Nothing is bleaker than a sunny day

Nate and I met for our second and final session for The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, each of us pretty motivated for the respective “side,” in the curious fashion associated with the better examples of this genre. We began by discussing three important things.

1. New finishing conditions review. I went through the rules pretty carefully to see all the ways play might end, and I concluded that there are two ways and a new way.

The main textual way is to rack up Evidence or rack up Victims, as each has a threshold based on the other character’s scores; the other, related textual way is to drive down the scores which serve as the threshold for Evidence or Victims, so the current numbers for those turn out to qualify for finishing.

I hacked a new criterion. The rules include “nuances” comparisons of scores which may be used to specify the outcome. For example, let’s say the Hero has been victorious, and we also notice that Conscience > Control, then we may (not must) consider finishing by having the Killer commit suicide. Well, I decided that if any of the eight listed pairs for these comparisons hit their lowest and highest values corresponding to the greater/lesser symbol), then that’s an end condtion too.

One slight nuance of this is that the scores have no listed maximum, but their role in the environmental variables maxes out at 7+, so regardless of how high the score goes up from there, 7 is enough to qualify.

So that put us a lot closer to the end, with the Killer already at 7 Cunning and my Hero at the distinct disadvantage. As it stands, my only chances would be to get a score up to 7 so I could use Illumination, or to rack up Evidence, the latter being the only direct route.

2. Playing the environment, which was clearly necessary by now because we have a fairly isolated, asocial plumber, but the environment is maxed at (in American terms) “Ivy League,” or high-level elitism. You don’t have to “play my character” in many of the scenes, and for us it makes sense that a lot of play would be about grappling with social and psychological consequences of the events so far, rather than “I do this, oh yeah, then I do that” strictly from the characters’ point of view.

At the start of this session, the environment variables offer a great profile for doing this.

The environmental tone is a bit off-kilter, visually or aesthetically: it’s cloudy all the time. The social emotional state is similarly oddly happy – if there are problems, people don’t see them or consider them as problems.

Some things are right in the middle. The social moral state is between indifferent and honest. The social selfishness is between generous and selfish. The adeptness of society, which going by the variables refers to effective police and justice system, is between competent and mediocre. (Those of you familiar with the highly-nuanced Swedish term “lagom” should be wincing a little right now.)

Finally, the “enlightenment” of society, which is listed as disenfranchised to Ivy League so is perhaps better called privilege, is racked at the high end, even past Ivy League.

The net effect is disturbing: an elitist social scene where no one thinks anything is wrong, but no one is really very good or bad to others, law is merely adequate in objective terms, and anyone we meet likes it this way.

3. The enlightenment/privilege variable needed some reconsidering for the Swedish setting, in which income inequality and class-determined education are very different from the States. Nate and I talked about it and he agreed with me that the best conceptual touchstone was ethnicity, which has distinctive features here, especially in levels of subtlety and denial. Therefore, in our story, events are “in the bubble:” whatever the difficulties or problems may be, these particular Swedes (the NPCs in our story) are isolated from them in an exclusive-elitist way, and therefore may have all kinds of opinions without any need to contact, perceive, or understand anyone who’s not ethnically and culturally right inside their comfort zone.

Given our characters’ own identities, this also means the bubble is to be evident in the fiction only to an observer as a pervasive context, which I like very much.

The region matters for that too, in that I had considered it carefully when thinking about what this variable would mean for us. We’re talking about the western coastline of Sweden just south of the Norwegian border, and the cut-out map will show you that it’s a neat little archipelago region sprinkled with little towns. I’d originally chosen it because it features a long-standing, very well-in-place population defined by an ocean-going way of life, and it’s also a magnet for vacations for both Swedes and foreigners, but not a top-tier resort area, more of a getaway. When I was there last year, it was clearly popular with corporations and foundations from all over the world for retreats. There are some similarities to Dore County in Michigan, although less built-up.

How’d it go? The embedded video goes to the beginning of the second session, inside the overall playlist.

It won’t surprise you that we met the hacked criterion, with the Killer ultimately going silent and my Hero worn down to no lasting motivation (Obsession). But it was a good fight! The key quantity was Nate’s consistent gains in Plot Points, which he ruthlessly threw into every roll, to be gifted with yet more each time. The system has no death-spiral in this regard, as the framing and resolution rolls are independent, so this was wicked luck.

You can see us both reacting to this very bleak and sort-of deconstructive killer-wins story that ultimately serves as an indictment upon society, rather than some kind of “genius killer” plot.

For the record, the finishing scores were Obsession 0, Stability 6, Conscience 2; and Compulsion 4, Cunning 8, and Control 5; with Evidence remaining at 3 and Victims remaining at 2. That means the tone is sunny, the people are happy, the social morality is near-criminal, the social selfishness is middling, the enlightenment/privilege is way past Ivy League, and control/law enforcement is mediocre. Benno is exhausted, ineffective, and incarcerated, and Hjalmer is perfectly capable of safely killing again, when the mood strikes.

It’s all made especially grim because Evidence > Victims, implying that if anyone actually investigated, there’d be grounds for pursuing the case. But no one cares.

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4 responses to “Nothing is bleaker than a sunny day”

  1. Comments from the Game Designer

    That was a great session. It perfectly depicts how a hero might spiral into darkness.

    I think I'm going to change Enlightenment to Privilege in the next printing. I was never really happy with the term, and I think Privilege not only sounds better it's also more flexible in its interpretation.

    In regards to Plot Points, do you think Nate was getting too many?

    Does the version of the game you used grant a Plot Point for every high die rolled, or 1 per player per scene max? The next printing of the game will either limit them 1, or make the Framing Table roll a straight 5 Hero dice and 5 Killer dice, instead of using Obsession and Compulsion. Sometimes, especially when one of those traits is a lot higher than the other. The player with the higher trait can get a disproportionate number of Plot Points and thus a distinct advantage in future dice rolls, especially with scenes using that trait.

    One of the things about the Crossing the Line scene is that since Traits can't go below 1, so once your Conscience bottoms out there's no penalty for succeeding.

    • My thinking about Plot Points

      My thinking about Plot Points is …. I'm not sure, but I lean in favor of the current technique. I rather like the extreme harshness of pure luck playing a big role – yes, you can get screwed, and that's how this story jumped this time. "The world" contributes in this way, that one or the other of the two is simply more lucky, in addition to everything else. I think that the game does not benefit from ultimately being about effective strategic play; good strategic sense may be necessary, but (as I see things) it should not be sufficient.

      Going to minimal Conscience is something I tried to do, but those three failed Crossing the Line scenes really did the job on me. But I stress, in support of my point above, that my reaction as a player was not "the dice screwed me, this game sucks," as it well might have been for a strategy/win-lose game, but rather, "yes, that is definitely how it goes for Benno – the world does suck."

      As long as we're talking a little strategically. I do know, now, that designing Benno "to the middle" was a bad idea. The Armchair Detective gets that big boost in Obsesssion, and I chose to balance it so that the scores went almost entirely to the middle, rather than the literal boost it should be, i.e., racking Obsession up. I don't think I would have minded Obsession 8, Stability 2, and Conscience 2 after all.

      Whenever you get the chance: Bron (The Bridge, Swedish),  Ófærð (Trapped, Icelandic), Y Gwyll (Hinterland, English-Welsh), Margaritas (Bitter Daisies, Spanish), La Trêve (The Break, Belgian), and Sorjonen (Bordertown, Finnish) … there are about two or three dozen more, as Europe went very big for this genre, but they vary greatly in quality, and I like these quite a bit. I will say that some of them go bipolar with new seasons though, as most are best as stand-alone one-offs and making a series just isn't called-for and tends to flounder.

  2. Going middle of the road with

    Going middle of the road with your traits usually results in a longer game, especially when both players do it. High Obsession and High Compulsion lead to shorter darker games.

    In theory, bottom loading your traits by starting your Stability or Conscience at a 5 can also lead to shorter, but more uplifting games as the Hero can focus on making the world a better place through Compassion and Personal scenes, then hitting the Killer with a bunch of Illumination scenes, essentially allowing society to bring or otherwise neutralize the Killer.

    Likewise, bottom loading Control can also lead to shorter games, but with the Killer and setting destroying the Hero emotionally through Manipulation and Ruination scenes.

    I'm cosidering an option where dropping all three of your opponent's traits to 1 triggers end game, resulting in an overall sense of good or evil overcoming the setting entirely.

    I really want to strengthen player's understanding that the characters and setting are essentially the same thing, metaphorically speaking. For example, in your game Nate spent a lot of Plot Points to roll extra dice, but did not describe how the setting influenced the roll. For example, in your Crossing the Line scene where the Hero was litterally digging for evidence, Nate could have  spent a Plot Point to get an extra Control die by saying there's a rusty sewage main running through the woods that "hasn't been inspected in decades" (Adeptness of Society) that could potentially contaminate the whole scene and any evidence that might be there. Likewise you could have spent a Plot Point to gain an extra Obsession die by saying the weather (Environment) has been particularly cold lately potentional freezing and preserving potential evidence.

    I will definitely take a look at those movies, and add them to the reference material in the back of the book.

    • When I first played the game,

      When I first played the game, back when it was Fragile Minds, that "positive win" is what happened. I was playing a relatively brutish disorganized killer and Nathan played a pretty decent, compassionate guy as the hero. Although it wasn't all sunny & light – for example, the hero had in fact taken bribes and wasn't the cleanest cop – the outlook gained hope and you got the idea that the hero himself was learning or deciding that life wasn't actually all that bad. And just as you say, it wasn't about amassing Evidence so much as basically reducing the killer's POV, or the "bad world," from having the oomph or claim to be the world.

      For better or for worse, I have fallen away from "say X to get a point" rules. I've never enjoyed them much. I find that tossing in details works much better as a spontaneous thing, or, if there are rules saying "do it now," those work too and are typically fun rather than chores. But not as little performance type rewards.

      I do agree about "playing the setting," which applies most obviously to NPCs, but also to circumstances, objects, appearances, sensations, and really basically anything at all. I think the game really pops up when people do that, because they don't have to struggle for fictional justifications, the fiction is ready and willing, I guess is the best way to put it, with its own properties.

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