Robber baron

Last week I went on a date with L, a person I met online. They asked me out after an online conversation about rpgs. We planned on both meeting up as a pair and creating a group to play Monsterhearts, but found a lot of logistical difficulties and eventually gave up. We were only able to find time to meet up two months or so after we started talking, in which time my attraction had cooled. It was not a very good date. I think they must have felt similarly, because they have not reached out to meet again.

We met up for three hours at a local coffeeshop to talk and play a game, Cold Soldier. In the first hour and a half or so, we talked about our lives and art and such. This was an interesting and rewarding conversation, though I am afraid I came across as megalomaniacal. Then we spent around 30 minutes, maybe a bit less, talking about rpgs. Here I did not comport myself very well; I wasn’t pleased with what L was saying, and a lot of the conversation found me explicitly disagreeing with their words and trying to give counterexamples. Only some of these disagreements are worth noting here: for instance, that rpgs are power fantasies, that players must identify with their characters, that the point of rpgs is to immerse a player in a world, and so on. Unfortunately I think I took on an even more superior tone. I did not change any minds. Eventually, I said, “Well, let’s test it!” and asked to play.

I am not sure if this social context will be useful or interesting, but it looms large in my mind, so I have recorded it.

Setting up

We briefly skimmed the rules. I had not played before, but I had read through the rules several times. I regretted not having sent them a copy beforehand. I also wished there were page numbers on the rules — I mixed them up once and was never able to recover their proper order. Otherwise, I found the rules short, clear, and usable.

L wanted to play the soldier, and especially wanted to be a former doctor and colleague of the dark master. I cautioned them that this should come out in play, that I don’t need to be forewarned about the nature of the monster. L had previously said that they usually play doctors in bizarre circumstances; they have a “type”, somehow.

We decided on 1870s America, with the dark master as a robber baron mad scientist. L suggested that he lived in Menlo Park, where Eddison lived, and I named him Henry Ford. We’d had a decent amount to say about trade unions earlier in the date, so I decided, but did not say, that his evil agenda would be to destroy worker solidarity and become a monopolist.

L described their soldier as a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from tons of corpses, but still somehow attractive, and wondered aloud if he might have memories from all his component people. I said (not suggested) that he probably didn’t, that just one part of him must dominate, whether it was the heart or the brain or whatever else. (I guess that some play groups could get funky with the premise of the game, and make a kaleidoscope soldier, but we only had an hour to play and I didn’t think we’d get anything interesting out of it in that timeframe.) L also said that he was a sort of ghoul-vampire creature, with long claws and inhuman strength.


I described Henry dancing around cackling when he had revived his monster. His first order to the soldier would be to assassinate the head of an underground socialist press who had been stirring up trouble for the factory. L said the soldier couldn’t read anymore, but maybe he could smell the traces of the writer on some publication, and follow that to the press. L also said that when the soldier got to the press, the writer wasn’t there. I was pretty sure this was impinging on my authority, but I didn’t want to trample on them, so I suggested we try the resolution mechanism to see what happened next. I also asked if L wanted to narrate a memory for the soldier, and they said no. L had the lower card, so the soldier failed in a way that did not ultimately harm the master’s plans, and I was to narrate. So I said that the soldier would be unable to track the writer from the press, the trail of scents was too tangled, and he would instead go berserk and tear up the place, killing everyone present. L said that he would take trophies, hands, from everyone present and walk back to the manor dripping with blood.

I have some observations and questions about this initial exchange.

  1. Our entire game was played at a high level of abstraction, with each task taking around five minutes of real time to resolve. I don’t have a judgment on whether this was good or bad. It seems hard to zoom in on a greater detail when the soldier is such a void most of the time.
  2. We fucked up the order of operations in resolution. Instead of the master drawing cards after announcing the order, and then the soldier drawing a card when completing it, we both drew cards at the same time, immediately after we got to a moment of doubt. I only just realized we played wrong now. A shame — in the rules as written, the high card could work as an oracle, helping me to figure out what obstacles there are, and how difficult they are.
  3. When we say the GM narrates the outcome of the scene, what exactly does the GM get authority over? In this session, I temporarily had authority over the soldier’s actions whenever he did not resist. I’m not sure this is the intent.
  4. It might have been better if the soldier had simply returned unsuccessful. I took “the master’s intentions are not subverted” to mean they go through, and the master’s plan advances, but I no longer think that is the right reading.
  5. It was an interesting choice to make the soldier more brutal and evil than necessary. I hadn’t ordered him to take any trophies.

The soldier returned to the mansion with a bag of hands, leading a trail of blood to the front door. I said that the master was furious at this, and I tried to think fast to come up with a way out of the situation. The master cut off one of his own hands, and ordered the soldier to take the hands and plant them on one of my enemies, a muckracking journalist. L had the name of a real period journalist on hand, which was impressive. Again I asked if L had any memories in mind, and they said they weren’t planning on narrating any memories until the third mission at least. My reaction to that was just, “Huh.” I didn’t ask why they had this desire, though in hindsight I should have.

(I think my tactic of suggesting memory narration was not really right; ideally, the other player should get inspired by some small detail of the scene to make a new memory. Then they would develop a character for the soldier. I think L’s strategy of coming up with a character in advance, and planning to dole out memories in bunches, was not right at all.)

The soldier broke into the journalist’s house while she slept in bed. Another resolution procedure. The soldier succeeded, so I described him sprinkling the hands and blood over her. L added that the journalist should wake up and see him. I said that the sight of this monster would drive her mad. After this, she would be sent to an asylum. Everybody would assume that she killed a bunch of people and cut off their hands because she was crazy. This was surprisingly funny because it turned out that the real life journalist had pretended to be insane to get an inside scoop on asylums.

For the soldier’s next task, I had him break into a morgue to get more fresh bodies. Ideally we can replace all the workers with cheap corpse labor. Another resolution procedure. The soldier had a memory of working in the hospital, giving a fond look to the dark master. He resisted the order. L had him bring the bodies back to the mansion, but then, oddly, to give a big speech about how the master’s deed were wrong.

I didn’t think this was in the spirit of the game at all, since the soldier is supposed to be an uncommunicative corpse, but I bit my tongue. L had a strong vision for how the game was supposed to go! I suggested that the soldier might destroy the lab equipment, so the master couldn’t make any more corpses. This would fully deny his intentions. L agreed.

I said the master was furious — obviously — and ordered the soldier to cut out his vocal cords. Resolution procedure, and a memory of doing the same operation on someone else. The soldier fails, which, as I noted in 4. above, I misinterpreted to mean “partially succeeds”. So the soldier tried to operate on its own throat but kind of fucked it up and kind of did it right. It could maybe make grunts or say short words, but no more speechifying.

I viewed this as a corrective, in game and out of game, to the speech. While I think it was a reasonable order for the master to give, I also think that I would have been better served by just reminding L that the creature can’t speak. Maybe? Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.

I think we had two or three tasks after that. The soldier assassinated some competitor and then a politician, Teddy Roosevelt himself, for his trust-busting activities. I had a tough time coming up with tasks. It might have been easier if I had taken failures as “feel free to try again” results instead of “partial success” results.

At one point, the soldier was ordered to do something, I don’t remember what, and succeeded in the order, but L didn’t want him to succeed. Nor did they want him to resist. They just wanted him to have failed. I objected that this was against the rules; if we wanted the scene to go differently, we had options available, but we couldn’t just ignore the results we had because we didn’t like them. L told me that the rules are there to support the story, and when they don’t support the story, they should be ignored. I asked them to abide by the result, and they did.

No more memories got narrated. I suggested that L might take some opportunities for them, but L said it was probably only going to happen if we returned to the hospital.

In the end, L asked for the master to accompany the soldier on his final mission, to assassinate Roosevelt. We set the stakes as “making a regret right” and we drew the final hand of cards. Neither of us knew poker hands, it turned out, so we assembled blackjack hands instead. I won. L suggested what they wanted to have happened, which was to have the soldier shoot at the politician, and then, hit or miss, take a shot at the master, before blowing his own head off. I wanted to be flexible, so I agreed, except that, as the dark master won, the soldier should miss the dark master and destroy most of his brain matter, rendering him incapable of future resistance.


I asked about the themes created in the game. The rapaciousness of industrialists, obviously. I said that, from the little we saw of the soldier, in life he was a doctor, maybe a brilliant one, maybe the one who taught the master all he knows about surgery and resurrection. We know he regretted this because of his big speech, and because he tried to kill the master explicitly to right a regret. So maybe he was naive, he thought his work could stand on its own even though he developed it with the use of the master’s capital, but instead it was taken from him and used for the master’s purposes.

Of course, almost none of that came out in play.

L expressed regret that we didn’t use the vampire-nature of the soldier; we focused on the ghoul and Frankenstein aspects. I made no comment.

They said they liked that the master was a standard industrialist who happened to have a hobby as a necromancer. I chalked this up to my own lack of creativity. I didn’t really know what a necromancer would want, and I didn’t stop to consider how becoming a necromancer might change an industrialist. (Maybe, if we had explored it, this too could have been a thematic statement: being an industrialist is a more important personality trait than being a necromancer.)

We said our polite goodbyes and went our separate ways. No further contact since then, nor any pressing desire on my part. I don’t want to make it out like this is all L’s fault; probably I showed some unflattering aspects to my personality in the first part of the conversation, but that wasn’t relevant to this post here.


15 responses to “Robber baron”

  1. A question for the reader: How much of the emotional/social context was necessary here?

    In hindsight I am not pleased with the line about “attraction having cooled”. That feels both mean-spirited and irrelevant.

    • Speaking as reader, with no moderation involved: it’s a critical insight that people playing = the people playing at this particular time. Nothing about system, purposes, procedures, content, et cetera, is worth considering for a moment except inside that context.

      Reflections about it are hard and impossible to extricate from judgments and feelings. they’re present, period. So one thing I try to do as reader is not to find anything and everything that I might criticize – what’s more easy to criticize than someone else’s judgments and feelings? talk about cheap shots – but instead to internalize and see where I identify and where I don’t.

      Since I don’t want to engage with this site (speaking here, again, a little weirdly, not as site creator and moderator) as if it were an encounter group, you probably won’t see what I think and feel about it. At least for me, there’s benefits from your vulnerability that are better without external indicators such as likes, click-counts, or comments.

    • Ron, what do you mean by engage with this site as if it were an encounter group?

      The rest of what you say makes sense to me.

    • If I were to treat this site as an encounter group, then I would intrude into the interior life of other participants, often assuming what must be in there and passing judgment upon it, or what amounts to the same thing, offering advice; the idea is that the person necessarily needs and wants help, and I aim to provide it. I take excessive care to avoid ever doing this. That’s why I always ask whether I should move into potentially personal topics in the comments. In this case, I am specifically not casting myself as helper or even commenter regarding your personal life – incidentally, you didn’t imply that you wanted these things; I raised the point to establish my boundaries for my own reasons.

    • I had never heard the term “encounter group” before now, so I had trouble understanding you. I have since read the wikipedia page, and now I take your meaning. I think it’s a good move to set boundaries in this way.

  2. Social context is often important in a given play experience. And if I may, this offers a bit for self-reflection. I think having strong opinions is great, but battering folks, even lightly, is not something most folks sign up for.

    I won’t lecture; I have come on too strong in RPG conversations too and it lead to no-play and burned bridges.

    • I agree! That was why I mentioned it — because I think I acted poorly, and I regretted it immediately.

      This had an effect on play, too. I consciously decided not to critique or correct L when they departed from the premise of the game by making the soldier speak, because I felt like I had already been too aggressive earlier.

      I think I wouldn’t normally fumble a conversation like this, about other topics anyway. Generally, when I talk to people about specialist subjects, I have an appropriate amount of epistemic and personal humility. If I know much more than my interlocutor I can guide them through tricky waters while keeping my cool. Oddly, I did not do that here.

      (I do not think I know much about rpgs, except maybe some early editions of dungeons and dragons. It seemed to me that L knew even less, because they had unfounded universalizing views about the whole of the medium. So I thought I still knew much more than them.)

    • To be clear about my last comment: I don’t mean to excuse myself, just to offer a comparison with other cases. In any event, I am probably the only person invested in my growth here, so feel free to not respond.)

  3. This is a courageous and powerful post — about a courageous and notable undertaking.

    While I am not dating at the moment, I am looking for new people to play new games with – I’ll be at an RPG club’s hangout for the first time tonight -, so communicating and managing expectations is on my mind right now.

    I’m unsure of how to navigate a participant’s desire to ignore the rules. On the one hand, I’d feel the urge to say “Let’s roll with whatever the system serves up and see where it takes us. We may well conclude it didn’t work for us later.” On the other hand, the system clearly isn’t working for the other person and their request might not be made lightly.

    (I should add that “the rules are there to support the story” sets off all kinds of alarms for me.)

    In any case, I’m also interested in answers to your questions about Cold Soldier.

    • I’m not sure how much I agree that it was courageous, but I am flattered! Thank you.

      I found it difficult to discuss my beliefs about rpgs in a neutral manner. It’s a little like discussing morality, since both can feed directly into action, and both imply judgement.

      For instance, I’m a vegan. I almost never talk to non-vegans about veganism, because I am incapable of talking about it without preaching and judgement. In some cases, judgement can change a mind (I was shamed into going vegan in the first place, for example) but in general it will only start a fight.

      I definitely *don’t* want to be in the same boat with rpgs as with veganism.

      I quickly guessed that L had some strong expectations for how the game “should” pan out. (A relevant anecdote: they were interesting in playing Vampire *because of the metaplot*.) I still don’t know what I should have said to change their mind — if I could have changed their mind — if it would have been worth it, socially, to change their mind.

      (And how much of my discomfort here was just because I wasn’t accepted as an authority?)

      I’m meeting up with a friend from work next week to play a game, I’m not sure what yet. He’s never played any rpg before. My prediction is that, even if he’s not good at it or doesn’t enjoy it, play will be at a minimum functional, because he doesn’t have a strong bias towards a pre-plotted story.

      I would be very pleased to hear how your hangout goes.

  4. I find talking about RPGs with old friends who I used to game with – and even friends I do game with – increasingly difficult. Going down memory lane with various shared war stories is great, but I’ve come to mostly avoid analysis of what we did or what we are doing now because we are separated by a gulf of experience, understanding and especially aspirations — there’s no converting of people who aren’t already searching. So I am seeking people to either teach me or study with me.

    The club meeting was very nice! There were six players from two different groups who knew each other. We had dinner at small pub and talked about all sorts of games (e.g. Bluescream, a horror game created during the epidemic to leverage various features of videochat) as well as everyday things (e.g. vacations). I expressed interest in one-shots or short projects and, well, we’ll see.

  5. One of the people here wanted to play Cold Soldier and one did not. No wonder play was fraught and frustrating from your end (this is what I’m seeing). I’ve been there many a time.

    It’s no good.

    • Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.

      I heard somebody say “You should want to play this game, with these people, at this time, and if you are compromising on any of those, you won’t have as good a time” or something like that. Of those three big criteria — game, participants, event — at least one and maybe two was lacking for my partner, and one was probably lacking for me.

  6. “I had a tough time coming up with tasks.”

    From my two plays of Cold Soldier, both as the Dark Master, I can relate. However, in my second game I was noticeably better. This is one of the big GM-tasks in the game, and it can be genuinely difficult. But I think it’s a good difficulty.

    That is, it’s the GM’s creative responsibility to take what we know of the Master’s Agenda, the character as we know him or her, the situation as it lies (and has been changed by prior scenes), and come up with the next task such that it is satisfying and interesting to you and the other player. That’s just one of the skills of the game that one can get better at.

    I do think your suggestion (failure = try again at the same thing) just kicks the can down the road.

    • I agree, it’s definitely a good difficulty! In the future, I’d try to establish more of the setting in the early missions. If there were more NPCs milling about, more defined obstacles to my dark master’s rise to power, I would have had an easier job of it. That’s the sort of thing I’ll focus on next time I play as the dark master.

      One other thing I struggled with was making each individual order morally repellent. Like, do I, Canyon, really care about the desecration of bodies in the morgue theft mission? No, not really. In fact I as the Dark Master would want my unkillable mindless servitor to do lots of things that aren’t directly evil, but are very useful to further evils. I’m not sure if that’s in the spirit of the game.

      To be clear about the “failure = try again at the same thing”, I don’t think the world should stay unchanged, as if the soldier never acted in the first place. We’d have to figure out why exactly the soldier failed, and if the obstacle could be overcome or avoided in some way.

      I want to avoid, on the one side, making failure inconsequential — the master’s desires are fulfilled automatically in some other way — and on the other side, making failure too harsh — the master cannot ever seek the same sorts of means to their problem.

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