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Author Topic: [dogs] The nature of Traits? (n00b GM flounders a bit)  (Read 3176 times)
daftnewt
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« on: January 22, 2008, 03:54:24 PM »

This is horribly n00bish. I apologise if this sort of thing has already been done to death long ago :)

I'm running two games using Dogs, both set in the Firefly TV universe. It's my first time running the system, and most people's first time playing with it. We're all struggling with new concepts, sometimes in a fun way, sometimes not.

One thing that's provoked discussion in both groups is the nature of Traits: what's appropriate, how to understand and define them, how they should work. The rulebook instructions on how to make Traits are clear and simple enough, but like many clear and simple things, they're highly conversible in their ramifications.

I thought I'd present my thoughts on the subject here, where wiser heads can tell me what a fool I am :-)

Ideally what I want to end up with (eventually) is some simple way of highlighting to new players (particularly those experienced with more traditional RPG systems) what is essentially unique about Traits in DitV.

So:

In a traditional game, a skill represents a more or less narrowly and arbitrarily defined area of ability. Skill level directly maps, in simulationist fashion, the character's level of expertise, and their likelihood of success.

Traits in Dogs are different. First, they're conceptually much broader than skills: a Trait represents something definitive about a character, something that makes them iconic within their own story, and that you would include in any description of them. Blondie in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a wicked gunslinger, and that's definitely a Trait - you wouldn't omit that if you were telling somebody about him. But his steely squinty glare, or the way he smokes his cigarillos, or the fact that ultimately he's the "Good" in the story - those are every bit as important, and they could all be Traits too. Dramatically, they could all be narrated as part of his success in a conflict. When Blondie spits out his cigar and glares at someone, it's a significant act, and in Dogs that kind of thing is mechanically quantifiable.

The other difference is that the die rating of a Trait has nothing to do with the character's level of expertise. Instead, it represents how significant that aspect of the character is in the story; how much the player wants to emphasize that Trait.

You can decide your character is the fastest gun in the 'Verse: that's a narrative decision; if the group is okay with it, then they are. If you want your character to be often settling things with their gun, if shooting things is hugely important about this character, then you'd assign more and bigger dice to that Trait.

If, on the other hand, you decided that being Fastest Gun was incidental to the character, not such an important thing about them, something that didn't tend to be significant in their story, you'd assign fewer/smaller dice to that Trait.

In both cases, your character would still be the Fastest Gun.

The reverse is also possible. Your character could be a bumbling incompetent with a gun, who never hits anything anytime, and you could assign big dice to that Trait. It would mean that the character's incompetence was somehow decisive in resolving conflicts for them! I'm sure many examples from stories could be conjured.

(I'm trying to decide what kind of dice Eastwood's character in "Unforgiven" has in his gunslinging skill. I'm thinking lots of d4's. d4 Traits tend to cause complications for characters - they make Fallout (negative consequences, but also experience) more likely. Lots of d4s seems to fit the Unforgiven character...)

In spite of their being open to a broad range of narrative definitions, I think Traits in Dogs are actually just as "crunchy" as skills in the most relentlessly gamey systems. Everything you do with a Trait is measured through the medium of the dice; there's no handwaving or fudging.

Actually, I think Traits in Dogs are in some ways -more- crunchy, more clearly defined (in rules terms) than skills in other games. There's often a lot of dispute about what can be achieved with a given skill, particularly if it's some kind of fantastic ability. Just what can I do with my "Telepathy" or "Electrodirection" or "Mad Science!"? The answer is negotiated - over and over again - with the GM, and keeping "limits" on abilities while still letting the player have fun is something that has given most GMs headaches at one time or another.

In Dogs, this whole process is circumvented by the rules: All conflicts have to be resolved by the dice; every Trait is rated in a specific number and type of dice; players can narrate whatever they want as part of using their Traits, but cannot narrate the end of the conflict until the dice say it's over.

A character can have whatever Trait the player desires, and the GM never has to worry about what they can do with it: its effectiveness is strictly defined by its dice. 2d6 of Omnipotent is still 2d6; as a player you have the fun of narrating your character doing Omnipotent things, but in mechanical terms it's no more effective than any other 2d6 Trait.

Among the things I like about this is that it allows the Superman-Batman teamup. How do you challenge Superman in a scenario that's fair to Batman? How can Batman contribute (or even survive) in a scenario that's challenging to Superman? By separating the description of abilities from the mechanical rating of Traits*, this scenario becomes possible. With all of Superman's superpowers, his player still can't narrate the resolution of a conflict until the dice allow, and as a character Superman's dice aren't worth any more than Batman's. Playing Superman then becomes a narrative challenge for the player rather than a headache for the GM: it's the player's task to narrate Superthings in a way that's appropriate.

It seems well-suited for settings with lots of weird powers that have no easy real-world explanations**. I particularly like that the GM need assume no responsibility for understanding, explaining, or controlling a character's weird powers. They can let the player describe whatever they want, and just say "Great! Now roll the dice."

I'm interested in people's thoughts.
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Glaucôn the Serpent God
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daftnewt
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Posts: 8


« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2008, 06:22:39 PM »

Is it a faux pas to reply to my own post?

I put my thoughts before the players in the face-to-face group, and received this response from one. I have some ideas how I want to answer, but I'm still mulling...


Traits in Dogs are different. First, they're conceptually much broader than skills: a Trait represents something definitive about a character, something that makes them iconic within their own story, and that you would include in any description of them. Blondie in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a wicked gunslinger, and that's definitely a Trait - you wouldn't omit that if you were telling somebody about him. But his steely squinty glare, or the way he smokes his cigarillos, or the fact that ultimately he's the "Good" in the story - those are every bit as important, and they could all be Traits too. Dramatically, they could all be narrated as part of his success in a conflict. When Blondie spits out his cigar and glares at someone, it's a significant act, and in Dogs that kind of thing is mechanically quantifiable.

i disagree. they're colour and add nothing to an understanding of what it is that he can do. you can model them in a whole lot of ways using a whole lot of game systems. in many of them they'd just be a special effect of his Intimidate or his Test of Wills or his Ceremony:
Gunfight or whatever you choose to call it. or perhaps you'd take a different route -- perhaps they're character disads or, more likely, 1-point Quirks that are there for colour; to distinguish one character from another. Clint/Lee/Eli in TGTBTU, Ellen/Cort/Herod/The
Kid in TQATD (and a host of other movies) are all successful gunfighters -- but with different personalities, histories and (for lack of a better term) FoRKs.

perhaps Clint is better than Lee and Eli. perhaps he's not and just got lucky. but if i was building Clint would i write down "squints a lot, 1d6"? uh-uh -- waste of 'points', if you ask me. better to write down "jack of all trades, 1d6", since i can use that in anything.
or maybe it doesn't matter; see below.

(and clint being Good is, i think, deliberate irony on the part of leone. the movie calls Clint Good but only in the sense that he's not as Bad as Lee or as Ugly as Eli.)

Quote
The other difference is that the die rating of a Trait has nothing to do with the character's level of expertise.

huh? i don't understand how you can say this AT ALL. if character A has 3d10, character B has 1d10 and character C has 1d4 in, say, "fix toasters and stuff", then character A is -- all other things (like stats) being equal -- probably better at fixing toasters than either B or C.  if i'm building a character that i want to be the best dam' toaster-fixer around, then i want a better roll which means more and bigger dice.

Quote
You can decide your character is the fastest gun in the 'Verse: that's a narrative decision; if the group is okay with it, then they are.

Quote
If you want your character to be often settling things with their gun, if shooting things is hugely important about this character, then you'd assign more and bigger dice to that Trait.

no, to me it just says you're good at it.

Quote
In both cases, your character would still be the Fastest Gun.

only if you're the luckiest and/or have the best dice.

Quote
(I'm trying to decide what kind of dice Eastwood's character in "Unforgiven" has in his gunslinging skill. I'm thinking lots of d4's. d4 Traits tend to cause complications for characters - they make Fallout (negative consequences, but also experience) more likely. Lots of d4s seems to fit the Unforgiven character...)

d4s in your skill means you'll lose contests (unless, again, you're very lucky or your stats are teh uber). he's a gunfighter: losing a contest in the canonical western gunfight means you're dead.  he wasn't dead after an unspecified but long career. hence he didn't lose. you could certainly make the argument (and the movie makes it quite clear) that his skills had deteriorated over time. but even with that, he was still the last man standing. (except for saul rubinek, of course.) an old man with d4s beating an entire room of younger men
backed up by little bill? i don't think so. i certainly wouldn't bet on it.

Quote
In spite of their being open to a broad range of narrative definitions, I think Traits in Dogs are actually just as "crunchy" as skills in the most relentlessly gamey systems. Everything you do with a Trait is measured through the medium of the dice; there's no handwaving or fudging.

except that you'll (apparently) get someone going "i apply my 'squints a lot' and 'smokes cheap cigars' traits to my gunfighting skill roll." if that's the case, then anything can be applied to anything and it doesn't matter anyway. :-)

Quote
Among the things I like about this is that it allows the Superman-Batman teamup. How do you challenge Superman in a scenario that's fair to Batman?

easy. superman does the heavy lifting, batman is the greatest detective that's ever lived. (and has the skills and stuves to back that claim up -- not that he'd ever make the claim himself. :-) their skills complement each other: in a contest that plays to kal-el's strengths, kal wins. in a contest that plays to bruce's, he wins. (that said, it's easier to write for bruce because he has way fewer "i win" buttons.)

Quote
With all of Superman's superpowers, his player still can't narrate the resolution of a conflict until the dice allow, and as a character Superman's dice aren't worth any more than Batman's. Playing Superman then becomes a narrative challenge for the player rather than a headache for the GM: it's the player's task to narrate Superthings in a way that's appropriate.

which is, IMHO, a weakness. in certain contests, kal should win -- Every Single Time. unless, of course, bruce can find a way to _force_ a change in the setting or the rules of the contest. one thinks back to Corwin fighting Gerard. Corwin _knew_ with absolute certainty that he would lose a contest of Strength with Gerard unless he could wangle
a change of venue. it's the same thing with kal and bruce. Gerard's Strength dice ARE worth more than Corwin's, just as Kal's Strength/Bulletproof/Flight/Last Son of a Dead World/etc dice are worth more than Bruce's.

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Glaucôn the Serpent God
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lumpley
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« Reply #2 on: January 23, 2008, 05:55:05 AM »

So, Newt, you're right and your friend's wrong. But, well, so what?

First of all, if he goes ahead and makes his traits according to his theory about how they work - broad traits are better than narrow, high dice mean more expertise - then he'll make a perfectly functional character he'll enjoy playing. Gradually it'll become evident to him that "jack of all trades" isn't doing what he thought it would, and d4s don't mean you'll lose, and so on.

Meanwhile, he won't believe you, and arguing with him won't help. In fact arguing with him will probably have the exact wrong effect - "this game can't possibly make sense the way Newt describes it. I'll play a demo conflict, sure, but to show him that it doesn't make sense," and then he'll make a character he WON'T enjoy playing.

I recommend that you drop it and, when you get a chance, just play the game.

-Vincent
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daftnewt
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« Reply #3 on: January 23, 2008, 12:22:36 PM »


I recommend that you drop it and, when you get a chance, just play the game.

I think you're right. Thanks: that was the outside perspective I needed.
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Glaucôn the Serpent God
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zornwil
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« Reply #4 on: January 23, 2008, 03:53:00 PM »

Hi daftnewt, I wanted to just second a lot of what you said in the first post.  I have expressed virtually identical reactions on a few particular points:

"Traits in Dogs are in some ways -more- crunchy, more clearly defined (in rules terms) than skills in other games" - absolutely, for my taste, and to put it slightly differently, I feel the game is more "realistic" and more satisfying from a simulationist standpoint than so-called traditionally simulationist-oriented RPGs.  Now, this is an aesthetic thing and I'm not trying to claim that all simluations should or even can see it the same way. But for me, using Traits as embedded in the Conflict system feels much more like it's happening like it should than a traditional trait-based resolution system with a bunch of skills and/or powers.

"it allows the Superman-Batman teamup" - I like to say Black Canary/Superman, just to draw it even more starkly, but, yeah, exactly.  Superman can do more "stuff," what with flying and being nearly-invulnerable and so on, but his ability to win a Conflict is no better (in general) than Black Canary's.  But we can't sell short the narrative impact of what Superman can do in terms of sweeping environmental changes and so on.  It all works, and works great.  This was a big motivator for a friend and I in adapting Dogs in the Vineyard's rules to a more "traditional" action-adventure genre, especially superheroes (we're running 2 superhero games now, one low-powered, one high-powered, and have been for  a few months now, works great so far, in general, especially in terms of these specifics of "simulation" and balancing vastly different characters.

I also like, as I've said elsewhere, but to add on and echo your enthusiastic waxing, that "talking matters," that conflicts work across social and physical spheres seemlessly.  As we adapted our multi-year superhero game (started in 2000, still going, aside from about an 8 month break) to Dogs, a few stark and very satisfying changes manifested.  The social superhero, the one whose powers are partly charisma coupled with mimicry and who has this ebulliant, friendly personality, started acting that way more in conflicts; this got rid of a dynamic we hardly thought about in the traditional superhero RPG we used, where he would be Mr. Friendly/Social except when battles happened, when he'd become brick-slamming monster.  Now he can still resort to that brutal mode, but he tries hard to make peace with people and this works right into the conflicts, he seems much more consistent now while not sacrificing usefulness (try using Persuasion and those types of role in the middle of a trad. RPG hardcore battle....yes, yes, it can be done, but it's not seemless and creates other issues). 

Another character, the brilliant schemer, can use the mechanics to set up awesome and fun See/Raise rhythms.  My favorite is when a semi-godly opponent (these are very high-powered supers) demanded to speak to the President, so this PC, Laughton, put the president on the phone, and invited the godly being to proceed, opening his PDA/cell phone and calling up the President.  The godly bad guy moves through Laughton's phone, jeopardizing the President or possibly allowing the being to manipulate him.  On the next Raise, though, Laughton uses the PDA to capture the being!  Where the being resides to this day...

Also, Lending a Die makes for really cool teamwork.

So, yeah, I agree.  :)
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- Wilson
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« Reply #5 on: January 24, 2008, 12:45:06 AM »

but if i was building Clint would i write down "squints a lot, 1d6"? uh-uh -- waste of 'points', if you ask me. better to write down "jack of all trades, 1d6", since i can use that in anything.

This is me trying to imagine a conflict where Clint wouldn't be able to roll in his squinting d6.
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James R.
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« Reply #6 on: January 24, 2008, 08:30:24 AM »

This is me trying to imagine a conflict where Clint wouldn't be able to roll in his squinting d6.
The opposition is too far away to see the difference between "steely-eyed, intimidating squint" and "looking at me."
What's at stake is poorly served by intimidation tactics (ex: seduction or dealing with a superior or calming down someone who's terrified).
The opposition is emotionless or blind.

Took me a minute or two, but those are situations in which I'd call bullshit on invoking "Clint Squint: d6."
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Indy Pete
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« Reply #7 on: January 24, 2008, 01:54:10 PM »

Darn, I gotta try me some of that 'Calling Bullshit' tactic.

The first game I played one of the Dogs took (roughly, can't remember exactly) Traits like 3d10 'I Am A Dog', 4D8 'Lucky', and 3D6 'Dirty Trick'. He was basically loaded for bear and could bring ALL of those Trait dice to bear in EVERY conflict. The fact that you roll (most) of your dice out in the open mean that from the outset of every conflict I just knew that I was going to lose: upon reflection that's no bad thing, but it was my first game and I had this totally temporal feeling of being gyped.

One of the other players afterwards gave me some advice along the lines of 'you should try to split the Dogs up', which (IMO) is a bit rubbish. I 'may' want to split the Dogs up for a better story or something but I don't want to be almost 'forced' to split them up so that I stand a chance of 'winning' in the mechanical sense conflicts. I think I just played the game wrong though :)

Thanks for the tip: I must remember to 'Call Bullshit' :) (I'm not being sarcastic, that's darned good advice.)
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phargle
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« Reply #8 on: January 24, 2008, 02:34:49 PM »

He was basically loaded for bear and could bring ALL of those Trait dice to bear in EVERY conflict.

In my experience, the players seem to get to use almost all of their traits in every conflict.  (As a player, I did so myself.)  It's a rare trait that can't be used all the time.  At first, they just win and win and win.  Then they start to realize that the narrative thread of their character isn't as fun as they wanted it to be, and then realize how rewarding it is to get to use that rare trait.  I had one player thrilled when she got to use her shiny belt-buckle that her dad gave her, for example.  Another player, realizing that he was not going to get to get much use out of his neat traits because he'd buffed his stats with experience, started shrinking his stats with fallout.  I feel like the guy who takes Smart 4d10 and Capable 3d8, and who uses all of his experience to crank Good Shooter to 10d10, would rather be playing some other game.

I don't think players using all of their traits is a huge problem, but I've made clear to my players that they should judge for themselves whether someone is making a weak raise.  I've also, on occasion, asked the players how they feel the NPCs cannot ignore their raises, and they made stronger raises or used their traits better. 
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David Artman
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« Reply #9 on: January 25, 2008, 07:26:05 AM »

...I've made clear to my players that they should judge for themselves whether someone is making a weak raise.
Oh, absolutely... I was thinking of me as a player calling it. In the end, Trait invoking--and even creation--is a groupmind thing in which everyone checks each other; the rules even speak to this with the concept that the most discriminating player sets the bar, with the GM watching for dissatisfaction at the table.

And don't forget that the GM is also a player, with equal right to satisfaction with play. If everyone's having fun, your Traits (and supernatural dial and moral tone and lines/veils) have the right scope (setting, scale).
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Noclue
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« Reply #10 on: January 25, 2008, 07:45:12 PM »

This is me trying to imagine a conflict where Clint wouldn't be able to roll in his squinting d6.
The opposition is too far away to see the difference between "steely-eyed, intimidating squint" and "looking at me."
What's at stake is poorly served by intimidation tactics (ex: seduction or dealing with a superior or calming down someone who's terrified).
The opposition is emotionless or blind.

Took me a minute or two, but those are situations in which I'd call bullshit on invoking "Clint Squint: d6."

Well, sometimes clint just squints to bring out his inner Eastwood. Its not always about the effect on the other guy.
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James R.
David Artman
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« Reply #11 on: January 26, 2008, 07:33:08 AM »

Well, sometimes clint just squints to bring out his inner Eastwood. Its not always about the effect on the other guy.
... *blink* ...

OK, that's ANOTHER example of when I'd call, "Bullshit!" "Inner Eastwood?" Clint would punch someone for saying something like that (well, Chuck Norris would).
;)
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dindenver
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« Reply #12 on: January 29, 2008, 10:41:45 AM »

Hi!
  I think the point your friend is missing is this:
  The game is about what is on the character sheets. That is absolutely the point of a well-crafted game like this. When the game tells you, make up a trait, assign whatever value to it you think is appropriate and put it on your sheet. That means that the game is about everyone of those traits
  For instance, the GM and the players will be extremely remiss not to include needlepoint in the description of at least one scene per town if one of the players puts needlepoint 2d8 on their character sheet.
  Not only that, but its so easy for a Dog to say, "Well, even in needlepoint, sometimes you have to sever a tangled thread..." and pull out their gun. Or a "Stitch in time saves nine" as a way of convincing townspeople to take the more difficult path, etc...
  But seriously, there is no wrong way to make a character. If he has fun "gaming" the system, let him. What can it hurt?
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zornwil
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« Reply #13 on: January 31, 2008, 03:19:25 PM »

Well, sometimes clint just squints to bring out his inner Eastwood. Its not always about the effect on the other guy.
... *blink* ...

OK, that's ANOTHER example of when I'd call, "Bullshit!" "Inner Eastwood?" Clint would punch someone for saying something like that (well, Chuck Norris would).
;)

:D  That's pretty funny.

I think without a decent Raise around the "inner Clint", our group might call BS on this, but I could also imagine decent Raises in which we'd be quite happy.  Such as, Clint is in the desert, alone.  The Stakes are "Does Clint succumb to the desert heat/conditions?" (yeah, tantamount to death, i.e., a medical follow-up no matter what if he fails the Stakes)  Raise:  "Clint stumbles forward, towards the mountains, where the promise of water and coolness lies.  The sun beats down on him.  He swears under his breath. He squints, focusing himself on those mountains ahead and nothing else.  His mind locks onto the target, and he's unstoppable, getting closer, closer."   (or less florid, "Clint squints to get focus his rage on getting to the mountains.")

Of course, it's fine your group would call BS to any/all of it.  To me, a big strength of these sorts of interpretive narrative systems is the ability for them to mold around how a group thinks. 

As to above, where someone mentioned generalized Traits that always get brought in a Conflict, wouldn't bother me, but I could also swing with a group that doesn't like that.  I find in any serious Conflict, all the Traits get used; less serious ones, less so.
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- Wilson
zornwil
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« Reply #14 on: January 31, 2008, 03:24:38 PM »

but if i was building Clint would i write down "squints a lot, 1d6"? uh-uh -- waste of 'points', if you ask me. better to write down "jack of all trades, 1d6", since i can use that in anything.

This is me trying to imagine a conflict where Clint wouldn't be able to roll in his squinting d6.

Wait,I do have one I can think of.  Clint is asleep and attacked.  If a player in our group said on his See, "He whips around awake, squinting his eye at the fellow," we'd probably say that was too much of a See, that first he should wake up and roll over or something, but that even Clint isn't so cool as to just lay there and studiously (as he does) squint at the guy bearing down on hiim. 

Of course, for some groups, it'd be just as fine to say "Three days later...."  And we do some of that, but our group think is around honoring the spirit of where people are and then if we disrupt the scene we look for consent that it's not screwing up what people had really wanted to see - or at least that's where we're getting to, we've still been inconsistent/rocky on time jumps, more my fault probably as I'm more likely to push the envelope.  I did that a while ago and realized only after the fact it left a player dissatisfied as he had really wanted to do some things that his PC should have had the chance to do, and backing up and going back forward would have been too convoluted, so in essence I accidentally deprotagonized his PC.  Live and learn...
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