A Circle of Hands Session–Just Playing!

This is an image of Gertraud Long, one of the Circle Knights, by Tazio Bettin! @taziobettin on instagram check his art out!

I recently played the third session in an ongoing game of Circle of Hands with Rasheed, Tazio and Aybars (for which I am the GM). This third session is where the game finally worked. It felt like we all had a good grasp of the system and I felt like I was able to do the duties I am responsible for much more effectively without worrying about making sure the game was fun for anyone else but myself. I know this might sound a little selfish but…maybe the rest of my post will explain my mindset.

Here I am going to talk about one specific scene in the game that really stuck out as a learning moment for me (and maybe the players too?). Tazio’s Circle Knight, Gertraud Long (a wizard), had just left the village of Veitbruck’s big end of harvest celebration (complete with dancing and loud music etc.) with Roland, the town’s fiercest warrior and the owner of a necklace enchanted with Rage. Roland also had a bit of a sex addiction. Gertraud began to ask Roland about the necklace. Here is where the charm mechanics came in to change the situation–Tazio failed Gertraud’s charm roll, and while Roland was drinking in the previous scene where the two danced and flirted, he had sobered up while doing veiled activities with Gertraud, and was now suddenly aware that someone he mistrusted and hated was in his bed. Prone to acts of cruelty from his time around the enchanted item, Roland began pushing Gertraud out of his bedroom as she continued to interrogate him. Again, I didn’t have to make a decision about “what would be most interesting or exciting to happen” in this moment. The charm mechanics, my knowledge of Roland, and the impact of enchanted items upon communities informed this crucial moment of play. 

So, Gertraud casts palsy on Roland, who swears an Oath to torture her and uses Rage. 

The explosive sounds of their magical fight draw the other knights and most of the village to either join the fight or watch. Here, the ramifications of a seemingly minor roll have major impact. Aybars, who was playing Lothar, failed a Wits roll to go check up on Gertraud (in the dark, while extremely drunk so at 1 die). He was lost somewhere in the night and was nowhere near the battle. Heike, played by Rasheed, was close by, and grabbed a spear and attacked Roland as Gertraud fled naked to find a weapon. While Heike and Roland were locked in combat, Lothar found his way back at last and attempted to stab Roland, who tore his head and one of his arms off. Gertraud charged back into the fight with a spear and killed Roland at last.

None of this was planned. I wasn’t really surprised to see Roland and the Knights get in a fight, but the work on my end was none. And here I really mean work, the act of working to make your players have fun that seems to be the recommended way to GM (kill a character? fudge the roll, make sure that everything is Balanced for the Party, make sure every character has a niche etc.). I played my characters instead of planning events, and the mechanics helped immensely, especially the charm rules (which continue to make play dynamic and interesting). So when Roland was ready to tear Lothar into pieces the first time he had been played, I didn’t hesitate for the sake of Aybars fun. I tore him in half just like Roland would. Make your own fun, I am going to play my characters! I think that planning events would get in the way of this type of organic drama that happened, and I am so sick of feeling or being responsible for everyone’s fun. So, I think this GMing practice is a great one for games that allow it to work. I would love to hear some thoughts from the players!

I also wonder when it is good for play for the GM to do this work I was talking about above. It seems as if this is required for a large number of games, so I’m not really saying its bad play. But when the system allows for play without this kind of planning of spectacles or of “fun”, I really enjoy it much more.

There was another instance nearer the ending of the venture where my attitude of “I am just another player not the fun maker” came into play, and I’ll probably write about it in a reply if anyone ends up replying to this post.  

11 responses to “A Circle of Hands Session–Just Playing!”

  1. Two highlights for me

    The entire game was possibly the best rpg session I've had in years. I felt the inevitability of events falling into place (you cannot reason with a mob, you cannot expect an NPC to do what you're trying to have them do, no matter what, some things you can only react to, and that fatalistic tone enriches the narration created through this game immensely, I realized).

    To me, two were the highlights:

    The above mentioned fight. It was epic. It was the first time I saw a character fight naked the person she just had had sex with (and that scene was great because it was not exploitative or gratuitous at all: it was Gertraud, my character, assessing her dominance over the town's greatest warrior). There was something of the epic of old times, and it reminded me of the memorable scene from the Beowulf. But with a female character, so if anything even more epic! (at least that's how I feel).

    The other scene was the final scene. A beautiful example of a player (Rasheed) doing what made sense through the eyes of his character in that given circumstance, having Heike disobey what Gertraud had asked her to do, expecting compliance, since they are respectively a peasant and gentry. It prompted the village's farmers gathering to kill us, and I felt horrible inside while I had Gertraud casting Wrath upon them (because you can't charm groups of people, and you can't best them in combat either… yes you can face a crowd with magic, but only in a destructive way). I felt the inevitability, in the greek sense of Ananke, that it was fated to be, that feeling was immensely dramatic, tragic and epic at the same time.

    • Hello; Aybars here. I would

      Hello; Aybars here. I would like to comment also on two things. First is the combat scene. Before that combat my character was a having a ton of fun at the local festival by drinking and even washing his face with lots of booze. When Rasheed's character told him to locate the other missing knight (Getraud), he failed his wits roll. Therefor there he was; in the middle of the night, intoxicated, walking like a perfect, almost stereotypical drunk. With each step he was getting further and further away from probably the biggest source of light. 

      Once he heard the sound of the spell casting and also other riff raff, he tried his best to rush at the scene. He saw a giant man who turned into some sort of abysmal beast fighting against his comrade. 

      At this instance I could have tried to come up with some interesting tactic. I could have devised a plan for a coordinated attack. I could have taken a look at my spells (which were not very combat related by the way, but that wasn't the case). The only thing I looked was my character's troubled key event. He was a very distressed man from losing his village and all of his kin. I envisioned him as a man who acted before thinking clearly in moments like these; PTSD could kick him and his fight or flight mode could rise up to the surface. He was already intoxicated, his mind and heart were racing. Sam and I agreed that the only possible weapon on him was a knife. So I just said that he was jumping on this big and evil creature with just a plain old knife. Even before the roll I knew that my character would sure die. So you can ask why? Because I felt that this choice was natural, in the moment and totally in accordance with the character. He wanted to save his comrade and acted on that primal -almost maternal instinct.

      The second point is the living organism of the game itself. By that I would like tell you that the game could have progressed in probably your usual run of the mill investigation-research and confrontation type of game of shows you have played or watched. However Gertraude intention and failed roll initiated a reaction in the NPC. That reaction was perfectly natural with that NPC's mind set. We had barely begun the session (literally the warm up minutes) and combat opened up. It could have been worse though; we could had the entire knights killed or worse. The NPC's reaction and following events were natural and in accordance with the overall descriptions and atmosphere of the village folk. Sam later told us that we didn't even met some of the NPC's and we didn't even came close to a possible tripwire. That is perfectly ok, and again if you ask why do I say that, I would simply reply that nothing is written in stone and reactions from all parties in Circle of Hands game (or any game within that mindset) can open and close some paths which will surely brought up a memorable play experience to all participants.

  2. Buttin’ in

    It's probably most constructive of me to say to myself, "My work here is done," and let people get on with playing a game they bought without its designer popping up like a balloon on a string to provide opinions.

    … but I have questions.

    1. Where did this venture and the previous two occur? We might talk later about the learning-curve features of the first two which apparently crested with this one.
    2. If you used the rules for character creation ,then you started with eight Circle knights. How many of them have been played and by whom? Have any been repeated? Have they begun to "spread out" from the people who created them to other players?
    3. (For Sam) Regarding "the work" you mentioned, to what extent is it defined by pre-considering possible solutions to the location (when perceived as a problem to solve)? Also, and related, by pre-supposing likely climactic confrontations?

    I'm also considering the third topic in contrast to Anthony's videos made during and after preparation of our Star Trek Adventures episodes, which we don't see until after they've been played. But rather than get into this heavily here, I'm more interested in the factual and important inquires in #1 and #2.

    • 1. This venture occured in

      1. This venture occured in Rolke. The first venture occured in Spurr and the second one also occured in Rolke.

      2. Our eight Circle Knights are:

      Ute and Ansgar Hildebrand (made by me) 

      Meinard and Till (made by Rasheed)

      Heike and Lothar (made by Tazio)

      Konrad and Gertraud Long (made by Aybars)

      All of them have been played at least once. Heike, Till and Konrad were played in the first session by their creators. In the second session, Ute was played by Tazio, Meinard was played by Rasheed, and Ansgar was played by Aybars. In the third session, Gertraud was played by Tazio, Heike was played by Rasheed, and Lothar was played by Aybars. The only character repeated so far has been Heike. It seems to me that the characters are spreading out so far, which is exciting. 

      3. I think most of the work I am talking about for this game was planning possible spectacles or big confrontations, which basically ruined the first session of play. This didn't mean that I actually wrote down these, but instead I had thought about the situation and came up with ways to make the problem "interesting". This was something most on my mind for the first session, and it made me rush the venture along into an unsatisfying "climax" because I pushed forward into something "interesting" rather than being patient and letting the players play. My belief is that I have this habit from years of playing with players who expected to be entertained and who feared failure (both in results of a roll and in the result of a session) and also my own bad practices or need for control… I tried to push off this habit after that session, and I think that I was rid of it for the most part by session 3. In previous games I have ran, this is certainly something I have struggled with. Setting up a problem with a solution already thought up and trying to push towards that, or having an interesting conflict in my mind and shoving it into the game before it makes sense, again trying to make things "interesting". In my mind for a long time this was different than pushing the players through a story of my own creation, when in reality it is just as stifling (for players who are actually interested in playing rather than consuming exciting GM talk). 

    • Thanks Sam!

      Thanks Sam!

      I am really glad to see people mixing and matching play across many of the Circle knights, and abandoning attention to who made up which one matters. Some groups have a hard time getting over "that one's mine" for this aspect of the game.

      Specifically, in this third session, we see characters being adopted – chosen for play – by players who did not make them up and being played to make extremely personal, extremely consequential decisions. It's a big deal for the next person to play Gertraud, whether next session or several sessions from now … and that will be a big deal for Tazio, having played her when she did this.

      Regarding the GMing topic you're describing, are you familiar with my bass player analogy from Sorcerer? It's mainly described in Sorcerer & Sword. I wouldn't mind investigating the idea with you further if you haven't seen it.

    • I have heard your bass player

      I have heard your bass player analogy, and I really think I am starting to understand it more through actually running a game with it in mind. And to your point about Gertraud, she is the Circle Knight that I feel like I "know" the most even though she has only been played once. 

    • Another note about how we are

      Another note about how we are playing Circle of Hands that might show why the characters are spreading out so much: I have a channel in the discord for the game specifically for claiming characters. There is no need to discuss or strategize, and anyone at any time can claim a Circle Knight for the next time we play (after I post the location & lowest component). I think this has had the side effect of people choosing the character they are genuinely the most excited to play (which was the intention on my part). But who knows maybe these are just unique players…but I really think the specific procedure has to do with the results. 

  3. hell yes!

    Thanks for this post, Sam. You expressed an aspect of GMing that I've sought and valued on an intuitive level but hadn't explicitly verbalized yet.

    I still find myself slipping, sometimes, into the mode where I'm "The GM" and it's on me to push the game forward and make the fun happen. Sometimes, this occurs because I'm falling into a gap in the game's instrumentation, sometimes I'm falling into the silence of low-energy fellow players who aren't 'talking back' to the music I'm making.

    But when a table enters the zone and everyone is playing their instrument, it is magic.

    I'm becoming aware of how many game texts present their instrumentation sheepishly, as if procedures are something that will constrict play, as opposed to the 'fun' activity of freeform (with the implication that if the players have TOO much fun, chaos will ensue). "The Rule of Cool" and the oft-repeated "Golden Rule" feel like instances of this.

    I enjoy reading texts that celebrate their procedures⁠—and trust them as guides to play. If a game's dice/rules/systems aren't something players should enthusiastically embrace to make this roleplaying activity happen, why am I playing this game in the first place?

  4. What Were Your Tripwires?

    Hi Sam, now that the (very interesting) discussion seems to have run its course for now, I wanted to jump in quickly.

    Can I ask what the Tripwire(s) were for the component(s) in this venture?

    It's just an aspect of CoH prep that I've been thinking about recently.


    • Hi, let me see here…

      Hi, let me see here…

      Component 1 was knowledge–a map that would offer the owner strategic advantages of some kind. The farmers of the village, represented by a single named character, wanted to keep it to trade in the future, since they had actually found the thing before the scholar took it.

      Tripwire-if the scholar attempts to give up the maps the farms will torture and kill her, and anyone who stands in their way.

      2nd component was Rbaja influence. Roland, described above, had a boyfriend called Torben. And if anyone said anything cruel because of their life choices well…bad things might happen.

      Tripwire-if Torben is harmed, Roland will call his soldiers to him, use the necklace and murder anyone who harmed or stood by as Torben was harmed. He will not stop killing people until he is killed or passes out. 


      3rd component was Amboriyon interference, a Guide who lived on the edge of the village, slowly recruiting more and more people to their side. They healed a group of hunters who had a terrible encounter with some panthers, and now they have many followers in the village. 

      Tripwire-if the Guide is slain, those loyal to the Guide will seemingly renounce it and go back to normal. Then that night they will poison as many people as they can and attempt to stab to death the killers of the Guide in their beds. 


  5. Me too!

    Sam, I was thinking about this post after our Champions Now game last week. Particularly the moment where Lilith and Cochise split up to try to divide Nigel's attention, and Nigel took off after Cochise.

    (As context, Lilith and Cochise are our two Heroes. Nigel Roach—spelled like the bug, rhymes with Koch—is an American oligarch with schemes to passify Wichita's budding anti-cop liberation movement and an obsession with 'saving' Indigenous cultures by stealing their artifacts and appropriating their magical practices for his own ends. Certainly in my personal "Love to Hate Him" zone for Champions Now villains.

    Nigel was using a Regional-scoped Awareness power to keep tabs on Cochise. Cochise and Lilith decided to split up, with Cochise moving across Wichita to draw Nigel's attention and Lilith using this opportunity to scope out Nigel's palatial Eastborough house.

    I realized that, with Nigel's Awareness, he'd know that Cochise was alone and vulnerable. I wasn't sure if he would be fast enough to already be gone by the time Lilith arrived at his house, so I rolled for his INT, failed, and narrated him leaving the house while Lilith lurked in the shadows. This led to a knock-down, drag-out fight between Cochise and Nigel in the billionaire's high-tech luxury limo, one of my favorite conflicts in our game so far.)

    But what stuck with me was the moment where I recognized there was a 'smart move' to make that furthered my character's aims, and elements of the game that would let me make it without resort to fiat. No concern for story, no ulterior thematic motive. It felt like I was 'just playing my guy' as much as my fellow players. I was as much a player as I am when playing a board game with friends, rather than feeling the special responsibility of being the GM.

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