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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.