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Author Topic: [Contenders] Grit, pain, and gangsters in 1930s Chicago  (Read 1054 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: September 12, 2010, 04:48:28 PM »

The Dice Dojo is fast becoming my regular Tuesday night out. This time I brought a whole bag of games: The Shab al-Hiri Roach, Bliss Stage, Contenders, Nine Worlds, Sign in Stranger, Dirty Secrets, Spione, Panty Explosion, Kagematsu, It Was a Mutual Decision, Escape from Tentacle City, carry, and more. I'm scrounging around for a few others to add as well, like My Life with Master. Actually, my plan is to organize multiple-session games for Spione, With Great Power, and Sign in Stranger with larger groups, if I become an accepted regular there, so they weren't really on my mental list for this visit. Timo wasn't there, and Mike was locked in boardgame combat, so I hooked up with two guys, Sam and Peter, who didn't know one another either. We looked over a few games, almost played Bliss Stage or The Roach, but settled on Contenders based on Sam's excited reaction to my description of the game.

Grim and ethnic
We decided to set our game in early 1930s Chicago. I briefly flashed on the possibility of future cyber-boxers, but quelled it in favor of canonical historical grittiness. Some day, perhaps.

Peter made up Billy, Irish-American, who's in it with his aging trainer, wanting to set up an independent boxing gym, with the implication that it wouldn't be so mobbed up and corrupt. His NPC boxer would eventually become Jack Donovan, a mobster's son who wanted to make a new for himself as a tough guy. Sam made up Toby, with a white mom and black dad, running a canned-goods shop; his Connection is his dad, whom he fears will die wretched after all his hard work; his NPC boxer would eventually become Chow, a tough Chinese guy who was part of an ongoing series of mob-based matches across the city. I made up Kaspar, a big Polish guy with a deceptively passive demeanor, who's turned to boxing to stay out of the Polish mob and to get his fiancee Elena out of debt to it, fearing she'll take up with a flashy gangster instead; my NPC boxer would eventually become Alex, a sort of roughneck white guy from Alabama.

Several other NPCs became colorful and a couple become consequential: Big Bill Donovan (Irish mob boss, Jack's father), Vern (scary Irish mob killer-type, initially aiding Jack against his father but later to betray him), the Geek (Polish boxing promoter), and Val (Polish mob debt collector, very slimy, fixated on Elena).

But all of that content is getting well into play. As we started, working with the sketchy bones of what would become quite a body of content, it swiftly became clear that I had landed the great jackpot of random game store draws for people to play with. Sam and Peter were fantastic. For one thing, they were enthusiastic about the system and wanted to try out its parts; for another, they really sympathized with their own player-characters as well as with the NPCs they'd play in others' scenes, with the effect that even some of the nastiest characters wound up at least somewhat understandable. We hit upon a three-deck system with one for boxing tactics, one for Domination draws, and one for Damage draws, and the off-player during any match was the shuffler.

I'd wondered just how much we'd get to play through, but as it turned out, we did the whole thing, with no short-cuts. We started out with lowly little Reps of 1 and 2, we cut no corners and scene by scene, we got up to Reputation 10, played the big final matches, and finished out our Epilogues.

How it turned out
It was great to revisit the game and really put it through the whole story-cycle, with everyone firing on all cylinders.

I guess the main thing is something that began in our very first scenes, didn't develop until about halfway through, didn't seem as central as it might until the climax, and only in retrospect became obvious as the linchpin from the very beginning: the disintegration of Elena's and Kaspar's romance. He didn't manage to make enough money for her to meet her debts until it was too late and she was vulnerable to Val; when he did make enough money Val had his hooks into her with interest; her friendship with Toby drove a further rift between her and Kaspar, especially when Toby beat Kaspar in the ring; her subordination to Val put her into prostitution (a fancy house, but still) and a night with Billy, which made Billy and Kaspar nigh-deadly enemies in the ring; and after the big match with Billy and Kaspar, while she was walking with her friend Toby, Kaspar came up and put a bullet in her head, then went to the electric chair. If I had the ability to direct a movie of this story, it would be told from her point of view from start to finish.

From the contenders' point of view, Toby's story was a hard-bitten, up-and-down but ultimately successful American Dream, or at least eking out family loyalty and love in the midst of hardship and prejudice. Kaspar's story was grim and awful, even when, or especially when, he tried to be a good person. It wasn't a death spiral because the system does allow bouncing back from the brink, but there's a lot of Fortune in that possibility, and the cards did not go my way, hardly ever. Billy's story was triumphant, being mainly a Hopeful climb to the top ... except that he did fight Dirty often enough, and do some pretty unpleasant compromises for the Donovans along the way, to keep that Hope un-burnt, and he risked turning that corner a few times too.

As for the NPC boxers, my character Alex only showed up once and wasn't too important; and the Chinese boxer Chow was getting pretty interesting until we decided that after losing three matches, he'd be mysteriously replaced by another Chinese guy, whom Toby fought in his final match. Jack Donovan, though, became almost a contender in his own right, as he struggled to get out from under his arrogant father's thumb and failed, especially when Billy became his father's new favorite. His loss in one of the later, pre-finals matches pretty much ended his story.

Given the final disparity between Billy and Kaspar, the final fight was still pretty chancy and climactic.

The three Epilogues were pretty straightforward at first glance: Toby connecting with his family, Billy facing off against Big Bill Donovan and getting his own gym to run, and Kaspar murdering Elena. However, since all three stories intertwined causally, the ultimate price-vs.-triumph relationship, and as I see it the emergent theme, was quite dark: basically, Kaspar was sacrificed at the altar of the others' hopes, and my question becomes, is any hope, Norman Rockwell or plucky-idealistic as it might be, worth doing this? If your Hope is fueled by another's Pain, what does it become? In a small-a-artsy way, I'm proud of what we did. It was a good story.

Some system observations
Although it's legal to introduce Crosses among player-characters' story content whenever you like, drawing a Joker requires it. I'd wondered in the past whether this was gratuitious, thinking that if someone wanted to Cross they'd do it anyway, and also that it's one fiddly thing to remember when you're busy doing other things. In our case, this mechanical imposition turned into the most significant plot-turning point in the game. Earlier, we'd had two Brawl scenes with Toby and Kaspar. The first had gone badly for the Toby, because Kaspar had just had a very bad day in Connections terms and was pretty unreasonable; the second was a tie, and worked out such that Toby had actually kept Val from harassing Elena, but Kaspar only saw the end-part of that interaction, and Elena had managed to defuse the situation, ending up with both men looking pretty decent. Well, Sam was running a Connections scene, bringing some money home to the family, and drew a Joker, positive, so he decided to have Elena be present, establishing that she and Toby had become friends.

This doesn't seem like much, but in combination with Kaspar burning his hope in Elena to 0 in a match, it led to a shared understanding that Elena had her own hopes and dreams and life outside of Connections with Kaspar. So our interest in her and the desire to bring her into other Crosses jumped up a little, again, prompted by the Joker draw. For instance, Billy was now under the wing of Big Bill Donovan, which was great for his boxing but rotten for his ultimate goals, and he'd won a big match in a "gentlemen's entertainment club" ... so Big Bill bought him a hooker. Which is when we find out what Elena is doing for money now that her relationship with Kaspar's gone sour. And which is why the next scene is Kaspar's Brawl, in which Billy steps out into the street to breathe the night air, look at the moon, and feel how life can be sweet sometimes, and then Kaspar clobbers him with a two-by-four. (With Pain at 9 or so, Kaspar was pretty fearsome in the Brawl scenes.)

Something I hadn't experienced much in previous play was the role of narration and Dirty Fighting. The narration rules are similar to those of Dust Devils and Primetime Adventures; of the cards drawn, high card narrates, which is utterly independent of who wins. We hadn't been finding that it mattered very much because narration had been a little communal ... until we realized that if you choose Dirty Fighting, the narrator determines whether the ref busts the character, so you are really hoping for that high card. Toward the end, specially when Kaspar was totally all-Pain-all-the-time, and Billy was gleaming out of all his seams with Hope, both would bring the Pain in their very first round. After that, and because Kaspar outweighed Billy in Conditioning, and because Peter didn't want to lose Hope past a very unforgiving threshold, both he and I were awfully tempted to Fight Dirty to get the edge in cards. So all of a sudden, the narration rules became the central feature of some of our best clashes.

Peter even tweaked this further during the final fight, which was a very close match, even though Kaspar was numerically the underdog. (Damn it, if I'd only drawn a weeny bit more red in the sea of black cards for Damage, I'd have taken Billy's ass down in the first Pain-driven, burned-Hope-driven round.) As it happened, I had Kaspar fight Dirty at one point, and Peter got the narration ... and chose, instead of the usual tactic to penalize me, to have Billy intimidate the ref into not calling the penalty, in a kind of "this is between me and him" way. This was a serious character moment, actually, the perfect setup for the two to end the fight exhausted a round or two later, just hanging onto each other in a bloody hatred-embrace, with Billy winning on points alone.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I was terribly, hideously hosed by card draws the whole night, especially at some very strategic moments when I'd managed to winkle big-ass draws out of the system, right when Billy, for instance, could have benefited greatly from a little humility (as Kaspar saw it). By halfway through the story, everyone at the table winced a bit with every added point of Kaspar's pain.

Another issue I've always thought was crucial in playing Contenders was the degree of fleshing-out for NPCs. The more, the better. In our case, a little surprisingly, it was the Connections NPCs who were a bit stifled, possibly because we found ourselves more interested in other NPCs besides Toby's dad or Billy's trainer. Therefore the Promotion and Work scenes ended up being especially vivid in comparison. Clearly, when we did slow down a bit, NPC play and interactions always worked and added a hell of a lot of depth and drama to what was going on. We merely didn't do it as much as we might have. I think the net effect was richer and more poignant than most movies manage, but it could have been even more so.

So! That's two great nights at the Dice Dojo, with entirely pick-up, "sure I'll play" impromptu groups. It started with good vibes with the other players, then developed as interconnections among us as people via a special blend of give-and-take, inspiration of content, and development of content which is found only in very good RPG design.

Best, Ron

P.S. For those who don't know the history: [Ronnies] Summary thread, October winners, original contest version, [Contenders] Ronnies feedback, published Contenders; you can also find a bunch of Actual Play threads if you run a search in the Archives.
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Joe J Prince
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« Reply #1 on: September 23, 2010, 05:58:39 PM »

Hi Ron

Thanks for the write up, good to hear Contenders provided you with such a powerful story! Sorry it's taken me a while to reply, I've been away.

Coincidentally I'm intending to use a 1920s/1930s setting for second edition Golden Age Contenders – which will hopefully be a RPG on cards. Have to see how this pans out though.

A little question on the crosses, do you think they need the positive(red)/negative(black) stipulation?

Relating to the Pain spiral – I did wonder whether it was a bit too dependant on fortune to get out of. So I've introduced a new scene type – Soothe in which you can lower Pain but at the cost of an In-Ring Trait. Soothe scenes are included in the Coyote Press Italian language version which is due for release at Lucca 2010.

I'm glad you got so much mileage from the NPC boxers, sometimes they don’t feature in the game at all. Personally I like having the option.

Cheers
Joe                               
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2010, 09:36:39 AM »

Hi Joe!

All cards? That sounds excellent.

1. The Soothe possibility would have been interesting in our game. I personally think it might have been good for us to have a couple of personal interactive scenes with Connection characters that were not technical Connection scenes, using the Free Play option, just to see what was good in the relationship, perhaps articulate some Hopes out loud, and not in the context of codependency.

2. I thought the positive-negative distinction for Jokers was fiddly in the first place, but changed my mind after this game. That's because the Joker demanded a positive cross, and Sam had Kaspar's fiancee Elena become a friend of his character Toby. This was such a big deal in play that we all looked back on that Joker as a crucial mechanics event, whose contribution was wholly desirable.

So that illustrates the difference between reading and playing ... but I do have one suggestion. Make all Joker-driven crosses positive. I suggest this because so much in the game is relentlessly negative, especially contender-contender interactions (Brawls, most Promotions) and a fair number of Connection scenes. We were already doing negative crosses as a subfeature of these sorts of scenes anyway. So for us, the Joker mechanic didn't stand out because it was a cross, but because it was a bit of decency, and as such, across Contenders' stories, significant for both. It so happened that it was ultimately good for Toby and awful for Kaspar, but I can see every long-term outcome is possible for both involved contenders.

Best, Ron
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