Problems vs. Situations

There seems to be an unending stream of games that assume the players are a team that runs missions. Sometimes the characters are presumed to be freelancers who take on contract work and other times they have some kind of formal employment or indentured servitude or shared cause arrangement with an individual or organization. Either way the game assumes the players will act as a team, go out and do the job, return to rest up and gear up and go right back out and do it again… seemingly forever.

One such game has recently grabbed my attention because it has certain properties which seem to suggest a play development process that I think other games just assume will happen naturally on a long enough timeline. That game is Gravemire and I had the opportunity to run a single session cycle of play which consisted of going on a mission, returning to town, and going on at least part of a second mission.

Gravemire is set in a Louisiana town called Scarstone in 1894. That time and place appears to be largely about aesthetics as the amount of historical, political or cultural content begins and ends with that single statement. A phenomenon called the Convulsion has created a weird supernatural zone around the town. The town is not entirely cut off as there is a boat that travels once a day in and out of the town and out into the rest of the normal world.

The game tells you that people have various interests in the supernatural swamp zone but that it’s so dangerous they mostly contract out to get the things they want done. Thus that’s who the player characters are: people who take on contract jobs going into the swamp.

The thing that I always squint at in these games is that it never seems like missions can be much more than a series of emotionless obstacles and problems to solve on the way to an unimpeachable goal because otherwise you run the risk of the players breaking the game’s formulaic assumptions. The team might break down over disagreements. The group may start questioning the nature of their mission or overall circumstances and employment. They might want to start carrying out agendas of their own. Basically, the game’s assumed structure will break down if the players aren’t committed to a kind of mercenary worker-bee mentality.

Interestingly, the game seems to suggest that missions should be relatively short lasting only an hour or two. So when I sketched out the first mission for use in the session I ran it basically looked like this:

The players are tasked with finding an item of value located in the altar of an old church in the swamp. The path leading up to the church is laden with hidden bear traps. About half-way up the path lies a dead man in robes with his leg stuck in a bear trap. Two giant swamp rats gnaw at his corpse. He carries a confederate military knife and a bible that appears to be printed backwards except for a few words that disappear when you try to focus on them.

Inside the rotting church are four men who are waiting for the arrival of the fifth man who will never come. They have a woman tied up. Their plan was to sacrifice the woman and use the backwards printed bible to summon a swamp god.

The altar in the church is filled with dirt. Buried in the dirt is the skeleton of a confederate soldier clutching the deed to a plantation (the item of value the players are looking for). The skeleton will animate and attack anyone who tries to take the deed.

Now I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a fixed story the players “play through”. The players are given a goal and this prep work is just a location with prepared hazards. It just isn’t particularly dynamic. This is what I mean when I say I feel like I’m prepping a set of obstacles rather than a situation.

Now, here’s where things get interesting. Part of character creation involves each character answering the same set of four questions.

  • What do you hope to find beyond the Border?
  • What brought you to Scarstone?
  • What are you running or hiding from? Why?
  • What do you worry waits for you beyond the Border?

A lot of the players answered these questions with abstractions. But one player named a specific person in two of his questions: Father Jacobs. The character had been a mentee of Father Jacobs and it was pretty clear that Father Jacobs had gone missing beyond The Border in the swamp.

I couldn’t help myself. I instantly made the leader of the four men waiting in the church Father Jacob. He has lost his way spiritually and thinks he has found “the true god”. This felt like fair play because in a non-one-shot game we would have built these characters before I prepped the first mission. Therefore I would have been doing mission prep in the context of their answers.

This led to the confrontation in the church being far more emotionally charged. Reverend Tally (the player character) made an emotional plea to Father Jacobs trying to return him to his faith. The player rolled an incredibly high success which led to Father Jacobs emotionally breaking down with guilt. It felt like a real scene and not just a problem to be solved or by-passed.

Now, here’s where things get interesting with Gravemire. When you return to town you don’t just automatically recover.  You get four Letups you have to spend on five specific activities. The activities are also limited in what they do.  For example the “Learn Something New” activity lets you spend up to four Skill Points, the game’s experience system. So if you have more than four Skill Points you have to do the “Learn Something New” activity more than once and since you can only do four things total that would be at the expense of healing or getting new equipment. So iteratively going into the swamp really wears you down because you’re not guaranteed to be at full capacity each time you head out.

But it gets even more interesting. Each of the downtime activities carries with it a set of questions that either the GM asks of the players, the players ask of each other, or both. These questions develop the relationships between the characters, their motives for continuing to go back into the swamp, and life in Scarstone. The game provides short lists of questions but is clear that you can start asking your own questions. Each activity is themed.

  • Rest or Recovery -> Relationships & Respite
  • Learn From Your Mistakes -> Mistakes, Memories & Personal Values
  • Learn Something New -> Personal Growth & Fallibility
  • Sift Through Scarstone -> Community & History
  • Get Something You Need -> Cost & Associations With Items

The game’s text leaves a lot unsaid or open for interpretation but it strikes me that the GM would prepare the next mission in the context of the answers to these questions. These questions are asked and answered each time you return to town, so you are constantly updating your frame of reference.

Again, because I was playing this as a one-shot I didn’t have that luxury and had already sketched out a follow up mission which we didn’t get to play fully but I did see a hint of the above effect. One player had taken the “Learn From Your Mistakes” activity which basically allows you to pick up a phobia (which the game calls Aversions) for a new skill. The player chose an aversion to the undead which, of course, my follow up mission happened to have. So right out of the gate, a thing which otherwise would have just been a problem or obstacle was emotionally contextualized for at least one player.

There’s one other thing I want to point out about Gravemire that sparked some thoughts after reflecting on the game I ran. Contracts only ever pay out in the abstract currency of Skill Points. There’s no money or reputation or anything like that. Missions end the moment you return to town, so there’s no opportunity for your employer to screw you over at the last minute (unless they were out in the swamp with you). In fact, you don’t really interact with the people or institutions that hire you at all.

It occurred to me that one of the ramifications of that is that there’s no reason a “contract” can’t be a goal created by the players. After context has been built up there’s no reason the players can’t just say, “We’re going to go out into the swamp to do X” because they’re just going to get paid out in Skill Points anyway. Again, the text doesn’t say anything about this but it seems highly supported by all the system components.

Overall, I continue to be very intrigued by Gravemire and would like to do a longer game in the future. It has a lot of interesting little cycles I’d like to explore more.


3 responses to “Problems vs. Situations”

  1. To review the concept: we run missions, we apparently only play the missions, missions are pretty isolated with their own backstories (not involving the characters), and there are some variables which change permanently (including improvement).

    Regarding the topic of set piece vs. situation, I appreciate something you mentioned, simply that the mission has a backstory which provides the GM-material with responsive components, and arguably nuances which allow for responsiveness from the players as well. Therefore playing it is more resonant, more dynamic, less about obstacle-obstacle-boss and more about “annnnd, who knows how this will go, or why.” This can be the case without necessarily hooking in player-characters with specific content, with instead the barest justification for their presence.

    My point about it is that playing through two or three of these has a tendency to create both a time sequence (built of events juxtaposed by before/after, and also of changed character features) and a spatial arrangement of locations. This is rounded out by two thoughts.

    #1. I’ve observed us (the group) to get characterization even without the priming of dictated character hooks, simply through extremely bare justification followed moments of resolution and decisions. A single session into our recent Tunnels & Trolls game turned six ciphers into six personalities, without anyone trying. Similarly, the GM’s attempt to enrich a recent game of Mörk Borg with pre-play team-building questions and loaded backstory conflicts fell extremely flat.

    #2. The spatial arrangement and relevance of prior events tend to creep in, bit by bit, with contextual statements and occasional comments, some planned and some not. I’m speaking here of something more casual than dedicated map-building and developing a regional history; arguably, doing those things without this phenomenon occurring turns out to be sterile.
    For Gravemire, you pointed out two feaures which look like they facilitate the process. Characters do have some orienting personal information, which might be specific (as in your example) or it might abstract or principled, which I like to think of as ready for engagement when the player feels like it. The interim between adventures includes a limited trade-off regarding improvement and recovery, and a related process for new character questions.

    I see your point! These things excite me too, because the processes I’m talking about respond very well to a little mechanics-type encouragement, as opposed to a detailed, deterministic, and dedicated engine.

    I’ll jump in hard with what I think, which is judgy, I’m sorry to say. I think some of us are vulnerable to grabbing such features hard, amplifying and forcing them, instead of acknowledging their casual effectiveness and enjoying it by inclination. It even seems to me that you, personally, have become a little too focused on the specific: e.g., seizing upon a named character in the answers, noting a fortuitous specific correspondence between a player’s answer to a new question, and in your preparation for the next session, a suspicious willingness to tune preparation toward the characters’ issues …

    The key here and I think of special interest for you is that this enrichment process does not have a be a big deal or demand larger-scale play from the basic mission structure. You can still start all play with one foot on the dungeon stair, as it were, and end each piece when they come back to that or an equivalent spot, or with starting characters whose answers to the questions are quite abstract. The value added is still real and often shows up in depth of characterization and a wider range of character interactions.

    Lately I’ve realized that the earlier role-playing texts demonstrate great faith in this process, largely derived from play I suspect, and very soon, within a decade, the texts demonstrate what might be called aggressively zero faith in it.

    • I keep coming back to this reply and reading it. In particular I keep mulling over this paragraph:

      “I think some of us are vulnerable to grabbing such features hard, amplifying and forcing them, instead of acknowledging their casual effectiveness and enjoying it by inclination. It even seems to me that you, personally, have become a little too focused on the specific: e.g., seizing upon a named character in the answers, noting a fortuitous specific correspondence between a player’s answer to a new question, and in your preparation for the next session, a suspicious willingness to tune preparation toward the characters’ issues …”

      Because… yes. I think I forget that situation and player characters can be lightly coupled. Most of my role-playing life I think I’ve let my utter love of intimate theater (four characters or less) and psychological thrillers cloud my thinking about rather basic things. I’m always trying to figure out how to get the situation to more intimately reflect the psyche of the characters. I’m always looking to make things tighter, more intimate, more relevant. I want the wallpaper to speak to your character’s soul.

      Related to this, I realized that I have been unconsciously assuming that mission based play should be building on itself. That the next mission should be an extension or addition to the prior mission. The missions should “stack up” in some way to some final result.

      It simply hadn’t occurred to me to just enjoy missions as episodes. We’ve seen these characters in situation A, now let’s enjoy seeing them in situation B. Situation B doesn’t have to be an escalation of the fallout of situation A, it just has to be different. And neither situation has to be crushingly coupled with who the characters are. Let the players simply engage and express whatever from their character sheets as little or as much as they want in each situation.

    • Since your post and my comment, we’ve been through the Situation and Story class together. One of the mental blocks I encountered among the participants (which caught me by surprise) was how thoroughly bound up the concept of “situation for play” was with “fully known and pre-mastered boundaries for possible events and eventual plot.” It’s as if by saying situation at all, I was also saying hard or soft control of play as an experience.

      But if a situation is merely playable and actionable content, regardless of who made up whatever, regardless of the particular degree of asymmetric information, and very much including all content including player-characters of whatever origin or integration to other content … then it has been demonstrated to me over and over that one only “gets” the kind of integration and consequence that you’re seeking by playing episodically at first, with perhaps some notion of bigger-picture context but much less than what you’ve apparently been considering necessary.

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