What could go wrong?

It’s 2030, as conceived in 1994, and things like this thing are attacking Earth out of nowhere. No fear: the International Society of Enlightened Scientists has swung into action, using secret weird tech from the 1940s under no quality-control supervision at all! You play their agents on missions via the TransEgo Device as well as coping with myriad hassles back at home and HQ.

Never mind that the agents are hastily recruited from a pool of competing intelligence agencies, prisoners bargaining for a commuted sentence, celebrity-seekers, academics, and God knows who else. Oh, and when the teams’ minds are beamed through the TransEgo Device, they discover their awesome psychic powers, but they also all end up in the same body … no choice of what or who, either.

Check out my Khaotic thoughts video from a few weeks ago about the game (this was before we decided to play it) and if you didn’t know about it, here’s my playlist about games I’d like to try soon.

We’ve met for our preparation session, embedded below, and we’ve finished the characters and prep for our first play during the upcoming week.

If you’d like to follow along, or perhaps to play with a group of your own, the rules (free) and some author commentary are available at the Williams’ Haunted Attic website.

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12 responses to “What could go wrong?”

  1. This looks quite interesting!

    I've watched the character creation videos, and this promises to be interesting in play. The character creation process felt like one of the most success "emergent yet organic" examples I've seen yet. You could really see how each roll created new context for the character, and how it all "came together" in a way that still left room for the player to have a say in what it all meant.

    The dynamics of playing several characters working for an agency of sort and being sent to "possess" another creature to do some sort of mission reminded me of another game that I think I've mentioned before on AP, which is I Cavalieri del Tempio/Knights of the Temple by Andrea Angiolino.

    It's a 1990 italian roleplaying game (there was a reprint/second edition in 2005 but I know nothing of that one) that has a singularly similar premise: the characters belong to a sect of the Knights Templars that eluded the purge of their order by Philippe IV and survived in secrecy.
    Things get funky when these templars get in touch with "time lords" that allow them to project their astral bodies and possess people in various time periods to "fix" history – or change it.

    The most obvious difference is that each character possesses a different body, when their astral body is projected – there's no "Everyone is John/Bluebeard's Bride" mechanics, here. But the premise seems oddly similar.

    There's two interesting things about that game. The first is that as written, the game seems to be meant to be played using a very narrow range of years for time travel. It's about the middle-ages and that's clearly what you're meant to do. This didn't stop us (I was a teen last time I played this, however) from sending our characters fighting in Vietnam, preventing Russians from blowing up the Apollo 13 or fighting roman legions at Hadrian's Wall.

    The second is that as odd as it may seem (and this felt like kind of a missed opportunity to me) when you hopped in a new body you carried over your astral body scores, and inherited the character's competences. 
    That pretty much means that in D&D terms your ability scores never changed but your skill did.
    So you were a badass templar knight who would end up in a scrawny farmer's body.. and you'd still be very strong but you wouldn't know how to ride or fight.
    This was extremely orthogonal to how I felt the situation should have played like – having a character carry over his knowledges and struggling with their physical features, social rank and so on was more interesting than what felt like constantly respeccing my class, using the same base scores. I think I wanted to play fantasy Quantum Leap, which the game rules oddly didn't support so well.

    • I wouldn't be surprised if Quantum Leap (started 1989, ran for 5 seasons) were the touchstone for a lot of these 1990s games, regardless of whatever influences led to the show. The one I played the most was and is The Whispering Vault. The trope was also adopted for many games without so much of the explicit/frequent "hop" activity, like Nephilim. All of them play with the conceptual variables:

      • How the active "occupying" character's abilities relate to or integrate with the "occupied" one, including whether there is an "occupied" person at all, and also including relevant knowledge and how to get it
      • How the resulting character is perceived by other people
      • The scope of travel, especially in time
      • How the activity and goals of the "traveler" character relates to time, i.e., the timeline of reality
      • Whether there's a mission intrinsic to the activity vs. the "traveler" character's individual predilections
      • Whether there's a team of "traveler" characters, various such characters who aren't an explicit team, or one such character with associated allies/friends (the latter is least common for role-playing although that's what QL is like)

      For Khaotic, the issue of time and timeline is dialed down to zero, i.e., abandoned; the team, location, and mission are dialed up, i.e., specified; and the relation to the "occupied" character is highly specific, both in terms of hosting all the "travelers" and in terms of how abilities and attributes interrelate. Therefore the focus is heightened on working out differences relative to the mission, and deciding in the field what the immediate mission even is regardless of directives.

  2. Session 1!

    Well, that was not entirely unexpected, but its payload was well beyond what I’d dared hope. In terms of raw role-playing experience, this is right up there with the great unsung mid-1990s games like The Whispering Vault and Zero. Maybe not quite as nailed-down as they are in system, but close, and far better than many.

    Here’s the direct link to the video inside the playlist. I cut some of the session which finalized the characters and which suffered from the screen interface. The game instruments are definitely optimized for physical sit-down togetherness. Briefly, here is our jump team:

    • Nadia: a Russian mercenary spy, valued by the Russian intelligence services for her professionalism and recommended to ISES for her skills in deception and infiltration.
    • Albert Rodier: a French psychologist, former husband of an ISES board member, volunteering for status reasons but also invited in light of the obvious need for professional help during the group-mind experience.
    • Qan Niangzu: a young Chinese military scout, provided through request for a field surveillance expert.
    • Margaret Henriksson: a Swedish-American* operative, technically ISES scientific staff, but actually a mole, spying on ISES for Eon Enterprises, a powerful corporate conglomerate. (* as a guess, so pending Max’s approval)
    • Claire: an American convict, eligible through an insider acquaintance for a commuted sentence.

    All of them also have diverse Values and Attitudes which inform their outlooks and choices as well.

    I made a short video concerning preparation and the session (included in the playlist), partly to work my mind around the game’s uneasy, probably artifactual interplay between GM control and character choices. It also shares how I interpreted and tried to honor my perceived nuances of the textual background, e.g., what has happened to the initial jump team. I don’t plan to make these videos every session, but I’ve found they help me think through aspects of a game that aren’t immediately comfortable for me or consonant with my skills.

    One thing I forgot to mention is the game’s familiar, rigid ordering/initiative system, which is unclear whether it’s rolled for an overall conflict (i.e., the single starting roll sets the order for all subsequent rounds) or for each round. The randomization as such suits the game well, as you can see in this case when Margaret – controlling the body – is last in the order and therefore forced to react to all the crazy psychic things the other characters in the same head do first. It’s a critical piece of how the game plays, but I suspect that its details represent another example of the authors taking heat for their previous games being “confusing” (i.e., unfamiliar despite being good).

    However, I’m not fully certain about how the player-characters’ actions are ordered while occupying a body on Xenos, so I’ll investigate those rules, if any, for next session. I also think I’m going to disallow any “saving” for people who don’t use their action on their turn, because the rules are silent about this and I think the split-second decision-making should be a feature, with no hold-and-wait option.

    Regarding the session, the impromptu need for more preparation and our slightly late start led me to wear out pretty hard, especially being on the upslope of the learning curve myself. By the middle, I can see myself mentally weaving. I cut out a couple of sections due to minor chaos. Fortunately I decided to share my state with everyone and call out when I couldn’t find papers right in front of me or otherwise lost it. I can recommend this strategy wholeheartedly; everyone else helped me get through these moments and I think we managed well.

    • Session 2 of this game was

      Session 2 of this game was memorable for a couple of reasons and your reflections gave me some additional insides.
      The way the rules and rolls worked together was amazing and scary.
      At least for a while after all those crappy roles I was as stressed out and then when persuading that technician actually worked as relieved as Claire. I was so concentrated on you that in the moment I didn’t even realize everybody else reaction.
      I feel that I finally start to have an idea about myself as a player. What I can do, what I like, that my boundaries for what is OK to experience are not where I thought they were. So I’m constantly pushing them as I now feel comfortable with the group, even if it changes slightly.
      The chance to “act out” the confrontation between Margaret and Claire was another highlight (and I hope Margarets player agrees with me). It just seemed so natural to go from throwing punches to yelling at her.
      There is only one thing I would like to state. It is the experiences I’ve had playing this last 16 month that makes me dare to do those things, killing my character in the Mountain Witch or getting it killed as you please to describe it is not the sole factor (and not as big as you think). Another formative moment is actually the death of another players character in another game (Undiscovered) and there are many more, big and small.
      I’m looking forward to continue to play Khaotic and to see what else is in store for Claire, Margret, Nadia, Nianzu and Albert, both on Xenos and on Earth.

    • Reviewing the recording, the

      Reviewing the recording, the exchange between Margaret and Claire was fantastic. I was especially struck by the power of the formal Values and Attitudes that each of you had rolled during the prep session. Margaret craves Glory and is primarily vengeful, which is perfectly suited to her situation as mole for a hostile (corporate) power, whereas Claire demands Respect, and is primarily slovenly, or more loosely, currently unconcerned with politeness and details of appearance. These have all grown into much more human, much more sympathetic – and problematic – forms through the experiences of play, and interactions like this bring us all "closer" in knowing it.

      For those who haven't seen it, please note that neither player needed a safety net – they went for exactly what each character "wanted" to say, damn the consequences … with two nuances. First, that the physical confrontation had gone about as far as it could, so no further punches were on the way – this was perfectly suited to the angry characters not being able to fight more. Second, that the situation turned into the perfect set up for Albert to deliver his remarkable Psychiatric Shut Up Calm Down moment, and both players rolled with that exactly as it made sense both rules-wise and drama-wise.

      You'll see in the video that Mark checked in with Helma just afterwards as well, which I consider to be a big part of how the Spelens Hus Adept community is developing. People are respecting one another not by protecting each other, but instead by permitting one another to be more fully engaged and expressive with authentically, intuitively dramatic content. I'd asked people in this group to check out the "safe spaces" dialogue post over in the Seminar section, which is based on that principle – that real safety means going places, not avoiding them – and I cannot imagine a better example occurring almost immediately in play.

  3. Session 3!

    Our reluctant heroes (I use the term loosely) gather their determination, and the cooperative side of the mechanics begin to show their stuff. Also, this session features perhaps the most exquisitely timed Catastrophic result in recent memory, and we should contrast it carefully with a similar high-potential result in the partner game of Legendary Lives from last year.

    In that game, Robbie's character Grrl made a series of rolls which would clarify and shape her relationship to her long-lost, recently-encountered mother, including a Sanity failure which inflicted a timed loss of memory of her impressions. Basically, she blacked out and black-boxed what she'd discovered, but the return of that memory was slated to be in play.

    In this game, Margaret had tried to cover for her spying activities, and Albert, a trained psychiatrist, rolled only Passable to notice that she was denying something unnecessarily and over-specifically. Passable is not a desirable result; by definition he does not really get any useful or certain information – just enough to whet his curiosity, "the eyebrow" as I called it. Later, she did something else squirrelly, and I called for a Memory roll for Albert to see if he put this 2 together with that one. He decidedly did not. All of this permitted Margaret to do some very intensive spy/data-collection later even with everyone else hooked up to her telepathically … and in discovering incredibly important information for her employer (who is actually spying on ISES, the nominal "good guys"), rolled Catastrophic to remember it. Catastrophic is a technical result in this game which means something goes badly because of this … which in this case, means she perfectly remembers a wrong/mistaken version of what she's looking at. Absolutely successful failed spying, based on the three rolls.

    However, the Legendary Lives version was rather clunky and difficult, and lacked the "burn" quality that I think is there in spades in Khaotic. These games are by the same author and the contrast in their closely-related resolution mechanics is extremely striking.

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

  4. Session 4!

    Go right into it here, inside the playlist.

    I haven't done a reflection for it, since I've decided they work best for me when they're infrequent. However, when I do get around to it, don't let me forget these:

    How I'm working with the book's extensive source material by shaping and refining its details myself. I have found there is very little material out there explaining how to do this, but it's crucial to my enjoyment of this game's material and of other extensive and essentially-required settings.

    How GMing is affected by two really interesting features. First, that the player-characters may try to get into new host bodies while on Xenos (and have a good chance to succeed), so you have to shift into playing the other NPCs and indeed the whole social and physical environment differently, and who knows who'll they'll get into. Second, that the player-characters may return to Earth whenever they collectively decide, meaning, you don't know how long a jump to Xenos will be. Since I don't want to have planned Earth encounters "floating" so I can say they coincidentally always occur right when the characters return, I have had to adopt a modified version of the Now, to track whatever may be happening on Earth while they're gone, and and conversely, to consider what the schemers on Xenos may realize or get up to during the period of the characters' absence, again, with that period being subjct more to player decisions than to the GM's.

    Oh yeah, and the damn shoes, which I forgot about and should have been a much bigger deal.


  5. Chaotic group dynamics were clearly and interesting visible during I guess the first trip. (A while since I listened to it… might have been second)
    A confusing situation and unclear goals and conflicting values.

    I wonder how much of this was inherent to the fictional situation (new to the characters, and some conflicts as to leadership and such) and how much was player unfamiliarity with each other and the game.

    I find games that put the group work, or lack thereof, on the players to interesting in their own way. I have seen both smooth and polished player coordination and total and catastrophic failures on player part in such situations.

    • By “chaotic,” do you mean negative, un-enjoyable aspects of the experience, for ourselves as people?

      Because I don’t consider either a learning curve for a given game or a confused/messed-up team fictional situation to be a problem. To the contrary: I regard overly smooth pick-up and overly conformist or compliant play with suspicion.

      One clarifying detail: everyone present had played together before, with the exception of Henna.

    • I mean the way the characters act in the fiction is chaotic, and a sign of conflicting goals, lack of leadership or unfamiliarity with the situation and their powers.

      To which extent this comes from the players and to which extent from the characters is not something I can say.

      I found this interesting, because this kind of group process is interesting as a subject matter of play.

    • OK. I can’t really distinguish between characters and players, at a very basic level. Maybe this will clarify things a little. The content for the game and the character creation process aims directly at unfamiliarity among the player-characters, and at differing priorities to the point of potential discord. What I’ve observed both in this game (after a couple of sessions) and in the recent game at Gothcon (almost immediately) is that the discord among characters led to two interesting forms of intense harmony.

      The first is within the fiction, as the dangers the characters face, the understanding they develop, and the uncomfortable intimacy among them lead to an “us,” which may be among any two or subset or all of them, which cuts across the content that defined or set up the initial discord.

      The second is among the players, as both strife and accord among the characters lead to a strong sense of participation and consequence, i.e., reincorporation, agency, and bounce. So even when two characters fall into nigh-murderous discord, the players are more together than ever.

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