[Sweet Agatha] Stars, diamonds, and death

Started by Ron Edwards, November 15, 2008, 09:28:10 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi everybody,

I bought the ashcan in 2007 and felt bad about never getting to it; then again, the twins were born that September, after all.

So on last week's game night, neither Chris nor Tim A could make it, and Tim K and I were stuck on our own. It turned out we both owned Sweet Agatha and had been looking forward to trying it out some day. Or as I put to someone on the phone, "OK, it's just Tim K and me tonight, so we'll be role-playing," and then realized how that sounds if you're not, you know, gamers.

The game requires two participants, called the Reader and the Truth. Basically, the Reader reads the Journal and cuts out the clues, and the Truth chooses a bunch of clues (about 30 or so, out of considerably more) to use during play. A little while ago, I was checking out the rules and was puzzled over whether the Truth reads the Journal too. If so, that would make for a shared pool of knowledge (or intimations of knowledge), and the movements of the Reader character would not be too surprising to the Truth. If not, then the Truth would be just as off-balance as the Reader, in a kind of mirror-type play. Both seemed enticing, and I asked Kevin. He assured me that he really meant to let people choose, and had tried both ways (as opposed to saying "gee whatever" regarding a design hole), and knowing Kevin's meticulous care with design, I felt better. We went with the somewhat more straightforward option of both of us reading the Journal as I cut out the clues.

Tim was the Truth, whose job is effectively to be the GM, and I was the Reader, effectively playing the character who reacts to Agatha's disappearance. Without any discussion, we went with the idea that the Reader (my) character was Agatha's current boyfriend, more-or-less, basing it all on the tone and implications of the first big journal entry as we saw them. I definitely played it in extreme first-person mode, without any negotiation, but the guy was neither assumed to be me nor distinguished from me in any specific way either, beyond the implication of being much younger and single. On reflection, I don't know whether the Reader is supposed to be yourself or not. Not really by design, but by mutual tacit agreement, we never stated my character's name. We went ahead and said "my name" or "your name" as part of the dialogue, as if it had been redacted or bleeped out.

So for play, I opened the cut-up Journal (remember, we'd reviewed it already) and went through it linearly as a guide to what "I" was doing. It starts in Agatha's apartment and proceeds to various other places, with new items popping up as you go. However, I think it's consistent with the rules that you can have other scenes at other places as you go, and to treat the Journal a bit loosely.

Meanwhile, Tim chooses three clues to use for the upcoming scene, and then by asking me what I'm doing, frames new scenes, brings in new characters, and says what's happening around me. I say what I do and say, and so on. No other resolution is involved. It's a good demonstration of the idea that Drama (speaking-only) methods work well if given the right structure, and especially with a resource of some kind. In this case, the structure dictates ten scenes with three clues each. The exact length of a scene or the relationship of clues within it aren't specified, mainly because a person can hit a certain rhythm of his or her own for that purpose, relative to the clues and relative to which scene it is. (All of this is also to say that Sweet Agatha is not a system-less or free-form game.)

As our chapters proceeded, play turned out to be about an even blend of the elements I used from the Journal (pretty much all of them) and the clues Tim chose and used. However - and this is a big deal - those weren't always the bulk of play itself. Most of the Journal and clues are vague, but some aren't, for instance, a Journal entry that includes a dollar with Hector's name written on it, among others, plus a clue like "a checkbook with multiple carbons showing many $550 checks made out to Hector." Even that very strong input from the game text still requires massive interpretation, characterization, scene framing, and eventually dialogue from the Truth, all riffing off how I chose to work with that input both initially and as things progressed. The creativity and dialogue between the players is still the medium, regardless of what the text materials provide. That's why I think Sweet Agatha is not a "choose your adventure" or "put the puzzle pieces together" or any other kind of story-by-numbers item, not at all.

Overall, play fell into about three distinct phases. At first, Tim had no idea what "I" was like, and I had no idea what sort of setting/happenings would be going on. All input and character action at that point was a bit like painting in a room that you don't know how big it is; only when you turn a corner do you step back and get an idea of what the painting and room look like. The second part is after some fictional time has passed and certain elements have acquired identity, not least the Reader and certainly not least some aspects of Agatha. The last part isn't just filling in details - it's maybe like living in that room in some consequential way. In all three parts, play was composed of both reactive "surfing" and proactive motion for both of us, but it felt different at each stage.

My own arc was fun to get into, especially because it wasn't premeditated. "I" started the story fairly neutrally, then didn't shave that morning and blew off work. Then I bought an illegal handgun. Then, unshaven, with a gun, I got a ski mask and wore it the scary way when pushing around an old man. Tim was looking a little scared at this point. After another brawling scene, I cleaned up and lightened up a bit, but still carried around the gun, as well as sleeping under an overpass with "Gone 4-ever Agatha" spray-painted on it. Finally, I got a new apartment, reconciled with my job, and put all the Agatha-stuff into a box.

All of that occurred in the context of chasing after a bunch of names and a weird insight into an unlicensed radio station, then dealing with a radiating constellation of petty crimes and odd persons, and finally, a solitary insight that absolutely none of that had anything to do with me - that her message to me was absolutely clear given what I'd known about her, and that Agatha had killed herself in such a way as to disappear entirely, in as gentle a method toward "me" as she could manage. Her message to me was marked out by stars she left for me to piece together.

Our Agatha was mostly clearly revealed by the way she left three separate goodbyes to three men, my character included. There's one key passage in the journal, as written by the Reader, concerning special knowlege he has about her - interestingly, with no indication of how he knows, or whether he finds out during the story or already knew it. It provided the whole back-story to our mutual satisfaction, although this was not agreed upon or otherwise negotiated. Basically, incorporating it and seeing how it went with what had happened so far, was the rock-solid rock bottom - all we needed. It overrode any interest in freaky stuff about conspiracies, secrets, diamonds, weird radios, spooky foreign guys, and whatever else. Bluntly, in our story, she killed herself and hid her own body in the dam; she left the "map" for me in order for me to find myself without her and to accept her goodbye. She tried to tell me what she did so I wouldn't go crazy over it, but also without guilt-tripping me. There isn't any conspiracy or underlying secret craziness going on, only various interactions, a mix-up in a little jewel crime, all of it as not-quite-there as our own relationship but also full of quirky humor or resonance.

Once I figured out what the real issue was, there were some things I decided not to care about. Who put the checkbook under the door, for instance, was Hector's problem, not mine. The other names on the dollar ... well, she didn't leave that stuff as a message for me,and as such it was her affair, now closed by her death. I only needed to pay attention to the stars.

The ending was quite nice, actually. Agatha's brother, a DJ she was extremely close to, and "I" all found ourselves together with a sense of closure and an appreciation for who she was. I did not disclose to them how she died, but let it remain a mystery to them, as I decided she wanted. Our final image was Emanuel and "me" giving the last diamond to her brother Luke, and him holding it up to the sun, like a little star.

Tim had some issues with the clues rules. It just didn't work for him to grab three and have them be used in the next scene. He ended up using a pool with a provisional few chosen for the scene, but sometimes tossing out what he had and rummaging for the one he wanted. It seems to me that either follow the optional rules of setting scene goals as well as picking the three clues, or you do what Tim did and loosen it up a little. Since I didn't play the Truth I can't speak to the actual dynamics of using the clues, though.

One technique that emerged was a series of Reader monologues as I mused out loud. Tim used them as input into what was happening if he liked them, in part or in whole. I think it helped a lot for him to know where I was at, giving rise to a back-and-forth of what each of us would establish. At the moment, it created sort of a noir effect, as well as a portrait of "me" via his interpretation of Agatha.

That portrait of the Reader character, or "I," turned out to be interesting and a bit mysterious on its own. This was mainly due to the fact that although I the player was the Reader, the character is the person who wrote / is writing this journal. So it's not like I get to make him up out of nothing; there's stuff there, attitudes, a turn of mind, possibly motivations. The first sign of that is that "I" didn't call the cops to report her missing. It's neat to experience certain key things like that while role-playing without having a big old character profile and extensive back-story to act out. It gave me a door to enter a certain fantasy in which one can actually do things yourself in the modern world (clearly present in lots of movies). It also led me later to consider the "private investigator," a weak device since its inception and well past absurd today, but highly satisfying. If you change the connotation of "private" from freelancer + discreet to personal in the most driven, interior sense of the word, which makes sense since the client was never anything but an excuse to the characters anyway in the relevant novels, and what the original term instantly translates to is "seeker." We don't get to be seekers, much, in real life.

The day after playing, I cracked the code; it's pretty easy if you put all of the instances of its use together. After decoding the messages, I wondered if the content of one of them would entail a final scene for us, so we discussed it over email. Tim, as the Truth, thought not, and his interpretation of why Agatha might have sent that message to her brother stands as a subroutine to our story, but not a basis for its extension past what we played.

I didn't realize beforehand just how genre-broad this game can be. Depending on the clues chosen and narrated actions and characterizations, it could be a very action-packed Kill Bill type thing. Somewhat more intuitively, there's lots of potential for espionage with all the codebooks and cameras and foreign people. As it happens, we kept it very naturalistic and personal, such that even the crime stuff stayed pretty minor.

The whole design is just great. There's a fascinating contrast and interaction between the stability of the Journal material juxtaposed with the lability of the clues, yet all embedded and made functional only in the context of what the two of you actively imagine, back-and-forth. That makes me think that I'd like to be the Truth next time, to put some distance between my experience this time and whenever I might happen to be the Reader again.

Here's an extreme thought: nothing in any of the material or rules says or even implies that Agatha has to stay gone, even for a little bit. She could show up again quite soon, if that's what the Truth says happens. As I see it, that wouldn't mean the story was instantly over, not by a long shot.

I'd sure like to play again, but I'd especially like to see what other pairs of players come up with when they use it. (37 copies sold at GenCon - can't any of you get around to it too? Two people, one evening, it's not so hard.) The game is so wide open and yet provides such solid, meaty material. Maybe I should clarify that the game is eminently re-usable, and it doesn't matter if it's cut up already. There's nothing in the book that is only viewable when whole. In fact, the whole cutting up thing is quite beautiful and fun, no different from punching out counters to use in any ordinary game. There's a bit of marketing rhetoric about "destroy it to play itm" but that's bogus. One other thing - the design of the Journal after the cut-up is very, very nice too, so there's an aesthetic difference from just putting them all in the back, but the only thing that changes about it.

We finished pretty late, but ended up staying up way later, discussing suicide in stories. We liked the distinction between a relationship not being good enough, vs. when it being good isn't itself enough. The idea for me was that Agatha did indeed find a good relationship with a decent guy, as well as loving friendship with another, only to realize that the hole in her life/self could not be filled. It wasn't that the love or friendship wasn't any good or wasn't perfect, but that she decided that she could not discover what might fill that hole, at all, ever. My thinking, on a more philosphical level, was that suicide is at least potentially not morally assessed, and that in my experience, the "crime" involved is the horror, pain, and sorrow induced in those around you, perhaps not in the act itself. I saw Agatha seeking not to visit that woe on others and therefore as virtuous. Tim didn't see it that way, or at least found it hard to view suicide as different from obviating or rejecting purpose in life, which he considers precious. Bear in mind what we repeated several times during conversation, that we were discussing fiction - the meaning and role of suicide in a story, period. As such, though, it's a means of examining values and judgments about life.

All of that speaks to my main design goal for Spione. My call is that if you ask people about certain things, they'll repeat what they've been told, or say something they think will advertise themselves as a certain kind of person. However, if you participate in Story Now with them, then their values about those things will emerge for real, and even better in tandem with, possibly partial opposition to, those of the other people participating. So it's not just revelation but also transmutation through meeting mind-to-mind with others, creatively. In this case, Tim's and my views combined to produce a haunting story that far out-valued a polemic for either position.

Best, Ron

Tim C Koppang

Playing Sweet Agatha was a wonderfully powerful experience for me.  It had been a while since a roleplaying game moved me.  This was a welcome reminder of what the form is capable of.

However, I want to speak to the techniques of actually playing the game.  Reading the text of the game rules, it's clear that Kevin was trying to convey a certain sense of atmosphere.  At first I thought that I could have done with a bit less atmosphere and a bit more hard guidance.  There really isn't that much to the rules, and I honestly had some apprehension about playing the game when we first started.

That said, I think Ron and I found our own rhythm.  Communication between the players is essential.  And I don't mean in the "what happens next" sort of way.  Ron would pause from time to time to tell me what his character was thinking, or what his character believed was going on at any one moment.  Not only did this clue me in as "the truth" to what was and was not working for Ron, but it also gave me some solid ideas to riff off of.  Picking up on this technique, I tried to return the favor by making musing suggestions of my own.  Of course only Ron could say whether this actually helped the game.

By design, when the game starts off, no one has any idea what is going on.  As "the truth" I had some clues, but even looking at them all together at the beginning of the game, I had no idea what they all were to mean.  We had the journal, and that certainly provided a base to build off of, but in the end, we absolutely had to bring our own thoughts, fears, and emotion to the table to build a story that made sense.

Once I was able to connect with the story emotionally (or perhaps it was just coincidental to where we were in the story at the time), the clues in my hand and in the journal began to take shape.  The story developed in such a way that it really only made sense in retrospect.  Not until the very end did I have a sense of where the story was heading in the future.  I say this as a compliment.  Wondering around in the dark is the best analogy I can come up with.  At first it's overwhelming.  Eventually you map out a vague sense of your surroundings.  And in the end, your eyes adjust and you can see the room for what it is.

As Ron mentioned, I did have some difficulties with the three clues per scene rule.  The trouble is, while I had to choose three clues before each scene, oftentimes the scene would take off in a direction that I simply hadn't anticipated.  I was then stuck with a handful of clues that made no sense in the new context.  My solution was to choose three provincial clues, and then swap out the ones that didn't end up making sense.  Unfortunately, this tended to bog down the game and overall actually worked against me.  By the end, I had decided that swapping out clues was a big mistake.  Better to drop clues as they come rather than try to plan the perfect clue for each scene.

Reading your post, Ron, I was reminded of the rule that told us to come up with a goal before each scene.  We didn't do that.  Perhaps I should have been a bit more forceful about enforcing a specific goal.  That may have helped with my clue problem.  Then again, I wouldn't want to force an artificial scene.  This is the area I'd be most interested in hearing from other players about.

Ron Edwards


I've been looking over the ashcan and found that I'd like to play it too, on its own merits. One of the several differences is that the scene goal rule is fixed in the ashcan, whereas it's extremely specifically optional in the final version.

I liked the idea that scenes don't have fixed goals for our game. However, one way to handle the three-clue rule in that case is simply to hold onto them, and keep the scene going and play into those clues, either all at once or in a sequence. It might create a weird feeling of "shouldn't we be cutting now?", but some art forms have become good at utilizing that exact feeling to good effect.

There's also the benefit of "getting rid" of clues when they seem irrelevant, by making them effectively into color. One such use that I especially liked arose when "I" finally got into a scuffle with Hector, purveyor of illegal diamonds, by his flashy car. When the car door got jostled, a plastic bag behind the seat spilled some contents into the street - weird blurry photographs, as stated on the clue piece, in which you can't tell what's depicted as either body parts or car parts. This basically became yet another unsavory element of Hector, and although technically I might have proceeded to ask about it, the way it came into things and the way I reacted meant that it added to the story in the sense of true addition - stronger color, stronger imagery, stronger characterization, all without needing to get all thespian about Hector.

I think too many of the wind-up-play games published in the last few years forget that adding to a story does not always mean turning a crucial plot corner.

Best, Ron

Kevin Allen Jr

First off it's awesome to hear that you guys had a good time. It sounds to me like you told exactly the kind of story I was hoping to produce.

I keep meaning to write up some comments on this, i just haven't had the time for a while, i'll get to this soon. Just wanted to let you know it's getting my attention, and i've got some stuff to note about your game. Good stuff.

Ron Edwards

That sounds great, Kevin.

Here's a question: has anyone ever 'resurrected' Agatha, as in, she went missing but was found during the story? And, as in, neither dead nor at the very, very end?

Best, Ron