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Author Topic: [Death's Head] Ronnies feedback  (Read 2810 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 08, 2011, 07:35:19 PM »

Rudy Johnson's Death’s Head is all kinds of ballsy. I started reading it, was excited to find it to be a particular kind of scary, then found it switched to another kind, and then realized it had turned into both. If you haven't read it yet, please do. I don't know how to describe the actual topic except for what the text says. Fuck. Ing. Metal. But yet genuinely open, "soft" in the good sense, and deeply personal. Tough love with the second word just as strong as the first.

There are some really cool, intriguing features to note right off: the excellent introduction which oriented me perfectly concerning history, psychology, and horror/fantasy, the epilogue rules which tied right into that exact point, the guidelines for interrogation questions, and that whack-me instruction about turning the chess board around. I call attention to these because any of them could have been present but either caricatured into utterly boring over-fantastic forms or done in a ham-handed and unconsidered way. Whereas the way they are done and presented is just spot-on.

I also found myself littering the text with exclamation points in the margins. I'll list the stuff I did that for.

! Player-characters are the SS-TV guys (I was expecting them to be the camp prisoners)
! Zombies without being merely more fuckin' zombies (I mean, concentration camp prisoners are physically too much like zombies for comfort already; I'm pretty sure no film director has dared go with this)
! Did that say chess board?
! Beginning with post-defeat military tribunal interrogationsm (brilliant blend of character creation + scenario preparation)
! Dude, when you lose a pawn or rook or whatever, it affects everyone’s traits associated with that piece (I did not see that coming)

On to system talk. This is quite likely the perviest system I’ve ever seen in a contest submission, and I am deeply suspicious of cute, funky mechanics which wow the reader and then turn out to be inconsequential poncing around. But as it stands now, it looks like it could work, and I can see nothing which is obviously removable. It all seems to be there for a reason, and what's more, I see no extraneous parts either. Just about ever common assumption about how role-playing works seems to have been stripped away, and the game was then written from the ground up. So all I can say is that freaky as it may be, it's ready for playtesting, and since the text does in fact tell me how to play, I can only try it out.

Um, one thing
The text says you don’t have to be good at chess. Rudy, are you sure? Why not? 'Cause as far as I can tell you are in fact trying for checkmate.

Let me develop that a little more. I'm curious as to whether the strategic element of which piece to move operates (i) as a fruitful motor for the aesthetic element of what you'd very much like your character to do, or (ii) at cross-purposes to it. What do you do if the best chess move immediately available and the action you are simply dying to take do not match? I'm pretty sure I'm correct in saying that one's goal as a player is not first and foremost to beat the GM at the chess game - but it does enter into the picture. The issue is whether it's a supportive entry in terms of the stated (and otherwise gorgeously supported) goals of play.

Minor points
I suggest that you provide a more specific playlist or genre recommendation for the music. It’s an important part of the design and for once I don’t think it should be too customizable. And as a related point, I say go for using a real concentration camp as much as possible, with the GM doing the necessary research as pre-game prep. I guess it's gotta be fictional so that the camp's liquidation by the SS-TV can be included, but otherwise, it's way too late for distancing, man; that horse left the barn two-thirds down the first page.

I suggest revisiting and renaming the steps of play. Although it's true that the first looks like character creation and the last looks like epilogue, I kept getting tripped up about the phases. I suggest that it's all "play," and that the interrogation is phase 1, the pre-horde part is phase 2, the horde part is phase 3, and the Epilogue is phase 4. A minor thing perhaps, but I really didn't grasp the rules until I went back and wrote these in on the text.

Minor procedures questions
Why doesn’t the shooting in the example activate the King instead? Does the player have a choice of which pieces to move, if an action seems to activate multiple traits?

What if the piece your action activates is unable to move (e.g. the King or a Rook in the first move of the game)? Are you barred from narrating such actions?

That business about “lose narrative control” regarding the King and Queen – does this mean you cannot use those traits? How does that relate to what you can and cannot announce as an action? Does that loss apply to all players the way that losses of other pieces apparently do?

Is there some way to avoid the checkmate rules from undercutting the established content? I guess I'm saying that I don't see any reason for a given play-experience to end without the hordes step. If we have all this great input during the interrogation scene, in which the claim that the prisoners turned into zombies is most likely met with baffled outrage by the interrogators, and we have that shocking and wonderful final question waiting for us in the epilogue ... then what do we do with a checkmate before the hordes get going? A totally mundane story now? Wait a minute, isn't that totally obviating not only the utterly disturbing and engaging horror that brought us here, but also the most important question of the whole game?

Whew - I'll say it again. This is the utterly ballsiest RPG I have ever seen. Rudy, playtest it, develop it, publish it.

Best, Ron
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Abkajud
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« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2011, 10:45:17 PM »

This game is intriguing, although I am squicking at the stuff about "blood libel rumors" and the flesh-eating.

Ron, I agree that the chess element in the game is actually highly skill-based: even if you have five different players and they're all reasonably good at chess (so, five good heads are better than one, and all that), having to make a chess move that's either fictionally random and tactically sound or vice-versa sounds a little strange. I'm really, really intrigued by the use of a chess board, but I think the GM needs to be constrained, forced to make random moves like the players are, for this to be fair.
Incidentally, five BAD chess players, working together, are still no match for one really good chess player. Any fellow chess fans out there may agree: the famous Morphy/Brunswick game had a, what, 20-year-old Louisiana man up against a duke and a fucking count of France, and he beat them even though they got to confer on every move together. Not that you should think they're good 'cause they're noblemen. That's what they probably thought (so the legend is usually framed), but you shouldn't think that ^__^

Being significantly better at chess will likely win the game for you every time, and having to make random moves is one hell of a handicap.

Still, it sounds like things improve as you lose pawns and pieces that come in groups of 2+ per side, as they force the GM to move the type of piece that made *story* sense, not tactical sense.

THAT ASIDE

Rudy, man, this is a very cool, unusual, exciting format to check out - narration as interrogation/testimony? Rad. And, shit, man, this is kind of a World War Z: Circa 1945 Edition, yeah? Brilliant.
Only thing I'd add is: so, why did they become zombies? That is, establish that in play. If you hand American RP'ers some elements like Nazis, zombies, and concentration camp victims, they will likely concoct a rather fanciful tale of Nazi necromancy and devil worship, a la Hellboy, The Life Eaters (bad comic, good premise), and so on. RUN THAT SHIT, SON.

Well done! I'm a chess teacher for a living, and I'm getting a little jammed up on/eager to help playtest the chess elements of your game, but I really really want to make it work so I can unleash the Blond Beast.
Shit, now I've squicked myself out. :)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2011, 04:50:56 AM »

Hi Norm,

This post is to present points of contrast with yours, rather than arguing with you. Different takes for Rudy to consider.

1. I see the content as confrontational - facing the issues of the Holocaust, and most especially, getting past the long-held stereotype of the pathological German to ask how it is that humans, who could very well be ourselves, do these things. Therefore I don't see any hint in the game either that blood libels "might be true" or that there's some kind of visceral joy to be found in playing an SS-TV guy mowing down hordes of Jews, plus communists, gypsies, et cetera.

It's very likely that these references in your post are strictly humor-horror on your part, and if so, I get that. My point is that I was not squicked so much as awed. Again, this is presented for Rudy to observe different responses and we don't have to debate or justify those reponses to each other.

2. I prefer that the reason-for-zombies be left to the individual play experience. One reason is that I think that all such explanations in the source material is flat-out fluff; zombie stories are essentially about the people in crisis and the only important thing about zombification is that it be irreversible and due in part to human agency or ignorance. The other reason is that the game's scorpion-sting lies in the possibility that none of the zombie experience was true, but wholly in the minds of the player-characters. A canonical reason for the zombies seems to remove that aspect of play.

3 Regarding chess, I'm more and more coming to think that winning the chess game cannot be a first priority of using the mechanics. My big question remains for Rudy, but that's the way I'm leaning at the moment. If that's the way to go, then the question concerns what value is added by trying to win the chess game at all, and to see whether that can be a fruitful, reinforcing part of the system.

For example, Dust Devils uses poker hand comparison very effectively and totally in line with the priorities of the game as a whole. But you don't play poker as a subset feature of playing Dust Devils. Poker is invoked - and again, very well, specifically in contrast to the wretched and distorted attempt to do the same thing in Deadlands - but it is not employed. A person who loves playing poker will not like playing Dust Devils, or rather, will find that his or her expertise and sophistication with poker is not relevant to enjoying Dust Devils. I'm thinking that something like this may do well for Death's Head.

Best, Ron
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Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2011, 06:57:40 AM »

Heya,

3 Regarding chess, I'm more and more coming to think that winning the chess game cannot be a first priority of using the mechanics. My big question remains for Rudy, but that's the way I'm leaning at the moment. If that's the way to go, then the question concerns what value is added by trying to win the chess game at all, and to see whether that can be a fruitful, reinforcing part of the system.

For example, Dust Devils uses poker hand comparison very effectively and totally in line with the priorities of the game as a whole. But you don't play poker as a subset feature of playing Dust Devils. Poker is invoked - and again, very well, specifically in contrast to the wretched and distorted attempt to do the same thing in Deadlands - but it is not employed. A person who loves playing poker will not like playing Dust Devils, or rather, will find that his or her expertise and sophistication with poker is not relevant to enjoying Dust Devils. I'm thinking that something like this may do well for Death's Head.

Best, Ron

Just to toss an idea out, why not examine the number of pieces taken during the chess game rather than examining whether or not one player has achieved checkmate.  I.E., rather than playing for checkmate you're just playing for strait-up kills.  All the normal rules of movement would apply (perhaps except those involving the King's movents while in check/check-mate).  This way, you could still advance the game but not be so focussed on winning the chess portion.  Do you think that might be workable?

Peace,

-Troy
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Abkajud
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« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2011, 01:23:58 PM »

Hey Ron,
I think we may have been saying the same thing about "what ARE the zombies?" content; I may just not have expressed myself very clearly. What I was driving at, what I think would be best, is if the players figure out the "zombies" as they go, as they play. Sounds like what you're saying, and I think that's way more interesting than telling people what's going on via the text. Cool.

As for blood libel and so on, I suppose I was just being a nervous nelly and unnecessarily fretting over what people might do with the game. But it occurs to me that the only people who would "go there" with it are probably already anti-Semites. And we cannot be asked to account for the predilections of racists in our design. ^_^

As for chess, I submitted something for Game Chef '10 that used "win at mancala" to resolve conflict, and that was too distracting for a lot of people who heard the idea. Winning a skill-based game in the *middle* of narrative play could be pretty distracting.
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FetusCommander
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« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2011, 01:28:28 PM »

Um, one thing
The text says you don’t have to be good at chess. Rudy, are you sure? Why not? 'Cause as far as I can tell you are in fact trying for checkmate.

Let me develop that a little more. I'm curious as to whether the strategic element of which piece to move operates (i) as a fruitful motor for the aesthetic element of what you'd very much like your character to do, or (ii) at cross-purposes to it. What do you do if the best chess move immediately available and the action you are simply dying to take do not match? I'm pretty sure I'm correct in saying that one's goal as a player is not first and foremost to beat the GM at the chess game - but it does enter into the picture. The issue is whether it's a supportive entry in terms of the stated (and otherwise gorgeously supported) goals of play.

This is something that until now, I was figuring would just be "up to the player."  It didn't strike me as particularly wrong that some people would play very strategically and some would not and you could have both at the same table.  What the text maybe should have said is "try to play with people of the same skill level," but that doesn't really seem right either.  I'll need to think on this some more, but as it stands, I don't feel that winning the chess game should be a high priority.  It's something that's there more to reflect on your situation and build tension than it is as a strategy-fest.

Quote
Minor points
I suggest that you provide a more specific playlist or genre recommendation for the music. It’s an important part of the design and for once I don’t think it should be too customizable. And as a related point, I say go for using a real concentration camp as much as possible, with the GM doing the necessary research as pre-game prep. I guess it's gotta be fictional so that the camp's liquidation by the SS-TV can be included, but otherwise, it's way too late for distancing, man; that horse left the barn two-thirds down the first page.

I suggest revisiting and renaming the steps of play. Although it's true that the first looks like character creation and the last looks like epilogue, I kept getting tripped up about the phases. I suggest that it's all "play," and that the interrogation is phase 1, the pre-horde part is phase 2, the horde part is phase 3, and the Epilogue is phase 4. A minor thing perhaps, but I really didn't grasp the rules until I went back and wrote these in on the text.

Thanks for this, I'll be picking through the text and doing a lot of fiddling to make sure it's more readable, and this will help.

Quote
Why doesn’t the shooting in the example activate the King instead? Does the player have a choice of which pieces to move, if an action seems to activate multiple traits?

My thoughts were that it could activate either, but early in the game the King may be unable to move, which gets into your next question:

Quote
What if the piece your action activates is unable to move (e.g. the King or a Rook in the first move of the game)? Are you barred from narrating such actions?

You aren't barred from narrating actions, no.  That only happens if the piece is gone.

Quote
That business about “lose narrative control” regarding the King and Queen – does this mean you cannot use those traits? How does that relate to what you can and cannot announce as an action? Does that loss apply to all players the way that losses of other pieces apparently do?

It doesn't mean you can't use the traits.  What it means is that when you do an action in-game that invokes such a trait, you have to "ask" the GM what the outcome of it is; you lose the ability to just straight narrate any outcome you please.  This applies to all players.

Quote
Is there some way to avoid the checkmate rules from undercutting the established content? I guess I'm saying that I don't see any reason for a given play-experience to end without the hordes step. If we have all this great input during the interrogation scene, in which the claim that the prisoners turned into zombies is most likely met with baffled outrage by the interrogators, and we have that shocking and wonderful final question waiting for us in the epilogue ... then what do we do with a checkmate before the hordes get going? A totally mundane story now? Wait a minute, isn't that totally obviating not only the utterly disturbing and engaging horror that brought us here, but also the most important question of the whole game?

This is again something I'm going to have to think about.  On one hand, I sort of wanted the possibility of a "mundane ending" to be there.  On the other, I can see that it does obviously undercut the real meat of the game as you've said.  I'm really not sure what's gained, as far as reflection, from "winning" in the Camp phase without experiencing any of the Hordes.


To respond to Troy's point:

Quote
Just to toss an idea out, why not examine the number of pieces taken during the chess game rather than examining whether or not one player has achieved checkmate.  I.E., rather than playing for checkmate you're just playing for strait-up kills.  All the normal rules of movement would apply (perhaps except those involving the King's movents while in check/check-mate).  This way, you could still advance the game but not be so focussed on winning the chess portion.  Do you think that might be workable?

For me, some of the tension of the board switcheroo comes from the fact that you might accidentally bring yourself closer to checkmate, and the checkmate mechanic is something that I'd like to see preserved if possible.  That said, I think the way that you mentioned could still provide some of that tension.  It will require some significant reworking of the "Winning and Losing" section, but Ron's concerns have made me think that may be necessary anyway.  I might give it a shot in playtest and see how it runs.
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Rudy Johnson
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« Reply #6 on: January 10, 2011, 12:24:56 AM »

I thought this was very interesting indeed.  On the chess thing, first let me say that the skill level thing seems of low relevance becuase the board gets reversed, so in fact the weaker side will end up benefitting from the stronger sides position at the point of reversal.  also, with a random time limit, I'm not sure how likely it is that a game will complete at all.

On the issue of soundtracks etc, my experience is that if play is engaging, we have had zero awareness of soundtrack, to the point that it exists only as noise and gets turned off.  So possibly this device is not goint to work well from some groups; I feel I would be unlikely to notice the key track, and would have to be half-disengaged to keep listening for it.

Lastly, I really really like the idea of constraining possible movers by the logic of the chess game.  All too often with recent designs I'm left with no real idea of what I would want to do, or how I would select from the various possible things that could be done.  To have the logic of the chess game provide this framework seems like genius to me, although with some caveats.  Id almost rather draw from a random deck than have to deal with actually or partially nature of chess as such.  But I love the idea of possible actions being prompted and limited by some sort of external device.
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Bret Gillan
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« Reply #7 on: January 10, 2011, 08:32:15 PM »

I can't add a lot to the praise of the game. The premise makes me uncomfortable in a way that means I'm engaged and drawn in. Interrogation as character creation is fantastic. I love the way other players generate my character for me. Chess as a resolution mechanic made me first roll me eyes, but then grin as I read more. I really think it works. The only obstacle to play for me is the music. Perhaps in a playtest it wouldn't be as unwieldy as I imagine, but I'm thinking of bathroom breaks, out of character kibitzing, and answering the door when the pizza arrives - do I have to pause the music each time? Do I really have to dig out a boom box or whatever to play the game? etc.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2011, 08:56:34 PM »

Regarding the music, I remain on the fence about it as a formal technique in role-playing. I am a lot like Gareth; music fails to bug me during play insofar as I'm not paying attention to it. I can think of a few times when this was not the case and I really enjoyed the music and it played a big role for all of us. My recent playtest of Skull Full of Bong Hits is an example (actual play posting is still in the shop). The question is whether and how this can be made a reliable rules feature and not a happy accident. I have not yet played Ribbon Drive, although I want to. Whatever happens with that will probably help shape my views.

For Death's Head, perhaps the stopping point for the phases might come when the GM notices the stop-song is in progress, rather than being concerned with catching it right as it starts. Just in case that minor distinction turns out to be important.

Best, Ron
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FetusCommander
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« Reply #9 on: January 10, 2011, 09:25:12 PM »

The only obstacle to play for me is the music. Perhaps in a playtest it wouldn't be as unwieldy as I imagine, but I'm thinking of bathroom breaks, out of character kibitzing, and answering the door when the pizza arrives - do I have to pause the music each time? Do I really have to dig out a boom box or whatever to play the game? etc.

I would think that bathroom breaks would warrant a pause in the music, as well as a significant interruption like answering the door (out of character chatter maybe not so much).  I can understand your concern about the extra equipment required though, and that's something I'll have to consider during playtests (and possibly find an alternative for).

I do like Ron's suggestion about the GM noticing the stop song though.

One thing William suggested today was to use a deck of cards instead of music.  Basically, you turn over a card with every move on the chess board, and if it's the joker, you flip the board.  I like that idea, and think that worst comes to worst, it could be used as a good alternative.

At any rate, thanks for all the feedback guys.  This is proving very useful.
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Rudy Johnson
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2011, 08:08:23 AM »

William, another point - I have no idea what a "thematic WWII ballad" might be. Can you provide some recommendations for what you had in mind for play?

Also, to my astonishment, if you run a Google search on "heavy metal ride of the valkyries," you find someone called the Great Kat, and um, well, check it out for yourself. The Ride of the Valkyries may be too merged with "Kill da Wabbit" in my mind, but regardless I am finding the Wagner's War album quite horrifying but also very tempting for my - admittedly definitely not ballad-ic - notions about playing Death's Head.

Best, Ron
« Last Edit: January 13, 2011, 08:10:34 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Phil K.
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« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2011, 09:23:34 AM »

Whoa... I'm a huge fan of metal that's inspired by or interpretations of classical works. Great Kat is now on my list of music to review.
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FetusCommander
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« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2011, 09:47:48 AM »

William, another point - I have no idea what a "thematic WWII ballad" might be. Can you provide some recommendations for what you had in mind for play?

Also, to my astonishment, if you run a Google search on "heavy metal ride of the valkyries," you find someone called the Great Kat, and um, well, check it out for yourself. The Ride of the Valkyries may be too merged with "Kill da Wabbit" in my mind, but regardless I am finding the Wagner's War album quite horrifying but also very tempting for my - admittedly definitely not ballad-ic - notions about playing Death's Head.

Best, Ron

One thing that definitely comes to mind, for me anyway, is all the WWII marching music (particularly the German songs), perhaps with the cue tracks being something like what you've linked to up there so that they're easily distinguished.
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Rudy Johnson
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2011, 09:58:41 AM »

I don't want to jack the thread, but my initial stunned delight at looking at the Great Kat page was unpleasantly curbed by discovering her atrocious, moronic, and bigoted politics.

But maybe that fits too. I'd be playing an SS-TV character, after all. Maybe the edgy and horrible aspects of doing that would be all the more reinforced by playing music which as far as I can tell is expressing the modern equivalent of those views. Maybe - and even if so, it'd mean giving money to the expletive, alternate expletive person. Talk about your moral conundrums ...

Sorry Rudy - I now moderate myself to get back to the topic.

Best, Ron
edited to fix strikethrough format
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