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Silent Night: Storytelling from State

How can we make emergent storytelling more accessible? This was my goal with Silent Night, a module for Living Alchemy, a game I’ve talked about before. We played a game online in Tabletop Simulator and it was recorded here.

My presentation will focus on a few concerns people have shared. These include: “How can you get players to engage with thematic questions without a lot of explicit metagame?” and “How can you challenge the players without using Bangs or introducing new elements into play?”

Check out this video for a short introduction. I’ll give a summary of play with explicit references to moments from the session and briefly discuss the extent to which Silent Night succeeded at its goals.

Context

The module was played with three people, Dio, Carl, and Doug. I know Doug very well and he brought two online friends into the game. We’re all rhetorical people and got along well.

Dio plays a young socialite named Leo whose house was wiped out by their enemies. Max is his godfather. He has come to Max’s house to ask for his help in seeking vengeance. Throughout, Dio seemed engaged with the moral focus of the game.

Carl plays a priestess and healer named Theodora whom Max had financially assisted in healing the sick. She has come in search of a rare manuscript. Carl picked up on the game’s mechanics faster than any other player I’ve seen. She grew focused on healing other characters while seeking advantage for herself and the party.

Doug plays a stage magician and Dio’s servant named Cornelius. Cornelius came to ask Max to marry his daughter. Doug stayed focused on this goal throughout the game.

Background

Silent Night is supposed to be played over a single three to four-hour session but our session went long due to time-zone and general loquaciousness. In the first session, we met our characters and they explored most of the castle. They discovered Max has a sordid past and supernatural powers.

Also in attendance were various nobles and their servants. Among them was Iva Meyer and her cultists who have come to kill Max for what he did to the Meyer family long ago. Leo was intrigued by Iva but stepped forward to defend Max from her attempt on his life.

Meanwhile, Theodora and Cornelius ventured into the lower depths, a maze of rats and spiders. Theodora healed a pair of cultists and prepared a potion. Cornelius found a Seance room and used it to uncover two things- the source of an illness affecting Max and a diary of his many confessions. This taxed his mind and he became overwhelmed with portents of his death.

Main Events

Leo overcame Iva before her cult organized. He hired a servant to bring Max to the infirmary where Theodora was while he took Iva back to his bedroom. Unfortunately, they both misstepped. The cult attacked his servant and took Max to the courtyard where they set him to be burned at the stake. In the bedroom, Leo pleaded with Iva’s better nature to dissuade her from revenge.

Cornelius returned to the infirmary. Thanks to Theodora healing some of the cultists, he found an audience for his life’s story and treated his affliction. This was the second time Theodora has helped him.

Theodora returned upstairs. The cultists had placed Max onto a pyre and were prepared to burn him. Theodora persuaded the cultists to stay their murder with an improvised sermon.

Cornelius went into the courtyard and dug into the grave of Max’s old lover to retrieve his diary then used it to blackmail the captive Max.

Iva returned to the courtyard with Leo and agreed to spare Max’s life if he would forgo his castle and fortune to her. Max acquiesces to her demands and agrees to start a new life with Theodora who has agreed to help him repent for his crimes.

Cornelius was upset he could not blackmail Max since he’d given up his estate, but Leo agreed to marry his daughter.

Situation Highlights

Dio’s situation in the ballroom had most of the features I like- it was challenging and advanced the game forward for both plot and character. After a lot of indecision, he pledged himself to Max’s defense and used an admirable plan. His decision to subdue Iva was significant and marked a change for the character though I don’t think Dio realized it at the time. If he had chosen to kill her instead, the roll would have been much easier.

The resulting situation was interesting and could have been handled in a number of ways. He had possession of Iva and Max and got to choose what to do with them. Hiring someone to escort Max to the infirmary was a good idea. I should have had Max assist in that roll despite his two giant penalties.

Cornelius telling his life story to a captive audience was great even though it was a missed opportunity. It was emergent- it was only possible because of Carl’s forward-thinking. In the previous session, she had taken in the cultists after they’d been injured in a confrontation with Max. It was also a perfect opportunity to advance character. I wish Doug had thought about the scene in those terms- as someone who has twice been saved by a stranger, someone who has twice reflected on the fortunes and misfortunes of his life.

Analysis

Ultimately, we got most of what Living Alchemy is trying to achieve. Challenging, sometimes compelling situations, character arcs, all amidst a tense atmosphere of gloom. Dio’s character began as disagreeable and vindictive but gradually abandoned his revenge. Carl’s character began with a fetch-quest but dedicated herself to the healing of others, physically and spiritually.

Doug explored playing a character with no fucks left to give, willing to strongarm any and everyone to get what he wanted. This did not go as well as he might have liked since he neglected to protect Max from his enemies. This shows one of the surprising values of Living Alchemy- the utility of empathy. Theodora’s random acts of kindness were highly effective while Cornelius’s naked vies for power were not. I’d like to stress that this mode of play is just as valid as any other and has historically led to engaging stories in their own right.

At the same time, some things could have been better. The game blew way past the 4-hour block format. The mechanics were occasionally unclear to the players. In particular, the special abilities were underutilized. They are supposed to give the players some unchecked power, some pure “fun” amidst a lot of stress and difficulty.

There were a few situations where the players drifted into pure ideation and playacting- Dio wanting to hire a “living doll”, Doug wanted to create a potion that binds a character to live in the castle. I stressed that their primary duty is to advocate for their characters, but there’s always some pressure to “be creative.”

We had fun and I received a lot of useful feedback. I’ll tighten up some things and hopefully play again soon.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

My apologies for taking so long to reply. I reviewed some of the older posts, and realized anything I wanted to say here needs to be understood in context of our conversation at Story Module (Part I of III). I kept repeating myself from there until deciding simply to link to it.

OK, with that discussion as the foundation, here's what I'm thinking.

“How can you get players to engage with thematic questions without a lot of explicit metagame?” and “How can you challenge the players without using Bangs or introducing new elements into play?”

My position for your consideration is that “getting” players to do things or want things is a broken concept from the start. Looking over the events in this experience, it seems to me as if the characters as played, meaning the players, did things and wanted things just fine, with no need to “get them” to do it. Since you did your required job of bringing things that interested you, they were more than capable of doing theirs too. There’s complementarity and subtle reciprocity at work here, as opposed to offering and leading – I think that’s a good thing.

Your points about challenge and Bangs are leaving me behind. Maybe you’re interpreting Bangs as more directive and planned than my concept includes, but before jumping to conclude that, we could talk about what you mean.

This confuses me too:

I’d like to stress that this mode of play is just as valid as any other and has historically led to engaging stories in their own right.

What does that mean? “this mode of play” is what, in comparison to “any other” meaning what? Was there some question of validity at hand? This statement looks strange and lonely to me; I can’t see how it relates to anything in the post.

badspeler's picture

My position for your consideration is that “getting” players to do things or want things is a broken concept from the start. Looking over the events in this experience, it seems to me as if the characters as played, meaning the players, did things and wanted things just fine, with no need to “get them” to do it.

I think my language connotes something more coercive than I intended. In my experience, there's a common belief that addressing Theme is something that only really sophisticated roleplayers can do. And if it's done, it requires an explicit shared commitment. At the same time other modes of play- strategic play, improvisation, or whatever else can be done on the fly without any explicit agreement.

Your points about challenge and Bangs are leaving me behind. Maybe you’re interpreting Bangs as more directive and planned than my concept includes, but before jumping to conclude that, we could talk about what you mean.

I'll just try to say what I mean. By using "Bangs", I just mean the GM introducing something into the situation that the players have to react to, especially if it's something decided before the game. The scenario as written *does* use one Bang according to this definition- the moment Iva tries to kill Max.

That's a situation the players have to react to and make difficult choices. However, it's not emergent in the sense that I'm using it. However, the rest of the situations came about, more or less, from the action of the game enforced through the mechanics.
 

What does that mean? “this mode of play” is what, in comparison to “any other” meaning what? Was there some question of validity at hand? This statement looks strange and lonely to me; I can’t see how it relates to anything in the post.

Sorry, maybe went a bit far with random musings. What I meant was that one of the ways he engaged contrasted with the other players. Carl and Dio were very concerned with playing their characters as their characters- willing to let them change and fail, etc. Doug played primarily to complete a goal and did not take advantage of opportunities to introspect or reevaluate his character's goals.

Traditionally, there is a temptation to say, "That's not roleplaying," or something like that. But the game is largely agnostic to those kinds of points. It only asks that you accept responsibility for your character, and treat the game's situations seriously.

    Ron Edwards's picture

    I'd like to follow up on the Bangs at some point, maybe by voice at Discord. I get that you're avoiding the GM front-loading actual plot and intended outcomes, but you might be getting close to the idea that this GM person doesn't do anything. It's better to talk it over so that I can grasp what you mean, before speculating and then replying to those, and going back around if the speculation is inaccurate, et cetera.

    I'd like you to consider evicting spectral third-party viewpoints from the conversation. Maybe there are a bunch of people hovering about with opinions like these:

    In my experience, there's a common belief that addressing Theme is something that only really sophisticated roleplayers can do. And if it's done, it requires an explicit shared commitment. ...

    ...

    Traditionally, there is a temptation to say, "That's not roleplaying," or something like that.

    But there's no need to be traumatized by them and continually defend your game against them, which, with respect, you tend to do in your posts. They're just ghosts, and signficantly, they are not playing your game, real people are. Given their real enjoyment, given your enjoyment, given the community appreciation here for what you're doing, I think you're way ahead in any presumed confrontation of ideas.

    badspeler's picture

    I'd like to follow up on the Bangs at some point, maybe by voice at Discord. I get that you're avoiding the GM front-loading actual plot and intended outcomes, but you might be getting close to the idea that this GM person doesn't do anything

    Yeah, that sounds great.

    I'm not only trying to avoid front-loading plot and intended outcomes. I'm interested in preserving the significance of the game state. This ensures that situations have some real bite to them and strengthens the game's continuity.

    One type of play I've seen is where the GM is soliciting from the players what they'd like to see in the game and then tries to provide it. A player says, "It would be really great if I had a love interest- someone I could protect from the villain. That would be some high-stakes conflict" and the GM puts one in the game. This isn't really front-loading plot or outcomes but it's the opposite of the kind of play I'm shooting for.
     

    I'd like you to consider evicting spectral third-party viewpoints from the conversation. Maybe there are a bunch of people hovering about with opinions like these: ...

    I promise to try my best.

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