The Merovingian

We played 1 hour of Cold Soldier with my friend Benoit. Benoit was playing the Cold Soldier, I was playing the Dark Master. I was facilitating the rules that Ben had not read.

Cold Soldier formalizes a lot the distribution of authorities.

Backstory authority is shared between the players. In our game, we decided together to play in the past, and that the Dark Master was a powerful sorcerer. We decided to play somewhere in our region (Belgium, more specifically around the Silva Carbonara and the Ardennes, a chain of small mountains), during the Merovingian rule, with a shared agreement that we should be bound by historical accuracy and that we can be influenced by Sword & Sorcery literature. We were in some kind of local barony, in the old, abandoned castle of a previous king. Part of this castle was transformed into a Monastery – not the post millennium Dominican educated thing, but more Irish Monastic hardcore austere culture with stylite fanatism. The Dark Master was an old Superior Monk corrupted by some entity he worshiped.

Situation authority is fixed and influenced by the GM through the designation of tasks.

The aenda I gave to the Dark Master was, as I discussed explicitly with Ben, “something between the objectification and submission of women and ethnic cleansing”, without a clear decision. Those are not trivial things to put in a game so we can deal with it without endorsing them. This orientated me to gives, as Dark Master tasks, the obsession of submitting the local Countess a mind-shattered slave, but also to infect and control all the women of the local people by infecting them with some insect magic and controlling them to create a dark beastly army.

Here are a few things that I think are relevant for discussions.

  1. Reincorporation. This one is the most important thing for me. I find it difficult to creatively assign new tasks ie. Playing the Dark Master. It may be my own need to improve a skill of reincorporation, I don’t know. When I played S/Lay W/Me with Christoffer, the game went so smoothly, and I’m trying to identify what I do or not do that may make things difficult for me. I still struggle, as a Dark Master, to find repulsive task and agenda that are not just a patchwork of body horror made up scene after scene. I know that this post and particularly the discussion has been milling in my head for long with this type of game and may be relevant: I found myself someone trying to make up something, kind of nowhere, like I don’t see anything in the outcome of the Cold Soldier scene that inform me to reinject a new task that is not made up from nowhere. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Specially when the Cold Soldier resisted to the task, and it affected the Dark Master’s plan. I’m sure I have something to deconstruct here. Here are the tasks I assigned:
    1. Go into the royal crypt of the castle and bring me the organs of the ancient queen. I described the opposition as a sacred aura repealing the cold soldier.
    2. Go slaughter the Monks in the Monastery, except the Superior Monk.
    3. Take this weird disgusting head-sized spider larva and force the local Countess, Fredegund to eat it.
    4. Open the way to the Spider-creature so it can infect the county.
  2. Agency. To the opposite, Benoit was really good at doing his job. I really appreciated what agency was at a specific moment of the game. During the assignment (a) (“go into the royal crypt”), Benoit remembered a memory about him when he opened the perfectly preserved queen’s body to get her organs. The scene described was two royal stone sepultures, with the tomb of the king being open and empty. I was throwing him the idea that he could himself be the king, that he could activated through a memory recall. I didn’t communicate this to Ben. , Ben chose to describe a memory of him hunting a dear and opening it, while he was opening the perfectly preserved queen’s body. At this moment, I really felt “yeah, it matters a LOT that it’s not anyone playing the Cold Soldier”, memory narration has a huge impact on the game.
  3. Character’s goal. Ben chose to resist the Dark Master’s orders directly after the first task. Instead of bringing back the Superior Monk to the Dark Master, he killed it first, remembering how this Monk welcomed him and healed him before.
    1.  Then, once the Cold Soldier entered Fredegund room during the night, Ben stopped the game and asked me “why should I resist the Dark Master at all? Why should I have any motivation about that?
    2. I answered by getting by to the rules of the endgame (which Ben didn’t read), what were the stakes of the Cold Soldier and how the mechanic of cards, and flashbacks could lead him to lose any type of desire himself and just be an objectified tool. The text couldn’t answer by himself, so we had a discussion about “The Dark Master is not a quest giver, he is a terrifying bully controlling your life”, and Ben discussed about how it all makes sense that he built himself his own character’s motivation to resist through the use of flashback.
    3. After that, Ben was suddenly far more attentive to the cards and how it works, trying to build his hand in his hole. He played very hard for the resistance of everything that he (and I) found repulsive in the Dark Master’s plan.
  4. Emergent themes. It may be relevant to say how Ben resisted and how those repugnant stories of woman objectification went in play:
    1. Ben successfully resisted to the Dark Master’s order to force Fredegund to digest a weird spider larva. After our discussion about the motivation to resist, he called for a memory recalling that he was Fredegund lover. He blocked her door and forced the Count to ingest the larva, which created a horrifying spider-count-creature, locked up in his room.
    2. The Dark Master ordered to free the Creature so it could impregnate the whole country. The warned soldiers of the castle were running around there and formed the opposition, and Ben resisted by pushing the guard to kill the creature.

That’s how we ended this game. Unfortunately, the Cold Soldier failed to secure his stake (who became obvious: protecting Fredegund), and failed to kill himself into the flames, the will of the Dark Master bringing him back to him.


6 responses to “The Merovingian”

    • I think you used the correct

      I think you used the correct term. 

      Backdrop concerns anything which is known to "exist" but is outside this particular situation entirely. In this case, the best reference is historical time. What was going on in geographical China during this entire play-experience? What has happened in the (real) world since these events? These things and others like them "exist" relative to the situation of play but are not touched and are barely referenced, if at all.

      Backstory authority concerns the past of this particular situation; it is in fact part of the situation of play. For this game, both players exercise this authority during play, but your term "sharing" isn't quite right. Each player contributes authoritatively about the past in different ways and at different times.

      An example of reincorporation which may help you: think about any memory that was contributed by the player at any point. You, as the Dark Master player, are able to use that information as a minor or major component of the ongoing situation, accepting it as part of the past, perhaps elaborating upon its role in the past, and showing its relevance in the present.

      In one of the games I played (I was the Dark Master), the player had the soldier remember that he had himself been a scientist, a member of the mad scientist's research team. During the next turn, I described the mad scientist lecturing the dead, inattentive servitor body all about the "next phase" of the research. In other words, I had learned that the two characters had a prior relationship, so now I described the immediate scene of the next turn and role-played the scientist's expression of that relationship as it stood today.

    • Yes, what I meant is that the

      Yes, what I meant is that the production of the Backdrop is shared by the two players (here: "Merovingian kingdom, with rude ascetic Monks and Warlord-Thug Kings"), but in our session we may have gone a bit too far into storyboard territory by agreeing on situational elements (which should not be reached through consensus, very clearly). 

      Now that you mention it, it was easier when a flashback was called (not always the case). What was more difficult, I'm reflecting this with youre example (and I'm wondering if I did this right of wrong now), was to assign a new task every turn – once we got the resolution of the previous one.  I felt like I had to create this task from scratch. "Ok bring me those organs", "now kill this person", "now go there and do that". It didn't felt bouncy, and I may have failed to see from what content I could imagine a new task, instead of pausing and saying to myself "so, what is this Dark Master doing right now". I felt stronger this lack of bounce when the Cold Soldier resisted. Also, I was considering that I have to create a new tasks every time, even when the previous one failed or was resisted. Now I'm wondering if that the task could have been the same, with the conditions having chanced as a result of the previous outcomes. 

       I'm reflecting about what you said with the flashbacks and how I did, it makes lots of sense.

  1. Turns and commands

    I decided to extract this topic from the comment thread above into a new one. If I may paraphrase, you felt as if you were starting from nothing with each new task (command), without a sense of necessary continuation or momentum from the events of the previous one.

    I like calling them commands rather than tasks because I am thinking in terms of role-playing the Dark Master. That point will become relevant in just a moment.

    First, let's clarify a few things in the rules about these commands, the events of play, and the outcomes from the Dark Master's point of view. We are talking about a powerful sorcerer, a genius scientist, or a vengeful god, yes? Please tell me you are not playing one of these without some idea of a grand (probably insane) plan and big goal, including why.

    • If the soldier fulfills the command, the Dark Master gets something they want … but they wanted it in order to advance a plan, to proceed along some course which results in a bigger goal. The soldier's success mean they progressed, but not only that, they did so in exactly the way they wanted to progress. I am not saying that you, the player of the Dark Master, has to have the grand plan outlined beforehand, but you are playing this next command very much as if the Dark Master has. You do need to understand the Dark Master's perspective, motivations, and goals well enough for this next command to be obviously necessary, and not only that, it depended on the success of the previous command.
    • If the soldier fails the command, review the rule carefully: the Dark Master is not thwarted in their immediate goal. They do get what they wanted, but not the way they wanted it. I think it is important to play the next turn showing exactly this point, however you interpret it. The Dark Master may have been inconvenienced or forced to do something else they didn't want to do as much as use the soldier, or they may have been thrown a significant curve and forced to re-evaluate or re-locate or anything else drastic, but during the interim between turns, they were not blocked from what they are trying to achieve in terms of the bigger goal – not at all. The soldier may have failed, but ultimately, by whatever means or contingencies, the Dark Master did not. Therefore the command is just like the previous case: the next step. Perhaps adjusted or re-evaluated, but progress nevertheless.
    • If the soldier defies the command, all of that is different. The Dark Master is thwarted. This part of their plan is lost. They must shift tactics at the very least, and very likely re-assess their entire planned path; this is also why I like to have NPCs with ideas of their own and all sorts of relationships with the Dark Master, because in these circumstances, the Dark Master probably has to concede something or sacrifice someone or otherwise change their situation relative to other people, when they would prefer not to. In this case, the new command is born of desperation and re-assessment, perhaps even irrational flailing.

    Given this understanding of the specific rules (the three outcomes' contents are explicit and original to the game), then your task is not to decide "what could be cool next," but rather what the Dark Master commands given their new circumstances and what they have or have not achieved. Nor should you consider the previous tasks to be concluded. They are in fact "over" as commands + tasks; they cannot be repeated. But their effect, as a sequence, is very much alive and active, as the situational change the Dark Master is now experiencing.

    Does that make sense? It means the player of the Dark Master is indeed potentially quite bounced, by any of the three outcomes, and now has something they very much want to do, as well as a specific emotional (or whatever) relationship to it. That sensation of "what do I do now" and "starting over" and "(sigh) next command, whatever should it be" is an indicator that you're not holding up your end regarding reincorporating the content of the outcomes, especially a failure or a defiance because the player narrated those.

    Consider as well that the soldier player is contributing to the backstory as well, via memories. This does not have to include previous experiences with the Dark Master, but I have seen several cases in which it very much does – in which case, you, the Dark Master player, are receiving information about your character which you absolutely must now reincorporate as part of them, preferably as explicit aspects of their motivations and actions. 

    That's two potential sources of significant bounce every turn. You might want to re-evaluate who is really more like a GM in this game.

    • Thank you for taking the time

      Thank you for taking the time to break down all of this Ron. Yes I had a blurry idea of a goal, not much of a big plan, and a vague idea of why, but I think they needed to be more concrete in my head, and maybe it was not ambitious enough (the final goal was really local, I think it should have been bigger).

      Yes, it makes a lot of sense, and I think I didn't fail at understanding the game so badly. Here is what I think happened, reviewing the experience through the lense of this break down.

      • The game went pretty well, most of my "stuck" moment happened in,when the soldier resisted ;
      • Also, it was in the context of not having much things around the Dark Master. I may have conceived him too much in a vaccuum, the sole source of command without enough fictional environement. I think those things were there in the game but I didn't conceive them as that.
      • Finally, it happened specifically when not much flashback were called, or when the content of the flashback gave very few elements of backstory (just enough so I could build on it, but maybe I didn't see it at that moment. 
      • As a consequence, I was thinking in terms of "assigning tasks" looking for something to assign, without content (or without using content) that could be sacrificed or re-orient the Dark Master's plan.

      We may have finished the session too early to get the basic principles.

      On the other hand,  there were moment where I felt bounce by the Soldier turn when the flashback created the backstory (ie. Fredegund being the Soldier's lover, The Soldier understanding that he was captain of the Countess's soldiers before, understanding the relationship between the Soldier, Fredegund and the Count, etc.).

      The dynamic between the flashbacks and the commands seems key, really not trivial, but also it is needed to think about the Dark Master's anchors in this world.

    • Another non trivial thought about my own misconception. For some unclear reasons, I played Cold Soldier with the structure of S/Lay W/Me in mind.

      The games are structurally very different, so it didn’t work well. The idea of a long term game, and slow play and installation now makes things clearer for me.

      There is no reason why the Dark Master should have direct orders toward the final achievement of its goal – and I think that’s why I was generally stuck when playing the Dark Master (such as in this case). I could have taken more time, the Dark Master slowly building his lair, tools, armies through commands to the Cold Soldier. Next time will surely be better.

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