My first playtest for Im Reich der Nibelungen has seen seven sessions so far (and three casualties plus a TPK — more on that in a minute –, so I am happy).

Some of the game’s mechanics put time pressure on the players:

(a) At the end of every session, the (titular) magical mists envelop the characters, returning them home. There’s a risk involved and so far, one character has died in the mists and another is currently lost.

(b) After a character has been through the mists twelve times, it becomes so aggressive that the character has to retire from adventuring in the Realm of the Nibelungs. This obviously hasn’t happend yet, but with the game’s stated goal of becoming a renowned hero / attaining level 7, it is definitely on the players’ minds. This rule was a last-minute addition to the game, but one I was very happy with at the time. Now, I wonder if it’s maybe a bit too much.

In the second or third session, Carl, one of the players, declared “We can’t afford to roleplay! We must play fast.” This was, I think, both meant as a criticism and a recipe going forward. Some players followed his lead of not talking to random NPCs (or keeping things brief), not following tracks in the woods etc., others didn’t.

Carl led the party into the frontal assault on 30 skeletons which resulted in a total party kill (TPK) in the last session. He was that session’s caller (a position mandated by the game and in the fiction, too) and pressed on relentlessly.

(I’d like to note, though, that most of this post was written before last week’s TPK. It’s notable, but my feelings haven’t changed much. The frontal assault had some things going in its favor, so it wasn’t only motivated by moving fast.)

I was crestfallen at Carl’s original declamation because it seemed to imply that my game is not a ‘proper’ roleplaying game. I privately disagreed on multiple levels, but mostly kept silent (to leave tactics to the players but also to avoid conflict).

Reflecting on the game here and elsewhere, I’m actually very happy with its high level of action, i.e. the fact that we get a lot done in a session. I partially attribute this to other mechanics geared towards speed (such as the magical need to limit oneself to three pieces of equipment) as well as using (modified) Swords & Wizardry Continual Light, a retroclone of the rather simple Original D&D rules. Also, the characters are mostly low-level so there aren’t many spells and items in play (yet). Still, the pressure is on — and discussions are shorter, actions are bolder, book-keeping is snappier.

An illuminating scene transpired prior to the TPK:

The party reached the village they were supposed to save from the undead’s attacks. Carl wanted to cut the encounter with the villagers short (as the party already knew the location of the undead), but his teenage son Brandon, a guest player that night, talked to the peasants in more detail (possibly even using the first person, I don’t remember). The peasants had no special information (i.e. no clues to give) and I didn’t characterize them much (e.g. their reaction to a bunch of PCs showing up in their village etc.) but I felt that Brandon’s conversation with them led to interesting trains of thought regarding the undead’s capabilities and (non-existent) tactics — interesting particularly, but not limited, to Brandon, who hasn’t played very often.

Still, a trade-off is certainly evident. Conversations do take time and may yield little in tactical terms — but there’s all sorts of value to playing out some things (Brandon claiming agency, a bit of atmosphere, time to consider things, perhaps a deeper relationship to the villagers).

I have no experience with con games (typically limited to four hours from what I hear), but I imagine quite a few of them to go similarly, i.e. some players rushing through all sorts of things.

5 responses to “Speedrunning”

  1. An observation + appreciation

    … that when a participant said "X," it didn't turn into an instant committee design session. Instead, you noted it, went with it, and kept playing. If X was or wasn't something you wanted, or served as a point of reflection for later, then tht's what it would be, or as I like to say, "future you's problem." Whereas at that point in play, play is what's happening, so running with it was the right thing to do. You responded in the best way.

    But there's more to contemplate than staying quiet from a simplistic desire to avoid conflict. I think it's critical to cultivate the behavior to let people's responses be what they are, without debate or attempted explanation, and for play to continue insofar as people want to do it this time. Later comes the time to reflecting upon things like 

    • whether the statement is a concern at all, i.e., understanding that it may not be (no game is responsible for everyone understanding it or liking it)
    • if it is, then what to do as a behavior during prep and play, or what to change as system

    I've found that such reflection varies, as design experience. Sometimes it's analytical and outlined, with circles-and-arrows and deliberate phrasing, and sometimes it's not, and I merely do X differently as a new habit.

    • Thanks for reminding me that

      Thanks for reminding me that criticism need not automatically be a concern for a game as such (i.e. as a design)!

      We're a large group of friends (eight in total) and while many of our friendships have coalesced around RPGs, we're playing different games now than ten or twenty years ago. Hence, it is unlikely that everyone enjoys the same game(s) to the same extent.

      This is one reason I'm wary of "unlimited" campaigns these days, i.e. with no natural or agreed upon end. While Im Reich der Nibelungen's limit of twelve adventures is per character – and characters come and go all the time -, it at least implies a limit of sorts, i.e. when the first retirements happen. I've also suggested twelve sessions explicitly for the current campaign.

      I'm happy that we've managed to move from (ocassionally dysfunctional) illusionism to coherent and satisfying gamist play over the last decade (ranging from 'basically' to 'extremely' satisfying, depending on all sorts of changing factors).

      I can see how defending a design during play would be highly problematic, especially for the designer or GM. Telling my players that this or that approach would yield 'better' results in my game seems especially unfair given that I know more about the module than they do ("Why don't / didn't you try to negotiate? These orcs are really honorable!").

    • (And you don’t suggest

      (And you don't suggest defending a design after play, either, if I read you correctly.)

    • Yes, that is correct!

      Yes, that is correct!

      In my course The Ronnies, here is one of the principles which I actually assign as homework.

      This idea is very far out of most role-players' conceptual range. It probably won't surprise you that some people who've taken the course consider it to be one of the most difficult things I've ever assigned, or even suggested.

    • State the madness just one

      State the madness just one time sounds tantalizing as it does not ask for a marketing pitch. I've pondered this for a while, but you obviously don't need to comment on or correct my reading — I'll happily wait until I finally get around to participating in your course(s), ideally with a new process.

      *** Im Reich der Nibelungen is about dungeoncrawling. Anything I dislike (e.g. splitting the party) and everything I'd like to emphasize (e.g. sudden death) is discouraged or fostered, respectively, by the game's magical laws for its fairy lands.***

      That's it. Everything else flows from that, including the choice of the literary setting.

      "Hey, I have a shopping list for my character. Ten iron rations, 50' of silk rope, …" – "Sorry, man, that's against the Seven Laws. Three items only."

      Won't this feel artificial, stifling, tyrannical, mad? I'll see. That's my challenge.

      (That was illuminating to put into words. Couldn't have said it this way before, else I'd have done so during our consulting sessions.)

      Quit seeking validation — that's tough indeed. I was an illusionist GM for many, many years, i.e. essentially performing for my players (or conducting their performances), so this was a prime motivator. I guess I still seek validation, albeit less so and in different ways.

      Don't explain anything is strong advice and I'm grateful to have discovered this at this site in time for Im Reich der Nibelungen. Writing the game, I had already begun using my layout's sidebars to dexify my various design decisions… Good riddance (saving time and space being just the tip of the iceberg here).

      (I'll refrain from commenting on the equally interesting and difficult 'player side' as it would just amount to more nodding and guessing.)

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