Self and ourselves

Back to living-together play at Spelens Hus! We’re playing Zero. Briefly, it’s about a few “biomechs” (cyber-augmented humans) who lose their telepathic contact with the hive-mind which has nurtured and controlled them for their entire lives thus far.

The first session of play for a given group generally includes this moment of sudden dis-connection, in which the player-characters may only contact one another. It typicallyresults in more immediate character investment and sense of real personal involvement in play than I see in nearly any other game.

The publishing history is a little complicated. My copy, which we’re using for play, is the original 1997 publication from Archangel Entertainment. This is no longer available to publish due to complicated IP issues, so the text author and game designer, Lester Smith, has reworked it into one of the settings for his game D6xD6, available here. I think the new system is a little different but follows a lot of the same principles.

Lester is one of the seminal designers in RPG history whose work, in my opinion, has often been buried under publisher priorities. So I feel pretty strongly about playing his games for their own sake and not due to some franchise principle with tons of alleged support which turns out to be bloat. This one in particular is in my top billing for the best RPGs of the 1990s and is one of the best I have ever played.

The video embedded below goes to the second video in the playlist, which is the start of play, because I’m not sure how many of you want to see the 40+ minutes of preparation. If you do, the playlist includes that video to click on. Unfortunately, session 2 was not successfully recorded, but I’ve provided a summary and we’ve gone on to session 3, in editing as this is typed and soon to be included. [done! -RE]

The current technological and social circumstances are provided in the text, including the situation that the community is some kind of corridor and/or tunnel complex, but all the backstory and history are specifically given to the individual GM to develop. So I dug up some fun maps and gave some thought to what I think the Hive really is or was, to the problems it might collectively be facing, and what on earth (or wherever) might be going on regarding the titular Zero, the mind at its center.

To understand the game, here are some important numbers and rules:

  • The single number on the character sheet is Focus, which is also the number of skills you have designated as Focus status (usually 2 through 9). Other skills are designated as Prior, and any other un-designated skills are called Untrained.
  • You have all the skills and may attempt any, but you must roll equal to or above the number for a Focus skill, equal to or below the number for a Prior skill, and below the number for an Untrained skill. Note that you multiply the 2d6 together, thus the result ranges from 1 to 36. 
  • Certain other rules intersect such that maximizing your Focus build leads to a highly specialized individual capable of superhuman acts in very few ways and bad at everything else, and going the other way will get you a more “human” type person but with less chance and less maximal effects overall.
  • As your character develops, you find that strategizing your Focus value isn’t very interesting, as there’s no “sweet spot” and you’re better off thinking in terms of the above thematic point. But there’s another aspect of character development which matters a lot more: the capacity to learn new skills invented by the player.

In other words, this is all about choosing and learning what sort of person your biomech becomes, once detached and now subject to the travails of such things as disagreement, biological urges, alienation, and a sense of individual risk.

As a final point, through sheer coincidence, this game is played concurrently with the final arc of the SF Pool game which focuses on the Hiver species. Given the similarity in names and motifs (insectoid cybernetics and sociality), I decided to use this simultaneity as a creative spark by determining that they should resemble one another as little as possible. Now, three sessions into each, I decided to summarize the comparison to keep my head on straight, as follows:

In other words, the Hivers (Galactic Peace) are not in any sort of overwhelming social crisis or dysfunction, nor are they facing a deliberate foe or subverting influence – it’s just this batch of individuals in a very dangerous environmental situation, deprived of most of the technology they planned to use, but biologically on-task and functional. Whereas the Hive (Zero) is an over-institutionalized community in considerable external danger overall, as well as experiencing some degree of breakdown in the telepathic unity which had been its salvation in the past. Furthermore, the individuals in play are subject to their own biological functions and needs emerging in forms they’re not used to, let alone their own danger from the immediate environment and from the Hive which now perceives them as intruders.

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4 responses to “Self and ourselves”

  1. Differences between ZERO and D6xD6

    I had made a note of some of the major differences between ZERO and the revised D6xD6 system last year when I was putting together a D6xD6 game for the Sin City-like crime milieu that I've since ended up using for the Bulwark Pool game. If I had to sum up the overall difference, it's that in the revised D6xD6 rules, though the central unique features remain, Smith has added in elements that make it more like other role-playing games. For example, characters in the D6xD6 have "attributes" (Brawn, Grace, Will, and Wits) as well as skills/abilities (which still fall into the Focused/Unfocused/Unfamiliar categories and are governed by the Focus number). The character advancement rules are changed and the damage rules in combat also work differently: I forget the details of these changes at the moment, but they also seemed to me to shift things in a more familar direction. It's still an interesting system, though, and I still think it would be a good fit for crime stories (and I will probably continue to tinker with it).

  2. Session 4!

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

    We played by screen again, due to Covid striking me and my entire family last week. Fortunately playing at Spelens Hus was not involved in the transmission, i.e., I didn't get it from there and no one there got it from me, so the main reason for playing by screen was that I was too run-down to organize the equipment and transport. We'll be back there for next time.

    I'm using this map. It's not in the video because clearly it is associated with a Big Rich Franchise and I have better things to do than playing IP rebel on YouTube.

    And here's the critical information that Archivist 286263 compiled and integrated in session 3, as the handout I'd provided before playing session 4.

    Long ago, Zero showed me that its primary job for the GM is rather simple:

    • to know a backstory and be ready to share it when events dictate [this concept includes things like getting swarmed by bats, i.e, locations with things in them]
    • to make sure everyone knows how to use experience points and to remind them to do so
    • to operate as a kind of reflective chorus regarding the character's sensations of emerging into individuality

    That last is simpler than it may appear. Playing the game relies on a shared notion of "life in the Hive," which is both textual and very easily expanded upon (especially since its backstory is GM-authored, not in the text). So early play begins, or is recommended to begin, during that ordinary life. So presenting a variety of things like kibble bins, mealtimes, and especially the steady hum of multi-person thought is part of that.

    But after the separation from the Hive, I think of myself as table-talking rather than speaking "fact" into the air. So when I say things like "In the new ambient light, different from points of illumination underground, and in your changing perspective, you can see one another's faces and see how different, how recognizable they are," it's more like my reception of what they have said earlier and repurposing it into this moment, rather than me making it up and saying "now you feel this." 

    See if you can keep an eye on how the players handled their characters and the events in this session that led me to intuit saying that. Although I knew it was dawn, and was describing the light, the idea of what they would see in these terms was not planned, nor was it invented by me entirely when we got there.

  3. Session 5! escalation

    As of this writing we've played three more times for a total of seven sessions, all in person, and successfully recorded. It's taking a long time to get them ready for posting, as I'm very out of practice for editing live play. It's really different from screen play, in terms of conversations and minor social dynamics of a session's beginning, and the different standards for what to include, or what a camera captures/emphasizes given full-body motion in a three-dimensional, non-Brady-heads space. I'm bringing sessions 6 and 7 up to speed now. Here's the link to session 5.

    Also, Denica has joined us, just to sit in and be friendly for session 5, but which swiftly transforms into her taking on the part of Soldier 343900 by the end. This character's been through a lot, in a curious fashion which might have been unhelpful in other systems, but works rather well here.

    1. He started as an NPC who did not break away from the Hive and therefore responded to the newly-separated player-characters as if they were monsters – therefore almost killed by Soldier 249800, at that time played by Odin.
    2. In session 2, Max took over playing Soldier 249800 and, although inclined to abandon Soldier 343900 to the dingoes, turned out to save him, giving him medical attention to survive the blaster injuries and a seeker's attack.
    3. This put me in the same position as before, with a Hive Soldier inclined to kill what he'd perceive as his captors, although struggling with his sensory input that he did in fact recognize them visually if not telepathically. As it turns out, combined telepathic efforts from Soldier 249800 and Technician 805211 (played by Nathan) actually separated him from the Hive and connected him to the small group of player-characters instead.
    4. Now I was landed with a group-member NPC, something I hadn't planned at all and indeed had planned a bit against, not wanting to interfere with the self-identification and self-directing qualities of the system and premise of the game. I chose to play him as withdrawing to a great extent, focusing on his lethal capacities to be even more the "Hive defender," perhaps even in denial of the switch to a different Hive-equivalent.
    5. Little did I realize that this practicality would open a connection between him and Archivist 286263 (played by Helma), arguably the least likely player-character to so connect, which would lead to her becoming a far more physically-oriented person who held her own in a serious fight.

    That's the point where Denica steps in, and as you'll see in session 6, reviews this history and takes it up in her own direction.

    There's more to discuss soon, about the novel abilities that the players have invented along the way and how that's informed later decisions, feeding back upon themselves for unique outcomes as play continues. Stay tuned for the following sessions, which shift hard in content following this session's – admittedly – rather literal zombie fight.


  4. Sessions 6, 7, and ending

    As the title says: our final two sessions of Zero, linked here inside the playlist.

    I am myself fairly ambiguous about them. On the one hand, the experience of playing Zero itself did prove itself again, in my history with the game. The players lit up the place. The characters were so vivid and quickly-maturing that I can imagine playing something as mundane as "we eat dinner tonight" and watching the conversation turn into philosophy, dark comedy, maturation drama, and confrontational psionics rolls.

    As I've mentioned, a key feature is inventing new abilities, because you roll Cleverness after every session – if you succeed, you get the new ability, which doesn't require experience points. People quickly came up with things which operated "sideways" to the listed abilities, such as Self-Isolation, Independent Thinking, Re-Focus, Poetic Imagery, Survival, and more. As the characters learned more about their own situation, these abilities started factoring into rolls, especially in complex multiple-roll moments, so that what succeeds, and in which order, produces an entirely unique result.

    On the other hand, play was a lot more chaotic than I'm used to these days, partly due to trading players in-and-out, partly due to being all together in a room again – a lot of talking over, sudden firing of questions, losing track of suggestions vs. actions, the effects of fatigue making people silly. It was tiring to do and tiring to re-watch in editing. I didn't want to play social monitor and I also wanted the new composition of players to find its own way, so if you watch, you'll see some times when play stalls or circles until someone calls everyone back to it. Upon editing, though, I was surprised to see that everybody always maintained rather sharp attention to and knowledge of the events and content of play. So I think it's a "social energy" thing, and transitional.

    Summer schedules created time constraints which affected play too, as I knew that we only had these two sessions left. So the events were a little rushed, or perhaps sewn up more quickly than it could have been, and although I even had a Hive map handy (O'Hare International Airport, reimagined at about ten times life-size) in the possibility that play might take us there, it never came into play. I think I only barely managed to bring in sufficient content for "back at the Hive," and arguably was the least good role-player in the group.

    As for the events, a couple of things played into what happened. First, I had decided that the Hive was just as lethal and potentially adversarial as the book's resources might indicate, but also that its needs were real, its achievement (to survive a nigh-impossible planetary settlement situation) was real and probably sustainable, and that there existed in it enough humanity – however partly-informed or distorted – to still be able to communicate with our separated-out characters … potentially. Those cyber-killers featured in these two episodes were in fact primed for assassination, just in case, and the whole story could have gone very differently in terms of what the climactic events were even about.

    Second, the players were clearly thinking a lot about their characters' own priorities and potential endgames in this situation. I think the moment they discovered that the Hive was not suffering from genetic load was a big deal, as it shifted everything away from almost all science fiction stereotypes about such communities. At that point people started wondering or musing out loud about possible long-term outcomes – a couple of the characters were adamantly opposed to returning, a couple went back and forth, and I think one just assumed they would and was surprised to find the others disagreeing. I can't say enough – or maybe it would be saying too much – about one of the final decisions, it was one of the best ending-moments I've seen for any character.

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