Self and selves

We have completed play for our Khaotic game! Including sessions 9 and 10, continuing from the material presented at What could go wrong? and Psychic social science fiction hits the “drama” button. We plan to finalize things about the immediate aftermath with some discussion next week, which may possibly include some dice-rolling, but I don’t anticipate more in-character play.

This has been an extremely strong game experience, for its fictional content, for its character play and development, and for its unusual concept-and-system features. I think I’ve mentioned already that the game itself is very definitely of a piece with a number of other games from this period and indeed of this exact year (1994), which are incredibly strong but received little or even no recogntion or further life in play. They also show a distinct struggle against pre-planned story but lack the vocabulary to nail down how to do things otherwise. Other titles in this mix include Morpheus, The Whispering Vault, Shattered Dreams, Amazing Engine, Maelstrom, Epiphany, Extreme Vengeance, and Zero. There are about twelve such titles, depending on how wide a range of years I’m talking about.

I’ve put most of my notions about it into the little reflections videos scattered through the playlist, especially my twists or takes on the textual setting, as well as thoughts on managing the swiftly-changing and multi-location overall situation. Here, though, I want to focus on the player-characters’ creation, discovery through play, development, and overall status as edgy protagonists, perfectly suited to the kind of science fiction the game presents – or better, offers for purposes of our experience and presentation.

  • The characters were created mainly through randomized tables, with the option for choice here and there, but rarely taken in our case. Therefore to a great extent each player was “handed” someone to play, with only a little bit of personal shaping. How to act and what they want was largely the player’s job to derive or create given this fairly extensive – and often alienated or even messed-up – profile.
  • The characters are thrown very hard into a social crisis concerning mysterious monster-attacks across the planet and into a tightly-focused crisis as an ops team – who do not know one another – sent into enemy territory for intelligence and other operations as circumstances warrant.
  • The players have to adapt their thinking into the many conditions and details of the game’s fictional 2030, which is highly specific concerning international, political, and social features which directly impact their own character concepts.
  • During the missions to Xenos, the characters – and very much the players too – are bound into a single host body’s mind and operate according to fascinating divisions of perception, use of abilities, and newly-discovered psychic powers. This includes the potential for considerable conflict. They are also discovering information at a lightning pace concerning the attacks on Earth.
  • During those missions, events proceed on Earth which is rife with many difficulties and policy conflicts; and during time spent on Earth, events proceed on Xenos. Since the “time spent” in either case often depends on the player-characters’ actions and decisions, the GM has to be rather quick and centered in order to know what sort of situation they drop in on, in either direction.
  • Once on a mission, no one can tell the player-characters what to do. Even if they were given strict instructions, nothing makes them obey. Contact with people and creatures there is wide open for many, many possible interactions and perhaps changes of goals and plans. Furthermore, on Earth, the player-characters are subject to many people’s and groups’ demands and expectations of them … but on the other hand, they are very valuable assets who may discover they have more to say about what to do than their initial status would have indicated.

It all adds up to who we play + how we play (literally, per moment in the moment) + what happens + how we change how we play + how the characters change and decide to do the next things they so. Yes, any role-playing is capable of such things but this game is startling in how explicit and distinct the processes are. The whole thing becomes an “experience, man,” regarding our individual selves as real people, our collective self as a role-playing group, the characters as individuals in sketch form and then “real” enough to change, and the fictional group as a unique mini-society in a complex and violent fictional society. This may all sound too lofty and philosophical, or at least hippified, but I think we have managed to touch upon it rather well, with much to consider for each angle of perspective and for future play.


, ,

7 responses to “Self and selves”

  1. Comfort Levels

    I thought that the intense discussion in the preplay discussions before session 10 (I think) was handled well by everyone. Those kinds of discussions are often not easy, but can easily go wrong andn make somemone feel even less safe or uncomfortable. I liked how Helma takes her space, I really liked how Ron responded, asking for clarification, and everyone's respone had me noding as I listened. If only all table discussions managed that level of empathy, the hobby would be a more enjoyable place. 

    • One key factor, possibly

      One key factor, possibly helpful to others who are considering these issues, is that this discussion wasn't damage control. Here's how it was initiated.

      After session 9, I posted at our group's Discord chat that I was practicing Lines and Veils. Doing so had ramped up for me at the end of that session (when describing the physical space of the Cyberlab), enough for me to notice that I was doing it. I mentioned it to the group in order to share "process."

      Helma replied that she had been generally creeped out while playing on Xenos and especially at those moments, and was herself feeling at the edge of tolerance for described detail, incidentally phrasing her point in a way I thought was similar to my own perceptions and preferences. A couple of other people commented too, and Helma asked for a little in-person discussion before play, which met with general approval.

      The point is that we, all of us, role-players in the act of role-playing, almost always practice Lines and Veils in play, even in far less dubious or shocking fictional circumstances than Khaotic offers – so it's good to talk about it as process, at any time, without some urgent issue to solve. I am generally unhappy with the belief or even practice that these techniques exist to solve problems or to prevent problems, when the fact is that they are constructive and trust-building when employed as reflection. No accusations, recriminations, apologies, reassurances, promises, et cetera.

    • If we are not there, let’s

      If we are not there, let’s make sure that we together walk in the right direction. The fact that we sit down around a table, virtual or real, as a group of humans to play together has to mean something right? If we don’t want what we can get out of playing together as humans – we can choose to play a computer game. So everybody around any table wants to interact with each other and that means we care for what the others think and feel, as well as what they contribute to our shared experience. We all come from different places, geographically and otherwise, we all have different personalities but we have a common goal, to have the best time possible at the table. To reach it, sometimes you have to be able to talk about your limits, and how you want to handle them (there's a lot of other things to talk about but let's stick to this). As Ron states so much better than I could express it: you better do not wait until the damage is done. Something I would like to add: I did know without any doubt, without ever explicitly talking about it, non of them would ever abandon me and neither would I abandon them. The difficult part, at least for me, is the talking about myself. I’m not used to do it and I’m still learning how to express myself in a constructive and good way. Role playing for me is a very good way to train that. I’m certain there are far more tables than you think that would be able to have a similar discussion. Any table I’ve been sitting at so far would qualify and I’m really trying to play as many different games with as many different people as possible to develop as a player. Just give it a try at any table you play at if you feel the need.

    • Helma’s mention of her

      Helma's mention of her imagination and how she processes play was very enlightening to the long term consequences of play and why we take steps in making it safe for everybody – it doesn't just end at the table.

      I can absolutely empathize (I have a vivid, even morbid imagination) but I end up on the opposite side of the spectrum – I like it when creepy, unsettling elements of play linger with me. It's probably the same reason I watch horror movies or read trash fantasy novels. So our tastes may clash at the table, and while talking about it before can be extremely helpful, I think talking about it after, or mid-way in a sense, when things have started to happen and we can process them before they become damaging to some, it's even better, as long as it doesn't become "this is how I like it, if you can't handle it it's nobody's fault" (which still happens a lot).

      I think talking about it before is useful but it removes space for growth. Helma saying "this is my limit" is, to me, a useful product of play because playing is in part getting to know and understand each other. Even as a bystander I'm thankful to her bringing up something she's feeling about how and what we play, and I think I'd be fully willing to set aside my preferences and step in that direction not just for the sake of someone I'm playing with, but also because even if we have "quarantined" those elements, now they're part of play, even as a negation. Acknowledged, not ignored.

      Over the years I've constantly being asked for more brutality, more cruelty, more vivid descriptions in play. Some of the people I've played with just wanted cheap thrills and some gore pornography, but for the most part it wasn't that. I realized over time that two factors dominated those requests:

      1. Players wanted to see their characters suffer. They really do – one thing that seems to dominate at least a certain, more mainstream type of game is that the "story" and the dice tend to go very easy on them. There's also the fairly muddy subject of "failing forward" and this leads to an overarching sensation that player characters tumble and roll through the hops of what's happening around them (not really TO them) until some dice or a guy behind a cardboard screen tells us we can move on.
      All the stories about viking-hat DMs manipulating players into having no agency and dispensing sufference to anyone who didn't comply to their script probably led to the notion that players having full control over their character's destiny is a good thing, but it definitely hasn't been for us. 

      This doesn't necessarily mean that players want to see their characters maimed or brutalized (luckily for me); something just what happens to those close to them is enough, or them being affected, thwarted or frustrated in their goals or priorities. In our current Pathfinder game, it's borderline impossible to affect characters directly unless we go to the extreme consequences: we had a few deaths, but it's either death or cartoon violence that gets healed overnight when it comes to players. Despite the horrifying nature of what they fight, being chewed on by a giant monster is an absolutely PG-13 event.

      We did however find the kind of consequence that lead to out-of-play discussion elsewhere. I say find because none of it was planned, and the planned stuff (play almost began with exploration of the aftermath of some cult activity that was pedal-to-the-metal horror) worked but in terms of pure entertainment.

      But what brought pause to a few players was something else. On the side of this, there was a murder mistery in town. This was a plot I had no interest in as it was part of the play module I was using and dissecting as we started to understand the rules of the game. But it was there, and it became part of the troubled politics of the town (as I mentioned elsewhere, one of the characters was the appointed new nobility for the area, which sent the already unstable community and its leadership into a frenzy). The players didn't really care to solve the murder (the adventure module tells you they should, because the guy was their friend, since we say so… right) but it still was there, and… I'll try to makes this short, but Pathfinder 2 introduces goblins as a playable race, and tells you there's still strife between the standard races and goblins being integrated. There's an NPC cook aid that is a goblin, and he was a comic relief character until the players really push the inept thane of the town to its limit, and he starts feeling he needs to rally people to his side. Unrest is high, the players are ignoring the issue, and he knows where to strike: when they're away, he frames the goblin, who gets hanged. 
      This wasn't meant as a comeback at players for ignoring a plot nobody cares about or a way to "punish" them (I suspected nobody really cared) but rather a small "this world is still brutal and unfair, many of these guys are horrible, but if you want to forget about the murder, it's solved". And yet one of the players was absolutely shook about the thing, actually enraged, to the point that I had to bring up the issue and discuss it, expecting to have to apologize. But the way things ended, after the discussion, was that his point was that this horrible thing he didn't want to see happen was the "best thing" that could have happened to him, because he got to understand the character better, he got to get motivated better and he found out what he actually wanted to fight and solve, in the game. It was still kind of scary, but it ended up being worth it.

      2. the second point is related. I've found out that my players want horrible stuff to be in the game because they want to stop it. We had one game of World of Darkness that was a straight victorian era horror/thriller. None of the vampire or mage books, just normal people dealing with low-key supernatural horror. They asked me to go heavy on the horror, but there's some few things I won't do (violence on women or kids, too detailed descriptions, I prefer creepiness to spectacle). One of the players (my girlfriend at the time) was playing a medium, and the story took us to a mental asylum with ghost problems. You can imagine. I was a lot younger and edgier and obviously this went places, and after one session I discussed with her and I found out she was affected by it, which prompted me to say we'd end that storyline there and move on. She refused, and said I shouldn't dare to manipulate things to make them better. In the end, I was rather scared of doing something wrong but I tried to honor her request pushing forward with the same strength and trusting dice to help me, which they did – they got some unexpected successes and she did manage to repel the ghosts with spectacular results, which ended up in a huge cathartic moment that turned that specific adventure in something character-shaping. We played differently (better) after that.

      None of this is meant to imply that Helma's choice to say "no more than this" is wrong or a missed opportunity, but rather that the choice of stopping and talking about it is the opportunity, at least for me. I don't know if this is the essence of "I will not abandon you", but it definitely has felt this way for us, and brought up some of the most interesting evolutions in play.

  2. Final session for closing and discussion

    I opened the discussion mainly about the situation on Xenos and on Earth, leaving us some flexibility about exactly when they returned and what they did beforehand. To no one's surprise except the characters, they returned not at ISES headquarters but at the Russian consulate in Chicago, for example. Since the events had altered national power relationships, and the technology was now firmly in UN control with not-very-stable chains of command, the characters were in a unique position of being too valuable and uniquely skilled to exploit.

    After all, this is nothing less than true interplanetary contact, and most of Xenos is unknown as far as play is concerned. Since the situation in the region we know is very socially unstable, it's critical too that people on Earth get involved before the window of the crucial relationships developed by the team will close. So a whole lot of policy is being made really fast.

    I described my thoughts on the current whereabouts and goals of both Timmy and Isabella Bayne – fortunately the team was quick enough to suggest using Aura Reading to make sure she didn't escape the cadaver into who knows who, and sure enough, she had. This was the point which required a little role-playing as they needed to use some the psychic rules to get her into a sleep state in the body of one of the host women she used, and to teach that person how to keep her own mind dominant in her own body. (Here I was glad I had played the host women as reasonably bright people with internal lives and a healthy sense of self-preservation, because it set up this sequence to make excellent sensel. The team knew these characters weren't just broken thralls or willing body-servants.)

    Briefly, here's how each character closed out his or her story, some of them requiring rolls to determine this-or-that attempted goal, and some not.

    Nadja was offered a director of operations career with the Russian TransEgo control center, with her unpopular political views waived as not really all that important. She chose to stay with that facility but preferred a less authoritative role … and with most of the team's help, made sure that her former ops commander Jimmy Rimskiy was not provided with the medal and upwardly mobile career he wanted (the team did not appreciate him stranding them on Xenos).

    Margaret also chose to stay with the Russian operation (or rather, their nominal and geographic "possession" of the technology under UN authority). She was surprised to discover that the operation by EON Enterprises, the people who'd manipulated her into spying on her ISES employers, had been forcibly closed by Russian agents, and that her new friends, so to speak, were seeking all the answers regarding the death of her friend that had led her into the spy/mole role. We didn't see much of that in play, as events kept intervening, but I know it was on Max's mind as a primary motivating thing at all times, which Margaret took pains to hide from her teammates.

    Albert, too, stayed with the project as the new world expert on psychic gestalt, happily accepting all the fancy Director of This and That titles he could. He achieved his goal of surpassing his former wife's fame and authority – not especially noble of him, but one must admit he earned it.

    Niansu, interestingly, having achieved the goal he'd sought so assiduously, to stay on Xenos, suddenly realized that he valued the group mind experience more than anything, and was lonely. So we talked a bit about how he and Kasparian would eventually alternate back and forth between the worlds, working with Leel on Xenos and using Niansu's body on Earth.

    Claire was the only one who did not want to remain involved, and given the international power and policy situation, no one could make her. Her criminal past was cleared entirely – she was free. (Well, except of course that security services would be protecting her from other security services for the rest of her life, which she could do nothing about.) The other characters clearly did not want her to go and insisted that she be aware of potential contact with them and that she would always have a home – meaning, emotionally, with them as a collective. I found her ending to be very grim – as she walked away alone, the wrenchng loss was pretty real.

    There's more to talk about for all of them; it's a rich emotional tapestry of characters who first developed as player-characters do, through mechanics, inspiration, and use, but then developed in the fiction through their experiences and their changing judgments, and even sense of self.

    We talked as well about playing the game and some of its powerful and often unexpected features.

    Nathan identified the point when he felt the entire story shift such that the characters' crowded and variously uncomfortable psychic proximity, full of varying goals and secrets, became a complex relationship in which the characters identified "what we do" to be "ours." He said it came when the team chose to wake up their host body's mind to include Machal and to interact with her not as an asset, but a person. Until then, the player-characters were pretty much exactly what their enemy Ebu-Da called them, possessor spirits or demons; after that, their concerns on Xenos concerned relationships, and significantly, a shared and single collective relationship among themselves. I think it also corresponds to them realizing that their governing agency and stated missions back on Earth were less relevant – that they were the only people in the position not only to discover what was happening, but to judge and determine what they should do about it.

    I think the moment of transition is a big deal: that the team had already developed effective tactics to exploit the details of their psychic situation, so that they traded out the "lead" or "boss" mind and routinely used helping rolls for what that mind tried to do. So the "come together" sensation wasn't based on sussing out the tactical potential of their situation, the big team-up basically, but instead on a point of human contact.

  3. 1001 Khaotic thoughts

    never fear, not really 1001, but chaotic they probably will be.

    The game – I knew I wanted to play Khaotic minutes into watching Ron’s presentation of it. It was just that gut feeling that this game would be for me. It was a combination of the setting, the “many minds in one body” idea and that of using a whole bunch of d6 to get an unusual and for me completely new distribution of the probabilities of positive and negative outcomes for the character I play. This has been the first game with that kind of mechanic for me.

    Attributes, skills and powers – or “skill points” and “leveling up” – here actually is something that did not really seem to work, but that may be partly because of the way we played. The rules say you can only gain experience by finishing a mission on Xenos. That implies that missions on Xenos would have to be far shorter with somewhat more easily achieved results than what happened in our game. Even the time spend on Earth 2030 maybe should have been shorted. Though I did not feel that hampered my play in any conceivable way at some point one of the players showed that they would have liked to develop their characters skills more than what was possible for us. In the end we had XP to spend in session 2, 5 and 10 (if I remember correctly). What I liked was the “pricing” of different things like attributes, changing one up would cost 10 SP, skills, you have a couple of boxes to tick when you decide to make you better at a skill with costs go up with the number of boxes already ticked of, and powers, getting better in those would “cost” you the “level” of the power you have achieved +1.
    Something else I liked a lot is the skills you get. They often come in pairs and it really matters which one you choose. For example persuade – sincerity or conceal and disguise. Difficult to remember which is which in the heat of play but well worth trying and in the case of my character really important for me to be able to characterize how she changed.

    Jump of faith – Ron talks a little bit about how he handled where our jumps would land us in our closing session. I have to admit that I would not have liked it if we had not have the chance to influence that through a roll.

    Hive mind – well, not really, but you all have understand that by now, right? Ron covered that pretty extensively and well in the beginning of this post. The thing for me is, the morning after we had the talk about veils and lines in the beginning of session 10 I realized that these people I feel so close to and with whom I feel comfortable to share my feelings and innermost thoughts are people that I’ve never met in real life (apart from Ron). It is something to reflect upon. In some way it is not only our characters that grew together, it is us. Some of us have been playing together for a couple of games, someone was completely new to both the group and role playing when we started to play Khaotic. I can find myself referring to the group as “my home-group” and the emphasis is on “home”.

    Two worlds – Time passes independently of where you are, what happens during those times depends on what you did where you were or what you’re doing where you are. Maybe the greatest feat of all and for me a crucial part of the absolutely fantastic experience this game was is Ron’s handling of this. I would like to recommend this game to you all, but it sure must be hard on whoever is going to be the GM. But if you think you are up for that amount of preparation you really should give it a go.

    Claire – after that first session, when we had rolled up our characters, I was lost. I had no idea how to connect to her and what to do with her. Apart from that, I really did not like her or rather the way she presented herself to me from the statements I had diligently put into my note pad. After I fought my way through the process of writing her backstory from the prompts I still had no idea how to make her a real and believable person. It took a couple of sessions before I got into that state where I do not have to consciously think about what she would do or say and some more sessions to start to like her. Even though it might not look like that on the surface Claire is probably the character that did change the least of all I’ve played so far. What happened or rather how I see it is that the others in the group got to see far more of her self (the parts she may not even acknowledge or reflect upon herself, even less show to others) on Xenos when they were forced to be so close to each other. Prompted by the game text that stated that you would know the way the other “crickets” feel I made a point out of describing Claire’s feelings every now and then. Little did I know how much she would influence the other characters – that was as much a surprise for me as for her.
    The beast in your mind or Talents and Psi powers – so, every character has a certain talent on Xenos that they can use at any point they find fitting. Claire’s was ID-beast. It is, as demonstrated in session 10, pretty impressive. But it comes with some really serious complications looming in the background. If your beast dies (there is one slim chance to get your ID back in that case) or you can’t call your ID back before leaving Xenos you are doomed to become depressed and will eventually die. Apart from the fact that it took me a really long time to get to the point where I would have been able to play that (not because I don’t but because I do know how a depression looks from the “outside”) I figured Claire is a person that wants to be in control of her self. So I needed a really massive incentive for her to unleash the beast. In the end I think it gave some real weight to the situation as a whole.
    You know how some people say that you are not really in character if you don’t express yourself in a certain way? Doesn’t work like that for me. During the confrontation with Isabella Baynes in session 10 – I think I used everything, I, she, Claire, probably in one and the same sentence, never even consciously giving it any thought, in between asking questions to ascertain if I got the layout of the place and the positions of people, beast and furniture right – but believe me, I was Claire – when she realized she killed a person (from behind), I was not eve able to put appropriate words to that feeling.
    And when she tried to, literally, get herself together again after that. I’m not sure whether I or Ron were happier that she succeeded. It certainly is nice if you realize that your GM cares as much for your character as you do, even if I can see a risk with that (but not with this GM).
    The end? – So Claire walked out on them all. Why? Well, you tell me where the incentive for her to stay would be in that moment. What she wants most of all at that moment is drowning her memories from Xenos. If it is any consolidation to those who feel bad for her, she didn’t drop the cellphone Albert insisted on giving her into the next Dumpster or Lake Michigan, but she will not recharge it regularly. During the next weeks you’ll probably find her in one bar or other – and if you want to buy her a drink, your welcome, but don’t talk to her. Will take a while before she may want to talk to anybody again. When that time comes, that will be another story altogether, and don’t ask me about it, it is not and I doubt it will ever be. So you come up with what makes you happy.

    • I really appreciate you

      I really appreciate you sharing these thoughts with everyone. I can do a poor second best with my own response to Claire as a presence in our game.

      To me, it seems like her whole 'story' concerns being turned inside out. Before, she was like a hard individual unit, surrounded on all sides by lack of support, judicial abuse (the over-harsh sentence), imprisonment, and then another form of imprisonment which included mortal danger and horror, both on Earth and Xenos. But she herself, "Claire," was this hard center which endured inside all that. Whereas now, at the end, it's reversed. In the new situation concerning the two worlds, the new technologies, the new political configuration, and more, she is in no way helpless or imprisoned. In fact, critically, there are now four people who literally love her for exactly who she is, and value what she uniquely brings to the collective relationship, as well as one person on Xenos who trusts and cares for her entirely unconditionally. The inside, she herself, "Claire," is no longer this hard impenetrable unit of defiance. It literally has other people in it. Her response seems to be to try to *recover* her former hard-enclosed, untrusting, defiant identify. Which is a tragic portrait but certainly a powerful dramatic story (as a result of play), and it's where your intuition as a creator has led you.

Leave a Reply