Through the lens of prep

A Viricorne Guide is a game where adventurers or other travelers arrive in Viricorne, the Reborn City, and are guided around it. It is a city of judgment, and people come there to be judged (and do other things). The text, as inspiration, has a dreamy, smooth quality to it, like a digital painting with lots of hot highlights, where even a picture with blood in it looks peaceful. My read is relevant since it informed my prep.

I should say that Pablo and I are in the “People & Play” course (please, take it, and feel free to reach out to me directly if you want more on why to take it), and one of the homework assignments was to play A Viricorne Guide. If I were to read the text outside of this context, it might not be the kind of thing I’d immediately want to play, although if a couple friends had come to me and asked me to run it, I would have read it and been like, “yeah, I can find enough in here to get excited about in order to genuinely want to run this”. And so it was.

After fifteen years of playing roleplaying games, I am still firmly a beginner when it comes to effectively prepping a game session. Prep usually makes me pretty anxious, but I did my best to jettison any notions of being entertaining, needing to create “hooks” (“come here!”, “go there!”, “see THIS!”) or artificial drama. The book gives a few paragraphs each about a number of groups, institutions, and places in Viricorne. So for prep I simply looked at each of these and thought about what kind of people might be in them, what they might be doing, and what they might want. Then I wrote that down and moved onto the next. My priority was to create people and situations that interested me and might potentially have reasons to interact with adventuring types, though I didn’t put a strong stress on the latter, trusting my gut and the imagery from the book. The prep pages I used while running the game are below:

It was probably too much prep, but I’m not sure how I could have prepped less and still felt on my feet during the game. A lot of prep definitely wasn’t used, but it did flesh out the world in my mind and give me the confidence and flexibility to not try to fall back on anxiety-control tactics to get the players somewhere. I felt able to let them truly drive the action while also populating the scenes with people who would be there doing believable, interesting, and actionable things.

The game starts with a guide NPC, Sholor, meeting the player characters in a watering hole at the base of the mountain city. The text is written in Sholor’s voice (a deliberately ambiguously-sexed character), and this voice flowed pretty easily into running the game and this character. The character creation process is this: Sholor asks the player characters who they are, and why they’ve come to Viricorne. That’s it. We actually started the game with me, in GM voice, asking this to Pablo, and after he gave a pretty detailed and juicy answer I checked myself and said “let’s back up—okay, we’re in this bar with a marble bar-top, and Sholor approaches you looks like this, and you’ve just said all that to Sholor, right…” Essentially character creation happened in-fiction with the players revealing their characters in their own voices with some “people don’t know this about me” asides. We had:

-Pablo playing Lucas Crimsoncloak, a fake adventurer. He’d found a sword and a cloak of an adventurer named Lucas, and left his farm to assume this identity. As he knew Lucas had committed crimes as an adventurer (what adventurer hasn’t killed a Manlike?), he came to the city to be judged and put that behind him. We never found out the character’s “real” name.

-Rodolfo playing Erick, a shady merchant. Erick had some possibly-criminal activities in his past, and was coming to the city to look for opportunities. In contrast to Lucas, who had a clear backstory such that we could see him change in play, Erick’s uncertain backstory meant that play for his character was about finding out who he was. After the game Pablo said something about how for Erick the session was really a character creation session.

The resolution mechanic in the game involves doing “Plaque Actions”. There are 9 plaques in the game, each requiring the spending of two specific tokens (so “Love” requires spending “give” and “release” tokens, while “Murder” requires spending “kill” and “take”). Each player gets some tokens randomly to start the game and doesn’t get any more. You can spend tokens yourself to complete actions, or another player can help you by spending one of their tokens, too, OR they can place one of their tokens on a plaque as a suggestion that you should spend the other and do this action (this does not confer to the suggesting player any fictional authority over the action; it is simply the player showing that they would like to see you do this action and are willing to spend a limited resource to see this).

So it’s a bit like triggering a move in Apocalypse World, or something, except that if you try to Heal someone, the Heal move doesn’t just happen; in order to actually heal you have to spend tokens, and then we play the outcome of that, based on fairly open and interpretable rules text for the Plaques themselves.

Some things that happened in the game, and their relation to my prep:

—Lucas had Things To Do this session, and immediately wanted to taste manhood (my interpretation as GM-audience) by getting in a fight. The city has a plaza for debate, wherein one must pay a tax and state a proposition; then anyone else who wants to debate can begin interlocution. This is all in the book and I had prepped it as such, along with various debates going on and observing characters, which I brought into the scene in a background fashion. In what was my favorite thing I contributed to the session, I decided on the spot that formal fighting took place as “debate”, i.e., “I can kick your ass” vs “no you can’t”, and Lucas went down to the debate plaza near the Sap market and fought a boar-man, killing him by paying the price for the Murder plaque.

—In the same area, Erick interacted with a sap merchant. I hadn’t prepped any characters or situations here, but since I had stated solid things about what was going on in the debate area, not having to come up with a bunch of stuff off the cuff there, it wasn’t taxing to do that in this situation, which was immediately following the previous. I believe Pablo paid one token toward the “Ruin” plaque, tempting Rodolfo, who paid the other token, and we roleplayed an interaction with a sap merchant, showing that Erick had a past with this man, and further that the man was afraid of Erick. Erick was the picture of conviviality, but underneath his words, the threat got across, and it was clear to all of us that Erick had just taken over the man’s business. We still didn’t (and don’t) know the history there, but for purposes of the situation and resolving that interaction, the specifics didn’t matter much and it was actually fun not to know them in that moment.

—We got to see a “Love” action resolved. Lucas visited the plaza of the prostitutes, and I mentioned a couple of them that were in my prep. However, Lucas opted to wait on an empty cushion, in the customer’s seat, for a couple hours until a prostitute named Niloufar arrived. He had a conversation with her (interesting? conventional? that I chose a “her”. I had just described man-on-man sex occurring in the plaza prior to this, but I went with the “expected” here), telling of the exploits of the adventurer whose identity he had subsumed, which she said was romantic, but that romance was not love. She pressed him for the truth of himself which he revealed in an oblique and quite touching way. They parted, love having been transmitted. Niloufar said he was welcome back the next day (i.e., for sex), but that she thought he had gotten what he wanted.

Personally, for me, this resolution was very satisfying on a moment-to-moment basis as well as in the outcome; it came about through both of us directly playing the characters. I would have been stumped and tired if I had been told to, like, “come up with” a resolution where we see one character love another, but simply playing our characters and knowing that we were heading in that direction worked wonderfully.

—Near the end of the session, the characters finally found some Judges. I had prepped two, one gregarious and surrounded by a crowd of happy people, and one stone-faced with only the occasional petitioner showing up and leaving dejected. I wasn’t interested in tricks: I thought it would be best to telegraph the kind of judgments one could expect and let the characters choose what they wanted, or thought they wanted. This was definitely the single point of my prep that had the most impact on the session, as both characters interacted with the judges. Erick took the happy one, and paid off his debts (using the Pay-Off plaque), a man free to continue doing business in the city. Lucas took the stern one, and though he made logical arguments for the legality of his killings (both from his subsumed identity and the real one we saw earlier in the session), the judge couldn’t accept it, and gave him the choice of banishment or exile to the Corne of the Animal Kings, a dangerous section of the city.

As GM, this was a tough moment for me, as I wanted to play the judge true to what I saw of her character, but in the moment her judgment felt a bit too arbitrary for my tastes. It does seem true to what my intention for her in prep was, but still…I think it was because Lucas did have persuasive arguments excusing his actions, and my response as the judge wasn’t similarly eloquent; it was simply an “I don’t accept your point of view.” A bit of a flat note from me, I think.

Looking back over everything we did, my prep wasn’t incredibly impactful on play, but then I had hoped it wouldn’t need to be. It was there when I needed it, and it gave me touchpoints I was excited about playing when I needed to fall back on them, rather than trying to conjure them up in the midst of play, which tends to trigger my “Entertainer GM” anxiety. Playing the game wasn’t an experiment; I wanted to play it honestly and engage with it on its own terms, but my prep was a bit of an experiment or perhaps challenge to myself: can I go with my interests, my gut, with what I think will work, just play the characters, and not worry? And I could, and did.

So that’s a help for me going forward.

2 responses to “Through the lens of prep”

  1. Having played this game for my own People & Play I have to say that I am not sure there is a sweet spot of prep for it. It certainly turned out different than expected and am not surprised that a portion of the prep did not get touched on.

    I tend to be the classic over-prepper, but am working hard to change that habit.

  2. THROUGH THE LENS OF PLAY, some complementary notes, from Lucas’ perspective:

    – I indeed came to the table with a very concrete idea, which felt like it came together nicely from a rough notion of a character (cloaked swordsman, but not quite what he seems, an impostor), and the necessities of the setting (you come to this city for judgement). “Lucas”‘s whole thing then is that he is risking death in order to assume the identity of an adventurer, because that’s how much he hates being a farmer, which is what he really is.

    – The main NPC in this game is a guide you hired to show you the city. It didn’t occur to me until now that this explicitly sets a dynamic where you have to tell the GM, in character, where you want to go and what you want to do.

    – Because judgement felt like such a final thing, I quickly decided that Lucas wanted to have a chance to live it up before his potential punishment. I chose to use the Murder plaque because a) it fit the theme of being a swordsman and b) I had the tokens to pay for it. Had I not had the tokens to pay for it, I would have probably still done it, but doing it with Rodolfo’s help would have sent the story in a completely different direction, as Lucas would have been guilt ridden instead of becoming cocky and self assured after his first kill, which is what happened (these contrasting effects are dictated by the “Murder” plaque rules).

    – After playing through the fight scene, Erick had a scene in the market exploring commercial opportunities. It occurred to me that the only action that suggested enrichment was to “Ruin” someone else, so I suggested it by putting one of my tokens in that plaque. Rodolfo agreed and the scene Hans describes above unfolded. However, in doing this I inadvertently used up all of Erick’s “kill” tokens.

    – And here is where I got into power gaming mode: it was obvious by the way Erick was being played, that he wanted to avoid judgement. The most obvious action for this was “Pay-Off”, which requires kill tokens, so I skimmed the rules looking for anything that could allow Rodolfo to recoup one of them. What I found instead was that, if I used the love “plaque”, paying for it myself, then my tokens would count as anything I wanted when paying for other players plaques.

    – So, the ugly min/maxed power gamed truth is that my initial motivation for that love scene was chiefly trying to procure tokens I thought “the party” was in desperate need of. But… the scene itself was quite good, very fun to play. In fiction, Lucas decided he wanted to die with love in his heart, and willed himself to fall in love with the first prostitute to heed him.

    – In the end Lucas was given the choice of die or leave the city forever, and I did not know what he would want, so Lucas asked Erick to decide for him. They left the city together, with Erick acquitted and Lucas now working for him as his bodyguard (beats being a farmer!)

    – Finally, one thing I believe Hans forgets about Lucas judgement, was that the murder he was charged with was the one that happened in play (the only one that he, the fake Lucas, had committed). All other murders (many of them fabrications) he was acquitted of, but the main reason the Judge gave him for being punished was that this murder had happened within Viricorne, thus subject to its stricter laws.

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