It seems that in this last period I can’t help but look back to the distant past and re-examine some gaming experiences never exactly explored. In particular, I have realized that I have never properly put in writing what I consider to be the best experience with a twosie I have ever had, a fantastic game of Mars Colony. I’d like to focus on it and with any luck extract some interesting thoughts from it. I also kept some notes on some of the doubts that arose during the game, which I will try to integrate to the best of my ability.
Premise and setup
At the time – 2018, if I remember correctly – I was about to complete my master’s degree. I was lucky enough to be in an accommodation with wonderful roommates, and to get to know a fair circle of people through them. One of them stayed as a guest for one night; a very pleasant person and especially intrigued by the world of role-playing games, despite having never tried one. Knowing that they were also part of my interests, this person asked me if we couldn’t play a Dungeons and Dragons one-shot on the fly.
“I wouldn’t know if it would work, I’ve never tried D&D in two,” I replied, “but I should have games specifically for this situation, if you’d like.”
So, we mutually agreed on Mars Colony. It was something quite different from the initial idea, but that did not diminish my playmate’s initial enthusiasm.
Although I had only had a chance to read the manual for an hour or so, the setup phase was very quick and full of insights. Mars, as I remember it, was in this case a planet plagued by corruption and police brutality against a race of insectoid aliens and their sympathizers, an extra-parliamentary leftist fringe intent on blocking the drilling plans of the big captains of industry. From the creation process, Kelly was a young woman, an experienced environmental scientist whose father, who abandoned her during her college years, turned out to be one of the big drill owners on the red planet. I think the game loads a lot of cues at this stage, perhaps too many, but at the same time we felt reassured by the author’s suuggestion of not having to reicorporate everything that had been generated from the get go, but simply use it as a guide when we were stuck. If I remember correctly, we didn’t really make use of the contacts in the four main Organizations: with the notable exception of a reporter of News Corp., they ended up being names spitballed for colour during the Crisis Scenes. This generated a story more focused on the intimate, close relationships of Kelly.
The father turned out to be Kelly’s privileged relationship in this case, and we insisted on him a lot during the personal scenes. The very first scene was the one that set off the spark: I felt as if my contribution was being picked up by this new player and thrown back at me at triple its power. Kelly, from the very first scene, does not mince words: when her father welcomes her at the spaceport, she immediately accuses him of being a coward, and of having no right to introduce himself to her. Playing his relationship as that of an opportunist cloaked in gentle manners, I felt immediately displaced and galvanized at the same time. We ended the first scene with definitely palpable tension-a great start for the person Kelly will have to deal with!
Later, I had the opportunity to introduce an old college friend of Kelly’s, and observing how she related-in a way that implied an interest that was more than friendly-put me in a strange situation, as if I was following a definite lead and not generating on the spot an unplanned relationship. What I mean is that between me and my playmate there were no interruptions, no “but what does this mean,” or “let’s go back, I need to get clearer on this”: input was being launched, and redirected with virtually no effort to the other side. It was very exciting. Going further, the heat of the failures pushed Kelly’s player to ask for more Scenes of Progress. But I think the Personal Scenes, in particular, worked wonders.
Small doubts, big intents
While the Personal Scenes served as a counterpoint, the Opposition scenes marked the corruption and, gradually, the stance of the minority fringe protesters toward terrorist attacks. One of the things I noticed is that we missed an important rule, which requires us to narrate the effects for every single roll of the dice in the Progress Scenes. This way, we probably would have observed even more depth with the phases of Kelly’s plans. Although it was not a significant obstacle in the end, it is something I would like to focus on my next try.
Regarding other concerns at the time:
1) In a progress scene, Kelly decides to advance her own anti-corruption bill after a scandal forces one of the council members to resign. My playmate then describes the measure, and after filing the draft bill rolls dice to see progress on the “corruption” health indicator. He totals a miserable 9 points, and decides to stop immediately. At the time, I remember I was a bit confused whether that result:
(a) indicates the state of corruption as a general phenomenon, and so it fits that it is narrated how the law passed completely after being discussed, but endend up doing nothing, or
(b) also shows the progress of the law, and therefore it would be appropriate to narrate a half solution, such as “it has been filed, but months drag on and squabbles between the parties postpone a final passage”. This was the solution we eventually adopted.
2) After a series of monstrous political beatings, Kelly desperately needs to see her measure passed. So she tries to pressure the institutions from the outside, setting herself the goal of organizing a large protest march to get the bill passed. And she failed immediatly (on the first roll! I really heard a heartbreaking violin in the background). My desperate friend falls back on the mechanics of deception. Again, I was a little confused about the outcome: does deception in this case help turn the march or the general pressure on institutions into an apparent success? We reverted to the first solution, describing how Kelly relied on one of his contacts at News Network Corp. to fabricate genuine fake news about generalized protests in the districts as expressions of discontent over corruption; an event that leads to a hasty passage of the bill.
The problems have not been a significant hiccup. But here a definite choice by my friend emerged: not to use, with the single exception of the march, the mechanics of deception. Even being faced with plans that failed immediately, even confronting him with that temptation of success, for my friend to get his hands dirty remained inconceivable. This began to take its toll on Kelly’s personal relationships, and in particular on her college acquaintance – who in the meantime became her lover. The latter in fact confronted her with her inability to save Mars, and claimed that at least the terrorists were doing something.
At this point, it was getting pretty late and I had suggested we stop, but my friend definitely wanted to know how it was going to turn out, even though he had to run off for another meeting. I remain of the opinion that this very last part was the weakest: we stepped on the pedal on the Progress scenes, and that was when the situation and the narration of events became most frayed, uninteresting. In the end, Kelly failed to bring change to Mars, and she is ignominiously driven from her position. It was still rather emotional, although I remain of the idea that even leaving the game hanging, perhaps during one of the Personal Scenes, would have constituted a more solid climax.
Even so, I still think about the tragic fall of this heroine, and how a game played for the first time with a person totally new to RPGs gave me such strong emotions.
7 responses to “There goes my hero”
I note the hesitation about playing D&D as a twosie game.
I did it quite a bit back in the day, with 1e AD&D. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work with more recent editions.
In some ways it worked better than with a group. There was no compulsion for characters to associate just because they were player characters.
It also put the focus on the lead character, in a way more faithful to most of the source material. In that way, it gave a better experience.
Back in the day, the combination of “D&D = adventuring party” was so self-evident to me that I didn’t even consider a real alternative; I’m glad I was wrong. It is only now, looking at some of the actual play on the site–I am reminded of Noah’s experience with Runequest Glorantha–that I have developed a certain curiosity and confidence in trying to play in two rulesets that are not explicit about this possibility. It’s not a program in the near future, but I’ll take a look at it.
Alan, I think you’re talking about a very long-ago back in the day. I remember all the things you’re talking about, and also that people often played two-player D&D-“ish” games by mail – a lot! for decades.
Back then, the people involved typically had not discovered fantasy through D&D or through a named, visible, and highly marketed media. They (we) had their own notions of fantasy based on their own various readings and encounters, and that day’s party-play doing pest-control in a pre-digital dungeon, spiced with stupid rules wrangles, wasn’t it. Characters made up using AD&D first edition could have a messy feel, a potential for doing things, especially weird things. Moving to back-and-forth epistolary fiction, in which anything could happen, was a reasonable move.
I don’t think latter-day play expectations. say from D&D 3rd edition onwards especially, are well-suited for it at all. I suppose you can, in the most “sure, you can do whatever you want” sense, but I think the prevailing conditions are different now. Doing this thing in its rather bland and genre-familiar form is what it is, that’s what they came for, and it does what it does, and it requires the A-Team array of races and classes.
When I first encountered D&D in high school I was pretty confused by the idea of an adventuring party. When I played for real for the first time in college, I remember struggling to find the fantasy I wanted, because all I had was D&D 3.5. I loved the art, but I was totally confused and bored by the rules. I grew up with an understanding of fantasy from the Conan books and other similar books my dad would give me. I remember vividly the beautiful cover art for the copy of The People of the Black Circle my dad gave me. I think playing the game as a twosie game would have helped me out, but the idea didn’t really cross my mind.
I did some Googling, and it turns out that people are writing articles and publishing adventures for “duet” games. There seems to have been a bit of a spike in interest in these, and solo games, during 2020, unsurprisingly.
This obviously isn’t the main way to play present day D&D/Pathfinder, but it is being done, and in some cases, it has to be done if people want to play at all. The existence of online games reduces, but doesn’t eliminate this.
Are “this century” editions of D&D well-suited for this? That’s partly a matter of taste. I don’t like them. I have noticed people developing quite elaborate backstories for their characters, which are promptly ignored in play. A game in which that doesn’t happen might have some appeal.
That’s a really interesting point, and relevant to my needs right now: the idea that two-player procedures are not only possible but eminently practical and even in demand. I’m working up quick-play take-home content to distribute at events like Gothcon, especially after workshops, with that in mind.
Regarding another topic: this play experience seems to me to be precisely the remedy or needed contrast to those described in Mars Colony: Talking Heads and A new Mars, born in struggle.