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Author Topic: Psi*Run at a creepy-odd angle  (Read 5429 times)
lumpley
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« on: June 22, 2009, 11:24:17 AM »

A little while ago I ran Psi*Run for Meg, Julia, and Rob. We played it in 3 sessions.

I was thinking that Psi*Run would be really good for survival horror, like The Descent: a group of women go spelunking, get trapped, and try to escape while being pursued by underearth cannibal troglodytes. Meanwhile they have flashbacks about why and how much they hate one another.

Then it occured to me that Psi*Run might be good for Jacob's Ladder: the pursuers aren't cannibals or men-in-black, they're an accelerating breakdown in the characters' realities, sign of an onrushing revelation or realization. I thought about ExistenZ or Naked Lunch, maybe, about trying to get a handle on what's happening while staying ahead of the horrible wrongness that's intruding into your world. So when we played, that's what I did.

I didn't tell the players that was what I was doing. I wanted to see what would happen.

I took it as my job, as GM, to:
1. Create accelerating breakdown in the PCs' world, according to the game's pursuit mechanism;
2. Make it all rock-solid and immediate in play. Even if what's happening doesn't make sense, everybody knows and sees exactly what's happening;
3. Make it as, like, aesthetically unified as I could: it's all weird and wrong, but the imagery all hangs together;
4. Absolutely not, under any circumstances, try to make any of it make sense. By Psi*Run's rules, that's the players' job, not mine.

Like, Julia has her character go to the Gideon's Bible in the drawer, and I say "it's blank." Why is the Gideon's Bible blank? I don't know! I'm committed to not knowing, in fact. I specifically disavow knowing why as part of my job. But there's no doubt about it, here's Julia's character in a crappy motel in Southern Utah standing at the dresser looking at the Gideon's Bible, and it's blank. Outside in the parking lot, the paramedics (chasers) are ignoring the motel clerk lying there with his cracked skull, and even though they're 50 feet away and there are walls between them, the characters in the room can hear their quiet conversation perfectly. It sounds like insects and static, like "murrmrrTZKK urrm nm KAKZ RZK mrimm roo KTAT..."

Or Rob has his character Aaron question an NPC named Ruth Boyer, psychically disguised as Ruth's NPC husband Tom. Ruth and Rob's character Aaron have never met.
Ruth: "Oh Tom it's you, I must have been sleeping. I thought for a minute you were Aaron. Oh what a relief."
Rob: "And that was bad?"
Ruth: "Bad? Of COURSE it was bad."
Rob: "Why was it bad?"
Ruth: "What on earth, Tom? You know why it was bad."
Rob: "Tell me anyway."
Ruth: "Oh damn you and your tests and your checking up on me."
Rob: "Just tell me."
Ruth: "You're serious. You need me to jump through this dumb hoop."
Rob: "Ruth, I need you to say it."
Ruth: "FINE. Because Aaron doesn't exist."
Rob: !
Rob: "Then who is Aaron?"
Ruth: "Tom, please don't make me go through this."
Rob: "NOW, Ruth. Who is Aaron?"
Ruth: [quietly] "...He's the one who made me murder Brenda. Oh, Tom, oh Tom, oh my little Brenda."
Rob: !!!
Ruth: [crying]
Rob: !!!

So that was really fun and easy, me barfing this kind of wrongness out, making sure it was all solid and immediate, but not worrying whether it made any sense overall. If there was a realization or revelation rushing toward the characters, the players were the ones who had to create it.

They didn't! There wasn't. Just a bunch of concrete weird creepy awfulness that never revealed anything.

The questions they had for their characters didn't lead to any central matter, like "you're all dead but haven't come to terms with it," or "this is INSIDE the game," or "you're all characters inside a little kid's fever dream."  When it was time for them to answer a question, they tended toward the superficial, the trivial, instead of digging deeper into the mystery. "Where's the zenith?" was on Julia's character. When the players answered it, they said "you pawned it. It was your mom's TV, is all." Julia: "that's all? That's too bad. Okay."

So that's how it went. At the end everybody said, "huh. Weird," and that was pretty much that.

So next time, maybe at the beginning of the game I'll say the words "Jacob's Ladder" out loud to the players. Maybe that will nudge them to dig in. Maybe it won't! I don't know.

-Vincent
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lumpley
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« Reply #1 on: June 22, 2009, 11:45:01 AM »

Oh, a couple more notes.

1. We played with my house rules mods for the game. I'll share 'em if anybody's setting up to play and interested in a couple of tweaks.

2. The middle session was super fun. The game didn't live up to my vision for it overall, but hell, how many movies do you know that fall apart in the third act? Many. But the middle session, man alive, I got to create really fun imagery and keep the players in a constant state of "oh no holy CRAP what is going on here this is crazy creepy cool." If the whole game had been as good as the middle session, I'd by flying.

3. Whose idea was it to play without letting the players in on it? Mine. What do I deserve? Exactly what I get.

-Vincent
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #2 on: June 22, 2009, 11:51:00 AM »

Vincent,
Thanks for posting this. This gives me a lot of food for thought for Ignorant Armies, my Willam S Burroughs game that I can't seem to get off the ground. Like, at all. Because I can't figure out how to present fucked up shit (or, to use a WSB phrase, "appropriate excess or atrocity") without explanation and let the players and/or characters interpret it subjectively and freely, while keeping those interpretations meaningful and impactful.

(That, and I won't be satisfied until I manage to work cut-ups into a mechanic or two.)

-Marshall
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John Harper
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« Reply #3 on: June 22, 2009, 01:17:18 PM »

I'd like to see those house rules.
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Robert Bohl
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« Reply #4 on: June 22, 2009, 04:00:40 PM »

Those house rules are so cool.
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Darcy Burgess
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« Reply #5 on: June 23, 2009, 06:17:21 AM »

Hey Vincent,

I kinda think that I know the answer, but it's not 100% clear.

Did your players know that it's their job to make sense of all the whackiness?  Is it explicit in their minds?

D
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Robert Bohl
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« Reply #6 on: June 23, 2009, 06:18:53 AM »

It wasn't, to me.
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lumpley
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« Reply #7 on: June 23, 2009, 06:30:28 AM »

Explicit in their minds, I don't know (and Rob says no, so, no). It's strongly implied by the rules and setup. I didn't make an especial point of it, but answers in the game come from the flashbacks, the answers to their questions, and I'm specifically barred from providing them. By the end of session 1 everybody knew that, if they didn't before, so I figured they'd make the leap.

There's this too: Psi*Run proper banks a lot on genre familiarity, but I was screwing around with the game's genre without bringing the players explicitly on-board. I figured I'd bring the players implicitly on-board, and that worked, but maybe it was still enough to baffle the game's genre-based processes.

-Vincent
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Meguey
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« Reply #8 on: June 23, 2009, 03:32:26 PM »

I wish we'd pushed deeper, too. I also think I never quite got the hang of setting my character up to get answers. I was surprised we finished the game in only three sessions, but I liked my character's ending - turns out Sandy was a mathematical construct, not really a person at all. Cool, huh?
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jdfristrom
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« Reply #9 on: October 27, 2010, 12:14:44 PM »

Wow, so glad I stumbled upon this post, being a fan of Philip Dick I've been mulling a game like this.  I've tried running something like it trad in a Cyberpunk game once, and that sucked, because it was a railroad.

I never did run a less trad one, but I did make a list of "unreality conditions" - wrong shit like "player seems to be in two places at the same time", "you see someone you thought was dead", etc.  And,  I was thinking of disguising it as a trad game where I'd follow their cues to figure out what really happened - either that, or keep pulling the rug out from under them, shattering every hypothesis as soon as they come up with one. 

And that sounds like exactly what you did.

It may be too late to resurrect the thread but...

So, you weren't satisfied.  You want that big reveal, right?  The "you're all dead" or "you're all brains in vats" or maybe a set of complicated things that work together in concert: "Joe's a robot" and "the hatch was an experiment" and "the town was created explicitly for you as a test"...

You say "I should have let the players in on it" but...man...don't you want that bleed?  As a player, I'd want to feel just as lost as the character.  Knowing that I'm actually authoring the reveal?  This is one place where I think I want the illusion of the there there.  I'd want you to pull the wool over my eyes.  And not even tell me you had done it, so you could do it again next time.  You'd even consult the "module" - some blank pages in a folder behind your GM screen...

Did you ever try this sort of thing again?  How'd it go?

I wonder if that means I shouldn't bother pursuing these lines either...


Here's some random extra thoughts I'm having right now:

I think the "reality turns out to be simulation" story is almost always unsatisfying at the end:

Spoiler warning, I'm about to kind of spoil the endings of a dozen "reality is simulation" stories.

Lost and the Prisoner - never have the reveal.  What and why is the island?  Who is number one?  Answers just raise more questions.  It's fun being on the ride but it never ends and you think the screenwriters don't have a clue either.

Imply it's not real but never give a definitive answer.  Total Recall / Inception.

Existenz, Truman Show, 13th Floor, the Matrix:  there's a transcendent signified.  Now we're in the Real real.    That's garbage to a postmodernist, right?  There is no real real, deal with it.  (Existenz wins, here, because it's self aware.  "Transcendenz!"  Awesome.  And it has the last little tweak.  Are they?  Maybe.)

Or Dark City - yeah, we don't know what the Real real is.  We're stuck here in our simulation, making the best of it.  But you're living in a dream, man!

Or - a fake reveal.  I don't want to spoil Ubik for you if you haven't read it, but it has the big reveal, and then in the last chapter Philip Dick throws us something that breaks the big reveal.  We thought we understood it and didn't.  That's cool but we feel kind of like we're just being fucked with.  More satisfying than Lost, I think?  At least there was a coherent explanation for everything that happened up to here.

Oh, Man in the High Castle.  "It turns out we're all characters in a book."  There's an ending for you.  Break the 4th wall.  "Turns out we're all just characters in a role-playing game!"   Yuck.

Just realizing now, Jacob's Ladder is the closest to being satisfying:  his conflict in the dream is real.  And though it has a real Real it symbolically leaves it open, right:  maybe there's more.


Maybe a best of both worlds is that the GM authors the big reveal, and the nature of the unreality is what gives the players their narrative power - within the dream.  It's really secretly a sim game.  The reason the players have narrative influence is because it's all just a dream.... 
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ophidian_flux
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« Reply #10 on: November 30, 2010, 02:44:58 PM »

Quote
Those house rules are so cool.

PSI-RUN! is my goto game in a pinch. I can run it at the drop of a hat ... almost any where.

Vincent, I would very much like to see those house rules, yes please!
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