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Author Topic: [Otherkind] A tale of two sessions (one bad, one good)  (Read 4033 times)
Victor Gijsbers
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« on: February 27, 2005, 09:19:09 AM »

I played my second sessions of Otherkind last thursday; the first session was the friday before; rules talk, setting design and character creation the week before that. The first did not go swimmingly - quite the opposite. Might even have been one of the worst sessions I ever GMed. The second session, on the other hand, was great - everyone had a lot of fun, and the system was an important cause of this. So I want to take a look at the differences between these two sessions.


Player breakdown

Our group consisted of me, the GM, and three players, Eva, Michiel en Dora. Eva and Michiel are part of my normal gaming group as well, and I've been playing with them for, respectively, something like 2.5 and 5 years. Recently, we've played such games as Sorcerer, My Life with Master and Shadows, so they are quite used to new-school narrative RPGs. The third player, Dora, had only played AD&D2E before, and definitely has a tendency to see her choices as tactical choices, although she is aware of the fact that tactics is not really important in a game such as Otherkind.

In GNS-terms, Michiel is mostly interested in Simulation of situation and genre; he is very comfortable with author/director-stance, and often a driving force behind the overall story. Eva leans more towards Narrativism, whereas I myself have hard-core Narrativist preferences. I have not played long enough with Dora, but I believe that in these two sessions her choices were based mostly on Simulation (of stituation and setting) and Gamist criteria. Since she was completely new to non-D&D play, this may not reflect her actual preferences.


Session first: opposition and narrative power

As I said, the first session was not much of a success. Now, I have to admit that at least Michiel was very tired that evening, and this probably contributed to the lack of vigor and excitement. For that was what went wrong: nobody became emotionally or otherwise invested in the story, the narration rules felt awkward, framing conflicts felt awkward, and the result was a listless evening of never-quite-right story-telling. Let me explain how we were going about it.

Each scene started out as a simple conversation between the GameMaster and the player(s), until such a point when a clear conflict had arisen and we decided to roll the dice. We would then make the roll, narrate the outcome, and move to the next scene. In effect, we were totally commited to the golden rule of Dogs in the Vineyard GMing: "Roll dice or say yes." Thing is, it didn't work out. Why not? Well, there simply were no conflicts in which there was any emotional investment; no one really cared about what was happening. I think this had everything to do with the fact that nobody actually had the power to create interesting conflicts.

I, as GM, had prepared a gameworld in which there were not only numenous objects with iron-wielding people wanting to preserve them, but also some smouldering conflicts and relationships between persons and factions which could have been the stuff of stories. But none of this actually turned into a story, because: 1. The player characters being defined as outsiders (as an other-kind), it is extremely hard to make human troubles become important to them. 2. I did not have control over the NPCs, because in the majority of the really important scenes, my players were narrating the outcome of the conflict - and as far as my NPCs figured in them, they figured as faceless puppets or as the 'antagonists'. They never came alive. 3. The distance between the PCs and the NPCs remained huge in part because the players regarded each roll of the dice as a momentous occasion - because each roll entailed the possibility of killing people and being hurt oneself. So they tended to choose stakes that really mattered to their characters, such as "I get the numenous object and escape with it from the village". But as long as NPCs don't figure in the stakes, they do not become important to either the characters or the players.

So basically, I as GM felt that I had little power to make the gameworld come alive to my players, or get them invested in what happened to the people in it.

The players, in turn, did not have the power to create interesting conflicts because of two reasons. 1. Because there was little reason for their characters to be concerned with anything else than getting the noumenous objects, there was little reason for the players to choose any other stakes than "I get the noumenous object." "I escape with the noumenous object." Or, sometimes, "I find out what and where the noumenous object is", or "I escape from the vengeance-mad smith who doesn't like the fact that I've stolen the village's noumenous statue of Maria". These are not really interesting conflicts, especially since the players have not chosen them themselves - it was clear from the outset that the characters want the noumenous objects and escape with them. 2. Because I, as GM, was more or less in control of the game world, at least to the extent that I had designed it and revealed it to them during the "say yes"-phase of each scene, none of the players dared to actively change the world in the setting of stakes. This meant that they were limited to the stakes which I set out above, none of which are really interesting.

So the players were limited to a strict set of not-too-interesting stakes, because I could not get the game world to live for them, and they could not get the game world to live for them either. That was a shame.

Connected with all of this was the awkwardness of the "say yes"-"roll the dice" transition. See, the stakes of the conflict were generally clear before the scene even started. ("Get the object." "Get away with the object." "Escape from the anatgonists.") So, where did we change from "say yes" to "roll the dice"? This was totally unclear, and gave everything an artificial feel as everyone was groping around in the dark for the 'right moment'. Also, the transition from 'in character'-exploration in the "say yes" phase, and the large distance director stance narrating of the "roll the dice" phase was really estranging.

Perhaps I might say that it was like playing Sorcerer without Kickers, with characters who had no link at all with the setting, and with a small pre-defined set of Bangs. Sounds fun, no? Now, I am not claiming that Otherkind must play this way; all I'm saying is that it was how it played in our first session.


What did we decide to do? Michiel and I realised that there was little reason to have a "say yes" phase in every scene, because the stakes were generally already clear from the beginning of the scene. Better to announce the stakes immediately, we thought, roll the dice, and skip the 'in character'-exploration completely. But that would mean that the GameMaster gave up a lot of control over the game world, as he had no more power to reveal it than the players had, so it would also give the players more narrative freedom. With more narrative freedom, perhaps more interesting conflicts could be generated, as the players could start creating NPCs and situations for their own narrative purposes and the general enjoyment. It was decided that we try this the next session.

A few days later, I though: so what's left to do for the GM? Next to nothing. Let's ditch the role altogether: I'll make up a character and become a player. So it was done.


Session second: a startling GNS-realisation

Welcome to our very first serious GM-less roleplaying session ever. The new paradigm of play was: we think up a setting beforehand. This was no more than: "A few miles down from the village where we were last week, the cruel lord of the land (4 iron) lives in his big castle (area: 3 iron). The spring which is at the bottom of the castle's well is a noumenous place (4 noumena). His guards...", and a few more noumenous objects and people with iron and moonlight.

Then, we took turns starting a scene for our character. State the conflict. Roll the dice. Assign them. Narration 4-6: you narrate; 1, the person to your left narrates, etcetera. The person across you applies iron. Change these rules when necessary because of people rolling together. That was it.

It was brilliant. Michiel and me especially delighted in creating conflicts that had nothing to do with the noumena, but made the castle and its inhabitants come alive for us. Eva and Dora were after the noumena more purposefully, but stated small-scale conflicts that led to interesting developments. The dice gave us enough arbitrariness to make the outcomes of the conflicts uncertain (which is fun), and enough boundary conditions to make the stories you tell surprising (even to yourself - "Like: o my god, how is anyone going to get hurt when I do this? O wait, let's...") and us able to work from something. (Telling a story without boundary conditions is much harder than telling a story in which you have to incorporate several elements.) Best of all, they gave us a real sense of antagonism, even though we were the authors of our own anatgonists! So, all in all, we had a lot of fun, we spun cool tales in an interesting environment that grew with the telling, and we have half a castle ahead of us for next session. GM-less Otherkind is a definite winner.

But the really surprising thing, at least to me, was this: we had driften completely into Simulationism.

I considered Otherkind to facilitate Narrativism to the exclusion of most anything else, but it turned out I was completely wrong. It is a brilliant system for telling cool tales in an immersive environment, while staying true to the genre-convention of the doomed hero for a lost cause. Otherkind brilliantly supports the Dream.

In fact, I now believe that it may not facilitate Narrativism half as much as I initally thought. See, the thematic decisions are generated by the system not when you decide that its time to address premise. Indeed, you may be at a thematic climax in the story, and roll 4 6s, and there is no way you can make a thematic decision. Whether or not you are faced with a thematic decision is a matter of pure chance, and has nothing to do with the inner necessity of the story. I found that in actual play, there is hardly any need to put 1s or 2s in anything, especially when two characters are working together. But my point is even more fundamental: whether or not you must make a 'tough moral decision' is a matter of chance. And that makes is somewhat impossible to play with narrativist goals in mind. You just can't work towards a climax.

I mean, I wanted my orc to kill several people in this first session, showing the ravaging power of his hatred, and posing sharply the question whether he could lose the hate and lust for revenge becfore it would destroy him. And, you know, I tried, but I didn't roll enough 1s and 2s. I killed only one person, and that was at the very beginning of the session. So my narrativist goals were foiled by the system; but I had a tremendous amount of fun simulating a humouristic, lightly fantasic world with our characters getting into all kinds of strange situations.

By the way, I only figured out in this second session that the difference between rolling less dice and more dice is not that if you have less dice, you have more chance of having to make a tough decision. The difference is exactly this: the more dice you roll, the more control you have over the boundary conditions of the story. That is all. You can roll 4 dice and get 3, 4, 3, 4 - I did - and have no tough choice (or any choice) at all. You can roll 8 dice and get 3, 4, 3, 4, 6, 6, 1, 1 and have a lot of choice to make. Including the choice that you kill someone. Rolling more dice = having more freedom. I found this counterintuitive; but it does pose the interesting question: under what circumstances would you choose to have little control over the unfolding story? Something to ponder. (Especially since rolling few dice increases the possibility that you get wounded, which entails that your next roll will also be with few dice, and so potentially ad infinitum.)

So, that was my experience. I hope I'm not the only one who is surprised. :)
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lumpley
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« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2005, 09:19:19 AM »

This is fascinating and cool.

I have no idea how to GM Otherkind. I didn't have a clear picture of its GM's job when I wrote the game, I wrote it half on theory and half on speculation. I still don't - that's a big part of why the game isn't finished and in print.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't've recommended "roll dice or say yes" for Otherkind, though. I'm not sure what I'd've recommended instead. "Keep conflicts short-term," maybe; veto any conflict spanning more than one interaction or more than one location.

Anyhow, fascinating. I'm glad you found a functional way to play the game.

Here are a couple of things I'll note, they seem to be confirmations of my current take on rpg theory:

When my group uses Otherkind's dice mechanic in our Ars Magica game, we roll very few dice, only 3 (we don't use the narration die), and we sometimes get real gut-wrenchers of decisions to make. Maybe I tilted Otherkind too far toward PC success?

Co-GMing leading to Simulationist play, not Narrativist? How about that.

-Vincent
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Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2005, 02:06:05 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
I'm pretty sure I wouldn't've recommended "roll dice or say yes" for Otherkind, though. I'm not sure what I'd've recommended instead. "Keep conflicts short-term," maybe; veto any conflict spanning more than one interaction or more than one location.

Yes, conflicts should be short term (and in our second session, naturally became so). But that's not really a set of GM instructions, since it leaves totally undefined how conflicts are generated in the first place. I guess I analysed that thoroughly enough in my first post.

Quote
When my group uses Otherkind's dice mechanic in our Ars Magica game, we roll very few dice, only 3 (we don't use the narration die), and we sometimes get real gut-wrenchers of decisions to make. Maybe I tilted Otherkind too far toward PC success?

Yes, that is probably the case - at least, if you want to get these gut-wrenching decisions out of it. If you act alone and put two of your colour dice in the roll, there is only something like a 10% chance that you have to assign a 1 or 2 to either of the three 'important' dice. When you start working together with someone else and both of you use two colour dice - well, the probability plummets, and you start having a 25%+ chance of having four 5s and 6s to distribute. (Which is quite boring.)

I am very interested in your experiences with using this dice system in Ars Magica. As I pointed out, whether or not you can make a gut-wrenching decision is at the mercy of the dice, and this appears to me as Nar non-facilitating. Don't you ever have the problem of a climatic (climactic?) scene where the dice suddenly disallow you to make that cool thematic decision you're just dying to make? If so, how do you cope with it? If not - well, how is it that the problem does not arise?

Additionally, I would like to stress that the very Other-ness of the PCs in Otherkind makes it hard to create emotional ties between the Ohterkind and humans. This may make the decision to let some human die be less dramatic than it is on other games.

Quote
Co-GMing leading to Simulationist play, not Narrativist? How about that.

Well, yeah. I'm still going "wow, I never expected that".
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lumpley
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« Reply #3 on: February 28, 2005, 02:19:10 PM »

Quote
am very interested in your experiences with using this dice system in Ars Magica. As I pointed out, whether or not you can make a gut-wrenching decision is at the mercy of the dice, and this appears to me as Nar non-facilitating. Don't you ever have the problem of a climatic (climactic?) scene where the dice suddenly disallow you to make that cool thematic decision you're just dying to make? If so, how do you cope with it? If not - well, how is it that the problem does not arise?

No, I don't get that. I mean, I get that if pretty much every roll is a total victory, you never have to make hard decisions. But even a couple of bad rolls will establish rolling the dice at all as gut-wrenching.

I recently rolled dice where the three things were 1) my character's success at an act of necromancy, 2) his own safety, and 3) the safety of his family. I'm there shaking the dice in my hand going - damn, I'm risking my family's safety for this thing.

Even if the bad consequences don't materialize, I still make a statement by risking them. The only problem is if bad consequences never materialize; then there's no risk, thus no statement.

Quote
Quote
Co-GMing leading to Simulationist play, not Narrativist? How about that.

Well, yeah. I'm still going "wow, I never expected that".

My experience is that co-GMing leads to Narrativist play only with effort and dedication. Co-GMed play is instinctively Simulationist.

-Vincent
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Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #4 on: February 28, 2005, 02:36:35 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
Even if the bad consequences don't materialize, I still make a statement by risking them.

Yes, I see what you mean. In this case the interesting choice of the player is to roll the dice at all. It's taking risks, rather than a specific distribution of bad consequences, that is a thematic statement.

But I don't see that happening with Otherkind, at least not if you choose (as we did in both sessions) to state a conflict and make a roll every scene. If it is decided from the outset that you're going to take the risk, than taking the risk is not a thematic statement anymore. As far as it's a statement at all, it is the game designer saying: "look, these characters you create are people who take big risks all the time".

So if you decide to roll the dice every scene, the thematic statement must come from the actual assignment of the dice. But whether or not there is an interesting decision concerning this assignment is, and that was my point, random. So whether or not you can make a thematic statement becomes random.

Does that make sense?

Quote
My experience is that co-GMing leads to Narrativist play only with effort and dedication. Co-GMed play is instinctively Simulationist.

Really? Cool. I wonder why. (The only other co-GMed sessions I ever played where two-player sessions of the game Shades that has been lying around quite unfinished on my harddisk, and these were very Nar indeed.)
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Valamir
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« Reply #5 on: February 28, 2005, 02:59:48 PM »

Quote
Really? Cool. I wonder why. (The only other co-GMed sessions I ever played where two-player sessions of the game Shades that has been lying around quite unfinished on my harddisk, and these were very Nar indeed.)


I think its likely for the same reason that early experiences with player driven narration will tend to lead towards silly play rather than dramatic play...its easier...and its safer.

When you have multiple GMs (i.e. players empowered to effect the SIS on a level traditionally reserved for the GM) you have a heightened concern about managing that SIS in a way that doesn't blow it.  Its like you've been given a ticking time bomb, and everyone's handling it carefully to make sure it doesn't go off at the "wrong" time.

The easiest way to play it safe in such a situation is to restrict your input into the SIS to that which can be extrapolated from all of the existing inputs.  In other words you start thinking "what would this character do in such a situation given X, Y, and Z" because you feel comfortable that as long as you stay within those parameters you aren't wrecking the SIS for others.  

That sort of thinking lends itself more towards a sim experience than a nar one, I think.

The effort and dedication Vincent mentions comes from realizing that having the ticking time bomb go off unexpectedly is what makes for intense dramatic Nar play.  But it takes a great deal of mutual trust and "in-tune-ness" to pull it off successfully.
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