Authenticity And The Ghost of Bobby G

So, a third game I ran at Big Bad Con was Locus. Locus has intrigued me for a while because it plays around in the Silent Hill inspired space that I enjoy so much. It is definitely a passion project built by someone who I genuinely believe played it a lot.

In this instance, I used the sample scenario provided with the game. The premise of Locus is that locations have souls based on their reputation or historical providence. It’s possible for people to wound these souls by doing things that ruin or tarnish a location’s essence. Having been wounded the location falls into a kind of violent depressed angry slump that sucks in everything around it. In short, it’s a Haunted House game.

In this case the Locus was The MFV Mulligan, a large fishing vessel known for being lucky. The captain plotted with the ship’s owner to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. The captain brought the ship’s engineer into it who hesitated at the last minute but the ship ended up impaled on a damaged oil rig. Half the crew was thrown overboard and killed in the collision, the other half mutineed and killed the engineer and then were killed when monsters started manifesting because of the Locus going evil.

The game’s prep procedures are very clear. The GM basically prepares a toybox consisting of the following:

  • The Locus. This is mostly about the backstory that led to it going bad. This game definitely believes in maps, although not as detailed as one might find in a D&D-style scenario.
  • Set Pieces. These are little prepared events. Some of them might be placed in specific places but a lot of them are things that could happen anywhere at any time.  Two examples from this scenario.
    • The corpse of the engineer around which can be heard the sounds of his murder. This one is in a fixed location on the map.
    • A ghostly conversation between an older sailor and a younger anxious sailor in which the older sailor assures the younger one that The Mulligan’s good luck will protect them. This is one that can happen anywhere.
  • Spot Effects. These are similar to Set Pieces except they target specific players. In Locus all the player characters have something emotionally weighing on them. In its violent depression the haunted location starts manifesting these emotions. These are all written to happen anywhere, anytime at the GM’s choosing.
    • One of the characters in the game I played had caused a woman to lose custody of her child. The scenario lists one of their Spot Effects as seeing the woman’s silhouette walking about the ship.
  • Clues. These are anything that reveal the backstory of the location. Again, some have fixed locations like the correspondence between the owner and ship’s captain plotting over the insurance scam is located in the captain’s quarters.  But most are free floating like the word Mulligan written over and over on a wall circling the word Lucky which is scratched out. The GM is told simply to bring these up whenever they want.
  • Monsters. Monsters are not placed on the map like you would in a dungeon exploration scenario. They are to be fielded whenever and wherever the GM wants. Monsters have three sources.
    • The Locus Itself: This is kind of a “boss monster” that represents the wounded angry soul of the location. However, fighting and killing it is not ideal as the result is the total destruction of the location. It’s very much the “and then the haunted house burned to the ground” outcome. In this case that’s The Scylla which looks like a floating, chained up mermaid with a harpoon through her.
    • Any NPCs Trapped In The Locus. In this case that’s just the captain. The Piscator which looks a bit like a fishing net of tentacles wearing a rain slicker and cap.
    • The PCs Themselves: The GM is supposed to derive one unique monster type from each PC.  This game had two so that meant The Neglect which is a kind of fungus that grows on safety equipment and The Toll, a kind of spider-like monster made of flesh stretched over machine parts.
  • Finally, the GM is supposed to have some idea about how the location could be healed. This is the better option than killing the boss monster.  In this case there is a giant gaping hole in the ship (a literal wound) that needs to be repaired and the ship started again.

When I was looking over all this I noticed two things. Positively, none of this is organized into a “plot”. There are no scenes. The clues don’t point anywhere specific. It’s just a collection of stuff about the location.

However, I also note that much of it is of limited interactivity. The monsters exist primarily to fight or run from.  Everything else is inert or recorded memories. It’s purely experiential and informational. What exactly am I, the GM, playing?

One take is that I’m playing exactly one entity: The Locus. The Locus is in pain and is lashing out both in anger and as a cry for help. Set Pieces, Spot Lights, Clues and Monsters are its methods of communication. In some ways I’m reminded of the board game Mysterium in which one player is trying to communicate something to the other players but is only allowed to do so by selecting from a hand of cards with paintings on them.

But does that just add up to the ghost of Bobby G? A sort of time release panama canal? I was hoping to find out by playing this and… I kind of didn’t because of what actually happened.

Thankfully, the game does not frame the player characters as a team of “location healers” or anything like that. It’s pretty clear that the player characters are to be built as ordinary people attuned to the subject matter suggested by The Locus. In this case, the PCs are tugboat operators who receive a distress call from The Mulligan. They are told that the tugboat operation is in dire straits financially and that if they can salvage The Mulligan and rescue any survivors they’ll get a substantial cut of the insurance money which is necessary to keep the business afloat. Their livelihoods depend on it.

This was the very last slot of the convention, so it was unsurprising that I only had two players. One was the tugboat’s engineer who had previously caused injuries with lax safety inspections and a deckhand who had caused a woman to lose custody of her child.

The two men board The Mulligan while their own captain stays behind. They head straight to the bridge tower where they find a young deckhand named McKay who tells them about the mutiny and they discover the correspondence between the captain and the owner about the insurance scam. They also find a newspaper article about The Mulligan’s unusually lucky past.

They also witness several ghostly events. They see ghostly images of the first mate ransacking the captain’s quarters. They see a figure that flickers in and out of existence at the ship’s wheel. The deckhand sees the silhouette of the woman he wronged walking along the deck of the ship. They see ghostly figures through a skylight wandering around in the ship’s kitchen below.

And then they encounter their first monsters. They come across some patrolling Piscators and that’s when they decide to NOPE out of there. They engage in a fighting retreat back to the tugboat.

On the tugboat they discover that their captain has locked himself in the console room and appears to be bound up by a fungus growing out of a dead cat. They also can’t find McKay, who they had sent back to the ship first. They decide they’re going to cut the tugboat loose, go into the lower deck, tear open the engine and try to override things to get it started and just hope someone picks them up out at sea.

Below deck, they encounter The Toll and fight their way past it to the engine room. While the engineer tries to start up the tugboat, the deckhand searches for McKay but only catches little glimpses of him here or there but is never able to fully find or interact with him.

The engineer finally manages to start the engine and they pull away from The Mulligan. At this point I asked the players if they had any problem ending the session early and they were both fine with it.  So I just said, “The tugboat heads out into the eerie sea, and you are never heard from again.” (More on why I said this in a bit). They both laughed and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” The whole game lasted 90 minutes.

Here’s the thing I want to focus on about this particular play experience. I think some people would consider this session a failure. They didn’t solve the mystery or solve the problem. But I argue that it was incredibly successful because every moment of play was very genuine and sincere. There was an incredible and palpable sense of authenticity underlying the whole thing.

These two guys were completely committed to the idea that they were playing two blue collar guys sent to do a job. And when that job turned out to be full of monsters, something they are not used to, they decided to flee. They even had the conversation about the insurance money and the tugboat’s financial problems and landed on: they can find another job, they can’t find another life. They aren’t heroes.

So why the bummer ending of, “they are never heard from again”? On the surface, that can look like punishing the players for failing to engage the scenario but it’s actually a function of the rules. You see, Locus takes into account that the players might try to run or even end up in a kind of “lie down and give up” state.

There’s one other thing the GM is supposed to prepare when building a Locus. The Layers. Generally there are three layers. These layers are basically like sub-dimensional versions of The Locus each one progressively more haunting and weird than the previous.  It’s like literally sinking into depression. So when you’re going over your map, you’re supposed to write three descriptions of each area, one for each layer.  For example, the hole in the ship goes from just being a hole on Layer One to an actual bleeding, fleshy, infected wound on Layer Three.

Now, here’s the thing, there are things that can only happen on certain layers. Deckhand McKay can only be found on Layer One. Monsters don’t show up until Layer Two. The Captain and The Scylla only exist on Layer Three. Most importantly escape is only possible from Layer One.  When the players started the tug boat they were on Layer Two.

How do the players move from Layer to Layer? Over the course of the game, the players draw playing cards from an ordinary deck. When all the players have 4+ cards they are on Layer Two and when all players have 7+ cards they are on Layer Three. Falling below those thresholds moves them up a Layer.

Players draw cards when they encounter Set Pieces, Spot Effects, Monsters, act according to their character’s Vice and every hour of real-time play.  Players automatically discard any cards whose suit matches the suit of their Virtue and they can discard other cards by acting in accordance with any of the four Virtues available in the game.

When I saw how little interactivity the GM prep typically has, I began to wonder where the opportunities to act virtuously were supposed to come from? My own guess was confirmed by this play: by taking action toward each other.

The players actually did manage to discard a couple of cards while engaging The Piscators. They really demonstrated they had each other’s backs. They were going to make it out alive and they were going to make it out together. They waited for each other and they defended each other. One of the virtues is about community solidarity and they were able to discard a couple of cards. For a minute, I thought maybe they were going to make it back to Layer One. But alas, they didn’t quite ditch enough cards and picked up a couple more when they saw the captain and fungus cat and encountered The Toll back on the tugboat.

So that’s why they were never found again. They basically ended up in the “stalemate” condition where they neither truly escape nor heal or destroy The Locus. The game specifically calls this condition out and says the characters become forever lost in the sub-dimensions.

I kind of want to play this again with a Locus of my own design and characters of the players own making.

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7 responses to “Authenticity And The Ghost of Bobby G”

  1. Are the cards the sole fortune mechanic or is there a fortune mechanic at all? From your description PLAY seems far less about searching each corner and more about reacting to the various set pieces, etc…

    Could one “succeed” and still not make it home to Layer One?

    • All the cards do is determine what layer of reality you are in, how deep into the horror of the Locus.

      There is a whole bunch of machinery I didn’t get into, perhaps because I’m concerned that these experiencial effects simply override all the rest of it.

      There is a straight forward attribute-based resolution mechanic. All the attribute’s are negative qualities, so low numbers are better. You are basically rolling to overcome them in a situation. In a heated argument? Roll to overcome your Temper. Trying to work something out? Roll to overcome your Ignorance? In physical fight? Roll to overcome your Clumsiness.

      There are basically three levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium and Hard. These are set by the GM.

      You can purchase re-rolls using a currency called Willpower. The are multiple ways to re-gain Willpower.

      Characters have skills. Skills mostly allow rolls to happen at all or adjust the difficulty of certain rolls.

      There’s a Stress mechanic. Your stress level changes how much Willpower you have to spend for a re-roll.

      There’s an injury system.

      There’s an item management system. Useful, items lower the difficulty of things but they have a limited number of uses before they’re in danger of breaking.

      So you, see there’s A LOT going on. As example from our play: The running battle with the Piscators was like any RPG. Lots of attack rolls. Lots of rolls to close the distance between where they first met the creatures and getting back to the tug boat.

      Restarting the tugboat engine was a Hard, Impatience test. If the character had not had the Engines skill, there would have been a preceding Hard, Ignorance test. The player also spent a large amount of Willpower, re-rolling until they succeeded.

  2. I’m struggling to discern possible conclusions to the big question you’ve posed. You and I have talked about designs which are merely clever in terms of pacing and currency, and spit out “story!!” as an automated process. And I get that you and the players enjoyed the moment-to-moment play; the question is whether this was basically squeezing out whatever fun you could, i.e., playing, while the system chugged along independently with its card-counting and layers. A lot of these ever-so-indie feelies designs are like that. It’s a lot like that old saw, “But you can play [fill in name of game I’m criticizing] well,” which is to say, sure, a musician can make music with anything; the question is whether it’s an instrument with properties that the musician likes and wants.

    I doubt there’s an answer to be found with just this experience. I agree with you that I’d like to try it with an original scenario as well, because the one you played looks over-stuffed and programmed for feelies to me. If that’s true, I sympathize with the authors, because I can attest to my own experiences in trying to provide a “Play it this way, it should have these effects” scenario in rules texts, which always turned out to be counter-productive.

    Last point: I was reminded of your previous post about playing Bleak Spirit. Is there a useful contrast between these games?

    • Bringing up Bleak Spirit is interesting. As you can see in my response to Sean, Locus DOES have a lot more standard resolution mechanisms: Attributes, Skills, Stress, Willpower, Wounds, Items, etc. Bleak Spirit has none of these things.

      IF (and I’m still unsure of this) none of that matters because simply “sinking through the layers until you’ve seen everything” is all that really matters then Bleak Spirit is more honest. There’s no busy work around that activity.

      But Bleak Spirit is also GMless. It isn’t an atmosphere built by one person, presented to all the others. It’s a landscape painting, built by everyone together. But it’s also entirely ABOUT that landscape and I’m not 100% convinced that Locus is supposed to entirely be about the location and its history.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about scenarios where all the GM brings to the table is a threat. Some very, very, very, very early Call of Cthulhu and Chill scenarios are like this. There’s a place, a scary thing lives there and it has certain powers within that place. And that’s it. Like Locus there’s no pre-planned sequence of events but also there’s nothing there but environment and threat.

      These always make me think about certain kinds of stories in other media. The Haunting of Hill House is a good example. The House just does weird things, largely directed at Eleanor. The human value of the story comes from the relationships between Eleanor, Theo and Luke.

      But if those three (and the professor with them) were all player characters in a game then it would be ON THEM to bring that to the table or not. The GM is just playing The House.

      I think that might be the space Locus is trying to play in. The GM is evoking atmospherically things about the player characters in order to give them space to relate to one another. That isn’t an option in Bleak Spirit because there’s just the one wanderer in the space.

      But! I’ve often said that GMless designs are good for when the player characters comprise the entirety of the situation. So, I often ask myself, is something that’s supposed to be like The Haunting of Hill House, not better served by a design with no GM at all?

    • I think the GM topic isn’t relevant. As I see it, we’re talking about playing in the context of content, and I think that who makes up anything specific, and precisely how situational arrangements are made, are procedural dials. They have properties but the basic functionality is the same. Someone has to do these things and I don’t think it’s important whether it’s a single someone or all five taking turns, or whatever. Redistributing situational and backstory authorities (squeeze to one person, disperse to several), or moving the invention of content from text to a person to several people, or before-play to during-play … none of that is going to “do” anything regarding your topic.

      The topic you’ve raised is whether we (everyone) are in fact playing, as opposed to “running through” a bunch of content and getting to act and emote while we do it. The question is, given the content whenever and however it has been established, and at any point within an unknown/partly-known/known matrix, what do we do in terms of response and consequential activity?

      There are lots of games with fixed structures, layers, chapters, et cetera; and rather unforgiving consequential mechanics, i.e., you can try hard and try well but get terribly and tragically screwed over. Many of them, too, include asymmetrical information so that real people are learning things much as the characters are, whether concurrently or not. I think many of these games are very good. But how are they different from the games with exactly these features but which are merely widgets? Specifically, mostly pacing mechanisms, trope buckets, and wide-eyed “now you feel something” claims. This is what my Patreon post about Ten Candles was about. It’s something to contemplate based on your play history, which is especially rich in successes and other varying results for it.

  3. Man, I was grooving right along with this post until the Layers and cards came out. The “You’re never heard from again,” part didn’t sound punishing to me until it turned out that there was a mechanical superstructure the players didn’t game well enough to earn their retreat. Until then, it was just a fun ending to a spooky story.

    From a tactical standpoint, what’s the value in retreating in this game? Aren’t the characters tied to a given Locus? Unless I’m drawing a bad conclusion, there’s no continuity of characters between scenarios, so ending a scenario early by retreating isn’t a strategic investment in future sessions. It doesn’t accomplish the objective the scenario set of getting money through salvage, either. So from the perspective of “playing to win the scenario,” it seems like ending the game early is “punishing” enough.

    From an emergent story standpoint, what’s wrong with, “And then these blue-collar guys were too pragmatic for this haunted bullshit and bailed,” as an ending? It seemed pretty satisfying to you all in this case. And on the flip side, why frame, “and they were never seen again,” as undesirable? I think it’s kind of fun.

    It seems like this quite mechanized, seemingly player-facing, “Be a good boy to earn your escape” system isn’t adding a whole lot to the experience. It seems like you could get just as much out of it by using a single roll on the way out to see if the characters get a spooky ending, maybe modified by the Layer they’re on when they try to leave.

    I don’t know. Probably this is too much conjecture from me.

    • I totally see your point. It’s an aspect of the gamification problem: “to make this fun, by which we mean obsessive or addictive, we have to combine sequential equilibria with operant conditioning.” Gamifying something which isn’t, and which has its own criteria for enjoyment, doesn’t work; gamifying something which is already a game, on its own merits as it were, doesn’t work either.

      One of the reasons I brought up Bleak Spirit in my comment above was that, in reading Jesse’s post about it, I felt an urge to find and play the game. It sounded fun. This one doesn’t. I think what you’ve written nails why.

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