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Self and selves

We have completed play for our Khaotic game! Including sessions 9 and 10, continuing from the material presented at What could go wrong? and Psychic social science fiction hits the "drama" button. We plan to finalize things about the immediate aftermath with some discussion next week, which may possibly include some dice-rolling, but I don't anticipate more in-character play.

This has been an extremely strong game experience, for its fictional content, for its character play and development, and for its unusual concept-and-system features. I think I've mentioned already that the game itself is very definitely of a piece with a number of other games from this period and indeed of this exact year (1994), which are incredibly strong but received little or even no recogntion or further life in play. They also show a distinct struggle against pre-planned story but lack the vocabulary to nail down how to do things otherwise. Other titles in this mix include Morpheus, The Whispering Vault, Shattered Dreams, Amazing Engine, Maelstrom, Epiphany, Extreme Vengeance, and Zero. There are about twelve such titles, depending on how wide a range of years I'm talking about.

I've put most of my notions about it into the little reflections videos scattered through the playlist, especially my twists or takes on the textual setting, as well as thoughts on managing the swiftly-changing and multi-location overall situation. Here, though, I want to focus on the player-characters' creation, discovery through play, development, and overall status as edgy protagonists, perfectly suited to the kind of science fiction the game presents - or better, offers for purposes of our experience and presentation.

  • The characters were created mainly through randomized tables, with the option for choice here and there, but rarely taken in our case. Therefore to a great extent each player was "handed" someone to play, with only a little bit of personal shaping. How to act and what they want was largely the player's job to derive or create given this fairly extensive - and often alienated or even messed-up - profile.
  • The characters are thrown very hard into a social crisis concerning mysterious monster-attacks across the planet and into a tightly-focused crisis as an ops team - who do not know one another - sent into enemy territory for intelligence and other operations as circumstances warrant.
  • The players have to adapt their thinking into the many conditions and details of the game's fictional 2030, which is highly specific concerning international, political, and social features which directly impact their own character concepts.
  • During the missions to Xenos, the characters - and very much the players too - are bound into a single host body's mind and operate according to fascinating divisions of perception, use of abilities, and newly-discovered psychic powers. This includes the potential for considerable conflict. They are also discovering information at a lightning pace concerning the attacks on Earth.
  • During those missions, events proceed on Earth which is rife with many difficulties and policy conflicts; and during time spent on Earth, events proceed on Xenos. Since the "time spent" in either case often depends on the player-characters' actions and decisions, the GM has to be rather quick and centered in order to know what sort of situation they drop in on, in either direction.
  • Once on a mission, no one can tell the player-characters what to do. Even if they were given strict instructions, nothing makes them obey. Contact with people and creatures there is wide open for many, many possible interactions and perhaps changes of goals and plans. Furthermore, on Earth, the player-characters are subject to many people's and groups' demands and expectations of them ... but on the other hand, they are very valuable assets who may discover they have more to say about what to do than their initial status would have indicated.

It all adds up to who we play + how we play (literally, per moment in the moment) + what happens + how we change how we play + how the characters change and decide to do the next things they so. Yes, any role-playing is capable of such things but this game is startling in how explicit and distinct the processes are. The whole thing becomes an "experience, man," regarding our individual selves as real people, our collective self as a role-playing group, the characters as individuals in sketch form and then "real" enough to change, and the fictional group as a unique mini-society in a complex and violent fictional society. This may all sound too lofty and philosophical, or at least hippified, but I think we have managed to touch upon it rather well, with much to consider for each angle of perspective and for future play.


Actual Play


Sean_RDP's picture

I thought that the intense discussion in the preplay discussions before session 10 (I think) was handled well by everyone. Those kinds of discussions are often not easy, but can easily go wrong andn make somemone feel even less safe or uncomfortable. I liked how Helma takes her space, I really liked how Ron responded, asking for clarification, and everyone's respone had me noding as I listened. If only all table discussions managed that level of empathy, the hobby would be a more enjoyable place. 

Ron Edwards's picture

One key factor, possibly helpful to others who are considering these issues, is that this discussion wasn't damage control. Here's how it was initiated.

After session 9, I posted at our group's Discord chat that I was practicing Lines and Veils. Doing so had ramped up for me at the end of that session (when describing the physical space of the Cyberlab), enough for me to notice that I was doing it. I mentioned it to the group in order to share "process."

Helma replied that she had been generally creeped out while playing on Xenos and especially at those moments, and was herself feeling at the edge of tolerance for described detail, incidentally phrasing her point in a way I thought was similar to my own perceptions and preferences. A couple of other people commented too, and Helma asked for a little in-person discussion before play, which met with general approval.

The point is that we, all of us, role-players in the act of role-playing, almost always practice Lines and Veils in play, even in far less dubious or shocking fictional circumstances than Khaotic offers - so it's good to talk about it as process, at any time, without some urgent issue to solve. I am generally unhappy with the belief or even practice that these techniques exist to solve problems or to prevent problems, when the fact is that they are constructive and trust-building when employed as reflection. No accusations, recriminations, apologies, reassurances, promises, et cetera.

Helma's picture

If we are not there, let’s make sure that we together walk in the right direction. The fact that we sit down around a table, virtual or real, as a group of humans to play together has to mean something right? If we don’t want what we can get out of playing together as humans – we can choose to play a computer game. So everybody around any table wants to interact with each other and that means we care for what the others think and feel, as well as what they contribute to our shared experience. We all come from different places, geographically and otherwise, we all have different personalities but we have a common goal, to have the best time possible at the table. To reach it, sometimes you have to be able to talk about your limits, and how you want to handle them (there's a lot of other things to talk about but let's stick to this). As Ron states so much better than I could express it: you better do not wait until the damage is done. Something I would like to add: I did know without any doubt, without ever explicitly talking about it, non of them would ever abandon me and neither would I abandon them. The difficult part, at least for me, is the talking about myself. I’m not used to do it and I’m still learning how to express myself in a constructive and good way. Role playing for me is a very good way to train that. I’m certain there are far more tables than you think that would be able to have a similar discussion. Any table I’ve been sitting at so far would qualify and I’m really trying to play as many different games with as many different people as possible to develop as a player. Just give it a try at any table you play at if you feel the need.

LorenzoC's picture

Helma's mention of her imagination and how she processes play was very enlightening to the long term consequences of play and why we take steps in making it safe for everybody - it doesn't just end at the table.

I can absolutely empathize (I have a vivid, even morbid imagination) but I end up on the opposite side of the spectrum - I like it when creepy, unsettling elements of play linger with me. It's probably the same reason I watch horror movies or read trash fantasy novels. So our tastes may clash at the table, and while talking about it before can be extremely helpful, I think talking about it after, or mid-way in a sense, when things have started to happen and we can process them before they become damaging to some, it's even better, as long as it doesn't become "this is how I like it, if you can't handle it it's nobody's fault" (which still happens a lot).

I think talking about it before is useful but it removes space for growth. Helma saying "this is my limit" is, to me, a useful product of play because playing is in part getting to know and understand each other. Even as a bystander I'm thankful to her bringing up something she's feeling about how and what we play, and I think I'd be fully willing to set aside my preferences and step in that direction not just for the sake of someone I'm playing with, but also because even if we have "quarantined" those elements, now they're part of play, even as a negation. Acknowledged, not ignored.

Over the years I've constantly being asked for more brutality, more cruelty, more vivid descriptions in play. Some of the people I've played with just wanted cheap thrills and some gore pornography, but for the most part it wasn't that. I realized over time that two factors dominated those requests:

1. Players wanted to see their characters suffer. They really do - one thing that seems to dominate at least a certain, more mainstream type of game is that the "story" and the dice tend to go very easy on them. There's also the fairly muddy subject of "failing forward" and this leads to an overarching sensation that player characters tumble and roll through the hops of what's happening around them (not really TO them) until some dice or a guy behind a cardboard screen tells us we can move on.
All the stories about viking-hat DMs manipulating players into having no agency and dispensing sufference to anyone who didn't comply to their script probably led to the notion that players having full control over their character's destiny is a good thing, but it definitely hasn't been for us. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that players want to see their characters maimed or brutalized (luckily for me); something just what happens to those close to them is enough, or them being affected, thwarted or frustrated in their goals or priorities. In our current Pathfinder game, it's borderline impossible to affect characters directly unless we go to the extreme consequences: we had a few deaths, but it's either death or cartoon violence that gets healed overnight when it comes to players. Despite the horrifying nature of what they fight, being chewed on by a giant monster is an absolutely PG-13 event.

We did however find the kind of consequence that lead to out-of-play discussion elsewhere. I say find because none of it was planned, and the planned stuff (play almost began with exploration of the aftermath of some cult activity that was pedal-to-the-metal horror) worked but in terms of pure entertainment.

But what brought pause to a few players was something else. On the side of this, there was a murder mistery in town. This was a plot I had no interest in as it was part of the play module I was using and dissecting as we started to understand the rules of the game. But it was there, and it became part of the troubled politics of the town (as I mentioned elsewhere, one of the characters was the appointed new nobility for the area, which sent the already unstable community and its leadership into a frenzy). The players didn't really care to solve the murder (the adventure module tells you they should, because the guy was their friend, since we say so... right) but it still was there, and... I'll try to makes this short, but Pathfinder 2 introduces goblins as a playable race, and tells you there's still strife between the standard races and goblins being integrated. There's an NPC cook aid that is a goblin, and he was a comic relief character until the players really push the inept thane of the town to its limit, and he starts feeling he needs to rally people to his side. Unrest is high, the players are ignoring the issue, and he knows where to strike: when they're away, he frames the goblin, who gets hanged. 
This wasn't meant as a comeback at players for ignoring a plot nobody cares about or a way to "punish" them (I suspected nobody really cared) but rather a small "this world is still brutal and unfair, many of these guys are horrible, but if you want to forget about the murder, it's solved". And yet one of the players was absolutely shook about the thing, actually enraged, to the point that I had to bring up the issue and discuss it, expecting to have to apologize. But the way things ended, after the discussion, was that his point was that this horrible thing he didn't want to see happen was the "best thing" that could have happened to him, because he got to understand the character better, he got to get motivated better and he found out what he actually wanted to fight and solve, in the game. It was still kind of scary, but it ended up being worth it.

2. the second point is related. I've found out that my players want horrible stuff to be in the game because they want to stop it. We had one game of World of Darkness that was a straight victorian era horror/thriller. None of the vampire or mage books, just normal people dealing with low-key supernatural horror. They asked me to go heavy on the horror, but there's some few things I won't do (violence on women or kids, too detailed descriptions, I prefer creepiness to spectacle). One of the players (my girlfriend at the time) was playing a medium, and the story took us to a mental asylum with ghost problems. You can imagine. I was a lot younger and edgier and obviously this went places, and after one session I discussed with her and I found out she was affected by it, which prompted me to say we'd end that storyline there and move on. She refused, and said I shouldn't dare to manipulate things to make them better. In the end, I was rather scared of doing something wrong but I tried to honor her request pushing forward with the same strength and trusting dice to help me, which they did - they got some unexpected successes and she did manage to repel the ghosts with spectacular results, which ended up in a huge cathartic moment that turned that specific adventure in something character-shaping. We played differently (better) after that.

None of this is meant to imply that Helma's choice to say "no more than this" is wrong or a missed opportunity, but rather that the choice of stopping and talking about it is the opportunity, at least for me. I don't know if this is the essence of "I will not abandon you", but it definitely has felt this way for us, and brought up some of the most interesting evolutions in play.

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