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Author Topic: [Cold Soldier] "Upon horror's head, horrors accumulate."  (Read 2075 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 25, 2011, 10:03:56 AM »

Tim Koppang and I met for a night of beer and gaming. Cold Soldier was on the table. I had my slightly re-formatted Ronnies draft, the diagram I wrote to help me navigate the rules, and a printout of the discussion threads to date at that point. Tim hadn't read the game yet and rectified that in a couple of minutes. I was the GM and Tim was the soldier player.

Our setup, and who said so, included The Present (Tim), Mad Genius (me), Death by Injury, specifically car accident (Tim), Weapon = horrific decay-touch (Tim), Fights in a group (both of us). We talked a bit about location and context, arriving at northern Illinois, or as I gestured while sitting in my home just north of the Chicago border, "over there," pointing north and west in a wiggly way which indicated a certain distance from us.

My reading of the rules is that fantasy settings are not allowed. The past is our past, and the present is our present. If Bret changes this, then OK, but I like it exactly as it is.

We used the following playtesting mods: when the soldier used his weapon, the GM drew a card and banked it for the final poker hand; in order to resist an order, the card discarded by the soldier player must exceed the obstacle card. Everything else went by the Ronnies entry rules.

Our first episode
I'm using the term "episode" instead of "scene" for a unit of story centered on a dark master's command, because ours varied a lot in terms of how many locations and shifts in circumstances were involved.

1. We opened on the Illinois prairie at night, in deep winter, with a flatbed truck moving along I-90 in the wee hours, practically alone. It turned onto various roads until it was quite isolated, although the lights of one of those prefab communities could be seen some ways off. Then we moved in to a man getting out, taking the tarp off the back, and half-a-dozen people emerging from crates. His breath emerged in opaque white plumes; they exhibited no such effect. He ordered them to "bring her to me," and the episode moved through them walking across the snow, coming to the "town," skulking through the neighborhood to a specific house, with some creepy details about how sometimes they used the streets and sometimes not, and how an obviously drunk, slow-moving driver spun out his car after getting a glimpse of them. The events of actually carrying out the task included getting into the house, dealing with a man armed with a pretty big pistol, and cornering the woman. All this took about eight back-and-forth units of "Goes."

Tim identified a memory triggered by the weak streetlights when they came to the edge of the community: he (the living man), next to his car, fumbling in his pocket for his car key underneath such a lamp.

My obstacle was 8, and Tim drew an 8, then used a weapon redraw for a 9. He narrated the conclusion of the fight, which killed the man via the soldier's decay-touch, and the effective but also inhumane and impersonal manhandling the woman received as they brought her back over the snow to the dark master. We instantly stopped the episode when Tim stopped speaking.

GM process: prep before play begins
i) My technique was to go to town with my dark master - the best, most compelling, most personally enticing and squicking version of the rules-combo (Present, mad genius) I could muster. Looking back on it, I was strongly influenced by the book Going Postal by Mark Ames, and especially his recent interview concerning the Loughner-Giffords shooting. My dark master was a disgruntled corporate researcher, which means that even before he was disgruntled on the job, he was a disgruntled academic, probably as a graduate student. Trust me, these are the most horribly disgruntled people in the world. Give one a weapon and you have a massacre - hammers or guns, doesn't matter, and I'm not kidding, this is real-world action I'm talking about. (In the department where I earned my M.S. and Ph.D., Theodore Streleski was occasionally mentioned during grad-faculty disputes, by the grads, and not in a nice way.) Folding that in with Ames' point that the Loughner shooting uniquely combined the "postal" rampage with the targeted political shooting, and thinking of how perfectly right it was that one could do this with a hunter-killer special ops squad of zombies, I was on my way.

ii) I explained absolutely none of the above. Then I got right to it - the moment that he decided to go for it. In my case, the idea as that he was just starting out with his first zombie op. That is probably a customizable variable, but it does seem useful to have one's dark master at the start of some kind of personal arc, whether he's used zombies before or not.

GM process and presentation (within a single scene)
iii) I started the first episode in pure cinema terms: circling around at very long-shot distance, then panning in. It gave Tim an exact notion of whatever the scene is, and/or a specifically evocative notion of a mysterious place. In later scenes I either did the same, or began in an enclosed space with a similar technique that emphasized the very little that could be perceived (by the audience, not the soldier, whose "perceptions" were not a major camera-point in our game.)

iv) An episode allowed for a little bit of opening GM input to let the dark master do a couple of things, just enough, with just enough dialogue if someone else is there, to get the idea that he himself is at a decision-point. Or having come through such a point, is at the moment of taking direct action because of it. I always ended this part with the command and turned it over to Tim.

v) We included no explanation or exposition, either prior to the events we opened upon, or any verbal reference to those events by characters. I put quite a bit of attention into this effect. I narrated people talking to each other like people really talk, without unaccountably explaining what they already both know.

vi) We relied heavily on forward-moving narration, "Goes" in the style of S/lay w/Me. I saw my GM role as taking whatever was done, cross-referencing it with the situation as a whole, and moving forward either to a location or opportunity of signficance in the dark master's order, or to an event which follows from the current situation. Maximum imagery + maximum momentum was my ideal. However, that's not the same as speed. Quite a bit of the narration was almost lazy in its pacing, focusing on atmospheric details - but it never stopped or failed to get somewhere.

vii) Since the resolution mechanic applies to a whole episode, we could relax a little about when I flipped up the obstacle card, and when Tim either chose to resist or to try to obey. Any amount of narration and effects seemed to be OK relative to when these happened. (Although see my question later in this post.)

viii) We didn't say a word more of content after the player's final narration. It simply ended the episode, and our screen went dark right then, every time.

Arriving at content techniques
We immediately found that each person's input did very well to tell the other player something they need to know. In the early stages of play, we benefited ourselves greatly by establishing how the zombies understand their orders and most significantly, what zombies are like and what they can do. The specific content for these things will obviously vary greatly not only across setting/dark-master combinations, but across actual people playing. It's totally necessary, though. Without this information, the rest of play will probably flounder.

However, we did not establish these things through tedious pre-play preparatory talk. We simply launched into play and provided such information via our descriptions, both of us. When we were pretty comfortable with how much we knew about it, then this content turned into new applications and outcomes in later play.

It so happened that our walking dead were definitely deliberate and steady in their movements, and quite fast when necessary, but never graceful or agile. However, they did not stumble or bump into things - it'd be like, if they encountered a barrier, they'd fan out around it or go over it in a literal, unimaginative, but effective way. They operated as a crack squad, working as a team without communicating, such that someone might be cornered by a couple of them, then turn and run through an apparent escape route, only to find another waiting for them.

We also established that the dark master didn't have to provide a long and bullet-pointed list of exactly what to do and how to do it. When he said, "Bring this woman to me," the squad knew where to find her and wouldn't bring some other woman who sort of looked like her, or anything like that. Whether this was established in some psychic way or through some mad-genius technique like electrodes to a computer, we figured that would be between-episode content and didn't worry about the details.

The 11-episode story
I could easily write a long description of how each of the following was conceived, set up, played, arrived at its moment of truth, and resolved. I don't have the time or energy to do it for all of them. So Bret, if you're interested, please pick one for me to dissect in full.

Also, in each case, I list the memory if Tim took that option, but I'm not specifying exactly when during the episode he did it. It was never at the end as might be mistakenly inferred from my listings.

2. Another flatbed mission in similar circumstances, in the late evening, at one of those monolithic, isolated corporate buildings scattered along the I-90 route in Illinois. The dark master talked his way past the security guard, who apparently sympathized with him regarding his recent dismissal, and then went into the building himself, telling the squad to wait briefly and then "silence all in my path." 

Tim beat my 5 with a 10; there was no other card use nor any memory triggered. He narrated how they took down the guard (a very human-horror moment, as we'd come to know the guy a little), then went into a full assault on the building, leaving carnage in the wake of the master getting his personal stuff that had been confiscated when he was fired.

Interestingly, this is the only scene where someone spoke the dark master's name, Cary, which wasn't mentioned again throughout the story and was in fact the only name used in the story.

3. Still in deep winter, at a closed-up summer-house type cabin on a lake either just north or just south of the Wisconsin border. The master leads his soldiers inside, where the woman from the first episode watches over a bound and gagged man placed upon a tarp on the rumpus-room floor. The kidnappee is given the chance to speak (allowing me to show that soldiers have the manual dexterity to remove a duct-tape gag, although not gently); it is implied that he used to be in authority over the master in some way. The master savored the man's pleas, and then snarled, "Tear him apart."

I didn't record the card values this time, but it was just like the previous episode; Tim simply drew and beat the obstacle. He spared me nothing in his narration, specifically that the order was initially followed slowly.
 
Tim identified a memory triggered by the warmth and light inside the summer-house: coming into such an environment from the cold, to a woman asking him, "Late again?"

4. A block in a Wisconsin city is cleared by police, and they herd the people in one house into its back yard, then trash the house. The mainstream media takes the official police statement on the outskirts, while an intrepid indie reporter manages to get to the house but is promptly beaten and subdued by the officers there. (See this for my direct inspiration.) Then the cops suddenly withdraw, to the activists' confusion, as they do not know that the soldiers are emerging from the house's basement. The master had repeated to them the instructions he had received: "Touch them all, then leave."

Tim chose to resist, playing a 10 out of his hand to beat my 4.

Tim identified a memory triggered by the back yard: a similar back yard, a barbecue party, and his wife's kiss.

5. A man leaves Capitol Hill, clearly a man of importance there, and drives home to a Baltimore suburb, there to enjoy an evening at home alone. The soldiers are commanded by the dark master to terrorize him all night, but not to kill.

Tim flipped a 9 to beat my 7. He narrated a rather awful, multi-step sequence of how the squad absolutely broke the guy's mind, including a great bit where the police arrived in response to the guy's frantic phone call, finding nothing of course. Plus a creepy bit about how one of the other soldiers absent-mindedly (heh) kept a coaster from the house, to be seen later turning it over and over in his hands. I suggested the coaster was an election campaign promotion item, with the target guy's face on it.

Tim identified a memory triggered by the house: moving into a new house, and his wife saying, "It's so much farther away to drive."

6. An ecstatic election-night party at the master's fancy home, with the celebrators obviously having supported the winner(s). Many of the guys have a "best and brightest" Pentagon and State look to them, and after a while, the married couples go home, leaving only the most extreme partiers and their "dates." It becomes clear that the partiers are aware of the master's unusual assets and, amid chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" want to see the soldiers party too. The master acceded to the urgings, called the soldiers into the room, and commanded them, "Dance!" Yes, with the expensive hookers.

Tim chose to resist and played a 4 out of his hand to beat my 2. He narrated that his soldier got out of control and freaked out the hookers and everyone else, generating some pandemonium.

7. The soldiers are brought out of crates in a strange low building in an unusual, hot, dry environment. A military officer instructs the master regarding their use in an operation, to go to a village, isolate three specific men, and kill them. The master repeats the instructions to the soldiers.

Tim flipped a Jack to beat my obstacle of 9, and narrated the rather business-like operation carried out in perfect undead-hyena-pack precision.

Tim identified a memory based on the air-conditioning at the start of the episode: a cold medical building, which turned out to be a fertility clinic, interacting with a nurse and paperwork, then providing a sperm sample and being reassured by his wife that, "It's probably me."

8. A very similar circumstance, with the implication that the soldiers have been doing these little ops for some time. The master looks pretty worn-out and unhappy. This time it involved a couple of Afghan warlord mob-types who are delivering a bit too little for their bribes. The military guy ordered, and the master dutifully echoed, "Kill these two men." The squad catches up with them at a rocky promontory overlooking the highway out of Kabul.

Tim chose to resist, playing a 6 from his hand to beat my obstacle of 4, and narrating that his soldier balked his role in the squad's tactics, resulting in the targeted guys ripping up at least one of the soldiers with AKs and escaping from the situation.

Tim identified a memory, triggered by a scream: his wife giving birth in the hospital.

9. The master stands over the commanding officer, held captive by the soldiers, telling him that he wants to get back to the States, with a clean record, never to be contacted again. The guy agreed quickly, but the master wanted to make his point stick, and commanded, "Eat off his left hand."

Tim drew a King, failing to beat my obstacle which was also a King; he used a weapon re-draw for a 10, thus failing in the task. He narrated that the soldiers got a little out of hand and ended up killing the guy.

Tim identified a memory, although I don't remember the trigger: At home, his son in his arms, enthusing to his wife over the outcome of the November election in 2000.

10. A suburban driveway in the States, at night. The master, with the woman beside him, is opening very well-sealed and deeply-hidden person-sized packages in the garage. The master commanded them to "destroy everything he has, do not kill, leave no trace," and I extended it a little by having the woman protest a little ("You promised we'd lie low for years!") and him responding, "Are you turning against me too?"

I drew the Joker and we set it aside. I re-drew for a 2 as the obstacle, and Tim flipped a Queen to beat it. He narrated the ant-like, scarily deliberate destruction of the house, with the strange detail of his soldier standing still for a long time, looking at the sleeping family.

Tim identified a memory triggered by the garage and car: on the phone to his wife, saying, "I'll be home, I'll drive safely."

11. (final) On an isolated road in that same suburb, the woman is pursued by the stalking squad. The order is to kill her. I included her dialogue, crying out to Tim's soldier for mercy, holding her pregnant belly, apologizing to him - and revealing (to the audience) that she is the wife from his memories.

We consulted our poker hands. My seven cards yielded total crap, its only asset a King high. Tim handily beat that with a full house. He narrated that the soldier turned on the other soldiers in the squad, destroying them all, and lay down in the street to die for real at last.

(continued)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: January 25, 2011, 10:05:04 AM »

GM processes and presentations (transitive across episodes)
I did have a vision regarding the dark master's arc at the outset, but I was fortunate enough not to be wedded to it, because in this game, the outcome of a given episode demands either immediate address in a follow-up scene or a significant jump ahead past the just-played episode's consequences, to a wholly new circumstances. In our case, I found the latter to occur quite a bit. Therefore I internalized the point that new ideas are OK too, and stuff initially considered prep, more-or-less, can be discarded if you want.

For instance, in my thinking just before, during, and after the first episode, I was thinking in terms of staying quite local, broadening and developing what would amount to a kind of criminal soap opera centered on the mad genius, with lots of names and lots of people with differing agendas, probably with lots of secrecy, murder, and betrayal. This is clearly not what happened at all, as my mind instead made comparatively enormous leaps in time and space, passing over what were probably many important episodes and experiences for the dark master, but which happened not to include his zombies. I realized that fighting this was a bad idea, and decided to benefit from the initial grounding even as I went with my inspirations regarding each episode, as a wave-front.

So instead, we (mainly I) developed the saga of a man first acting upon a grudge and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, then making himself useful to domestic authorities, which expands to becoming a paramilitary service, then getting pissed about being used all over again and getting himself out of that, but having become so broken and weird and paranoid that he begins turning upon anyone near to him. I could talk about the emergent arc for the soldier and his back-story too, but that was much more organic between Tim and me and harder to explain.

The core skill I drew upon was knowing what not to sweat about: the details and cause-and-effect, and risks and drama, that in any other story would demand some justification and illustration. Here, I could feel free to leap 'way ahead, because although this is the master's arc, we only need to see snapshots at zombie moments. And not explaining this was very cool and turned out to generate immense engagement in the story. We did not even employ table-talk to clarify what was happening; in the two instances where my dialogue even hinted at such an interaction, Tim shut it down instantly. This was camera-eye play.

I hope Tim can provide a similar summary of what through-episode story arc processes he went through. We can also talk about the issue of the woman's identity.

Rules comments and reflections
The primary tension of the game is built through getting cards through memories, in order to bank them for the final confrontation, and the fact that you must lose a card from that bank if you either try to obey and fail, or if you resist a command. This is flawless - a gorgeous, enjoyable process, if the GM plays that dark master as heinously and humanly as possible, and if the player plays the soldier exactly as described and follows through with effect-heavy narration. The emergent double arc of the master's success or failure or breakdown, to whatever extent, and of the soldier's cumulative memories and flickering broken-jigsaw of identity, is immensely rewarding. It is true dramatic horror. Regardless of the fact that Tim and I littered the table with emptied beer bottles as we played, this is not what people call a beer and pretzels game.

It is the Robocop RPG, referencing solely the first, original movie.

Looking back over our general numbers outcomes, it looks like we had 9 wins and 1 loss (!). But that's misleading. We have to ignore weapon redraws and also resistance (which is guaranteed successful if you hold a high card), and in that case, in seven scenes, the initial card flip was in Tim's favor five time and against him twice. Since the player has no choice over whether to flip, unless he decides the soldier will resist, card-counting can't really be a factor, right? So I guess any given instance of play offers a point on a full spectrum of very bad draws, even draws, and very good ones. So far, the playtesting has bounced us to the "lucky soldier" end, but I'm pretty sure it's just as likely to go the other way. Bret, is this your understanding too?

The soldier's muteness is a non-issue for us and I cannot imagine why and how it could be an issue. The player says what the soldier does, i.e., describes the actions. And after the final card resolution, the player gets full narration rights for the scene in all cases. Perhaps the roles of in-fiction dialogue vs. forward-moving event description need clarifying in text? Are people somehow thinking that their main job in playing this game is delivering inter-character dialogue?

The game may need a little bit more forward-burning through the deck. Our joker must have been close to the top of the approximately half-deck it was shuffled in, because it showed up as the 27th card out of 53 total. So let's say it had ended up nearer the bottom, that would have been as many as six more scenes to go! And I think even a couple more scenes would have been overkill, at that point. Even the GM weapon draws didn't help much, as Tim used the weapon only twice.

In the feedback thread, I suggested at least looking over Lowball Poker rules to see if they might be a bit more suitable for the final comparison. However, if that were the case, then the beat-the-obstacle requirement for resisting loses a lot of its teeth. Tim said that he really felt the conflict between resisting an order right now and diminishing his potential poker hand for later, and I think that's valuable feedback indicating this trade-off should be preserved. And going for a Lowball hand would make it a lot easier to discard high cards to resist. So, my thinking is to jettison that suggestion, despite my support for it (i) on thematic grounds and (ii) because it gives the GM a better chance for a winning hand at the end.

Little questions
None of the following are framed as questions, but given our readings and decisions, you can end each one with, "What's the official ruling?"

1. We encountered, or I created, some confusion about picking the endgame options. Given that the text is unfailingly addressed to the soldier player, it's likely that the player is supposed to choose and specify the cherished thing, the regretted act, or the wrong to be made right, in full, and then the GM runs with that to invent the dark master's command. Whereas we did it like this: Tim picked the option he wanted out of the three, and then I took that un-specified concept and created my own interpretation of it. I did it this way through sheer momentum, having become accustomed to 100% scene framing power through ten previous scenes.

2. The soldier gets one memory draw per unit command, right? Meaning, insofar as an obstacle card is on the table, or about to be, the soldier only gets one card via creating a memory, at nearly any point until the full resolution sequence and final narration is done.

3. Tim and I were uncertain about the timing of when the obstacle card is flipped up. Technically, it could be any time at all during the GM's narration of events. In our first turn, I was concerned with the cinematic setup and getting to the point of soldier's options, but it became obvious that it makes most sense to flip up the obstacle right at the moment of the dark master's command. Typically this means well after the narrated setup, and it also means the obstacle can just sit there for however long it takes for the player to hit the resist-or-not moment of the scene. At least, this is how we ended up being most comfortable with the timing.

4. For the final confrontation, the instructions to the soldier player "draw up to 5 cards" at the end. But that seems quite wrong, especially given the next sentence which clearly assumes that more than five will be held, and also because such a procedure would disadvantage the player rather than advantage him, for purposes of building a poker hand.

Big question
Finally, I have a big scary question - have I been fucking card play up from the start?

Here's how I understood it: that the obstacle card remains exactly where it is, once drawn, unchanged; that the player's card is replaced only when the weapon tactic is employed; and that the memory step is not formally integrated with any aspect of the resolution steps. That's why my diagram was set up the way it is, with the memory parts operating in non-touching parallel with the resolution flowchart.

But I failed to reckon with playing with an actual lawyer, and Tim squinted, then said, "Well, it could be read to mean that after the obstacle and the drawn card are lying there, then you can make the memory and pick up one of those two cards, putting it into your hand and forcing a re-flip to replace it." Which unfortunately does indeed work, text-wise. Which would mean that our entire game was played grossly wrong.

So, um, uh oh. Help?

Best, Ron
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #2 on: January 27, 2011, 07:43:53 AM »

For me, Cold Soldier seemed most akin to S/lay w/Me and Seth Ben-Ezra's Showdown.  The former because of the back and forth structure and forward moving "Goes" that Ron and I naturally fell into.  The latter because of the heavy use of flashbacks to develop the soldier's former (perhaps still fleeting?) humanity.  I want to talk about flashbacks here.

After character creation, I had very few details to work with.  I knew that I was dead, that I died in a car accident, and that I had a creepy flesh-rotting touch.  That's it.  Not even a name.  Everything else was either sketchily defined setting details or provided by Ron during scene-framing.  Because of this lack of built-in situation, I naturally grabbed onto the one humanizing detail that I had to work with: my injury.  From there, I started to think about what sort of person my zombie was before he died.

During the first scene, I decided that I liked the idea of developing my character's death story, and so I brainstormed a couple of vague flashback ideas.  At first, I had no intention of linking all of my flashbacks to the character's death, but, as the game went on, I realized that I wanted an entire story arc to unfold.  In fact, the more Ron pushed the dark master's story to a grander scale, the more I wanted to show my character's former life as small and everyday.  In other words, I wanted contrast.  If I do say so myself, I think Ron and I managed to create a story about, on the one hand, dark ambitions leading to a powerful yet paranoid life versus, on the other hand, a quaint life tainted by unwitting, even slavish, participation in larger political schemes.

Although neither Ron nor I directly addressed the issue of how my solider came to be under the dark master's control (nor should we have), there were enough hints (possible political or work relationships) provided by both of us throughout the game that the connection seemed plausible.  This brings me to one of my two favorite things about Cold Soldier: the sense of lost time.  As Ron described, we made no effort to define what happened in between zombie scenes.  The solider would simply wake up in a different place, and, more importantly, in a different time.  Had days, months, or years passed?  No idea.  The soldiers were obviously living in snapshots of existence.  So while my flashbacks were snapshots that happened in the past, even the forward moving action in the game mirrored this disconnected feel.  It provided a nice parity and added to the horror themes of the game.  There's nothing scarier than not knowing where you are.  Not knowing *when* you are is a good way to emphasize this feeling in roleplaying.

My second most favorite thing about the game is something I told Ron mid-way through the session: "This game makes me feel sorry for zombies!"  That was a weird feeling.  I'm not sure Ron agreed with me because he was on the other side of the zombie experience.  But as I thought about who my zombie used to be, I suddenly started to think about who all the other zombies in all those zombie stories used to be, and that made me just a touch sad.  It also prompted me to want to resist the master more -- so I'd say that was a successful design point, Bret.

All in all, the experience was more rewarding than I expected it to be after reading the brief yet focused rules.  I thought it'd be a blander experience full of zombie cliches.  Instead, the flashbacks, restrictions on communication, and helplessness (as emphasized by the scene-framing mechanics) all snuck up on me to provide a tight and affecting story.

As for questions, Ron has summed them up well.  There are some ambiguities in the text that need to be cleared up.  I'd like to see some additional card flipping to add interest and to speed up the game.  I hope you can provide some clarifications, Bret, because I suspect I'll want to play this one again.
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Bret Gillan
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« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2011, 06:49:15 AM »

Hey guys. Thanks so much for playing. Your play experience with the game is very similar to mine which is reassuring. Even though my rules are pretty sparse the game still seems to drive towards the play I'm looking to get. Also Ron I think it's funny you say it's Robocop RPG. Only two nights after I wrote it I watched Robocop with my girlfriend, Carly, because she's never seen it, and exclaimed, "Holy shit! I wrote the Robocop RPG!"

I'm going to start with your big scary question. Yes, Tim's interpretation of the rules is correct. The Solder can pick up any card currently in play to take into his cache. may have given me a good solution to the rules problem I'm currently facing which is that the Soldier has too many options. I don't think this invalidates your play except that it may have resulted in the Soldier losing more than it does in the rules-as-written. Right now since I'm still trying to find that balance that's valuable data.

As for your little questions:

1. It was my intention for the player to make explicit what the  cherished thing, the regretted act, or the wrong to be made right are. My thought was that if the GM did it, it might end up being something the player does not care about. Interestingly, both you and Rudy wrested that away as the GM which makes me wonder if that's a natural place for the narrative power to ping-pong over into the GM's hands. I doubt that my fears would realistically happen - the player is right there and can say "No, I don't like that," and I think this would result in both GM and player being invested in which way the cards fall.

2. The player only gets one memory card per task.

3. In my head the timing of the flip would be when the Solder faces their obstacle. Did you have any totally low flips  at the command (a deuce or something) and feel as though the scene limped its way to the obstacle since Tim knew he could easily beat it?

4. You're right, that was just a mistake of my writing. It should read "The player should draw 5 cards."

And you guys are right, there does need to be more card-flipping, or the deck needs to be cut down to make sure the Joker comes up sooner.


Some notable things for me that I'm drawing from what you wrote:

- I also leave the Master a complete mystery after setting creation is done. It's not mutually discussed, I don't tell the player who he is or what his agenda is.

- S/lay w/Me is a definite influence on this design. I had thought that in play things could be a little more informal than using Goes but it does make play really have some momentum to it.

- I think yours and Tim's experiences structuring a narrative helped you immensely with creating a compelling narrative for the Dark Master and the Soldier. I'm a bit worried that it's too unstructured and would cause other players to flounder. Do you guys have thoughts on this?

Thanks again and if I missed anything you needed or wanted answered let me know. Also, I have an updated document for the game if you (or anyone else) would like it. I'm just not sure where to put it.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: February 01, 2011, 07:29:18 AM »

Hey Bret!

Boy, did I ever bork the rules. Time to draw a new diagram.

Some thoughts ...

Unfortunately, Tim did have an idea for the cherished/regretted/wrong content, and I pre-empted him with my GM steamrolling. I don't think it's "natural" so much as following upon the rhythms that were established earlier in play, in which each episode begins entirely GM-driven. An instruction to stop doing this, at this particular point of play ("unlike previous scenes ..."), would probably do the job.

We did have some low GM cards but as I see it, either low or high obstacle is a motor for doing something neat. That could be a feature of Tim's and my habits. As the mutual playtesters for Mars Colony and S/Lay w/Me in their crucial stages, he and I use any system feature as a creative jumping-off point, even when it's not mechanically mandated. We also treat personal advocacy for our characters and author/audience enjoyment of disasters as independent and desirable variables.

My thinking on the deck is that burning may be the best solution. I.e., not more flipping for content in resolution or hand-building, nor cutting down the starting deck, but signals during play at which, say, some number of cards is simply pulled off the top and discarded. I'm not sure why I like this idea; perhaps it suits the feel of driving headlong through powerful events that I enjoyed during play.

Finally, you wrote,

Quote
I think yours and Tim's experiences structuring a narrative helped you immensely with creating a compelling narrative for the Dark Master and the Soldier. I'm a bit worried that it's too unstructured and would cause other players to flounder. Do you guys have thoughts on this?

I think this is a key question for you in terms of presentation, but not really design. One thing I found with both Spione and S/Lay w/Me is that getting good at play, and especially at teaching it, is a prerequisite for deciding how to explain it in text form. I think that step is perhaps too invisible in the culture of design these days. So my thought is that you should play a lot, with a lot of people, and aim very high in terms of looking to enjoy yourselves. Then, sooner or later, summarize whatever it is you're telling people that you've discovered reliably helps them get it. Most of the instructions in both of the games I mentioned are merely the things I found I had to say in order for play to function.

Best, Ron
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: February 01, 2011, 07:33:04 AM »

Oh yeah. You can always use one of those free sites like Mediafire or whatever, or Google docs, that kind of thing. Even a free blog, posting the game as a series of entries. I suggest looking through this forum to see what other people are using.

It is not entirely impossible for me to upload it onto the server I use for Adept Press, and give you the link. But that option opens icy chutes of scariness in my mind and I might have to reserve it strictly for Ronnies winners.

Best, Ron
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #6 on: February 01, 2011, 08:00:10 AM »

Bret,

Well I'm glad to hear we played correctly -- for the most part anyway.  As for our "big mistake," I can say it did accomplish at least two things.  First, it increased the amount of cards we flipped, and therefore sped up the game.  I consider the extra card-flipping to be a good thing.  Second, it gave me less control over the cards in my hand while at the same time keeping my hand completely hidden from Ron.  Thematically, I like the idea of pulling random cards as it adds to the helpless feeling of playing a zombie.  But it also provided an incentive to take more memories.  Because I couldn't control what cards I had in my hand, I couldn't build the perfect poker hand.  Instead, I had to pull as many cards as possible in the hopes that the odds would work out in my favor.  I haven't played the rule as written, so I have nothing to compare my experience to, but I'd say it was positive.

Using the "Go" structure from S/lay w/Me helped shape our experience.  At first, I wasn't sure when or how much to narrate.  I was confused and thought there was going to be a bunch of little obstacles for each command.  However, once it was established that there was only one card pull per task, and that my power to advance the story was quite broad, everything fell into place naturally.  Even if you don't use the same structure as S/lay w/Me, I think a sentence or two explaining the scope of each scene/episode would be helpful.  (Or maybe that's already in there and I just read too quickly.  I'll have to double-check.)

We almost always flipped the dark master's card right at the beginning of each scene -- usually at my insistence.  The reason I insisted was that it informed my decision as to how I would play the game.  I wanted to know whether I would plan to resist, use one of my hand cards, and/or narrate more towards a likely failure or success.  Letting the dark master's card just sit out there while the scene unfolded was sort of ominous and helped me to figure out where I wanted to direct my zombie's action.

The only downside, and the reason I brought up the "big mistake" rule confusion with Ron is that I knew, right away after the dark master's card was flipped, whether or not resistance was going to be an option.  If the dark master's card was high, I knew that I couldn't resist unless I happened to either already have a high card or pulled a lucky card as a memory.  This limited my play options.  At times I didn't mind.  At other times I felt as though it took some of the power out of the resistance mechanic because it wasn't so much a choice as a foregone conclusion especially at the beginning of the game when I didn't have many cards at all.  (On the other hand, now that I put that into writing, I think it makes sense.  It should be harder, even impossible, to resist the master when the game starts. Please excuse my waffling.)

It's interesting that if we played the rules as you intended, Bret, that resistance would become easier.  If I could take the dark master's card into my hand, then I could take away his high card and increase my chances of resisting.  Similarly, if we waited to pull the dark master's card until directly facing the obstacle, then I wouldn't know ahead of time if resistance was possible, and, therefore, I might narrate more openly.  I can't decide if that would be "better," but it's interesting to think about the different possibilities.

Question:  If you wait to pull the dark master's card, does that mean that you can't take a memory under your original rules until facing the obstacle?  Put another way, if there are no cards on the table early in the scene, where is your memory card supposed to come from?
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #7 on: February 01, 2011, 08:12:37 AM »

he and I use any system feature as a creative jumping-off point, even when it's not mechanically mandated. We also treat personal advocacy for our characters and author/audience enjoyment of disasters as independent and desirable variables.

Ron has a lot of good things to say, but I really can't emphasize his statement above enough.  Regardless of whether the dark master's card was high or low, I was going to, on the one hand, advocate for my character, and, on the other hand, play towards an enjoyable resolution based on all the information available to me.  Knowing ahead of time whether my character was likely to fail or succeed may change the way I play, but it's not going to necessarily diminish my enjoyment of that play.  Besides, I always had the option of resisting.

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Bret Gillan
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« Reply #8 on: February 03, 2011, 05:32:47 PM »

Tim,

Playing the game the way its written should produce the exact same amount of card-flipping, unless your deviation from the rules-as-written goes beyond what I thought. You pick a card up off the table and then flip a card from the top of the deck to replace it. This should result in you going through the deck at the same speed as picking one up off the top of the deck.

To answer your question, the way I've been playing it, flashbacks occur during the resolution of the task. At that point the scene is set so there is information for the player to draw on, and things are at a dramatic point, and then we do the flashback. I really want to try it with cards drawn at the beginning of the scene, though. I think the flashbacks could use a little more room to breathe.

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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #9 on: February 04, 2011, 01:55:28 PM »

Bret,

I don't know what I was thinking about the card-flipping.  You're obviously right.  I must have forgotten that the card would be replaced.

As for timing the flashbacks, I think you should definitely try flipping the master's card earlier.  Flipping the cards so close to the conflict seems like it would create big wad of action at the conflict point without much around it.  But the nature of flashbacks seem much broader.  In play, I enjoyed having the entire scene to riff off of details to use as my flashback trigger instead of (I imagine) having to scramble for something meaningful right before a conflict.  I think it's at least worth a play-test comparison for you.
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« Reply #10 on: February 04, 2011, 02:09:39 PM »

I should clarify that we didn't flip the obstacle card immediately, but well after I'd set the scene and there was a little bit of back-and-forth. But still, at least once we found our preferred rhythm after two or three episodes, the obstacle card tended to hang out all by itself for a while, usually at least a few Goes.

Hey, last night I had an idea. A terrible, possibly wonderful idea.

What if the GM turned up two cards for the obstacle? To beat it, the player's card must be higher than both. And everything else stays the same. When and if the player introduces a memory, he can only replace one of the cards.

1. The deck burns through faster so you don't need any additional fancy buggery about setting up the deck.

2. The player's somewhat extreme card advantage in the current design is blunted, and makes building a good poker hand a wee bit harder without being impossible.

You know, I think that would work!

Best, Ron
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Bret Gillan
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« Reply #11 on: February 10, 2011, 11:23:07 AM »

I think that is a perfect idea. I'll incorporate it into the next playtest.

I thought of one more question: do you think this game has legs as a multi-session game? Or do you think it's complete as a one-shot game?
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #12 on: February 10, 2011, 12:15:20 PM »

I thought of one more question: do you think this game has legs as a multi-session game? Or do you think it's complete as a one-shot game?

It's clearly designed as a single-session game as is, and I see no reason to extend it.  We played through a very nice, and complete, story arc.  Moreover, there'd be some physical limitations with the deck of cards.  Keeping track of the hand cards and status of the deck would be a pain if you couldn't wrap things up in one evening.

If you wanted to design some multi-session rules, you'd have to address the limitations of the deck, and probably go with a more episodic approach.
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Bret Gillan
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« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2011, 02:38:25 PM »

Well, the game as written does have multi-session rules. You do discard your hand, the deck is reshuffled. There's no reason or need to carry cards from one game to the next. What you keep is your memories, and the rules are modified slightly so that when you pick up a black card to put in your hand you must expand upon or contradict an existing memory of the soldier's. Otherwise memory rules stay the same.

However, I think you answered my question plenty as it is.
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #14 on: February 11, 2011, 02:47:12 PM »

Bret,

Interesting.  I just re-read the rules about continuing play.  One thing I noticed is that you recommend continuing until the solider is destroyed.  The rules say that your soldier is destroyed if you have no hand cards when the joker turns up.  I was wondering if that's ever happened in a game you've played.  It seems unlikely given how easy and desirable memories are to obtain.
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