So this is about the best game I’ve played. It happened in 2009. It had two players, Me and LukeA, we played over the course of ten sessions and each session was between six to eight hours. In terms of discussion I think there are two notable things about it, solving choreography problems and the agenda in play. I’ll give each a section.
So in 2009 I’d read a load of the Forge theory forums. At the time I thought CA was over rated and I was probably a Simulationist anyway. Also why were people yapping about creative agenda when there was all this other good stuff? The good stuff in question being all the work that ‘solved’ choreography issues. What’s also kind of interesting is that after my actual CA enlightenment moment from about two years ago. All the ‘solutions’ now seem facile and misguided.
So what were the choreography issues? For me, they were that combat sucked and most systems had too much whiff across the board. What me and LukeA wanted (at the time) was for stuff to happen like it did in Star Wars (more or less).
I designed a system based very loosely on the 7th sea system. For skill checks you now failed forward. Only roll when something is important or failure is likely or it’s dramatic. For combat the biggest change was that wounds became conflict points and loosing them meant defeat not death.
When we rolled we’d roll very early in response to an intent and then the narration would be a duel affair. The player narrates their characters failure or success and the GM narrates NPC’s and their reactions. There were a lot of exceptions to this but it was kind of a baseline.
In hindsight a lot of the work was actually more about ‘what’ got narrated and how rather than the system changes in and of themselves. Combat especially was now a very cinematic and fluid affair in contrast to the turgid parade of misses and whiffs of our old systems.
I think it’s easy to shit on FATE and Dungeon World (and I do) but where I think they might excel is in just getting rid of the trad garbage when it comes to choreography. If people are getting the same kind of buzz from these system as I got from mine, it’s easy to see why they’re held in such high regard.
So the next notable thing is what we were doing with the system, what was our purpose?
Well we wanted to do action adventure, like Star Wars. The actual setting though was a mana-punk fantasy world heavily influenced by the comic Battle Chasers. I don’t think either of us thought about structure much. The GM would create a railroad that the player would travel down because the railroad was tailor made for that characters goals anyway. (this came back to bite us later but I’ll get to that).
So in this case I created a character and gave it to Luke to prep for. Here it is:
Name: Oiru (I-ru)
Discovered on the streets as a small horribly burned child by Pharis (Far-is).
Oiru was about three when he was discovered and would initially only say one word, his name, Oiru.
Eleven ran away from the Orphanage and Pharis got him at 13.
Pharis is a master thief and as the years past he became the head of this elite pack and extended his influence over the criminal underworld. Oiru was raised to be stealthy (Pharis figured that someone that ugly wouldn’t want to be seen) and join the ‘Talons’, Pharis’ elite group of thieves.
So he was trained to be stealthy and nimble and learnt the arts of thieving all the while being looked down upon by his peers, both for his horrific scars and his youth. This made him more eager to please and he excelled in burglary, just earning him more animosity from his peers.
We start with Oiru being about seventeen
The Talons consist of Pharis’ personal unit. He draws up the plans as to what he wants stolen and then the Talons go and get it. This has made them all wealthy and they enjoy the fine things in life. They also have extensive contact with the higher orders of criminals throughout the Empire. Pharis himself knows fixers, others thieves and all sorts of people. He actually travels in high society at this point.
Rakos: The de facto leader of the others and the one that bullies Oiru the most.
Pharis: Oiru looks up to Pharis and wants to please him, (We’ll leave what Pharis thinks about Oiru as emergent, we know he finds Oiru skilled but not necessarily valuable or irreplaceable)
Princess Sirena : All we know about her is that she’s sexy and Oiru finds her so and dreams she’s some kind of ideal woman. What she’s actually like is to be decided.
OVER ALL PERSONALITY AND TRAITS
Wants friends and love
Optimistic and hopeful personality.
Grappling hook gun
Lock pick kit
So LukeA went away and did his prep/railroad. I’ve got fairly extensive notes written down but here’s some of the stuff from the first third of session one.
Oiru, a burnt thief of the Talons, has snuck into the palace grounds again to spy on the beautiful Princess Sienna. Oiru is lonely and shamed of his scarred face, watching the princess and dreaming he is a mighty hero is his only escape.
It is then he sees a shadowy figure also among the roofs of the palace. He goes to investigate but the figure is gone.
Oiru is called by Pharis, the head of the Talons, to a meeting. They have been commissioned for a grave and dangerous job. They must steal the Ice Dragon. A blade of great power that lies within the palace.
The Talons break into the Palace and Oiru and Darius grab the blade. Something has gone wrong though. An alarm is triggered. Oiru grabs the blade and the Talons try to flee, only Oiru escapes.
Heading back to the lair he sees that the Imperial guard have surrounded the place. He hides out for the night and discovers that the princess Sienna has been kidnapped, while he and the other Talons were stealing the Ice Dragon. He heads to the home of Pharis and discovers he has been betrayed. Pharis owed a favour to the dread assassin Night Blade. The Talons were merely a diversion while Night Blade abducted the Princess. In a rage Oiru demands to know where Night Blade can be found. Pharis mentions a Slekke fixer in Seraphy named Saris.
Not knowing what to do Oiru turns to his Hero. The great Lord Skyreign. The one who ventured into the dark lands to find the Ice Dragon. Yet after telling Skyreign of what he has learnt, Skyreign summons the watch. Oiru flees in despair. If no one will believe him then he must rescue the Princess himself.
So how much was LukeA preparing? After giving him my character he went away created a fuck ton of backstory. When I found the Princess and what the villain who kidnapped her would reveal, was all prepared In a Roads to Rome style. So no matter what I did I’d find out the big reveal and so on. Now it wasn’t that I felt I was being railroaded because I was an easy character to plan for. What Oiru would do in a given situation was fairly obvious.
Really the whole thing lived in that odd liminal space between railroading and just finding out. We had to stop play during session eight to have a discussion. LukeA had prepared for me (Oiru) to go to my parents old house but I thought Oiru didn’t really care about any of that. When me dad (gone bad) turned up in session 9 and was revealed to be the big big bad guy. It was a little flat.
So an interesting thing happened during session 5. What’s unfortunate is I can’t remember if I had to roll for it or not.
Nightblade was actually a girl called Hannah and for various reasons we were working together. At some point the people who killed her father turned up with an overwhelming force and she was determined to fight them, in what was basically a suicide mission. She was overcome with hopelessness, guilt and rage. I think the events went like this:
Alex (as Oiru): Wait you can’t go and fight them.
LukeA: Roll (or maybe it was fiat). Success. What do you say?
We discussed this moment after the session and I know that LukeA and me were thinking the exact same thing at first. My first thought was to try and manipulate her. Tell her that she’d get revenge later but she needed to stay alive. (this is what LukeA was expecting me to say). After a moment of reflection though, it really didn’t suit Oiru at all. So what I said was.
Alex (as Oiru): You can’t die. You’re my friend.
I think that moment was the thematic core of the game. It really seemed to clarify Oiru’s character. Just by being relentlessly open hearted, ‘naively’ so, he managed to turn the Pirates, thieves and assassins he was with into people that also believed in stuff. Later a romance developed between Oiru and Nightblade and it was cool as fuck.
So this was the best game I played. It ended up being very Star Wars. It had great dialogue and color and awesome fights and an emergent theme.
On the other hand. This was lightning in a bottle. We could never recapture it and I’m pretty sure our lame attempts at trying eventually made LukeA give up on the hobby.
I don’t think we could ever resolve the tension between the railroading and the emergent stuff. Even now I’m not sure how you’d do it. You could just say fuck genre and let the chips fall where they may, which would be unsatisfying if you wanted to stay within a certain frame. It’s the only way I see though.
On the other hand I think I really needed an action adventure (pink goo fantasy) to actually just fucking work and be good. Which I got. I’m not even sure I would want to try again at this point.
So when I look at FATE and Dungeon World, I often think maybe they’re just trying to get at that. That they’re lauded because now you can celebrate genre with good choreography. I’m not sure.
11 responses to “Action Adventure”
Hi Alexander! Thanks so much for this post, so many of the things you wrote are close to my own heart as well.
I have a number of clarification questions. First, with respect to choreography:
“For skill checks you now failed forward.”
What does that mean?
“Only roll when something is important or failure is likely or it’s dramatic.”
The importance of the consequences being interesting no matter what is something I was just reminded of in my recent Pool game. This helps reinforce that for me.
“For combat the biggest change was that wounds became conflict points and losing them meant defeat not death.”
I’m confused by this – losing a wound meant defeat? Or do you mean losing a roll? So was it one roll per fight, i.e., one roll determined the whole fight?
“When we rolled we’d roll very early in response to an intent”
So in IIEE terms, you rolled as soon as someone stated their intent, and initiation, execution and effect were all determined after the roll?
“In hindsight a lot of the work was actually more about ‘what’ got narrated and how rather than the system changes in and of themselves.”
I don’t quite understand this – do you mean the focus was on the in-game fiction, as opposed to how many hit points were lost and other game mechanics?
“Combat especially was now a very cinematic and fluid affair in contrast to the turgid parade of misses and whiffs of our old systems.”
That’s awesome and what I want from my games, too! Can you say what about the game mechanics you used helped make this happen?
“I think it’s easy to shit on FATE and Dungeon World (and I do) but where I think they might excel is in just getting rid of the trad garbage when it comes to choreography.”
When you say “trad garbage”, do you mean some of the technical game mechanics, such as initiative, determining range, having a to-hit and damage roll, various modifiers, and so on?
Hey Dream. An important
Hey Dream. An important distinction here is that what I thought was good in 2010 and what I now think is good, in 2020, are very different things. I’ll try and be more clear on the distinction in what follows.
So the combat system worked as follows.
Roll initiative once for the entire fight and then just cycle around until one side has lost their conflict points. So doing initiative would give you a list like the one below.
Blake (the dashing pirate)
*The nightmare mask
The ones marked with an asterisk are the bad guys and LukeA would narrate them, I’d narrate all the good guys.
So part of a combat round would look like this.
LukeA: ‘The golems attacking Nightblade.’ (rolls to hit and rolls damage) ‘Hit with 14’.
LukeA ‘It’s mana powered mini-cannon starts spinning’
Alex ‘I begin to run’
LukeA ‘the mana rounds start tearing up the wall behind you’
Alex ‘I want to attack the Imperial troops as nightblade, I’ll roll for that first before doing the rest of the narration.’ (rolls to hit and damages on 14, this kills two of them).
Alex ‘So I’m rolling and jumping from statue to statue to avoid the mana fire’
LukeA ‘Yeah and as the mana fire hits the statues they break apart.’
Alex ‘And as I’m avoiding it I drop down and slit the throat of one guard and a single movement jump back onto the next statue’
LukeA ‘the previous statue explodes into dust and the guard grasps his throat and collapses’
Alex ‘I think another guard is shooting at me but I just twist over him and throw a dagger while I do so. All while running from the mana-fire.’
LukeA ‘I’m going to roll for the guards’ (Miss) ‘As you leave the area with the statues the war golem stops firing but there’s ten guards armed with sword, they rush you all at once;’
Alex ‘Nightblade keeps her cool. She easily parries the guards (I’d probably be miming what she doing to some degree) and uses their numbers against them. Manoeuvring so they get in each others way.
LukeA ‘They’re trying to attack you but yeah you’re too agile for them.’ Blake is next.’
Alex ‘so he’s onboard the airship isn’t he?’
LukeA ‘yeah. Oiru and the crew are below fighting the nightmare mask’
Alex ‘So Blake mans one of the big mana cannons.’ (roll and miss) ‘I think he’s trying to line up a shot but he can’t take one without hitting his crew or Oiru.’
LukeA ‘Ok Oiru next’
So in IIEE terms we’d be rolling after the II but before the EE. As a general rule, a hit meant you narrated having some kind of advantage. You were pressing the attack. While a miss meant you narrated having difficulty. This wasn’t always the case though and in the example above, the wargolem getting a hit that does 14, might have been narrated exactly the same way if it missed.
The exceptions were when fighting gangs, each 5 points of damage meant you took out one member of the gang. So Nightblade kills two Imperials because I rolled a 14. If she’d rolled a 15-19 I’d have narrated taking out three of them, and so on. The other exception is when someone’s conflict points got taken to 0. At that point you narrate taking them out.
In purely mechanical terms a combat would be as follows. Nightblade (Alex) is fighting the Nightmare mask (LukeA). Assume both characters have 40 conflict points.
LukeA: Hit with 16
Alex: Hit with 8
LukeA: Hit with 18
Alex: Hit with 11
LukeA: Hit with 19, that’s 53, so you’re defeated/taken out.
So 2010 Alex was like. No more stupid weapons stats, distance ranges, trying to describe your move before rolling only to see it fail. Broken mechanics that mean you just end up missing most of them the time. Silly armour rules.
2020 Alex: I think the combat system was still too clunky. Given that hits and misses didn’t actually map onto the fiction in any real way. You could just roll damage and avoid rolling to hit all together.
SKILL ROLLS AND STUFF
So what I thought in 2010 and what I think now are very very different.
In 2010 my idea of fail forward was basically the same as success with complications. Looking back I was seriously confused about things but it didn’t actually matter that much at the time. I think I took a lot of generic advice about conflict resolution and just kind of used the bits that made sense.
2020 Alex: I don’t think you can have generic advice. You really have to judge on a game to game basis by looking at what the system does. Even advice like ‘nothing happens is bad’ seems suspect to me now.
To give some context to this. In 2008 I’d started reading the Forge theory forums and Storygames. So I was excited about a lot of things but I didn’t really ‘get’ some very important shit. In fact I didn’t get this stuff until about 2018 when I had my first big Creative Agenda awakening moment.
To try and distil what I learnt. I’ll give three different examples.
My very old (pre-forge way): Oriu attempts to convince Nightblade to stay. ‘You’re my friend’ he says. (we roll and I fail). Well what does that mean? Maybe I splutter and can’t get the words out (resolving the 2nd E in IIEE). Maybe I get the words out but I’m not convincing, she doesn’t believe me (still resolving the 2nd E in the IIEE, even though it doesn’t look like it). Anyway she runs off.
The 2010 way: Oiru attempts to convince Nigtblade to stay. We roll and I fail. Ok this is cool. I get to narrate how I fail. I don’t splutter because I’m not a clown. So I say ‘You’re my friend’. Only because it’s a fail she doesn’t believe me and runs off.
2020 way: (or one way anyway). I tell Nightblade, in all honesty and from the bottom of my heart ‘Don’t go, you’re my friend.’ we roll and I fail. She believes me but she goes anyway. I guess in this instance being open and honest didn’t work for Oiru. (resolves the 2nd E in the IIEE). This way also creates theme. You’re putting your characters ethos on the line. They give it their best, do as well as anyone can, and yet it doesn’t work. ‘Honesty isn’t the best policy.’
Before 2008 I was so trapped in the idea of avoiding whiff and not having the character be a clown that I wasn’t seeing what was in front of me. I was still thinking in terms of success and failure rather than thinking about how the conflict spoke to ‘who’ the character was. Their priorities and the way they acted within the world.
So regarding the combat
So regarding the combat system you used, it sounds a lot like Wushu in some ways. I vaguely remember Ron saying somewhere that he thought Wushu was failed design, but I don't remember the details; maybe the reason you fell out of love with it is similar to what Ron identified?
Regarding your three
Regarding your three different examples, I'm not following where the critical differences lie. Is it in who has narrative authority over the result? Or is it in what kind of outcomes you've grown to prefer over time? Or something else?
On the resolution mechanic:
On the resolution mechanic: In this case it’s that I’ve grown to prefer certain types of outcome. I’ll refrain from commenting further because you’re having a similar conversation with Ron in the Pool thread and he probably has a more nuanced take than me, which he can probably explain better.
On Wushu similarities: I’d have to read what Ron wrote to be sure. I think the game as a whole became dissatisfying because we were trying to do ‘story before’ but all the best bits were when ‘story now’ emerged. So it’s hard to evaluate the combat mechanics in a vacuum. I can actually see them working in a game that’s a bit more focussed. Although they’re still unwieldy from a design elegance point of view.
Recapturing the Cool
So with respect to:
“It ended up being very Star Wars. It had great dialogue and color and awesome fights and an emergent theme. On the other hand. This was lightning in a bottle. We could never recapture it and I’m pretty sure our lame attempts at trying eventually made LukeA give up on the hobby.”
This is very close to my own heart. All my fumbling attempts at designing games are at least partly my trying to recreate the kind of moments of cool I’ve had in my favorite game sessions (occasionally I’m trying to create the possibility for gaming experiences I want to have but haven’t yet had).
It’s got to be possible. I think the reason I haven’t succeeded (at least in any consistent way) has got to be that I’m misidentifying what the essential elements are of the game mechanics, that help facilitate the experiences I want everyone playing to have. I designed and playtested a sci-fi rpg and had several great sessions, and I was excited – but then I realized the sessions were fun not because of those particular rules at all, but because of something else I was doing at the table. And I have no idea what that was.
It’s been frustrating!
I get that you wanted to have great action adventure, but I’m also intrigued by the moment of cool you described. It wasn’t so much an action scene but what I’d describe as a “character moment”.
“I think that moment was the thematic core of the game. It really seemed to clarify Oiru’s character. Just by being relentlessly open hearted, ‘naively’ so, he managed to turn the Pirates, thieves and assassins he was with into people that also believed in stuff. Later a romance developed between Oiru and Nightblade and it was cool as fuck.”
Was it this particular thing you were trying to recapture? Or the action mechanics as well?
“I don’t think we could ever resolve the tension between the railroading and the emergent stuff. Even now I’m not sure how you’d do it.”
I’m not sure I understand this. Do you think there’s something you got from the railroading, that you couldn’t get otherwise? Why have any railroading at all?
Some of Ron’s games, in particular Sorcerer, Circle of Hands, and Champions Now try to give guidelines on how to do this; I’m wondering what you think of those approaches.
“You could just say fuck genre and let the chips fall where they may, which would be unsatisfying if you wanted to stay within a certain frame. It’s the only way I see though.”
I don’t understand this at all, can you explain?
Well I think the core tension is this.
To me action/adventure presupposes certain ethical approaches that work (it might not to anyone else but to me it does).
So to take the Nightblade example again. Let’s say I roll and fail.
I tell Nightblade, in all honesty and from the bottom of my heart ‘Don’t go, you’re my friend.’ we roll and I fail. She believes me but she goes anyway. I guess in this instance being open and honest didn’t work for Oiru. (resolves the 2nd E in the IIEE). This way also creates theme. You’re putting your characters ethos on the line. They give it their best, do as well as anyone can, and yet it doesn’t work. ‘Honesty isn’t the best policy.’
So that’s bullshit. Of course being open and honest ‘should’ work. The heroes have got to win and they have to win using methods that I find acceptable. Which means all that’s left is just painting in the details.
So in 2010 I absolutely did not want to play a game where the Heroes can fail or become corrupt or anything of the sort. Now, in 2020, I’m fine with that. It’s my preferred play style.
Like in Sorcerer, if I think that Sorcerers are horrible and should be doomed. Then that’s not guaranteed. I can drive hard towards being doomed but it’s always possible that actually being a total fuck works out for me.
What I think ‘should’ happen based on Genre is absent from these type of games.
Does that make any sense to you?
Now why did the Oiru game work? I’m really not sure but I have some thoughts.
In other games we did after, I think the shine of just describing good combat and character moments was beginning to wear off. So one reason might be that we just weren’t into ‘genre’ play any more. Maybe if we’d switched to Narrativist games back then, we’d have had loads of fun.
I think there was something ‘authentic’ I dunno, I can’t find the word. About the Nightblade relationship and how it emerged that gave the game real heart. In contrast to the other stuff that had more of a ‘going through the motions’ feel to it. Also to answer your question, there was nothing mechanically planned about this. I think it just came about because me and LukeA were riffinf off each other.
It could simply have been that Oiru was a good character and LukeA created a good cast of NPC’s for him to play off. Maybe doing more genre stuff would have worked but we just needed to do it far better.
Let me know if I’ve explained anything badly.
Slight correction here. I think playing Sorcerer where you’re actively trying to damn your character isn’t playing honestly. What I mean is that when playing to discover what happens, there’s a tension between what the audience wants to happen and what, as author, honesty demands. I think most well designed narrative games act as a counter weight to the audience wishes.
Excavating and recovery
Alex, you wrote at Discord that this post isn't optimally written (paraphrasing), in part because it's hard to convey what you were thinking at some point in the past in the context of what you think now. This was in response to me saying that I simply didn't understand it. I hesitated to say so because any next sentence I could write about what I think I'm seeing in that long-ago activity would be extremely harsh.
Anyway, here we are, it's a new day, the mid-day sun is beating down on me here in Sweden at (checks) 7:18 AM, so let's see what can be extracted and stated. I'm not into going line by line with "what I meant to say was," but I'd like to know what your thoughts on this game experience are today. I totally get that whatever you were thinking then was different, but let's set whatever that was aside.
The game was good but it
The game was good but it would have benefited from more clarity about what we were there to do. There was a tension between ‘a story like star wars’ and ‘a story wherever it may go.’ I think this tension really hit hard about two thirds of the way in, which is why the last third felt really kind of flat. My current view is that it’s best to go with ‘a story wherever it may go.’ Which would mean using more bouncy mechanics etecteras.
This goes directly to my
This goes directly to my point that story as experienced by an audience has a fixed ending waiting for them, vs. a story as experienced by an author is in flux (until they're done).
Now, and I really mean this for you specifically, this distinction has led to a misperception that an author's role is not fun and has no element of audience in it, and indeed has a rather dry and disconnected role toward the story.
I submit the reverse: that the author is merely the first person to enjoy the story as audience, and that there exists a state in which the two roles are not distinguishable. This state is historically invisible and closeted relative to the (later) audience, and furthermore, it has been dressed up with much nonsense and commerce.
Whereas in this hobby thing we do, that state is not only possible, it can be prolonged, and it can be a group activity. The story is not finished or known, because we are making it, just as it was neither finished nor known while Joe Blow Genius Classical Playwright was making his super-famous historically-acclaimed thing.
But again, unlike Joe Blow, we are doing it together and out in the open. Not one shred of existing story critique, analysis, pedagogy, or vocabulary are equipped to deal with this.
With respect, I think you personally may have suffered rather painful torments in the grip of that absence.
I think "The Grip of That Absence" simply must be the title of my first rock album.