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Author Topic: [Shades] Way over the edge  (Read 3187 times)
Victor Gijsbers
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« on: November 03, 2004, 06:49:31 AM »

While playtesting the game Shades I'm working on, I had a strange roleplaying experience which I'd like to share with you. The Sorcerer book mentions Jonathan Tweet's concept of 'over the edge', defined as experimenting with what kind of stories can be told using RPGs. My game of Shades went way over the edge, I think.

A topic discussing Shades can be found
here
, but I'll quickly recapitulate all that is necessary to know here. There is no stage of character creation, as all players are supposed to start out as a shade, a being that once was human, died, and is only now regaining his memories, thinking abilities, and indeed sense of individuality. The main mechanic is simple turn-by-turn scene narration, where scenes are supposed to be either exploration of the material setting by the incorporeal ghost, or surfacing memories, or (recommended) a combination: the shade sees something in the setting which triggers a memory. The first aim of the players is to construct, using these slowly resurfacing memories, the thematic tale of a tragedy in which all the characters were involved and hurt each other, which led to the deaths of at least some of them, and the unforgiven pain of which keeps them tied to the earth. Then, once the tragedy is in place (a moment explicitely to be recognised), the players should seek a resolution of the tragedy in the now, for better or for worse, using their very limited powers to interact with the material world and each other.

I and a friend of mine already tested this scheme once, with considerable success: the tale we spun of two lovers estranged by the love of the abstract and eternal of the one and the love of the particular and present of the other was tragic indeed; and the final reconciliation was not only emotionaly moving, but also made a point about balancing the abstract and the particular. So far so good.

But when we now played it for the second time, things turned out considerably different. We started by narrating confusing, dream-like scenes; it was hard to tell whether it were the shades experiencing their environment beyond life, or simply dream-like memories of the characters. Neither chronology nor the distinction between the dream and reality where very clear, but parts of a narrative started to unfold. Now, in our last game one of the first things we did was establish the relationship between our two characters - that gives you something to work with, and puts things in focus. But after playing for about 15 or 20 minutes, it became clear to both of us that this time we were playing the same character.

Of course, this made going through with a real game of Shades a bit of an impossibility, because you can hardly have a tragedy and unforgiven hurt with only one character in place, so we quietly dropped Shades' narrative structure and just went on telling the tale we had started. By this time it was clear that the character had spent a long time without water in a desert and hallucinated there; and there were also other dreamlike sequences that might be real or might be imaginary. Another important scene was where a ship's captain had dumped him on the beach of a desert land, leaving him to die of thirst. And this is when we really went over the edge: we turned out to be untrustworthy narrators, telling the same scenes twice but in incompatible ways. Indeed, one of the scenes was even told four times, at least three of which were completely contradictory: the character - who had worked on the ship and truly hated the captain - tried to kill the captain with a knife, and succeeded, the blood splashing over his hands. Cut. Red sand covers the hands of the character, lying in a desert, and he remembers how he tried to kill the captain, who was much faster than him and had easily overwhelmed him. Cut. The character dreamed once again about killing the captain, but he spoke in his sleep, was heard by fellow sailors, dragged onto the deck, faced a mad captain, and hauled off into a boat to be left in the desert.

It was never established which of the versions was the real version: dream, hallucination and reality simply became an inextricable web wherein it was impossible to judge whether any individual scene had taken place or not. Some outlines were clear, but most of the details were ambiguous and some scenes even very hard to place. The experience of telling this story was really cool, and the final product coherent enough to be enjoyable.

So: two players finding out that they are playing the same character, players being unreliable narrators, and a story in which fact and fiction (in-game fact and fiction) were inextricable... that's quite over the edge, isn't it?

I'd like to make some additional points about this, but that will have to wait because I now have to catch a train. I do think there might be some material here about how certain presuppositions of most RPGs force us to tell certain kinds of stories; I was quite surprised by the fact that once you lift those constraints, you so easily get a very different type of story.
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