[Cold Soldier] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, January 06, 2011, 09:23:15 PM

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Ron Edwards

Bret Gillan's Cold Soldier. Just ...wow.

Many years ago, an internationally-renowned martial artist was asked, in an interview, what technique he might possibly not have mastered yet. He paused for a while, then replied that some day, he hoped he might deliver a perfect reverse punch. For those who don't know, that technique is extremely basic, frequently taught at a person's first lesson. The martial artist was saying that he had not "mastered" any techniques and in fact was still most concerned with what many people, such as the interviewer, might naively consider to be "mastered" by everyone.

Cold Soldier is the reverse punch we might observe that person to deliver as he trains. The text suffers from numerous vague bits which demand correction or clarification, which if combined with any discernible flaw in technique, would have instantly disqualified it for a Ronny. But there is no such flaw. Thus all I can offer are refinements and suggestions; the thing itself is brutally simple and effective to the point of beauty.

I'll start with details which I think are profoundly well-chosen and could well be missed. I love the fact that you can only set the game in the past or present, not the future; and that your character absolutely must have been "recently buried." One of the key factors in RPG design, as I see it, is deciding what items are freely invented, which are chosen from lists, and which are fixed in place. These particular constraints seem to me to be especially fruitful in multiple ways. For instance, memories of a character who was recently killed will most likely concern things that are actually still extant in the setting.

I think I get the system – the player is effectively building a poker hand card by card, scene after scene, by connecting the character to the situations via memories. Cards spent on resolution are secondary to this process, but are still tactically relevant because (i) they will be unavailable to the endgame draw and (ii) failing a resolution drains cards from your hand.

In the final scene, the GM draws five-card stud, notoriously poor for building strong poker hands. The player draws five too, but if he or she has managed to retain any cards in hand, they can be added to these five in order to build the best five-card hand for that climactic confrontation.

So until that point, you have to consider actually striving toward the Dark Master's task in order not to lose memory-built cards from your hand, and to resist a command, you have to really want to resist the bastard because that costs you a card too.

I built a diagram to help talk about the system. I stress that "in play" must be distinguished carefully from "in hand." Cards in play are flipped from the deck and laid on the table for comparison, then discarded; they are never taken into your hand. Nor do you ever play cards from your hand into task resolution; they are only ever retained, discarded to resist a task (obviating task resolution), or discarded as a consequence of failing a task.

There seems to be a lot of room and potential power for narrated Color in scene B to become effective content in scenes C, D, and going forward. I'm thinking especially in terms of what the Dark Master is up to and how his plans are or are not working out based on the results of scenes. Or another way to put this is, the GM is going to have a hell of a lot of fun developing the persona, priorities, and responses of the Dark Master turn by turn, each time using an ever-restocked grocery store of nifty details to spin off from that arose in previous scenes.

Here's a deep consideration: should the GM take care to problematize missions in terms of the player-character? Any thought on the range for that variable? On the one hand is the absolutely necessary and extreme version found in My Life with Master, and on the other, the problematic aspect of a given task would arise primarily from the memories as initiated into play and as described by the player, not the GM at all.

I have some thoughts for system considerations, none of which is necessarily or obviously better than what's on the page, but might be fun to playtest for comparison.

1. The preparatory decisions might be organized a little. Here's an example for fun: the player decides who the Dark Master is (powerful sorcerer, genius scientist, vengeful god), and the GM decides what the time period is (past vs. present), and they reveal their choices simultaneously. Then they go into ordinary discussion to round out the details. For the "what are you" part, the player chooses the cause of death, the GM chooses the weapon, and the two decide "how you fight" together, in any order.

2. The final poker hand confrontation could be rated according to Kansas City Lowball poker rules ("deuce to seven"), rather than standard. I think this could deliver a certain thematic satisfaction, especially since it requires both cunning and an underdog mindset. Also, it means that discarding high cards to resist during previous scenes does not absolutely undercut one's chances at the end.

3. If the soldier's not destroyed, and if the participants want to play another story using him or her, then do so just as in the rules, but switch the roles of GM and player. Ideally, over the long term, a deep and synergistic commitment to the character might arise based on both people alternately advocating on his or her behalf and providing maximally-provocative adversity, as well as possibly producing emergent effects of the repeat-play memory rules.

There's only one thing I don't like, and that's the cover illustration, which doesn't seem to me to fit at all. But all that really means is that I am very psyched to see whatever illustrations do eventually get done for the game.

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan

Thanks, Ron.

The image at the front of the PDF was a last minute, "what-the-hell" sort of thing. I thought to myself, "I bet there's some public domain woodcuttings of skeletons attacking people" and this was the only thing I could find. The sort of cover I envision would be a little more horror with maybe a dash of metal. Some lower-jawless skeleton with bladebone arms or something.

You do get the system, and your understanding and restating the system is making me realize a couple of flaws or missed rules in it.

- If you reach the Joker and don't have enough cards left in the stack for both of the players to draw 5, do you just reshuffle the discarded cards? Does this destroy any of the strategy?
- As it stands, the player will always go into the climax with a better chance of winning than the GM. Should the GM draw a 7-stud hand to make the player have to work for it?

These are things that need playtesting to check out. I'd also like to try out your suggestions, especially changing ownership of the soldier and the Dark Master.

As for how problematic the GM should make the tasks, my gut is telling me that at first there's no way for the Dark Master to make them problematic. The Soldier has no identity. However, as elements are added it will become easier and easier and the GM should freely tap into those as inspiration but only twist the screws a couple scenes per session. Have memories of your son who was a toddler when you died?  Have the Dark Master want, for whatever reasons you can think of, a small boy who's a toddler. Approach the elements indirectly and give the player opportunities to build off of them.

Alternately, anything can be fair game. However, a player can say, "Wait, no hold up" and veto that item being at risk in this scene. What happens then is that item put on a list of items that need to be contested in a climax. That runs the risk of making things a little too game-y, but also means you don't have to worry about a major component of the soldier's story getting destroyed in scene 2.

I'm hoping to playtest sometime this weekend so maybe I can check some of these things out. Thanks so much for the kind words and the Ronnie and the uncanny ability to see my intentions completely in a pretty sparse rules text.


I read this and I agree it's pretty amazing.

I spotted the severe advantage the player has over the GM in the endgame as well.  Have you considered have the GM acquire cards over the course of the game as well?  The simplest would be the GM picks up any cards that are used to resist the Dark Master.  But I'm not sure that works thematically.



I'll admit that so far I've only read through the rules of Cold Soldier once, and quickly. That said, I'd really like to playtest it.Rudy (Fetus Commander) and I sometimes find ourselves missing the third and fourth members of our gaming group, so the next time that happens maybe we'll give it a try.

I like the thematically appropriateness of your choice of War as part of the game's central mechanic. Not only does it make good symbolic sense, but it should also be fast and simple enough to keep the game moving and prevent the flow of play from from being bogged down by mechanical messiness.

Quote from: Bret Gillan on January 07, 2011, 06:26:23 PM
- If you reach the Joker and don't have enough cards left in the stack for both of the players to draw 5, do you just reshuffle the discarded cards? Does this destroy any of the strategy?

What if this actually triggered an entirely different end sequence? Maybe a "draw" between the master and the soldier where both a forced to compromise and neither leaves feeling completely empowered or vindicated? I'm not sure if this would prove too anti-climatic in actual play, but it might help add a bit of ambiguity to the game.

Quote from: Bret Gillan on January 07, 2011, 06:26:23 PM
- As it stands, the player will always go into the climax with a better chance of winning than the GM. Should the GM draw a 7-stud hand to make the player have to work for it?

I noticed this too, but is it wrong for the soldier is have an advantage over the master? After all, this game is primarily about the soldier, right? Is it wrong to give the soldier a better chance of finding satisfaction? If this were simply a competitive game for two players, I would admit that it'd be a significant problem if one had an advantage, but I don't think it's an issue here, given the focus of the game.
terrible games about terrible people in terrible situations/
terrible games about terrible people in terrible situations

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

Regarding the final two hands, I agree with William, but I'd also like to hold off on predicting a consistent player advantage until we've all playtested it a few times. The player loses cards out of his or her hand when the soldier tries to obey a task and fails, and when the soldier resist. In other words, unless you try to obey a task and succeed, you're losing a card from your hand. My impression is that instead of accumulating a solid bank of extra cards to consider along with the final five-card draw, the player will be sucking wind a lot of the time. I'm also thinking in terms of commands that the soldier, especially over time, may well prefer to resist.

Bret, I want to stress that last point in relation to your claim that the soldier has no identity. I suggest that it's there as soon as the first memory arises, insofar as the rule permitting the soldier to resist is accessible from that point on.

It's true that the Dark Master will never have an advantage and is stuck at five card stud. But what really happens with the soldier, let's play and find out before proposing possibly-unnecessary solutions.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Looking over the thread, I found something that I need to clarify.

When I talk about problematizing the task (i.e., scene, situation, command; all more-or-less the same in this case), I am not speaking about the character. Nor am I speaking about the player. I am speaking solely as if I were the GM, and if I were coming up with the command, in reference to myself. In such a role, my question is whether I (in playing (acting-as, whatever) the Dark Master, issue commands that to myself as a person are problematic. Meaning squicky. Morally questionable or outright wrong. Villainous.

Whether this perception or judgment of mine (in that role) is shared by the player, I don't know and for purposes of my question, I don't care. It does matter regarding play, in that the more of that stuff I throw in, the more stuff is "around" that the player can respond to however they may do so, as opposed to having a bland and dull and whatever-type landscape to play in. But I must stress that I am not talking about trying to push the player's buttons, but strictly about pushing my own.

Anything about that which turns out to be relevant, pro or con, subtle or subtle, concerning the player-character can be left up to emergent effects during play. I am doubly uninterested in talking about that here and really want to stress, even more than the above, that I am not talking about the GM trying to set up the character for stuff that may or is supposed to be especially trenchant to that character.

Bret, what are your thoughts on this issue?

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan

Ron, I'm mulling it over. I think right now I'm pretty sure the Dark Master is a total bastard. Pushing your own buttons with his tasks is a surefire way to make the task scenes spark. I think the game should work just as well with generic D&D necromancer commanding a skeleton to go fetch the Orb of Eternal Darkness. I'm not sure that would be tedious.

I do think you're onto something important though. In my first playtest, the player chose that the Soldier fought in a horde which dials up the scope of the game. Instead of doing things like kidnapping people or committing murder, the tasks tend to be large mob scenes and battles where the Soldier's actions feature prominently. As a result, I found it hard to make the tasks really engaging. Conquer this place. Kill the military and police force there. Okay, now let's conquer this other place. Kill all the humans. Okay, whatever. I kept waiting for the Soldier to have a memory I could really hook up with and riff off of. It might have happened, but starting from the point of making the scenes really upsetting and squicky could be a key. I'll try it out.

I think you're right that the landscape needs to be engaging. There needs to be details there for the player to base the memories on. Bland landscapes will have the player stuttering or authoring details into the setting, and I think I want the player to have to latch onto details that the GM has provided. As a result, the GM is going to need pretty clear guidelines on how to describe scenes.

Ron Edwards

Hi Bret,

In the interests of communication, not to argue with you, I agree with you that the genre is not an issue. The classic necromancer after the orb, or a wholly historical shaman-king in ancient Korea, or even the Abrahamic God deciding to get his vengefulness on in the modern day - any would do fine. Your phrased your point about that in a way which struck as disagreeing me with about something, but I don't think I said anything about the degree of fantasy involved.

The horde issue is interesting. I wonder what techniques could be emphasized to make the soldier's circumstances individual enough to matter. I bet they exist.

When I wrote of landscapes, I wasn't speaking of physical circumstances but rather than moral, ethical, behavioral features of the Dark Master's commands. But certainly the physical circumstances matter too. I think every spoken contribution needs to be intensely SIS-based. "He commands you to drag the winner of the Kentucky Beauty Pageant to him!", or even saying it in character, isn't good enough. Where does he say it? What's the location like? Where is the soldier when he says it? What happens in accompaniment to him saying it?

I think the same might go for what the soldier player says, perhaps less panoramically, or perhaps just the same. You're a S/Lay w/Me player, so you know about the "playing tight vs. playing loose" concept for that game. It might apply here - to discover, for development purposes, what degree of that variable works best for Cold Soldier.

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan

Ron, I didn't really mean to say genre isn't an issue. Or rather, that wasn't something I felt I was disagreeing with you about. The D&D necromancer wanting some Orb of whatever was more an example of a Dark Master's task that has no moral impact on anyone playing the game. It won't make me uncomfortable, it's not morally objectionable, it's one of those nebulous "evil" things that you find in fantasy and children's cartoons. I'm just thinking about what you said regarding the GM using the Necromancer's tasks to push their buttons, and I agree with you that it would make for an interesting game. I'm weighing whether that's something I would want to discuss in the text or prompt a GM to do, rather then just let them run wild with whatever they can come up with for the Dark Master to do. So I'm not disagreeing, just musing.

Dark Master tasks are definitely something I need to focus on when it comes to playtesting. Guidelines will be required to direct GMs towards interesting ones and steer them away from bland or repetitive ones. I found that hooking the Player in by having them focus the Task helps a lot (GM sets the Task, Player says what they do to accomplish it). That alone goes a long way towards making the Soldier's individual actions matter. But still, the landscapes you're talking about with regards to Dark Master tasks need to be considered. Maybe giving the GM something like a checklist of motivations and ethics to explore in play with the Dark Master would prevent the Task burnout I started to get.

When I've run the game so far I get really elaborate with the details. As a newly-awakened corpse with no memory of who they are, I spend a lot of time describing details of the world - the way the sound of honking car horns sounds like it's being heard underwater, the flowers on a tombstone being in grayscale, the child with the balloon who sees you and is gesturing at you but his father ignores him and drags him along. That sort of thing.

Ron Edwards

Hi Bret,

I decided to go over the current scene with Cold Soldier in detail today. Due to some very bad luck, I was not able to get together with any of my usual gaming pals for playing it, which is driving me nuts ... but it also allowed for a little reflection on all the dialogue so far.

Basically, I haven't been communicating well with you. I don't know why, but our on-line exchanges seem to miss one another's points consistently. Which is crazy because I love this game and want to be as helpful as possible without stepping on your toes as the author.

So, I copied the game's text over to a word-processing file and gave it a font and type size I liked, found a zombie picture on the internet that I liked enough to put on the front, printed the little rules diagram I'd made, printed both Forge threads and marked them up with a highlighter, and stuck it all in a special folder. Then I went over it all again and decided that I could post constructively after all, or at least, could change gears in how I was posting in hopes of providing better input. Part of that, too, is making sure the input is feedback and not covert over-aggressive collaboration.

OK, so here's what I've got for thinking about playing.

1. The GM provides a lot of physical scene framing information and details of imagery and actions in order to maintain a solid imagined foundation for play. All else being equal, the Dark Master provides commands which seem villainous to his own player, i.e., the GM. The player states exactly what his character does about it; in other words, the GM does not instruct precise courses of action, but pretty much just the desired outcomes. He might include commands or circumstances in the scene framing and details which evoke aspects of memories made in play as well.

(Bret, looking over the threads, I'm pretty sure this is consistent with what you said, and I find it perfectly suitable for me. I don't know why we kept posting as if we were disagreeing.)

2. Possible rules changes or tweaks, some playtested, some not.

- starting concepts for play are generated by separate people's choices, rather than open discussion

- upon using the Weapon, replace your current card rather than providing an extra (Bret)
- when the Weapon is used, the GM gains a card to be utilized at the end similar to the player's hand (William)

- GM wins all ties (this one seems immediately adoptable without much fanfare)

- one's hand size provides a minimum value (# + 1) for usable card values in conflicts

- if you hit the Joker and don't have 10 cards left to draw, what then? re-shuffle?

- switch player and GM if a soldier is destroyed and a new one comes into play

3. Minor thoughts upon reviewing all that:

- perhaps "hand" isn't the right term. I always think of a hand as a set of cards from which you play into situations in an ongoing way, a "live" resource. Whereas this is more like a cache, or collection of cards, to be used once much later in play.

- it seems wrong to me to throw all those changes into a playtest at once. I'm thinking of staying with the Ronnies text + only the following changes: (i) ties go to the GM and (ii) using the Weapon gives the GM a card. I'll hold off on endgame tweaks entirely too.

Bret, what do you think? Would a playtest with this particular combination of play-and-rules details be helpful to you?

Best, Ron

Bret Gillan

Ron, I've appreciated all the feedback you've given me and it's been helpful.

The current playtest rules I'm working with and will hopefully have an opportunity to test this weekend myself are:

- upon using the Weapon, replace your current card rather than providing an extra (Bret)
- when the Weapon is used, the GM gains a card to be utilized at the end similar to the player's hand (William)

The following GM winning ties is more optional. I'm probably going to try it both ways.

I'll try to do a rewrite of the rules soon so that those interested in playing/reading it can have a look at it. I work a 60 hour work week, though, so game design unfortunately gets the leftover Bret-tripe that I can trim off on the weekends.


Just a Great game! It´s a shame I cannot make something that genially minimalistic myself, because my ideas always get too complex, but ...I have the similiar problem with writing the rules and I must say I had a little problem with understanding some details before seeing Ron´s diagram.

I´m looking forward for the new version, but I think, that shuffling the deck in order to get enough cards to supply the hands of players in final scene, isn´t a good idea (maybe just because I feel that a player that remembers the discarded cards, should have an advantage). There might be used the same technique that assures the Joker to come in the second half of the deck: So leave the ten cards on the bottom before putting the third (?) of the deck with joker and then the rest without it on...