Sten, meet Jane

This is always the toughest time for playtesters, because it’s no longer about “cool, an idea,” but about “oh crap, saying/teaching it this way is pure miscommunication.” The poor players are like my hands which are trying to read Braille but are unfortunately picking up the waffle iron instead. The better one of my games is, the more certain you can be that the mid-stage playtesters were saying, “man, that was totally not working,” or upon publication, maybe, “that was great, but why are the finished rules all about preventing what we did?”

Not that we aren’t successfully playing. We are, but in this session, similar to some of the Defiants game for Champions Now, you’ll see Cosmic Zap mainly in the negative outlines around what we did. And that’s also to acknowledge that the two characters featured here, Sweet Jane (a.k.a. Janie Jones, mistress of the Omega Galaxy) and Sten Duncan (a.ka. the Fulcrum, master of Negentropy), were entirely enjoyable in terms of the resulting fiction. It’s how we got there that I’m critiquing, and also taking responsibility for as the presenter of the game.

Here are some of the notes and thoughts that are now informing my presentation, the text I’m writing that’s intended to inspire and teach effective play for the game.

  • “To find out what’s going on,” “to figure this thing out,” aren’t contests and cannot be rolled, but instead are merely automatically successful perceptions – basically, if you trouble to put a “what’s going on” thought balloon in there in the first place, it might as well be a deductive conclusion.
  • “Look out for what’s happening,” “staying wary” aren’t contests and cannot be treated as actions, merely as non-mechanics-relevent colorful descriptions.
  • “Oh, nothing much, I’ll just chill and see what happens,” isn’t featuring your character and must serve only as a prequel – even if what you say next is pretty nice and ordinary, it still needs to be a “what.”
  • Genre is what you make of it – if you want magical realism, then the Featured player and the Interesting player (my new name for it) should stay with the Personal keyword, if you want Metal Hurlant trippiness, stay with the Cosmic one, and if you want odd/X-constructive superheroes, stay with the Super one.

In this game, none of the above have anything to do with, nor can be meaningfully fulfilled by, the rather boring player called the Narrator. I’ve gained some pretty serious thoughts, maybe even insights, about how the above bullet points have become almost a hobby language for turning play into Intuitive Continuity (this is not a good thing; see my Seminar post, The Plot Thickens). Players have even developed complex skill-sets to reinforce and shape this even when a GM, should there be one, doesn’t want to.

So, did it “suck?” No! You will see here the creepy-awesomest antagonist or perhaps sentimental plot opportunity character I think I’ve run into ever, the net effect of Juan and Rod utilizing the rules simultaneously and ruthlessly. You get to see Rod’s cool pic of Jane, above, and to watch Juan bust out another amazing illustration right there as we play. The game is indebted to dozens of things they said and did, and all I can say is, I’m wracked with guilt about the waffle iron thing.

Let that be the lesson: love your playtesters and hope they forgive you.

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2 responses to “Sten, meet Jane”

  1. Like a Pigeon from Hell

    It's a lot of fun to see this, and useful too, as I can now do some detective work on my early-game freeze. I see it was that Acceleration agent that threw me off — I had something in mind already, but when he showed up in an open-ended menacing way, I took it as a passed baton and felt like I was "supposed to" do something with him. I dithered over that until I forgot what I was dithering about and just did what I wanted to do (introducing Sean). It ended up being Juan who kept track of what was going on with the agent, simply by virtue of his being interested in it, which was fine. 

    (Also — "waffle iron"? What am I missing/forgetting?)

    • We’re facing another

      We're facing another constraint too, which is having two players per session, out of three total. Not only repeatedly, but at all, because the game isn't built for it. It means everyone has to play into a situation as a primary creator all the time, which goes against the "only a little bit, when it's your turn" principle. It's not supposed to be high-pressure authoring in a ping-pong fashion, but a big stew with lots of little contributions. We're unfortunately stress-testing against a boundary that I already knew existed, which isn't as helpful; I need to see play at the other end, with tons of players.

      The waffle iron comment is referring to my metaphor of playtesting as a blind person, with the implication that the blindest playtester is the designer, thus burning his or her fingers because I'm not even directing the players toward the right objects/techniques. It is not referring to a very unpleasant joke I remember as a kid which utilizes the same motif, but is similar enough that I now wish I hadn't written it.

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