The Salvation of Saint Barbara

Sam and me just finished a game of The Hour of Dog and Wolf and reflected on our experience. This is a discussion about the themes/shared experiences, and the use of plot points.

Sam played Angelo Scabo, a disorganized killer with visions of Saint Barbara in the small ex-industrial town of Charleroi, in Belgium. It was a steel and coil mine industry city with lots of working class people being from Italian origin. Belgium made a deal with Italy to bring labor forces in those industries after the second world War. I was born in that city and that’s why we chose it. Belgium is also know for a famous serial killer, whose case revealed the vast disorganization of the justice system and rivalries between police departments. So we started with that idea. Saint Barbara is the saint of coal minors, a very well known fact in that city, and Angelo believed he could achieve some salvation through her by killing victims the way Saint Barbara was martyred – beheading.

I was playing Alice Lejeune, a young police detective, the daughter of a cop who worked on the famous Belgian serial killer. Her father killed himself for having failed the case and she’s the youngest detective of the department and the object of discriminating behavior about the inability of a young girl to work those kind of case. She has a stable life with friends, although she is foreshadowed by her successful sister and have doubts about whether her boyfriend cheats on her or not.

It went sadly bad for Alice Lejeune who was never able to solve the case.

Some things in the rules felt a bit awkward but we felt so much enjoyment with the good parts that we decided to play the game again, with a few tweaks and maybe a better understanding of how to play better. Here are the main elements our post-game discussions so we can discuss them together.

Plot points

The plot points have various functions and some of them just seem to be badly designed. Three things can be done with a plot point:
1. Make a fictional input or change in the other player’s scene.
2. Change a theme written on the theme map.
3. Add dice to your roll.

During play, we only used plot points to add dices to our roll. The resolution mechanics is identical to the one used in Sorcerer so one or two dices more are really making a difference. It’s really not trivial.

The “impose your will” mechanic, which is adding a fictional input or change in the other’s scene didn’t make sense to us. We were giving ourselves input through tabletalk and this mechanic felt like breaking the process by just, well, “imposing your will” by taking control of a small bit of narration in the other’s narration. We refused to it as it feels like creating a power relationship where it’s not needed, but also at the sacrifice of dice for you roll? Really?

We only realized at the end of the game that plot point could be used to change a them on a sector of the map., so we didn’t use it. It leads us to two consideration.

First, we relied too much on a static view of the themes. Thus, when we rolled “my boyfriend is cheating” for the third time, we would think how to frame a scene with that idea. Sometimes, it was blocking us because it was like reframing something by starting at the initial point. Most of the times, we used it efficiently by ignoring the initial state of the themes (what we established at preparation) but reincorporated the established evolution of that theme. Two examples of scene: one when we blocked, one when we did it well.

“My grand mother needs medical attention” was one of the killer’s theme. She was hospitalized in the first scene then a few scenes were framed in her former house or in the hospital room. It would have made sense to frame a scene at her funeral at some times, but it didn’t happened. We saw that them as static context and not as a possibility for change. It would have been better to bring her either dead or treated at some time.

Another example was Alice’s “I think my boyfriend is cheating” theme. I made an investigation scene related to that theme. This was my last investigation scene so that sense of cheating had been played a bit, with some resolutions in personal scenes sometimes (including one scene where I realized that he actually did not and got reassured). So we decide that I had actually a date with him that I ghosted and just went with the investigation scene.

In the same time, we thought that changing a theme should not need a plot point expenditure. But we want to play it differently. This is what we think: each time we start or close a scene, we review the related theme to see if it has changed. This should not be the result of a mechanic but just us acknowledging if there is a situational change as established by the previous narrations. The caution here is to use that with the established fiction and not as a “hey I want this to happen so I’m changing it!”. The initial mechanic (change through plot point expenditure) doesn’t avoid that last caution.

We may also get totally rid of the plot points. You only earn them through luck, there use for adding dice is hugely consequential. But in the same time, it works as an incentive to focus on improving the two traits who define the character meta-role in the fiction (Obsession about the case, Compulsion for killing).

Themes and shared experience

It sometimes felt a bit of storyboarding to create the themes. The game asks you to bring 4 themes and 4 “shared experiences”. The only difference is that the shared experiences are themes brought by one player through the prompting the other player. So you have to make up 16 themes to write.

Preparation. The process was a bit too long and we were starting from nothing. It felt like the prompting questions from Apocalypse World, with the same problem. This is the problems I identify: as I understand the “questions” in Apocalypse World through the various examples of the Bakers online, their goal seems to be situational framing. Things like “how do you get your gas since the bridge has been destroyed” establishes that the bridge has been destroyed. But then there is no clear explanation of what a good question is, why and to what function. So we had those questions who will create the context of some scenes but we were starting from nowhere to create them and sometimes faced a blank page or just making things up. The process felt too long and at the edge of storyboarding. A possible solution we see is “be boring”. Let’s not try to get a super-cool theme and performance about it, let’s just take the simplest stuff and get t his into play.

In play. In retrospect, we realize that during play, we used the themes only to frame scene and that we could use them a little more loosely. See my “boyfriend is cheating” investigation scene described earlier for a loose use. Sometimes it was really easy to use the themes as a framing device, sometimes it was not. Again, a possible solution may be “be boring”. But also, we think that the theme doesn’t have to be brought as a constrain for framing. Maybe it can just relate to the scene before or after the resolution, by whoever is narrating there – not only the player framing the scene.

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8 responses to “The Salvation of Saint Barbara”

  1. I remember your description of Charleroi in the Patreon discussion of birthplaces. It’s great to see it show up in play.

    This isn’t much more than cheerleading & support for two of your points, which are tightly related.

      “Boring” has shown itself again and again to be a good thing, at least more often than one might think. Overly-hyped crisis at every corner of a character or situation is often merely hysteria.
      Developing starting portraiture or defining components rather than always returning to baseline. It’s especially important for emotional descriptors and for unstable situational elements.
  2. I’ve been watching how you use plot points to introduce fictional elements in your own nordic noir game: https://adeptplay.com/2020/02/11/nordic-noir-role-playing-style/

    In a way, you’re using plot points like relationships in Trollbabe, which makes me reconsider my views about plot points.

    I think we will be cautious to check if we are not actually storyboarding when giving each other inputs through tabletalk – we may have been at the edge on this and crossing the lines a few times. I will reflect on that for the next game (in two weeks) with Sam.

    • This prompted me to review the plot points rules in the book, and like you, I think we never bothered with “add and control elements in the scene.”

      That option seems to me embedded in the notion that the current speaking person controls play, analogous to “writing the plot,” and the plot points are used this way in order to prevent too much single-person writing. But if that notion isn’t true, and the juxtaposition of speakers turn by turn and roll by roll is already functional, then no prevention is necessary.

    • Sam and me had played another game, with me as the Serial Killer, and him as the detective.

      What happened is that we didn’t use plot points at all for introducing fictional elements or control them (even after my review).

      While playing, Sam and me were contributing to each other’s output with a few table talk, introducing new elements with plot points was intuitively not appropriated.

      It’s not a direct consequence, but I ended up with an huge pool of plot points that I didn’t use except for significant roll (my killer didn’t get arrested).

  3. This is one of my favorite games. Whether it has real flaws or I just haven’t played it enough I’m not quite sure. Either way, it is extremely thought provoking.
    Mainly, I’m struck by how effectively the framing table keeps play rooted in everyday life and routines–even if those routines involve killing. The idea of characters living real (feeling) lives that require maintenance, and that necessarily involve routine and breaks from routine, is quite powerful. Certain things demand attention, both from the characters and the players. I might forget about the hero’s boyfriend, but the framing table won’t. This grounded feeling, rather than the freeing feeling of adventure, is something I want a lot more of. I think Runequest establishes a similar feeling because of the relationship of characters with cults.
    The first time I played this game, I was totally unprepared to take the framing table seriously, and I didn’t get how important it was to the game as a whole. I also totally missed the potential for the framing table to change, which I’m excited to explore in Greg and my next round of play. This is a reminder to both of us to take a picture of the framing table at the beginning and at the end of play.

    • I’m not familiar with this game at all but I resonate with your desire for grounding in play. As you describe the framing table it makes me think of the diagram in Sorcerer–that’s full of palpable crisis but also mundane things and people related to a character’s workaday life. In the last session of Sorcerer we played, the GM took a look at my sheet and went, “so how about this guy that’s on there, hmm? You see him every week? Let’s have a scene.”

  4. Hey guy, thanks for playing my game. I’m working on a second edition of the game, so this kind of input gives me a lot to think about.

    One thing that’s important about the framing table is that it’s not the be all end all of the scene framing. Game flow is far more important. The Framing Table is simply an aid to help players spark ideas when they’re not sure where to go next, and remain focused on the themes both players declared were important/interesting to them during character creation. The rules do state that you’re free to ignore the results of the framing table.

    As far as being “boring” on the framing table goes, I think keeping things simple is a better goal. What’s important is that the themes are things players want to explore. The less you go into it from the start the more you have to explore in play.

    Using Greg’s example, instead of putting “how do you get your gas since the bridge has been destroyed” on the framing table, simply put “The destroyed bridge”, leaving the “how do you get gas” part for one of your scenes.

    Regarding what makes a good question, a good question is a question regarding something about the other character you find yourself longing to know. Other good questions are questions that link your characters, like “how did we meet?” or “who did you kill that my character knew?”. These questions establish a connection between the characters from the start, and ensure both players have a vested interest in both characters’ stories.

    You may be right about using plot points to change the framing table. I think that was my attempt to ensure changes were important to the players. My thinking was that spending a resource to change something implies that the change itself has value. Perhaps both players approving of a change would suffice, or limiting a change to something introduced in the previous scene.

    Ron is correct about the “Imposing Your Will” mechanic. The main purpose of that mechanic is to ensure both players remain engaged, and participating. In part the mechanic also give the non-narrating player the opportunity to add some input to the other player’s narration, when the narrator seems stuck or uninspired, while not completely taking over the narrative.

    • Hi Matt, thank you for your input and contribution!

      Here is a few more thoughts after our second game. By “boring” I really meant “simple” or at least, “not trying to create an incredible dramatic drama beat”, there is no need to complicate. I think it went really well in our second game. Specially the evolution of the themes, keeping in mind that they actually change as a result of action within them.

      We didn’t use the “imposing your will” as a mechanic, as we were already offering opportunity, only as suggestion. Sam and me have a good vibe when we play together, at least in my experience – we understand each other, when to say something, when not to say it, and how to respond to our different inputs. I hope he experiences the same. So a mechanic would have felt intrusive.

      But I don’t think we have seen an interest in the Plot points in those two games. I learned from the first game that my Obsession being far lower than Sam’s Compulsion, I would never get a plot point, and Sam would accumulate a lots that he would use in further rolls. During the second game, the situation was reversed, with Sam having a low obsession and me a high compulsion – which gave me a really upper end on following rolls.

      After our first game, I thought it could be an interesting constraint: you have to keep an eye at your Obsession or Compulsion or you will lose the opportunity to win those plot point during the framing roll – and that was my mistake.

      But it didn’t feel like the interesting constrain I expected. I’m not sure if it’s Sam and me still in a learning curve about the plot points use – but I would stick with my first conclusion of playing without plot points at all.

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