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Searching for Bards in all the wrong Places

This post continues on from the ongoing game described in Shadows, good bards, and a lot of rules and Horses on Squares

Athes and Fenja are in pursuit of Galen, a well-known bard who may be in possession of a cup, chalice, or cauldron belonging to the town of Ryeton. In the previous session they received information from two new mystery folk, who may or may not be part of a larger organization or organizations. But everyone seems to know Galen and at least two people got the protagonists close: the sewers of the city of Winder’s Gap.

A dwarf sewer guide bribed some guards with gold from Athes and Fenja and gave the two some brief instructions about symbols and which faction controlled the sewers. The sewers are built on the layer of a previous city or cities (think Schliemann’s Troy, but likely smaller) and some of the older part is part of the newer sewer. Footprints lead to the older more dangerous part of the sewer and the characters discover a couple of chattering skeletons near the corpse of a man who was in the process of turning into a crow.

The characters backed off and went another way, finding a secret door that lead to a large room. Inside room was a clean, sweet, and refreshing stream, bisecting the room. Both jumped over the stream because there was no bridge. As Athes landed, a spout of water rose from the stream and that is where I halted the session.

In last week’s session they bolted for the door and we did roll initiative. They got away from the melee attacks of the creature and through the next door, but Fenja nearly drowned from the elemental’s (a modified Water Weird) ranged attack. But the creature could not leave its water and they got away. This brought them to another room which appeared to have been for rituals. This room in turn lead to the hallway on the other side of the skeletons, who were still wondering where their new friends went. (The skeletons could not go past a certain mark).

After some debate and wanting to avoid the elemental and the skeletons, the characters went in the direction they had not been, following some human tracks. This eventually lead to a side area, with five corridors leading off. One of them was stairs leading down to a room where a dark fae creature was torturing a human. A little luck and some good sense motive and Fenja grabbed a broken iron weapon and went to town, while Athes maneuvered and made his own attacks. Together they killed the creature.

The man on the slab thanked them and before dropping to the floor unconscious, managed to give his name. Galen.

Technique

We do not talk a lot about techniques, but they are relevant to play. Something like a cliffhanger, which can be overused, I think makes good use of current emotions to keep the player excited about the next session. On the other hand, if the mood is one of no-excitement, a cliffhanger can fall flat. And that is just one technique for hooking the players’ emotions. Another is description. In particular I thought my description of the elemental sloughing onto the stone, stretching its tenuous connection to the water, was immersive or at least a great piece of color added to the scene. And of course, the chattering of the skeletons as they attempt speech in their undead form.

But like anything they can be overused or used to beat the players over the head instead of creating an imaginative world for them to inhabit. So, spoilers for Tommi and Helma, we are done with cliffhangers for a while.

Picking Their Fights

D&D, in all of its iterations, is a monster fighting game. But Tommi and Helma are not fighting just to fight. They are picking their battles well and I think this game is more manageable and enjoyable because of it. We are not constantly worrying over resources and rest or how much healing is needed. And in this way the fight with the dark fae creature feels more dramatic. At least to me.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Sean_RDP's picture

I meant to add this to the above, but it works just as well here. Situation has been a topic of conversation lately. 

As I have gone over my notes I have been identifying the situation as it has existed through the first few sessions. The situation is not the theft of the cup/chalice/cauldron, but has been the pursuit of Galen, who may have Ryeton's cup. That situation has gone on a while now, several sessions in fact. We have had a lot of motion within the game so far and movement and momentum have been important. Stops in BEffel's Fall and Winder's Gap have lead to plenty of scenes and minor changes of direction. But through it all the pursuit of Galen has been up front.

I suppose my thought / question is do we see situation as being enclosed by geography (or time) or does it have a flexibility to it? I would answer that as yes, that the game so far has been within this particular situation, which may now finally be put to rest with the characters having found Galen. It is time, for the situation to change.

Ron Edwards's picture

I would like to reply here but I think a permission gate-check is necessary. What I have in mind is harsh and direct. Please let me know if that's OK for this place, or whether we should take it to private conversation, or, I suppose, if I should keep it to myself.

Sean_RDP's picture

Feel free to be harsh and direct. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I don't think there's a situation at all above the range of immediate set-pieces, and of those, only within them. There's not enough situation even to arrive at what will necessarily be the case given any transition of space and time into another scene. Deciding what that case is, in each transition, is a minor set of questions and decrees simply to be sure that the transition occurs, and as far as I can tell, its main substance comes from the fact that the players demand it, not because it's part of a situation conceived in any particular way.

This isn't any sort of putdown or de-legitimizing if the set-pieces are what you want to do. The game is well-supplied with tactical, colorful details for short-term decisions and choreography during combat, and I love all of those things in play. In this context, the players are still able to exert personal perspectives and decisions; I'm not claiming that the characters are ciphers just because it's a series of skirmishes. They're characters when considered as visual and decisive participants in those skirmishes.

What I'm after here is the blowtorching of unnecessary illusions. I think it's better to acknowledge when any scale above that is absent, rather than to say or think that there must be one. I think the highest scale at this table is an occasional means to avoid a given skirmish, but always in the context that "any means will do" is the process for arriving at some next encounter of this kind.

So far I've been writing without reference to the title. Presuming that my harsh claim above can be considered even if just for discussion purposes, then the following question raise the title as an issue.

For any other game title in play, do you permit or accept the equivalent thin-ness, or indeed absence, of situational content? Is it possible that merely and only saying "D&D" serves as enough situation and backdrop for you, i.e., enough implied fictional substance, to an extent that another game title would not?

Sean_RDP's picture

Let me tackle this first. 

For any other game title in play, do you permit or accept the equivalent thin-ness, or indeed absence, of situational content? Is it possible that merely and only saying "D&D" serves as enough situation and backdrop for you, i.e., enough implied fictional substance, to an extent that another game title would not?

I think if we are talking D&D, which we are, that you can have D&D be the situation, almost uniquely. It does not necessarily have to be so, but sure that can happen. My feeling that with other titles, it may not be as clear cut or possible. I would say there is a spectrum of possibilities with D&D being on one end as the prime example. 

But that is not what is going on here. At least that is not my intention and what it looks like from my side. So I do think we should have a conversation about it, which may be productive and reach back a bit to our original conversation on situation. I'll reach out to you on discord. 

Reading Sean's text in this thread, I've become confused about the definition of situation. He seems to speak of it as a static thing, as if it somehow exists without reference to the player characters. Let me lay out what I've thought was "situation" and ask Ron if I understand what he means.

As I understand it, "situation" is the cluster of things of that enable, influence, or inhibit the player characters's ongoing choices, decisions, and plans. This includes elements such as states of relationship to NPCs and each other, the components of objectives and plans that characters are pursuing, as well as physical position in relation to people and things, the availability of resources, weapons, and tools, and a myriad other things that might show up in a scene.

To my mind, situation is dynamic, changing as player characters and NPCs take action. I am imagining a scene as what we see on stage, but the components are trotted out from the "situation" supply room behind the stage. Often a new situation "thing" is conjured during a scene and stored when the scene is over. Scenes also change or destroy "situation" components and this changes the supply inventory. 

[My analogy to theater has to be taken very abstractly, as a strict comparison will be misleading. For example: theater scenes are usually ver discrete, while RPG scene often shift without an formal signal. And don't mistake "thing" to mean a physical object or location -- I include even an emotional attitude of an NPC or some pertinent history.]

One last idea: about backdrop. A book on writing fiction once gave this advice, "The towers you describe in the distance won't mean much to the reader, unless there's a sniper in one shooting at your characters." I'd say this is promoting a backdrop element to a situation element. The towers then become part of subsequent scens as characters evade bullets, make their way up the tower, and arrive in the room to confront the sniper. After that sequence, the tower goes into supply and only shows up if it's relevent to the characters.

Ron Edwards's picture

Sean and I will return to this conversation after some otherworld communion time, so let's save anything specific about his points or views until then.

What you've said makes a lot of sense to me, including the concept of "supply" to mean, roughly, anything that's situational but not currently active in a scene. I think that's useful because I don't think anything returns to the backdrop - indeed, nothing is actually in the backdrop, it's merely referred to or promised or described but has no real play presence. Things in scenes may refer to/promise/describe things as being in the backdrop, but those very verbs should indicate what I mean: making more backdrop, yes (that's the black arrow pointing outwards), but remaining insubstantial.

Ron Edwards's picture

Oh! About the backdrop idea. I think we are saying the same thing in terms of role-playing and creative operations, but there's a tiny bit to quibble about regarding what the writer said. I think "won't mean much to the reader" is possibly too extreme. I happen to enjoy backdrops very much, in full knowledge that they aren't in play as situation, but for their own sake as backdrop. I guess I'm saying that although the towers "over there" aren't in this situation, it's nevertheless cool that I can 'see' them "in the distance." Perhaps, yes, they don't mean much but they mean a little that is nice to have around.

If I turn to what I do find compelling in that writer's position, I think they're warning against becoming overly obsessed with one's backdrops to the extent that you forget all about situations, or scribble any trope-laden gunk as situations, or pack them full of stuff that should have been left as backdrop, et cetera, as we all know well from both fiction and from role-playing.

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