Given a pause in the Spelens Hus game in Mörk Borg this week, I met with Helma and Henna to play a session of Lacuna.
Which means this. Junior Mystery Agents are put into electronic sleep, so they dream or psychically travel into Blue City, which is a common or non-individualized dream or unconscious state among all people. Also in this sleep-state is someone convicted of a violent crime, whose psyche is now roaming about Blue City; the agents’ job is to find them and zap them with the Lacuna Device, which removes memories and specifically trauma. So a successful mission results in a calm, non-violent, cured person – no more prisons! Yay! Please now activate all suspicions about dystopian happiness and dysfunctional agencies, including the origins of the Mystery Agents themselves.
[editing later: note that the convict has already been physically apprehended; in physical space, he’s lying there on a slab next to the agents, also in induced sleep. When I say “find,” I’m talking about the psychic projections in Blue City.]
I prepared some characters, which are made 95% by rolling dice on tables, as the only thing you make up is a personal quirk at the end. They’re attached below; Helma chose Provost and Henna rolled a die to end up with Fuller. I also quickly thought up the Hostile Personality, whom for maximum thematic purposes I decided was a very stereotypical psychotic biker-type and gave him the only possible name.
The primary mechanic is Heart Rate, because, you see, as the agent’s psyche is roaming about in Blue City, every action increases it … in their real body, which is lying asleep on a slab in the real world. The character as played during an op/mission is not really in danger down there in Blue City, but their real body is. Reaching your optimal range for Heart Rate increases some attributes, but getting into and above your critical range threatens real-life cardiac arrest. Other important considerations are dangers like the Hostile Personality itself, the mysterious Spidermen, and miscommunications with Control, the supervisor and director of the operation who’s in intermittent contact.
I brought the original version from 2004 (brown cover), not the 2006 revision (red cover); see Q&A 2 for my thoughts about that. As of this session, too, I can be much more specific and certain that I’m not talking about a preference, but about a good design vs. a not-as-good one. However, before any such discussion, I’d like you to check out the session and engage in a conversation about this game.
Well, OK, here’s one bit of context, not about the two versions, but the game’s general reputation. It’s supposed to be terribly recondite and demanding, with its very name indicating a challenge to everyone. “It’s a void,” “it’s a mystery,” it’s a this and a that – all blithered by people who have read something that someone heard that someone said.
I’m here to say that all of this is smelly, runny, grass-fed horse shit. There is no super duper secret, or even a deconstructionist void to fill. There is no ineffable or remarkable effect which the game is supposed to produce, i.e., a requirement of pressure and performance. This version is brilliantly written, extremely inspiring, and hits all the important factual points. Yes, the information is asymmetrical between players and GM – so what? Yes, it requires the GM’s personal touch and interpretation in order to work. Sure, you have to “decide” what the spidermen are, or what happened to Agent Miner, or just how bogus the Agency is. So what? What printed role-playing content doesn’t require that?
It’s a very accessible and playable game taken just as it lays and doesn’t need fancy expectations or effort. I fell into this trap myself, fifteen years ago, shoehorning in way too much espionage history and content, probably because I was working on Spione at the time. The fact that this content was a good fit didn’t stop it from messing up play. Read it, draw your own conclusions about “cure the pain” anti-crime techniques, the real Lacuna and the Lacuna Device, the Girl, et cetera, and play those.
If you’ve been watching Spelens Hus recordings, I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised at Henna’s and Helma’s immediate ownership over the characters and their savvy at picking up the system. Especially at the end, when they accurately pick up on skullduggery, need-to-know shenanigans, and possible dysfunction among their superiors. Our session features very little of the troublesome, often maddening disconnect between Control and the agents, as they didn’t stay in contact, but all of that and more is certainly right there on the edge of play, to appear when circumstances warrant.
I think the GMing is worth a look too. As with The Pool and many other games, there isn’t much structure or do-this do-that here, and there’s a real danger of perceiving it as story nannying, dancing ahead of the players and doing “what’s best” next. I’m not doing that. I’m using rules – but rules which aren’t very apparent and really need to become better understood.
Because, you see, I’m getting the idea that there’s a big misconception out there: that when I say “constraint,” I mean automated determinism in the procedures. That’s not what I’m saying. I am very, very attentive to constraint as it applies to spoken content, in authority, which is not subject to externally-phrased determinism, i.e., you in fact do make it up. Before or during play, doesn’t matter – making that exact thing up is your job. I submit that the constraint concept – which is not some jargon of mine but a definite, specific intellectual thing – toward these procedures is critical to the medium and to anything you or I call “design.”
So much more to discuss and learn about that!
Footnote: we’ve been playing Mörk Borg for a while, with Ola as GM, but I’m waiting for a good recording to share it here. When that happens, I’ll provide summaries and group discussions about what’s preceded that session as well.