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[Bacchanal] GenCon Playtest

Started by bluegargantua, August 22, 2005, 08:20:29 PM

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  So.  GenCon.  It was my first time and a hoot. 

  I didn't do a whole lot of actual gaming for reasons that belong in another post.  I did do a few demos and played in a few things and you can check out the recaps on my LiveJournal.

  But I want to talk specifically about Bacchanal.

  This is a white hot game.  In a field of great games, this was probably my best GenCon gaming.  The game has some issues that may need looking at, but what the game offers is so compelling it's absolutely worth your time to try playing.

  I'm going to assume that you either know about the game, or have already read the stuff above, but a quick recap:

  Premise:  You're in a port city of the Roman Empire.  You've just been accused of crimes against the Empire and must flee the city.  You have a companion whom you must reunite with so the two of you can get out of there.  Bacchus, Venus and Pluto show up to toy with mortal lives.  Wine, Sex and Death -- shake well and drink deep.

  System:  I consider Bacchanal to be a storytelling game (like Baron Munchausen).  Players take turns narrating what happens with their character.  The complications arise not from other players, but from the results of a dice pool you roll and interpret at the start of your turn.

  Although we're all good friends here, Bacchanal is an adult roleplaying game so I'm going to refrain from actually naming my fellow players.  If they want to speak up about the experience, I'm sure they will.

  There were four of us -- two women and two men.  A couple Mr. X and Ms. Y, myself, and our mutal friend Lady A.  We retired to the privacy of Lady A's hotel room.  We had a brief conversation on what the boundaries were and started reading through the rules.  Our first problem was finding enough dice in the proper sizes, colors and amounts.  There was a great deal of grumbling about this, although in retrospect, it's pretty amusing since we had just come from a convention center where you could practically buy dice made from endangered baby elephant tusks.  There was also a bit of scrambling to find appropriate subsitutes for some of the "prop" items (as I'd foolishly forgotten my cheese tray again).  In the end, we got together the dice and the props we needed.

  Don't skimp on these.  If you're going to play the game, make a special trip to make sure you've got enough dice in the appropriate colors.  And yes, get a cheese tray (or nice platter or whatnot), you'll thank me for it later.

  Next up was character creation.  This took awhile as people mulled over their choices and struggled to come up with names (a short list of period-appropriate names would be a welcome addition to the rules).  Eventually we wound up with:

  Mr. X -- Mr. X played a roman soldier who had been accused of deserting the Legion to help his younger brother (also a deserter I believe?) smuggle his lover (a slave girl) out of the city.

  Ms. Y -- Ms. Y played an indentured servant working at the colliseum who was accused of helping a slave escape (to the younger brother of Mr. X's character we decided).

  Lady A -- Lady A played the wife of a powerful senator.  Her illicit lover was a Christian and she was accused of being one herself (the adultery being a bit lower on the treason scale).

  Myself -- I played a scholar accused of impiety (atheism really).  I sought to find one of my favorite students and get out of the city. 

  We parceled out the dice into our cups and Mr. X started us off.  He vividly described the arrival of Bacchus and really set the stage.

  On my turn, I introduced a spontaneous street parade/festival led by the Satyrs that swept my character away.  The roving party soon bacame a big feature for the stuff I and Lady A were narrating.

  Ms. Y turned up the heat with this incredibly erotic story about her character and a rough gladiator.

  And around and around it went.  It was really, really hot.  Ms. Y was a total standout, her narration had us all panting.  Due to the demands various die rolls I wasn't quite able to turn up the depravity like I wanted, although as the game went on, I felt like I was getting more into the swing of things.

  But soon, Lady A's roomate came in for bed and we decided to call it a night ourselves.  So the following should be qualified by the fact that we didn't actually finish the game.

  I really like this game.  I think everyone else really enjoyed ut too and certainly our short playtest suggested a really electric game.  But we were also convinced that the game wasn't entirely fleshed out.  It wasn't broken, but we weren't sure that it was complete as a ruleset.

  I think the game really needs a solid cheat sheet that helps remind you of everything you're looking for.  We totally missed out on getting rid of Wine dice by narrating new NPCs and the other effects of the Minerva die.  We were also a bit confused on how to determine the high die (if you've got a pair of 6's, is that high over a 7 on a d8?  We figured the answer was no, but it wasn't terribly clear right off the bat).

  I also wonder if the dice mechanics have been tested enough.  I was a bit worried that it might not be possible to finish a character's story (good or bad) because the dice wouldn't give it to you.  Also, once one player's story has finished, we were under the impression that the other people would continue, but I wondered if all the excess wine dice would make it that much harder for the next person to go out.

  Partially due to die rolls and partially because we forgot the special Minerva rules, Ms. Y was locked into her scene the entire game while the rest of us (especially myself and Lady A) had constant scene changes.  I think there should be some kind of rule that lets you stay in a scene or move it along.  All of us were very slowly and deliberately building up the depravity so it would be nice to park it in idle and enjoy the view for a bit before scooting off to the next locale (or we'd like to be able to get out of a scene that was gasping for a reason to continue).  Perhaps this is a deliberate choice, forcing you to push boundaries when you get stuck, but I'm not quite sure if it works all the way through.

  Still, don't let my concerns throw you off.  This game is rockin' and it's well worth your while to try it out.  Yeah, it may be a tough sell to your regular gaming group and it's not something you might feel good playing down at your FLGS, but honestly, play that up a bit.  It's a game about hedonism gone amok so make it a hedonistic game.  Lady A totally captured that by taking a quick shower and changing to more wine appropriate clothing.  Have a little real wine and cheese on hand, a quiet comfortable place to play where the lights are a bit muted.  Strive for a sensual narration that works on a wide array of senses.  Depravity can ramp up in a lot of different ways so take advantage of that.  It's all about the anticipation.  If you can find a small group of like-minded's a very nice way to pass an evening.

The Three Stooges ran better black ops.

Don't laugh, Larry would strike unseen from the shadows and Curly...well, Curly once toppled a dictatorship with the key from a Sardine tin.


I really must read Bacchanal, so I can understand how the game works. All the actual play posts I've read are sort of intriguing, but definitely not something for my usual gaming group. On the other hand I'd might be able to get the wife to give it a go, and that would be cool.




Lady A here. Tom did a great job of saying who played what, and rasied the "Paul, what's with the finiky dice??? Oh. I get it now." bit. Yes, a list of decent names would really help, as that was where character generation really bogged down for a while. Also of note: Tom and I have known each other for some time, and have some familiarity with each other's boundaries and sexual tendancies/mores/histories/comfort levels/whatever because we are both rather outgoing and talkative. We'd never met Mr. X and Ms. Y before GenCon, although I had played with one of them the night before, and had a few meals together.

I was a bit surprised to find the game lacking in some sort of "check/set your boundaries" right at the begining, but we agreed it was needed. The boundaries we set: It (meaning a person in a scene) has to look like an adult. Young nubile adults are fine, let's not put numerical ages on characters, but if it doesn't look like an adult, it's Not OK. The other boundary was about rape. Yes, rape can happen, with the following limits: you can freely narrate the rape of your own character, not anyone else's; check in before doing a rape scene or at least give warning; in general, handle rape with kid gloves.

Then we divieded dice. Each in turn takes a non-Wine die and puts it in another player's glass until only Wine dice remain, then each player takes 5 Wine dice, leaving five on the table. I really liked how the dice got divided up, because we didn't know what we'd wind up with until it was complete. I do wish we'd had a cheat sheet for how to move dice around, as Tom mentioned.

Starting off, Mr. X had Bacchus as his high die in the first roll, so instantly we're under the influence of Bacchus energy in the city - cool. Mr. X and Ms. Y deffinatly get props for bringing in more sense-rich language right out the door; I felt like my first few scenes were really flat. "He bites into the ripe sweet fig, and a trickle of sticky juice runs down his forearm. The lush dark scent fills the air as he licks the juice from his arm." is way more sexy, in my book anyway, than "She and her lover are having sex on a balcony over the street."

This was part of my feed-back to Paul (via Danielle), that the game would be helped by saying in the first page or two that, in a game about senses, sexuality, debauchery, wine, and depravity, it is really important to bring in all the sensory language you can. I Wanted the swirlling overloaded imagery and the excellent rich description, and it took me a few turns to even begin to hit it. When I did, with the description of the garment that had been removed and spread on the grass, there was initially a  murmur of "we don't need to know -how- it was taken off!" which was a bit of a block, luckily quickly and handily overturned by another player. In any narrated story-telling game, especially one dealing with vulnerable issues like this, blocking another player's scene is really crappy.

I felt a bit unsupported in how quickly or slowly the overt sexuality and the debauchery should build. I had in my head the whole time that there were two 'ramps' in the game: the first was from day-to-day life to wild vivid drunken orgy, and  the second was from day-to-day life to people tearing other people apart with their teeth. I liked the shadow of that impending death as a dark undercurrent in the increasingly wine-soaked scenes I was playing, and I was clearly (at least clear to me) setting the stage in that direction when we quit. The problem came not from how explicit things got with Ms. Y, but with the hiccups of "how far up the ramp should we (meaning me and my scene) be by now?"

I loved the stark contrast between the fully consentual pre-orgy that was developing at the lavishly appointed villa where Tom's atheist had led a bunch of revelers, including myself, and the rough stone hall-way where Ms.Y's servant girl was struggling with Bacchus-induced semi-willingness to submit to the harsh attentions of the low-level gurad. Lots of cool stuff there about consent, class, power differences, etc. I wish we'd been able to play for another hour or two, to see where it all ran out. I'd have loved to see Ms.Y's character be the one who tipped the edge toward violence, coming to awareness of the coersion in that bare little haly-way lit by a single torch.

Social concerns: We couldn't play Bacchanal down in the main area. That was unspoken consensus. KPFS, probably. Bacchanal, no way. Sex is scareier than pointless satanic violence. We couldn't play past when one of my roomates returned home, because it would be impossibly uncomfortable to both the roommate and myself. I was up-front about this, and there were no questions asked. This also meant we didn't have *any* decompression time, which sucked. We'd just heard a scene with Ms.Y, and then the knock on the door that ended the game at a pretty hars place.I think this game really needs a way to recognize the return to non-gaming space.

When we were getting the group together, we ran into a hitch where we wanted a fourth, and the one who presented was unacceptable for me to have this level of vulnerability around, so it had to wait. This hammers home the point in the book (which ought to come earlier) that you should play this with people you trust for this setting. I'm fine playing other games with the person I cannot play this one with. I'm glad Tom was there by the time we actually played Bacchanal.

I'd definitely play this again, but I'd tweak it a bit (mostly as laid out above). I disagree a bit with Tom about the actual wine and low lighting; I'm not sure the goal is to actually induce arousal in the players. Infact, the steady intervals of "ok, now roll the dice and figure out what the dice mean" seems to solidly break that. It definately gets a bit fuzzy, and  pulses rise and breath gets held, but it seemed more to me that it was more in the spirit of "how far is this scene going to go? Are they really going to go there? Where will I have to go to top it?" than "god, I want to be in that scene!"  Also, it's funny as hell when the euphemisms for body parts and actions come out. Necessary, but funny. It's either Victorian ('the swelling of his insistence") or 70's porn ("her tits are huge and shine with sweat") 

Lady A, aka

Ron Edwards


I am struck by how the real-person shower to start the session, and the gamus interruptus of the roommate showing up, frame the evening's experience.

These events make Meg's question "is the game's purpose to arouse the players" stand out for me. Or maybe I'm not stating that well; maybe it should be something like "is sexual arousal during play a distraction from the best that the game can offer, or a motor for it."

This, uh, is the author of Sex & Sorcery speaking, after all.



I was also the one who showered and changed. Firstly, I was hot and sweaty (in the crappy way - haha) and couldn't possibly imagine getting into a decadent frame that might push me psychologically when I was physically uncomfortable already. Secondly, I mean really, I find that sort of thing to help. If I'm playing Aliens in Space for the first time, I'm not going to go into it wearing clothes reminiscent of the mythic American west. After I've been playing the setting for a while, it doesn't matter what I'm wearing, so long as I'm comfortable. Guess that makes me a bit of a method gamer.

Here's another weird thing I noticed about the sexual content of the game we played: we used double entendre and innuendo to *lighten* the tension between scenes. We'd all sit in rapt attention while another player was narrating, but when the scene cut, and the gap between one scene ending and the dice rolling and the next scene starting happened, we'd all be talking at once, or flowing over each other, with witty, charged comments, none of which I can now remember.

One thing I brought to bear on the game was that I teach sex ed. to high school students, so I'm more than usually aware of how to talk about highly sexual things in ways that don't arouse. I think it might be useful to have that bar be part of the opening agreements, but I'm not sure if many people would be able to step up and say "yeah, turn me ON, baby", especially since arousal is highly personal. Another interesting side effect is the possibility of people narrating their own deepest erotic fantasy without ever having to disclose that they are doing anything other than gaming well. How willing are people (esp. males) to be possibly visibly aroused by a game like this? That opens all kinds of possibilities for emotional danger. And playing this game completely was the last push to start writing something that's been mulling in my mind for a while about how games are (or can be) framed to allow people to explore scary places.

In the past, I've found people bringing in overt sexuality into non-sexual games very annoying. I was running an Ars Magica homebrew a few years back, and one player was forever finding ways to bring penises into the description. Bugged the heck out of me, especially since she was basically feeding into another player's distractibility, and I wanted to focus on play, not sidetrack for 15 minutes on wisecracks. Another point on the question is: are the Players aroused, or are the Characters aroused? Big difference.


Frank T

Put bluntly: If the game's content doesn't turn you on, then why would you even bother playing it? When I game, I will seek contents that I'm interested in. If the content is sex, in a way that I'm interested in, it'll turn me on. Simple.

It may be another question entirely how much of that interest you reveal to your fellow players. I am aware sexuality is a highly personal matter to many. Myself, I have a reputation for being very straightforeward, outgoing even, about my own sexuality. I guess that makes me an ideal player for Bacchanal. Frankly, if you feel uncomfortable talking about sex, don't play a game that requires you to. And if you like talking about sex, and listening to other people talking about sex, how can that not arouse you?

I would play this game with people that attract me, male and female alike. I would try to stay abstinent at least 48 hours in advance, as to make me more... receptive. I would have all the players drink some light wine, to guarantee for some light heads. I imagine that to be very fun and very arousing indeed.

- Frank



  First off, my point about the wine and low lighting and stuff, was merely meant to set a mood and get people in the proper frame of mind, rather than a direct line towards inducing arousal.

  That said, I'm of two minds about the question of gaming invoking arousal.  One the one hand, if arousal is what I'm really after, then I don't know if an RPG is the best way to get that.  I suppose there are any number of games people play in bedrooms, but they're mostly LARPs with an explict No "No Touching" rule.  Meg's point about emotionally exposing yourself to strangers or even people you know (but aren't really intimate with) is very valid here.  My D&D buddies really aren't the kind of people I want to be talking dark eros with.  I'm much better off strolling down to my local adult bookstore, surfing the web, calling up the girlfriend, etc.  Arousal is either something you can do for yourself, or you do it with people who're willing to help facilitate that process all the way through.

  On the other hand, I do know a few people who would probably have a lot of fun with this game and find it pleasantly arousing and that might be the point (sort of an appetizer for other evening entertainments).  And I really liked the game, and I was definitely aroused and I definitely want to play through it again.  Perhaps it was the novelty of playing in such an explicit game.  It certainly had a lot to do with the quality of players.

  On the third hand, we were still pretty heavily in the eros section of the game.  Things were bound to start going very poorly for people very soon.  So there's a question of how erotic something is after you've bathed in the blood of innocents and been carried away by the soldiers to be crucified.  Perhaps that's part of the catharsis of the whole thing?  You've been a debauched bastard and finally get your bloody comeuppance?

  So...I may have to stew about this some more. 


The Three Stooges ran better black ops.

Don't laugh, Larry would strike unseen from the shadows and Curly...well, Curly once toppled a dictatorship with the key from a Sardine tin.


Frank T:
QuotePut bluntly: If the game's content doesn't turn you on, then why would you even bother playing it? When I game, I will seek contents that I'm interested in. If the content is sex, in a way that I'm interested in, it'll turn me on. Simple.

Well sure. In that context, we all want to be turned on by the games we choose to play, all the time. I mean it purely sexually here, as in "Ok, Frank, it's now your job to script stuff I find sexually arousing. And, by virtue of playing Bacchanal with you, I'll do the same for you. Go!" That's a different thing I think, and a bigger challenge for the average player to consider stepping up to playing. Am I reading you right?

QuoteOne the one hand, if arousal is what I'm really after, then I don't know if an RPG is the best way to get that.
and also
QuoteOn the other hand, I do know a few people who would probably have a lot of fun with this game and find it pleasantly arousing and that might be the point (sort of an appetizer for other evening entertainments).

This is more what I mean. I know I can write and play blazing sex scenes. The question is, what sort of gaming group makes me feel able to do that? What sort of container do I need to feel safe enough to put myself in danger? Does Bacchanal have that container? I can't really tell from the playtest we did, because of the gamus interruptus (nicely coined, Ron), but I'm curious enough to want to play a full game and find out, which is a positive sign, I guess.


Frank T

Hey Tom, Meg,

okay, I see your point. I must add I haven't played Bacchanal yet, but I have played XXX-rated sessions of BARBAREN!, which probably raise similar issues. So it is not the primary purpose of the game to create arousal. Yet I maintain that I can hardly imagine how Bacchanal should be played functionally and not be, to an extent, arousing.

- Frank


Yeah, I'm realy interested in someone doing a compare/contrast between the two games. Have you written up your Barbaren! game yet?



Chiming in late, my computer is thinking of leaving me for someone more attentive...

Stepping up to take the title of Ms. Y, I have a couple of comments to add to the end of this.

First off, hearing about Bachanal made me want to play it.  Reading it made me think it was broken.  I think that the group's decision to consciously interweave the characters, a decision not at all related to the book's contents, made a difference in playability and would have continued to make the play more interesting.  Having four perfectly separate characters and scenes would also be playable, natch; but I found myself buying into scenes that I was tied to, even by several degrees of separation, more.  I'd like to try a couple of full games each way to explore that thought.

Secondly, on arousal; I wouldn't play a game like this if I was not /willing/ to be aroused.  Much in the same way that I wouldn't play Death's Door because I'm /not/ willing to be introspective about death and brought to a deeper awareness of my own mortality.  That doesn't mean that Bachanal would necessarily be missing something without the deeper stirrings that erotic descriptions can bring; depravity has a lot of meat to it other than that, and different groups will bring very different tones to the story.  But there's no doubt in my mind that if arousal in gaming is outside your comfort zone, this isn't the game to pick up.

Finally, then; I had a blast, the game was a lot of fun and the company was excellent.  I found playing with strangers, or close to, brought an edge of... vulnerability? Danger? Sexiness? that I really enjoyed.  That those people were no longer strangers by the end of the evening rocked. 

~ Star

P.S.  Come to Canada! We miss you!

Ron Edwards

Hi Star,

Welcome to the Forge! That is an excellent summary of this complex issue, I think.

I'm definitely interested in contrasting how sometimes, in our group, playing various games, we have not-particularly-graphic content that in retrospect tends to have direct erotic content for me, whereas, other times, we have graphic content which isn't erotically exciting in direct terms, although fun in story-action-consequences terms.

Example of #1: hard to pin down, but very strong when it happens; I'd have to review quite a bit of the memory-bank for good examples

Examples of #2: the threesome action with multiple orgasms in our kill puppies for satan game, long ago, or the copulation-in-the-broom-closet scene in my recent Roach game (haven't posted about it yet)

I'm interested to see which of these, if either, or a combination, is most involved when we get around to playing Bacchanal. Or also in more experience with Barbaren, in which case Emily's character's sex scene resulted in a weird and mild combination, for me.


Paul Czege

First, thanks Tom, Meg, and Star, for playing, and for this thread. You have no idea how geeked I was when Meg said you'd found a mutually agreeable group and were headed upstairs to play.

I think the trick to understanding Bacchanal is seeing it as an endeavor of audience management. And it's a game. So sometimes it frustrates your efforts, and sometimes it aids them. And your skill and creativity play into your success.


I think the scene rotation is part of the challenge of the game. The story of your character is broken up by the long interruption of a series of scenes with the other characters. Can you maintain the interest of the other players across that interruption? Or can you recapture it powerfully when it's your turn again?

I think getting trapped in a scene is part of the game. It's one of the frustrations you have to deal with as a player. Can you preserve the interest of the players despite the awkwardness of your restriction to the same tired locale? Can your narration provoke the gift of Minerva, so you can get some Wine dice out of your glass and finally switch locations?

I think Pluto, the Accuser, and the Soldiers represent the challenge of dark themes. Can you keep your character's story interesting despite the dice requiring you to incorporate violent, destructive, tragic, and disturbing content?


Sexual subject matter can be riveting. People are drawn to it.

The constraints on what you narrate are creatively liberating.

I think a tip sheet for players is an excellent suggestion. My gut tells me it should be pretty tight: "Don't forget about these three things on your turn...Don't forget about these three things when someone else is taking their turn." Does anyone think it should be more than that? Certainly it should include a reminder about Minerva. And maybe one about using NPCs for the benefit they offer? And I like the sensual language suggestion. Anyone care to take a stab at a player tip sheet?

And I'd love to hear more about how you interwove your characters. I rather thought the mechanical benefit of using NPCs in your scenes would create connections between the stories. You implemented something of non mechanical benefit just for the sake of audience management. Do you think you would have done so if the use of NPCs hadn't been off your radar?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans


I think that even if we had realised the benefits (benefits? I /liked/ my wine!) of bringing in NPCs, I, at least, would still have prefered to keep the interweaving we did at chargen- perhaps with more experience and a higher comfort level with the gaming group, I would have been more able to do that during play, but I'd rather that was in addition.  Maybe it's the lingering dark traces of pop gaming mentality, but I liked the closer weave and the clash of objectives it foretold.

As far as cheat sheets go, what we kept looking up were the effects of rolling high on any given die; it might have partly been con-brain, but we were at the book every turn or two.  Put in a comprehensive cheat sheet, and within an hour or two no one will need it.

Ron, your comments really harken back to the basic principles of eroticism; implication is sexier than bold description, 90% of the time.  "The birdlike touch of her tongue sent shivers up his spine" is much more evocative than "she licked his neck and he shivered."  Y'know?  Certainly I agree with Meg that some thoughts on how to do that effectively wouldn't be amiss in a new print run.  What is basic in erotic writing is something we have to discover anew in our storytelling.

Oh, and Eric (Hellequin) was our fourth, BTW.  I'm his wife, I'm allowed to out him.  *grin*

~ Star

Paul Czege

Aha! The 'interweaving' was the connections you made between your characters during chargen. (Tom detailed them in his first post.) I totally misunderstood. I thought you were narrating the involvement of other player characters in your scenes. I think those connections you made between your characters is totally cool. Are you thinking the game text should suggest it? Or require it?

Or did you also narrate other player characters in your scenes?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans