Miseries and misfortunes – a heist and a retrospective

I ran a scenario of Miseries and misfortunes; about three sessions (plus some miscellaneous character creation and reflection). It is an interesting, though mayhaps incomplete, game, and one I do not enjoy as written. But there are many good lessons to learn from it.

The scenario: https://ropeblogi.wordpress.com/2020/12/31/the-grimoire-heist/ . There were three players, only one known to me ahead of time, playing the soldier Geneviève, the factotum (servant) Sulpice and the filou (criminal) Valentin. The character creation determines randomly much about the characters: religion (two catholics, one hugenot), politics (all frondeurs), only Valentin not under economical duress. No nobles.

The players decided the characters are cousins and also united by their politics, though that turned out to not be so important. One player had already played before and made their character first, whereas I helped the others with theirs; these we did via chat. We used a custom-made Google spreadsheet for the characters (I tried to look for an open source alternative but found none with tabs, which are highly convenient here, with each character in their own tab). There were some unclarities in the character creation procedure, which I have asked about on the relevant forum at Burning wheel forums, but to no luck thus far.

Otherwise we played through Discord voice chat and used a die bot for rolls. A bit of video during the first session to improve the human connection, but voice only after the initial stages. I was routinely following the chat and the checking the character sheets, as well as my own notes, so there would have been little time to watching video in any case. We had another spreadsheet with a calender and later a list of non-player characters. Very convenient for keeping track of stuff.

M&M is not a game that describes a particular game mastering method. I have written about this on my blog, https://ropeblogi.wordpress.com/2020/12/29/how-to-play-miseries-and-misfortunes/ and in retrospective https://ropeblogi.wordpress.com/2021/02/13/miseries-and-misfortunes-suunniteltu-pelinjohtotapa/ (in Finnish). I chose to go with what I find as my default and favourite, as documented earlier at Adept play at http://adeptplay.com/actual-play/some-osr-sandbox-play . This blog post by Eero Tuovinen is also relevant: https://www.arkenstonepublishing.net/isabout/2020/12/13/new-on-desk-50-urban-adventures/#1-a-closer-look-at-the-urban-adventure-format . The key point being the game master, or maybe referee, focuses on impartial simulation and leaves matters of difficulty and drama aside in their decision-making, after having set up the adventure.

The adventure introduction was simple: a reunion of cousins, one of them having returned from the wars, in a tavern, while Sulpice’s master was visiting the salon of the marks-to-be, Jean (or Johan) and Antoinette de la Suède, just married a short while ago. They overhear a discussion between some local thugs and a factotum of the marks, Gilbert. Some intervention later they figure out that Gilbert is worried about his mistress being sick and master having some unholy grimoire, Reaugina or something to that effect, the frenchman having neglected their Icelandic. This event was essentially a dramatic coincidence, which I do see as a good way to start a scenario, even if not valid during the play itself in this style. As per the scenario assumption, the characters decided to steal the grimoire (for the salvation of their souls and purses).

The play continued on a day-to-day basis a salon meeting every d6+2 days, an occasion for Sulpice to meet the other player characters every d6 or so days, basically, were what gave rhytm to the gameplay. Sulpice, the factotum, was pretty occupied by their servantitude, while Geneviève was looking (unsuccessfully) for good job opportunities and she and Valentin both scouted out the area. The next relevant events were religious, which I appreciate (as religion as a part of ordinary life is not that often seen in games or media): Sulpice tried to manipulate the priest their master confesses to in order to get the master concerned about what was going on at de la Suèdes’ but was caught and his employment set in peril, while Geneviève found out that Antoinette was a hugenot and indeed quite sick, as well as making some friends. She did not pursue the religious connection to Antoinette any further, but this was clearly a possible avenue of contact.

The next salon meeting had Sulpice be the star of the session: he was taken along (to clear his name after trying to manipulate his master and to help Antoinette in her sickness, which was clearly due to demonic influence) to the meeting, scouted out the place, almost broke a precious telescope (more on this later) and left a window to the study open for Valentin to use later. He also got to know the highly devout catholic kitchen servant, an old lady with a history on the streets, but this was not followed up that far further.

Plans were made and it was time to act. Sulpice happened to randomly encounter Gilbert and the same thugs as earlier and quite soundly kept them occupied. Geneviève used their bombs (starting equipment) to blow up a sinkhole in a nearby street to distract everyone from the de la Suèdes’ house, though whether this was necessary or not remains unclear. Incidentally, an investigation of the sinkhole would have revealed the mine underneath, but this, too, was not done. Valentin went in, discovered some pre-written speeches Jean/Johan was to make concerning a Swedish occupation of Denmark and related trade deals favourable to France, then discovered a trapdoor under a carpet leading to a cellar (note: every explicitly mentionted carpet in a D&D adventure always hides a trapdoor; I noticed only at the moment that I had not described other carpets during the game, which was my mistake, but the trapdoor was not found due to this but due to a search roll), and there discoered the hidden grimoire. Before that she had to threaten the kitchen servant to be quiet and we had a taste of combat rules, too, but that ended up with no violence. The remnants of a magical circle with candles in the cellar was not paid undue attention to.

Valentin and Sulpice sold the grimoire for good price to a connection of Valentin’s, and at the same time we discovered that the rules for getting rich are broken for poor characters. It is doubtful the political implications of a Swedish diplomat being an occultist are followed up, but that is not revealed by our play to any direction whatsoever.

I should also mention some miscellaneous incidents: how Sulpice had to pay for new clothes for an aunt, a dependent, of his; how Geneviève managed to convince a tax collector to come back in a week by naming the noble who had promised her a job; how Sulpice was over-dressing for the salon meeting he was to attend, but happened to not get in trouble for it this time. Valentin fleeced off some random gambler for all they had; quite a heartless move, that one.

Roads not taken

The nature of this kind of play is that there are many roads not taken. This is partially due to the nature of the characters, but also what players happen to come up with. Here I allow myself to speculate a bit, not to mock the players for not having seen the obvious (their approach was a resounding success), but more as a matter of how I saw the situation and what could have been done.

The residence of de la Suèdes is in a strange part of the town; a non-ideal area with plenty of craftsmen and the like. Investigating this could have revealed some backstory, maybe relevant, maybe not. None of this appeared in play, so investigations could have led to a completely different run of events. I guess a noble or a clerk as a character could have led to more investigations of this nature.

  • Antoinette has a connection to the previous owner of the house, a criminal, never heard of in play.
  • The house is on top of old mines and there even is a secret entrance. (Of course the cellar has a hidden dungeon entrance. The game is based on red box D&D after all. I did have to indulge a little bit.)
  • Antoinette is out of favour with her parents due to matters of religion.

Valentin knew the thugs and could have found out more about their plans. It almost happened that Sulpice did this. On the other hand, a noble or maybe a sailor could have discovered some other Swedish people in Paris and found out things about Jean that way and maybe established a connection, too.

Anyone could have used threats of force on any of the characters at de la Suèdes’. A bold move, but since there was essentially no security and they were not particularly martially inclined, it could have easily worked.

Rules notes

I wanted to run this game as a heist thing, but in a way where the players actually had to plan and execute the heist, all the way from information gathering to the actual action. No convenient flashbacks to retroactively buy a thing or find a way or other such stuff. This type of play involves gathering lots of information of dubious relevance, forming a plan, and executing it. M&M assumes that every roll is discussed and pondered and significant, with fail forward -type outcome on failure. I intentionally did not use this for the information gathering rolls, and of course told as much to the players. I stayed much close to the written rules when it came to more concrete actions. This worked well enough.

A peculiar aspect of the rules is the mortal coil rule. Essentially, a player can burn a point of the character’s life expectancy to reroll an otherwise failed roll at a huge bonus, and this can be repeated enough to basically guarantee success. We some uses of this: Sulpice tried to hide his manipulation, but after this first use of mortal coil still failed and did not want to use another, and later used another point to not break the valuable telescope (which would have been an utter failure at his duties). Valentin used a couple points during the heist, one to not be noticed when getting there and another on the search rolls.
I dislike this rule. It turns an exciting roll into a clear success; we are only rolling to see if it costs mortal coil or not, while the outcome remains clear. Of course, they are much less effective in combats of words or arms, so there is some subtlety here. Still, it turns out that this is a dealbreaker for me: I do not want to play the game with this rule in effect.
They do have an interesting side effect. After an adventure anyone who has used any mortal coil rolls from a “fun” table, which typically causes a penalty such as -1 on an ability score (which are on D&D range) or a small hit point penalty, but sometimes might give a small bonus instead. They take the character off from active play for some weeks or months, too, which would cause a particular rhythm for play that I do find interesting. The incomplete part of the game is that there is nothing on downtime. We had Valentin get melancholic with a save every 2d3 months to stop it, while at the same time getting increased money, and rising to higher station would have required action. But can he keep his smuggling, fencing and other activities running while closed in due to melancholy, and what happens to his reputation? Doubtful that everything just works, yet, in spite of the detailed rules for anything and everything, the rules remain silent.

We had a short reflection reflection session and one more point which was remarked upon was character advancement. This happens by fulfilling fictional conditions specific to each lifepath (or class). But these can be highly incongruent; I think Geneviève the soldat managed to fulfill one condition, while Valentin the filou got many. They are an interesting thing, not really broken, but something that would require thought in longer term play.

We decided to not continue with the game, as two of us got what we wanted (a better understanding of the game) and one is about to get busy. The situation is and remains quite interesting, so this was clearly a succesful initial scenario by that measure.

A few greatest hits

The game attaches characters to the age and the society via obligations (such as dependent characters), politics, religion and the lifepath. I think I was already prepared to do this anyway, to a large extent due to listening to Ron’s superhero actual play videos on this very site and playing in Eero Tuovinen’s Coup de main in Greyhawk campaign, but the rules certainly helped, too.

The duel of wits rules have a good idea at heart. Each maneuver has victory effects and the loser of a duel of wits gets to choose from among all that were used against them. This creates true-to-life and dramatic consequences, while not being mind control in any sense.

7 responses to “Miseries and misfortunes – a heist and a retrospective”

  1. Starting equipment

    One thing I found interesting was that the soldat started with four grenades, and the equipment costs list does not contain any grenades. So once they are used the player needs to converse with the GM on how and where to get more. It's possible that there are other items that the characters can start with that cannot be bought from the list in the book, making the starting lifepath more important.

    • Yeah, I think I tried to

      Yeah, I think I tried to check the price of paper or equivalent, or maybe pens, at some point, and the price list did not have that. Clerks start with something to that effect, if I recall correctly.

      My guess is that the price list has been compiled from some source or two and is by no means supposed to be exhaustive; you just extrapolate to find out what other stuff costs. This is, of course, not a trivial activity when it comes up in the middle of play as a surprise.

  2. Passage of time

    Tommi, did your play of Miseries & Misfortunes give you a sense of how the game's "particular rhythm of play" might take shape over multiple sessions?

    I ask because your observation made me realize how important the modulation of the passage of fictional time is to written narratives, where a few seconds can be stretched over pages or a winter can pass in a couple of words.

    On the one hand there are narratives where the passage of time is elided. I think about comic books in this regard, where 'time passing' happens between the panels, unseen. On the other hand there are narratives where long stretches of 'empty' time become essential story content. Ged's adventures in Earthsea (in fact, a lot of long-form novels) are prime examples.

    I haven't seen this aspect of storytelling in RPGs discussed head-on before. Burning Wheel is one of the few games I can think of that allow players to 'pass time' in a narratively important way through the practice mechanics. The rules pretty much guarantee that long stretches of time will pass, because of the time-scale of certain skills and the amount of time required to heal from injuries.

    Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha ties advancement to the seasons and has familial and aging sub-systems that can be played at a zoomed-out scale, opening the possibility for players to step out of moment-to-moment play and watch years pass between scenes.

    However, I haven't heard many examples of games or groups consciously leveraging this zoomed out timescale. 

    • Hey Noah, we played only one

      Hey Noah, we played only one scenario/situation, which took maybe a few weeks in-game. We did have some sense of things taking their time due to the spaced meetings of the characters; days did pass and we maybe made a roll to check whether Geneviève finds more lucrative work, and also I made checks for daily events.

      Had we continued to play, there would either have been a character stable (several characters per player) or a time skip.

      I am starting a Burning wheel game now where I will be aiming for stretches of downtime and then more dramatic action between those.

    • Nice! I imagine that rhythm

      Nice! I imagine that rhythm creating a unique tempo after 3-4 sessions when you look back and realize how much time has passed. Playing Burning Wheel with this as a goal sounds really cool. If you get a chance to post about it, I'll be interested to read how it goes.

  3. Don’t go down that rabbit hole

    … but I can't help myself. It's relevant to about ten things across the site, whether Lab or specific play-sequence or others. (may God have mercy on my soul …) Let's talk about role-playing and the heist story.

    Story, meaning what? Is it a standard plot? Or perhaps, given that useful split between idiom and genre that I'm always repeating, one of those? And what do we mean to play a heist, as in, to experience this known-and-established thing, or to re-create one as expected for heist aficionados, or to sort of mention or embark a heist in the offing and "let it go" if it doesn't happen? Or what?

    The way you went with it is probably the gutsiest, removing all "we know we're in a heist story" context for actions or situations, like the flashbacks you were talking about.  So there's all sorts of things to dive into harder about that.

    What also interests me is that, at least for the films and stories that attract me, the heist as such is really not very important. It may offer moments of high stress, pressure, and danger, but those are usually competence porn when all is said and done, and not actually much for the whole thing to have been about. Instead, much in the same way no one stresses over whether the great big ship is going to sink or not, the attention falls on likes, dislikes, trusts, distrusts, truths, lies, loyalties, and disloyalties – and the odd dose of plain insanity – among the heist team.

    As you describe it, that feature doesn't seem to have been front-and-center, or correct me if I'm wrong about that. In its absence, it seems as if all you (everyone) had to work with after the heist was how much money you'd get for the grimoire, and what that might mean to the characters. If I'm reading that correctly, and if that represents any sort of lack as far as any of you were concerned, then a kind of "so what" or "is that all" would necessarily set in at that point. So your thoughts on that would be useful, starting of course with clearing out any ifs that don't apply.


    • First, I should mention that

      First, I should mention that we did not frame the game itself in terms of the heist genre, at least intentionally. I do not recall anyone referring to a genre or movies in it or anything like that. We had these characters who wanted to steal this book; we wanted to see how they go about it and whether they succeed or not, though it turned out that the mortal coil rules made the latter question null, or replaced it with the question of how big penalties they suffer when we are done.

      The main motivation for the characters seemed to be money, but there was also some religious and even human underpinnings there. There did not happen to be any big conflict between these, which could have created the kind of excitement you are discussing. One character was a Huguenot and the others Catholics, and there could have been something there. I did not try to push it, but would have not shied away from conflict, either, should the players have gone there. We did not discuss the matter explicitly at any point, I think. We did see Valentin choose to not kill a servant of the marks; in longer term play this might have had consequences. He seemed to not quite be a cold-hearted and merciless killer, in the end.

      My best guess is that the players approached this much as I did: we are looking to see how this robbery thing works out and whether the characters better their position in life due to it. I was quite satisfied with the game as a game and as a learning experience. I did not feel a lack of dramatic character moments.

      On a more abstract level, I think I framed this play report partially in terms of the heist thing because this seems to be related to a hang-up among roleplayers; many do not seem to believe that one can run such a scenario without sidelining all the planning stuff (via flashbacks and whatever; the players avoid the planning, in any case) or having the GM come up with the right plan and then feeding that to the players (maybe via some kind of three clue rule in the style of that Alexandrian blog post). Here, the focus was on the heist itself and the players were the ones to gather intel, plan and execute.

      The even stronger hang-ups are similar ones with respect to investigation, say a murder investigation, scenarios. I think there should be no problem running one in a similar way: come up with a let us say murder, think how it happened, and let the players loose on the murder scene to see whether and how they figure it out. No intricate plans of clues or other theatre; just a messy situation. (Messy, as in embedded in the game world and the social reality: not an artificial closed room mystery with some mastermind having laid an intricate plan that goes just perfectly.)

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