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General Category => Your Stuff => Topic started by: James_Nostack on May 01, 2013, 03:16:31 PM

Title: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 01, 2013, 03:16:31 PM
Zero, designed by Lester Smith inspired by the artwork of Steve Stone, was published by Archangel Entertainment in 1997, and aside from one follow-up scenario SuperNumerary, apparently sank out of sight almost immediately.  It was mentioned a few times on the Forge - I think in the Narrativism: Story Now essay?, and once in an AP thread.  Somehow I got curious about it again, and picked up a copy.  I skimmed it last night, but didn't have a chance to read it in-depth.

The basic premise of Zero is that you are a happy little piece of a hive-mind, until suddenly you're not.  You're cut off from telepathic communion with the rest of your kind for unexplained reasons, and now the rest of the hive is going to perceive you as an enemy if you stick around.  Leaving the hive presents a whole 'nother set of problems since the hive lives in a delapidated subterranean labyrinth and you begin the game with virtually no knowledge of how to survive in this deserted underground wilderness.  (The game specifically notes that players will have to independently invent the idea of pockets, for example.)

It sounds more or less like a transhuman Paranoia played straight, and it's in the queue to pitch to my local gaming group.  Maybe it'll never get played, but I figure Zero is interesting enough to be worth talking about, anyhow.

So, here's an attempt at a question to guide the initial phase of discussion: what are the necessary pieces of scenario design?  Are there different schools of thought about scenario design?  How does an "adventure" happen?  I'm bringing up Zero specifically because it's got some typically schizophrenic late-90's text that I know Ron has a lot of experience critiquing.  But I think the question generalizes, as well.  RPG's don't work without some way to generate interesting situations one after another, but this aspect of the hobby is seldom discussed in depth.  Again, my focus is on Zero but I might diverge a little bit here and there for other examples.

Chapter Six of Zero is your basic "GM-ing 101" stuff, and surprisingly clear-sighted, at least from my own point of view.  I don't have my copy of the text with me, but Smith (after pointing out that the game mechanics shouldn't be ignored or fudged) points out that the players have been thrown into a crisis, and they're going to be making a lot of decisions, and you should roll with it as best you can.  If you play the world honestly, there will always be pressure on these poor bastards, and they'll always be at the jump-off.  The whole thing is like 4 pages long, and would feel perfectly at home in a game like Apocalypse World.

Chapter Seven then descends into this whole elaborate rigamarole about, "Find a reason for the players to go on this adventure!" and "Come up with a whole bunch of minor obstacles to overcome!" and the whole trail of breadcrumbs/checklist approach, which frankly seems to totally contradict the Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind approach of Chapter Six.  As Chapter Seven is (a) much longer, and (b) much more specific about what you're supposed to do, I suspect the few people who played Zero at the time would have tried to follow Chapter Seven as best they could.

(I confess I haven't read Chapter Seven other than a quick skim.  It looks like pretty standard 1990's adventure design stuff - not to dissimilar from the old Alternity stuff I was playing around the same time.)

So here's a thing.

If you accept that RPG's are a collaboration, or a jam band, or a conversation, or whatever metaphor you wish, then player agency matters.  A lot.  It's perfectly fine to place some broad limits on player agency ("In this game, no one can flap their arms and fly to the moon") or even drill things down to a multiple choice list ("do you want to go north, south, east or west" in a situation where that choice does actually matter to play). 

A lot of RPG's handle player agency in different ways.

The "classic" OSR sort of way, historically revisionist as it may be, is to create a spatial environment to explore - a dungeon, a wilderness - populate it with challenges, rewards, and just plain entertaining stuff - and let the players muck about with it as they see fit.  The basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets from the early 1980's, edited by Tom Moldvay and re-edited by Frank Mentzer, have some genuinely great and functional tools for this.  In between sessions, the GM thinks about what's changed in the dungeon, updates what the dungeon's inhabitants might do based on their nature & personality, and then the cycle repeats.

The standard Forge approach, at least as I've seen it, is to create a social environment to explore - the R-Map or a variation on it such as a town in Dogs in the Vineyard.  You are basically building a house of cards, except made out of people.  When the PC's show up, they destabilize the structure, and you just sort of watch as the cards fall.  Dogs in the Vineyard has extremely good rules about how to set up the social relationships in the town, though these rules are intimately tied to the Not-Quite-Historical Western setting.

There's also the "mission of the week" style of play, which I've seen best put to use in Mouse Guard but I suspect the general structure also applies to a lot of super hero or espionage games.  The players are given a task to perform, usually in their best discretion.  In Mouse Guard, the GM keeps a really hard-ass near-railroad approach during the first half of a session, but then opens up completely toward the end for the players to solve loose ends or pursue their own agendas (a bit like in comic books where Spider-Man saves the city, and then tries to get his life in order as Peter Parker).  I've seen few texts that do this well.

There's also the "pre-arranged chronology" style of play, where PC's are involved in some grand epic with a pre-ordained (or limited range of pre-ordained) outcomes, and you're arriving at, or witnessing NPC's arrive at, various milestones along that path.  This is a hard thing to reconcile with player agency!  The Great Pendragon Campaign seems to do pretty well at it, at least for our group, in part because Arthurian Britain is big enough that we can get into trouble all on our own if so inclined, and we don't have a particularly strong desire to screw with canon.  (The closest we've come is my character, upon being admitted to the Round Table, critically fumbled his Reading roll, and so thought the Siege Perilous was his chair.  This led to a scene where he had to be reverse-psychology'd out of sitting there.)  The other thing that's helpful, in Pendragon, is that I'm totally into my character's deal: my guy has a huge family he has to keep a lid on, a manor house that's always falling apart, and numerous irrepressible manias that constantly imperil his mental health, and there's also the whole business of accruing a reputation.  There's enough stuff to do in Pendragon that the big Camelot stuff is pretty much little more than a backdrop: even without it, we'd have more than enough nonsense going on to keep us busy.

Back to Zero
But Zero falls in this really weird design space.  On the one hand: "dudes, you are in a huge dungeon populated with the Borg and mutated critters."  I can see how this would work as a dungeon-crawl / survival-horror type deal, but the real focus in Zero, as a text, is the hive mind and the players' interactions with it as an object of longing, disgust, and (reactive) hostility.

Meanwhile, the usual Forge "house of cards" style of play seems difficult to implement here.  In a game like Sorcerer or Dogs in the Vineyard, you've got a bunch of really itchy NPC's all rarin' to cut loose on one another, drawing the players into this pre-existing conflict.  In Zero, the hive-mind is pretty much everything: there's some room for an NPC to display individuality, but not much, and few conflicts of interest are immediately apparent.  (The Cyberkillers, assassins who have their own private hive mind, are potential trouble in several different ways.)  The really itchy NPC's apparently exist off-stage: other refugees, androids, intelligent monsters, aliens, whatever. 

Interestingly, Zero asserts that it is an epic in the style of King Arthur, and that later supplements will guide you through the various eras of the epic, like the old meta-plot stuff in various White Wolf games.

I'd be curious to know how long this game goes before the well of self-discovery and world-discovery runs dry.  It might require adding stress fractures to the hive mind, or having PC's create such fractures.

Anyway, it's a curious game.  What does one actually need to create a playable session of Zero
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: Ron Edwards on May 01, 2013, 07:43:36 PM
A quick helper for the discussion, before I jump in - time is really short this week - [Zero] Dingo for dinner (

Best, Ron
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 01, 2013, 11:53:20 PM
That is the thread that got me to buy the game!

By the way, the "[+1]" in the thread title is meant to evoke those ubiquitous "+1" buttons on all social media sites.  It's hard for me to imagine what life in the hive mind would feel like, other than continual, mandatory, possibly involuntary FaceBooking and Twittering everything in your life, and doing the same for everyone you know, and everyone they know, and so on.  How this turns into a womb-metaphor I'm not sure, but folks in my workplace do an awful lot of it even without being cyborg body-slaves of an insect-goddess.  (Oh, yeah: big "Outer Church from The Invisibles" vibe to this thing, though portrayed super-earnestly.  Ah, the '90's.)

One way to figure out what you're expected to do with a game is to study its reward system.  Here it is:
* 1 XP for attendance
* 1-2 XP (usually 1) if the character "faced a particularly dangerous situation"
* 1 XP for doing something "particularly entertaining"

And that's it.  (This is very similar to the Alternity reward system, incidentally, and possibly other 90's games)

Now, once you have these XP, Ron's right: you basically can edit your character's skill-set on the fly.  Essentially a Zero character consists of a name (actually more like a serial number), some initial cybernetic implants (which can be removed or modified later), and certain skills (which you can learn or let atrophy by spending XP).  Your character, in other words, is pretty much wholly customizable - the act of play is a method to define this person as an individual, not just on past conduct but on immediate goals. 

I don't have any immediate analogues to this; Trollbabe lets you change your effectiveness around, and I can't remember what the rules are for junking a relationship in that game, but it's the nearest that comes to mind.  Except a Trollbabe at least has a real name, and a hairstyle.

Anyway: so, yeah, you show up, you make the GM happy, and you "face particularly dangerous situations," and in exchange you get to reinvent the character--to the point where a lowly technician character could suddenly become kung-fu master after pausing to think about it (and to spend, say, 3 XP).

If you buy the theory that players will bark for rules-based incentives, that means that players are going to be eager to face "particularly dangerous" situations, and may create such situations even where none were planned. 

Anyway, off to read Chapter 7 now.

P.S.  I'd be interested in discussing how different games treat the interface between player and character, particularly comparing high-value personality traits or passions in Pendragon, which often override the player's declared intention for the character ("I boast to the princess" "sorry, the dice say your guy wouldn't do that"), with Zero where the character is almost putty in a player's hands.  Most games don't make a major issue of this one way or another, but the ones that do are rather striking.

Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 03, 2013, 11:18:57 PM
One of the more curious aspects of this game is that it was inspired by paintings by Steve Stone (  Somebody apparently said, "Yo, this stuff looks craaaaaaazy!  Hey Lester Smith, put down those dang Dragon Dice and make an RPG out of these pictures!"  And: Zero

(My understanding is that the Dark Sun setting for AD&D 2e was similarly constructed around Brom's artwork.  "What the heck is this, Brom?"  "Well, it's this monster guy?  And he's got this bell that he rings that hypnotizes people into approaching him so he can eat them, see?"  "Cool.  Troy, put Bell Guy in the book.")

Let me preface this by saying that I am a terrible person to talk about the visual arts: I feel like I don't know the right terms and have absolutely no talent or training, so I'm talking out of my ass.  With that caveat, Stone's artwork in Zero moves me exactly to the extent it evokes H.R. Giger. 

I realize the artists are operating with different media: Stone's art was done digitally in the mid-90's and (this is completely unfair of me) looks it.  So what you have, sometimes, is a composition involving a foregrounded humanoid figure, usually with a very uniform texture, superimposed on a somewhat hazy background which may have been painted in a traditional way.  Perhaps based on the technical limitations of the day, there doesn't appear to be much depth of field here: there's the immediate foreground where everything is crisp and somewhat flattened, and then quite some distance away there's the background with little in between. 

There's also a "posing" issue, where what we've got is a (nearly full-body) figure to contemplate who doesn't seem to be doing much.  Other than the cover, we don't get a Raphael-style portrait that hints at character, nor do we get a street scene that illustrates life in the Equanimity's hive-mind, nor do we get a still life.  There's kind of a uniformity to the plates.

Now, this is not to say that Stone doesn't present some evocative stuff.  The two-headed Cerberus Nipple-Borg on page 61 has a hell of a lot of personality, and definitely is an NPC of considerable consequence in my head.  The back cover image is a strikingly cool death-ninja opponent.  The backgrounds furnish images of advanced technology, urban decay, and vast underground wildernesses.  An inhuman place to hang out, populated by beings that frankly don't appear too human to me.  Uninviting.

For the most part, though, I think Stone is trying to draw on Giger's body of work, though with more leather and fewer genitals built out of vertebrae.  If the Zero castes had an Apocalypse World-style special move when sexually aroused, it would be the perfect Giger game.  Giger, I think, conveys the aesthetic of the hive society very well: an unsettling amalgam of human and machine, insect-like in design, generally devoid of personality or individualism, just a kind of dull masochism.  (I'm spending time talking about Giger just because if you had to convey the look of this thing, that's almost certainly the shared touchstone.)
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 04, 2013, 12:55:19 PM
Okay: back to adventure/scenario/what-we-call-when-we-play prep.

The initial problem confronting the rogue biomechs is sheer survival: food, water, shelter that are safe from predators and hive patrols.  This may include actually escaping from the depths of the hive depending on exactly where they start the game.  Even if the rogues find a respite, it is almost certainly under threat sooner or later. 

From a perspective of a guy who's been playing a lot of old D&D for 5 years, this bears a superficial resemblance to a group of lowly monsters - goblins or something - desperately trying to eke out a living in the forgotten "mega-dungeon" where the "base town" in which all the comforts of civilization can be found will kill you on sight. 

In more modern terms, something like Apocalypse World's fronts sheet might work too, as hunger, disease, and ignorance pose risks to the characters. 

Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: Ron Edwards on May 06, 2013, 10:47:02 PM

You're pretty well nailing things to the wall as far as reading the text goes. I submit that play has provided me with unequivocal, dramatic evidence of one more thing: each player's buy-in to, commitment to, and creative input toward his or her character. Zero still takes the prize for it, in my experience, even though I specifically wrote Trollbabe to try to get there too. After a single session of play, the depth of humanity shown by every character is profound, in both senses of the word "depth," positive and negative. Writing the new skills often springboards off this, with a new skill like "cook dingo" being almost like a legendary tribal event and only partly a matter of relevant and novel effectiveness.

I think that would be a serious issue for me as a long-term Zero GM, something I'd still like to become one of these days. I'd be working with characters who totally accorded with my ideal-player manifesto for Sorcerer from [Sorcerer] How to play a sorcerer ( - unstoppable, proactive, dynamic, and always changing based on events. "Roping them in" to "my" adventure really wouldn't be a problem, as long as I had a genuinely interesting vision for the history of the Hive, full of different ideas for immediate and present dangers and opportunities.

I think that's why the creature list in the book isn't all that compelling, since Smith as an author is necessarily deprived of that individual-GM vision, and cannot actually model it well for the reader without inadvertently providing a canonical sourcebook. I damn well know that difficulty from my own writing at exactly that same time. The androids might be the exception based on some idea of his that bore fruit during play.

Anyway, that fantastic player buy-in, and its manifestations through committed and highly directed play, is what you're not going to get from simply reading the book, and I consider it a primary emergent feature of the game.

Best, Ron
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 07, 2013, 12:55:39 PM
More later, but the player-investment aspect of Zero is interesting.  You can see hintsof it when you make a character for the first time.  "Uh, I'm a Drone, I have this many focus skills, a couple prior skills, some cyber-grafts, and my name is Drone 3316.*  That's it?!?  What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"  It's hard to imagine a blanker slate, and I expect the panic of, "Who the hell am I?" is shared by both the players and their rogue biomechs in the first few moments of play.

Zero is one of those games where the GM really has to think through the setting a bit before play, and it's complicated in the sense that Smith provides some hints about past events (Queen Zero took her people underground to escape a catastrophe, supposedly; at times she's edited memories so the hive forgets prior rogues; she employed android enforcers for a time; the Dissemblers were one device designed by an ancient enemy)--just the sort of details that makes the nerd-detective in me want to puzzle things out in an obsessive, "let's look at what we know" sort of way rather than just surfing on the imagery. 

But there are more fundamental questions too: What the hell is this hive-mind?  What on earth is Queen Zero?  Why did any of this happen?  Who would permit this to happen?  What's the experience of being in the hive-mind like?  What's the deal with a biomech's absolutely freakish ability to learn new things super-fast?  "Cooking Dingo" can go from being something you had no idea knowing was a skill, to being an unfamiliar skill, to being a focus skill, in the space of maybe two session, which is perhaps the weirdest thing in the setting.  How much individuality/volition do the particular biomechs immersed in the hive-mind possess?

(The text wobbles a bit on this last point.  The overall impression is that there's this enormous collective intelligence; later, there's the implication that each biomech's consciousness is aware of its own body in a somewhat detached third-person viewpoint, and that biomechs do think their own thoughts--just that everyone else participates in those thoughts, and vice-versa.  Nearest I can figure, it's like having an interior monologue that's being commented on/joined in by everybody nearby.  I almost want to try an at-the-table gimmick where, whenever any player says something, the other players repeat the last three words in unison.)

It's one of those things that makes me want to read a lot about privacy issues, totalitarian societies, and so on.

* Character creation rules say to roll 5 dice for a player's designation; the "creatures" section of the book says that all players come from the 4-digit series which is especially susceptible to going rogue.  I find that two sets of two-digit numbers ("thirty-three sixteen") is significantly easier to pronounce, and therefore remember when speaking, than a 5-digit series. 
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: Ron Edwards on May 08, 2013, 10:44:13 AM

I think you've gone as far with reading as you're going to get. I'm not sure you're seeing just how intense the player buy-in becomes; it's exactly the same as what Larry is describing in [The Clay that Woke] Weird and exciting. ( That game goes even farther than Zero in that there are simply and only four possible starting character sheets with no player modification or additions, and lacking the simplest shred of personality or specialization.

Also, I may be mis-reading your last couple of posts, but I am certain that the setting-information in the Zero text is not saying, "Try to guess what Lester has in mind through the clues he's leaving here." It's saying, "These few details are a couple of examples. Make it all up yourself." The GM is supposed to decide whether the Hive is, for example, a crashed colony ship, or a post-nuke apocalyptic enclave, or even the results of some odd cult cloistered away from an otherwise normal world; also to make up any and all details of the Hive's history and changes, most especially the genuine personality and aims of Zero herself.

Zero relies heavily on the setting-centric creative commitment of the GM, and just as heavily on the proactive creative commitment of each player. The good thing about it is that these things are both genuinely inspiring and fun to do.

Or to put it another way ... set up a game and play. I'd really like to know how it goes.

Best, Ron
Title: Re: Zero: [+1]
Post by: James_Nostack on May 08, 2013, 07:09:06 PM
Also, I may be mis-reading your last couple of posts, but I am certain that the setting-information in the Zero text is not saying, "Try to guess what Lester has in mind through the clues he's leaving here." It's saying, "These few details are a couple of examples. Make it all up yourself." The GM is supposed to decide whether the Hive is, for example, a crashed colony ship, or a post-nuke apocalyptic enclave, or even the results of some odd cult cloistered away from an otherwise normal world; also to make up any and all details of the Hive's history and changes, most especially the genuine personality and aims of Zero herself.

I certainly agree with your first two sentences, at least in as far as I want to approach Zero: riffing on imagery and ideas rather than bread-crumb gathering about the setting.  (I'm less confident that the text itself takes this approach: I think like a lot of 1990's games it was a little conflicted about this.  I mean, somebody had to write that adventure in the back of the book, right?  P.U.!  Also, I'm pretty sure the text itself claims somewhere that Zero is Earth, though I agree there's certainly grounds to imagine it in many different ways.)

Anyway, I am probably going to try about getting some folks involved on Google Plus hangouts.  I've typically found G+ disturbingly disconnected when playing regular games, but I think the dissociative properties of the medium might actually serve Zero quite well.  I'm trying to put together a hand-out pamphlet along the same lines as the Justifiers, Ruby, Sign in Stranger stuff you'd done on the Adept Press site; when that's done I'll drag some friends into it.