[Nicotine Girls] If you want it hard enough, and you try hard enough - and?

Started by Ron Edwards, June 15, 2009, 05:01:15 PM

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Ron Edwards


Julie, Maura, and I played Nicotine Girls. I asked Julie to be a GM for a number of reasons, one of which was that I wasn't inclined to be the male GM for two women playing nicotine girl characters.

I had recently re-read the rules with an eye toward imminent play and found, or remembered, the main reason I hadn't in the past: a bit of the rules had made no sense to me. I asked Paul some questions, then cut-and-pasted his answers into my copy-pasted printout of the rules. So now I had what I considered to be a usable rulebook.

If you don't know much about this game, then you should understand that when Paul published it, the nearly universal response was "it's unplayable." They weren't talking about the minor rules confusion either; they were saying that no one could play a game about low-rent girls and their lives.

I disagreed even back then, but having played now, I am more certain why. Nicotine Girls is the first, and to date still one of the very few, role-playing games about social class. Real social class, too, not some jumped-up exsanguinated Merchant Ivory production either. Americans especially don't like to talk about or think about it, and the middle-class American attitude toward people below a certain income/opportunity level is best described as pure contempt, as derogatory and exploitative as any caste system you ever heard of. You can find all sorts of wriggling and uncomfortable disclaimers when people praise Nicotine Girls but say "... and I can't play it," or "... my group would never play it."

Paul wrote a game that rips the lid off middle-class smugness, and the degree to which it's under-played is a shame.

Maura's character was Britney, 17 years old, with Hope of 4 and Fear of 2, Sex 1, Money 2, Cry 2, Smoke 1, whose dream was to "fix her brother's Mustang and drive it to a town big enough to get a job at WalMart."

My character was Nicole, 16 years old, with Hope of 5 and Fear of 1, Sex 2, Money 1, Cry 1, Smoke 2, whose dream was to "go to acting school" which was what she called the theater program at the JCC.

My character-making experience yielded a delayed jolt for me, because I'd started with the Methods scores and had sort of forgotten about them when I set her age a little while later - overlooking, in the moment, that I'd created a 16-year-old whose strongest scores included Sex. More on this in a minute.

Some clarifications to the rules:

- Hope never goes down. If you fail a Hope roll, you can't use it for a roll again during this story, but it doesn't decrease and you still get to roll for your Dreams at the end.

- If the GM does something to you that is like an item on the Fear list, it doesn't give you Fear; only you can give yourself Fear. The former should be protagonizing adversity, but the latter should be trauma and dysfunction, pure Jerry Springer territory.

- Fear increases from the Fear list are permanent. Yes, this means you could build an insanely high, can't fail Fear score. Which also means your character's life chaos is awful - so Paul  specified that it's a prerequisite to play to love your character and not want such a life for her, Dream or no Dream.

I should also point out that succeeding in conflicts barely affects your final Dreams roll, and the tiny bit it does is entirely Hope-based, so racking up that kind of Fear is not strategically meaningful anyway.

We played by alternating characters' scenes, but they were available to one another as characters in each others' scenes, if desired.

The initial scene involved a For Sale sign on the Mustang and Britney managing to buy the car herself from her dad, if she can scrape up the money. Maura rolled Hope using Money as the method, and she succeeded! I must say that Julie had a touch with post-roll resolving narrations which tended to reveal much more about the characters as well as be intensely depressing.

Then Nicole had to negotiate a change of shifts at her ice-cream place job (Hope/Money), in which she smoked a little with Britney first to get some advice. She considered playing up to Brent, the manager, but Britney told her to be straightforward about it, which she did - and succeeded too! Well, granted, using Hope with Money basically to bribe a co-worker to switch shifts.

Maura and I experienced remarkable tension leading up to and during the rolls. The sensations of empathy for one's own character and engagement with the other character were startlingly intense. I found myself considering that a certain dignity – or at least the sense of humanity inherent in this person whose values and worldview were so different from mine – was necessary to put into play in order to play at all.

Britney's mom demanded that she get rid of that car, which had a lot to do with why her dad had put it up for sale in the first place, and Julie spared us nothing in understanding Britney's family/home dynamic. What I didn't see coming was the total exposure of the pain underneath the dysfunction when, after Britney succeeded with the Hope/Cry roll, concerning the death of her brother in Iraq.

Julie pointed out that Maura tried a couple of times for Britney to use reason in negotiating, and it got her nowhere: Sex, Cry, Money, with or without smoking first, and that's the menu, nothing but.

For me, Britney was at the top of her game when she put the car into neutral, set her teenage back to it, and rolled it through the streets to a new home.

Nicole found herself able to attend the after-school arts program, but was stunned to discover that people had to show themselves to be good at something in order to perform in the upcoming show (sort of a talent show, with a framing sort of plot). An instructor gave her a copy of West Side Story to watch, and as it turned out, she busted out a pretty good song with Hope/Cry too.

This was Nicole at the top of her game, all determination, not knowing really what it was or what kind of information was out there, but actually able to do it.

Britney had a problem: where to put the car actually. She decided to see if she could house it at Mark's, Mark having been Darryl's best friend. Julie described Mark as not quite right since having returned from Iraq, not even counting the missing foot. Britney got in a Smoke with Nicole first, and here's where I had to confront both the in-fiction logic and the system, working in tandem to hit me with the limitations in the girls' choices.

I waffled a little by thinking of having Nicole advise Britney to Cry her way through, but it didn't work for me. Here was Nicole with her head abuzz about MGM true love set to music, and the only thing that made sense to me – and as it happened to Maura as well, as we role-played the conversation, was for Nicole to advise Sex. The sting is, by the rules, if the girl follows the advice, she rolls bonus dice equal to her Smoke score. But if she doesn't follow it, then she gets that number of dice deducted.

Another nuance was added by Julie, who had narrational rights, who preferred a broader interpretation of Sex as a method, with more emphasis on promises and expectations than on the physicality. The interesting thing is that despite a certain trepidation, both Maura as author and I as partial author were reconciled to Britney having sex with Mark. A little grim, perhaps a lot, but not out  of bounds. (Does anyone really think Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a funny movie? Or at least that scene where Stacy has sex for the first time?) But Julie was thinking more in terms of a character whose name I've forgotten from Freaks & Geeks, who according to her and as Maura agreed, used sex as a manipulative method all the time without necessarily doing anything physical. Which is fine; in a game of this type, the GM pretty much sets the Lines, and we went with that.

I knew that sooner or later I might find myself playing Nicole to use Sex as a method too. A difficult issue. I was valuing her sojourn into airy fantasy for a bit, and didn't look forward to the nigh-inevitable comedown, especially at Julie's capable narrational disposal.

However, the next scene turned out to be about something else entirely, when I decided Nicole would break the news that she had no intention of finishing high school in order to get to the JCC as fast as possible. Mom said no, and here, the fiction gripped me in its iron paw. I could not see a way to use Hope, and Money and Sex were flat out, which meant our first Fear-based roll. I could have used straight-up Fear for a really crappy roll, but this was important, so ... well, after waffling again and almost picking some cop-out options, I chose Divorce/Separation.

Sure enough, apparently Nicole's dad had an entirely different family we knew nothing about, as he had fathered the child of the girl who worked at the gas station (!! Where Nicole bought her cigarettes!), and now was bringing them all home – i.e., here. Mom: "Pack your things. This isn't home any more." The conflict evolved a bit here, to be about whether Nicole could stay at Tracy's instead of moving out of town, until the end of the term (i.e. and the show's production). Adding the Fear got me some serious dice and I made the Cry roll.

It was time to wrap up for the night. Paul had explained to me that Endgame is possible at the end of any game session. Basically, the group decides whether they want to end it here or to play another session. We went ahead and ended it, and rolled in genuine earnest for our girls' Dreams ...

Neither one got it. Your best shot is to roll two 1's on a number of d10s equal to your Hope, or your Hope +1 if you didn't blow a Hope roll earlier. So I rolled six d10s and Maura rolled five. Both of us rolled a single success, not two. There's nothing in the rules constraining or suggesting that this is a "partial success," either, so you have a free hand in making up the Epilogue no matter what you roll, as long as she either does or does not get her Dreams as resolved by the roll.

Nicotine Girls is not a wind-up toy. You can win every conflict and you know what, that only means a tiny increase in your chances, and that's all the bennies you get. Starting Hope is far more important. If you start with a Hope of 2 and never fail with it, you roll three dice. If you start with a Hope of 5 and blow a Hope roll, then you'll roll five. No, you can't rack the 2 up to whatever because you kept succeeding. That is middle-class fantasy.

Maura said that a couple of years with Mark was not easy, and Britney never did manage to finish fixing the car. She did leave town and get that job at WalMart, but the dream aspect was gone.

I said that Nicole divided her time between the two family households and although she went to the JCC, she got a certificate in business administration, and ended up with a very normal and not-very-upwards job. Occasionally people think about that sparkling junior year in high school and wonder whatever became of that girl.

If you're marginal, rational negotiation and honest empathy are not options. You can't explain things to a cop, or to a boss. You can't inspire true support in those who regard you as less than human, nor can you engage with them rationally. Your peers and family cannot help you because they have no power either. You only have sex, money, manipulative plays for sympathy, and  advice from those who are just as marginal as you. Hope isn't magic; it doesn't make things happen. You can dream, sure. But dreams aren't a golden path to follow or a call into the universe for it to respond to. All that is petit-bourgeois mythology, and stories that challenge it confront the middle-class psyche like a cold, grasping hand to the groin.

That's probably why people recoil from playing this game. I think there's no actually-legitimate excuse, including me for the last six years.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards



It's exciting to see Nicotine Girls play because it's one of those games I look at periodically and say, "I really want to play this" and then don't.  The game "spoke" to me the first time I saw it.

I'm a little curious about your interpretation of the rules.  Perhaps this is what you clarified with Paul.  The text uses the word "session", not "story" with regard to Hope.  So if you make it through a "session" without failing when you use your Hope it goes up by one.  Doesn't it follow then that if your story lasts more than a single session that Hope could conceivably increase by the number of sessions you chose to play? (I'm not imagining an 18 session Nicotine Girl mega-campaign but two to four doesn't seem to be out of the realm of possibility).

A fairly hefty part of your interpretation of the thematic dynamics of the game relies on the fact that the +1 applies to the story as a whole rather than per "session" as the text states.




You are correct in that if the game is played over multiple sessions, Hope can go up. In the game we played, the story was only going to be one session so there was little opportunity for increasing hope other than the add one to Hope if no Hope contest failed.

It is an interesting game dynamic. Fear can fluctuate wildly during a session, but not Hope which is either ruled out as an option after its first failure or go up slowly  over extended play.



Which reminds me ... we did have a rule question for Paul.

At one point during the game, Ron's character's Fear dropped to zero. Solely through successful use of the Hope motivation in conflicts. Is there any game effect other than the inability to use Fear as a motivation in a conflict? (In afterthought, as GM, this would have been a prime opportunity to inflict violence on the character.)


Ron Edwards

Hi Jesse,

That's a good point, and I totally confounded session/story in my thinking when I wrote the post. It's true that my +1 and only +1, ever, was over-stated. I don't think it diminishes my analysis too much though.

Basically Maura and I were damned lucky not to lose Hope, and I think the main cause for that was that we Smoked whenever we could and followed the advice. Sooner or later, that wasn't going to happen, and even with that mechanical boost, the dice can really nail you in a system like this in the most pointed, must-have-been-planning-it way. I know it happens with The Pool all the time (i.e. the one roll out of many, ouch!!), and that's with d6's.

What I'm saying is that even with several sessions - and like you, I think 2-4 is a good number for this game - a +1 per session is very likely not going to happen.

I'm also thinking (and this really makes me want to play it again!) that the in-fiction events will become increasingly tense, as a combination of opportunities opening up and constraints boxing in. Especially once added Fear gets involved, as it had only begun to in our game. If what I'm thinking tends to happen, then the whole dynamic of Hope vs. Fear will shift a little. I'd like to see what play toward the end of, say, the second session will be like. I wonder whether I'll use Hope more than I mathematically "should" in tems of risk, because I'll not want my girl's life and life-decisions to be ruled by Fear.

Best, Ron

Paul Czege

Hey Julie,

I'm not sure there should be a game effect for that. I certainly didn't have one in mind when I designed the game back in 2002. Thematically, Fear is what makes a character tenacious on behalf of her own needs. But the difficulties a player adds to his character's life from the chart don't go away when Fear hits zero. I don't think the game should say the character's tenacity or behaviors or personality should be changed if Fear hits zero, any more than a low Humanity takes behavioral or personality options off the table in Sorcerer.

But y'know, if I were running the game and a player zeroed out Fear and asked for his character to have an experience of living in the moment, a moment of peaceful happiness, without anxiety, I'd be glad to see it. I think that would be a fine interpretation of what might happen when a character zeroes out Fear.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Ron Edwards

That's interesting. By contrast, after we played, Maura mentioned that she found the idea of a nicotine girl without Fear to be disturbing ... acting in a dream-world, convinced that dreams will make her reality, and destined for an encounter with Fear of the worst sort (from the Fear list) quite soon.

Best, Ron


I also wanted to play this game for a long time. But each time I tried to, I could only find one player to play. Since the importance of the smoking scene, we dropped the idea. Maybe we could try to frame each other scenes. But I wonder what kind of dynamic it will create since you will be giving advice in the smoking scenes for the scene that you will be framing.

QuoteNicotine Girls is not a wind-up toy. You can win every conflict and you know what, that only means a tiny increase in your chances, and that's all the bennies you get. Starting Hope is far more important.

I dint see it at first, but creating a character with a score of Hope of 1 is kind of aiming for a ending where your girl don't get her dream. It is like pre selecting your endgame or epilogue. If you do so, is it a way of telling what kind of game experience you are wishing for? (well in a one or two session game)    


Full disclosure: I mentioned this to Ron privately, and he asked me to post about it. I hesitantly am.

Basically, his AP of Nicotine Girls made me cry.

Ron's critique of why it isn't played because of how it would make higher-class Americans feel is, indeed, dead-on (all of it: contemptuous and exploitative, regarded as less-than-human, petit-bourgeois mythology of hope/work, systematically powerless, etc).

The game is depressing...because it's true. And not "depressing" in that made-for-television-movie-after-school-special way, because it is not just "a story" sad; it's fucking depressing in the same way "Schindler's List" is depressing.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

C. Edwards

Thanks for that disclosure, Raven. I've been hesitating to post myself.

Reading Ron's post gives me a big black queezy sucking rock in the pit of my stomache. I knew those girls, and a dozen others like them. I still keep in touch with a couple of them. Some of them ended up doing okay, and some not so much. Most of them were single teenage mothers.

I think Nicotine Girls is a game that deserves to be played, but for me it just hits too close to home to do so.

Callan S.

What's the importance of playing it, in relation to people who are in this cultural/resource situation? Atleast from my looking over it again, to me it's fingering the wound and...it seems to stop there? I get that other artistic mediums can raise awareness and sympathy - but atleast to me I think you'd have to be atleast somewhat sympathetic and aware to play this to begin with?


Quote from: Callan S. on June 16, 2009, 07:17:32 PM
What's the importance of playing it, in relation to people who are in this cultural/resource situation? Atleast from my looking over it again, to me it's fingering the wound and...it seems to stop there? I get that other artistic mediums can raise awareness and sympathy - but atleast to me I think you'd have to be atleast somewhat sympathetic and aware to play this to begin with?

Because having to play characters you care about--that is, people, whom you can't help making being a person yourself--who are in that situation puts nails in the idea the lower class is lazy, dirty, stupid...dehumanized untouchables basically lower than animals. (And lest anyone chuckle or roll their eyes, I am not kidding about or overstating that perception in any way. I am deadly serious.)

This is more than just "fingering the wound" because there's a difference between having an intellectual understanding of all these issues, which you can easily push out of sight like you can with most things in your head, and having a personal, emotional connection to it that doesn't go away so easily, and which a game that highlights the humanity of untouchables can provide in part, forcing one to understand and empathize. (ie: if you spend your time thinking about the feelings and struggles of even a fictional construct in that situation, it's much more helpful and motivating than if you understand and accept only that the poor have struggles.)
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


I don't know, I think those stories don't necessary need to be seen only as depressing or as the fingering of a wound. Opportunities are maybe absent or missed, but still, people are living through those situations and manage to swim in those waters, they still have significant moments and experiences. Their life don't have to be felt as stories about some kind of victimization. Not fulfilling one's dream can be seen as a tragedy, but it don't need to be perceived as a constant state of being. Maybe even that Hope and the epilogue about fulfilling one's dream or not impose on those stories some unnecessary values or morale. I don't know, since those stories are also close to me, maybe I want to see them as ordinary stories that have their own inner value without needing of being morale or about sensibilisation. Maybe I also want to see them as not constantly sad or tragic even if they are about lack of opportunities (or missed ones).

Ron Edwards


Chris, one of my thoughts about this thread is that if we cannot utilize role-playing for the feelings and emergent stories for issues of this kind, then the medium itself is unsuitable for Narrativism. Emulating Hollywood is one thing; doing this is another. I happen to think that no fiction-creating medium is inherently limited in content, so I'm optimistic. Or to put it less abstractly, that "big black queezy sucking rock" is your signal to do it. If you were a filmmaker or a novelist, that'd be the case without controversy. And I'm guessing you know what to call such a creative person who shrinks away from the signal and remains with making only pablum, or even workmanlike quite-good stuff that happens not to be the BBQS rock.

(Side point: assuming the existence of a medium which is not capable of such content, the other, non-Narrativist things to do with it are not inferior or stupid. I'm talking in the context of the desire for fiction, and to create it, in the same or greater range of literature, theater, and film.)

Callan, I'm glad you posted that question. As I see it, there is no specific goal involved beyond that of what I called the cold grasping hand. If it's cold and grasping enough, then the person who feels it must re-evaluate his or her behavior. What will they do after that? I don't know. I definitely don't have a specific recommendation. What I want is to be around people, to live in a community including people, who've experienced that. Whatever actions or attitudes I'd be seeing and dealing with, I prefer those - including ones I might not like - to what I see and deal with now. I guess I'm saying ... to me, it doesn't "stop there" in terms of having played. Now that I think about it, or rather, as you've prompted me to think about it, if we're talking about having merely read it, yes, I agree with you. Maybe that's where Chris' stomach is at, actually. It's definitely in tune with Raven's point, because his post is about play.

Evlyn, one of the things I want to stress about the epilogues is that Maura and I weren't thinking in terms of constructing "the moral of the story," but rather thinking in terms of what the fiction so far made nigh-inevitable, as we saw it. I think that such endings do create (facilitate?) themes, which are themselves "the moral of the story" in simplistic terms, but I also think making them as I describe generates honesty and insight rather than imposing a false lesson. The best thing about the honesty and insight that I'm talking about is that it can prompt disturbance, not merely confirmation, of one's currently-held values. I think that's related to Callan's question in a positive way - if coming up with the point of the story in an external, overlaid, imposed way were to be done, then yes - the only possible result would be ... it's hard to find a word ... trivial.

Best, Ron