Recreating the Providence of the fiction of my youth

Started by Joshua A.C. Newman, July 02, 2009, 07:25:52 AM

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Joshua A.C. Newman

When I was 16 or so, probably around 1988 or 89, I had one of the best RPG experinces in my life. The following is told largely in fiction because that's the part I want to address.

I'd come to Gary, our perennial GM, and said that I wanted to do a vampire story. Kevin was there, too. Someday, I'll write about the hierarchical nature of our gaming group that any primatologist would recognize. But that is not this.

The game took place in Providence, RI, a place the players knew well. My character was a vampire. I ate people and got strength from them. This chafed some sort of occult authority, which evacuated Rhode Island, leaving my character (and Kevin's alligator-like monster character) more or less alone, to steal old cars and eat National Guardsmen.

Eventually, though, my character was caught. Some sort of extradimensional critter was put into the body of a little boy, and he turned me into a mandrake root.

I got a lucky roll (we literally called these "divine intervention rolls." You roll d100 and the GM decides what happens based on the result. I got 100, so he had to make up something good.) and before my consciousness is snuffed, a National Guard tank comes around the corner and scares the creepy little boy off.

So, here I am, a root.

Kevin's alligator character and I have a psychic link thanks to my vampire magic. I say to him, "Hey, I'm stuck here on Wickenden St. being a mandrake root. Can you come pick me up?"

When he does, I ask him to make tea out of me and put me in a bottle.

Then we hit up some art supply stores and get some vinyl tubing. We break into RISD and steal a skeleton, then run the vinyl tubing around the skeleton to make a circulatory system. I can now move around on my own, but I can't see or hear. so I replace the skull with a cow skull and put a 1988-sized video camera in it with microphones in the ears and run the cables into the tea bottle that is my heart. I make muscles of pipe insulation and duct tape. On my fingers are hypodermic needles (I'm a vampire, remember).

We travel around Rhode Island with Kevin following me around, cuz that's what he did. We make some magic items by saturating them with me-tea. We steal an antique car and a tank. I possess people by injecting me-tea into them, or I spray it through the keyhole to sense what's on the other side.

I believe we stole a Coast Guard boat in order to get out of RI.

We had a good time.

OK, so.

Gary, Kevin, and I were running at full-tilt creatively. This was a vampire story the way Baron Munchausen is about Turkey. Once we had a thing we were doing, it was our thing. We tossed back and forth bits of world, bits of character for week upon week, playing for twelve hours at a time on Saturday nights.

The world was vivid. The weird shit we did was easily agreed upon.

We were all motivated to explore, to create the entire time. There were times when things felt unfair or the rules-as-"written" (more or less D&D rules with a lot of handwaving) were deliberately obscured and it felt like I didn't have a tremendous amount of control but they were few and far between.

So, I'm trying to recreate this experience that I remember so clearly from 20 years ago with Xenon: Alien Science Fiction. And I'm trying to figure out what the fuck it is that we were doing that worked so well.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Jasper Flick

Vampire tea! Now that's an original character!

Let me have a guess...

You were all on the same page. You made shit up together. And you didn't really care if it didn't make sense or if it went anywhere. You played for the fun of the moment. You got to have your teenage power fantasy and get away with it, because you were were in it together.

You had a strong shared agenda and easily drifted the rules to accomodate that, instead of being tricked into another mode of play. You weren't yet trained to behave, so you just had fun.

Does that make any sense?
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Paul Czege

Real, true fantasy (not post-Tolkien trope fantasy) exists at the intersection of psychological desire (and need) and the imaginative (creative) extension of cause-and-effect and plausibility.

"[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

Joshua A.C. Newman

There were occasional clashes of CA, but this went on for a good part of a summer, I think, and that's to be expected from time to time when you haven't figure out what it is in a system that mattered.

The power fantasy part was, of course, fun to a 16-year-old nerdy punk. I mean, I liked Nitzer Ebb, fer Pete's sake.

The thing is that we were intensely creative. That's the important part. The "power fantasy" parts weren't where I beat up a bully, though I did at the beginning of the story, now that I think about it, but that Gary would come up with an insoluble problem ("The guys are in a tank") and I'd come up with a solution ("I stick one of my needle fingers into the rubber seal around the hatch and squirt some of myself inside to give myself a psychic link to the guy so he'll open up.") and he'd say, "Weird!" and then we'd go with it.

The thing is, it *did* make sense. It was a simple sort of sense (and maybe that's important), but the whole deal was, we were monsters, we were the last people in Rhode Island, and there was some sort of monster hunting monster that had been summoned by some sort of authority to exterminate us. The situation was violent (we were, after all, monsters), which might have meant that we knew what to do, but the way we — I, in particular — did it had not only tremendous latitude, but my creation was more or less accepted as we barreled along.

Paul, that's a thickly distilled thought. I'll chew on that.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Callan S.

Hi Joshua,

With that divine providence roll, if you had rolled low, would the creepy kid just have come over and stomped on you, killing the character - ie, none of that following creativity would have happened?

I suppose I'm being fairly direct and asking if this is creativity while at risk, or this is creativity while just under the perception of risk?

How often did you die? How often did the tank move/move against whatever insoluable problem not work and it's fifty mil machine gun just cut PC's to ribbons? Did you ever feel a slight incredulity that there are all these insoluble problems in life threatening situations, and yet there's an uncanny winning streak and still surviving PC's?



My question is similar to Callan's: was there any actual risk involved?  That includes the idea that all consequential failures and losses were simply presented as colorful twists on the current problem prompting you to ever increasing imaginative weirdness.

For what it's worth, you were the kids I (and still do) look at kind of strangely.  I don't really "get" this kind of play.  I think that's because for a long time I really didn't see any point in making a formalized game out of this kind of creative building.  Hell, I do this with more co-workers.  My name is Jesse.  One day one of my co-workers made a joke about me being like Jesse "The Body."  Then another one said that I was more "regal" than that.  That I was really, "Von Body."

Three years of "Von Body" jokes and now Baron Von Body runs the Hegemony of Tea where peons work the field kept in line by patrolling hungry lions.  The first thing he does in the morning is cleave his bed in two before mounting a steed that goes charging down the stairs.  As the mount charges down the stairs, Von Body beheads the peons that he has lined up each morning along the banister all before crashing through the front door to begin his day.

Did we really need a formal game to do this kind of "watercooler fantasy" as I've come to call it?  No.  When I sit down to GAME, I want something a little more focused and purposeful.  However, I've more recently come to form an appreciation of games that can give watercooler fantasy a little more shape and direction so that they're not just bits of randomness thrown together.

To that end I suggest you look at The Committee For The Exploration of Mysteries.  I hold this game pretty much as the under-appreciated king pin of watercooler fantasy.  The resolution system doesn't actually resolve anything because there's no actual risk.  Not mechanically.  Not fictionally.  It simply informs the trading (and escalation) of problem and solution much like you describe in your story.

Opposition: "You turn in to a root"
Player: "I make myself into a tea which I use to control a skeleton."
Opposition: "You can't see or hear."
Player: "I rig up a camera and microphones."
Opposition: "But you're still a vampire and hunger."
Player: "I attach hypodermic needs to my fingers."

Those are my thoughts.


Joshua A.C. Newman

Callan, my intuition says, divine intervention rolls were used when there was no plausible way out to the player and something had to happen from outside. My guess is, the boymonster would have imprisoned me and we'd have had to do something else for me to get free.

What was at risk was, do I get to say what happens or does Gary?

Jesse, here's the important part:

Quoteso that they're not just bits of randomness thrown together.

There was absolutely no randomness. It was all created out of pieces. We all knew the "world" (Providence, where we all went to clubs, had friends, sometimes lived, combined with Clive Barkerish horror, with which we were all familiar, and each our own proclivities, which we also knew), which means we had all the pieces to make stuff.

I'll have to check out the Committee. I'm only aware of it and haven't played. I suspect that it's not what I'm after, but I'd like to know how it does what it does.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Frank Tarcikowski

Joshua, thanks for posting this. It resonates very well with some things I have been thinking about a lot for the last year or so, about why certain things worked well back then and don't work well now, even though on paper (or screen) it looks like they should. If you like to, check out my thread [liquid] Well, I just rolled the dice for show.

I think "handwaving" is a bad term for an important technique that would be more fittingly described as, I dunno, maybe "mutual approval". The visionary Mr. Paul Czege has it all figured out in the above linked thread:

Quote from: Paul Czege on February 14, 2009, 04:46:22 AM
With the vast majority of games that apportion narration rights, play is about everyone gamely deferring to the mechanics and politely and supportively accepting contributions to the SIS. You know how the rest of the family claps and politely enthuses "good answer" on Family Feud, even when the answer is clearly pathetic? I think what you had in your Liquid game experience was social collaboration where quality mattered. Group dynamics and the expression of real, human authority determined what contributions made it into the SIS.

Your Liquid game wasn't made memorable by the way the resolution mechanics incrementally built the SIS; it was made memorable because the gateway to the SIS was dynamic, social assessment of creative contributions. Mechanics for the sanitary apportioning of narration rights can't compete with that.

I know nothing of Xenon, but I suggest that a lack of structure or, more precisely, of very clearly laid out procedures and roles, may be prerequisite for the kind of creative, collaborative goodness you guys had back then.

Is this anything along the lines you are thinking, or am I hijacking your thread?
- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Joshua A.C. Newman

Yeah, Frank, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I actually had a long series of posts on Facebook about authority that I should really turn into a blog post.

I'm trying to figure out how to divide it up so each others' contributions as creative constraints. I'm pretty confident that such a system will yield a complex, mysterious world where there will be things behind other things when you look there.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Callan S.

For myself, that doesn't seem to make sense? You can't have a lack of structure and have a structure to divide up others contributions as constraints?

I'm not even sure a lack of structure is the only way to obtain this creativity - throwing suggestions back and forth over the table at a game can be just as mutually supportive, encouraging and wild, even if your using a rigid game system. But alot of people seem to want to talk directly into the SIS, and for example, just say you start using a skeleton infused with tea, rather than throw across the idea "Hey, just imagine me making a tea of myself and pumping it into a cool is that!?" as a validation stage (as mentioned in this thread). I think there's an idea in RP culture that "In RP, you can do anything!!1!", which encourages bypassing any validation/throw suggestions back and forth stage.

Mind you, come to think of it, there's also a pattern of GM's speaking directly into the SIS without a validation stage, either. That imbalance of position (you seeking validation from someone who doesn't or wont seek validation from you) probably encourages players speaking directly in, as well.

Joshua A.C. Newman

the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Callan S.

Well, if you have any further questions, feel free. Otherwise saying that doesn't convey anything in particular to me.

Jasper Flick

If I may, Callan is contrasting "I do A! Then I do B!" with "I want to do A. Is that OK? Then I want to do B. Is that OK?"

The interesting question is whether those OK-steps were part of your play and if you remember them. Or was anything accepted and was the onus on the other players to react to it? Was there a strong difference in authority between players and GM?

This reminds me a bit about a thread on Capes, postulating that the weirdness can only go up.
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Paul Czege

Hey Joshua,

I'm not seeing a lot of actual conversation in the last sequence of posts.

Frank's contribution was solid conversational input, but I'm not sure your response takes what Frank said in the spirit of actual conversation.

And then Callan made an observation that I think is pretty clearly understood, suggesting that designing to your Providence gameplay experience isn't about creating a structure, but about aiming for the productive gameplay confluence of structure and non-structure, and you rather meanly imply that he wasn't making sense.

Bully for him telling you to come back when you're ready for conversation.

"[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

Joshua, have you reached the point at which you have reported what you wanted, raised the questions that you wanted, and taken them as far as you might have wanted?

If the answers to my questions are yes, then the best thing is for everyone to say "thanks" and to let this stand as one of the better thought-provoking topics in a long time, and not have it turn into a topic-less who-knows-what after it should have ended.

If the answers are no, then please tell us what question or issue you want to see pursued here.

Best, Ron