Troubles in Solar Town

This post stems from a short conversation on the Adept Play discord, which I recommend visiting.

I recently had a half-mediocre experience playing Solar System. I’m feeling kind of disappointed because I was feeling very excited both about this game and this very campaign. We were playing using the Elder Scrolls setting as a starting point and one of the players – who’s a bit more experienced with the game – had written some Solar System crunch to go with it.

I don’t know if I’m preparing wrongly as a GM, but I’m struggling to bring the Keys and themes into play in practice at the table. We’re at the third session, the first being occupied almost exclusively by character creation, and it seems that the game quality is going down rather than up. After a second session which had a couple of dull moments but seemed to be going in the right direction as we were ‘finding our voice’ with these characters, who they are and what is their deal, I was expecting the third session to improve as we learn to focus our scenes on what matters to us. However, I had the opposite experience.

The system makes a lot of sense to me while reading it, but it seems that I’m missing something while playing it. Or – best guess – I’m preparing improperly. The setting is already there, and all the players were familiar with it, except for one – and that’s a good thing, since he brought a fresh perspective on it – and we’re using the community wiki pages as loose guidelines and inspiration.

My preparation has been this: I set my mind on a bunch of major NPCs who were likely to have objectives who touched on the character’s Keys. During the session, I took the first occasion to introduce such NPCs while keeping their motivations in mind. I try to follow what the players want to do, but I have no issue aggressively setting a scene with a dramatic coincidence or some other contrivance in order to bring some question to the forefront.

There is also the fact that two of the players are young and new and one of them stated during the debriefing that they were not making the best use of their characters in the last session. One player had technical issues with the Discord call which exacerbated the general murkiness. And finally, we were all a bit learning the rules, so going into the first extended conflict things slowed down a bit too much.

In any case, it seems like this campaign will not continue – but I would like to try Solar System again in the future and possibly learn from whatever mistake I made in this case.

9 responses to “Troubles in Solar Town”

  1. Problems, more in detail

    One of the first problems we had was with an initial scene where two of the characters who had just met had started to get to know each other. The more experienced player suggested we make this a Vigor Recovery scene, however the less experienced player seemed to think his idea of having a walking conversation did not fit very well with the “physical exercise” requirement of Vigor recovery scenes. The scene ended up adding some nice color but felt a bit like a waste of time.

    The second problem happened right after that: I misinterpreted the two players as wanting to get back to the inn they had booked for the night, so I put forward the legionnaire-hating dark elf guard I had prepared. Being one of the players a legionnaire, the guard threatened them of physical violence if they got a foot back in the inn. After some conversation, the players seemed not to care much and left.

    Third problem was during a scene in the woods: I decided to take the opportunity during the protagonists’ camp outside of city – totally their own decision to band together for the night – to present a doomsday cult that hit close to one character’s Key. However, I set it up very much as a violent ambush, without the players being able to discern the enemies’ motivation or even their identity at the beginning of the conflict. This made the entire playgroup go into “action mode”, which I did not like that much. In hindsight, I should have presented the NPCs with a conversation first, and only escalate to violence if the situation required it.

    • Given how you're talking yourself through it right here, I'm reluctant to interfere! … but here I go.

      Backing up slightly from your examples, I tried to absorb or perceive exactly what you mean by "problem" in them. It finally clicked – at least as I see it, which I hope you will understand is entirely subject to your own assessment, not as a diagnosis.

      … NPCs who were likely to have objectives who touched on the character's Keys.

       …. two players wanted … so I put …

      … that hit close to one character's Key.

      I've seen this phenomenon with this game before, whether its original form (The Shadow of Yesterday) or as the Solar System. Specifically, whether due to the writing or to whatever we care to identify, and I don't think that's important, the GM is apparently expected to (or expects themself to) "trigger the Keys" as a goal of play. However, each and every Key is activated through actions by the character.

      The effect in practice is rather negative: "Here kitty kitty, c'mon over here, here's a nice treat, here kitty kitty …" and wherever the cat goes, run around to get in front of it, "C'mon, it's yummy, here kitty kitty …" Somehow maintaining the idea that when the cat does take the treat, it is somehow "by choice" despite having it shoved in its face all the time.

      Furthermore, although you didn't mention this, a related phenomenon is for players to blast into their Keys as hard as possible, denying and changing them constantly for maximum XP, without much or any use of their lower options or even really role-playing them at all.

      I've come to the conclusion that in playing this game (I tend to favor the original), I will not bother my head one little bit about anyone's Keys, but pick up what I like in the setting, and in that specific location given whatever the characters are up to in it, and play it hard just as I please. What the characters do is up to the players, and whatever Keys get activated depends entirely on whatever they choose to do.

      My hope is that we'd then see plenty of Keys in action as a function of enjoyable play-my-character, strictly as a function of a player's enjoyment of the system and the situations, and I wouldn't be Hapless Cat Owner trying to make Kitty enjoy the treats I'm carrying around.

    • Hi! I'm glad you posted this. I'm trying to figure out exactly what you found unpleasant or unsatisfying about the game. If Ron is correct, then (to put it in my own words) you felt that you needed to focus on the character keys as GM, and because they weren't triggered in play, you felt you hadn't GMed the game right. Is that accurate? Were there also other things that you didn't like about play? You mentioned not liking the action.If the excessive focus on keys was the main issue, it sounds like you tried to address them both in prep and in play. Can you say a bit more about how you did this? Especially I'm confused about the incident with getting back to the inn and how this related to your intentions during play. Ron, if I understand you right, you're saying a better approach is for the GM not to worry about keys, just prep a location and NPCs (a la Circle of Hands or Trollbabe, etc.) and the players will play the keys when and if they find it fun to do so. Accurate?

    • Hi Manu, yes, that's right. It probably needs more unpacking and I can see several different ways to do that.

      One of them is straightforward: the difference between situational framing and pre-scripting. The former has a guard around who hates legionnaires, and the latter moves the guard around so that he ends up in the character's face.

      So it's still about intuitive continuity: treating GMing like a "move board" in which you move things in front of wherever they go in order for desired scenes to occur.

      There's a closely-related issue in terms of the events that are expected inside those scenes, which is to say, effectively planned. It's one thing to have that opinionated guard around in circumstances which make an encounter likely or even inevitable in time, with "encounter" being open-ended; it's another to imagine what will happen during that encounter and what mechanics will be employed, "playing it ahead in your head," as a default mode of preparation.

      John Willson would be a good person to comment here. He could not manage to get his head out of this zone while playing Sorcerer, but then went "click!" while playing Circle of Hands. Greg has groped his way through it via multiple tries at Sorcerer, fortunately successfully.

      Another is perhaps more important: that a given value or ideal held by a character is meaningless until we (all of us playing, but especially the specific player) can see what it's like for the character to express or not express that value, in relatively ordinary circumstances, without much at stake. "Put pressure on the Keys" is a kind of a crap principle when we don't know what the Keys look like, and we haven't seen the characters go along and get along (or fail to) in the context of this setting which we may have yakked or Wiki'd about incessantly but have not actually experienced in play.

    • Alright, so … wow. Lots of stuff to unpack here.Ron, even when you don’t pinpoint the issue exactly your comments are always dense with useful insight. Thank you, this really helped.I’m rather sure I understand – after much thinking this year – the difference between situational framing and pre-scripting (and if you think I haven’t, feel free to enlighten me here). I believe was doing the former – albeit a shoddy job of it – and not the latter.Aside: The guard was there because it made sense for her to be there, as we already knew there were Redoran guards all around the city and they were hostile to legionnaires. In the camp ambush scene, I went a bit into the “ninjas arrive!” territory, however I still would not characterize that as pre-scripting but rather just as poor framing. After framing, I let the scene develop without any expectations for its outcome.That said, it really begs the question as to why I’ve been thinking so much about triggering Keys. I think the train of thought follows this path:I didn’t have fun& The game seems to suggest triggering Keys is important→ I haven’t brought Keys into play enough.And so, even if you didn’t get it right, still what you wrote dramatically helps me break this line of thinking. Not triggering keys is not the problem, at least not on the Story Guide side. Ok, so why didn’t I have fun? I’ve thought about it, and I think it boils down to this – and with this I also answer Manu’s questions.Point one was just outright murk. These guys go out for a walk. Why are they doing it? I don’t know exactly, I don’t even know if they know exactly. The Discord connection drops. It seems to me that characters are not clear in players’ minds, or they are failing to communicate this. Are they coming back to the inn? Should they be coming back? Maybe I assumed too much of their intentions. The whole situation is a bit confused in my mind. Point two was that it seemed that the players, at least the two new and young ones, did not have a clear handle on the characters’ motivations and identity. I quite stupidly said “don’t worry about it, we’ll discover it through play”, thinking that I was “holding their horses” a bit and preventing them from pre-narrating (this is also advice from the book). However, this ended up having quite the opposite effect, with the players being confused about what to express, and defaulting to thespianism and cryptic behavior. I think more efficient allocation of time to think about such issues during character creation could have helped. Point three, and I think this is really where I still don’t know how to fix it completely, was a lack of readiness and proper preparation on my part. I prepared some NPCs but they were all connected to Keys and had an inbuilt expectation of generating some sort of conflict with a specific player. And so, even if I didn’t force that conflict to happen, the inbuilt expectation was that it would happen. And so, conflict not happening, disappointment ensues (I would call this pre-narration, but not pre-scripting, if I correctly understand your terminology here). It seems to me that the Keys themselves are begging to be flipped, or at least the thought of flipping them being entertained, and I tried to create situations where that could happen. Obviously that doesn't work.I think the main out-take from all of this is that I had more fun during the session where I had prepared less. This obviously points to a problem with preparation/readiness on my side. I’m still not sure if it’s me or the book’s advice, but I will pay more attention about this.So, firstly please let me know your thoughts about my self-analysis. Secondly, I think next time I will take your advice and just build a scenario that I like, without giving a damn hell about Keys and leaving that to the protagonists’ players. This goes quite a bit against the advice in Eero’s book, but you’ve quite convinced me that this is a better way to prepare.

    • Correction: in the aside, I said "I let the scene develop without any expectation as to the outcome". This is not exactly true — as reflected in my thoughts a few paragraphs below, i had some expectation of a character conflict, and that's a problem in itself. I would say, though, that I did not attempt to force any outcome to happen.

  2. Careful what you wish for

    So, firstly please let me know your thoughts about my self-analysis.

    1. Your account entirely lacks setting and situation. When you talk about the play-content, it's just about "conflict" or anything that feeds directly into it. Did anyone playing know or care what a legionnaire is, for this game, or anything else named in there? What even was the setting, or rather, what was it like? Was anyone interested at all in any of the content, or was it all about "play this game, play this system, let's try it out," in non-imaginative isolation?

    Subpoint: if it was the World of Near, then what about Near jump-started or grabbed anyone, as such, as opposed to "a fantasy setting?" What about the way it was written and presented in the text – did anything about the writer's attitude (as perceived by you) strike a personal chord of identification or amplified focus of attention?

    2. To repeat slightly from what I wrote above, in order to be more specific: flipping a Key is worthless button-pushing unless and until we have seen what's it like when it's not flipped. Crudely put, the logic seems to be that because sex includes and is easily thought to 'culminate' in orgasm, then if we're having sex, why then, "Obviously, we start with an orgasm … wait, that didn't seem right somehow, why not?" The tendency to leap into the 10-XP "lose this Key" option is so prevalent and distracting among people playing this game (either version), that I have come to  regard it as a design flaw.

    Therefore, preparing for play with the notion of "I shall confront the players with conflict, and not only conflict, but in situations which call the value of their Keys into question," is bad practice for this game, in both versions. The textual advice that says to do it, or leans in that direction, is dramatic blithering that was not born from real play-experience … and I say this authoritatively regarding both authors.

    The question then becomes, how does one prepare any situation for play which is full of potential conflicts but does not front-load and plan specific ones? How does one introduce and play aggressive or at least strongly-motivated NPCs without front-loading and planning specific rolls? How do events in play have consequences unless they are, to some extent, planned? What is the difference between preparation, at all, and story control?

    I think the answers exist and are not particularly hard, but they are not accessible without certain experiences and reflections. The good news is that you're right in the thick of it and I really think my best option is to see what you make of these concepts during the next time you play, as soon as possible.

    • "Careful what I wish for"? This is great. I appreciate you not mincing words and telling me what you think. I had promised an answer to this a while back and never followed up, so apologies for the late reply.Answering your first point, I think we were all very excited about the setting part. It's a well established setting (Tamriel) with a lot of potential for certain questions to be answered. The situation of the Dunmer (dark elves) as racists and former slavers towards the Argonians, but also refugees lacking a homeland, and how they fit into the overall conflict between the Empire and Skyrim is something we would have liked to see explored in the Elder Scrolls videogames (where the setting comes from) more. We definitely knew what a legionnaire was and had spent quite some time before play setting up an initial situation with Dunmer refugees being hosted in the Northern isle of Solitude, under the supervision of the Imperial Legion.One of the things that interest me in settings are contexts in which people might feel justified to do things that we consider wrong, and how and if we would judge them for it. This is what draws me most to the story of the Dunmer; it's such an alien, violent and oppressive society for our standards, and still, given their history and the harsh land they originally settled on, one might understand how they developed that culture and what value it has to them. It's also interesting in the context of them having largely been killed off and relocated, whether these customs may change and evolve, and whether they survive at all.However looking back I think I was interested more in the situation itself and not much in the characters I developed for it. The legionnaire-hating Dunmer guard was only a proxy for the conflict between the dark elves and the Legion. The dragon cult was only a proxy for pushing the agenda of the reborn dragons in destroying the dragonborn character. These character were paper thin and I put them there (following the book's advice) as a way to push the player's "buttons" — quite literally, to poke them to see if they would engage a Key.Your point in previous comments about figuring out a starting scenario that I genuinely like instead of thinking about linking it to the player characters is absolutely taken. I've actually successfully applied it to a recent campaign and I have on Adept Play coming up on that that I think you will enjoy reading.On the second point, I absolutely agree, and I had actually made the sexual analogy myself a few weeks before opening with this post. It's something that we did in the first session, but less in the second one — on my end, probably because I thought so hard about engaging Keys. To your third point, the answer that I have at the moment is that both the player characters and the situation should only loosely be based on one another, but instead be based on some sort of shared premise, established either by the game, the setting, or created together, or whatever. Dogs in the Vineyard has it: you're Dogs, here's a Branch with some problems. Trollbabe has it: here's some steading and a situation, you're a Trollbabe and will shake it up whether you want it or not.And when creating the situation, I should like it independently from whether the players choose to engage with it or not, and even completely turning away from it would be a worthy statement.My second answer is that I need to believe in the NPCs as a kind of tolkienesque secondary creation, actually living and existing people, and not as ways to get reactions.It's still kind of wonky and unpolished, but I hope to gain more understanding as I try more games.

  3. Struggling with keys

    I've struggled with Keys in tSoY when I GMed it, and I think it is because they work somewhat different than Burning Wheel Beliefs do, and I'd been trying to use Keys as Beliefs. The tricky thing is, keys are usually too broad, and as there's a price in changing them, there's a lag between the natural shift of play focus and players changing the keys.

    Also, as an extra issue, players tend to forget to trigger their keys, so you can see who's motivated and paying attention to the rules, and who isn't.

    So, I try to put focus also in skills, secrets, cultures, not just keys (it's also advised in the book). If a character is a witch, I'll put witch npcs, or witch hunters, or other schools of magic. I put npcs with crunch they might like, or just stuff I like. Ultimately, you can't predict which things will stick and which won't, and I've had moments (in Burning Wheel) where players deeply engaged with stuff I improvised or put there not thinking about their PCs.

    There's also another thing that usually happens, which is that the first 2 or 3 sessions are kind of boring or explorative, keys and beliefs and preconceptions about characters clash with actual play, and only after those first sessions we get a hang of the characters and what players want out of the campaign.

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