A Cliff-Hanger

The game is on permanent hiatus. Tab started school and plays with the local D&D club. Those rules are more her speed and she was not really into learning all BW’s intricacies.

Otlet put in a lot of effort to overcome the caution of the dwellers in the great forest. Tab wanted to do a big Duel of Wits to get the forest Roden on board. Otlet does not have really good persuasion skills and needed an ally to do the grand speeches. Tab set up a Circles test to find some Roden, any Roden with the requisite skills. The roll went well. Having previously burned up Otlet’s sister, I had just the Roden for the job. Sis Persuaded, Mallet Intimidated, and Otlet played out the Dismiss and Obfuscate maneuvers. Otlet won the right to review and upgrade the defences of The Den, with the minor concession that Otlet and other outsider/big city Roden stop pestering the Den’s leadership for a season.

The game has rules for linked contests. I imagined that some possible future assault by the Cataphracts would be a contest where Otlet’s assistance could provide some extra dice. So we reviewed the defences and Tab won some bonus dice. The cannon emplacement Otlet designed was the most significant.

The battle is a long way off. Otlet has other things to do. He need not be present when it happens. I would probably just do some simple Versus roles, incorporating Otlet’s bonus dice, to determine the outcome. I like to be surprised by mechanics and am committed to putting plot-engineering habits away.

But this little story arc was satisfying in itself and we are happy with how it went.


3 responses to “A Cliff-Hanger”

  1. I’m afraid this comment might look generic, but I’ve reviewed all your posts about playing this game with Tab, to ask:

    What reflections of the past year do you think you’ve applied, in terms of situational logic? Meaning, “what to do next” as GM, during play, not between sessions.

    Because it seems to me that you’ve productively reflected a lot!

    • Sorry it took so long to me to respond to the request for more reflection. I hadn’t had a lot of recent gaming experience that I could use to form a useful response to your questions. The last thing I wanted to do was engage in empty abstractions or clever juggling of phrases and concepts.

      The People and Play class gave me perspective on how I have actually engaged with authorities and other players in the gaming I have done since returning to the hobby around 2000. Despite reading all the Forge posts, and pumping out a lot of commentary on discussion threads, I never really took the time to see how I was engaging in dysfunctional play despite being able to throw around jargon. I had been doing a lot of thinking about theme and not enough examination of my practical engagement with systems. I could could talk about mechanics but not examine my use of them.

      I am one of those people who isn’t good at unstructured interactions with other people. If I don’t see a clear agenda like “we are rehearsing a play” or “we are meeting to set up this activity at our school” I sort of flounder. And when a game lacks specific clearly articulated play agendas, I default to the GM-ing tricks that were offered in RPG texts 30 years ago. I loved the way Burning Wheel’s Beliefs and Instincts made explicit each player’s agenda for their character. And I loved the way my GM used the dice economy in Burning Empires. He pulled no punches and ruthlessly pursued his agenda of getting the alien mind parasites in a position to take over the planet. He never took it easy on us. But that game places hard limits on the dice the GM can bring in to create NPCs, to mess with the player characters, and so set up firefights and bid social conflicts. That game doesn’t ask the GM to create balanced encounters or to shape outcomes so that a “good story” is created. What the People and Play course taught me is that it is possible to puruse a creative agenda and avoid dysfunctional play even without the detailed stipulations of everyone’s goals called for in games like Burning Wheel, or The Shadow of Yesterday & Lady Blackbird.

      The first sessions of the online Bushido game I ran were lots of fun. It was a pleasure to meet these interesting characters and see how they behave. But it was distressing to re-watch the videos and see me start doing something completely at odds with the way that game had started, and utterly unlike the way I handled the setting years ago in a Burning Wheel game set in that same territory. That game saw a duel of wits where an impoverished samurai pledge himself for a year to a mountain witch, in return for which she would leave off tormenting the daimyo. A martial artist had his arm severely wounded in a fight and developed a one-armed fighting style, and eventually found himself ennobled. A peasant spearman raised himself to the guardian of a village and captain of its militia. None of that freedom and creativity was permitted in the game I ran online. I cringed to watch myself steamroll the players in that game. Inauthentic or cliched contributions to putting on a play or working on music were always easy for me to spot, and I could stop myself and go ahead with better contributions. But my inability to catch myself crushing any spontaneous input and development was embarrassing. When I directed plays, I prided myself on working with actors’ spontaneous input and avoiding pre-planning how any scene had to go. It was distressing to fail at incorporating creative contributions in what is supposed to be fun recreation.

      Running Champions Now at a convention last year provided a clarifying play experience. I started the action right at the moment of a perilous conflict at Ottawa’s Parliament, no phony preliminaries or an artificial “3 act structure” that led to the confrontation. The Presence attacks allow players to express their characters’ feelings and ideas in a mechanically significant way. There was no need for me to engineer thematcially important moments or insert tropes or cliches in the hopes of inserting some emotional significance or entertainment value into the proceedings. I didn’t have to shape or guide anything. It was like watching good improvisers create a meaningful scene instead of forcing the humour or resorting to making faces and putting on funny voices to get the audience laughing.

      That convention also allowed me to create a ritual goodbye to the the bad memory of the online Bushido game I ran. That was the first game I ever played with Tabitha. I looked at it as an opportunity to kill all the NPCs I had so lovingly created for the online game. I just cut to the chase: the player characters were all compromised by having done missions for a criminal overlord who was now creating a coup against the daimyo. The players found a way to even the score with that overlord, eliminate the pretender to the throne with one carefully employed spell, and save the daimyo, all while keeping their shameful ties to the criminal overlord hidden. Sure, it came at the cost of the castle keep being breached and the daimyo losing 20% of his troops. But (public) honor was preserved. The players created drama and conflict and found their own way to tackle the meaning of honor. Tabitha said it best when she remarked “the game was kind of boring until we started getting our own plan together to deal with the bad guys.” Truer words were never spoke.

    • That’s maybe harder on yourself than necessary! The change is definitely profound.

      Here’s a thought: that Lady Blackbird and the other titles you mention are not merely thematically focused, but explicitly or too easily pre-directed. They “have” themes … but not to develop, merely to display. The kind of openness you’re describing steps away both from them and from the floundering.

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