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[Bacchanal] GenCon demos and more

Started by Ron Edwards, August 22, 2006, 11:19:19 AM

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Ron Edwards


I decided to spin off of Meg's thread GenCon AP: Bacchanal, carry, Primitive, Roach, and more. In it, she said

Quoteit was interesting to see the fleeting look of fear and disbelief cross the two other player's faces when I sat down - a woman with a baby playing a game about sex and death?

In addition to being the odd man out in that sentence (women + babies = sex + death, if you ask me), I have to say I didn't notice the others' expressions; I must have been sorting dice into glasses or something.

I really want to talk about playing and demoing Bacchanal.


I think the game developed way too hefty a reputation back when Scott first posted Bacchus owns me. Accurate as his post was, it somehow also conveyed (or accidentally invoked) the idea that the group was engaging in fairly heavy verbal porn and calling it "role-playing." So now there's this myth that people have to be really, really intimate, even rather swinging friends and get together in some cloistered room for a mentally-imagined fuck-fest, in playing this game. It's seen as the dirty little game about telling dirty little stories.

That's not true. OK? Let's get that settled. Bacchanal is a really good game that can be enjoyed by any group of players who does not suffer too terribly from these two unfortunate trends in geek/gamer culture.

1: Gamers are typically hyper-aversive toward anything explicit that falls outside of the PG-13 anime/comics/games zone, even when it's the kind of stuff housewives watch on the soaps all day long. Take a look at some party games some time, the ones pitched to mid-twenties couples - you'll see dozens of things that have caused gamers to clutch their hair and say "but that's way over the line!" when I talk about them as RPG mechanics or content. For a group which self-identifies as fringe-y, they are remarkably prudish.

2: Gamers also tend to think that real-person sexuality at the table is all or nothing. By this view (which purports to be anti-sexist but is actually more prudishness), either one is a total Ken-doll, or one is sitting at the table leering at one's friend's breasts, dice rattling in the left hand as the right one conducts its own biz under the table.

These are the only reasons that Scott's moving and sensitive thread about Bacchanal has unfairly, and though absolutely no fault of Scott's, brought about the game's reputation. The actual content of his post informed my play of it, very much to the better.

Moving out of these two fallacy-zones is not a major deal. You haven't moved into some kind of awful triple-X zone "beyond the green door" when you describe a naked woman during a role-playing session. Nor have you suddenly prompted everyone in the room to seize up with convulsions because all their blood just rushed to their dicks and clits. (a) The description may punch home exactly what you want punched home; (b) the mild sexual recognition among the people in the room, which is no more nor less what people feel when they see a convincing kiss or a flash of pubic hair in a movie, provides a strengthening factor to the shared imaginings.

Really. No big deal.

As I wrote about at length in Sex & Sorcery, utilizing the real-life sexual presence of ourselves at the table as a motor for developing more interesting, more engaging fiction together works very well and is not very difficult. It's no more difficult or transgressive than playing Twister with mixed couples, which is, of course, the only time anyone really wants to play Twister after they're over a certain age. Anyway, so I was really looking forward to playing this game and seeing whether its potential for rewarding, friendly, fun play was real. My concern was not the sex and debauchery, but rather that the story-content would be mechanical and boring.


The first game I played was with Danielle, Jonathan Walton, and one other person. After a scene or two, I huddled us all closer and announced that I was pulling booth-owner rank. Fuck the twenty-minute demo cap time; we were going to play all the way through this story, and we did. It was only at the end, however, that I learned the wonderful rule in Bacchanal that makes the whole game work, and without which it would merely be an exercise in guided narration. The rule is:

QuoteThe cup runneth dry

On your turn you can remove one Wine die to the tray by incorporating into the Narration one NPC you've not previously had in one of your scenes.13

13 So, an NPC who was created by another player, and more specifically, one who is not associated with a die (no soldiers, satyrs, accusers, gods, etc)

For those who like jargon, this is a "Cross" in the terms I presented in Sex & Sorcery. Crosses are the parents of Weaves, and Weaves are the parents of Bangs. But in this case, it's more than that. The difference between a master designer like Paul and a merely talented one is the presence and elegance of such rules. Please note the interaction of SIS and Currency, which way the arrow between them points, the necessary role of another player at the table (and attention to what they're doing), and the effect of this technique on the probabilities of the game's reward mechanics. You can track this rule's presence and effects through all the layers of the Big Model, which means it is central to the Creative Agenda. I'll leave it at that for now. I won't discuss it further except with those who've actually played the game.

The first game I demoed was the one Meg was in, and if I'm remembering correctly, Charles, an Adept Press forum veteran. I found demoing Bacchanal easy as pie.

First, I divided up the dice into the wine-glasses myself (leaving out the Companion), and just went around the table assigning characters: "You're an up-and-coming gladiator whose Companion is his son, and whose Accuser is his manager," that kind of thing. We didn't roll to start the turns; I just picked someone. I also showed how to develop one's first scene using my own dice as an example. I don't remember too many details about that game except that it was fun, I was careful to point out the important rule, and at least one person trotted off to buy a copy.

The next game I demoed included the woman that Meg mentioned above, roped into the demo by the Jasper the Human Lariat - typical scene ... "Jasper! Sorcerer demo! I need one more!" "Grunt!" (Jasper vanishes) (and reappears with a con-goer wearing rabbit ears and fishnets) "This is Jindalee! She wants to play Sorcerer!" I dunno how he does it. Maybe after lions and tigers, people are easy.

Anyway, I was irked and amused that in this particular demo, no one got any sex commands except for me. The wifely character got drunk while reading her lover's letter, and her story mainly went on to more wine and a loss of thrills, and the other character was harassed by his Accuser and soon, a Soldier. Whereas I kept getting Satyrs! Let me tell you my two narrations during that game.

- First, given a cue for violence in my glass along with a Satyr, I decided my gladiator guy was actually fighting in the arena. I described the crowd shouting aggressively just as one might imagine, then said there was a strange shift in the bottom/front row, to sexual arousal. I specifically said that no one did anything with one another or with themselves, but their body motions and the sound of their voices changed, to create an off-beat, "wrong" note in the overall sound of the crowd. Everyone at the table nodded. (I also explained the point that the gods' presence, especially Bacchus, suffuses Puteoli such that anyone in the populace can be affected by the dice/narration constraints.)

- Second, when the character returned to the under-barracks from the match (I decreed he had won but not killed the opponent), which I unfortunately could not help but imagine as a semi-modern locker room, I brought in a noblewoman standing there, who to his surprise drops to her knees without saying a word, and starts going down on him (my exact words). Everyone at the table nodded again, and if I'm not mistaken, one person grunted softly. This is not about my fellow players' personal erotic response; I'd be surprised if it was extreme to any degree. What I was hearing was recognition of my logic; what was happening made sense to them. More on this in a minute.

Afterwards, mindful of the minimal sex in this demo compared to Bacchanal's reputation, I pointed out that eroticism was part of the game, but not necessarily its central feature, and that play could get "a little" erotic ... and the woman player interrupted me, saying intensely and with a great desire to correct me: "That was very erotic." I'm proud of my response ... I held up the game and winsomely said "Four dollars." She bought it as well as the dice.

So, why were these demos successful, and not some kind of red-lit embarassment, there at the Forge booth, sittin' right out in front of God and everyone? Comin' up in the next post.

[edited to fix link format]

Ron Edwards


Let's take a look at the rules for narration which seem to get people scared, or rather, which they don't read or understand, and then scare themselves.

Tied Wine high = surge in thrills and excitement
Single Wine high, or Bacchus high = escalation of decadence
Satyr high = escalation of sexual decadence

No other narrational constraints concern "oogly stuff," they're mainly about being accused and arrested, or about finding the Companion. Let's look at the "bad" ones, shall we?

Surge in thrills and excitement ... does this mean "bring in the donkeys"? I submit that it does not. "Gets up to dance" is a great surge in thrills and excitement. Think about it. You're at a party, especially one which is a little grown-up and staid, but people are animated and having a nice time. A song starts up ... and one of the women cries out, tosses off her shoes, and starts boogeying right there in the living room, uninhibitedly, with a big grin on her face. No skin. No striptease. No tongue action at the audience. She's just into it, all of a sudden.

Sexy, yes? Especially given the minor but real "divide" she crossed to do it. Especially given that I, at least, am stirred by the idea that this woman can cross a divide ... what others might she cross, if so moved? Or what divide might I cross, and what would move me to do it?

If that's not enough for you (too much internet porn, obviously; kids these days ...), then imagine that there in the living room, she shucked off her wraparound skirt, as she is wearing perfect decorous shorts underneath, in order to dance. No increase in "thrills and excitement"? Suuuure there isn't. I laugh in your face.

I also submit that the potential reaction I'm talking about isn't especially about wanting to have sex with her, nor about being wildly sexually aroused. The "you" I'm addressing in this section is male or female, gay or straight, whatever.

Key point: a surge in thrills and excitement is primarily about behavior, and perhaps imagery in the sense of what the "camera" shows or lingers on. It is not about what someone necessarily does, but about what they might do and about what they're admitting about themselves when they do or imply doing it.

Say you get another tied-Wine high - where do you go from here? Stay with the key point ... either a bunch of people get inspired and cross that same divide, increasing the quantity of that same imagery and activity, or the person in question does something more risqué (very much in the sense of the Anglo-Saxon cognate "risky!"), or if the person is not the player-character, have the player-character join them. In all cases, a little is plenty, if it follows these principles.

Escalation of decadence ... this is not about crossing a divide from "decorous" to "uninhibited," as above. This is about breaking boundaries. Breaking boundaries can be classified into several types, including (a) a person "goes too far" in a given action which would be OK at its present level, (b) shifting from scenario-appropriate behavior to behavior that would make more sense elswhere, and (c) coercion of one person by another, by whatever means.

One might start narrating a series of Bacchanal scenes with (say with Venus and Bacchus in the glass, and no violence-oriented dice in the glass) a wife and husband hanging out in bed, drinking wine and being lazy. The roll comes up Bacchus high ... the player says the the husband starts to hurl the wine-glasses against the wall, one by one. Decadent? Yes. Why? Because it's a little disturbing, this sort of wildness. It's enthusiasm, but is it what she wants? If she decides to go with it, what else might be done, at further "right angles" to what is happening?

Key point: an escalation of decadence is primarily about someone at least potentially wanting to stop, or to review what is going on to see if they want to stop. It is not just about showing more skin or having more sex; it is not about the intensity or quantity of what is happening, but some specific action or proposal that is breaking a boundary.

Sex isn't the topic of decadence, although it can be. In the case of a Bacchus result, though, I suggest keeping it out or minimal, because that gives the Satyr result more identity, and emphasizes the primary wildness of Bacchus. For Bacchus, I recommend random behavior, mildly violent behavior (to start), drink-induced disinhibition (as opposed to the fun disinhibition described above) and lawlessness. What about them Satyrs, then?

Escalation of sexual decadence ... just as above, but with sex involved, interpreting "wildness" as "horniness" and still staying with the boundary principle. If there's no sex, and especially if there ordinarily wouldn't be, then add some. Or if the characters are already involved in sexual stuff, in a way which doesn't cross boundaries, then make the nice hard-core coupling turn into some act that one person is reluctant to do, or change the act into a violent one (not necessarily directed toward the same person, or even toward a person), or make it public, or otherwise alter the existing relationship between the characters in terms of their sexuality.

At a social gathering in a restaraunt, a while ago, the woman seated next to me once put her palm softly on my knee, then tapped me with all four fingers, very quickly, and removed her hand. I did not experience a huge and stupendous physiological response, nor did we run off to fuck in the bathroom, because real life is not a porn movie. It was, however, supremely erotic due to context, due to who she was and our casual friendship, due to the secrecy of the action (we both had committed partners), and due to the fact that I knew, and I daresay that both of us knew, that probably nothing would or could come of it. It was also an escalation in Bacchanal terms because the boundary being acknowledged (you do understand that, right? not threatened - acknowledged) was extremely risky - it's the kind of boundary you're supposed to pretend really isn't there at all, and thus never dream of challenging. But the very meaning of the word "probably" in my previous sentence matters a lot. She wanted to touch me. She did so.

See, that's why "threesome!" to "whole room!!" to "men on men, women on women!!!" to "daisy chain!!!!" is not an escalation of sexual decadence. No new boundaries are being found and crossed. It's just more porn. The same goes for violence, whether separately from sex or combined with it.

Look back at my narration for the first gladiator scene ... those were Satyr narrations because of the boundaries. In the first, a violent audience response transformed into a different one, through a path we at least recognize as possible, but which seems unlikely at that scale and as expressed that fully. In the second, not only was my character unexpectedly brought into the same response, but boundaries of class and shame were broken by the NPC, hence it escalated what was previously narrated.

So Ron's rules for Bacchanal, and for erotic content in role-playing of any kind, are these:

1. Start small and familiar. Reveal your own boundaries and potential for thrills through what you choose to introduce. This establishes crucial connections and buy-in and attention among the real people at the table, because you are not trying to shock or impress anyone. You are revealing, not amplifying, and what you reveal is not shocking, but familiar to others (trust me on this).

2. Move honestly into new material using the written constraints exactly as they mean. To add thrills, describe something that would thrill you, relative to what is happening already. To add decadence, break or threaten a boundary that would matter to you. To add sexual decadence, do the same with sexual content. In all cases, having started with "small and familiar," any escalation will increase tensions and the potential for conflicts in the developing story. Do not be afraid to move on, either; once the initial connections are there, then amplification is safe. You can, after all, rely on the fact that the dice told you to do it. However, each step, for each kind of narration, should logically follow and not be a simple "more!!" statement. The group will stay with you because of that logic.

3. Choose your agents (who is active in the material) carefully. Your character is merely constrained to be present in the scene, for these three results, and nothing makes him or her do the acts in question, as opposed to an NPC. This is the case for all Bacchanal narrations, even Pluto. Conceivably, your character could stay sober and chaste and lawful throughout the whole story! So pick and choose exactly who is doing what, for any narration. This is a key decision for every turn - when is X happening around the character, as opposed to when and if the character does X.

These are not only consistent with Scott's original thread about playing this game, but also with the explicit advice and explanations in the rules themselves. Please note that I am not saying "ooh, play nice, don't say naughty stuff, you can play Bacchanal PG-13." Far from it. I did not play Bacchanal-lite at the con. I narrated an on-screen blowjob to people I did not know, into our developing story. Because I did it correctly, by the above rules, they did not flinch ... they nodded.

One last point ... Paul, I think the game needs a new internal physical design. The character size should be jumped up by a significant factor, and the chapters should begin with full-page graphics on the right-hand page. I suggest that the topics within Scene Resolution all need their own pages (i.e. starting at the top of a page) within that chapter. I also think the game should be heavily illustrated, with an eye toward subtlety in most pieces, and graphic excess in one or two.

Why? Because at present, it looks stifled. And I suggest that it makes the game presentation feel stifled, as if you were embarassed enough by it to say, "well, I'll print it in bitty type and pass it out on street corners," rather than give it the bold, in-your-face treatment My Life with Master gets, in which the content and goals of play are absolutely clear on each and every page. Bacchanal is not a Tijuana Bible role-playing game. It shouldn't look like a little pamphlet that's designed to be handed out furtively and read in private, then stuffed behind a toilet-paper dispenser in a public bathroom.

Best, Ron


So... this is maybe the best and most useful thing I've read in, like, years.

Damn Ron.



That's an awesome post Ron. It's always cool to see someone who has really throught through how to run a game reveal their thoughts. I've never played Bacchanal. The game frankly threatens my comfort zone. But I think I'd be willing to give it a try with the right group now that I understand a little more about it.
"Come on you lollygaggers, let's go visit the Thought Lords!"

Frank T

There is a lot of stuff in there I can relate to. I still like porn and dirty little stories as well, though.

- Frank

Jiri Petru


thanks for your posts. There's a lot of interesting information, and I daresay it changed my view on Bacchanal a little. Especially the second half, where you advice how to escalate the story, is helpfull. I dind't know most of the stuff you wrote. Or - more precisely - I didn't think of it in this way. For this enlightment, I thank you :)

The actual examples are nice, too. I think Bacchanal needs good examples of play more than anything. I am going to save these examples and print them for my friends when I introduce them to this game.

All, in all, this was a great mid-night reading (it's 03:22 here in Europe). Thank you and good night :)


Jonathan Walton

Yeah, my biggest awkwardness with Bacchanal was not the sex and violence but the pacing.  The game does a great job of telling you what to escalate, but it doesn't really give you any guidelines for how much you should escalate.  And for those of us used to Dogs and other strong, difficult choices games (which I need to write about as "the prototypical Forge playstyle" at somepoint), we're used to escalating, as Clinton likes to say, to stabbing people in the face.  We're using to doing big, shocking things all the damn time.  And this is totally, fundamentally wrong for the pacing of Bacchanal.  It is a long game filled almost entirely with escalation.  Moving too fast, just like in sex and violence, will mean that the fun is over before it's really started, and you've run out of kinky and/or bloody things to do.


Ron, excellent assessment.  Everything you wrote - the difference between erotica and porn, the stuff about boundaries, creating and presenting content, acknowledging your own arousal as a powerful element of the interaction - I learned by playing Bacchanal.  I'm going to step out of line here and assume a little ownership of the game (I don't think Paul will mind): The advice in the book was (for the most part) stuff Paul and Danielle and I discussed based on our actual play, and I don't think I'm amiss in saying that we were trying to help others capture what I personally managed to do with the game (although I think Danielle's narrative was equally as powerful, just shorter thanks to the vagaries of the dice).  Similarly, my post (which in this thread assumes a certain level of infamy I'm not totally displeased with) was aimed at exposing what was possible with the game, but it's pretty obvious now that without the context it was presented in (including secrets shared among some of the participants but not others), it fell a little flat.  That said, I had no idea Bacchanal had the reputation it apparently does; I just assumed people weren't compelled by it as a whole (I wasn't, until I actually sat down and started playing).

In any event, this is the sort of treatise Bacchanal needed.  I once said, and meant it in a negative fashion, that one of the problems with Forgies (myself included) was that we sat around and waited for Ron to put his stamp of approval on something and then we'd all jump on the bandwagon and play the shit out of it.  I don't know that that holds true anymore, but this is a game that needs the shit played out of it. 

And regarding pacing...Jonathan, you know what drama looks like, or at least you know what you like when it comes to drama.  Trust those instincts and remember that less is more.


Yes, Ron, I was in your first demo. However, I did not trot off to buy a copy, I was trotted, by you, in that Ron Edwards way I've read about. Who knew that "trot" was a transitive verb? Anyway, I was wrong for calling you a pimp then. I realize now that such name calling was inappropriate - the merchandise was the game itself, so the correct term would be "pusher".

Your insights on Bacchanal play are quite useful - focussing on actual boundaries instead of levels of explicitness. I suspect that most of us know these boundaries a good deal better than we admit - and, in your initial posts, you read as if you are assuming the existence of such knowledge.

Meg, I don't remember feeling fear or disbelief at sitting down with you to play. I remember my reaction being more along the lines of "oh - it's her," because by then I knew who you were. Tovey's cute.


Ron Edwards

Hi Charles,

I remember that now. I do that occasionally, yes.

Really, though, you looked like you awfully wanted the game. I like to think of myself as a little helper.

Best, Ron

Jasper the Mimbo

Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 23, 2006, 04:17:57 PM
I like to think of myself as a little helper.

Like the way a bulldozer is a "construction tool" Hehe.

That damo changed my opinion of Bacchanal. I always liked the idea, but thought it was for a very comfortable, secure crowd. Something most gamers aren't. With the right understanding of the concept and rules it really allows you to test your improvization skills and create some amazing drama. The Naughtyness becomes almost secondary.
List of people to kill. (So far.)

1. Andy Kitowski
2. Vincent Baker
3. Ben Lehman
4. Ron Edwards
5. Ron Edwards (once isn't enough)

If you're on the list, you know why.


QuoteSex isn't the topic of decadence, although it can be. In the case of a Bacchus result, though, I suggest keeping it out or minimal, because that gives the Satyr result more identity, and emphasizes the primary wildness of Bacchus

QuoteYour character is merely constrained to be present in the scene, for these three results, and nothing makes him or her do the acts in question, as opposed to an NPC.

Very useful tips. And a great post, which made me want to play Bacchanal again. Oh, and yes, a bigger & bolder Bacchanal would be wonderful :)