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Author Topic: [TSOY] The Thought Lords of Mars  (Read 8737 times)
philaros
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« on: August 03, 2006, 11:07:03 PM »

Our Tuesday evening gaming group has been playing a pulp-space-fantasy game using The Shadow of Yesterday. It's in the tradition of John Carter of Mars (aka 'Barsoom') and Flash Gordon. John Harper, who's running the game, has dubbed it "Tales from the Aether: The Thought Lords of Mars." The group includes Wilhelm (rafial), playing Dr. Lem, an Earth scientist; Brandon (Judaicdiablo), playing Cass'ul, a Martian descendent of Atlanteans who has been in exile on Earth; Tony (tonyd), playing Oumrau, a Neptunian who claims to be the rightful king of Mars; and myself, playing Claire Tremont, a powerful psychic from Earth. For three of us, our ostensible reason for traveling to Mars was to rescue Jane Halliday, a movie actress known as the "Jade Empress" after a character she played, who had been kidnapped by the Thought Lords of Mars, mistakingly believing she's actually the ruler of Earth. Oumrau was the exception, as he had arrived on Mars separately pursuing his own goal. In actuality, each of us quickly invented and developed our own plans during play.

When we arrived at the beginning of the first session, our space capsule crashed into a hovering giant squid-like monster that was attacking a pair of flying ships. The creature fed off energy, and eventually absorbed or destroyed the capsule and one of the ships. We managed to escape, rescuing Oumrau from the wreckage of one of the ships in the process, and fell in with some Martian corsairs who happened to be Cass'ul's people. Within the first session, each of us developed our own plots in collaboration with John and input from the other players. Dr. Lem began making claims to be an official representative of Earth, come to arrange a beneficial exchange of technology, and won an important conflict against Claire to persuade the commander of a Martian fleet that his claim was true. Cass'ul was simply an exile before the game began, but Brandon and John invented a former lover he hoped to reclaim, and a sinister figure called "the Reconciler" whom Cass'ul, as an exile, would have to face probably at the risk of his life. Claire learned that the Thought Lords ruled in secrecy and were virtually unknown to the Martians, and quickly decided she'd have to overthrow them before they moved more strongly against Earth. Finally, Oumrau began trying to convince everyone of his claim to rule Mars and to convert people to be his followers; when he learned of the Jade Empress and saw her picture, he also fell in love and declared she would be his bride.

Now, we just played our fifth session, and I'm not going to give a detailed synopsis of everything that's happened so far. In summary, we managed to commandeer an Imperial Martian skyfleet; free the fleet commander from the Thought Lords' control; successfully reach the impregnible fortress tower of the corsairs that the fleet had been besieging for the past few years; deal with the Reconciler and win back Cass'ul's true love - who turned out to be the Reconciler; and persuade the corsairs and imperial fleet to join together in an assault on one of the Thought Lord strongholds in order to rescue the Jade Empress. What I am going to describe are two anecdotes about my part in this session, and what it says about the game.

Claire has the Keys of: the Mission, to learn the secrets of the Thought Lords; the Revolutionary, to overthrow their rule; the Theosophist, to investigate mystical phenomena (1 xp) and experiment with psychic powers (3 xp) (this is a fictional version of Theosophy, of course); and Wondrous Arcana, to use her psychic powers in amazing ways (1 xp), in dangerous situations (2 xp), to help others (5 xp). During the early part of the session, we were helping Cass'ul rescue his love from the Reconciler, and I hadn't seen many opportunities to call on my Keys, I think just an instance or two for Wondrous Arcana. However, I knew I was going to need a lot of experience soon, because we would be heading off to confront the Thought Lords and I'd need to be able to buy improvements as needed. After some thought, I was able to come up with a plan that hit all four Keys at once. I would experiment with my mystical powers (Theosophist, 3 xp) to draw forth knowledge of the Thought Lords' stronghold defenses (Mission, 5 xp) before the fleet arrived, thus giving us a big advantage in our assault (Revolutionary, 5 xp); this experiment with my psychic powers would put me in danger from the Thought Lords while helping to save the fleet (Wondrous Arcana, 5 xp). This plan was perfectly in character, because I'd designed her that way; it fit into the story setup that our group, including John as gamemaster, had been creating; it gave us the opportunity for an important advantage in the game, but I still had to win a conflict for it to work, so it was a direct part of the game play; and regardless of the conflict success, it would earn me a bunch of much-needed experience, rewarding me for both being involved in the game and also looking out for my own interests. That is how a well-designed game should work.

So, I did win that conflict, and as a result I was able to pierce the veil of invisibility that kept almost everyone from knowing of the presence of the Thought Lords' stronghold, revealing the tower to the fleet. As we advanced, the Thought Lords attempted to use their powers to disrupt the fleet, but we successfully resisted them. That left the tower's fearsome array of laser cannons, more formidable than the ones in the corsairs' tower that had held off the imperial fleet for years. We discussed how to get through to the tower. The obvious approach was to use the fleet to distract the tower while our ship slipped through the defenses, but it was clear that the fleet would be devastated and many would die, and no one wanted that. Dr. Lem had rigged a one-shot superlaser onto our ship earlier in the session, but it was clear that wouldn't be enough to get us to the tower. Brandon was arguing that maybe the fleet could distract the tower just long enough for our ship to zoom high up and then descend straight down over the tower, but that didn't seem likely; I suggested perhaps we could land our ship and make a run for it, but we feared the tower could still pick us off. There was a pause as we gloomily contemplated our dilemma, and then without thinking about it I suddenly said, "You know what we need... a fucking giant flying energy-eating squid." Everyone looked stunned for a moment, and then huge grins and chuckles burst out around the table. Of course that's what we needed! We had to summon as many of the giant squid-monsters from the first session as possible, even the Thought Lords' tower would have trouble facing those creatures.

It was a great moment that neatly tied the game series together; it was wholly unplanned and fully appropriate; it was a clever way to deal with a major challenge for which John had not pre-decided the "right" solution, or indeed any solution; and it was another moment of player input into the game that made the whole experience more thrilling and surprising and enjoyable for everyone, gamemaster included. I really appreciated that the game sets up the expectation that players can have that level of input - unlike the "traditional" approach where the players waste lots of time trying to guess what the GM or the pre-packaged adventure has already determined is the one correct solution - and that the conflict rules are designed to make that happen.

The plan worked beautifully. Dr. Lem reconfigured the one-shot laser cannon so that it would work as an energy beacon to attract the squid-beasts; he got a "legendary" result for his work. John described how the squids were very territorial creatures and it was rare to see more than one at a time, but our beacon attracted over thirty of the monsters, far more than anyone had ever seen together, and we led them toward the tower, where the laser cannons proved to be tempting targets for the enervores. In the confusion, we were able to land our ship on the tower and enter... and that's where the session ended. Next week we wrap up this game, finding out whether the Empress can be saved, whether the Thought Lords can be stopped, whether Oumrau will take the throne - and take the Empress to wife, and whether anyone meets their end or whether their adventures will continue in the next series...
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joshua neff
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« Reply #1 on: August 04, 2006, 01:05:52 AM »

Holy Freakin' Wow!

I don't really have anything constructive to add. I just think that sounds great-with-a-capital-GRRR!
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--josh

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
JasperN.
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Posts: 41


« Reply #2 on: August 04, 2006, 01:23:10 AM »

Hi philaros,

sounds like an awesome game. Cool setting, great ideas!

I have one question, though, reagarding this paragraph:

Quote
I really appreciated that the game sets up the expectation that players can have that level of input - unlike the "traditional" approach where the players waste lots of time trying to guess what the GM or the pre-packaged adventure has already determined is the one correct solution - and that the conflict rules are designed to make that happen.

I keep hearing this about TSOY. Since you are mentioning the rules explicitly: can you tell me a little more about what it is in there that makes moments like this happen? Frank T. and Harald told me that the original TSOY setting leaves lots of space for groups to develop it, and that players are expected to have major impact upon the setting. Would you agree that the game text just somehow evokes the impression that players are going to change things in a major way, or are there other machanisms at work?

Best,
Jasper
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Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: August 04, 2006, 06:45:29 AM »

Its all in the Keys baybee.

Keys say "do this to earn XPs and Level-Up".  Since the players chose them, they're things the player wants to do anyway.  But if you sit around waiting for a GM to feed you opportunities you're never going to get anywhere.  So you invent opportunities that will allow you to hit your Keys.  Other, more passive, players see you leveling up and they want to get some of that action too, and soon everyone is off to the races.  It works in conjunction with the GM since the GM knows what everybody's Keys are, he at least has a rough direction for the kind of things players are going to be trying to maneuver towards and can respond accordingly.

Keys are probably the best single standalone game mechanic for driving story since Spiritual Attributes.  Of course Keys are, more or less, highly customized and specified Spiritual Attributes anyway.
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tonyd
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« Reply #4 on: August 04, 2006, 06:50:03 AM »

Yes, Keys are guides to the GM as to what kind of adventure to provide. But the players don't have to wait for the GM. They can request a scene at any time. This can be kind of hard to get used to, but the game has a great way of teaching players to think this way. Between major scenes in TSOY, you "heal up" by requesting "refreshement scenes". The type of scene depends on what you're refresheing. You could refresh vigor by sparring with a fellow character, reason by studying ancient ruins, and so on. Players request these scenes on their own, which gets them thinking about taking control of the game.
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"Come on you lollygaggers, let's go visit the Thought Lords!"
JasperN.
Member

Posts: 41


« Reply #5 on: August 04, 2006, 07:06:36 AM »

Ralph and Tony,

thanks for your answers. I knew about the keys, but the combination of keys+refreshment scenes is new to me. I guess I can see more clearly now how that helps players to take over initiative. Seems like I have to get TSOY...after I tried Galactic, of course.

- Jasper
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Ricky Donato
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Posts: 156

Just chillin'


« Reply #6 on: August 04, 2006, 07:24:34 AM »

The other mechanic that supports this is Key Scenes. Key Scenes are explicitly described as being conflicts that are tense and have multiple possible outcomes, and the rulebook also explicitly tells the GM that a Key Scene cannot be dependent on a particular outcome. That's really important.
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Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli
Judaicdiablo
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Posts: 43


« Reply #7 on: August 04, 2006, 09:33:31 AM »

Quote
I keep hearing this about TSOY. Since you are mentioning the rules explicitly: can you tell me a little more about what it is in there that makes moments like this happen? Frank T. and Harald told me that the original TSOY setting leaves lots of space for groups to develop it, and that players are expected to have major impact upon the setting. Would you agree that the game text just somehow evokes the impression that players are going to change things in a major way, or are there other mechanisms at work?

This is Brandon, player of Cass'ul.  I am going to toot my own horns here for a moment to provide examples that answer your question.    This talk of Keys is all well and good, but it doesn't really explain how the Keys force/encourage the players to request scenes that have a major effect on the game world.

All of my examples center around my characters Key of the Outcast.  When I began the game, I was just a normal human with the Key of the Impostor.  I knew I would expose myself somehow, and quickly, but hadn't decided how. 

Scene: 1st scene of the game, we come upon two corsair ships fighting.  I Use my Secret of Contacts to reveal the captain of one ship is an old friend of mine and then reveal myself as a Corsair Exile. 
Setting Affect Through this act I quickly begin to rake in Outcast XP because they can't accept my help and start shunning me.  It is revealed that Outcasts don't wear masks (and Corsairs do.)  Little set pieces like that are established.

Scene: Next, we are refreshing after the battle and there is some talk between Caas'ul and the Atlantean Corsairs.  In the course of conversation, the following phrase is uttered, "I really hope that I have some time before the Reconciller realizes that I am back on Mars."  Then under my breath I mutter, "I really don't want to have to become the Reconciller." 
Setting Affect I have just introduced the role of the Reconciller in Corsair Society and basically said that if you kill the Reconciller, you have to take their job.  The reason why I did this, was so that I could now have a master assassin tailing me and letting me earn lots of Outcast XP.  In D&D if the GM had sprung the Reconciller on me I probably would have felt at least a little persecuted or put upon.

Scene: The last big one has to do with the introduction of Major Setting shift.  We have piled into our airship and we are motoring to the North Tower of the Thought Lords with the plan to rescue the Jade Empress (long story.)  It occurs to me though, that it would be better if we had an Armada at my back and that I could earn boss OutCast XP.  Thus I said, "I really don't want to do this but ...  I think we should visit the WaveMistress."
Setting Affect An entire Corsair power structure appears out of nowwhere.  There is a now a leader, who we can go visit and persuade.  There is now a leader who can persecute me (and earn me XP doing it.)

I have never felt like I have had so much positive affect on a game as a player.  It has always felt like I was begging the GM to create scenes for me.  Sure John doesn't have to accept it or he can bend my idea to his will, but that is fine.  I didn't expect the WaveMistress to be living in an Ancient Neptunian Tower or be blockaded by the Bronze fleet, but who cares.  I created her and that was awesome.

So JasperN. that is the real power of being able to create your own scenes.  Be incredibly selfish and self serving when you play this game.  Grub for every last XP.  Your fellow players will thank you for it.

JudaicDiablo
"We have worm sign the likes of which G-d has never seen."
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rafial
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Posts: 594


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« Reply #8 on: August 04, 2006, 10:26:48 AM »

Dr. Lem here.  Yes, this has been a very satisfying series, and while the TSOY rules give a very solid foudation to work with, credit has to go to John Harper as our GM.  As cool as player create scenes and setting elements are, it takes a steady hand on the part of the GM to weave all this togther, and put your own spin on it.  John has been excellent at avoiding attachment to any particular outcome, and weaving our elements together to create a larger whole.  An example from my particular point of view:

After coming upon the Corsair's tower, and discovering that it has been blockaded by the Bronze Martian fleet, we wound up talking our way on board the fleet commander's flagship.  This was where Dr. Lem first began to pass himself off as "The Ambassador of Earth".  I was looking for a refreshment scene, so I asked for a scene in which Dr. Lem and Commander Ro are in the commanders quarters, discussing the future of Earth-Mars relationships, in a relaxed atmosphere.  I offer the Commander one of my few remaining Balkan Sobranies from my silver cigarette case, and he reciprocates by introducing the good Doctor to a Martian cordial.  And then I say to John:

"I have this idea that a side effect of nicotine is that it weakens the mental controls put in place by the Thought Lords".

John gets a gleam in his eye, and immediately turns to Phil, who's character Claire can sense the psychic tendrils of the Thought Lords.  She is currently up on the bridge with Oumrau, who is in the process of swaying the bridge crew to his cause, and says "there is a psychic tendril going though the bridge to below decks, and it suddenly grows faint and dim"... Claire sensing a chink in the Thought Lords armor races below deck, and managed to permanently sever the Thought Lords control over the Commander.

So John has just taken a setting contribution by me, and woven it into the tapestry in a way that give another player something cool to do.

Another point: Claire's big scene in which she managed to hit four keys at once, was further made cool by excellent stake setting on John's part.  If Claire had lost the contest, she would have been mentally enslaved by the Thought Lords.  Big Rewards demand big stakes.  The contest roll was *not* a walk in the park, and it could easily have gone either way.  And either outcome was full of story.
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John Harper
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« Reply #9 on: August 06, 2006, 09:22:25 PM »

I gotta say, from the GM side of the table, life is good. TSOY just sings as a game system. I never have to worry about it, in that GM way where you worry about the little things. You know? Like, "Is this NPC too tough?" or "How am I going to get them to the thingamajig?" or "What if they don't like the thing I planned?" All that stuff is jettisoned with TSOY.

Good players who are really engaged with the reward system make TSOY fly. Without that, it just doesn't have any juice. And these players are all doing their jobs, really trying to hammer their Keys -- so when I use a Key as a Flag to set a scene around, I know they're going to swarm it like a school of piranha. And when I'm stuck for ideas and not sure where to go next, they grab the rudder and go flying off after the things they care about.

Brandon is totally right about the "selfish" thing. I would call it "engagement." Good TSOY players are totally engaged and they care about things and they have their characters act to get what they want. It's not "let's all compromise and build consensus as the omni-party" but instead each character passionately acting in their own interests, with the players supporting each other's goals. Fireworks.
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tonyd
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« Reply #10 on: August 07, 2006, 08:54:22 PM »

Since everyone else has weighed in, I guess I'd better say my bit too. I'm playing Oumrao, the Neptunian would-be King. I usually don't play the character that steps in and stirs up the ant's nest, so Oumrao is a departure for me. Playing with keys can be like having a jet engine strapped to your character sheet. It's not so much "what will I do next" as it's "hold on for dear life."

Oumrao has "Key of the Mission: Reclaim my rightful throne as King of Mars". Every time I make the scene about this mission, I get XP. Example: The party is meeting the commanders of the Bronze Marian fleet of Atlantean sky galleons. There's this tense moment where the Atlanteans are wondering what this strange party of aliens is up to. We're wondering what the Atlanteans allegiance is and how that affects our mission. There's a lot of positive and negative opportunity in the air.

Then I look at my character sheet and realize I get XP every time I mention my mission. Oumrao steps forward and says "I am Oumrao, rightful King of Mars. Assemble your fleet and join us in an assault on the Thought Lord Tower at the North Pole." Wackiness ensues.
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"Come on you lollygaggers, let's go visit the Thought Lords!"
MetalBard
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Posts: 40


« Reply #11 on: August 10, 2006, 10:00:00 AM »

Wow, this thread has given me a much more dynamic perspective on TSOY.  I never really linked the player-requested scenes with the keys, but given the incentives, it makes sense.  This will have to be foremost in my mind when I inflict TSOY on my group.
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"If you've ever told someone how your day went, you can narrate." - Andrew Norris at the Forge on player narration

My name is also Andrew and I have a  blog
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