Say No to something, anyway

This post continues from Our first Hunt, which despite its name includes two Hunts, featuring my character Hazard, Noah’s Lilith o’Bedlam, and Alessio’s Grey Witch. We really wanted more Stalkers, that is, more players, so our latest session, and new Hunt, adds the Mask, played by Pedro. Unfortunately Alessio has to leave us in a rare case of actual scheduling conflict as opposed to social conflict, so we’re still just three in this Circle.

I messed up the picture of Mask in the video, too late to go back and repair, so this post leads with his real image.

Oh! Forgot to mention: the game we are playing is The Whispering Vault. This Hunt is set in 1986 in Washington DC, concerning crime, policy, and drugs. With just one session (and trying to view it via the lens of failing Hazard’s History check), I’m still curious about just what nuances or perspectives will arise. This group differs widely in age and nationality; I suspect we’ll see some discussion about the issues, post-Hunt.

Adriano’s GMing tasks include choosing the historical location for each Hunt, which is a curious mix of easy and difficult. On the one hand, you can choose whatever you want, so it’s not like assigned homework from nowhere. If you like Malaysia at the outset of colonial impact, or the French and Indian War, or the Inuit during their time of least contact with other cultures … whatever it is, you can do it. On the other hand, you’re under the gun to present this material as play-content, (i) to characters who may or may not be oriented toward depending on rolls in-play and (ii) in the context of disruption to this culture which you personally find resonant and unsettling.

Anyway, that’s a lot of introduction to the point that Adriano’s initiation for each Hunt is especially engaging for me and evokes many strong feelings and even physical sensations. It’s not theatricality, although his excellent verbal technique is certainly involved; it’s a matter of choosing what to say. I recommend viewing these to anyone who’s interested in opening situations and scenes in any game.

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11 responses to “Say No to something, anyway”

  1. History and Situation: some reflections

    Ron, I think you hit on a point that I've been racking my brain about for a while in regards to this game, concerning the relationship between historical background and situation – this Hunt, as a magnifying glass of this particular setting. In our previous interactions, I've expressed my frustration at not being able to accurately convey the historical information of the chosen location, risking falling back into the habit of presenting people from such different cultures or historical moments as 21st century Westerners in stage clothes. I feel that we can move one step further and examine something that I struggle with even now: the ability to translate these elements as meaningful elements of the Hunt in progress. Several times in my preparation, I found myself discarding settings that were interesting for certain issues, but that I could not bring back to my preparation in an exciting way. I believe that this operation is not without risk of believing that, as GM, I must present everything I have studied in front of the players at the table. But without some reincorporation of historical elements, the sessions would unfold in an all-too-shapeless and very similar vacuum. What I'm probably trying to say is that finding a balance between these two elements constitutes a learning curve still in progress for me.

    There is one subpoint that I think is interestingly connected to this theme: the Hunts are fast! It's all a whirlwind of Disciplines and Servants ready to bridge the Stalkers' knowledge gap, point them in the right direction, and identify what's out of place and/or supernatural. As we've had occasion to discuss, this pushes the GM to play by reaction; it keeps you from creating expectations of the next scenes. But sometimes I feel that all this speed takes the ground out from under me in terms of providing a clear historical picture of the period under consideration. 

    • Fortunately, the game does

      Fortunately, the game does not itself set a standard or principles of any kind for how the historical setting should be "felt" in play. The only expectation is yours: your own values concerning how any historical fiction should be non-generic, or more or better than Hollywood costuming.

      I think your standards may be high, which I admire, but seriously, they must be possible – otherwise they aren't standards but some sort of maddening block. You'll have to come to your own conclusion regarding what's possible, and perhaps it's best to consider it always to be a work in progress, i.e., there's no way to have a magic method which produces your most satisfying result each time. But at least you don't have to consider it failure if play doesn't result in super-excellent insightful-resonant scholarly-educational perfection as provided by your own heroic efforts.

      As I see it, the game does allow fantastic potential for the following things to intersect: the immediate location/time, the Stalkers' varying historical origins as well as their individual ideals, the role or dream of the Unbidden, and the necessarily toxic result of its presence, in which aspects of the location become stressed or caricatured. It's understandable to want to maximize all of these things, each one at top intensity … but is that really reasonable or even actually enjoyable? I think it's better if different Hunts demonstrate different intensities for each, depending on how everyone plays and upon events. Do you see what I mean? It depends on ourselves as interacting participants, not on you as the careful chef serving a feast.

      Regarding the speed of the Hunt and, more to the point, the perception that you didn't do enough or show enough or explain enough due to time constraints: the fact is, you are playing with three people, or four in total, who all love history, politics, human diversity, and moral dilemmas. You're not responsible for our imaginations, only for your part of speaking and listening which intersects with ours (this is the same for each of us). Internally, each of us is filling-in and adding to anything you say with whole volumes of personal knowledge and imagery, some small amount of which will enter into that same listening-space to become part fo the medium.

      For my part, I would like to play Hazard more interactively with the other Stalkers, and perhaps with creatures of Essence, in order to express both his intersection with the immediate location of any Hunt and his own developing sense of purpose or specific goals he may bring to any/every Hunt. I already do it a little, but not enough – or better, not in the way I should, which would result in more interations or even questions among members of the Circle. If I can do that better, and if anyone else is interested or responsive to it, then I suspect you'll see a lot more resonance and intuitive content regarding each location than you imagined was happening (even though it already does, internally), perhaps more than you would have believed was occurring.

    • I don’t have much to add to

      I don't have much to add to what Ron said regarding how we, as players, perceive the historical location, which by necessity will be personal and based on our own knowledge (or lack of it). I think your job as GM is just to convey enough context to ground the material to make it playable and actionable, but to not set very high expectations, as if you were required to give us a scholarly introduction to time and location of the Hunt.

      I share Ron's desire for injecting more interaction among the Stalkers. That personal element of the characters is important to me in gaming. I think The Whispering Vault doesn't require it (unlike, say, Sorcerer) but it is desirable for me as a player. And there are all sorts of intersections between that and a particular Hunt time and location that could be explored. But given the nature of the game and the Hunts, it has to come from the players desire to do so, because the game itself doesn't require much of that for play. At this moment I don't even have a good grasp on who (what?) The Mask is as an individual, which is not usually the case for me in some other games, in which I begin with a strong sense of character even before actual play starts. The Mask's overall motivations at the moment are basically the same as any other Stalker's, with no real individuality or nuance. Judging the Unbidden may be the only thing where some of this by necessity will show up in play, unless we as players want to inject more.

      Just an aside: I also notice that the game text suggests that the beginning of a Hunt starts by the Stalkers meeting up at the Domain of the Stalker who has received the "call". Emphasising that in future games could perhaps help here for further longish term character development.

  2. just want to say

    I feel I really have to make time to watch the videos at some point but for now I just would like to say how much I enjoy reading the exchanges between those engaged in playing this game. They often shed light on things that I'm experiencing and thinking about and help me to see them from a different angle.
    The above thoughts and conversation about historical background, situation and how much and how to share every persons insights and interpretations as well as those of the characters in every given instance are a nice example. It is very inspiring to me.

  3. Session 8!

    This one is raw combat (direct link). The Hunt's not over yet, but despite an extra-heroic effort from our new Circle member Mask, it seems likely to be pretty soon. Then again, that's what I said in the middle of the second Hunt too, so we'll see.

    I've praised the game a lot, so here's my only serious criticism for its rules: that an Enigma cannot be mended unless the Unbidden, if one is present, is defeated and bound. This means each Hunt is very linear and too well-defined in failure states – basically the Circle must put its collective head down and grind into the necessary sequence, and if it fails "step 1," the whole thing is off.

    Given the potential depth of the content, it is perfectly capable of supported much more nuanced outcomes and character-relevant decisions. I don't see any reason against a Hunt which includes an Unbidden to have four broad outcomes (bind Unbidden + mend the Enigma, binding + not mending, not binding + mending, not binding + not mending), as well as amending the Experience rules to reflect it.

    • I agree with Ron. Reading the

      I agree with Ron. Reading the text, it seems to me that the idea that the Enigma can't be Mended without first Binding the Unbidden is an arbitrary design decision, that doesn't really follow logically from the implied "mythology" of the game. The text also mentions that if a Hunt fails, then it's possible to return later to the same location in a future Hunt as long as there's another Call. So it seems to me that such logic could be applied in the case that an Enigma is Mended but the Unbidden is not Bound, with the possible consequence that upon an hypothetical return a new Enigma would have developed. By the rules, however, we're stuck, and we either give up on both or maybe die trying. We'll see, but it ain't looking good.


  4. Session 10!

    The action shifts to the island of Tanegashima, Japan in 1545; a critical juncture in national history with the first fortuitous introduction of firearms, but one that experienced an abrupt acceleration, brought about by events related to the violation of the Dream. The Stalkers were summoned by a Shinto priestess, and their die rolls granted a basic orientation and impetus for their next moves.

    However, this was not the main focus of the session. Rather, as a result of some of my errors in reading the manual, it was necessary to realign some expectations derived from the ending of the previous Hunt. I realize now how easy it is for me to superimpose on some parts of the manual previous experiences, direct or indirect, with some of roleplaying's more famous cousins, Vampires in particular. Specifically, we discussed how:

    – Stalkers are actually much more proactive in their judgment than The Angel of the Black Abbott Gate portrayed. The burden of judgment is a cross that every Stalker should bear, and the vehicle for interesting moral choices; removing this to imagine supercops walking through time creates a much more superficial kind of game. 

    – The role of Forbiddance as the Dream's defense mechanism takes on more complex nuances than I imagined. Although rituals like Fleshing (turning an Unbidden into a human) and Killing (killing the aforementioned) are severely punished by Primal Powers, rituals like Great Binding, which anchor an Unbidden in a physical form other than a human at a point in time-space, are not associated with Karma loss or punishment of some kind. It is therefore possible to imagine that Stalkers have a wider range of options than simply returning the Unbidden to the Vault. The dotted line connecting lawful and unlawful behaviors does, however, accommodate a number of nuances; it will be my job to work more reflexively on what constitutes punishment for Stalkers and what does not. In doing so, I think much will emerge about who I imagine these Primal Powers to be – who, at the moment, I reconnect in image and behavior to the angel-extraterrestrials of Gantz, for some reason.

    – When, during the last session, the Stalkers decided to keep the Orb for themselves, I read into that decision a hint of an adventure that would challenge the mechanisms of the Dream itself; in reality, for the other players, it was simply a moment of reflection in line with the laws of their operation, and they certainly wouldn't have made that choice if they believed they were acting against the Primal Powers. I think I jumped to a hasty conclusion because we departed from the structure offered by the book, albeit slightly: this took the ground out from under me, and made me think about what it meant in the grand scheme of things. Although we agreed that holding onto a tight Orb indefinitely can't be feasible (why would the Vault exist then?), I recognized that a simple change of scene doesn't affect that much in the order of things. Leaning on the structure of the Hunt, as the determinant of scene outcomes, is a dangerous move. The structure offered by the rules in the manual is certainly useful as a preparation for a situation, but it's worth stopping there.

    This last aspect, however, resolved itself, when the Stalkers, interacting with Dollmaker's Orb, decided to throw her into the Vault, not recognizing any trace of repentance. Lilith chose to consume her key to Vengeance: an unexpected decision, but one that seemed logically connected to the situation that had just resolved itself.  

    • I really enjoyed this session

      I really enjoyed this session. Looking back on my play of Lilith, I think the Key of Vengeance had become too easy to lean on in the context of the structure of the Hunt. Paying the Karma to set Vengeance aside feels like it has thrown open a door to new possibilities.

  5. D.C. Hunt prep notes

    Due to a series of events, I misplaced my session preparation sheet, finally giving up sharing my part as GM: this needs to be remedied! I was fortunately able to retrieve the sheet, which I share here. Note how so many of the items I prepared never came into play, but at this point I can say I didn't experience this event with any particular anxiety; I just kept a few names and roles aside in case I was at sea on what to do. More subtly, it's worth noting that this preparation still has a touch of "and then my characters will do this and this" about it; I haven't yet been able to play my npcs as flesh-and-blood people, and not as event generators, though I've really enjoyed seeing Johnatan in action.


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