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From Confusion to the Concrete

See here for the first post in this series.

We’ve played two more sessions of Worlds Without Number. After the first session, one of the players had to drop out—the player who had recognized my prep at the end of the first session and had me scrambling to prepare something else. I decided, since I liked what I had previously prepped (The Tower of the Stargazer), and since he wouldn’t be playing, to stick with that. I don’t know what to say about this second session, other than that it was excellent. The players poked and prodded and explored, finding fun stuff like a cloak of Courser fur (horse-sized lions that some have been known to tame) that the Warrior-class bruiser Demitri immediately donned, a basement full of bones weirdly categorized, and a diary from an apprentice writing about how cruel and mad the wizard had gotten of late, i.e., 60 years ago.

They made it about halfway through the Tower as we ended the session. We went three hours and I could have easily gone a couple more. 

Between that session and the next, the player who had to drop out (Torix’s player) was able to come back. Which was good, but also presented a problem: he knew the contents of Tower of the Stargazer, but the other two players already had their characters fully embroiled in the tower and its situation, so there’s no changing anything that’s been established (luckily, one fun thing in the module had not been established, and since Torix’s player knew what that thing was, I was able to change that into something I am excited to bring to play, if they ever poke at it—in the third session, they didn’t). I was pretty happy with the solution I came up with: since we had thought Torix was out of the game for the foreseeable future, we had previously established that his failed Administer roll to dig through archives and find a quick, safe way to the tower had gotten him into some sort of trouble, and the other two characters happily went off without him. In this case, since he’d be returning, I made a slight change to the outcome of that roll: He failed, and in so doing, was detained for a day or so, but before getting caught he had found documents detailing the layout of the tower and scribbles on some of its features. Basically, anything that Torix’s player remembered about the tower, or half-remembered, or mis-remembered, was now information Torix had, such that joining his companions in the tower wouldn’t be a lame exercise in “playing”, trying to fake like he doesn’t know what’s coming.

I then left it up to Torix’s player – he was free to join the session or not, knowing this is what was happening (I told him that they were in the Tower of the Stargazer). He opted to play, saying he didn’t remember a huge amount, anyway.

And we had another really good session. The funny thing is, Torix never once brought up any knowledge of the tower. Whether the player really didn’t remember basically anything important, or whether he was holding back, I’m not sure. I’m not saying he played incorrectly; however he wanted to handle that situation was his own prerogative. I was just surprised, since I spent some tortured time trying to come up with my solution to the dilemma above (or what was a dilemma to me, and maybe no one else).

They made their way up and down the tower, judiciously avoiding the secret at its heart (voices behind a door, arguing about whether to stay silent or call out to the PCs) while making smart use of acid to avoid some puzzles and traps and straight burn their way to chests full of the plastic-y pebbles the peoples of the Latter Earth use for currency. Then they GTFO. I have a feeling they’ll return; Fincules the mage passed on an opportunity to gamble his soul for a chance at esoteric knowledge, and I know he wants to give that a try. They may try to make the tower their own, eventually. The point is, they still have some exploring of it to do, if they want, but they have for the moment done well for themselves.

They go back to town, which we have variously described as a town, a city, and a village – we haven’t really seen it in action yet. It’s kinda small, but also the center of the nascent army for the Marklands. Anyway, they are all concerned about bringing thousands of pebbles of wealth into this relatively small social sphere, and perhaps being made targets because of this. So they kibbutz about what to do: let’s leave immediately after we rest a couple days (recovering some System Strain they’ve taken on their journey), let’s just buy some basic equipment, let’s hire some people out, let’s tell no one what we’ve found (Demitri tells his mother, whom he lives with), let’s contact some authority around here to see if they can ensure our protection, etc.

It’s all well and good as a discussion, but pretty quickly it becomes a haze of uncertainty: what’s actually happening, who is actually doing what? Torix’s player wanted to use his Administer skill to see if he knew perhaps some underworld organization that would take money in exchange for a few days of protection. Before I could adjudicate whether this was an appropriate use of this skill, or whether he should be rolling something else for that (I’m still getting used to the particular breakdown of activities-into-skills that WWN uses), he rolled and declared it a failure (it was a 3 or something on 2d6) before I had set a number or we really had even established what was going on in the fiction.

I was flustered at this, trying to determine what his roll meant while fielding questions from the other players and trying to figure out what they were doing. Torix’s player had taken his roll as something that had happened, even though fictionally we had no idea what happened. I had taken his roll as something that had not happened, in terms of anything relating to play. Regular Adept Play contributors will probably assume this, but let me be clear: I am not, in this write-up, berating Torix’s player for “bad” or “improper” play or anything of the sort (the kind of thing you see online all the time, supposedly a question about how to handle a game situation but really it’s a way of trying to validate feelings and win a behavioral argument: “What do I do with a player who does Y?”). We had a moment of procedural confusion, and I think it’s because we’re still feeling out how exactly we are handling procedure and mechanical engagement at the table, as players, together, and how that stuff feeds into the fiction.

Eventually it came to this: the Mage/Expert Fincules wanted to secure a promise from an authority figure in town that they would be free to do their business without any harm coming to them, even if they flashed a little more wealth than normal. Before we resolved this, I took a moment to back up and state that before anything fictionally could be established by Torix’s roll, we had to establish what he had been trying to do. I was trying to make sure he had agency around his roll; I didn’t want to handwave it away due to the procedural confusion above. I was giving him leeway to establish what he was doing and make a roll. But he wanted to move on; again, he stated that he had “failed anyway.” So we moved on.

Having clearly established what Fincules was trying to do, I called for a Connect roll, and established stakes before the roll (this is not a part of the rules-as-written of WWN, but in any sort of task-based d&d-like I find it’s a good procedure to make a part of the rules-as-we-play-them). We haven’t had a lot of cause to do this, yet, as there simply weren’t a lot of rolls in the tower. I stated that if he succeeded on his roll, he would be able to find the gruff ex-army magistrate Carys who mostly oversaw matters of law in the town, and Carys would grant that extra eyes would be put on the party to ensure they’d be able to carry out their lawful business as they saw fit. If he failed, I said, then he’d find the same person, but he’d require a bribe of 1000sm to ensure the same thing (about 1/7th of their haul from the tower).

He made the roll, and I described Carys sitting on a marble stool in front of a little broken marble gazebo (? it was the best description I could come up with) in the middle of town, where he often sat to watch the goings-on of people, with his sword across his knees, assuring Fincules of what we’d established. And we ended the session there.

It was a good moment, a refreshing moment, because we came out of the mire of procedural confusion and established something clearly, and in a way that I think made clear how this kind of stakes-setting for skill rolls works in a game like this, which I don’t think was clear to everyone at the table. I even had to reiterate a couple times, after the game, that due to his successful roll, Fincules got what he wanted; he got the stakes we had set, and even I in all my cosmic power as “the” GM could not contravene it. Later on, after everyone had gone home, Demitri’s player made a quip on discord, kind of a joke, kind of not, about wanting to buy something in town, but worried it would put the locals on notice. I reiterated that due to Fincules’s successful roll, he had secured the protection of the local law for their business for the next few days.

Next session we’re adding a fourth player, a pure Expert class. For the record, we’ll then have: Warrior, Mage/Expert, Warrior/Expert, Expert.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

A lot of the issues you raise here are familiar to me. 

A couple of comments/thoughts/observations, presented from the point of view as someone else thinking about (and often struggling!) with these issues.

The “town phase” of dungeon crawling games is particularly susceptible to murkiness. Something like this came up for us in our last Tunnels & Trolls session: the party was back in town after their run in with the necromancer and was debating where to go next. At one point, the question was raised about going to see a wizard who lived in the town who had been asking around about the party to see if they were available to hire out for an expedition. We continued in the kibbitzing mode but then realized that we needed to put the brakes on that and actually set the scene for a conversation with the wizard. In that transition between abstract-zoomed-out kibbitzing and zoomed-in-scene featuring the wizard and one of the PCs there was definitely some weird, jarring overlap: but to go forward we had to say that the abstract-kibbitzing stuff was just that and was not really play.

In that sense, I think you are right that Torix’s player rolling dice from within the middle of the murk isn’t really play. We don’t know what that character is even doing, so it’s impossible to judge, in that moment, if that is the right skill in a rules sense. It’s impossible to say anything about what the roll means, so you later saying that you tried to honor the player’s agency around is somewhat confusing to me: how could they have been exercising agency if no one really knew what was going on?

It does make me wonder if, caught in the murk, the player was understandably trying to find their way out of it, and so was hoping that with a success at a skill (and for this purpose it doesn’t matter what skill), you’d be obliged to throw them a rope so they could get back to playing. In this case, it makes sense why they wouldn’t want to address what the failure means: the failure means they aren't getting a rope, so there’s no point in spending any more time on it.

Regarding Fincules attempt to find a connection: it seems like Fincules’ player expressed their intent, but that you were all still in the murk in terms of what Fincules was actually doing to accomplish that. From my vantage point, this looks like it led to you pre-planning two outcomes that would be decided by a roll (maybe as a way to pull yourselves out of the murk?), which still doesn’t look like “real play”. As a method to get everyone into a real scene (finally an NPC to interact with!) it worked, but it’s a fairly blunt instrument without the honesty of simply hard-framing to a conversation with Carys (i.e., the Connection skill roll here seems like pantomime; there’s no real consequences on the line and therefore no real bounce). (This may be a personal style issue, but I think stakes setting works best when anything said before the roll is kept very simple and vague, because otherwise we fall into the trap of preplaying scenes.)

All of this is to say, I don’t think there’s a good substitute for pausing and focusing in on the basics of who is where and what they are doing in order to get out of the murk. And skill rolls (or other similar resolution mechanics) will only make sense once out of the murk. Does that make sense?

LorenzoC's picture

Related: the "town phase" problem has been the single most frustrating issue I've faced running Circle of Hands, for example.

Defeating and eradicating the "we're in town now, I'm going shopping, who do we need to talk to?" mentality took the best part of the first 2 ventures. Over time the fact that the backdrop elements are so zoomed into daily life events and practices solved the problem on its own, but for the current Pathfinder game I gave up. Towns are "hubs", and trying to do anything different is a waste of time. Only once you bring in individual, named characters the place becomes something with an identity.

Thinking about it, giving a good impression of a community as a densely populated and active collective of numerous people isn't particularly easy.

Sam's picture

Jon's comment says a lot of what I wanted to say when I read your post. I find it interesting that games which involve the crawl seem particulary susceptible to murky town play, as Jon pointed out. I want to point to a few things that I think might contribute to this.

First, scenes inside of the crawl are given a huge amount of constraint. We know what door we just went through, and the GM might have a description of the room being entered written down, or some table to roll on. Either way, especially in the case of a pre-written module, we know precisely where the characters are and what is around them that they can interact with. In this way, scenes in the crawl can have pretty well built in goals for the characters that are clear from the beginning; as the GM is framing the scene (describing the new room being entered), they might describe a noticeable trap that the players are encountering or a group of monsters the players have to bypass in some form. Basically, there is so much raw material for the players to work with (and a whooooole lot of built in assumptions about things like what to do when you encounter lifeforms in the crawl) that play becomes easy. 

Well...transition to the town phase, and all of that can get lost. Scenes need to be framed in a more active manner (not sure if that is the right language), meaning that the players can't just walk into the next room, and by doing so, move play into a new scene. The way scenes are framed in town is just fundamentally different from in the midst of the crawl--there isn't a whole wealth of information that can make the crawl feel like one long scene because of how natural and quick the movement between scenes can feel. I hope I'm adding something useful here.

I'm going to have more to say, to you and others, but I'm short on time and I want to say the first thing before it gets lost in my head somewhere.

From my vantage point, this looks like it led to you pre-planning two outcomes that would be decided by a roll (maybe as a way to pull yourselves out of the murk?), which still doesn’t look like “real play”. As a method to get everyone into a real scene (finally an NPC to interact with!) it worked, but it’s a fairly blunt instrument without the honesty of simply hard-framing to a conversation with Carys (i.e., the Connection skill roll here seems like pantomime; there’s no real consequences on the line and therefore no real bounce).

This is a really striking comment to me, almost stunning. I'm not sure what to think about it just yet. I specifically took the rule of "once the stakes are set, determine the general outcomes of the roll either way (success or failure) beforehand, then roll" from Burning Wheel, where in my experience it has worked well. I was hoping it would give some tooth to the often toothless task-based resolution of d&d-likes; in fact I've used it this way in the past to good effect. I had never considered that this was pre-planning or even getting around real play, and I'm pretty sure that I don't agree with you that it is.

However, my example may indeed be doing this, because I probably zoomed into the stakes-setting too soon, as you said, to pull us out of the murk. Once Fincules said he wanted to find someone, I should have just framed a scene instead of hard-calling for a roll.

Also, can you please tell me what you mean by bounce? It is getting thrown around a lot lately, and I've been pointed to some videos and threads that talk around it, but no clear definition of it has stuck in my mind.

Hi Hans - definitely take as much time as you need with this! As I qualified, my observation was made from a vantage point waaaaaaaay over here, and so further discussion is undoubtedly necessary. (I have a lot of experience with and thoughts about the stakes setting piece of Burning Wheel, in particular, but will hold off on sharing any of that for now).

So - bounce: this has been described in several ways here at the site (here are all the posts with the "bounce" tag, but I'm not sure off the top of my head what would be the best one to point you towards). I tend to think of it as meaning (and am using it here to mean): moments of uncertainty that are resolved in such a way that (a) create “the unwelcome and the unwanted” (in Vincent Baker's words) and (b) set up constraints on future play. 

In this case, I’m using it to mean that by pre-negotiating in some detail the two possible outcomes of the Connection roll, the capability for the the procedures of play (meaning not just the roll here, but everything leading up to the roll and coming out of it) to produce the unwanted and the unwelcome is undermined.

As mentioned, I will defer further comments on stakes setting, especially as it relates to Burning Wheel, for the moment. However, I did think of another potential contributor to murkiness involved in this account, which is the way the Connection skill itself is described in World Without Numbers. I haven’t played the game yet, so this is just from reading, but it strikes me that the Connection skill, as written, is operating at a slightly higher level of abstraction than many (though not all) of the other skills. This means that when it comes into use -- whether by someone saying “I want to use my Connection skill to do [x]” or by someone starting to take the actions that would result in a Connection roll (“I’m going to ask around town to see who knows the most about the goblins who have moved into the Old Mine”)  -- we probably need to be extra careful that we know what this actually looks like and what is actually happening in the fiction.

Sam's picture

This comment is a small addition to my previous reply. How should we think about framing scenes in town, purely in terms of raw material?

Clearly, I think, there is a huge difference in mindset as the one framing the scenes in town vs in the midst of the crawl. I think that in the midst of the crawl, the GM doesn't even really realize that they are framing scenes, and that scenes are indeed transitioning into new scenes. It can be unclear where one scene ends and the next starts because of how subtle the movement is in the midst of play. As I pointed out above, there is so much to work with, and such clear movements in location by the players, that it usually feels trivial to frame a scene (in my experience). 

Then the players get to town, and there aren't any more doors (well...you know what I mean), or corridors, or junctions. But there is a place or a few different places where people enter the town, and places where people congregate (whether or not these are written down is unimportant, it is pretty easy to come up with these on the spot, I think). This is a crude and poorly devised way of saying it, but assuming completely player driven town play (with no real conflicts grabbing at the players), the town entrance is like the entrance to a dungeon, and the choices the characters make (I want to go buy this thing, I want to go speak to this guy) are kind of like branching tunnels in the dungeon. But to know what branches we can take, we have to actually enter the place in a scene. 

I might just be repeating on what Jon has already said...but I'm going to post this anyway. 

Sean_RDP's picture

I have had some thoughts about this topic, but I want to respond here to Sam, first because I think what he has said lends itself to some of my own considerations. In some of the early games and designs, there was no or minimal town because that was not part of the adventure. You might equip yourself "in town" but it was really not much more than a bull pen or penalty box where you waited to get called back into the game. And even though some of the game designs are explicit about the adventure beginning and ending at the dungeon entrance, adventures will often include a town or village. And I think this is because characters (and perhaps players) need a safe place. But also, some skills are more useful in town than in the dungeon.

the town entrance is like the entrance to a dungeon

I feel this is an apt description of the town or village or city. Such a location might have adventures of its own and the local authorities, be they governmental or economic or criminal, will require the characters to interact with and "defeat" them to get what they want. But prepping a town and a dungeon, might be a lot of prep for what is supposed to be a dungeon crawl. Once the jinn is out of the bottle, the town can become a kind of crutch because it is full of usefull informaiton and places to eat and sleep without the threat of a goblin slitting their throat.

But if you treat it like a dungeon: with contraints and danger and the threat of failure, it becomes a place where play can happen and be satisfying. 

Sean_RDP's picture

This interested me and I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. When Torix's player rolled to see if he could use his Administer skill, there are a lot of questions that this creates. It seems from the outside the player is creating some content, a discussion which cropped up recently. Was it previously established that the character has underground ties and that there are gangs? Was it possible to succeed on the roll even if the dice had shown success? Did you establish a TN for the roll? Are there criminal organizations?

As far as the idea of them doing business in the town without being harassed, I can see that as an interesting bit of color. But would it have had any effect on play had the players not discussed it? That is, would you have harrassed them because of their wealth if the players had not mentioned it? Was it something you brought up or they brought up?

I recognize that sometimes I create content on the fly, especially in crawl and crawl adjacent games, to meet player expectations. This is small stuff, stuff that offers solutions to problems that may not even exist. So I am wondering how much of all that was established in play. If Torix had prior info about some criminal organizations, then the roll makes a bit of sense to me. If he did not then it seems very murky. 

I appreciate you sharing your experiences with the game, it has provided quite a bit of food for thought.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hans, getting defensive isn't good. I am stepping in to state my perception that this post probably isn't getting you what you wanted or expected. It may even be that you feel trapped and barraged. That's my moderator cue, regardles of others' intentions.

If you're OK with continuing here about what's been said, especially the stakes issue, then we can do that. But if you aren't liking this at all, then there's no reason to continue, and nothing bad reflects upon you in that.

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