[Land of Nodd] Mermaid Sashimi (is antagonism a mirror to protagonism?)

Started by Paul T, November 04, 2008, 05:05:33 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Paul T

Over the last few weeks, I've been playing a game of my own design, Land of Nodd, with three friends. It's been an interesting experience on many levels, and I'd like to share it. It has also brought up a few interesting questions, about which I hope you may have some useful advice--or maybe even answers.

This Wednesday night will be our final session, as we are about to hit endgame and wrap up the story. If you have any advice for us, please don't hesitate!

Note: I'm going to segregate the information pretty strictly into sections. Feel free to skip sections that don't interest you as you read through this!

The People

For simplicity's sake, in this AP report I will not refer to the three other players by their given names, but in terms of the characters they are playing. I hope all three will read this thread, however. I'll leave it up to them to decide whether they wish to join in the discussion and/or identify themselves.

Before this game, I had only met one of the three other players, and only very briefly (although we'd also conversed now and then online, via forum discussions and e-mail). The other two players were his girlfriend/partner, and another fellow who they had played with in the past. I could be wrong, but I don't think they knew each other very well prior to the game.

We've now played three times. This upcoming session will be our fourth. Our sessions usually last between 2 and 3 hours. It's been a really great experience so far, in many different ways. The game has been great, yes, but even better, I feel like I've quickly grown to become friends with these three people. They are warm, fun, welcoming people, and I'm immensely grateful to them--if you're reading this, thank you!

I was a little concerned about gaming with strangers--strangers from the Internet! Turns out I needn't have worried. This is in part because of things we did right. Here are the main two "things" that come to mind:

1. We all took the time to get to know each other, before and aside from playing the game. I met and had lunch with one of the players before the first session, and we've all been meeting to have dinner before each game, as well as walking to the train together afterwards. We spend most of that time talking about things other than the game, so we've had a good chance to get to know each other in a way that's been fun and rewarding.

2. We've also been taking time to discuss the game itself, sometimes in the middle of play ("hang on, what just happened in that scene?") and sometimes over e-mail between sessions ("how did you feel about that scene?"). I've always had trouble in the past finding people who were willing to engage in such discussion in a productive way, and this has been extremely positive, both in a social sense and in strengthening the game. We're sensitive to potential disagreements and so far we've managed to nip them in the bud before they develop into issues. This is a breath of fresh air for me, after some of my past roleplaying experiences, and I'm really digging it.

For instance, I had initially interpreted one of the characters (Cinderella) as a kind of low-down, scraping-in-the-mud rebel, and narrated for her accordingly. The player, however, had envisioned the character as powerful, significant--after all, she's royalty. This led to a little confusion and some clash between us in that character's first scene. Discussing it afterwards immediately cleared the confusion, not only straightening out the fiction but also avoiding any bad feelings between us.

The Game System

Land of Nodd is a game that takes a few independent plotlines and weaves them together in strange and unexpected ways. Each player plays the protagonist within one of the plotlines, while the players all take turns narrating scenes for each protagonist. On each turn, one player is the Protagonist (i.e. is playing his character) and another is the Narrator--an extremely heavy-handed GM figure who throws the Protagonist into serious trouble. The uninvolved players act to invoke the game mechanics, allowing the Protagonist a chance to overturn the bad situations created by the Narrator. They also name "Risks"--dangers, unfortunate consequences, and complications--that the Protagonist tries to avoid. The Protagonist player uses a system that's sort of a mix of The Pool and Otherkind to decide which Risks are avoided and which are not, and whether the player character succeeds at their goal within that scene. The result is usually that scenes, while initially dominated by the Narrator, spin off in unexpected directions when the game mechanics are called into play.

The system is suited to mysterious stories, full of strange coincidences and weird twists and turns.

The Setting

The game begins with a structured brainstorm phase. We spent much longer in this phase than usual for this game: I suggested something along the lines of "what if fairy tales were a cleaned-up version of things that really happened, sanitized for children?" One of the players came back with, "what if there was a world that contained all the stuff of our imagination, fairy tales, mythology, etc, and that world began bleeding over into our world?"

This concept was involved enough that we chose to spend quite a while hashing it out. This was well worth it, however, and we all riffed off one another's ideas in a way that was productive and enjoyable. I think we all were feeling pretty pumped for the game by the end of the process!

What we ended up with was a really interesting, twisted, dark setting, outlined in general terms:

This other world or dimension (which we usually refer to as 'fantasy land', simply enough) has somehow begun to cross over into the real world--roughly, modern-day America, for the purposes of our story. Fantasy creatures sometimes come into our world, but must maintain the guise of real-world things to exist there. This takes great concentration and willpower for them.

Humans, on the other hand, have just recently learned how to cross over into fantasy land. Its existence is still a secret only known to a few, but it has now attracted the attention of some secret government organizations as well as the criminal underworld, which trades in goods like powdered unicorn horn (a powerful and addictive drug). However, it seems the only people who can cross over into fantasy land are twisted, unhinged people, either insane or otherwise out of touch with reality.

We also established some basic facts, such as that real-world technology is hopelessly addictive to fantasy creatures (especially television), and that, due to human interference, there is now a civil way brewing in fantasy land. That done, we were ready to create our protagonists and begin the game.

The Characters

(Note: At the outset of the game, the characters are completely unrelated to each other, each pursuing his or her personal desire in a completely separate plotline.)

Lawrence is a narcotics officer on the verge or retirement. His wife, Martha, is cheating on him (unbeknownst to him), and his antagonist (a player-defined NPC) is a mafia boss who deals in the underground fantasy flesh trade. (We'd established as one of our facts the existence of a private, secret restaurant, serving such delicacies to an elite clientèle.) Lawrence's Desire (a game-defined story goal that play centers around) is to survive his last week of duty and retire comfortably.

I had some issues with his Desire--I've found in past playtests that the game runs better for characters who have a very active Desire that they can pursue, whereas Lawrence's is more passive: "can he survive for a week?" I voiced this concern, but we decided as a group to go ahead and move on to play. In the last session, it seems like we might have shifted the emphasis of his Desire on to the ...and retire comfortably part, which can be pursued a little more actively. In any case, this may be one of the causes of our troubles. More on that later.

Marina is the last mermaid, living in the human world and working for the NYPD in human guise. Her Desire is to find out what has happened to all the other mermaids--where have they gone? In play, it seems to me that we might be shifting the focus of this Desire as well, to something more like "can Marina save the remaining mermaids?" This is yet to be seen.

Jeff Jenkins is an experimental scientist carrying with top-secret research about "fantasy land" and relevant technology for a government agency. He is deeply unhappy: his Desire is to escape this world and find some way he can enter this mysterious other world, and live there permanently. Preferably without going crazy, of course.

Cinderella has divorced Prince Charming and is now a powerful revolutionary leader within fantasy land, organizing resistance to remove the human presence from fantasy land, as well as fighting against any "human sympathizers" within it. Her Desire is to free fantasy land of all human presence, by any means necessary.

The Story

For the sake of time, a few highlights from each storyline:


...almost loses her job when a friend of hers arrives at the NYPD offices, dripping wet. He was caught swimming in the East River, and claims he can hear the mermaids' song...
...at a presidential campaign rally, Marina attempts to prevent an assassination on the prime candidate. She fails, even though she takes a bullet for him. The shock of the injury causes her to drop her human guise for a moment. As her "legs" turn into a tail, she falls to the ground... The event is captured on camera, and she is immediately fired from her job...
...now relocated to the suburbs, she finds herself trailed by a mysterious man through a shopping mall. It turns out that the shopping mall is a halfway home for fantasy creatures like herself, intentionally overlooked by the government. She escapes with the help of a diminutive mall gnome, traveling through a mirror to fantasy land, but accidentally drops her wallet for the strange man to find...
...stepping through a mirror back into the real world, she steps into a mafia killer's bathroom, catches him in a net, and drags him back through the mirror, only to find herself emerging in some human-occupied area of the fantasy land.


...comes home to discover a DVD, carelessly left lying by the television, that shows his wife having sex with a monstrous brute of a man...
...outraged, he enters a restaurant he has been investigating for months, looking for answers. There he is fed delicate, white meat like he has never tasted before...
...he is offered a chance to get some information, but before he can do so, he is interrupted...
...attacked in the restaurant by heavily armed gangsters, Lawrence barely escapes, the DVD evidence destroyed, and he begins to hallucinate, from the fantasy flesh he has eaten--which he almost instantly knows he is now hopelessly addicted to...
...is captured by mafia and taken to a mysterious headquarters where mermaids are trapped in glass tubes and mesmerized by televisions, while bits of their flesh are harvested by robotic knives...
...he is armed and sent to kill the presidential candidate, which he agrees to do...
...when he arrives at the candidate's house, he finds only a homeless man, then is attacked by more men with guns... and kills them all.


...catches Crow Jim, a homeless man, in the act of stealing his television set...
...takes the homeless man to his lab, hoping to perform experiments on him, but loses sight of him...
...finds his lab overgrown with strange, otherworldly plants...
...a mysterious figure offers to take him where he wants to go, while holding Crow Jim hostage...
...Crow Jim warns him not to listen, that he is not human, doesn't belong in this world, just as he has always felt...
...Jenkins saves Crow Jim's life, but loses everything.


...finds a group of gnomes and other fantasy-folk offering a captive unicorn to a mysterious human on the beach in front of her Mexican villa...
...a human cruise ship, the Rainbow Trout, an experimental vessel designed to send humans into a psychotropic mental state sufficient to allow them to visit fantasy land, arrives on her island...
...Cinderella takes command of the ship, using a powerful serum to turn the hapless passengers into deranged soldiers. The soldiers begin to spread through fantasy land, committing murder in her name...
...Cinderella mounts an assault on Castle Beauty (originally Sleeping Beauty's castle, now a high-security U.S. prison), killing or converting all the humans there, only to walk right into a trap: a room mounted with a single television set...
...her troops begin to mutiny, spreading rumours of "democracy", a better way of life, throughout fantasy land.

The game has been full of memorable and shocking moments for me, such as when the monstrous brute of a man Lawrence saw in the DVD comes after him. "I'm gonna do to you what I did to your wife," he growls. We sure cheered when Lawrence backed his car into the brute's face!

I also remember the moment when we all realized that the delicious, tender meat Lawrence was served at the restaurant was mermaid flesh--even though no one had actually said it out loud.

Or when Cinderella, despite all precautions and care, became hopelessly addicted to television (and it later almost cost her her life).

System Impact

I'm very happy about the way the system consistently delivers mysterious coincidences for the story overall and tough, tough choices for the players within scenes. Their choices are often highly revealing!

* The overlapping elements between the storylines combine over time to suggest a larger plot, a larger picture that none of the players at the table are aware of, and play feels like a process of revelation, a mystery exposed piece by piece. This is the first time I've had a chance to play this game for more than one session, and the cumulative process of building coincidence upon coincidence is delivering exactly the experience I was hoping to achieve for the game. It seems like a larger plot, unknown to anyone at the table, is slowly emerging, and we all get glimpses of it now and then.

* The mechanics of conflict create intense adversity for each character. Playing this game has made me understand something Vincent Baker wrote over at Anyway: "The challenge facing rpg designers is to create outcomes that every single person at the table would reject, yet are compelling enough that nobody actually does so."

We all care about the characters--not only our own, but also those of the other players. We're cheering them on, hoping they will succeed. But, if you want your character to succeed, you need to maneuver those other players' characters into major, twisted trainwrecks that risk destroying them. The system then resolves those situations, and, more often than not, those protagonists really suffer. Usually, they suffer in exchange for achieving their goals, moving towards the resolution of their Desires. And sometimes that price is steep.

Our characters have faced situations that were dark, miserable, pathetic. There's usually a glimmer of hope, but there's a lot of bad stuff going on as well. I loved how my character, Jenkins, chose to save the homeless man's life, and in the process not only lost a chance to finally experience this other world he yearns after, but also fell into the hands of the conspirators who have been pursuing him. Worse yet, the very reason he saved the man backfired: as a result of that conflict, he has lost his trust.

Those kinds of outcomes, to me, are painful but also awesome. They make for a great story. We, the players, want all the characters to succeed, but the game keeps throwing adversity at them. And I really dig that--I can get the finger-biting audience thrill as well as that tense "my character is in trouble" feeling. Jesse Burneko has posted some mini-essays on a blog entitled "Play Passionately", which articulate this feeling very eloquently.

So, now, what's the trouble?

The Problem, and how it relates to Antagonism

I'd say that so far, everything has been going well. The moments where we didn't see eye to eye have been quickly smoothed over, and everyone seems to understand how the mechanics work and how to use them to move the game into new and unexpected territory. However, in the last session, we encountered some difficulty.

Here's what happened:

It feels as though one of the characters, Lawrence, has overstepped some boundary. He has gone from being a protagonist--a man hunted by mafia, a man whose wife betrays him with some kind of troll or ogre--to someone whose nature we are no longer sure about. His anger has turned to darkness, and he has begun to commit pretty questionable deeds, such as agreeing without hesitation to murder a stranger.

The other three players (including myself), narrated scenes for Lawrence, and it seems to me that we all attempted (with various degrees of success) to place him in situations where he would have to make a choice. We presented him with nasty, evil people who asked him to side with them. And, in all three scenes, Lawrence agreed.

Now, this is not in any way wrong. It's a cool development, and it leaves Lawrence's eventual fate totally up for grabs. However, it caused a lot of difficulty at the game table. I think we all know, intuitively, what to do with a protagonist: a protagonist needs some adversity, some opposition, some tough choices, all of which serve to test him or her, give him or her a chance to be a hero or take a moral stand.

But when it comes to Lawrence, we're no longer sure if he's a protagonist and a hero. He might have become a villain. Or maybe he's just lost his sense of moral judgement temporarily. Maybe he's just so driven by pain and the desire for revenge that he'll do anything. It's hard to say just yet. But it seems we're having trouble narrating scenes for him now. When he was a clear protagonist, we could pile on the adversity, because his goals and desires were at least somewhat noble, and we could cheer for him, and hope to see him succeed. But now that he is in a grey area, or possibly even entirely on the "dark side", it seems like we're all having trouble creating scenes for him or presenting him with adversity. We're unsure what to do.

How do we deal with a protagonist who is becoming an antagonist? We know what to throw at a protagonist. But what does an antagonist need in a story?

(Incidentally, we may be facing this issue with Cinderella, as well. She has transformed through play for a spunky princess into somewhat of a dark and tyrannical queen. However, I think we can sympathize with her ultimate goals, so thus far it hasn't been an issue.)

There's been a lot written about Protagonism, and how it can be established, preserved, etc. But is there a flipside, when a character seems to go over to the other side? How do we deal with that?

Is an antagonist just a certain type of protagonist, a mirror image of one, or something entirely different? What should we try to provide for such a character?

Peter Nordstrand

Based on your account, you don't have a problem. At all. So one or two players have their characters start to behave in questionable ways. They may even turn out to be antagonists, you may end up rooting against them. So what? Just keep up doing what you do. If Lawrence is siding with the bad guys then find out what that leads to. Will he change when he sees that innocent people suffers as a result of his actions?

Root for the good guys, the ones that you identify with. They are the true protagonists of your story, whether they are player characters or not. Hope the bad guys fail, even if they are player characters. Then let the conflict resolution system run its course and hope for the best.

It seems to me that you are having a great success on your hands. Keep it up and don't worry. If he agonized like you do, Shakespeare might never have written MacBeth.

Thank you for the magnificent report.
Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
     —Grey's Law

Paul T

Thanks, Peter.

However, there is still an issue there. You see, the system relies on us, the other three players, being able to find or create conflicts that the fourth player's character cares about. In the last session, we struggled with this, partially because we were presenting "moral dilemma"-type conflicts. Lawrence just went ahead and took the easy (evil?) choice. Which meant there wasn't really a conflict there.

So, we're looking for better ways to challenge him. He's not a villain with a wicked plan or some frightening ambition; he's just trying to survive and get away from this all. How can we create conflicts he cares about? I think we all have *some* ideas, but we're also flailing a little bit.

Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

Perhaps it would help to consider that the issue is not conflicts which the player's character cares about, but which the player cares about. In fact, does that player even care about addressing "conflicts I care about" in play at all?

Best, Ron

Paul T


Yes, of course! It's all about what the player cares about, not the character.

In Land of Nodd, the player's "wants" for their character manifest in three ways, system-wise (as far as I can tell):

1. The character's Desire, which is defined by the player. I think all four strongly want our characters to succeed and achieve their Desires, Lawrence's player included. It's the prime "Flag".

2. The player gets to name their character's Goal in any given conflict, which often reveals not only how they're interpreting the scene, but how they see it as relevant to their character, and where they go next. Note that if there is no conflict, this feature does not come up--which is what happened in the last three scenes we played out with Lawrence: two scenes without conflict, and then one with a pretty "bland" Goal (I believe it was, "kill all his attackers").

3. The player can spend a point of in-game currency to select a Narrator and ask them to frame a particular scene. This can also be revealing, in terms of the player's wants and wishes for their character and their story. I've suggested to the group that Lawrence's player take this option at the start of the next session. That choice is in Lawrence's player's hands at the moment, so we'll see what happens tomorrow!

As for your final question (does he care about addressing such conflicts), I can't really answer for the player, especially given that I don't know him very well personally. I also don't have any other shared game history with him. Are there ways we can tease out an answer to that question? Are there some questions we might that player? Or some information we can glean by analyzing play up to this point? What kinds of questions would be helpful, here, in order to answer yours?




Cinderella here! Paul, great AP write up. Thanks for gaming with us!

Paul, let me know if any of this is incorrect.

The system encourages the protagonist to work towards achieving their desire. The system also encourages the other players to present compelling obstacles and risks that the protagonist cares about so that they spend their resources to overcome these obstacles and risks. These spent resources are awarded to the other players to be used later for their own protagonists.

Resources are drawn from a fixed pool. So if the protagonist doesn't spend their resources, the other players have no other way of gaining additional resources (of this type) for themselves. Which means that the other players end up choosing NOT to play their own protagonist on their turn and instead choose to play the role antagonist for the player with the most resources.

So in our last game, 3 of the 4 players chose not to play their own protagonists and instead chose to play the antagonist of Lawrence. Which meant we had 3 scenes, 10+ minutes each focused only on Lawrence. Mainly due to the first 2 scenes generating no conflict and the 3rd scene generating a conflict that Lawrence's player was only partially invested in (as indicated by the number of resources they sacrificed).

Now I should stress that those scenes were highly entertaining. And even though I may have felt a little frustrated not getting to play my own protagonist, I am extremely invested in Lawrence. So much so that I want to see how his story unfolds more than my own protagonist's (not due to a lack of interest).

Potential points to consider:

1. Lawrence's player generally likes to go with the flow in games. Several times he was confronted with horrible risks for his character that his character would obviously not want to have happen but that he found entertaining (seriously horrible stuff, like having your ears blown apart and losing you sense of smell due to major head trauma). He even seemed disappointed when the resolution system went his way and said he could get his goal AND avoid all risks presented. This actually happened to the majority of the players at different points. Screwing our own characters and then roleplaying them screwed up is a huge draw for us. In With Great Power we tend to devastate our aspects quickly!

2. Desires are static. Maybe Lawrence's desire no longer reflects what the player is interested in. Or maybe the desire is problematic. His desire is to survive the week so he can retire. Surviving is a fairly standard goal for all the characters.

3. Even though the risks were horrible, maybe they are simply not targeted enough at the player. Maybe we are too focused on him surviving and less so on him retiring in a week. Maybe we should assume he survives and instead threaten retirement of his ability to enjoy that retirement.

4. Lawrence's player is having a good time (except for feeling guilty for taking up so much spotlight time) and feels he is exploring what his character would do in the given situation.

I hope that helps!


Paul T


Thanks for chiming in! All good stuff, and I agree with your assessment 100%.

Paul T

The next session is tonight. If anyone has advice for us, please speak up!

How do we find conflicts the player cares about when we're unsure where the character is headed?

Paul T

Last night, we played the final session of the game, which had a few difficulties but otherwise was a lot of fun and full of really interesting surprises.

The problems that arose were due to a little bit of wonkiness in the endgame rules (previously unplaytested) and the fact that we socialized so much before the game that we ended up having to rush through the last part of the story, which compounded a few of the rules issues. I'm going to discuss the game itself a little bit, then throw out the questions that jumped out at me, especially as they concern protagonism/antagonism and the concept of Story Now/Story After.

It was also interesting how our game was inspired by the events of the last couple of days--in particular, the U.S. elections. I enjoyed that fiction/real world parallel, which, in a way, contrasted with the way our fictional setup has two worlds, completely and shockingly different from each other.

System Stuff

First of all, I'd like to say that I'm very happy about the design overall, which I would be happy to discuss, if anyone is interested. The key points are:

* Within each scene, a very "traditional" dynamic between the player and the GM-figure. The main protagonist can "immerse" as much as he or she likes, and never has to touch or worry about mechanics or anything metagame. The GM-figure, on the other hand, can and should use a heavy-handed forceful approach (borderline painfully railroad-esque) to shove the protagonist into some trouble.
* The conflict mechanics then introduce complications which are combined in ways that tend to surprise everyone at the table, and lead to the implications of that scene spinning wildly out of the control of the GM-figure.
* Everyone experiences a sense of mystery about the overarching "metaplot", which is built upon in small pieces by the players.

These elements worked together very much as I had hoped, creating a "metaplot" that surprised us all, and could not have been predicted at the outset. By the word "metaplot" I'm not referring to the use of that word I've heard about in games with extensive setting supplements and canonical "events", but rather something specific to this game: as the individual plotlines reveal their connections, a previously hidden "background plot" or "larger picture" becomes apparent to the players. This "metaplot" is effectively implied by all the individual scenes and narrations the players were guided in creating for the story, and has parts that are overt and parts that can only be deduced, built together from minor details created by the various players.

I'd love to hear from the other players, also: did we all "see" the same "larger picture", or did the game create multiple interpretations, different for each of us? In particular, it's interesting how (for me), that larger picture emerged upon reflection, which may be in part due to the rushed nature of the last stages of the game. I'll be returning to this at the bottom of this report.

Story Stuff

I really liked the surprising and twisted journey that carried us from the beginning to the end. I think it was full of surprises for all of us. I'm going to relate the events in some detail, not only because they are interesting, but for posterity, for the enjoyment of my fellow players. In other words, this is the "let me tell you about my character" bit. If that bores you, feel free to scroll down to the next heading ("Questions to Adress"). Nevertheless, there were some interesting techniques that came into play, which I will mention in this section.

At the beginning, we had:

Quote from: Paul T on November 04, 2008, 05:05:33 AM
Lawrence is a narcotics officer on the verge or retirement. His wife, Martha, is cheating on him (unbeknownst to him), and his antagonist (a player-defined NPC) is a mafia boss who deals in the underground fantasy flesh trade. (We'd established as one of our facts the existence of a private, secret restaurant, serving such delicacies to an elite clientèle.) Lawrence's Desire (a game-defined story goal that play centers around) is to survive his last week of duty and retire comfortably.

Marina is the last mermaid, living in the human world and working for the NYPD in human guise. Her Desire is to find out what has happened to all the other mermaids--where have they gone? In play, it seems to me that we might be shifting the focus of this Desire as well, to something more like "can Marina save the remaining mermaids?" This is yet to be seen.

Jeff Jenkins is an experimental scientist carrying with top-secret research about "fantasy land" and relevant technology for a government agency. He is deeply unhappy: his Desire is to escape this world and find some way he can enter this mysterious other world, and live there permanently. Preferably without going crazy, of course.

Cinderella has divorced Prince Charming and is now a powerful revolutionary leader within fantasy land, organizing resistance to remove the human presence from fantasy land, as well as fighting against any "human sympathizers" within it. Her Desire is to free fantasy land of all human presence, by any means necessary.

This was followed by the events described in the first post, and concluded in the events described below. To me, at least, the conclusion of the story was wildly unlike anything I could have predicted from the setup, while still appearing logical and flowing naturally from that setup:


Lawrence escapes from his attackers, and dedicates the next two weeks to hunting down Bob Gordon (the acting president). He finds himself driven by whatever changes have taken place in him after eating the mermaid flesh and unicorn horn he was fed, with unnaturally alert senses, greater strength and determination, and reduced need for sleep.

(During this part of the story, it is established that Bob Gordon has been missing for some time. As we later learn, it is because he has been taking psychotropic drugs, allowing him to enter fantasy land for limited periods of time, and waging an electoral campaign there against Cinderella and her rebel army.)

Lawrence arrives at Bob Gordon's mansion and storms through it, killing guards left and right. Here we had an interesting thing happen: the current Narrator framed two flashbacks, the first going back to a time five years previous, when Lawrence and his wife Martha were debating possibilities for vacation spots and their eventual retirement home. The two uninvolved players jumped in and played Martha and a travel agent, establishing the beginning of her eventual affair. I think we all enjoyed this scene a great detail, as each player picked up on cues supplied by the others and riffed off them--for instance, the setup for the affair, as well as various details which brought life to the story (such as the various vacation spots the couple looked at and debated, and the details of Lawrence's retirement plan), were not introduced by the Narrator but all improvised by the players. I think we all enjoyed the flashbacks immensely, and they helped define Lawrence's character in more detail. We learned a little more about who he was, and why he wanted to retire. It not only humanized him but led to us introducing details that turned out to foreshadow his eventual fate--in this case, his attraction to a brochure showing a suburban retirement home built in the shadow of Disneyland.

(All this play effectively reframed Lawrence's Desire to be about his retirement as opposed to his survival, which I think helped us guide his story to its conclusion. I admire the way the other players handled this, achieving all of that without ever needing to stop play or discuss it out of game. In this case, it worked really well!)

Back in the present, Lawrence finds some of Bob Gordon's psychotropic drugs, injects himself with a good dose, and steps into fantasy land. Bob Gordon and some of his men are racing towards the portal back to the real world, chased by Cinderella and a herd of fantasy creatures (gnomes, leprechauns, bears, unicorns, munchkins, etc) shouting, "Death to humans!"

That's when Lawrence realizes where he is: there is a castle not too far away (a fairy tale castle, looking quite similar to his dream location in Disneyland). The surroundings are beautiful, more colourful than the drab world he has always known. He decides right then and there that he will remain here, in fantasy land. There is some tense (in-character) negotiation between Lawrence, Bob Gordon, and Cinderella, to the effect that:

* Bob Gordon is thrown out of fantasy land, but promises to keep providing Lawrence with the mind-bending drugs that will allow him to remain in fantasy land, for as long as he is able (how long that will last is very unclear, however).
* Cinderella also resolves her Desire in this scene, throwing the humans out of fantasy land, but allows Lawrence to remain.

The interesting twist that arose from the conflict mechanics, however, is that while Lawrence may stay, his addiction to fantasy flesh will only grow worse over the years... will he become a monster? Perhaps.


We jump forward in time, finding Cinderella's storyline at the final critical point of her ambitions. The civil war has reached an impasse, and the concepts of democracy have taken hold in fantasy land. She has to face her rival, Bob Gordon, in a free election. She delivers a powerful, moving speech to the creatures of fantasy land, showing them examples of their former glory brought low by their addiction to human technology (she brings forward characters like Winnie the Pooh and the Beast, reduced to mangy, sickly, television-addicted wretches), and urges a return to better times. This part of the story had some neat elements of Color, supplied by various players: even as she delivered her anti-television speech, her other hand clasped a remote control behind her back, compulsively clicking the buttons, as though changing channels. After all, she had become a television junkie herself as a price for her power, as established in an earlier conflict.

(Speaking of Color: Cinderella's campaign slogan? "Happily Ever After!" Of course. What else could it be?)

She is successful, and her followers chase Bob Gordon and his human supporters out of fantasy land. However, her victory is also bittersweet: we establish through the conflict mechanics that the creatures of fantasy land will not give up their excursions into the human world, and that the struggle, the clash between the two worlds, will go on indefinitely.

Of note were some dangerous outcomes narrated by the other players that she managed to avoid, such as the Risk that she would have to go back to scrubbing floors or that she would turn into a human (due to a serum she had taken earlier in the story), aging and growing ugly and fat through the years. The game system gives players a way to target each other with such frightening outcomes as part of fun, enjoyable play. To me, at least, that never felt competitive or adversarial--it seemed we all enjoyed creating problems for each other even while "cheering" for the protagonists.


Jenkins awakens in a strange laboratory he doesn't recognize. A witch (with green skin, warts and all) in a lab coat and a clipboard is demanding that he get back to work, and asking him to open one of the cages, below. What's in the cages? Small children, kidnapped, orphans, captured to serve as her lunch during her busy workdays.

(A great line: "Sure, I may be evil, but I still have my rights!" The politics of fantasy land are very different from ours!)

Jenkins is shocked, confused, completely uncomprehending of where he is or what he is doing. It turns out that those sandwiches, mysteriously delivered to his lab in the real world, contain his memories--each one individually wrapped and labelled with a specific memory. As he begins to eat them, he is overwhelmed by sudden knowledge, and drops the keys to the cages with the children. Soon, the sounds of children's bones, crunching between the witch's teeth, fill the air.

In this scene we play the cards and learn who Jenkins really is: not only is he not human, but he is the son of the Prince, the mafia leader responsible for the flesh trade, the man who hunted down all but the last mermaid, and the one who sent Lawrence to kill Bob Gordon.

It turns out that Jenkins was somehow brainwashed into thinking he was human as a baby, and sent into the human world to act as a sort of spy: to learn the secrets of science so that now he could put them to use, designing a killer virus the Prince plans to use against the humans. It seems that the Prince's plans went well beyond the flesh trade!

So, although Jenkins achieves his Desire (to live in fantasy world), it is not a good ending for him: he is revealed as an unwitting villain, and, resigned to his fate, joins his father's side.

This part of the story was heavily defined by the GM, but very much with the concensus of the other players. As Jenkins' player, I had essentially signed up to find out about his fate, and was happy having it "revealed" to me. In another game, this might have been frustrating. In Land of Nodd, however, it didn't bother me. First of all, that's because the play of the cards that forms the conflict resolution mechanic let me have the final say on his situation (although I didn't draw well enough to avoid his ignominious fate as a villain, I could have chosen failure, and a return to the human world, for example). Second, my ability to contribute greatly to the other storylines meant that it wasn't in any way frustrating to take more of an audience role in my own protagonist's story: rather, a lot of the enjoyment there was in discovering his story, as the other players effectively told it to me (with the caveat of the conflict mechanics, as mentioned earlier, where, as the Protagonist player, I maintained the most power over the consequences of his choices).


Marina struggles with the mafia goon she has captured, falling into fantasy land in an area occupied by human soldiers. However, she manages to escape and convinces him to tell her where the mermaids are kept. This part got a little blurry, as we tried to rush through the fiction in order to finish the game before we had to go home, and the story was definitely hurt by the lack of narration. Nevertheless, the outcome was very interesting and dramatic:

While Marina made it back to the human world, found the mermaids, and managed to set them free, she could not herself escape in time, and was captured in the process. Alas, her flesh will be eaten by greeding gangsters and human celebrities. So, in a tragic turn of events, while she accomplished her Desire, she had to pay for it with her life.

On top of that, there was another Risk Marina's player didn't manage to avoid: the mermaids were set free, but, while they escaped the clutches of the flesh trade, could never find their way back to fantasy land, trapped in the polluted waters of the real world forever.


So, in the end, the unrelated plotlines grew to converge, revealing a backstory, a larger metaplot, as I had hoped. This "Prince" character turned out to be behind the disappearance of the mermaids, the flesh trade, the attempted assassinations on the presidential candidates, and who knows what else--a true villain. And Jenkins, the poor hapless unknowing accomplice, turned out to be his son. Cinderella became a television-addicted ruler of a democratic fantasy land. Marina sacrificed her life to free her fellow mermaids, and Lawrence found his dream retirement in a land plagued by problems he could never have imagined (the dream fairy tale castle he decided to settle under, for instance, was either a secret virus lab or a top-security prison littered with corpses, casualties of war), and might grow to become a villain in his own right as his hunger for the flesh of innocent fantasy creatures grows over the years.

(Upon reflection, it sounds like he has become a fairy tale character after all--although his story's end is not a "happily ever after..." but a potential tranformation into the villain of future fairy tales.)

Paul T

Questions to Address

I have three main points of concern that arose from this game, and that I'd like to get some advice on. If any of the other players have others, I'd love to hear them, as well--if you're reading, speak up!

The first was already touched upon:

1. How do we deal with a character how is either villainous or not a clear protagonist? There's been a lot of thought given to Protagonism, both within RPG theory and in literary/dramatic contexts. John (Cinderella's player) put this quite well: a protagonist is not a protagonist without adversity. There has to be come opposition to the protagonist's goals, values, or he/she cannot truly be a protagonist at all. A protagonist needs adversity--and adversity of a specific sort--to be. In a game like this, where that must created by the other players, it is a must to understand this. (Although I am tempted to think that this is something we human beings understand intuitively.)

An antagonist or villain, however, is trickier. A villain's opposition is normally a hero or a protagonist. But how can we present adversity to a villainous character without making the story about the forces facing them? Does adding a hero change the focus of the story from the villain to the hero? What elements must be in play for the antagonist to remain central to the story? Is the inclusion of sympathetic motivations, as we created in our story to "fix" this problem, necessary? Are there other factors? Other ways to handle this?

2. My second question is related to Ron Edwards' concept of Story Now vs. Story After. I am well familiar with the idea of Story After, not only from the way it is described, but also in personal experience. I've been part of many games that made practically no sense, then were reinterpreted as "cool stories" after-the-fact. This game was kind of an interesting contrast to both views, however:

I feel there was definitely a story in play, Story Now-style, in action, throughout. However, much of the ramifications of the "larger story", implied rather than overtly displayed, are only revealed to me in hindsight, as when you watch a movie but only "get it" an hour later, as certain elements click into place in your head.

So, where does this fall on that spectrum? Am I making stuff up to justify the game I just played? Or is this a total valid form of enjoyment--to discover something about a story in retrospect? In large part, I am going to have to wait for the players to tell me whether they saw the story in the same way that I did. Perhaps our experiences will match up, and perhaps they won't. If those mismatches are interesting alternative interpretations, that sounds cool and dandy to me. But if they are lacking those critical points that make something "story", then I may be fooling myself.

However, I'd like to hear anyone else's thoughts on this, and whether they have had any similar experiences. How does one distinguish a dishonest Story After situation from a tale that just doesn't reveal everything in the moment?

Note: It's possible that much of this "effect" is due to our choice to "rush through" the last stages of the game, giving them minimal narration. Not only did we rush through potentially important bits of dialogue and events, but the very speed of play didn't leave us room to reflect and digest what was happening until afterwards.

3. My third question is more of a practical one, about a specific Technique or Techniques:

In a four-player game of Land of Nodd, in any given scene, two players are sitting and listening. They put the mechanics of play into motion and name Risks, which often determine the shape of the story to come, but in the free play portion of the scene leading up to the conflict, they don't play any active part.

We tried on numerous occasions to involve those players by letting them play the parts of "NPCs"--characters the Protagonist was interacting with. Sometimes this worked really well, and sometimes it fell totally flat or felt awkward.

Most often, the secondary characters only supplied bits of dialogue as Color, without really changing any content in the scene. Personally, I was surprised by how much fun that was. While in the Protagonist or Narrator chair, the pressure is ON in this game. Playing an "NPC" in another character's scene was relaxed and playful in comparison, and very enjoyable. We used those opportunities to create fun little details in play, and I think we all enjoyed it a great deal. (Unless I was the only one, of course!)

However, there were definitely a few attempts that really didn't go anywhere, or felt awkward.

Is there any good existing advice on this issue, or advice any of you can share with me? How can we better incorporate NPCs played by "players"* into our game? This design, in particular, has a lot to gain from such techniques, and I'd like to hear any advice you have to offer.

Thanks for reading,

Paul T.

*: Gosh, that gamer vocabulary ("player", "GM", "NPC") sure gets difficult to use sometimes. Yerch.

Ron Edwards

Hi Paul,

I think your distinction between Story After (which I hesitate to tag as always dishonest, but yes, it often is) and Story Now + Reflection is not too difficult. It seems equivalent to the role of reflection in any number of other narrative media. One might thrill to the events in Die Hard, then wonder why Die Hard 2 sucked such amazingly awful donkey dick - it's just more of the same, right? But then upon reflection, one might realize that Die Hard is wholly centered on a man reconciling with his genuinely estranged wife, whereas in Die Hard 2 the relationship is not an issue, nor is there any similarly-engaging issue at work at all.

That doesn't mean one has to be cognizant of the relationship issues while watching the first film. I am wholly convinced that the mind processes all of that stuff in exquisite detail without any need for verbalizing or (for lack of a better word) awareness of it. The reflection is a matter, just as you say, of turning it over later, outside of the initial experience of enjoying it unfold. I have experienced this same effect regarding role-playing many times, especially when using highly nuanced settings like Glorantha or highly nuanced character-decision type games like Sorcerer. Immodestly, I think it's merely a predictable outcome of a group getting good at Story Now - the stories become better, in terms of both (1) being so hard-hitting and intuitive as you play that you need not consider very much as you go, and (2) being about more and deeper stuff regardless of how superficial-fun-explosions the other events of play might be.

The difference between all of this and Story After is the degree of editing involved in the latter. Swathes of material that was actually played must be forgotten or remembered only in terms of in-game time, no matter that the two-minute fight took six hours or that we wambled for two hours between anything even interesting, let alone consequential. Conversely, stuff that wasn't played has to get invented and inserted as 'having happened," either in a subsequent session or in discussions and hints afterward in ordinary conversation.

When I talk about Before, Now, and After, I'm pretty much referring to the standard story-structure of conflict + rising action + climax + resolution, being generated via the actual processes, right there, of play. It's pretty easy to see whether one, and one's group, is really doing this. I think of the reflection and insight that you're talking about as being a ... well, not a side effect, but a consequence, a major benefit of being able to use one's brain and social creativity to do something well.

Best, Ron


Hi Paul!

For #1:

I think the terms Protagonist and Antagonist are relative. The protagonist is the character with the story focus at the moment, and an Antagonist is a character actively moving against the Protagonist (i.e. presenting the Protagonist with obstacles to his goals). For example, from the villain's perspective, he's the Protagonist, and the hero is his Antagonist.

Hence, whatever works in the story to make the Protagonist interesting (conflict) will work equally well for a hero or a villain. At least I think it should!

I think the problems you're describing with the police officer character are more related to lack of a clear goal than his transformation into a villain. With a clear goal, it's easier to set obstacles and create conflict. In particular, the transformation itself (and not its destination) could have presented difficulty, because things that were obstacles beforehand were no longer obstacles during/after the transformation. So this might have created an askward period for you.

What do you think?

For #3

Did you try having idle players use the Puppetland technique when they took the parts of NPCs?  If yes, did it always work?


Paul T


Thank you! Your spin on things makes sense to me.


Thanks for commenting! (Jon played in the first ever playtest of Land of Nodd, so this is a nice surprise.)

For the antagonist/protagonist issue, you're mostly right. The biggest issue was Lawrence's lack of clear goals, which didn't give us much to target, story-wise. Once Lawrence developed a concrete goal (his desire for retirement), the story took off again, even though it wasn't ever clear whether he was a "good guy" or a "bad guy". I could see his story ending as a happy but bittersweet ending (Lawrence lives in fantasy land, struggling with his inhuman appetites) or as a tragic finish (Lawrence escapes justice and becomes a monster).

However, I do feel that there is a clear (though subjective) distinction in the eye of the beholder: when we're experiencing a story (whether as audience or creator), we do tend to slot characters into a "protagonist" or "antagonist" position, whether we're aware of it or not. That affects what kind of problems we might want them to face and what kind of choices we'd like to see them make. (As an interesting aside, what I enjoy about Musette, the game you and I are currently playing, is that it tends to leave each character's nature in question until the resolution of their story, creating a suprising and fascinating "reveal", where we are forced to judge the character.)

So, overall I agree with your points. However, I'm still interested in figuring a little more about how to deal with an antagonist (unsympathetic character) in a story. The history of roleplaying has always focused on the protagonists, and, as a result, I feel less confident, less sure, when dealing with an antagonist.

As for the Puppetland tecnique (Jon is referring to another conversation we're involved in elsewhere), there was no discussion of any specific technique for this game. We just let people do as they wished. However, 99% of the time in this game, players who took on "NPC" roles did exactly that, intuitively. It just makes sense, especially given the setup in Land of Nodd (where two players are highly active in driving the story forward). But we never discussed it, not beforehand nor afterwards.