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[Sign in Stranger] JiffyCon playtest

Started by Emily Care, May 01, 2007, 02:58:53 AM

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Emily Care

We played Sign in Stranger at JiffyCon Boston.  Kat, Alexis, Jonathan Walton and I embarked our characters on a one way trip to living on a space station above a gas giant world peopled by fuscia swan-like aliens who sing beautiful songs for no reason all the time, and just happen to eat their young.  Three out of the four alien species we created had cannibalistic tendencies, so we had a nice conversation about how humans must be considered to be prudish about such matters since so many other sentient space faring species eat their own and each other. Silly humans.

For those not familiar with SiS, you play a group of humans who leave Earth forever to start a colony on an alien planet. The game is collaborative, from making the worlds and alien species, to giving each other motivations for leaving Earth, and creating threads of plot for the characters to follow.  It has various madlibs-like mechanics that help the players create the world together, while making it truly alien: surreal and nonsensical at first to the humans, while the humans slowly make sense of it over time.  While being changed by it...

In our game, Kat played a Nebraskan farm girl Joey, who left Earth due to heart break. Jonathan played Loye, a Mongolian man who had driven cars for the Russians who became the engineer for the team. Alexis played Julie, a woman from Vancouver who was the colony's botanist and had secrets of her own. I played  Charu, a women from India who had left Earth to escape prostitution and poverty.   

An odd bunch to start a new life together.  But they had some touching moments together. Joey overcame Loye's misgivings about women being involved with technical issues by figuring out how our "hoppy house"( the mobile shelter with springy legs that the swan alien Najnin gave us) worked, before he did.  They established relationship of grudging respect. Julie helped Charu investigate how the humans could eat without getting sick in the low gravity of the station. She showed Charu respect, and later Charu cried and cried in the arms of Julie and Joey, feeling at last at home and capable in a place so far from home, surrounded by strangers and strangeness.

The highlight of the session took place close to the end. The colonists were trying to figure out how to do their jobs, "gardening".  They reported to work with "Jino", their swan boss.  He gave them a video to watch, which was based on some swan's idea of what humans need to know in order to raise plants on the station.  The picked something the humans should be able to identify with, something from earth: flamingos as the characters in the instructional video going step by step by step by step by..well, you get the picture, showing us how to work with these plants. No words, just a swan's eye view of digging, planting,  pruning, nibbling, scratching the plants.  100+ hours of images.  They must have started making the video a year or more before the humans got there. Maybe this was part of the application process of getting humans.

The game went really well. It took a long time to set up. In the time we took to play, the other folks played a full game of Primetime Adventures, then Under the Bed and still had time to hang out for an hour or more with Jared when he swung by. Sign in Stranger is meant to be a long term game. We just began to scratch the surface of the different plots that the characters would have explored: how do they eat and live? How do they make a living? And we had criss-crossing spy plots going on:  an official from the Terran Authority tried to recruit Loye to secretly investigate technological innovations that could help humanity (or some of them anyway) get ahead.  Loye let the other colonists in on this right away, but meanwhile Julie's reason for being there was that she was a spy: who was she working for? A nation? A multinational corp wanting to become a transystem power. 

Thanks Alexis, Kat & JW. That was a great session, and I learned a lot about how the game does, or should work.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Emily Care

Some technical notes:

We used most of the same mechanics that Christian, Jake and Charles used in this playtest.  But I use some changes they suggested.  When making the alien worlds and species, we did it exquisite corpse style: each person added one part of the information, the name of the aliens, the type of world and so on, so no one knew everything about any of the world.  It seemed to have the desired effect. No one came to the table feeling like the authority on any world. I also made it explicit that the humans were supposed to be baffled by what they saw, and that the role of alien characters was to mystify the players. I told them that we could make up the appearance of things all we liked, but the truth of matters had to be gained through Investigation rolls or Conflicts.  Once this was explained, everyone got behind it. Jonathan or Alexis started referring to what we established that way as "Facts". 

We used a rule I wrote in the text, but which I don't think has been used yet: random colors.  In addition to the random nouns, verbs and words that we drew to describe things like the swans and the hoppy house, we came up with a palette of 10 colors common in the world.  The station was manufactured, so we chose metallic colors: silver, gray, copper and copper oxide. Then also brilliant colors for the plants we'd encountered: fuscia, neon yellow, poison dart frog green.   When we wanted to know what color something was we'd roll a d10 to see. The hoppy house was copper colored. The swans, fuscia.  Some chute-like vines near to us, mother of pearl. It was just fun to add that to the descriptions.

The flashback guidelines worked fine.  We did one traumatic flashback after Joey panicked. We had others that were closer to the present, such as when Loye got recruited to spy, and used a looser structure, so I'm thinking about perhaps having different types of flashbacks. More pressure and structure in traumatic ones, some direction but more loose ability to follow what the players pick as being important in the narrative for others. 

I got good feedback again on the setup. It takes mother of all a long time, but the payoffs are good, and seem like they'd be very promising for a long-term game.

The relationships between characters were good aspects of the game, but creating them and dealing with them in scenes mechanically is still uncertain in some ways.  I'll be working with this more at Nerdly when I run it again this weekend.  Jonathan made a good suggestion to refer to the relationships as "supportive" or "stressful", when he and Kat had a hard time feeling like their characters' relationship was either just positive or negative. "Is there a complicated setting?"  yeah... good point.

Only one other person played a plot character, and non one played a supporting cast alien, so I'll have to be sure to introduce that earlier at Nerdly and see about getting those elements into play.  I need to run a long term campaign when I may.  The mechnical and dramatic arc of the game is much, much longer  than can be completed in one session.  That's really good, that's just how the game is supposed to run, but it does make it challenging to playtest. 

Thanks to everyone for their feedback on the game. It's really helping.
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Jason Morningstar

Hey Emily, what was the tenor of the playtest?  It seems like you had some pretty heavy personal issues in play among the characters, and I'm wondering how that impacts the session. 

Emily Care

Hi Jason,

Good question. The mood was light, dipping into serious at times, but not as all out wacky as set up can sometimes be. We did something I forgot to mention that might have contributed to this: intro flashbacks.

To introduce our characters to one another, we had flashback vignettes at key moments in their past before leaving Earth. The backstory of the game is that an alien vessel crash-landed on Earth, spreading death and destruction until the aliens, the Xsians, came back to clean up the mess, and make initial contact with humanity.  Charu was upbraiding a niece when she heard some snippet of news about a meteor strike in North America, Julie called her family who lived near the crash site in Montreal to see if they were alright when the plague introduced by the spacecraft started spreading, Joey traveled home to be with her family when the quarantine was called, Loye had a lot of driving to do when the human defense against the aliens was going on.  Then we went around saying where we were when the Xsians cracked a human language and were able to communicate about what was going on.

After the fact, we figured the characters had done that thing people do where they say "where were you when..." Doing this helped us get a sense of the characters before we started playing them, and also set a tone of some seriousness.  Then we pulled out the fuscia swans and the "hoppy house" and it had that strain of ridiculous humor that's such a part of the game.

all the best,
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games