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More sin, more city

We're six sessions into the game first described in Bad doings in Bulwark, set in the fictional city of that name, continuing with the misadventures of (1) gangster widow and former cult member Gratitude and (2) and shaky, increasingly shady white-collar schnook Willy. Their troubles lie in the rising political star of one Amos Zag. Judgmental people may point out that Gratitude didn't have to try to rob Zag's safe or that Willy didn't have to grow a rare vertebra and try to report Zag's serial killer pal to the cops, but several corpses later, excessive use of scheduled substances, and even more psychos in Zag's staff than one might have imagined, our poor little self-destructive player-characters don't seem to need much self-destructive effort any more to get all of the way.

Still, we're not dead yet. Willy's managed to get himself actually protected by Zag (against Zag!) and keeps screwing things up just a bit more than he himself gets screwed. Gratitude has been beaten within an inch of her life and stolen a cop car, as well as committed felonious assault on its owner ... well, I'm not too sure how much longer her "yet" can stay in that sentence. The two characters still haven't met, although their paths of influence are much closer now, and what one does typically rebounds soon into whatever the other happens to be up to.

Is it grubby? Or existentially harsh? Or poetically dark? Or kind of funny? Six one-hour sessions have seen a fair bit of all those things. The embedded link below goes to the sixth session inside the playlist, and the attached file shows Willy's character stories sequentially for each session. 

The single-hour session lengths matter a lot, as both Sam and I have added 15 words with every session, so they're pretty rich by now, relative to the actual amount of time in play. The transition to the sixth session brought me to a point I've been hoping to get to without reaching for it, in terms of the character story. You can see that for sessions 2 through 5, I've been adding to the end of the story with new sentences. But for the start of this one, I found things to make more sense by adding a few words here and there to pre-existing sentences or putting a clarifying or heightening or connecting sentence between pre-existing ones.

A few Pool notes: we're playing with the technique I adoped recently in other Pool games, to begin each session with a single added die to each pool but with no other adjustments. None of us like the idea of cycling trait dice back into pool dice; we're playing the trait bonuses as a one-way trip as far as the pools go. 

For those who are interested in the math of play, I've been playing quite steadily by taking whatever dice that Jon and my relevant trait give me and adding a single pool die, for almost every roll. I think I used two pool dice once. The result is not a constant pool, but definitely pretty stable. Whereas Sam has been throwing most or all pool dice into rolls whenever things get hectic (Gratitude kind of "does" hectic a lot, as it happens), so he's out of dice about half the time as far as I can tell without counting. Neither of us have found any reason to dislike wherever the dice dynamics take us at any point.

Actual Play
The Pool


Ron Edwards's picture

... brings a plot event which could never have been planned or, by me certainly, imagined. Here's the direct link into the playlist.

We talked a bit before play about the character-sheet stories as they've developed. The words I added this session were the first that didn't include any traits, and Sam mentioned that adding a few words here and there, at this point, indicated more more character development than adding sentences full of traits to the end.

Although the total percentage of words added drops per session (50 + 15, 65 + 15, 80 + 15, etc), the words may become more contextual and re-shaping. Since our timing of play leads to a lot of traits, the new words aren't under pressure to supply more, and can include judgments or musings or connectors of added information which aren't about traits.

For reference, here they are, as they stood at the start of this session.

Gratitude had a rich life (+2), from dinners with politicians to yachts... until her powerful gangster husband was car-bombed, leaving her desperate and lacking protection from the cult she was a member of. Robbing (+1) and selling psychedelics isn't cutting it financially anymore. Before everything failed, so she was is looking for new opportunities to score big. Now she just wants to stay alive. With cutthroat manipulation (+2), she has weaseled her way into a plan to rob the cult, which ultimately failed. But now that all of her friends are becoming her enemies, she trusts no one. Now that she has been captured escaped capture, she is determined to not fold to the twins anyone who would pursue her.

Willy is running scared (+1), paranoid on pills (+1). He was just a white-collar schnook (+1) and never wanted to know this terrible secret (+1) that Julian Dunne is the killer, but as usual, everything he does screws up everything (+2). He was on the streets, living on favors and scams (+1), now he’s in the middle of it all! Bloody Jezebel still owes him big-time (+2), if he dares ask. Speaking of favors, he feels bad about swindling Frank and doesn’t like Maude at all. He’s staying clear of those twins. It’s good to have a friend on the inside (+1). It’s time to figure things out (+1), starting with Amos Zagg is a scary, evil prick. Why is his pet militia guy free to run around killing women? Screw him anyway. You can frighten Willy or boss him around – but he won’t ever believe in you (+1).

Rod_A's picture

Finished watching 6 and 7 just a while ago, and this is a lot of fun. Something that occurred to me while watching Gratitude pack up and run for her life is "What if there was a way to liquidate a trait you didn't want anymore, Champions-style?" So Gratitude's rich life could be left behind for good and become something else, for instance.

Another thing I noticed was Jon talking aloud to the room about sharing information with you, the players, about what the NPCs are doing behind the scenes. This was something I was fretting about a couple of years (!!!) ago, and it's nice to see other people easing up about it, and feel myself easing up too. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Jon, Sam, and I discussed this issue of changing traits a few weeks ago, and what follows is what I wrote, edited slightly.

At this point I would prefer not to change traits' wording. Instead, I’d like to add words like "I once was" and other qualifiers, e.g., placing “no longer” between "I" and "want [something]." Good characters in stories are always drawing upon things that they thought they had left behind.

For example, I think it would be strongest to see a character start with "I am a knight of the Black Basilisk," then it changes to "I am no longer a knight of the Black Basilisk," and then it changes to "I seek to destroy the knight of the Black Basilisk." Meaning, in this case, that the mechanics of the trait, e.g., whatever bonus it might have, haven’t changed at all, even though its meaning changes dramatically each time. In the last step it's even a different person.

I used the conditional phrasing "would prefer" et cetera, because I haven’t played enough, or seen enough long-term play discussed, for a real viewpoint.

I’m at a place with this game where I am not only immensely enjoying the fiction we are creating, but I also really love how we are creating it: I especially liked the how in the lead up to what became the Big Moment in Session 7 (the death of Julian Dunne).

For me, once Sam had made the roll for Gratitude to get the jump on Dunne, I felt strongly – in that moment – that killing him would not be subject to uncertainty and thus didn’t require another die roll. I felt strongly that if Sam wanted Gratitude to shoot him, then it would happen. I exercsied my particularly authority as the GM here to say “No, I don’t see a conflict roll” (or, rather, the relevant conflict roll, from my point of view had already happened), and to then leave it in Sam’s hand as Gratitude’s player to decide whether she’d pull the trigger or not.

It would have been perfectly within the rules (by which I mean not simply the text, but the rules as we have been playing them during this game) for me to have said, “I think shooting him requires another roll” (perhaps with all 3 GM dice allotted due to Gratitude’s position of advantage), and I can easily imagine another person in the GM role feeling strongly that “of course there needs to be another roll here”. I can even imagine myself in similar circumstances feeling that way as well: but the important point is that in THESE circumstances, given everything that we had said, given how we had said it, given the nuances of our various narrations up to that point, I didn’t see a role for that additional roll.

In other words, this is another strong example of GM agency: I’m not a black box, I’m not merely playing the world, but neither am I exercising fiat. Rather, I’m creatively exercising my authority.

That sequence has been one of the clearest experiences I’ve had in terms of knowing that we are not doing “consensual storytelling” and that the way things turned out was very much due to the interplay of how Sam and I were fulfilling our respective responsibilities to the game (i.e., exercising our respective authorities).

Ron Edwards's picture

What strikes me most about this whole experience is what I cannot see: the crossover between Willy's circumstances and Gratitude's, in the context of your understanding of multiple NPCs. They both involved Detective Church in the previous session and they both involved Julian Dunne in this one, with rather unfortunate effects for both individuals and rather fortunate ones for us, unbeknownst to one another. These causes and effects - which I think lie at the heart of when you call for rolls - are experienced by you as bounce and acted upon by you with agency, but invisible to me because I'm just playing Willy.

Which is why lots of people or circumstances "appear and disappear" as far as Willy or Gratitude are concerned, and more power to it! There's no negotiation. You don't have to justify these things because doing them is your job. And I think you're experiencing it as enjoyable play because you are being handed diverse actions' outcomes across two locations (at any given time; more than two overall as we move around), but all of them cross through Amos Zag and his various cronies, and especially those who remain opaque to Sam and me: the twins, certainly, and Dunne. If that happened, well, then this person or that person will be the one to show up now.

Knowing that you're experiencing it this way and conducting play this way - i.e., required GM situational authority, both for scenes and for assessing moments for rolls - is a big part of why I'm enjoying the game too.

This brings up something I thought about talking about earlier, but held off because I didn’t want to appear needlessly defensive.

To go back a couple of sessions and open up a bit on the process that led Detective Church to transport Willy and Gratitude to the compound together: I was somewhat concerned (afraid?) that this would appear (perhaps not to you and Sam, but to a hypothetical observer) as me trying to arrange things so the two player characters would be in the same place at the same time. What actually led to it happening, though, was me playing through Zagg’s thinking and taking into account the various things he had to take into account, (including, trying to keep Julian Dunne away from Willy in order to placate Lena, needing the twins to clean up after the burglary attempt) which led to him making use of Detective Church, who would not have been Zagg’s first choice for either duty. And Church himself felt stressed and strained from the all-nighter and put out from being called upon in that manner (which became key factors behind how I played Church).

All of this is to say, that when I went through Zagg’s thinking and planning, it popped out at me that, of course, Church would be taking Gratitude and Willy out to the compound together, but after deciding that, I had no interest or investment in seeing what happened when they both got there play out in any particular way. All of which is to say: I wasn’t trying to stage manage things so that, for example, Gratitude and Willy would cross paths more directly.

Likewise, for the most recent session, it was perfectly clear to me (as part of my in-between session prep) why Dunne would show up at Gratitude’s door as opposed to (just) the twins: but once he got there, I had no investment in any particular outcome. (It probably seems wrong to say I’m delighted with how things turned out with him — but I did find it extremely enjoyable/compelling/fun).

Part of what makes this prep easy is that I have a very clear sense of what makes my NPCs tick (even if for most (?) of them, like the twins, I am conceiving as essentially Toons, in the sense you have used to describe Demons in Sorcerer: their characters may lack depth, but the outlines of their personalities are very clearly defined for me).

(I should also point out that I’m making use of skills developed over the last few years through GMing 21 sessions of Sorcerer and 14 of Champions Now.)

Ron Edwards's picture

This session brought a terrible beauty into play, as it becomes clear that whatever happened to Gratitude couldn't have happened without Willy, and whatever happened to Willy couldn't have happened without Gratitude. 

Here's the direct link to the sesson into the playlist.

I reluctantly clipped a short discussion of Frank Miller's writing as it's just three guys talking about comics, and perhaps the internet has shouldered enough of such stuff for one cosmic cycle.

Making meaning

There were two moments that stuck out for me as being particularly sad and poignant: Gratitude standing alone by the highway on-ramp, about to hitchhike out of Bulwark and Willy sort of being patronized by Angela in a way that emphasized that he, too, was very much alone.

If you combine this with what Ron mentioned about the ways that Gratitude and Willy’s actions have had unforeseen consequences on each other’s situation, a theme started to come into focus for me: we can have profound effects on the lives of other people – including people we never cross path with – yet despite that can remain completely alone and cut off in many ways that might matter the most to us.

I’m putting this into words in part to point out that at no point did I (or we) sit down and say: “Let’s play a game where the theme is going to be that there’s a poignant, profound, ironic contrast between the effect we can have on other people and our own existential sense of isolation from other people.” That wasn’t at all on my mind when I put together the inspirational material for Ron and Sam, or when I did my initial preparation of the situation. And it wasn’t inevitable that we’d hit on something like this at all: had we made different choices, we might see a different meaning start to emerge from our play – or maybe no meaning at all.

I think this gets at what makes what we’re doing here with the Pool distinct from the activity promoted/supported by a lot of storygames (especially of the widget variety, to use Ron's term), many of which seem to be reverse-engineered from the moment when someone thought “Hey, we played and Theme X emerged… now how can I come up with procedures to make sure Theme X emerges every time?” I’ve seen this phrased as people trying to come up with mechanics that “support” creating Theme X, but in many cases what happens is that the procedures strangle it dead.

Ron Edwards's picture

Grim + exultant agreement.

Ron Edwards's picture

In looking back over this session relative to the others, including knowledge of just how explosive the upcoming events almost necessarily are, it is a little talky, a little moody ... but I think you're seeing Sam and me - maybe Jon too - orient ourselves about what our various characters are really feeling about what they are really going to have to do.

Here's the link!

Ron Edwards's picture

Two thoughts at this point: first, it does seem as if each hero (not really the right word) has gained some advantage, even relative safety, as of the end of this session, but it does not make me feel safe on their behalf. Not at all.

Second, I think Sam experienced the same sense, in this one, that I did a session or two ago, when the interplay among our characters' activities began to generate the necessary components of each one's ongoing situation.

I've been hitting that point in the coursework: a profound sense of inevitability, it "has to happen this way," "it couldn't have happened any other way," as far as the fictional content is concerned - when we know damn well that these very events came about through contingencies such as dice roll outcomes, intuitive and undirected narrations in the moment, and the specific asymmetries of information that prevailed at differet times. 

Here's the direct link to the session.

Ron Edwards's picture

Our final session is here, inside the playlist. It's a fairly mild closing-out of events as we know them, not really epilogues, more like one or two characterizing decisions that serve as endings.

I'm a little ambiguous about the way things have gone. For this comment, I'll focus on the part that's definitely my business to reflect upon: what Willy decided to do. You can see me arrive at the decision and act upon it, then decide again how to proceed from there, in perhaps overly obvious facial detail (I didn't realize this until editing and I suspect I look a little stupid). 

One part of me really leaned elsewhere, although I wasn't sure where at the time - probably toward jumping out of the jeep and trying to "help" Angel, and who knows what might have blown up from there, given the various chaos-y traits I had to work with. I don't know, as that's speculation ... toward Angel, anyway.

Why not? Again, as possibly-flawed reflection rather than knowledge at that moment of what I "meant" or "intended," I knew from a few sessions ago that the the main thing driving Willy now was the mutual visceral dislike and absolute distrust between him and Zag, established as role-playing and roll when they met. The phrase I used in convincing Lee to flee the scene was a trait, created back then after that session, if that's not clear from the video. Perhaps that meant to me that action-and-adventure-and-Angela really weren't what Willy really wanted to do - he wanted to decrease the amount of Zag-belief out there, especially for the one person, Lena, whom he thought was pretty decent.

Which then leads to the subsequent decision - why not continue with Lee to Lena and speak to her directly? I didn't "feel" it in the moment, that's for sure. I knew that this was on Lee, not me, and that Willy needed to step out of it all. Heading back to Jezebel was kind of weak, or I felt it to be so, but I also think it might just be a way-station to whatever oddness this odd little fellow ends up doing next, perhaps as an insider in her organization, or perhaps even something so odd as normal life if that's possible. What mattered to me was closing the door on current events right at that time.

Good or bad, I don't know. None of these decisions - if that's the right word, it's literally correct but it connotes inaccurate cognitive experience - existed in isolation from Jon's ongoing play regarding how Gratitude's and Willy's actions criss-crossed in ways that neither they nor we as players could see. I know they each saved the other's life at least once, maybe more, and a lot of how certain rolls played out took into account those influential contexts. I hope we can think and discuss more about the circumstances in which Sam and I were operating with imperfect knowledge.

Sam's picture

This is yet another game where I play a highly traumatized person who suffers in severe ways, both physically and mentally. I don't want to go too deep here on what I think the roots of that are--but I want to say, that there is a lot of me in this character, and it became increasingly obvious to me (though never uncomfortable) as the game progressed. There were a lot of moments where I openly discussed how I was using past experiences of mental turmoil to influence how I played her (either my own or ones that I have witnessed). Rather than cringing away from that stuff in my past, I used it as raw material for playing this character. I wanted to put this comment here as a bit of a contrast to how roleplaying is characterized in the world at large--as an escape, as being all about humor or random violence or whatever else. For me, this stuff is a lot bigger than that, and I hope that my play here showed that, because I'm really proud of what we did. I'm hoping to comment more (and take more time commenting) here in the future if I have the time, so I would appreciate some replies. Thanks guys, this game was really a blast.

Dreamofpeace's picture

That's a very interesting topic - where do we draw material from to play our characters, whether PCs or NPCs? Most of my own characters come from "what if" questions I ask myself - suppose I had this background and I wanted that thing, what would happen in this context? Or sometimes I'll be inspired by characters from a fictional source - what if Balian of Ibelin were in a sci-fi setting? and so on. With respect to drawing from my own life, I notice that I often like to play with some of my acquired skills, like seeing what it would be like to use various medical skills in different settings. I usually haven't drawn directly from actual traumas, not consciously, although I think my experience getting tear-gassed probably informs my tendency to play rebellious PCs distrustful of authority. 

Dreamofpeace's picture

I just realized Balian was a bad example because he actually existed :) But I think y'all get the point. 

Sean_RDP's picture

Role-playing is not therapy, but it has the potential to let us live out some of the sticky notes associated with our life and to bring them up in ways that we are able to control. I have managed a few times to find a place in play where I am playing but also working on myself, working through the bad notes. Assuming the other players are people I perceive as folks I can be a bit more raw with. 

Sam, I appreciate what you bring to the table during play. Can't wait for the next opportunity. 

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