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Author Topic: [InSpectres] First try at Narrativism  (Read 5504 times)
Selene Tan
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« on: February 07, 2005, 02:06:13 AM »

InSpectres -- first try at Narrativism

I've been wanting to try Narrativism for a while, and after some reading at the Forge decided that InSpectres was probably the best game to introduce to my group. The session was a blast, although I'm a bit worried about future sessions since I kept forgetting to ask for Stress Rolls.

My group's been together for about five years, always meeting face-to-face. Not everyone in the group was present at the session; we're college students whose schools are on different schedules, so not everyone is back home at the same time. (We started the group while in high school.) Our main campaign is a D&D 3.25 ed (hybrid 3.0 and 3.5 rules) in a custom setting. It's been going on for about four years, although most of it only during summer and winter breaks when we're all back together. Sessions tend to be sleep-overs and can go as much as 12 hours in a day with breaks for meals. When I played InSpectres, we only had about 7 hours (starting just after lunch) because I had somewhere to go early the next day.

The players were a veteran roleplayer (something like 20 years under his belt) who's tried out lot of systems, although mostly older ones, and done some homebrews. He's been our GM for D&D 3rd ed, and for a Shadowrun campaign before that, and a co-GM (alternating) for an AD&D 2nd ed campaign. (And yes, he's been complaining of GM burnout. Also, I've introduced him to various Forge-y things, and he says he feels somewhat uncomfortable with the concepts in games that are "too new-school".) One of the other players was the co-GM for that 2nd ed campaign, although she hasn't GM'ed since. The last player has never GM'ed, although she played in all the campaigns I've mentioned. Basically, no Narrativist experience, and pretty much no drift that way -- as players, none of them really expressed interest in dealing with premises. In the 3rd ed campaign, the GM has a storyline set, although he's informed us of several sidequests that we can choose to go on. Sometimes he asks us if we're ready to advance the main storyline. As players, we're pretty passive. (I've been trying to change my behavior.)
I thought that my group would enjoy Nar if they had a crack at it. I wanted something with a lighter mood than, say, My Life With Master because I thought it would fit them better. (Also because the usual GM said that he couldn't take MLWM seriously...)

Characters:
Jakov - ex-Mossad agent, sent by Israel to keep an eye on the Jewish community on New York. Israel also gave him funding to set up a branch of InSpectres in Greenwich Village. (veteran roleplayer and GM) Talent: espionage. 4 in Contact, 1 in Athletics (old!), 2 in Tech and Academics
Sumi - Yale undergraduate music major and violinist. On leave of absence due to a haunted violin that keeps attacking her roommates and other people; hasn't told her parents about it. (occasional GM-er) Talent: music major. 4 in Academics, 2 in Tech, I don't remember her others.
(can't remember her name; player was Alex) - great-granddaughter of Peter Venkman (of Ghostbusters fame). Is bugged by her parents to "uphold the family tradition", but is scared of ghosts. (player only) Talent: Physical Education. 4 in Athletics, 2 in Tech, can't remember the rest. (I remember that everybody had a 2 in Technology.)

NPC:
Johan Ritter - German geezer old enough to be the girls' grandfather. Comes from a long line of Schattenjagers (yes, I have played too much Gabriel Knight). Was the only other applicant for the initial franchise; joined them in/after the second mission as an assistant.

Jakov's player took the initiative with the franchise. They'd already decided they wanted to set it in New York City, and Jakov's player came up with the idea of Israeli funding for an InSpectres Greenwich branch. (The players discussed where in NYC to put it, and Sumi's player suggested Greenwich.) They started off the franchise with 5 dice. The intro consisted of one and a half interviews. The half was the tail end of Jakov's interview with Johan, and then Sumi and Alex came in together. The first encounter with the system (sort of) was earlier, during Franchise creation; I made sure that anyone who suggested any equipment for the office had to do a tech roll. They ended up with a nice garage, a van, and a time-share hearse. Also a phone with a gazillion extension buttons (whose functions don't always agree with their labels), and some radio headsets that pick up party lines.

I started them off with a relatively simple 10-die Job. They got a call from a panicking mother at a birthday party where blue-gray goo had come out of the cake and absorbed the children. They did some research and found out (declared) that the goo was a manifestation of children who didn't get their birthday wishes, and could be exorcised by putting some of the child's favorite cake and soda into the center of the goo. The players took a bit to get used to narrating successes, but they mostly got the hang of it. I was pleased when Sumi's player made a roll to figure out the child's favorite cake and soda, and gave an unusual cake. (Since clearly she could have picked something really easy.) Jakov's player seemed to do the best, since he's used to improvising as a GM and is a self-acknowledged ham actor. All in all, the first mission went pretty well; I kept forgetting to call for Stress Rolls, which was unfortunate, but I figured it would be okay for the first mission.

The second mission ended up with a long convoluted chain of... stuff. It started with a call about a newly-acquired haunted double-bass that acted like Sumi's haunted violin. After a lot of research, the players managed to concoct a very complicated history for the two. I did remember to call for Stress Rolls, but I don't think I was very creative about them, so they fell kinda flat. (Most involved the violin making loud screeching noises continually after it met with the double-bass. Too repetitive, gah.) I need more practice hosing players. ;) They actually collected enough job dice pretty early into the plot, and then it was kind of a while before the mission actually finished. Jakov's player mentioned later that he found it kind of frustrating, because he kept dwelling on the fact that the longer it took them to finish, the more likely they were to get Stressed, which was bad strategy. Also, the players spent most of their time doing research, which I thought was a little boring. They might have thought so also, or at least been getting fatigued: I know they were having trouble coming up with more ideas for research. I think that trying to come up with ideas that were not directly related to "why the violin and double-bass are haunted" would have helped refresh them.

After that, we broke for dinner, and then players voted to try to finish one last mission. So we did. It involved a demon-possessed middle-manager and a possessed HDTV (imported from Haiti), as well as several possible affairs involving the manager, his wife, the neighbors, and their pre-nuptial agreement lawyer. (They came up with most of it, it was great!) I again completely forgot about Stress dice, but again, they mostly did research-type things. Which are hard to come up with Stress rolls for. I think I should probably have forced more supernatural encounters on them, although I guess they liked running around finding out things. (But again, the fatigue with trying to explain all of that.) Jakov managed to get himself separated from the rest of the party in a not-very-interesting situation of his own accord. (Something like watch duty over the middle manager.) He did do a little investigation, and I tried to give him equal time, but I wasn't too satisfied with how I did with that. I think the player might have been getting a little bored with it too, after a while. Oh, as a plus note, he voluntarily made a Stress Roll from having to read the Wheel of Time to the middle manager to keep him occupied for five hours straight... While he was doing that, the two other players came up with most of the complicated relationship-affair stuff, and went to confront the lawyer who looked like he might be the source of the problem. We unfortunately had to stop just as we reached the climax.

One thing I noticed was that my players really didn't like using the Cards. I suppose if I'd leaned on them harder with Stress they'd have been forced to use them, which happened some in the second mission. I think I made some of the Stress rolls too easy; I gave them 2 each when they were in a car crash, but maybe it should have been 3? I don't know.
Another thing I noticed was that nobody wanted to use the Confessionals. They weren't sure how to use them, or what they were for. I forced a couple of uses, but they fell kinda flat. It's possible that if I'd emphasized assigning traits they might have been more willing to use them, but I'm not sure.
Also, I didn't explain the assist rules clearly enough; for a while they thought that the assistant had to use the same skill. Most of the assistance was along the lines of "I also search on Google to find out about double basses." I felt this was a little uninteresting, but I wasn't sure how to encourage more independent actions.

If we play again, I'll probably make them start up a new franchise, because at the moment they've racked up something like 40 Franchise dice, which is ridiculous. I don't know when we'll get a chance to play again, though. (Not for a while with that group, at least.)
I'm not entirely sure if Narrativism is right for the group, although they had fun. That might have been the comedy element; I'm a little wary of trying something more serious with them.

I think I still need to work on my techniques as a facilitator. I don't have much GM experience, and I've historically been rather bad at improvising. (Although I'm getting better.) So this was also a new experience for me. I definitely need to do better as far as coming up with things for Stress Rolls goes; any tips on that?

I plan to play InSpectres again with some people from my college, so advice would be much appreciated.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2005, 08:10:02 AM »

Hello,

I'm glad you guys had a good time.

It strikes me that the ex-Mossad agent character is a little out of keeping with the guidelines for InSpectres characters, as well as being perhaps a sign of gamer-think ... "my guy must be able to kick ass in a cool and dangerous way." Why not an aging security guard?

And yes, by failing to consider Stress, you are essentially not playing the game or "not GMing right" to be especially brutal about it. What would D&D be like if we all merely decided to ignore both hit points and levels? By "ignore," I don't mean "handle differently," but ignore. It'd be pretty hard to maintain (say) a strong Gamist focus without them, unless we replaced them with some equally tangible reward/advancement system.

Same in InSpectres, from a different aesthetic angle - without Stress, you remove the pressure from the basic conflict in the game: the protagonist's personal stress vs. company success. The goal of the game is not to "keep the company alive." That is a common glitch in playing InSpectres, in which the GM feels obliged to take it light on the players so the company won't fail. The goal of the game is to put pressure on the typical, nigh-universal issue built into startup companies of any kind.

"We're all friends, right? Company money is our money, right? We all trust each other to manage it constructively, right? We all believe in the company, right, because we're friends?"

Anyone ever read The E-Myth? Famous book about managing small businesses. InSpectres basically sets up a company whose members haven't read it, and requires play-situations which illustrates how disastrous that is. Whether the characters get a clue about how to deal with it is up to the players.

Best,
Ron
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Valamir
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« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2005, 09:56:46 AM »

Ron's spot on about the stress.  All of the funky ghost buster stuff is really just so much color (really really fun color...but color nonetheless) for the real core of the game.

Namely:

When Bob the player has been designated CEO, and Sally the player has been designated CFO in charge of the finances (i.e. cards and franchise dice), and everybody on the team has been stressed out to the max so there aren't enough Franchise dice to go around and still grow the business...

...who does Sally give the Franchise dice to so their characters can recover from the stress.

...what does Bob, Sally's "boss" think about Sally's choices?  What kind of pressure does he bring to bear on it?

...what does Joe the "intern" think about it?


And most importantly...what kind of passive aggressive behavior will those other players have their characters start manifesting due to be "gyped" out of their vacation time?  THAT's when the Confessionals come into their own.   When Joe, playing the stressed intern, starts using his Confessional time to stick it to Sally Suck-up...in the middle of a mission which is going all to hell fast...THEN you see Inspectres in all its glory.
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jburneko
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« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2005, 11:30:22 AM »

Ralph, that points out a very minor weakness of Inspectres.  I rarely encounter players who realize that the divying up the Franchise dice to relieve stress damage is a *character* decision.  Usually at that point in an InSpectres game everyone considers the game to be over and the group as players just starts shuffling the numbers around like you would XP at the end of a D&D session.

When that attitude gets adopted early on what ends up happening, overtime, is a lot of ire gets directed at the GM for being too heavy handed and arbitrary with the stress rolls if the players can't find a good way to manage the numbers at the end of each mission.  The GM gets accused of not properly "balancing" the game.

Jesse
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Michael S. Miller
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« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2005, 12:31:12 PM »

Hi, Jesse.

My suggestions on how to solve that.

1) Multiple missions per session are a MUST for InSpectres. Start the Franchise tiny. I mean 4 or even 3 dice.

2) Have physical dice that represent the Franchise dice earned. At the end of the mission, physically hand them to the CEO and say "You've gotten paid. However, everybody's pretty banged up. You're in charge of handing out the vacation time."

3) For any increase or decrease in the total number of Franchise dice at the end, be certain to narrate it. Have they gotten new furniture? Does the CEO have a nice new ergonomic chair while the tech guy still sits on a milk crate? This will play into the humorous Color, but also make them care about growing the business. Any business losses will be felt.
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Selene Tan
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« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2005, 01:59:20 AM »

Quote from: jburneko
Ralph, that points out a very minor weakness of Inspectres.  I rarely encounter players who realize that the divying up the Franchise dice to relieve stress damage is a *character* decision.  Usually at that point in an InSpectres game everyone considers the game to be over and the group as players just starts shuffling the numbers around like you would XP at the end of a D&D session.

When that attitude gets adopted early on what ends up happening, overtime, is a lot of ire gets directed at the GM for being too heavy handed and arbitrary with the stress rolls if the players can't find a good way to manage the numbers at the end of each mission.  The GM gets accused of not properly "balancing" the game.


I did notice this in the second mission, where I was actually calling for Stress rolls. The players also seemed a little... annoyed or something about having to make the rolls. To continue Ron's D&D analogy, they reacted almost as if I'd been calling for saving throws and dealing damage when they failed just because I could.
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #6 on: February 08, 2005, 05:59:36 AM »

It's interesting (and not altogether unsurprising) that the veteran roleplayer made the character he did -- I'm guessing he's the one that had the most resistance to Stress rolls and the like.

There are a number of reviews that point out that this is only a game for experienced gamers. I submit that the exact opposite it true...
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2005, 06:07:54 AM »

Hello,

100% agreement with you, Jared. Our views on the actual role-playing capacities of "experienced gamers" are similar.

Best,
Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2005, 08:43:55 AM »

Quote from: jburneko
Ralph, that points out a very minor weakness of Inspectres.  I rarely encounter players who realize that the divying up the Franchise dice to relieve stress damage is a *character* decision.  Usually at that point in an InSpectres game everyone considers the game to be over and the group as players just starts shuffling the numbers around like you would XP at the end of a D&D session.

When that attitude gets adopted early on what ends up happening, overtime, is a lot of ire gets directed at the GM for being too heavy handed and arbitrary with the stress rolls if the players can't find a good way to manage the numbers at the end of each mission.  The GM gets accused of not properly "balancing" the game.

Jesse


Unfortunately, this is an area where the rules aren't quite as specific as they probably should be.   The rules seem to make the various roles (CEO, CFO, etc.) as being mostly Color, with perhaps an allocation of game-related tasks (like actually being the one to hold the Franchise Sheet).  Now, in our game of InSpectres, I gave the Franchise Dice to the CEO to award.  However, what we didn't have was some mechanism to "vote out the CEO" or some such thing, so that the other characters could express their disapproval without the game itself falling apart.  After all, a character could always quit, but then the player is out of the game.

Without some rules support to these concepts, I'm afraid that InSpectres stumbles precisely at the point where it could be most powerful.
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2005, 08:48:09 AM »

Oh, by the way, I had the same issues with Stress, feeling guilty about laying on the characters.  Check out these threads for some good thoughts on the issue:

Winger Paranormal, or Winging InSpectres
Winging InSpectres, Part 2
Fighting Slime (or, Winging InSpectres, Part 3)
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Seth Ben-Ezra
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hix
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« Reply #10 on: February 08, 2005, 01:00:54 PM »

We've had one session of Inspectres in particular where the players expressed a lot of distaste for Stress Rolls.

The three reasons they gave were:
1) I unfairly targeted a specific player with Stress rolls;
2) Stress decreases character effectiveness; and
3) It messes with the picture people have in their head of how cool their character is.

Jesse’s point about not treating Stress damage (and Stress repair) as a *character* decision strikes me as totally true for our franchise.
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2005, 07:01:06 PM »

If a player cries to me about Stress I smack him in the mouth and say, "Quit being such a fucking baby, you baby." The point of the game is not to "look cool doing cool stuff" (q.v. just about any game out there, inc. my own octaNe). The point is to fall down a lot. It's a comedy game.

And there are no "vote out the CEO" rules for precisely the same reason that there is a dearth of information about baking in the D&D Player's Handbook.

If you look at the game like it's a comedy films (like, oh...I dunno...say...Ghostbusters?), you gotta know when to have the players make those Stress rolls and do it often enough to make it matter, but not too much (a guy slipping on a banana peel is funny, the same guy slipping and falling twenty times in a row isn't funny).

I'll repeat: I think any resistance from InSpectres players comes from the bugbear of prior experience. New players get it. Older players are all caught up in preconceptions about how an RPG should work. To them I say, have fun playing RIFTS you jackass!

- J

* InSpectres is about the players, not the characters. There's a reason I put in all the reality show moments and lack of character growth. Hah...and you thought I was just being lazy.
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clehrich
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« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2005, 07:50:12 PM »

Quote from: hix
The three reasons they gave were:
1) I unfairly targeted a specific player with Stress rolls;
2) Stress decreases character effectiveness; and
3) It messes with the picture people have in their head of how cool their character is.
My read on this:

1. Is a problem.  Hose everybody.  Be an equal opportunity hoser.

2. Character effectiveness is basically nil, unless you talk real, real fast.  If you succeed a lot, everyone else should be hosing you.

3. Your character is not cool.  Your character is a schlep.  Your character is somebody who didn't really quite make it at anything else.

It sounds like they didn't really get this, but maybe you didn't either?

Take a tip from kill puppies: give them grief.  A lot of grief.

BUT...

Give them twinkies when they give each other grief.

So, my suggestions.

A. Drop the franchise dice way low to start off with.  Somebody said this, but it bears repeating.

B. Make them invent their hosing.  Here's how I'd start.  "Okay, so Alex, you rolled really bad for tech, right?  Fine.  Bob, what do you guys get instead?  It's gotta suck.  Hearse?  That's cool, but it doesn't suck enough.  Janet, how does the hearse suck?  Rental?  Cool.  What's that, Alex?  It burns oil like nobody's business and you have to carry extra in the trunk?  Cool."

Now keep doing this.  I'm a big believer in fobbing off all the painful parts of GMing -- like saying no -- on other people.  "Janet, you suck, you rolled  a 1.  Guess you're hosed.  Bob, hose Janet.  Ouch!  Jeez, man, what have you got against her?  What?  No, I'm going with that."

Don't use the actual phrase "you suck" a lot, unless your group finds that funny.  That's kill puppies talk.  But the principle is the same.  You roll a 1?  You're hosed.  C'mon everyone, laugh.

Now up the ante again.  "Bob, you rolled a 1, you're hosed.  Um, hmm.  Bob, how are you hosed?  You what?  Ouch."

C. Next mission, shift your ground.  You know, what you're not supposed to do here on the Forge, right?  "Guys, I'm going to try this one straight, where I do the Stress stuff and so on.  But you can use Confessionals to hose each other and yourselves, OK?"

Now when you throw a big Stress thing, they've got the gist: they want to be hosed, because it's funny.  And if Alex just keeps succeeding or doing just fine, pretty soon Bob is getting into that Confessional and saying, "Who would have thought he'd start flirting with a vampire?  I mean, bloodsucking freaks with teeth!  Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course."

Ta da!  InSpectres.

D. Stress and hosing is not about punishment.  That's what they've got to get over.  It's about fun.  It's fun to get hosed.  It's fun to hose your friends.  "What?  Minor stress failure?  Can I trip and fall down the stairs and land in the scorpion pit?  Huh?  Can I?"  You need to twist them around to the point that you can be saying things like, "Um, Bob, it's not that big a failure, you know?  I mean... really?  You want that?  God damn, I hope you have some idea of how to get out of this."

E. Print out a few of the funniest InSpectres Actual Play threads around here, and have the players skim them.  Fastest thing I can think of.

F. Final suggestion.  Have them riff making up PCs who are interesting, complicated schleps.  Have them write full-page writeups of these people's interviews, in first person or third, as they prefer.  Have them do this together a bit, and go for funny.  Focus on Jared's basic principle that ordinary = funny.  Forget cool.  If one guy just has to play a super-powered cool character, have him play a vampire, then make him pay for it.  Did you know that full-spectrum lamps give you a sunburn if you're a vampire?  Didn't you expect that this weenie yuppie eco-tree-hugger dude would have full-spectrum lamps all through his house?

I did this little exercise myself when I first bought InSpectres, and before I knew it I had 10 InSpectres characters, most of whom I still think are funny.  And they're all schleps.  Don't ask me about "T" Aronson, the failed standup comic with the Nordic hippie parents.
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Chris Lehrich
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2005, 08:29:55 PM »

Boy, that "make them responsible for their own pee" line from Cockroach Souffle really floated your boat, didn't it Chris?

Best,
Ron
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #14 on: February 09, 2005, 12:29:55 AM »

Jumpin' in quick...

I wouldn't go so far as the KPfS route (characters are "losers"). My foundation for the types of characters in the game stem from three basic sources:

1) Strange people interacting with normal people (Venkman, Stanz and Spengler from Ghostbusters, Joss Whedon's characters).

2) Motivated, risk-taking "professionals" (people I worked with in .com start-ups of pre-millenial San Francisco) -- tattooed, pierced, dyed but really talented and ambitious.

3) Normal folks thrust into abnormal situations (Winston and Jeananne* from the original Ghostbusters, the castaways from Survivor).

- J

*One of the failings of GBII was that Jeananne was transformed (without rhyme or reason) from a sarcastic, cynical New Yawker to a geeky "she-Lewis." In other words, she was made into a character rather than a person (Lewis was already established as the classic New York nebbish in the first film so it wasn't jarring at all). Add Yanoush and his ridiculous accent to the mix and HO BOY, LOOK AT ALL THE COMEDY! Hmm.
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