Slowly Burning in a Quiet and Lonely Hell

While at Big Bad Con I had an opportunity to play my game in development, Variations on a Quiet and Lonely Hell.  I had previously gone through a round of consulting with Ron about this game which can be found here:  Additionally, I have since taken seven of Ron’s classes including The Ronnies which includes discussions of productive play for design purposes.

When you run games in development at Big Bad Con you must mark them as “Playtests” presumably so that players know they are potentially signing up for rougher waters. I was concerned this was going to attract players eager to push at the boundaries of play rather than just play. But thankfully that was not the case. The group of people I got were utterly delightful.

One of my goals for this game is that I want it to be kind of a slow burn. I’m getting a bit tired of games (especially ones that take on weighty subjects) that try to cram themselves into a single session. There are good one session games, but there are a few where I feel like the one session constraint is kind of forced either because the designer felt that would be more marketable or lacked the confidence that anyone would want to commit to the material for more than a single session.

In this game all the characters were each responsible for someone’s death. But the majority of play actually stayed pretty far away from the specific circumstances of those crimes. The closest I think we got was that one character had murdered her child’s nanny in a post-partem depression induced paranoid panic. Her character was wandering around an abandoned elementary school that was triggering memories of the events just following her crime which included spending time with her child during legally mandated supervised visits and discovering that her victim had a teenage daughter.

Most of the others were dealing with content that happened before their crimes. Those scenes either revealed rising tensions that foreshadowed what was to come such as the college buddies where the player character kept stealing his friend’s computer source code, or simply started developing details of the character such as revealing that one of the characters used to steal air conditioning units to sell as junk.

This is precisely the kind of grounded, slow development, basic human experience type content I hoped the game would evoke. A concern being, of course, that the characters are kind of siloed in their own locations and flashbacks. I hoped those situations would be engaging for the players to see develop. I think I saw that happen, especially since the woman who sat to my right (the nanny murderer) was very invested in the developing teenage friendship storyline happening across the table.  We knew one friend would eventually murder the other, but the flashbacks were mostly delightful scenes of the two stealing food and breaking into rooms of a local hotel during the off season.

I did tell the players about the option to meet up with each other between rooms in the building they were exploring. I pointed out that these meetup rooms were kind of odd liminal spaces that exist within each of their locations even though those locations are far apart. This evoked curiosity and even excitement but ultimately no one took advantage of it in this session. I’ll be curious to see if and how this opportunity gets used in future plays.

What I was most concerned about was some of the unusual instructions about how the players are to relate to the characters and the fiction. The game functionally has two Game Masters each with a distinct domain of both fictional content and creative mandate. One of these two GMs is called The Divine Magistrate. They run all the flashback content as prompted by the memories triggered by the characters exploring their abandoned urban locals.

I was pleased that I got a rather enthusiastic volunteer to take on the role of The Divine Magistrate. It’s tough to ask someone in a group of strangers to step up and help run a game they’ve never even heard of before. I had to explain it a couple of times but the creative mandate behind The Divine Magistrate is to take the flashback content proposed by the players and develop it in a direction that will ultimately test the moral and ethical qualities of the characters. Once the player got it, he really got it.  Here’s a really great example:

The memory proposed by the player was that her character was visiting her young son while under legally mandated supervision. In the scene, she turned and asked the supervising officer how much time she had left. The Divine Magistrate had the officer respond that there was plenty of time and that he wasn’t going to rush her.  She then told the officer that she was done and that he could take her son away. The Divine Magistrate at first had the officer act surprised and ask if she were sure, then when she confirmed, escalated by having the toddler son start crying and calling for her. She ignored her son’s cries.

This is pretty much pitch perfect flashback play for this game. Low stakes escalating moral crisis.

The other instruction I was worried about is how I had changed the meaning of card play in Flashbacks. These were changes I made as a direct result of consultation and the classes. Originally the card plays in Flashbacks resolved tensions and conflicts like most games. But the cards represent Absolution (White Cards) and Damnation (Black Cards). What the hell do either of those concepts have to do with who gets their way in a conflict?

So, I started circling the notion of uncertainty. I realized that outcomes are not the interesting bit of uncertainty in flashbacks. Whatever the players do can simply just work as exactly as they intended it to. What’s uncertain is if the characters give into their worse impulses, and even if they do, does that warrant all the torment the rest of the game is heaping on them?

The new instructions I gave to the players about flashbacks was that they should try to stay aware of their own judgments of the character’s behavior. If they felt that their character was about to do something awful that they should pause and call it out by saying, “I’m worried I’m about to….”. Then, they should flip over a number of cards from their personal little Damnation deck until the total of the revealed cards reflects how bad they would feel for following through on that impulse.

I further explained that The Divine Magistrate was then going to have the option to cancel some, or all of the Damnation cards played with Absolution cards. (This is also limited by what cards The Divine Magistrate has in their hand). If all the cards are canceled, then the character doesn’t follow through with their impulse.  If only some of the cards are canceled, then they follow through, but maybe it isn’t as bad as they feel about it, at least in the eyes of The Divine Magistrate.

When I explained this, I could definitely see the players actively processing it. But again, after a couple of attempts I think they got the hang of it. Here’s probably the best example from the game.

The player character was named Johannes. He had a best friend Stephen. We knew that Johannes would eventually kill Stephen as that was the entire driving guilt of the character. The flashback was a time when Johannes and Stephen stole a hotel room key to have a place to meetup with girls. This was the plotline, I think, the table as a whole was most invested in as there was a lot of leaning in and table-talk commentary about it.

The Divine Magistrate had Stephen reveal he was gay and in love with Johannes. The player next to me gasped and said, “Oh Stephen, you deserve better.” We all turned to look at Johannes’s player who said, “I don’t want to me mean.”  I replied, “But are you afraid you might be mean?” and pointed to the Damnation deck. The player’s eyes lit up with understanding and said, “Yes, I am!” and flipped over a single card which was a scary 10.

Unfortunately, I don’t think The Divine Magistrate had the cards to cancel that, even if they wanted to. Johannes literally ended up punching Stephen in the face, sending him sprawling into a bathtub of fruit they had stolen earlier. It was heartbreaking in the best possible way.

I’m focusing a lot on the Flashbacks because honestly, I consider that the most important part of the game. However, I was playing The Adversary, the other GM role. The Adversary is responsible for the horror-fantasy content of the abandoned spaces the characters are exploring in the present time. I was pleased that the flashbacks were productive in pulling out metaphorical content to weaponize. After Johannes punched Stephen, I had the front desk of the abandoned hotel crack open and pulped fruit flowed out forming a kind of juicy ooze monster that lashed out at Johannes.

I was also pleased to discover my desire to torment the player characters was highly informed by the contents of Flashbacks. I found the guy stealing air conditioners more sad than terrible. So, I played weaker cards against him and used lower key images (the clunking motor inside one of the air conditioners appeared to be a rotating head). This is all good because part of the point of the game is to see how the opinions of The Divine Magistrate and The Adversary change about the characters over time.

This is getting long and ramble-y but overall, I consider it a very successful and informative session. I really want to see if I can pull people together to do a longer more in-depth play.


2 responses to “Slowly Burning in a Quiet and Lonely Hell”

  1. I like the idea of those abandoned spaces — and that the Adversary puts pressure on them. What are some possible outcomes of the fruity ooze attacking?

    Congratulations on having the guts to ask for a kind of co-DM in a con game — and finding one up to the task!

    Finally, a question about your assessment that it was “unfortunate” the Divine Magistrate didn’t have the cards to counter Johannes’ massive reaction…

    Was is unfortunate because it would have been more interesting for the Magistrate player to have a choice in the first place? Or were you so invested in the scene that you were rooting for Johannes to be more gentle with Stephen?

    • So, everything The Adversary does is pure attack whether physical or emotional. These are the torments of the quiet and lonely hell. In this case the fruit ooze was literally just a monster trying to harm Johannes.

      Mechanically the cards do straight up resolve the conflict, but the colors are reversed. The Adversary plays Damnation cards (black), and the player plays Absolution cards (white). Defeating The Adversary’s attacks is to drive back the manifestations of the character’s guilt.

      Even physical assaults like the ooze creature can’t kill the characters though. They can inflict scars though that get written down on the character’s sheet. And any manifestation that isn’t defeated can come back, and even begin to leak into flashbacks.

      An example of a more subtle manifestation came after the scene with the mother and her supervised visit. I had that character encounter a doll that simply started crying in her own child’s voice. She tore the doll apart but lost the conflict. Objects like that become burdens (instead of scars) which mean the character must carry some part of the object with them. She took its head.

      There are technically three delineations of manifestation: objects, written or spoken messages, and creatures. However, in play I found those distinctions murkier than I expected and may have to rethink them a bit. In principle I like them but may have to find a way to better express their fluidity.

      As for my use of the word “unfortunate,” I was just expressing my feelings as an audience of the moment. It’s the same way I would say it’s unfortunate Romeo never receives the message that Juliet’s death is fake in Romeo and Juliet.

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