small font), I concede that every bit of it was worthwhile and even crucial to the project. It confirmed a ton of things, especially the two-statements three-corners organizing principle, the positive role of a familiar location, and the importance of day-in-the-life play as core to the action. Some things were painfully confirmed in the negative. Note to self: when your own rules say “don’t do that,” based on extensive experience, don’t do it …

It also nailed down so many mechanics for Beta: shifting all “mind scan” into a subset of a general Awareness power, confirming the utility of my Body and Defense concepts, changing Luck to a more powerful Body-reading roll, putting the Variable Power Pool through its paces again, finding the fun/function limits of Presence (mainly by letting it off the leash), redefining what DNPCs even are, and more.

In reply to a recent post here, I wrote about using minimal but specific boundaries when preparing play for a necessarily customizable, but not generic role-playing system. This game made it very clear that what we do together is one of those necessary conditions. Yet that’s a very tricky issue to state minimally, as “what we do” is a responsive and dramatic component of play, uniquely so. For me anyway, I find the concept most likely to be successful if it’s articulated after the first session. I can certainly see that it’d work well beforehand for a given group or for specific kinds of concept statements, but certainly no later.

Related to that is the difference Santiago identified between playing your superhero vs. playing “whoa I just got powers,” especially since the latter is such boilerplate in TV/movie versions that it’s easily confused with the genre. In play, it’s a real problem by itself, let alone when it becomes confounded with the real person saying “gee I’m learning how to play this game.” Arguably we should not have started Silverbeak with new/secret powers on top of his basic ones; although it did fit very well with the two statements, it was also way too much for a new player to process and the game is already built to introduce such things easily as we go along.

Some of the content just kept fumbling, not least the transition into Brian having two super-identities. He even adjusted his Disadvantages to reflect it, but I think Santiago’s momentum from session 6 was lost in the long delays between sessions and perhaps with other processing. It’s too bad: I think the NPCs would ultimately have insisted on the name “Bolt” (which nicely captures both the mind-powers and his flight disguised as super-running), and the whole two-supers identities would have been fun to GM and not too crazy since he has Instant Change.

As I’ve mentioned before, the really surprising thing overall is how satisfying the actual produced-in-outcomes story is. And as a minor belated point, I offer an apology to everyone born into the nominal demographic for our occasional snarking and possible lack of awareness, with this article: The Millenial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction.

I’m breaking out two more things for discussion topics in the comments: the cast list method I used, for which see the attached documents; and my thoughts on future potential for play if we were to continue.

(editing this in) I just realized that cover doesn’t feature Wolverine apart from the masthead, which in retrospect, is sort of legendary. Amazing to recall as well that, as of that very issue, I was trying to explain him to a polite adult listener, struggling with the context that this was an obscure and idiosyncratic character.


17 responses to “Defiant to the end”

  1. Cast list preparation

    This is very simple, almost simple-minded, for a reason. It’s the opposite of the demanding, rather high-pressure concept of “campaign preparation.” Instead, it’s merely examining the state of play as a wave-front, to see where you (anybody, everybody, “things”) are as of the close of the latest session.

    All I do is start with a list of the player-characters that includes all their associated insitutions, family, brief situational statements, and other characters of any kind. For my own sanity I use red for anything the players don’t know, which may or may not be a signal to use it or bring it forward in the next session. And each session, I update it based on the latest events, change the colors, add more stuff as it happens to be needed, make up new characters (usually as a group gets more focus, e.g. the biohackers led to Tweakie being invented several sessions in), and brainstorm characters’ attitudes and actions as they make most sense to me.

    Those are the actual files you're looking at, attached to the post, not edited or adjusted for an audience. That’s my only preparation aside from building and developing characters with points.

    It’s not totally unintellectual. I happen to love political history and therefore constantly look at the relevant regions and time periods, looking them up online and occasionally acquiring books I discover that way. That’s how I included real-world ICE information, the National Policy Institute (slightly renamed just for fun), Operation Wetback (its real name) from 1954, and any number of other details. Another person would necessarily do their own version of this personal infusion of content, perhaps from an entirely different angle.

    Some things go unused for no reason, which is fine. I had Bob Fooden, Finn’s boss at Cody’s, named almost from the very start, and that situation was given a little energy by dumping poor Fred there too, but we never got around to a full-on Cody’s workplace situation, let alone any drama or, perhaps, imminent unauthorized demolition due to super-stuff. Maybe Bob would appear later, maybe never. Other things are there to make me feel “ready” but don’t come into play except as they inform things indirectly, like Tweakie’s real name.

    Notice how this interacts with actions and rolls’ outcomes during play. I did not plan for the confrontation with Cortex to happen near and inside the hidden, uh, vehicle at AmyBiota, but I didn’t plan not to do it either. The only reason Brian didn’t go see his mother, or try to find her after what would happen if he did, was that Santiago didn’t have him go (you can see me double-check with him about it throughout the last three sessions). Myrmidon was able to leverage the heroes into the fight at the detainment camp, which I prepped between sessions 4 and 5 on the cast list sheet, only because they weren’t acquiring information and taking the initiative against ICE themselves – it’s not as if I would have roped them and made them go there no matter what.

    Let me know what you think. More than you thought, or less? Different from what you’re used to doing or expected to do for a game like this, or similar?

    • Cast list

      These read an awful lot like the unofficial notes I keep after psychotehrapy sessions to remind me of what's going on with clients!

      What you've posted are more of a snapshot of where the NPCs are in their personal circumstances after each session. I had expected they might include some ideas for NPC actions or bangs in upcoming sessions, but I don't see that. If I were using these, I would glance over them before a session or in session and imagine myself in a given character's mindset and use that to inspire what they might do next. Is that your process?

    • Yes, that’s right. Sometimes

      Yes, that's right. Sometimes I do include more Bang-ish text in a given iteration of the file, and if that ends up in play, and having some effect worth noting, it gets rewritten as that effect. A number of the summary-looking entries went through that process, e.g., Father Ochoa being mind-injured after the first session. If I remember correctly, I originally phrased it as more of a crisis, or maybe that's just how I remember processing what might have been a more neutral phrase. Since it's written just for myself, it tends to be phrased to kick off associations and "now do this" signals in my mind rather than say so explicitly, as if someone else had to understand it fully.

    • It’s a great learning

      It's a great learning experience to see your notes, Ron — technique uploaded.

      Watching the video, I realize that in the weeks following this session I had somehow not absorbed the message that Ruiz was (purportedly) alone and acting in his institutional capacity, not as part of Ghost. That does set up the possibility of the verbal/moral confrontation with him that I was intrigued by a few sessions earlier — neat.

    • Rather than suffer to compose

      Rather than suffer to compose a lengthy essay, I have made a little video to round out my presentation of exactly what I do, both in preparation and once play gets going. Especially regarding a crucial participant: The Role of the Roll.

      I don't say it outright in there, but I hope that my earlier distinction between intuitive continuity and bangs becomes even clearer. All the techniques I'm talking about with this video go with the latter, not the former. Intuitive continuity is all about control. Bangs are only about readiness.

    • Oh yeah – Rod, here’s an

      Oh yeah – Rod, here's an example of something that was so obvious to me that I didn't even put it in the file, although I probably should have.

      Yes, Ruiz is still on the job at UTSA, acting as an Academi security officer liaising with (actually controlling) UTSA security. But he's still Ghost, and thus Ghost is operating fully covertly there. Therefore there's at least one other member nearby to keep the powers available – Ruiz can be Brimstone-y by himself, but he can't do "ghostly" without a partner, and vice versa.

      I'd already decided that other partner would either be someone you hadn't seen before, whom I'd have to make up, or more likely, it would be Torment, who is perfectly suited to operate under deep cover as a wretched homeless person on campus, which is often his situation as an operative because he's pyschologically halfway there already.

      None of that would preclude an out-of-outfit conversation with Ruiz, which I would be happy to play if it came up. That guy is so totally messed up that such a scene would have to yield significant consequences.

    • Another member of ghost! –

      Another member of ghost! – real name probably Steve Peterson?! Or am I seeing patterns that don’t exist?

    • Sue me, I looked at my game

      Sue me, I looked at my game shelf and all the original Hero and Chaosium authors' names were just sitting there barely being used. I mixed and matched them for fun.

    • On a slightly related note I

      On a slightly related note I was a bit of an emotional mess the day after session 8, and worked this through with elaborate planning of Finn’s justified breakdown / revenge on Amybiota. None of this did or could have seen play, not least as it required not being imprisoned in *censored* but more because as soon as we play together things can’t help but go on unplanned for directions, which was great. Not sure where this is going except that I’m still traumatised by that session. 

    • That’s interesting. I had no

      That's interesting. I had no idea, regarding real-person emotional responses.

      In retrospect I think it's hilarious how Brian pingballed between "join Finn in roaring rampage" and "um, maybe we should call Michael" a couple of times, harking back to the earlier play when he was all hot-headed but was trying to stay cooler now. He honestly didn't't know what to do now that someone else is being obviously reckless. But Finn's internal state – and I guess, Finn's primary author's creative-emotional state – was evidently a far more serious thing.

      What has struck me about all this is the absolutely explicit progression Finn made from "I hate him so much" to "You're my brother," which went in several stages. Due to the recordings and my editing duties, I think I had a more continuous sense of what was happening, so the final "roaring rampage" stage made perfect sense to me at the time.

      But that's audience-talk, meaning, how I was experiencing it during play. I wonder how things would have gone if I'd buckled down, as hinted by the captioning at one point, and had Cortex be more malevolent, i.e., all Liam's likeability (because face it, he sort of had some) was gone and nothing was left except the converse of Finn's resentment toward him? What if there had been nothing left except a monster to put down?

      I'm kind of glad my role-playing tendencies didn't go that way, or rather, half of me is. That's the sentimental, character-sympathetic half, who sniffled man-tears along with the rest of you at the obvious moment. But the other half, the grim author who wants to see how far this can fucking go, dare I say it, the better author, is shaking his head . "Choked up in the clutch," he says. "Again."

  2. The future (if it were)

    The kind of preparation I’m talking about in the above comment is the gift that keeps on giving as long as the players do stuff and demonstrate interest in other characters. Based on those, here are my literal, non-edited notes for things to do if we were to play further.

    • Brian’s mom, Caroline – who & history; find understandable drama in the marriage and divorce; Monsanto history is involved; she’s totally ready to become a serious and destructive villain, no more “save the family member” or “save the poor suffering super-person.”
    • Distinguish among the three: Darren, Caroline, and Liam – risk of playing/conceiving of them too similarly; they need to pose completely different priorities and situations.
    • Round out AmyBiota a little, with interesting history and personalities.
    • Fully conceive of “the group” [the Defiants] as a functioning entity, especially with its staff – quite perilously balanced between public heroes vs. public enemy #1, X-Men like.
    • Jen and Tweakie: superpowers? (can't all be bio-serum! getting too focused on that)
    • All about Myrmidon, gets aggressive in its San Antonio political and economic goals; Introduce Noldo at last! Put the crunch on Tina.
    • Academi is much harder to fight than Ghost; Ruiz and API go into fully competent overdrive re campus.
    • A good time to bring in a very established, known, “how it’s done” hero, perhaps strongly associated with the South; or conceivably, Mexican, and definitely not wearing a sombrero.

    On reflection, there's more – a readiness for example to play Father Ochoa whenever needed, an acknowledgment that the same readiness isn't there for Dean John Weylunde or Gabe, thoughts on what the ICE person, Sonia Childe, might be like or want. Most of these are unconstructed but acknowledged as "on the table" as we go into play.

    • Ha ha ha ha holy fuck, Ron! I
      Ha ha ha ha holy fuck, Ron! I remember, at the time of character creation, choosing the father as a DNPC rather than the mother, because I wanted to play it safe and not deal with my own “mommy issues”. Making my character’s mother into a villain sounds like something my therapist would come up with. I would’ve been delighted by you taking me there.

      What’s fascinating to me is that we absolutely did not talk about any of this, ever. It’s all coincidence, creative connection, and, perhaps, me choosing to have Brian’s powers come via his mother without reflecting on why it made more sense to me that way.

    • Your point about the lack of

      Your point about the lack of discussion is exactly right. I enjoy between-session discussion, but I am always ready to cut it short when it starts to stray into "how about" and "then next this happens" talk, i.e., plotting. The phrasing may be subtle but the content distinction is hard as stone: I often talk about the way role-playing is author+audience at the same time, and I think between-session dialogues should very much be audience mode only, for me as well as for anyone else.

      Or wait, another thing is possible too, any and all points-and-mechanics possibilities and clarifications, that's OK too. I see that as author skill tuning rather than authoring.

      That point is important for our history with this game. Specifically, I did not stop you during the eighth session and say, "Hey wait, we agreed that you'd be the 'Blue Gimp' when working the Defiants, you were all about it," and insist you do that, as if your previous implication for Brian not to act as Silverbeak with them had been authored. I did pause play to mention it, even to suggest that he had an intermediate option, but I was speaking as a confused audience member rather than a co-author. Therefore when you responded that you were sure, I didn't push back with a we-contracted-this, we-wrote-this argument. Because play is the authoring, and when Brian's actions were at hand, you were the primary, and in this game, that's non-negotiable.

  3. Role-playing and/like/as/not therapy

    The above comments definitely set the topic for an ambitious video discussion topic. Alan and Santiago, let me know if and when you'd be interested.

    • I am very interested! This

      I am very interested! This week I'm pretty free because it's Finals Week at college. The next one, not so much. Just e-mail me if Alan's into it and we'll hash it out!

  4. The “dissapeared”

    (Though we don't use quotes in Spanish when we say desaparecidos.) I skimmed the videos looking for the part where we discussed this. Got better at finding captions. For archiving/sanity/personal purposes, here's the link at the recent comment chain where we discussed the issue of dissapearances at contemporary America and UK – it's part of the discussion about another Champions game, one where Ron is not involved.

    These are the bits on the video (Session 7) that I found relevant about it. Each starts at the timestamped link and goes on for a few minutes.



    During play, throughout all our sessions, I sometimes had a hard time following both Rod and Ross' exact wordings. For some misterious technical reason, Rod became muted and unmuted to me over and over, but not to Ron. (You can see that also at the "Title drop" moment, where I ask Ron to repeat what Rod said.) With Ross is a matter of me not being so familiar with UK English – his accent, if you will. For this it's really great to be able to revisit our exchanges in the recordings, which are also automatically captioned by YouTube, and I found our discussion of this, to me, delicate topic much more rich, succint and clear than I remembered.

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