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Ghosts of Coalridge - a Polish game from a Polish channel

Ron told me that I should post something on Adept Play - even if it's in Polish!
And while I'm still skeptical as to whether that's a good idea, I'm happy to oblige.
So, all the videos are in Polish, while I'll try to provide some context in English, for those who're interested in the entire thing.

Some history and context

So, the year is 2019, and everyone in Poland who plays roleplaying games and has a computer starts their own YouTube channel. The reason for this is, I believe, that the no. 1 channel with recorded game sessions becomes more and more successful getting a lot of views and recognition, while a lot of hobby veterans recognize that the content presented on the channel is lacking at best.
So, well, if this guy can do this and be successful, surely us, who play better games and who are better at running them, can be successful too. And also since everybody else is starting their own channel, we have to start ours ASAP, because otherwise we'll be left behind.
(Obviously it didn't start in 2019, but I believe there was indeed an influx of channels around that time.)

One such channel was Dobre Rzuty. And while the channel started with an attempt to "do Warhammer, but better" (4e has just hit the market), it was quickly obvious that the focus will be more on less known, but better games.
I'm not saying Warhammer, Call of Cthulhu and D&D (the (un)holy trinity of Polish roleplaying) are neccesarily bad games. They are, however, often played just as if we were still in the 90s, with linear adventures and a dictatorial GM who has to practice either illusionism or railroading to get the players through the adventures while maintaining that the players have agency.

And so here we are, Poland, 2019:

  • A lot of mainstream gamers not knowing that after the early 2000s anything other than the new editions of the Polish RPG staples was released. (And if they do know about "indie games" they usually regard them as a needless attempt to improve the hobby by people who "just had bad GMs")
  • A bunch of weirdos playing indie games, seeing the mainstream gamers as troglodytes.
  • A reasonable amout of people in between, who often have stopped playing roleplaying games in their late 20s.

And there we are, June of 2019, after the merger od Dobre Rzuty channel with the Pożeracze Umysłów podcast, deciding that we'll take a serious stab at the YouTube thing with a Blades in the Dark campaign.

The practicalities

We've decided on Blades in the Dark, because it was new, we liked it, and we believed that it might be something Poles might actually be interested in. The idea that someone might want to watch us play a roleplaying game was still somewhat weird, but again, we decided to give it a try.
We decided on a compromise between actually playing a game session and creating a "product" out of this for YouTube. We would have cameras, obviously. But aslo a good mic and some studio lights. (Bartek from our team already had those, so that was super useful.) We would also play with no music, and the music would be added in the post-production. We just didn't have the sound system to make it sound good on the recording itself.

What was my goal as the GM

I've quickly proposed myself as the GM. And I had a reason for this. For a year or two I've been championing the idea that a good story is very important in a RPG game (unless that's explicitly not the goal), and that a story has to fullfill the basic story structure to be fully engaging.
I've met a lot of critics - both the people who were disagreeing with me as to whether a story needs to have such a structure to be good, and the people who believed that making that happen at the table during play was impossible in anything other than a linear adventure (and I didn't want to do that - I wanted to have both the player agency in the story, and the story fullfilling the structure).​​​​
So, I knew that I had to try it out at the table. And so as to add some difficulty to an already difficult project, I decided to do that with our Blades in the Dark campaign.

My approach (which was a result of some experience) was to improivise a lot while also having a clear idea as to what the story arcs are, what stage are they at and what do they need to move forward.
So, basically I did 2 hours of prep before each game. An hour to think about what has happned during the last session, what the story arcs are and what direction I should nudge the story towards. And then an hour to write down what's the next dramatic question that needs to be answered in each of the story arcs and how I can press for an answer. I didn't decide on what answer I would like - just that I want SOME answer.

Oh, I've also asked every player to write down two beliefs of their characters. The game awards xp for expressing drives and goals, but often it's not clear as to what they are, so introduced a little bit of The Burning Wheel into the game and asked for two beliefs each. Those beliefs were crucial when coming up with consequences and conflict for the characters.

The campaign had four story arc:

  • The main story about stopping the evil bad guy from moving into Coalrdige district with his technology of controlling ghosts and making them work at factories.
  • The personal story of Lydia, the cutter of the group. Avenging her former mentor by killing the killer, or giving up violence to pursue her passion of theatre?
  • The personal story of Kevin, the spider. Will he stick to his own, the Skovlanders of Coalridge? Or will he ignore his neighbors and his family and do things his own way?
  • The personal story of Vukani, the whisper. He wanted to help the ghosts of the city - but how?

The result

It worked, I believe.

A lot of campaigns I've listened to start strong and then loses a lot of their momentum over time. And they often end without a feeling of satisfaction.

Ghosts of Coalridge managed to do the opposite. XD

People often told us that the campaign is slow to get going, but once it does, it becomes really good.

What also helps is a great climax at the end. A combination of a solid building up of stakes, an important dice roll that had unexpected results, a great improvised speech when everything was crashing down, and then all the story arcs being ready for a closure, giving us a nice epilogue.

The climatic moment: https://youtu.be/QrzKCTvJj48?t=2270

How was the "prduct" received?

My friend started watching as a courtesy, because she's a friend. But after few episodes she was constantly bugging me for pre-release episodes, because she wanted to know how the story ends.
That's a huge success in my book.

We've managed to do what I think I've never experienced before over the years: a really satisfying ending to a campaign.

We've also seen people we don't know recommend the campign to other people we don't know as something they should watch. That's also a huge praise for what we managed to do.

Was it still a roleplaying game?

An interesting topic that I think I won't be writing on here. However, I aknowledge that it exists. The relationship between the game itself, for us, the participants. And the "product" we have created based on that, complete with music and visuals, that people could watch.

To what degree did "creating a show" influenced the way we played?

I'd say "surprisngly little".
Gosia and Bartek were, to my knowlesdge, stressed and/or distracted to a signifant degree by the cameras. At least at first. Mateusz, the extrovert that he is, less so.
I think I'm rarely able to "enjoy the moment" as the GM anyway, and always am creating an experience for others. So doing this was actually kinda natural.

Some details I forgot to mention before

  • Some of the viewers started playing Blades in the Dark because of either that campaign, or because of another campaign we did later with some other channels. For sure we had more success convincing people to play something other than Warhammer with this rather than with podcasts and/or game reviews.
  • We have actually translated the game's glossary to Polish ourselves before starting the campaign. Before we knew there would be an official Polish translation and release.
  • We played out a lot of the downtime actions of the characters. Scores took roughly a half of the campaign with downtime and freeplay taking the other half.
    I would usually ask what the players wants to do during downtime, and then I'd try to frame the scenes including any characters or events I needed to press for the answers the story structure required.
  • I've been using roughly half of the things I've written down in prep. The other half was discarded due to the players' decisions and I've improvised something else instead.
Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Simon Pettersson's picture

I've been curious about the Polish RPG community for some time. Been toying with the idea of learning Polish for this reason (I'm a big language nerd, though I've been planning on making Czech my first slavic language). Thanks for posting!

svart_vind's picture

Ha!

Both you and Ron have mentioned being interested in the Polish RPG community.
Why is that? Are we doing something particularly intereting? ;D
I'm asking, because I'm actually curious for an outsider's perspective.

Also, I'll give a higher priority to doing some interviews with experts on RPG history in Poland. I joined the hobby in the early 2000s and I have a rough knowledge of what's been going on since. But the history before that is more interesting, as mid 2000s is when most of the people in Poland get access to the Internet, and because of that join the global RPG trends. So, as the time moves forward, the Polish RPG culture seems to get less unique.
Funnily enough, the more someone plays indie games, the more "global" his or her RPG thinking is, usually. So the most Polish approaches to the hobby remain in the more traditional cricles. With people who refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed over the last 30 years or that it needs to change at all.

Meanwhile, I know little to nothing about the Swedish community. Or, actually, about any community other than the Polish one and the global, English-speaking one. (Which is probably normal for 95%+ of people)
Ok, I have heard one thing from my friends who play LARPs. About the "Nordic LARP" thing. Or specifficaly about the "dying in the cold water" style of games. Where the games keep revolving around various heavy topics with a significant amount of both mental and physical suffering.
(Don't shoot me - I'm just a messanger!)

Also, good luck learning Polish, should you decide to do it! Or Czech. Or any western Slavic language. For Poles everything Czechs say sounds funny. It works the other way around as well, as far as I know. Same with Slovak. I wonder if that will also be the case for someone who's not a Slavic language native. ;p

Simon Pettersson's picture

Both you and Ron have mentioned being interested in the Polish RPG community.
Why is that? Are we doing something particularly intereting? ;D
I'm asking, because I'm actually curious for an outsider's perspective.

Well, you're not THAT special; I'm a huge language nerd and I'm interested in all non-English RPG communities. But it's interesting that I hear more about Polish games and gaming than, say, German or Spanish ones. It's somewhat unexpected, which intrigues me. But it might just be that you guys are more integrated with the global scene than they are. I don't know.

Meanwhile, I know little to nothing about the Swedish community. Or, actually, about any community other than the Polish one and the global, English-speaking one. (Which is probably normal for 95%+ of people)
Ok, I have heard one thing from my friends who play LARPs. About the "Nordic LARP" thing. Or specifficaly about the "dying in the cold water" style of games. Where the games keep revolving around various heavy topics with a significant amount of both mental and physical suffering.
(Don't shoot me - I'm just a messanger!)

The bigger Swedish games are almost all global brands now. Games like Kult, Mutant: Year Zero, Symbaroum, Tales from the Loop … Even Vampire: The Masquerade is Swedish now, I think. I find it a shame. I like that there are different RPG communities that develop their own play and design cultures, but it's probably inevitable that it all merges into a big monoculture over time.

There are some interesting smaller Swedish games, though. Like mine! Hah. And the whole LARP scene, but I honestly don't know that much about that part of Swedish roleplaying.

Simon Pettersson's picture

Also, your username is Swedish! :D That can't be a coincidence.

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Maciej! Here's my context for mentioning the possible Hantwerks-Dobre Rzuty connection, as well as my usual subtle methods in having you two meet by screen last weekend (although that was more about my needs than a tactical thing about the two of you).

I think it's simple: the Polish dialogues and play, as well as your very honest and (I think) valuable standards for sharing recorded play online, include a spirit of adventure and curiosity toward the medium itself. They also draw on work that came out of the Forge, directly and indirectly, although I do not mean it's merely derivative. These features apply in full - I would say frighteningly, in a good way - to the Swedish community of play, discussion, and design that Simon's involved with, and arguably leading at least by example.

Both are also blessedly free from uncritical advocacy for my work at the Forge, which as you may have pereeived has always been a very unwelcome and unhelpful phenomenon. Both communities are rooted in their own experiences and standards without needing to conform to that body of text, while still being educated and reflective about it.

So ... the potential value for everyone simply to see what each community is doing and talking about it is immense. One of my goals here at Adept Play has been to help such communities overlap, without demanding special effort from them, but instead, adding a little boost and showcase for what they're accomplishing.

svart_vind's picture

Well, you're not THAT special; I'm a huge language nerd and I'm interested in all non-English RPG communities. But it's interesting that I hear more about Polish games and gaming than, say, German or Spanish ones. It's somewhat unexpected, which intrigues me. But it might just be that you guys are more integrated with the global scene than they are. I don't know.

I'm feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief knowing that we're not THAT special. ;D
Meanwhile while Poles seem to be more active and/or visible in the global community is indeed interesting. I'm not sure. I'm also not sure whether it's a RPG thing, or whether it's a broader occurrence. After all, it's hard to find a creative project of any kind that had 10 or more people working on it without at least one last name ending with "-ski".

The bigger Swedish games are almost all global brands now. Games like Kult, Mutant: Year Zero, Symbaroum, Tales from the Loop … Even Vampire: The Masquerade is Swedish now, I think. I find it a shame. I like that there are different RPG communities that develop their own play and design cultures, but it's probably inevitable that it all merges into a big monoculture over time.

True. We know all of these games, and we're aware that they're made by Swedes. Vampire: the Masquearde is now owned by Paradox, although I'm not sure whether it's the entire license or just the video games license. We're also familiar with Fria Ligan, since they've published some important games recently. Not to mention that many of their games are being published in Polish as well. (We've actually finished releasing videos from our Things From the Flood campaign on your channel few days ago.)

Still, knowing Swedish games is different than knowing about Swedish RPG community. Especially since, as you've mentioned, things then to merge into a global monoculture over time, and what we know are more or less recent games.
I guess we'd experience more of a purely Swedish approach to RPGs if we were to play a game from the 90s.

I'm starting to come up with ideas for a "multi-cul-con" or something. Where each nation/culture has their own game is designed to give some experience of that culture. And people from other cultures play it.
Maybe these games could be created during a game jab before the con.
Hell, one could actually start with just two cultures and two gaming groups.

Also, your username is Swedish! :D That can't be a coincidence.

True. XD

I've almost forgotten about that.
I think I've been using that username for something like 15 years now. I chose a non-english language in order to have a less common username, so that I'd avoid it having already been taken on some site when creating an account. It worked pretty well so far.
But as to why exactly did I choose Nordic languages? I'm not sure, actually. It might have been my short viking phase in my late teens. ;)

Ron Edwards's picture

Maciej, thanks again for venturing into our strange waters. This is a great topic and example.

A recurring topic here concerns criticisms of Blades in the Dark, which I consider an ongoing dialogue which isn’t seeking final conclusions. Some of the previous thoughts can be found at Thoughts about Blades in the Dark, comments at Monday Lab: What we have learned, and comments at Conversation: Where little situations come from.

I’ve also recently sounded off about it in my conversations with Pawel, and now I have a perfect place to post the excerpt, right here, when I’m done editing it.

Your play-experiences add a positive side to that dialogue, but also highlights a couple of features because of how you’ve changed them a little. I very much sympathize with your structural approach because it’s a lot like what I did with Champions for a long time. The early generation of that game’s design (1981-1986) was remarkably supportive of player-driven, non-controlled play outcomes, but was also easily distracted into other priorities. So I adopted a chapter structure of preparation focusing on villainous priorities, current player-character crises or potential for them, and other setting features which seemed likely to erupt soon.

I did this with several groups over many years, possibly for hundreds of sessions of play (I recoil from remembering and counting). Back then, we kept succeeding spectacularly and failing just as spectacularly, without knowing why. All the standard advice was in place: shared genre expectations, good personal communication, and the vague, tormented notion that “story” was why we were here. What we didn’t know – and what I learned incrementally – was the difference between preparation with high potential for conflict vs. development of priorities and confrontations.

Whenever I (as GM) over-programmed or expected the latter, all my investment in the former came to grief ... and the more the players cared about their characters and the sitution, the worse that problem would become. It was like a finger-trap: merely caring and merely attending to the procedures of play were not enough, and trying to enforce and formalize the outcomes (“to get to the story”) accomplished nothing, or worse. And yet we succeeded enough, including achieving that strange grail of long-term play, hard-hitting endings to things, that we knew something was good about this.

Anyway, that was long ago and in another country, and I’m giving myself painful flashbacks and probably boring you. What I’m driving at is the role of chapter or arc structure as a preparation and play feature.

It definitely solves long-standing problems: aimless play, including long periods of confused dullness, trails of breadcrumbs pretending to be clues, scattered confrontations based on throwing in danger after danger, or hook after hook.

However, I don’t think it contributes actually to generating stories in the “Story Now” sense by itself. Given compliant, obedient players, the Story-God GM can indulge his or her sense of epic campaign mastery through this very same method.

Champions textual history is quite powerful in addressing this – you may be interested in my blog post On and on and on, especially my comment here. Briefly, we have two very detailed and clear instructions for Gming “a campaign,” both very concerned with chapters and arcs and consistency of content, which are as far opposed as two ways to play can possibly be.

My hope is to get deeper into your group’s methods and standards for using the structure for successful play. I am pretty sure that you (collectively) are beyond merely conforming to it (“we have structure! It’s a story!”) and beyond merely obeying the cues that the initial steps of chapter preparation provide.

svart_vind's picture

My hope is to get deeper into your group’s methods and standards for using the structure for successful play. I am pretty sure that you (collectively) are beyond merely conforming to it (“we have structure! It’s a story!”) and beyond merely obeying the cues that the initial steps of chapter preparation provide.

I've read some of the articles and the comments you've given, although not everything. The sheer scale of the topic is somewhat intimidating, not to mention all the context and things that have already been said and written on the issue. So forgive me if I'll touch upon something that has already been talked about somewhere else in those texts. The alternative is me postponing replying indefinitely. ;)

But if I understand correctly, the core conflict is between both:

  • wanting to give the players more power and agency
  • while also not wanting that power to be used in such a way that the game becomes less fun.

I've wrestled with that issue when it comes to the story creation in Ghost of Coalridge, so I’ll just describe my approach to this campaign and how I decided to run it. That’s not all of my thoughts on the topic, but the topic is so huge that some of my thoughts should be plenty anyway.

 

Boundary conditions

My goals were:

  • To record a campaign that people would enjoy watching for the story.
  • To have the players experience real emotions through the story.

Things I've decided that must be true for a campaign to fulfill those goals:

  1. The fiction (the game's "transcript", if you will) must, in the end, be a story that's engaging to the outside viewer.
    This includes the players as well, as I regard them both the participants of the experience and the viewers of the fiction that's created as the result.
    To me all the agency in the world doesn't matter if you don’t care about the fiction you can influence.
  2. Therefore the basic Story Structure must be fulfilled in all the important story arcs.
    (Also the time spent not on story arcs should be minimized.)
  3. Players should have a significant amount of agency over the fiction, otherwise we're not really participating in the medium of RPGs.
    (We would instead be better off if we were just writing our own short stories and reading them to the other people each week over some beers.)

 

When I write "I've decided those must be true" I mean, of course, some sort of a guess. "I hope I can achieve those goals by doing these things." I'm obviously not saying I have the power to decide what will make the players experience emotions.

 

Blades in the Dark, PbtA and the multiple layers of structure.

The system comes into all of this only now. I've consciously used Blades in the Dark to fulfill my goals, as opposed to trusting the game's procedures and hoping that it will give us a good experience.

Some people have criticized me for that. But it was a conscious choice and I stand by it.

Some thoughts on how Blades in the Dark relate to my goals and the things I wanted to be realized during the campaign:

  • Blades in the Dark has structure. The Score, Downtime, Free Play, in that order. This, however, is not the same as the Story Structure I wanted to have. They work on different levels and do different things.
    Let's call the structure in the game the Event Structure. It tells us "what happens next". The Story Structure tells us "what dramatic question should be answered next". They work on different layers of the fiction and are not exclusive.
  • I don't think Blades in the Dark says anything on the topic of Story Structure. It's actually an issue I have with the game, and more broadly with the entire family of PbtA games. Blades aren't PbtA, I know, but I do treat them as an extended family of those games (or the next generation). In this specific case they share the same problem: if you just rely on the moves to move (pun unintended) the story forward, without a higher-level structure to guide the story, you risk getting a chaotic mess. You might keep asking dramatic questions and never finish answering any of them - leading to frustration and lack of engagement in the fiction. Hoping for music but only getting noise.
    (I treat the Action Roll from BitD as a “attempt a risky task” move.)
  • If someone told me they played an amazing Apocalypse World campaign which had an equally amazing story that also had good Story Structure, and all of that was done by simply “following the rules”?... I'd assume that apart from using the system they also relied on their narrative instincts - either natural or learned. They "wrote" that story themselves while using the game's procedures, but not because those procedures made them do it. At most the procedures might have tapped into the player’s innate narrative instincts by asking the right questions. (Which perhaps, if that’s the case, is not a bad approach. I’m willing to accept that view regarding PbtA games, although I myself don’t hold it.)
  • I consciously decided that while we'll structure the events of the game around the BitD Event Structure (because if not, then why play that game), at the same time I'll make my decisions as the GM, framing the scenes, introducing conflict, etc., to fulfill the Story Structure.
    I actually don't think I did anything different than doing consciously what other people might do unconsciously.
  • This is also the reason why I don't really believe that "just go where the fiction and the mechanics lead you" is good advice and that imposing a Story Structure upon Blades in the Dark or a PbtA is somehow not playing these games right. I might be willing to be more open to what these people say when I actually see them play a game (any system) with a genuinely interesting story. So far I have not.
    I accept, of course, that creating an interesting story, a “product”, in a way, might not be a priority for some or maybe most people. For me it is.

Anyway: I believe this separation of layers is important when talking about structure in a play session.

  • The "what happens layer" (Even Structure)
  • and the "what does that mean for the story" layer. (Story Structure)

When Luke refuses to kill Darth Vader in The Last Jedi he also, at the same time, gives us an answer to the question of "Will Luke succumb to the dark side of the Force" and "Will Luke become a Jedi Knight?".

It's not like he could either refuse to kill Vader OR become a Jedi Knight.

If we played a Star Wars PbtA game the "Decide the fate of the defeated" move would not make Luke a Jedi by itself.

And I sometimes feel like some people believe it will. That the question of becoming a Jedi will somehow be asked and answered by itself if we only keep resolving the moves by the book. Of course this belief might be fueled by a belief that the only alternative to full freedom and agency is an absolutely linear scenario in which the GM writes the entire story in advance.

 

A pinch of Primetime Adventures makes everything better

Primetime Adventures is a game about creating a TV series. Scene by scene, episode by episode. It divides the play sessions into 4 acts and gives some general goals for each of those acts - which in turn inform what the specific scenes should be about.

The model I'm usually using in the games I run is similar. Although I usually use 5 acts rather than 4. I also think it would be better if I called them "parts" or "phases" from now on, because "act" already has some meaning that might be needlessly confusing in this context.
For example, at any given time each story arc can be in a different "phase". But there’s usually only one current “act”.

So, in order to fulfill the Story Structure in any story arc, I want the arc to go through these 5 phases:

  1. Introduction: Getting to know who/what that story arc is about (protagonist/setting introduction), asking the dramatic question: "What will happen with X?"
  2. Exploration: getting to know more about the protagonist, the world, and about whatever X is Asking the question. "Why is the answer to the question from 1 not simple?"
  3. Decision: The moment for the protagonist to make a decision regarding how he or she will move forward regarding X. Passive/reactive approach should be replaced with an active approach.
  4. Crisis: consequences of the decision from 3, rising stakes, preparing to enter part 5. Asking the question: "what's at stake with X?"
  5. Resolution: The answer for the question must be given. Something has to happen with X. Also, the consequences of that answer have to be shown.

In Primetime Adventures all of this is done openly. All players should keep in mind which act they are in and what the dramatic goals are.

In the Ghosts of Coalridge campaign I've decided to take that mostly upon myself as the GM. Having players be responsible for the adherence to the Story Structure makes it a different game. Something I already knew could be done, but didn't want to be the only way I knew in which a coherent story could be created during a RPG session.

And interesting note: during the campaign in many if not most story arcs (all the player character ones, I think) I often didn't exactly know what the dramatic question for that arc was. Only when the answer to that question was given towards the end the question itself became more clear. Still, the vague understanding was enough. The question had to be there, but it had to be felt more so than precisely known.

A lot of games I've played (and run) over the years seemed to be stuck in phases 1 and 2 in all their story arcs. Especially games played using the PbtA framework. Asking questions, not answering them. Endless exploration.
Or, if a story arc was concluded, it was usually from phase 2 straight to phase 5. Like collecting and eating unripened fruit.

 

The non-issue of downtime

I've read that some people have problems with downtime in Blades in the Dark. We didn't. Why is that exactly, I'm not exactly sure. Some thoughts on the matter:

  • We have little to no issue having some amount of a board game in our RPG.
  • We're fine with some "fiction last" play. And while BitD has less of that during Action Rolls than a typical PbtA game has when using moves, the downtime is full of that.
    Side note: I do believe most PbtA games naturally lean towards “fiction last” play. You’re supposed to come up with the fiction first, and then use moves when they trigger. But as you learn what the moves are you start thinking about what mechanical effects the fiction will have, and you start to adjust. And if you prefer some story outcomes better than others, then it’s actually in your interest to start with a desired move and then to push the fiction in the direction of that move.
  • We used the choices of downtime actions as the basis for scene framing. Sometimes the players had some ideas as to what they wanted to do in fiction. And often I had an idea of what I'd like to do in order to move the Story Structure of a certain arc forward. So, for example, Mateusz wanted to "recover". We agreed that the scene takes place in his family home, where his mother takes care of his wounds. And the scene was about the conversations between the family members, which included asking the player character about stuff related to his story arc. "Oh son, what are you doing out there? You're angering your father and also risking your life.", and so on.
  • If we didn't have an idea for an interesting scene related to a downtime action, we just resolved the mechanics and quickly decided on the fiction without creating a scene. Sometimes I believe we played one scene for each character - so one downtime action had a scene, and the other did not.

 

Did it work and what were the problems

As I've mentioned in the original post, I think it worked out. The Story Structure has been realized in all story arcs, and I believe all of them were satisfying - which I don’t think is a coincidence.

There were some issues with player agency though.

First of all, the start of the campaign was somewhat linear, with strong story hooks for the players. However, I don’t think that’s the fault of the Story Structure and me trying to realize it.
The players played a Vigilante crew, and specifically one that was to be formed, not an existing one. (The campaign was pretty much the origin story of the crew.) And so the crew was reactive by nature, and could not start the campaign planning a score.
So, I’ve used more traditional, stronger hooks at the beginning of the game. After that though, the player agency was there, and I don’t think I knew what any other scores would be before the players told me what they wanted to do. (This included one score that was composed of 3 separate one-person scores taking place simultaneously. Whew! But it worked and was great. Also, the last score of the game was also a double score. The spider was in the courtroom, representing himself in a case against his supposed crimes (which he commited, actually). The cutter and the whisper meanwhile tried to kidnap the main henchman of the evil bad guy, possess him with a friendly ghost and then deliver him to the courtroom to testify before the case was over.))

Ok, back to the issues with player agency.

Each of the players was different.

  • One player was more passive and willing to accept most of the scenes I wanted to put the character in.
  • One player played in the author/director stance a lot, and was thinking about the plot, so it was easy to cooperate.
  • And finally one player is the most interesting case. That player did want to do things with the character that I believed to be counter-productive and not interesting for the story. (I’m talking about the latter half of the campaign, I try to be pretty open as to what the players want to explore in the first half - but after that I add story elements that don’t serve the story that’s already being told.)
    Anyway. It was the case of the player freedom vs interesting/fun outcomes conflict.
    What did I do?
    I’ve merged what I could, I’ve subtly guided what I could towards the story I believed was being told up until now, and then when I felt like I had no other choice, I pushed the story forward introducing conflicts to the scenes that the character could not avoid. The conflict was based on what has already happened in the story, and specifically on what the character did, so it wasn’ an invisible wall or anything. More like a dog you own that demands immediate attention barking loudly when you try to go to the animal shelter to bring back another dog into your house.

I stand by my decisions, although I do see the tension between the player agency and whatever the story requires. And that this tension sometimes becomes friction, and that it does, indeed, make some participants have less fun if what they’d like the fiction to be doesn’t exactly align.

Also, an interesting note: the viewers seemed to enjoy the character’s story arc more than the player who played that character.
Funny, especially since usually the opposite is true.

Also, it might be worth writing that I’ve made a decision that should the player insist on moving the story of his character in the direction I wouldn’t like, that I would allow it.
If I absolutely had to choose between a good story and player agency, I’d have to go with the agency. On principle.

One other issue is that running a game like that seems to be significantly more intensive than most different approaches. The GM has to worry about at least two layers of plot at any given time. And the brain does not have unlimited power, so a decreased performance in some other area of the GM skillset might be expected.

 

Other notes
My final thoughts on this approach?
Well. I’d still like more practice. I keep getting better.
So far so good, though. I try running different games with different GM priorities, as to not lock myself into a single perspective on RPGs.

Since Ghosts of Coalridge I’ve actually used a similar model when running the Kocie Łby campaign - a collaboration of 4 Polish groups (3 in fact, one of those “groups” was just one guy). We ran it for charity when the pandemic hit Poland and everyone was stuck in their homes.
I had 7 players and we played 15 play sessions. The principles were the same though. 8 story arcs in total - 1 for each player character and 1 for the crew.
I consider the campaign a success from the story perspective. As for the player experience you’d have to ask the players, but I don’t think I’d be lying if I wrote that it was positive as well.
Recently we’ve been asked for a sequel by some fans, so I guess we must have done something right.

So, that’s about it.
In order to have a good story happen during a RPG session I try to improvise a lot using scene framing and NPCs while keeping Story Structure in mind, guiding my decisions.
I also keep in mind the difference between the Event Structure and Story Structure, trying to realize the latter while creating the former.

 

Story Now?
I don’t think my approach falls under the narrativism banner, as “consciously addressing the theme” is pretty much exactly what I am doing. I just have a set of added goals on top of that. I want the theme to be addressed in a specific way, adhering to the structure.

Oh, and should anyone wonder - no, I don’t really represent any major trend in Polish gaming. I don't even think our channel does that, really.

Polish way of playing RPGs is a story for another time. ;p

Simon Pettersson's picture

Lot of interesting thoughts in that comment, Maciej! And it's interesting to see how you think about certain issues. It's quite different from how I approach them! Do note that I have never played Blades in the Dark. Here's my first reaction to some of the things in your post:

  • wanting to give the players more power and agency
  • while also not wanting that power to be used in such a way that the game becomes less fun.

This, to me, is a strange conflict. Why would the players use that power to make the game less fun? Surely they want the game to be as fun as possible. So if there is a risk of them making the game less fun when using their agency, it seems to me that either they are looking for a different kind of fun than you do (i.e. they make the game more fun for them, but less fun for you), or they don't know that their actions ruin the fun. In the first case, it's not obvious to me that your fun should have precedence over theirs. It's a matter of communication and talking about what you want out of the game. In the second case, it's a matter of practice. They need to get better at finding and working towards the fun. And the only way they can get there is by using their agency! If you restrict that, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Players will not need to think about how their choices are affecting the game, since you will restrict redirect them when it happens, so they won't get better at it, and you are now putting all the responsibility for the fun on yourself, which is guaranteed to make less fun than if everyone is making fun at the same time.

Here's a trick I've found really useful in my gaming: Taking people's ideas seriously. Roleplaying in a story-oriented, creative and emotionally relevant way is scary! If you're putting your best ideas out there and people laugh at them, that would be devastating. So a way that a lot of people cope with that is by putting out ideas that are not their best. By distancing themselves, being sarcastic and funny, it doesn't hurt if their ideas are rejected. What I do whenever someone puts out an idea that is purposefully silly as a laugh, is that I take it seriously. I act as if this was an ernest idea from the player and I make it important. This disarms the ego-protecting behavior. First of all, I'm creating an atmosphere of ernest appreciation. I don't shoot down ideas, which makes people more willing to contribute with their best ones. Second, if I take all ideas seriously, people will have to put out their best ones if they want to protect their egos. If they throw out a silly idea and it is taken seriously, we will think that that's the best idea they had, which hurts their ego. To protect it, they have to put out their best ones!

I realize, of course, that I'm reading a lot into a few sentences, and that all of this gets complicated when you're producing material for others to consume, but hopefully it's vaguely relevant and/or interesting.

I don't think Blades in the Dark says anything on the topic of Story Structure. It's actually an issue I have with the game, and more broadly with the entire family of PbtA games. Blades aren't PbtA, I know, but I do treat them as an extended family of those games (or the next generation). In this specific case they share the same problem: if you just rely on the moves to move (pun unintended) the story forward, without a higher-level structure to guide the story, you risk getting a chaotic mess. You might keep asking dramatic questions and never finish answering any of them - leading to frustration and lack of engagement in the fiction. Hoping for music but only getting noise.

This, to me, is also the opposite of my approach. I don't want the game to give me story structure. That's what we're here for! That's what I want to do. The game gives me things to play with, but I want to be the one making the melody. Or rather we, together. If you give me a game that gives us a satisfying story by simply following the procedures, I'll say "Can we play something else?". To me that's just a story generator. I want something that allows us together to craft a story that is ours, one that we made, not one that the game designer made. Makes sense?

This is also the reason why I don't really believe that "just go where the fiction and the mechanics lead you" is good advice and that imposing a Story Structure upon Blades in the Dark or a PbtA is somehow not playing these games right. I might be willing to be more open to what these people say when I actually see them play a game (any system) with a genuinely interesting story. So far I have not.
I accept, of course, that creating an interesting story, a “product”, in a way, might not be a priority for some or maybe most people. For me it is.

Yeah, this I agree with. You don't get a good story by just following the fiction and mechanics, and I, too, want a good story. But I want to make it myself. I want to rely on my skill as a player to weave that story. That's where the oomph in RPGs is for me.

I also think that the story isn't really the role of the GM. Or rather, I see it like this: The role of the players is to play their characters towards making interesting stories. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but the common ones revolve around making thematically relevant decisions and driving the story towards some sort of interesting and changed situations through the actions of the characters. The role of the GM is to be a gardener, to prune the branches that aren't contributing to the story and to add nourishment. To say "Ah, that's what your story is about? That's who your character is? That's what they're struggling with? Okay, then let's see what you'll do with THIS." So if I see a character who has a complicated relationship with their family, I'll focus play on that relationship, find ways for the family to add complications to the character's life, try to connect the family to the other characters, etc. If one character is an anarchist, I'll add an NPC that's very conservative, or one that's even more anarchist, going "So we're planning to bomb the police station. Wanna come?". I identify, examine and challange what I like to call their "sore spot" (basically their "issue", in PTA terms), I'll poke it, and they adress the thematic element of it and play towards an interesting and satisfying story arc. We're all responsible for making a satisfying story and a nice dramatic arc. If your character didn't get that, that's as much your fault as mine (probably more). It's not the GM:s role to make good stories happen; it's the group's.

I find a bit of the same thing happening here as I mentioned above. If I take the role of making sure we get a good story, then the other players will know that they don't need to make an effort for it (and their efforts may even be resisted). So they won't work towards that goal. And when the whole group is working towards a better story, we get much better results than if just one of us is. I find playing some GM-less games helps drive this home, as well.

Bit tangential, but let me tell you about an exercise we've adopted in our group, which has its origins in the nordic LARP scene: It's called the "positive feedback round". After each session, or after a campaign, or after an adventure, or whenever you want, you do a round-table positive feedback thing. It's quite simple: One by one, you go through each player, ending with the GM (who's also a player, let's not forget). When it's my turn, I have to shut up (I'm not allowed to speak at all), and the other players mention things I did during the session/adventure/whatever that they liked. It can be the way I played my character, it can be specific scenes or moments, it can be the way I use language, whatever. Concrete things are best, like "The fact that you didn't take the sword in that scene, that you didn't kill him, was really powerful. It really said something about your character, how there's a certain line he will not cross, no matter what". Things like that.

It's a bit of an embarassing exercise if you're not used to it, but it's a great ego booster, and it's a great way to reinforce stuff that we like. If I get to hear that when I do this kind of thing, people really dig it, I'm going to do more of this sort of thing. And this social reward is a billion times more powerful and less problematic  that "XP for good roleplaying".

Anyway, very tangential, just something that came to mind. It was a really interesting perspective on your game, anyway. Let me know if I misinterpreted you!

FroggyC's picture

Wybacz mój polski, próbuję się uczyć, bo mam polskich kolegów. To trudne - moim językiem ojczystym to włoski.

To wspaniale słyszeć relację z Polski! Jestem bardzo zainteresowany poznaniem polskiej społeczności RPGa. Mam wrażenie, że to niemal odwrotność włoskiej. Czy mógłbyś wskazać mi miejsca w internecie, gdzie mogę dowiedzieć się więcej o nią?

svart_vind's picture

Sono impressionato!

Ja uczyłem się włoskiego przez jakiś tydzień, przed wyjazdem na kilka dni do Wenecji. Opanowałem jakieś absolutne podstawy i niewiele więcej.
Ale w ostatnim roku zrobiłem coś ważniejszego - nauczyłem się robić Spaghetti Carbonara. Takie z Guanciale, Pecorino Romano i absolutnie bez żadnej śmietany (a w Polsce Carbonara normalnie ma w sobie śmietanę). Moje wrażenia po zjedzeniu "oryginalnej" wersji tego makaronu? Cóż, trzeba przyznać, że na jedzeniu to się znacie. ;D

Twój polski jest bardzo dobry! Rzadko się słyszy lub czyta kogoś, kto nie jest Polakiem a umie mówić po polsku.

Gdzie w Internecie można poznać polską kulturę grania w RPG? Hmmm.

  • Na naszym polskojęzycznym kanale! Mamy kilka podcastów, gdzie odwołujemy się do tego mniej lub bardziej.
  • Przygotowując się do tych podcastów o historii zrobiłem sobie to: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qTWDMU765IHD05LhDN_qWFKmefNtAECNE9J4RgMrbMw/edit#gid=0, możesz sobie rzucić okiem.
    • W wielkim skrócie można wyobrazić sobie granie w Polsce w ten sposób, że zaczęliśmy granie od grania "trad", omijając w ogóle OD&D i chodzenie po lochach. I jak w końcu w 1994 wyszedł u nas Warhammer, to absolutnie zdominował rynek, i ludzie grali w zasadzie tylko w to przez dobre kilka lat.
    • Stąd zawsze dark fantasy i zawsze jakaś ambitna fabuła prowadzona przez ambitnego Mistrza Gry. Chociaż czasem też trochę zabawej walki, bo w końcu byliśmy nastolatkami.
    • Nie można przecenić wpływu książek o Wiedźminie. Świat dostał Geralta w The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt w 2015 roku, ale myśmy czytali to w latach 90-tych.
      Więc na polskich sesjach świat Warhammera jest taki jak świat Wiedźmina - postmodernistyczny.
    • Sytuacja zaczyna się zmieniać jakoś po 2000 roku. Więcej gier, więcej różnych nurtów grania... Dzisiaj gramy chyba w te same gry co wszyscy na świecie, ale mamy tam gdzieś swoje korzenie grania hiper-tradycyjnie i gardzenia D&D jako "naiwną grą dla Amerykanów".
  • Aleksandra Wierzchowska napisała fajny artykuł: Planszówki, paragrafówki, erpegi. Przyczynek do historii gier fabularnych w Polsce 1984–1990. Trafił do darmowej publikacji Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej. Można pobrać PDF tutaj: https://ipn.gov.pl/pl/publikacje/ksiazki/111929,Studia-z-historii-najnowszej-Polski-t-2.html

 

Nic innego nie przychodzi mi do głowy. RPG to duża rzecz, więc ciężko będzie znaleźć jedną osobę czy drużynę, która będzie uosabiać to jak Polacy grają w RPG. Mamy fanów Warhammera, fanów Cthulhu, mamy starej szkoły miłośników Świata Mroku i Legendy Pięciu Kręgów. Mamy obrońców Neuroshimy i Monastyru, gier od Portalu za czasów apogeum RPGowcyh ambicji. Ale mamy też już sporo graczy D&D, którzy oglądają Critical Role i grają w D&D 5 podobnie, jak to robią Amerykanie. No i są też fani indie RPG, którzy grają w indie RPG chyba tak samo jak wszyscy inni na świecie.

Ok.

To jaka jest włoska kultura grania w RPGi? ;)

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