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[The Shadow of Yesterday] Drugs, hugs, knives, and Zu

Started by Ron Edwards, October 28, 2006, 08:16:53 PM

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Ron Edwards

At last! Despite a whole bunch of schedule conflicts, we finally got our game going, with me, Tim A, Tim K, and Chris.

Setting up for it reminds me a lot of The Riddle of Steel. You have all these character Keys to go by, or "flags" as people have called them for a while, indicating to the GM what kind of issues need to be incorporated into the prep. However, as with TROS, I am going to point out something else - the setting matters. And as with TROS, my experiences with Hero Wars, set in Glorantha, provide the best model for prepping for this game as well. What I'm trying to say is, "the Keys are not enough" to prep. I think using the setting in a specific way is also important.

(For those of you who don't know, Clinton often speaks and writes of Near as "his Glorantha," and he is right in about a hundred ways, some of which have never seen the light on-line. It has nothing to do with being Glorantha or being inspired by it; it has everything to do with what the setting means, both to Clinton and as transmitted to the players of the game. You should carefully study the geography and cultures of Near some time. I missed a crucial aspect of it; Ben Lehman had to point it out to me. That's all I'm going to say about that here.)

OK, so what is this "specific way to use the setting" that I'm talking about? You start with the map, and pick a place. Identify the most overt, immediate conflicts that occur at that place.

In our case, and in Chris' absence, we settled on the Ammeni area, noting that the ruling people are so decadent and privileged that they hardly even care about the historical cataclysm and the new moon in the sky, and that the native underclass is simmering with powerful magic and potential revolt. Plus there are goblin slave-pets and unruly ratkin all over the place as well. So there's stuff going on that's easy to get a grasp on, plus a lot of options.

It also so happens that running decadent, Melnibonéan-like settings is second nature for me, and that we were all intrigued by the Zu-language magic rules.

All right, with all that settled, we now know that there isn't going to be any "gee, a wandering Qek merchant who happens to be there" guy, nor "roguish Maldor ratkin with a cool hat who hopped over the border to escape pursuit." Those and similar characters would be kewl, but they wouldn't tap into the setting conflicts - their Keys would just float there and force single-PC spotlight onto them, or be ignored. That is ass and we're not doing it. And on a related note, that also means that native characters who are totally wrapped up in some personal conflict or back-story that has nothing to do with the setting conflicts are also disallowed, for the same reason.

OK, so character creation is heavily restricted to people who would be right there and involved in the setting-based conflict in some way. On reflection, you'll see that isn't really all that restricted. Characters can be Ammeni, Zaru, ratkin, or goblin, and they can be positioned in the political conflict any ol' way they want to be, or positioned in the metaphysical setting (i.e. the moon and so on) any way they want to be. That's a lot of room for non-trivial variation ... and it will be relevant, player-driven variation. Say if they ended up being a radical ratkin, a turncoat/rebellious Ammeni ... or a totally submissive Zaru, a traditional Ammeni, and his goblin pet, see how either way, the GM still has to work with what they provided?

And now, in that context, the Keys become fun rather than distracting, because they will put Bang-y twists into the situation rather than drag attention away from it.

During that first brainstorming session, the two Tims made up their characters

Tim A made up Toussaint, a younger Ammeni nobleman with abilities like Sway and Deceit, including the Secret of the Sudden Knife and the Key of Power; he wanted lots of squabbling, scary siblings and a generally intrigue-heavy situation.

Tim K made up a Zaru woman with Uptenbo and some swampy-type abilities, including the Key of the Mission; he wanted her to be in the "rebellious but not militant" camp of Zaru politics. We talked about the Zaru character a bit, and he said that she had killed someone, a fellow Zaru friend who'd tried to dissuade her from rebelling against the Ammeni; the friend had got in the way during a riot so the killing was mostly accidental. Note that she does not yet have the Secret of Uz, so we went over the rules for that carefully.

During our first play-session, Chris had to make up his character quickly, and so he merely had to accept stuff we'd decided on the previous week. Although it so happens that Chris, like Clinton, loves playing "snivelling little fuckers" (that's a Clinton quote), and so instantly said "Goblin!" and was practically done.

Chris' character is a classic thieving-homunculus sort with all kinds of stealthy and filching abilities. He has the Secret of the HIdden Pocket (which if you think about it is really gross, given a naked goblin character) and the Key of the Coward.

Chris and the rest of us all agreed that this character shouldn't be addicted to thieving, as that would be boringly consistent, and Chris also didn't want standard drugs for an addiction, so we puzzled over good behavioral addictions for a few minutes. Tim K and I really wanted the goblin to be addicted to wet smoochy kisses, but Chris wouldn't go for it and we had to settle for hugs instead.

Since the goblin was an easy-add-on character (given an Ammeni, I could just say "you're his pet!" or something similar), my sketchy prep for that session was in good shape. I had already decided upon the following and worked up basic numbers for the characters.

I decided that the Ammeni House of vv was experiencing a succession conflict, with an aging and feeble father. The physical setting for the first session would be the family retreat, the summer-house out in the swamp. I liked the idea of the Ammeni enjoying their "countryside cabin" (really a multi-structure estate, with lots of walkways and sliding doors) out in what anyone else would consider a foul, diseased, toad-ridden, spider-ridden bog. I made up Toussaint's charming, poison-brewing sister and his doltish warrior brother, and decided that the goblin was present as a gift brought by the brother for the father.

Using Tim K's description of his character's background, I also decided that this House (and general area) had experienced a very serious Zaru uprising by the militants, aided by ratkin, and that the father had dealt with it in an unusual way - sparing the general Zaru community except for a token reprisal (a dozen killed at random, something like that) and heeding the advice of a conservative (i.e. submissive) Zaru who'd told him the community was generally against the uprising. I made up this Zaru as a very driven, very pacifistic NPC with the Secret of Zu knowing the syllables "run" and "fool," and of course she's at the estate too as a trusted servant. Oh, as for the ratkin involved in the rebellion, they're just animals, so the father did have them all killed. The estate in the swamp now has lots of ratkin skins as decorations.

So there's Toussaint and his siblings hanging around at this family get-together, and there's Tim K's Zaru rebel nose-deep in the swamp some hundred yards away from the estate (Tim K decided her mission was to blow it up), and there's the goblin in a birdcage. What happened?

1. The goblin hugged the sister and stole a bunch of drug-vials from her (thus disarming my most dangerous NPC! damn!) and escaped to run around causing trouble. Toussaint was extremely unlucky in trying to capture Tim K's Zaru character, and they had a big fight out there in the water. As usual with this game, all the players were swiftly in awe of the Secret of the Sudden Knife. The Zaru did end up getting captured (don't remember how; I think she was faking) and was taken off to the torture room. Yes, Ammeni noble families have torture rooms in their vacation estates, why do you ask?

2. The sneaky goblin successfully deposited the various drugs and poisons at random into the wine-goblets the family was to drink from, and of course, the sister was under the impression that only the goblet she'd drugged was indeed drugged. Oh, this got complicated. The family members are doing the whole switch-the-glasses routine in order to make sure they don't drink from the glass they were given, and yet the glasses have stuff in them that no one knows about. I did it all randomly, taking the drugs and stuff I'd assigned to the sister and putting them in randomly (i.e. that was the goblin's action), and then knowing which the sister would offer to whom, and then running the conflict to determine who really got what.

Boy was Toussaint lucky - the sister knocked herself out with the potion she'd intended for the father, and the worst-drugged goblet ended up as the one intended for the brother, who was off torturing the Zaru. So the dad and the brother were fine. That gave me the chance to provide the only really substantive dialogue in the session, when the father warns Toussaint that if he wants to rule the House, then he must turn to the Zaru - as the revolution is coming, and there is nothing at all anyone can do about it.

Meanwhile, the Zaru captive had Uptenbo'd the bejeezus out of the brother, and run off to find the Zaru NPC to talk to her for some reason (I didn't really know what Tim K had in mind, but said "OK" and moved on.)

3. Toussaint discovered that his brother was at his mercy, strapped into the restraints the way he'd thought the Zaru was. Bonus! That led to a really nasty knife-fight, lots of Pain - Toussaint eventually won, but it was gory as hell. (The sister stayed sleeping and I decided to leave that way 'til next session.) The goblin ended up abandoning the father to a heart attack (which I thought was kind of cruel, actually), and so the old guy died. We finished up with a dramatic Zu battle, as our hero resisted the "run" attack, but ended up succumbing to "fool!" - rendering her mindless, at least temporarily.

So Toussaint, despite failing at just about everything except for killing his brother, is now right on top of things - with his dad dead and his sister at his mercy, and with a last-breath piece of advice to ponder. Plus this Zaru servant and a Zaru captive. And the goblin's just runnin' around at this point.

Not bad for an action-packed fantasy romp: good choreography, good unplanned outcomes, strong change in the situation but no real conclusions yet, and a bunch of Experience Points gained. As expected, this was a lot like a first session in The Riddle of Steel and HeroQuest (formerly Hero Wars). Existing relationships shook into new forms, with plenty of room for (a) carnage, (b) color, and (c) messing with personality-mechanics to generate currency for more stuff later. In my experience with such games, the end of the first session isn't yet enough to see Premise gelling yet, but so much has happened that reflection by everyone (not necessarily verbal or even articulated) will yield Premise quite soon in later play.

Tim A pointed out that Key of Power doesn't yield much Experience relative to the Coward or the Mission, so he's strongly considering getting another "soak up EP" Key as soon as he can. Tim K is determined to get the Secret of Uz any minute, basically as soon as he can. Both of these comments led me to consider that for my part, as Story Guide, I need to beef up my setting-prep a little bit, bringing in stuff that comes straight out of the starting parameters. I have some notions about that.

You can probably see that Chris' character is just floating there a little, but I can work with the Addiction thing - if I hit him with stuff that targets his Vigor Pool, and then the question for the character becomes the easy - but relevant - one of just whom he'd prefer to rely on for hugs. Ah, goblins.

Best, Ron


I don't have a whole lot to say, except that that's the Best Goblin Addiction Ever.  I was never that into the goblins before, but now I'm looking at the addictions in a whole new light...


Frank T

Setting design go! A thoughtful setting design can be a powerful tool. I would love to see much, much more of that around here at the Forge. The part with switching the goblets is just wonderful, as is the "swamp residence".

I strongly suggest Key of the Overlord for Toussaint, that should fit in just neatly. I think that the Zaru girld could have bought the Secret of Uz at the moment she heard the other Zaru woman say a word of power, if she had an advance to spend at that moment.

- Frank

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I like the hugs too and want to see lots more of them. Frank, there's more setting-driven design at the Forge than might meet the eye at first - for instance, see the older game Orbit (Psychobilly Designs, in the Inactive Forums), which is a great, great thing. What fools people is that cataloguing and detailing settings isn't typically a priority here. But the games with absolutely necessary setting-strong techniques are, in fact, present.

Both Tims have recently bought the game so I expect that by our next session, they will be chock-full of rules, Keys, and setting-notions that they'll want to exploit in play.

As it happens, at the moment that the other Zaru used Zu, the player-character had only 4 experience points. But Tim K is definitely eyeing the Key of Uz as the next available purchase.

Best, Ron

Matt Wilson

QuoteThose and similar characters would be kewl, but they wouldn't tap into the setting conflicts - their Keys would just float there and force single-PC spotlight onto them, or be ignored. That is ass and we're not doing it. And on a related note, that also means that native characters who are totally wrapped up in some personal conflict or back-story that has nothing to do with the setting conflicts are also disallowed, for the same reason.

Ron, I'm glad you're talking about setting and the idea that it's a sort of shared 'flag' or 'key' among the players. I think established setting affects character creation the same way the decided-upon series does in Primetime Adventures. You can't create TSOY characters in a vacuum.

There's a big chance for trouble when that one player shows up who's been wanting to play X kind of character and can't push the thought aside. I bet a lot of us have seen that happen.

Can you talk a bit about your prep? What was in the setting info that made it easy to prep? What was missing that would have been useful? Anything included in the setting info that actually made prep harder? And I mean it in terms of you, Ron, with your history and experiences and so on.

Ron Edwards

Hi Matt,

That's a tall order. I'll turn to theory first:

Exploration, or the Shared Imagined Space is composed of [Color * [System * [Situation = Setting + Characters]]]

All parts must be present. Any single part can be maximized or minimized - by which I mean, requires more (or less) attention and activity. But the parts are all present, and their interaction is a stable and in-part defining thing, for this activity we call "role-playing."

I've been saying, explicitly, since 1999, that setting-heavy design and play is a strong and effective thing. I have also been saying that the approach rulebooks have traditionally taken toward setting has been entirely counter-productive. These two easy, straightforward concepts have generated gross cognitive dissonance among many readers. Based on their training (because they primarily purchase+read rather than play), they can't fathom "setting" to be anything except a huge bank of stuff to know and appreciate. This has cursed many role-players into the hell of becoming a fanboy of the printed setting, then trying desperately to convince their friends to become similar fanboys. Whereas they, quite reasonably, primarily want to have a fun time playing, and are not necessarily inclined toward that end.

The 1980s version of this was mainly found among devotees of Forgotten Realms and similar AD&D2 settings; the 1990s version was mainly found among people who bought 100 sourcebooks to memorize, whether Shadowrun or Vampire or whatever. Both of these are still alive today.

However, functional setting only means it works in the equation, i.e. functionally helps to generate Situation. Strong setting (which is to say, it has features requiring specific and more attention and activity) is an option. That option is what you're asking about, And it can be a little surprising, because the extent of presentation doesn't necessarily equate to strength.

For instance, one of the strongest settings in role-playing is found in My Life with Master. It's expressed by two words (e.g. Beast, Collector) and two scores (Reason and Fear). Wham. Setting. Yes, the Master is part of Setting in this game; playing him or her as a "character" is an expression of setting. Absolutely central, absolutely tied to the characters, and thus wham again, Situation emerges. Why? Because the player-characters have a specific relationship to the Master (Self-Loathing, e.g.) and a special relationship to the Town (Connections). Conflict is inherent to their creation, i.e., to their relationship with the setting, in this case. Go! What will happen? The Master will die. But how, and why, and by whose hand? What will result for you?

Another is Glorantha, specifically in the context of HeroQuest (formerly Hero Wars), in which there are indeed hundreds of texts, if not thousands, including a fanbase of "apocrypha" (if you will) and a guiding principle that you, the group, have license to do some picking and choosing for purposes of your play (that is what "your Glorantha may vary" means, despite its occasional use as a meaningless club in on-line bitchery). The key to understanding it is to realize that Glorantha isn't the setting ... Glorantha during the Hero Wars is the setting. That is key beyond belief. What are these wars? How are they different from the wars of the past? These are things to know and actually to study and discuss, as part of prep. It is not the detail of the answers to these questions which matters; it is the content of those answers. It requires thought, not mere fanboyish basking in color. You have to think about and understand them. Picking a spot of Glorantha as your game's setting means taking that content and saying, "The Hero Wars are right here, in action. Your characters are here because it is normal for them, this is their life where they are priests, stickpickers, whores, warriors, or whatever - and the world makes sense to them - but the Hero Wars are here now, and guess what, the world no longer makes sense. Let's find out how, and see what the characters will do, and see how the world is thereby re-shaped."

They are sketchy-ish characters, with just enough weight to be recognizable (relationships, skills, et cetera) and no more. They must become more than what they are, fast. The setting demands it.

So that's the first point, broken into three parts. (i) The relationship of setting to the other parts of the SIS is one thing, and it's easy, as it's pretty much fixed. (ii) The strength of the setting is the attention and activity it specifically demands to have its relationship to the rest. And (iii), whether it's generated through many printed pages of provocative text, or through a few sentences of provocative text, is just a dial. (Note: many pages of non-provocative descriptive and historical text isn't setting, it's a bunch of wood pulp and ink, period.)

As a contrast, note that Sorcerer does require a setting, but not much. Situation is mainly born from characters, with Setting providing its minimum initial input simply to make Situation possible. It is unfortunately necessary to mention, although it shouldn't be, that "characters" refers to NPCs as well as player-characters. Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Lacuna are similar to Sorcerer in this regard.

OK, contrast is over. Now to continue with more discussion of strong setting as a functional piece of coherent play, specifically The Shadow of Yesterday.

But I'll do that later, because I'm kind of tired of typing on the intenet and I'm curious to know whether any of the above made any sense, to anyone.

Best, Ron

Per Fischer

Keep typing, man, it makes great sense to me. Superb AP thread! I've met this "strong setting=much detailed setting" misconception before, and particular in connection with TSOY, but I've never seen it formulated this clearly.

I guess my question is how you got from those characters in the setting to the situation at the start of play - was that solely authored by you, Ron, or by incorporation suggestions from the players?

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Matt Wilson

I'm following along just fine up here in Milwaukee.

You have me eagerly expecting a follow-up on this:

Quotebut the Hero Wars are here now, and guess what, the world no longer makes sense. Let's find out how, and see what the characters will do, and see how the world is thereby re-shaped.

... in terms of TSOY, or in terms of any "picking and choosing" setting, frankly.

And damnit, it's totally sidetracking me from my original GM prep question. Now we have all these things to talk about in terms of appropriate character creation constraints, and what kinds a game needs for character-situation vs. setting-situation.

But I suppose we have to cover that if we're going to discuss the GM prep stuff, since you need the right characters before you can prep the adventury bits. I had trouble GMing a TSOY game a couple years ago, and it had a lot to do with unfit characters.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Per, you wrote,

Quotemy question is how you got from those characters in the setting to the situation at the start of play - was that solely authored by you, Ron, or by incorporation suggestions from the players?

It was mainly me. I did it similarly as with my D&D3 game earlier this year - came up with a provisional situation, but was open to any player-response or editing of that, if they felt like it before we started.

Me: "Hey Chris, so you're there as a pet in a bird-cage, which the brother is going to give to the dad as a gift. Sound OK?"

Chris: "Sure!"

As for exactly how I got there, I think the next part will clarify that, or at least I hope it will.

Matt, you wrote,

QuoteNow we have all these things to talk about in terms of appropriate character creation constraints, and what kinds a game needs for character-situation vs. setting-situation.

I think I answered regarding the principles about that already, in my first post, with this bit:

Quote... character creation is heavily restricted to people who would be right there and involved in the setting-based conflict in some way. On reflection, you'll see that isn't really all that restricted. Characters can be Ammeni, Zaru, ratkin, or goblin, and they can be positioned in the political conflict any ol' way they want to be, or positioned in the metaphysical setting (i.e. the moon and so on) any way they want to be. That's a lot of room for non-trivial variation ... and it will be relevant, player-driven variation. Say if they ended up being a radical ratkin, a turncoat/rebellious Ammeni ... or a totally submissive Zaru, a traditional Ammeni, and his goblin pet, see how either way, the GM still has to work with what they provided?

And now, in that context, the Keys become fun rather than distracting, because they will put Bang-y twists into the situation rather than drag attention away from it.

I'll try to beef that principle up with this actual play as a specific example. Here's what I thought about after we'd settled on the locale and after the first two characters had been made up, during the week prior to starting play.

1. The Ammeni are totally narcissistic, oblivious both to the larger politics of their realm (i.e. the Zaru are gonna rise up one day) and indeed to the much larger concern of their world as a whole (it was almost hit by a fucking meteor and 90% of the world population died, for Pete's sake).

2. Goblins are also narcissistic and wholly obsessed with their singular personal needs, but they are also fully dependent on other people in some way; that's what the addiction is ultimately about.

3. The Zaru are larger-thinking than either, being focused on their local politics regarding the Ammeni. However, although they are also strongly connected to the bigger setting questions due to the language thing, they are not immediately able to address that, because (a) they're oppressed and disorganized, and (b) Zu is irrevocably shattered.

So the first thing that I settled on (remember, this is retrospective) was that I wasn't going to bring in any sort of Black Moon hard-core metaphysical stuff right away. If we'd been playing in Khale, and let's say that a character was a bard, then the Green World and Moon-metal and all that would be huge right off the bat. If we'd been playing in Qek, you can bet that the humongous mass death from a century ago would have huge consequences for an ancestor-obsessed, spiritual talk-to-the-dead culture like that one. In either case, I'd have to come up with some cool metaphysical back-story (like my tribal myth for our Hero Wars game). Same goes for all the other places described in the book. But here? No. This has to start off as a completely material conflict about local politics and selfish, immediate personal needs, and we'll see whether and how the larger setting issues are relevant to this later.

Does that work, or make sense? Given that first step about basic content or focus, I could then think in terms of a concrete and immediate back-story (the rebellion) based on the characters (specifically the Zaru one), and not make it too complicated or full of stuff to know. In fact, doing so was pretty much simultanous with coming up with the swamp vacation-estate, which arose mainly from enjoying the Ammeni material in the book and free-associating off of it.

So the Zaru character's in-play question becomes "just how militant am I now prepared to be?", and the Ammeni character's in-play question becomes "what's the point of gaining mastery over my House if the Zaru are capable of overthrowing it all any minute now?" Note - these are not Premise questions. They are logistic, situational, immediate stuff the characters' actions are willy-nilly going to answer. They are fruitful situational features which, when present, mean that any of this can be GMed/played at all. If I'd looked over everything (book, PC sheets, etc) and found that such things could not be derived, I'd either say "let's start over," or perhaps, "we can't play this after all." Both of which I've done in the past, with other games and groups.

I actually think the whole character-creation-to-scenario-creation thing is a distraction - when it's a problem, it's a late-stage symptom of a larger problem: the inability to come up with what I just described in the above paragraph. So I'm going to stick with your questions from your first post, which I think are more deep-rooted and more important.

QuoteCan you talk a bit about your prep? What was in the setting info that made it easy to prep? What was missing that would have been useful? Anything included in the setting info that actually made prep harder? And I mean it in terms of you, Ron, with your history and experiences and so on.

What setting information made it easy to prep

1. All the underground-comics stuff: drugs, sex, goblin's plastic bodies, wild and unpredictable action, and light-hearted violence. Clinton and I are on a similar wave-length about this kind of content, as you can see from Elfs, Donjon, and other stuff we've both done. GMing and playing in any sense (prep, play, reflection, development) with this sort of content is almost entirely effortless for me; my personal imagery, past history, and general "imaginative self" goes this way without a hitch.

2. The real-world geographical and political content of the setting as a whole, which I hinted at above and am not prepared to discuss here. I leave that as an exercise for the reader and also request that people not bug either me or Clinton with emails about it. That would be cheating. Near requires more of a person than a tappy-tap keyboard Cliff's Notes feed-me-I'm-a-gamer interaction.

What setting information made it harder to prep

1. Well, at first glance, all the stuff I talked about above which disconnects the Ammeni culture from the Black Moon history sort of stumped me a little bit, during the process. I looked longingly at Maldor and Qek, in which the people simply must be grappling with the fallout of the cataclysm, with all kinds of Premise-heavy consequences with any imaginable character concept. I had to say, OK, let's make anything like that wait for later, because the whole Premise-y point of Ammeni is that everyone is wrapped up in the material, local, selfish end of the spectrum. Getting over that was a bit of a hump; I have really developed the personal-is-political + the political-is-the-mystical thing, from Hero Wars in particular but also in stuff like the Azk'Arn Sorcerer games and even in my D&D3 game. I had to get more into a Best Friends mode, which is the personal-is-the-personal mode, I guess, by comparison. And it's hard to do that when all that Black Moon stuff is just begging for inclusion; I had to say, "yes yes, but later, when it fits with them rather than being inserted wholly by me."

(This is also significant: that at the first stage of prep, no one else was very familiar with the setting material; Tim K had read some of the downloaded material, but had focused mainly on resolution and Keys. What that means is that it's counter-productive to force major setting-heavy stuff onto them in the scenario, aside from immediate color and conflicts.)

2. I have done about as much explicit content in role-playing as I want to, for a little while at least. It was Tim Kleinert who said, "Ron's a good player and GM, but every once in a while I'd like to leave the lights off," and I think that has influenced me a bit. So all the vaginal poisons and opium-addled blowjobs and whatnot that the written Ammeni setting describes or hints at, well, I can do it. But I'm the guy who investigated the mystic roles of rape and incest in Hero Wars; I'm the guy who introduced the Lines/Veils concept to the community via playing Violence Future. The shock value of the Ammeni is valid and cool as hell, but it's not really what I'm inclined to portray at this point in my role-playing. So I had to focus on something else, and so although they're cruel and weird, my Ammeni NPCs are a bit tame compared to ones in the book. It took a little effort to arrive at the enough-for-me level that I wanted, without undercutting (via reduction) the basic awfulness/decadence that the setting material demands.

Thanks for your interest, guys. I'm a little surprised that stuff this basic seems to need such a going-over, but I'm enjoying the reflection on our game and I'm OK with doing it via your questions.

Best, Ron


Hi Ron,
I´m closely following this and enjoying every sentence of it. Upon reflection, I think that I simply haven't developed good prep skills as a GM although I´ve spent a lot of time GM'ing and prepping. This is really one of the key issues for me with games like TsoY, Dogs, Sorcerer etc. - that there is a highly developed set of tools for useful, meaningful prep. But I really haven't found a whole lot about prepping and GM'ing TsoY.
So, I've put my learning-hat on...
Peter Dyring-Olsen

Frank T

Man, I could so derail this thread with my frustration about misconceptions about Forge-style games and Forge-style gaming that have been making things so much more complicated over in the German community than they would have needed to be, which totally relate to this whole topic, and are totally the fault of the Forge-freaks and totally not the fault of the sceptics... but no.

Anyway, great thread. I'm getting more excited about my upcoming Artesia game as I read, since I am being told that the Known World is heavily inspired by Glorantha.

Oh, and one more lesson to learn out of this: When playing TSoY, try to always hold back one advance. You might need it some time.

- Frank


Quote from: Ron Edwards on October 28, 2006, 08:16:53 PM
You should carefully study the geography and cultures of Near some time. I missed a crucial aspect of it; Ben Lehman had to point it out to me. That's all I'm going to say about that here.
Dare I ask that someone clue me in? I'm reading TSOY right now.
A.k.a., Mark Delsing

Larry L.


I hope this thread is not too old already. I am digging the re-iteration of how strong setting can be useful to situation. Your assessment of setting-rich fanboy hell unfortunately hits pretty close to home, so I'm eager to understand how rich settings as fun is distinguished from rich settings as suck.

So, how does "strong setting" tie in to the "myth vs. no myth" thing? Or am I trying to compare apples and oranges?

Ron Edwards


I confess I have been entirely at a loss as to how to deal with the responses on this thread. I think if I described my confusion, a lot of you would be pissed off at me (in fact, I betcha a lot of you were, just because I said 'basic' in the above post), so I hardly know what to say.

I'll stick with the questions. Larry, you asked about no-myth and how that might be related.

Here's the problem with answering that: I think the term "no-myth" hasn't been helpful in the long run. I think it's been helpful in the short run, for individuals, but as far as I can tell, people use it in two contradictory ways. Both of them are helpful concepts, but they share the same name and I see people enthusiastically agreeing when they mean different things, and disagreeing over nothing because each one thinks the term means something else.

Possible meaning #1: A GM should not consider his or her own prepared material (i.e. stuff in his notebook) binding on how he actually plays those elements. But once a feature or character is played in some fashion, then it is considered binding (i.e. established) for future play.

Possible meaning #2: The group does not work with very much prepared setting material, and a great deal of setting and back-story is created and in fact improvised into the SIS during play itself; once it's established, then it's considered binding. (Who does it and when are a separate variable from this basic idea)

Historically, I think Fang Langford was probably talking about #1 rather than #2, but I think he either didn't get it across very well, or maybe the semi-hysterical enthusiasm that arose about #2 overwhelmed it. Hell, see my own Glossary entry, it's confused too. To date, I think most people think the term refers to #2, and yet, there's enough blather and criss-cross when the term gets used that I think the net use of it yields no consistent benefit.

I think people also mix up what kind of authority is involved and that derails the term's utility as well (see my discussion of authority in "Silent railroading and its relation to scenario prep & player authorship"). To be absolutely clear, I think that the #2 meaning is functional regardless of whether authority over the content is centralized into one person's input, or widely distributed, or formalized into anything in between. In other words, how the setting and back-story get improvised and established during play, and who does it, is a separate variable from the distinction I'm making between #1 and #2.

I think the #1 meaning is important for playing The Shadow of Yesterday, so for the rest of this post, I'll put aside the #2 meaning entirely and stick to the #1 meaning alone. The rules about GMing are extremely clear about it. Clinton does describe the #1 meaning quite explicitly in that section, and he wisely does not use the term "no-myth" to do it. He says, don't get hung up about a particular character and or particular event that you prepped, just because you prepped it. Be ready to shelve it for later (re-tooling its relationship to other things) or just abandon it, if that works better at the time.

Now, this point is not necessarily applicable to all games and all play-situations. I think that my Tunnels & Trolls game absolutely relied on me being constrained to my own prep (i.e. stocking the dungeon and re-doing it based on what had happened since the player-characters' last visit). I also think that Andreas' Rifts con-scenario was also enhanced and made better by his own commitment to his own prep. In games like that, GM prep is very much like placing the goalposts; you don't fuck around with that during play, both as a point of honor and a point of genuine fun. It is wise of Clinton to state this as a specific technique in his rules for this game, and I think it ought to be read as such. And if I haven't made it clear already, I'm saying now that all the rest of this post is talking about The Shadow of Yesterday and similar games like HeroQuest, not about any and all role-playing.

Here's an example of the #1 meaning that I'll make up on the spot. Artaud the Ammenite is an NPC, a real bastard of a poisoner guy who has lots of venomous pets. Liliana the Hot Khalite Chick is a player-character. I'm the GM, and all the way back, five sessions ago, I made up a three-spiked serpent that Artaud uses as a trained assassin-pet, and given the original context of the scenario (wars on the Ammeni-Khale border), I've always sort of had it in mind for Artaud eventually to sic the thing on Liliana.

But hey, today I'm prepping for the sixth session and through the twists and turns of events, without my prompting but totally consistently given my use of Artaud, the two characters are now lovers and staunch allies against some other problem.

The question is, what do I do with my three-spiked serpent? Well, keeping my #1 meaning of "no myth" in mind, there are roughly three options.

i) I made up the serpent so Artaud could try to kill Liliana with it, so no matter what, that's what I do. I'll have to engineer some excuse for him to hate her instead of love her. I'll have to prep a ton of extra stuff in order to make that work. I'll entirely have to ignore the fact that the player of Liliana really likes Artaud and is really enjoying playing the Key of Love toward him, and that the other players are also riffing off this enjoyable situation. Nope, I prepped the serpent, I know what it's for, and whatever I have to engineer to make that attack-on-Liliana happen, I'll do it.

It is clear, I trust, that this is ass from start to finish.

ii) I'll keep the serpent I prepped, but only as a pet that Artaud owns, and when the time comes if he wants to use it on someone, then he will. It exists as a part of my prep but basically as a weapon or aspect of Artaud. Because he hasn't seen a use for it yet, he hasn't used it yet and there's no reason to make him do so.

It is also clear, I trust, that this is perfectly serviceable in many cases and also provides me as the GM with a little more rounding-out of Artaud's character that will be useful in lots of ways, even if he never does use the serpent.

iii) I abandon the whole serpent concept. Didn't need it back when I prepped it, and it doesn't look important, and you know what, I decided I like Artaud better without it anyway. So poof - I don't care if I spent three hours and ten notebook pages making it up - it's gone, vanished from the (potential) SIS because it never got into it. As of this upcoming sixth session, Artaud never owned it, never trained it, and doesn't have it.

And finally, it is clear that a certain reluctance to do this is part of many GM's psychology. They put the effort into that serpent, dammit. Effort = commitment = desire for use. So in their fear or unfamiliarity with the utility of (iii), they psychologically recoil all the way into (i), with generally negative results.

What Clinton is saying, most sensibly (and Fang may have been saying this, I dunno), is that (ii) is better than (i), and that (iii) should not be forgotten as a viable option over (ii) if that's how things turn out. That latter part is one possible meaning of "no myth," stated as my #1 above. Clinton is trying to help people avoid that "recoil into (i) problem," because playing The Shadow of Yesterday benefits from a bit more freewheeling, responsive GMing rather than from the set-goalposts, I'm-ready-bring-it-on approach that works well for (say) Tunnels & Trolls.

Now, here's another point of confusion to avoid. I am quite certain that Clinton is not talking about meaning #2, in which back-story and setting features like geography are improvised into place constantly during play, and in fact no particular pre-play prep was involved at all. I think that people get so jazzed by that concept (it's fundamental to playing Universalis, for instance, and is often seen in playing Primetime Adventures and Polaris) that it both drives out consideration of the #1 meaning from their minds, and blinds them with its vast potential, effectively swamping useful conversations. To avoid any confusion about this, right here and now, I need to say that I do not think this possible meaning of "no myth" applies to playing The Shadow of Yesterday at all. (It may interest people to consider, however, that it does apply in a very formal and stepwise way to the techniques I describe in Sorcerer & Sword.)

Does that help, or make sense? Let me know.

Also, everyone, I think I'll do well with specific questions. I'd like to make my points about setting and prep as clear as possible, but questions like "Setting? How do I make it good?" are a bit overwhelming. See if you can break it down into components or examples. Even a detailed one, like the time you tried to play Shadow of Yesterday (or GURPS or Mutant Chronicles or whatever) and the setting-stuff didn't seem to click - if you can really explain just what went funny and how, during play, then I'll be able to show you what I mean by "strong setting." But I can't do it in the abstract any better than I already posted above.

Best, Ron

edited to fix a key mistype - I put the edited text in boldface

Ron Edwards


While typing the original post, I didn't have my notes, so here's a review to keep everyone oriented.

Tim A's character is Toussaint the Ammeni nobleman, with his sister Sidonie still alive and the rest of his family dead after the events of the first session. He began with the Secret of the Hidden Knife and the Key of Power.

Chris' character is Pascal, the rapscallious huggy goblin. He began with the Secret of the Hidden Pocket and the Key of the Coward.

Tim K's character is Delondra, a Son-of-Hanish Zaru activist who recently killed someone, mainly opposed by another Zaru, Thuxra, who is a collaborationist/pacifist servant of this family. She (Delondra) began with the Secret of Swamp Lore and the Key of the Mission, and notably she did not start with the Secret of Uz.

A lot of the Keys have been added to or modified since, as you will see. We've played two sessions since the first.

Our second session, a week and a half ago

Looking over the events of the first session, clearly the primary conflicts I'd begun with (Zaru character trying to blow up estate, Ammeni family at odds over policy and inheritance) had either been concluded or nearly so. I needed some more prep work to be able to contribute a more sustained kind of conflict-situation, and as I'm trying to emphasize over and over in this thread, I found it in the setting. There's a lot of meat in that description of the Ammeni houses and their history relative to the Year of Shadow. So what does that mean for us? That now, delegates from other Ammeni houses are showing up, because they were invited, and so Toussaint (whose sister is imprisoned, and whose father and brother are dead) has to step up to see whether he is able to handle the title that he has seized. And as it happens, that makes Delondra's presence even more tense, because she's trying to blow the place up, right? Good enough, I thought.

All right, so I prepped four Ammeni minor nobles: Arnaud, Sebastien, Matthieu, and Margaux. I didn't build them to be combat-monsters or major foes, just as druggy sophisticates whose interactions with Toussaint and the general situation would really matter for the success of his new role as leader of the house. I gave each one an interesting but not especially hard-core Secret apiece, like Hidden Meaning and stuff like that. I also knew that I wanted to discuss some system-stuff with Chris about additions and adaptability, which I didn't think either of us understood well enough to be using well in play, with the result that he was playing fairly randomly.

During play, it turned out that attention to many SIS elements, setting among them, were needed by everyone, not just me and Chris.

In Chris' case, unsurprisingly, it was System, specifically the rules for Addiction which we discussed before play started. And then, during play, we spent some time doping out the rules for Adaptability. And then, wham, everything snapped together for him. First, he realized how much power he had to switch around his character's abilities, and began with deceiving two of the delegates to cause dissension among all the Ammeni. He took the Key of Vengeance aginst the Ammeni - "Make me a pet, will you?!" The effect was that he now became the hug-monster to keep his meager Vigor pool at a median level (a goblin needs to do this to make his Secret work), and all the hugging, which he was initially sort of lukeward about, became his motor. We all got very excited about whom he would hug next, and why, and how that would affect whatever skill he wanted to utilize. The best thing about all of this is that Pascal and Toussaint are now inextricably woven together; whatever one of them does will affect the situation of the other.

Pascal chose to focus on Arnaud, one of the delegates he'd suborned, using Deceit further to twist the guy into a relationship. Chris was responsible for the shape-shifter sex ("whaddaya want? ribbed? I gotcher ribbed right here") and I was responsible for Arnaud torturing him too, which of course helped him refresh that Vigor pool. If you've ever played with Chris Weil, you know that scenes and mechanics of this sort are his happy place. He settled in for directed mayhem and vengeance.

In Tim A's case, as it turned out, the needed component was all Situation. As I'll discuss more regarding our third session, and as you may remember from a plaintive post or two in a previous thread, Tim A is not immediately comfortable with playing powerful, impressive characters. We began with refreshing Pools, so Toussaint was the first character to get laid in our story, with a slave girl. However, it was all rather touching for an Ammeni, as he wanted to refresh Instinct too and decided that they'd have a nice social encounter as well as a physical one. I was a bit of a picky GM and demanded some ability rolls to clinch the desired features of a given Pool refreshment; I've continued to do so throughout later scenes and sessions. E.g. Toussaint would refresh his Vigor no matter what just by Tim announcing the act that fulfilled the requirements, but whether Toussaint really did succeed, so to speak, in an extended and sweaty sexy way, depended on his roll. I have found that these rolls' results, in this context of refreshment, are very important in helping me play the concerned NPCs later.

Also, I fortuitously had helped him out a bit by giving the female Ammeni delegate, Margaux, the Secret of Contacts, because in play, I used it to decree that she was his character's ex-girlfriend, or not really ex, more like a former lover without a breakup in the history. I had all the delegates sit down together with him for a drug-affected conference, and I was pretty proud of the drugs I'd invented for this purpose. I figured it was a formal Ammeni sequence of substances specifically designed for what might be called power-lunching about a specific issue.

1. +1 to Instinct, -1 to Reason
2. +1 to Vigor
3. +2 to Reason, -1 to Vigor

So whoever was affected by what, and by how much, would have a direct impact on their strength of all the negotiating (Sway, Deceit, Counsel, et cetera). I thought this sounded like fun, and as it happened, it was! Arnaud wasn't there because he was off experiencing the delights of goblin sex and goblin torture, but the other three were fun to play. Especially since Matthieu had been suborned by Pascal as well. I won't go into all the details of who utilized which drugs best and so on, but the ultimate effect was for Toussaint to kill Matthieu in a duel and to gain the support for his leadership of the house from Margaux and Sebastien. The duel was a lot of fun, because we interpreted mutual failure, which happened a couple of times during Bringing Down the Pain, as pure drug-addling on the combatants' parts that distracted them from actually fighting.

And finally, and most to the point for this thread, for Tim K, the needed components was all about Setting. Bluntly, he wasn't playing with his head on straight. He got his character out of the estate and ran her off across the swamp ... why? I don't know. I thought he had the Key of the Mission to blow the place up, so why he ran off, I couldn't see. Neither did he, as it turned out; he was merely reacting to the characters' resources being drained. Same goes for his next step, in which he decides to restore his character's Vigor pool and therefore should get her laid. This makes no sense, you see ... the character is a desperate fugitive who's just wandering around, and the only other guys in the swamp are the few Moonmen left after the failed uprising, all crazy and eatin' bugs. She failed her roll to get in with them, so they ran her off.

So at this point in play, which was about halfway through the events I described above for the other two characters, I'm GMing and looking at two players cranking up their characters to 11 and affecting one another like gangbusters, but at the third who is getting more and more helpless and frustated-looking. All the signs are there - Tim K keeps looking at his sheet and giving little grunting sighs, and looking up at me, starting to say something, and then stopping. The character is off in the boondocks, standing in trackless swamp, doing nothing. He's trying to go by his Keys, and forgetting that they are little wheels, not big ones, for this game. It's intervention time.

I stopped play and said it was time for a setting check. I pulled out the book and read from it to review the whole three-faction Zaru political scheme, where his character fit into that given the brief back-story of our particular game, and how that had changed when she'd killed someone (Tim's own contribution to back-story), and also how that related to Thuxra who had insinuated herself into the Ammeni household. I pointed out that Delondra, therefore, at this moment, was at a major crossroads and had the freedom to do anything Tim wanted about it - as long as he thought in those setting-terms.

Tim K went "Oh!" Just as Chris had a few minutes earlier, everything snapped together and he started playing like a fiend. Away with the Key of the Mission! Seize the Key of Vengeance (against this Ammeni family)! Seize as well the Key of the Masochist! And now Delondra got down to business by fading into the villages and starting her very own cadre of resistance against the Ammeni. Including causing trouble, getting herself (rightly) blamed for it, then (deceitfully) getting the crowd's sympathy for getting beaten for it, and refreshing his Vigor through the ordeal. Stuff like that. He forgot that the Masochist required taking real Harm, so the beating didn't net him XPs, but he resolved to remember that for next time.

For the GM, all of this was even more bonus! Basically, it sets up more adversity for the whole Ammeni/Zaru conflict as it relates to the house Toussaint has just established his control over. Awesome.

The capper involved Toussaint confronting Thuxra, when she tried to establish control over him using Zu ... and failing. I really liked the bit in which she tries to escape using the Zu word "run," and he successfully opposes it with his Bladework ... I narrated it as her indeed zooming off, running wuxia-style across the swamp-water ... and then looking down to see a blade in her body and collapsing. He locked her up and gagged her. There was also a very wicked GM moment for Pascal... just as Pascal had convinced his new noble boy-toy (oh yeah! He took Key of the Companion for Arnaud too) to free Sidonie, I had Arnaud rejoice that once freed, she would lead the Ammeni to victory. "Damn!" said Chris, realizing this wouldn't suit his Vengeance at all, and decided he and Arnaud needed to help the local Zaru instead.

So to review, at the end of the second session, the Keys looked like this:

Toussaint: Key of Power, Key of the Overlord ... and a bit retroactively, the Secret of Uz (!)
Pascal: Key of the Coward, Key of Vengeance
Delondra: Key of Vengeance, Key of the Masochist

Well then! It looked as though Toussaint had successfully established his rule over his roost only to miss the new opposition forming under his nose. I'll post about our third session a little bit later.

Best, Ron
edited to fix a couple of typos