Hantverksklubben 22: Playing online

Another session of Hantverksklubben, our experimental GM-less freeform group, yesterday. This time the topic was decidedly more technical. Original play report in Swedish here, machine-translated and slightly touched-up version below.’

Yesterday we ran session 22 of Hantverksgruppen, and the theme was “Playing online”. Present were me, Björn and Anders. It may be a bit ironic to do this topic now that people are starting to get vaccinated and can return to playing face to face, but on the other hand, maybe now is the time to reflect on what we learned about online gaming, look at its merits and then see what place it will have in our gaming in the future.

The following list was written in the pre-talk:

  •     Availability
  •     Use music
  •     Less distracting (googling things, etc.)
  •     Google pictures, name lists…
  •     Collaboration tools (Miro)
  •     Silent movie in the chat (Rickard’s scene in Lovecraftesque)
  •     Use the chat (comments, coaching)
  •     Using the camera (looking next to it, staring into the camera)
  •     Use mute (devil in the ear)
  •     Backgrounds in the video
  •     Online thesaurus
  •     Voice distortion?
  •     Threads in Discord.

And the following topics were written during the game:

  •     “Cut the sound” for oneself, including the image.
  •     Talk continuously in the background, lowering the volume for a specific player.
  •     Prompt, this happens during the scene, incorporate as appropriate.
  •     Good if the chat text drives the role play in the video chat.
  •     Mobile conversation during a spoken scene.

I had a hard time setting a genre, and I said “normal” a dozen times before I finally changed my mind and said “kind of near future, we’ll see what we make of it”. Bunny set the mood directly in the first scene.

Sometime in the future. Mankind is at war with an unknown and inconceivable enemy. Dr Ilike Sørensen is on the run. Not away from the enemy, but away from the state, which wants to find her and call her into military service. She is probably the one who has the most knowledge about what is really going on. For a while she stays away in a small secluded village by a swamp, where she gets to know and love Tauno Stendahl. Then they find her.

Dr. Sørensen’s work in a bunker under a ruined Scandinavia brings her closer to an understanding of the creatures that roam the planet, that cause reality itself to shift, to crack at the joints, to blink like a broken fluorescent lamp. But one day she sees Tauno. He too has been conscripted, and a close contact with the beings has cost him a majority of his body,. He himself has begun to shift in and out of reality. Sørensen is excluded from the project of working with Tauno. Too emotionally involved. In her work she has begun to suspect that the creatures may not be hostile, that they themselves may not know the harm they are inflicting, that we are as alien to them as they are to us. But when she manages to get hold of Tauno’s medical reports, she realizes that the same cannot be said of the humans. The military has planted a bomb in Tauno, to make a first attack in the alien dimension.

Ilike desperately manages to get into the room where Tauno is, but he is stuck between realities. His body is there, but he is not there. Yet somehow she can feel his hands on her shoulders, and now and then, in the whistling noise that always fills the mind when the creatures are near, she can perceive his voice.

“It’s beautiful here, Ilike.”

“I love you.”

Desperate, she tears the bomb out of Tauno’s chest. Soldiers rush in and wrestle her to the floor. She looks up at Tauno’s body, but it is no longer there.

It was quite a neat story. A bit weird scifi, a genre that I appreciate, and that was a bit like session 17 about language limitations. We were a little unsure of where it was going in the beginning, when we jumped back and forth between Ilike’s personal story and general descriptions of the war, but then it really took off. Another nice side plot that was not included in the summary above was Dimitra Korosova, a Russian soldier who was deeply religious and convinced that this war was the reckoning and that they were living in the end times.

We had many interesting scenes that played with the technology and the opportunities we have to play via Discord and Miro:

  • Bunny’s intro scene, a monologue scene that told the story of the war, had a calm instrumental background music through Rythm, a music player in Discord.
  • We had a scene where Ilike and Tauno communicated via SMS. Hellzon and I described how the two roles, in different places, went around their homes, while the conversation took place via chat. Really neat, and it’s really a different feeling to communicate via text.
  • Hellzon used the “TV-like” format you get with a camera aimed at you to play news reports, and we had two scenes that were video conferences.
  • I set a scene where the creatures appeared for the first time, on the moon. When they appeared, I ran a continuous stream of descriptions, about how reality flickered, about how the eye could not decide what it saw, about strange geometry and about the movements of beings. I did not stop talking, but the other two had their conversation and descriptions on top of my “background noise”. Bunny lowered the volume on me in Discord to make it easier to handle.
  • We also had a couple of scenes where we used the chat to inject things into the scene. In a scene where Ilike did an experiment that went wrong, I acted as a computer terminal and wrote a continuous log in the chat about the data that was generated and the error messages that appeared (unfortunately without informing the others, which made Bunny miss it). We also used the chat to represent thoughts, so in a dialogue between Ilike and her boss Dr. Kolbe, I wrote thoughts in the chat, which appeared in Ilike’s head: “Maybe,” Sørensen thinks distractedly, “they are the gods we always knew were out there. That always haunted our dreams. Maybe they’ve always been here, it’s just that now have we managed to climb Olympus and face them.”
  • The last scene was very interesting to play. Here Tauno had already begun to dislodge from (3D) reality and was present, but Ilike could not see him. So I played Tauno and Hellzon played Ilike. Hellzon put me on mute, so he could not hear my descriptions and my side of the dialogue, and Bunny acted as GM and middleman, describing how much “bled through”. Very cool.
  • We made, for the first time in Hantverksklubben, a Miro board for the game, but we did not use it that much, other than to play around a bit and create an aesthetic for the game:

4 responses to “Hantverksklubben 22: Playing online”

  1. Note to self: try it

    This is a great demonstration of applying the online concept to two different things.

    • When you, the real people, are playing online with specific opportunities and limitations, whether intended (apps), accidental, or even turning what might be considered a flaw into a feature.
    • When the in-fiction events are online in some way, either literally, like the video conferences between characters, or very similar to it, especially the half-in half-out of reality condition.

    I really like that any given moment in play could use one of these categories, the other, or both, or neither. I’d like to try this myself!

  2. You’ve just reminded me of something

    I generally don’t use accompanying chat text during play except to share images. People like to do it sometimes, and I have nothing against it, but if they do I typically don’t look at it until after the session. I have never sought or been interested in play-by-chat or, pre-modern internet, its more epistolary predecessors by email or by written letter. However, one published game caught my attention to teach me something new about that.

    Gary Pratt published Code of Unaris in 2004, and we met at GenCon that year during my customary annual tour of all the creator-published games. I was surprised and fascinated that instead of merely accompanying play with chat as a gimmick, he used its properties as a literal resolution technique in a fashion that engaged directly with the fictional events. It can’t be played in any other way; the technique is intrinsic to the medium so it’s not a live-play game merely translated to the screen. I played a little bit of it with him later, and although some of the people playing didn’t seem to get it, I knew that a group could do some good play during and beyond a dedicated learning curve.

    Briefly, the game’s resolution relies on quick editing of the last couple of chat lines as you go along, according to a point cost and certain concerns about dangerous targets. The rules are rather elegant in that, without endless clarifications or subroutines, them, the interactions of several people take on the properties I’m always talking about: Bounce, agency, IIEE, the lack of vetting or permission per input, and related matters.

    If you wonder who nominated it for the Diana Jones Award for 2005, that was me; and my internet trawling a few hours ago shows that our very own Hans followed up on the game and talked with Gary pretty recently. I had acquired the accessory poster but it has barely survived storage and moving; I’m trying to keep it whole and scan it if possible, as it’s probably necessary for play – the maps are crucial to play and the same art in the book is pretty tiny.

    Now, arguably, it went overly deep into the combination of the two categories that I talked about in my reply above. The fiction of the game includes the long-gone Third and Fourth Ages of mankind’s pre-Earthly civilization on the moon, some 1980s-to-the-present backstory, an entity in the ancient Fourth Age which is time-hacking the Third Age in order to prevent our present, and you – your player-character – are a modern-day chat user who is interfering with the enemy entity’s own hacking. That’s all in the fiction, as an elaboration justification or experiential correlate to the resolution mechanics.

    My take is that most of that is unnecessary, and we could conceivably use the chat-and-hacks system merely as a resolution system like any other – after all, there are no dice in the scenes we play of scurrilous adventurers and equally scurrilous goblins fighting each other. I say this too because the Third and Fourth Ages as described in the book are remarkably clear and playable-looking – Pratt managed to capture much of Jack Vance’s powerful style without the usual overdone, missing-the-point flourishes that people call “Vancian.”

    I’ll do some preparation and pedagogical work. Seventeen years is too long for this to have gone unappreciated, and you've provided me with a better framework for thinking about how I'd like to play it.

    • That sounds really

      That sounds really interesting! I share your lack of interest in play-by-text, but on the tother hand, I was very sketpical to online play before the pandemic, and I have come to realize it can be pretty great. I still prefer face-to-face, but playing online has some obvious logistical advantages and, as this session demonstrated, even some unique strengths.

      So I'm thinking maybe there's some interesting gaming to be had though play-by-chat, too? Makes me want to try it, and it seems Code of Unaris is the game do do that. Any idea on where it can be acquired? The website of Goldleaf Games seems to have disappeared. I guess it's out of print?

    • It’s completely unavailable;

      It's completely unavailable; I think Gary owns a few physical copies and for some reason no PDF was ever made public. I'll do some networking to see whether I can regain contact.

      I'm trying to recall whether play combined voice and chat. I actually think it did, in an understandable way. I just dug out my own copy, which is where the above cover scan came from, and I'm reviewing the rules.

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