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Author Topic: [Rats in the Walls] Hatred and hope  (Read 671 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 12, 2011, 12:00:03 PM »

At the Dice Dojo, Sam, Phil, and Cail joined me for a criminally long-in-wait playtest of Rats in the Walls (link includes PDF download), a Ronnies winner from September 2005 (rat + hatred). It's a time-travel game in which paradox and the "integrity of time" are non-issues; the characters fuck with time and it stays fucked, and there's no compensation or prevention mechanism aside from the difficulty of doing it - and each other's conflicting aims.

The characters' ability to change the past is powered by their Hatreds, or more specifically the score called Wrath which is only built up through failing conflicts in ordinary, present-day life. Their (slim) connection to sanity is whatever they Love. Changing the past has a lot of unforeseen consequences, so all the characters doing this has a way of turning present-day play into a nightmare. Oh, and one more thing: their Hatreds interconnect in such a fashion that even if they don't literally oppose one another's past-changing aims, they will definitely interfere with one another.

Upon reading, one might think this game is the most misanthropic, bitter, vicious scenario possible. The characters are very nearly psychotic. The outcomes of their efforts generally make them miserable and even more frustrated, not to mention possible grim effects on everyone else. Even the objects of their Love are not immune; one might start by loving one's golden retriever, only to see it become, through the vagaries of changed past events, a goldfish.

But the thing I want to highlight for our session was the remarkable emergent humanity of the characters. It helps that I followed the implications of the examples in the rules and mentioned to everyone that the hatreds shouldn't be frivolous. Even a petty hatred ought to be directed toward something that you, the player, and the rest of us could at least understand could be hated.

My character: Josie, 35 years old, Hatred: her ex-husband, Hatred: Homeland Security; Profession 2 (real estate), Ability 3, Wrath 0 to start (rose to 3 in play), Love 2 (suburban neighborhood where she lives), Hate 2

Cail's character: Allen, 30 years old, Hatred: diet fads, Hatred: Holidays; Profession 4 (dietician), Ability 3, Wrath 0 (his did go up in play), Love 1 (his corgi), Hate 2

Sam's character: B.C. Willie, 42 years old, Hatred: Flag burning, Hatred: brother-in-law; Profession 3 (high school science teacher, an Intelligent Design Creationist), Ability 6, Wrath 0 (his never went up), Love 1 (fossils)

Phil's character: I don't have the sheet on me, but his name was Milo and he hated his boss and abuse of power. He gained some Wrath along the way.

I was doing double duty as both GM and a player, effectively being two people at the table. Also, we found that Wrath was building up too slowly given our limited time constraints, so we waived the Wrath 7 requirement for changing the past just so we could get to enjoy those rules. But that's not a rules recommendation; in the larger scheme of things, I think it makes sense that a character has to go through at least a couple of excruciating failures before going back in time to do something about it. Sam turned out to roll too well, by the way - he never gained any Wrath.

Here's the Map of Hatreds. That was really fun to make and much, much easier than I'd anticipated.

Our scenario began at a big Memorial Day parade in a smallish city's downtown. Things went very badly south from there. After a few time-jumps, the place looked like the cityscape from the first Robocop movie.

We found the hatreds to be surprisingly addictive. My character, at one point, lost enough Love when changing the past to go insane. I could have averted that fate by dropping one of my Hatreds ... and I didn't want to. You know, in the cold light of day and looking back on it, I can now see that she could well have given up on her hatred for her ex-husband, as he'd taken a few serious hits from her efforts already. But even that was too tempting to give up, and far less her virulent, ever-provoked, burgeoning hatred for Homeland Security. Phil said the same thing about how it was rather satisfying to hold onto the scorching, wasting heat of one's hatreds in the hope of just a little bit more effectiveness next time.

Running it was painless and lots of fun. Setting scenes and applying cause-and-effect to decide what's best to check out next was quite intuitive for me as GM, right there in play. Given the Hatreds, changes in the past, various NPCs which have cropped up in the course of play, and the Loves, it's easy to say "what should I highlight" and simply go to that next. Perhaps one feature that makes it easier is that the wave-front of "the present" is always an easy touchpoint, as it marches forward in stolid, ordinary, familiar fashion.

Back to that emergent humanity thing, it went past merely empathizing with character's hatred and frustration. I am not sure how to describe it, but we ended up liking one another's characters at least some of the time, even with a grudging respect for being so passionate as to try to effect change. In a way, it struck me that the characters' hatreds were not some kind of arbitrary neurosis, but rather an impressively distorted version of hope.

Here's our questions, confusions, and suggestions that emerged from the after-play discussion.

Resolution issues
1. You know, I thought I had it down, but I ran into profound confusion regarding those damned points generated during Contests. Here's how it went. We couldn't figure out what "Bid" meant and simply used the number of dice indicated by the score being used. I'd assign some number of dice for me as GM out of my Challenge Points. We'd then roll and use the little table to discover how many Points we'd end up with. Typically a given starting bid would yield anywhere from two less to two more points than the number of dice rolled.

Then it totally broke down. We knew how many Successes each person had and how many Points each person had. We also knew that we'd narrate in a round-robin fashion until everyone's Successes were used up. But we couldn't figure out what the Points did. There seemed to be no function for them.

Changing the past worked way easier because all it does is provide Success/Failure per die and effects on Love.

2. I am really not clear on what happens to the GM's Challenge pool, specifically how and when it comes back. Without understanding that, I find myself asking why it's there.

Characters in play
1. As written, one cannot make an attempt to change the past until Wrath has built up to 7. Could one set a lower threshold for faster play, and what might the lowest functional value be?

2. Phil and Cail made a really good point too, that some game time spend on relatively non-adverse interaction with Loves would be very helpful. Arguably one might even start with those as introductions to the characters. It strikes me that I was generally unsympathetic to Milo (Phil's character) as his Love for the Star Wars Trilogy didn't interest me much, and in fact I took a little too much delight in messing with it via changing the past (a couple of more rounds and we might have ended up with George Lucas' porn opus). The two other Loves didn't come into play at all.

Certain GM points
1. I wondered how nasty should GM be about "yes but" regarding changes to the past. I got to roll twice the dice against the player for changing the past, which gave me insane narration power when talking about how the present would be different. It's tricky to mess with the present without undercutting the change entirely, which strikes me as too frustrating. Fair enough that when you change X, a whole ton of Y and Z and 7 happens too. But if you change X and I, as GM, make what it changes into really heinous and undesirable, that gets tricky.

2. In our game, the present stayed in the parade scene for a long time. I'm thinking that it's probably a good idea to move on from a particular present situation, going forward into the (real) present when possible.

I think this game is a lot of fun, combining an intense experience with characters at their worst with a surprising depth. It reminds me of some of Vincent's stated ideals concerning kill puppies for satan (see Dang #3 (kill puppies for satan), specifically his last post in that thread) and probably achieves more of those ideals more reliably. When I understand the technical details better, I will definitely seek to play an extended game which takes us all the way to the final fates for each character.

Best, Ron
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Phil K.
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« Reply #1 on: January 12, 2011, 03:01:50 PM »

This was a really interesting game; I had a particularly good time trying to decide whether my character should be driven more by his hatred or his love.

For reference, my character was as such:
Milo, 40 years old, Hatred: "My Boss (Bob)," Hatred: abuse of power; Profession 10 (bank cryptographer), Ability <3, Wrath ~2, Love ~3 (Star Wars Trilogy), Hate 2

It's worth noting that my character's original love was science fiction films. I decided that it was too general and narrowed it considerably. Choosing the trilogy as a more focused love was deliberate; it's mostly a reflection of how rabid the fan base for Star Wars is in reality and a little bit of self-satire. I was "that guy" in high school. That probably made it more interesting to me than the rest of the group; at any rate, it did make for a delightful series of descriptions of the further atrocities George Lucas commits in a different, even more "improved" version of The Special Edition.  I don't think Ron took too much delight in twisting my attempts at preserving my... I mean... Milo's childhood memories. The fun of it for me was taking something that I am/was passionate about and turning it into an abomination.

Having each player describe a scene as to why his/her character has a particular love would make things a bit more interesting. In Milo's case, it would be a scene describing how his father took him to see Star Wars for his 7th birthday. It was a life changing event because his mother had died a few months prior and it was the first time his had father taken Milo out or really smiled since.

Come to think of it, having scenes that narrate why a hatred is particularly loathed could be interesting, too. That may take up too much time in prep, however.

Having fun with changed outcomes is really the most exciting part of the game. I liked the pacing of our session, though I could see it being a more satisfying payoff in a longer game if it took a while to get to the point where you even have a chance to change things.

My biggest hangup was the resolution system. We rolled dice and the translation of rolled dice into successes, points, failures, loss of points, etc seemed unnecessarily complex and, worse, uninformative. Granted, I didn't read the rules. I might be able to make heads or tails of it if I actually read them.
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