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Author Topic: [Skull Full of Bong Hits] I am the archmage of black! death! storm!  (Read 1303 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 17, 2011, 11:10:49 AM »

See also [Skull Full of Bong Hits] Ronnies feedback, especially for the rules summary, and for a link to the Ronnies entry.

Noam is right: this game is astonishingly poignant. Some of my concerns about the game turned out to be perfectly no problem, whereas another emerged into view.

Tod, Julie, Maura, and I chose 1977, partly because we'd just been having an extensive conversation about the old TV show Barney Miller, specifically my recent ownership and marathon (re)watching of the first three seasons on DVD.* I am aggravated that I'm not easily finding the 3x5 cards we used, which had all the necessary information on them. From what I remember:

My character seriously worked hard all day and needed to unwind. His starting Ambitions were to climb a mountain, to get some respect at his job, and to write a novel (or screenplay, or TV show). Tod's character was "the music guy" in college, always knowledgeable about bands and trends, probably in and out of various bands-in-formation; I don't think he said this outright, but his description made me think of the guys who always took pains to dress like professional musicians. I don't remember his Ambitions, unfortunately. Maura's character was a liberated woman who was now lonely and dissatisfied. Her Ambitions included finding a man she could trust. Julie described her character as "Dorothy Hamill is my goddess," and that she was doing very well in college despite having not decided upon a major yet. Her Ambitions included finding a major and learning to skate.

We didn't actually reveal our ambitions when play began, but played toward them in the not-stoned phases of play, and revealed the abandoned ones upon returning from the stoned-phases of play.

Maura's archmage was the divine earth-mother, Julie's was the ice queen, Tod's was the cosmic bard, and mine was described by three words, black, death, and storm.

I wanted to include an interesting note about pot. The text refers to the characters as slackers and stoners, and as a back-in-the-day Cheech and Chong fan, I see the value in that. However, given the year we chose, smoking pot occasionally or even semi-regularly could be found among ... well, shoot, among just about everybody, and those terms didn't necessarily apply. Not that it's a big deal, but I think that the game pays off big-time in terms of examining one's/the past, and for at least some of us old people (the group's age range is 44-47), it's a minor disjunct point. Most specifically, our characters' more mainstream/professional ambitions were not immediately obviated simply because they were recreational dope-smokers, as they might be today in say, a movie.

We played three rounds. Our characters' location was actually exactly the same as described in the text because it fit the era perfectly. For each awesome stoned sequence, Tod jumped to his voluminous tunes library and chose an album from that very year. The first one was a live Bowie album.

Our first awesome scene involved fighting horrific air-galloping horses and their riders in a kind of mountaintop apocalypse scene (we each had our own mountaintop, thank you). It turned out that our battles up there were directly matching and possibly resulting in the outcomes of clashes of whole armies and besieged peoples down in the lowlands. Our enemy turned out to be the Thin Pale Duke, the ex-lover of the earth mother archmage. My character did the Awesome Thing when she was trampled and disintegrated by the horses, and he thrust his hand into the earth to overpower death and resurrect her, bursting forth twenty times as resplendent as before. The other characters did awesome stuff too, like the bard guy turning the humongous skeletal worm-dragon back upon the Duke.

I rolled a 6 on the time die, for 1983. Tod spoke for us all: "Who's president?!" My character had lost my "get respect at work" Ambition and was rapidly becoming a useless drone, and my efforts toward the other ambitions met corporate fates quite characteristic of the time. Maura's character found she was living with a real pain-in-the-ass guy. We played quite a while in this phase, channeling our real-life historical horror at that year and those times.

It was kind of amazing that as we entered into the second round of firin' up the bong, Tod and I were suddenly very sympathetic to our characters' desire to get the hell out of this year and this life. Our second awesome adventure had to do with my character having delved too deeply into the secrets of death, generating a horrific void in the universe that was creeping outward and withering and draining everything. The other three had to go in an rescue him. Among others, Julie's character did the awesome thing when she sacrificed herself, internalizing the void and becoming frozen so that the sun could rise again and the world restored. This time the music was the Oh No It's Devo album.

Then I rolled a damned 1. 1984. To anachronistically quote Father Jack from Father Ted when he briefly sobered up: "Oh no! I'm still on that fuckin' island!" We rapidly free-associated all the horrible stuff that our characters had to digest at one moment: John Lennon's assassination, among others; I'm too traumatized to try to reconstruct all the stuff we fired off. We played our characters for a while again, including the tragedy of Julie's character finding that her ice skates had been mislaid forever, and the rather edgy addition that Maura's character was eight months pregnant.

You know, I'm trying to remember if we made it to a third awesome adventure, although I kinda think we did. But at this point we realized that if we were to continue, all of us would be out of ambitions with as much as fifteen years to go before hitting the Singularity. We might have gone ahead and done it - grim and grey as it might be - but real-life time was also a factor and we had to close up the session. Also, even if we'd kept going, we never would have got to do the Singularity play as we'd have to stop when we hit it.

So that was my concern that arose from playtesting: basically stuck in the past for a long time. Should the years-increment be a graded die roll based on how far back you start? Julie suggested a die per decade, which seems like a good idea to me. We would have started with a 4d6 roll (!). Perhaps that idea applies to each iteration of play, so that if we did that, and rolled, say, a 15 to bring us up to 1992 for the second round, our next roll would have been 2d6. So as you get closer to the Singularity, the number of years you hop up decreases.

Overall, although we only really experienced half the play-potential (all pre-Singularity), the game got a huge thumbs-up on the powerful aspects of reflecting on the past. I find myself curious to play it with a group which includes dissimilar ages.

Best, Ron

* Dietrich is awesome. My wife insists he must have Asperger's. I maintain, possibly not in contradiction to her, that he's a Zen saint.
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Maura Byrne
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« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2011, 09:37:35 PM »

Ron, I, too, am really disappointed that you can't find those 3x5 cards.  From what I remember, our remaining ambitions were kind of sad, because they were so dated.  Tod's last remaining ambition, if I recall correctly, was to go to West Berlin and experience the music scene there, which seemed really sad in 1984.  My last remaining ambition was to write female-friendly sketches for "The Electric Company," which was seriously played out by then.  But the one it hurt to lose was "find a boyfriend who respects me," which is why my character ended up in 1984 knocked up by and living with a guy who cheated on her. 

I enjoyed playing entirely in the past.  Although there was less of a culture shock when we jumped from 1983 to 1984 than when we jumped from 1977 to 1983.  That first jump in time left each of our characters kind of traumatized and enthusiastically returning to the basement to get high.  Maybe it would work better to jump ahead at least a decade each time.  For us, anyway.  We might be able to get to the Singularity, and post-1970 (if memory serves) jumping ahead a decade means changes in technology and culture that would be significantly shocking to the characters. 

But that's not why I'm posting.  I'm posting because the age range of the group is not 44-47.  It is 42-47.  For the next two weeks, anyway.
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Nick Aubergine
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« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2011, 10:24:44 PM »

That is so fucking rad!

Julie's idea of dice progression is probably the best fix. Except, I think it should go the OTHER way: Roll 1d6 after the first "trip," roll 2d6 after the second "trip," etc. It just seems like the amount of time slippage should accelerate as you go. This will, I suppose, now require the game to ask players to round up a handful of dice before playing.

The bit where the specific lost ambition got used directly to determine what changed in the characters' real lives is an interesting surprise. I had not actually anticipated a mechanical connection between those things, but it seems like a pretty obvious way to handle it in hindsight. I also get a kick out of incorporating content from the currently playing music into the game. ("Thin White Duke," heh)

Despite the hand wavey stuff in the rules about such things, I am interested in knowing who was doing what in terms of all the usual GM task stuff, particularly scene framing. I'm also interesting in knowing specifically how events were deemed Awesome enough to burn an Ambition. (decided by person narrating the stuff, by group consensus?)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: January 23, 2011, 07:03:01 AM »

Hi NIck,

That's an interesting suggestion about the dice - clearly a playtest issue, I think. I also think it's not trivial, as the game's touchpoints to the past and to the Singularity is becoming more and more powerful the more I think about our session.

Using the ambition-loss and the music as content inspirations strikes me as something that should be left opportunistic. I'm not saying this in response to anything you've suggested, but rather in anticipation of a common notion (not necessarily from you), that I see way too often in the current design scene, of over-directing such behavior. "Now incorporate a line from the music, and grab a token," that kind of thing.

(The games that do extra-play media well - going all the way back to Munchkins* and probably today's Ribbon Drive, which I haven't played yet - do not over-direct, confining the music's mechanics roles to specific moments.)

As far as the GM-tasking is concerned, during the awesome/stoned scenes, we left out the safety net and opened it up to unconstructed input. What this meant was informal turns-taking, with the first person to speak framing some basic imagery, and then everyone else rounding it out, with the various characters appearing as narrated by anyone, not necessarily their owners. In the first scene, I think it was Tod who said that we were being charged by horses, that I said the horses were galloping on air, and I think someone else said we were on mountaintops, and then I said we each had our own mountaintop. In the second awesome adventure, though, I framed it more specifically to my own character's situation and the impact it was having on the world, but after that I took a back seat and everyone else talked their way through how they were dealing with that.

Looking back on it, I think that player spotlight (not necessarily character) could use a little reinforcing. I don't know if this is mechanically necessary, but if everyone has spoken recently except for one person, then that person should be given a chance without fear of being suddenly interrupted. At least one person at our table (whose initials are "RE") is a very bad interruptor in general, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't so terrible in this case because we developed some sensitivity toward whoever hadn't spoken for a little while.

Awesomeness was similarly informal, or rather, the unwritten rule we followed was that anyone could identify it at any time. Sometimes a player had the character do something, then claimed it as awesome having known that was the point all along. Sometimes a player had the character do something, and someone else said "that was awesome." And sometimes, a player said, "This will be awesome!" and did something. At no point did we have any objections or denials of awesomeness. Although I'm pretty sure that's because the stuff we narrated did seem quite awesome at the time, I'm also pretty sure that our social/mechanics contract of play included "no dissing someone's awesome." That particular detail seems like it's most functional when the group is 100% certain that we're all on the same page about the game's point (note: not genre or imagery, I mean the point), as we were.

Best, Ron

* Not the more recent card/D&D parody game; Mike Sullivan's TV game, sadly not available without waybacking or something, which I reviewed here.
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