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Author Topic: [Death's Head]  (Read 1048 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: March 07, 2011, 10:40:09 AM »

Julie, Maura and I played Death's Head this past weekend.

Two major points
These are so important I'm presenting them up-front, out of context.

1. Most chess I've played, including this one, ends with a kind of one-square-move, dance-of-death phase, in which one side's king is slowly pinned down. In this case, it lasted about six exchanges of turns (i.e. player-GM) It was not fun in play, moving required in-play time well past the point of most-dramatic and most-satisfying closure. The change from incredibly productive and consequential play into a sudden drag was extremely marked.

We decided that this was easily fixed by introducing a formal concession option, in which either the GM (as in this case) or a 100% concensus among players should be able to end play. I certainly would have used it when my king was trapped against one side of the board by a queen and rook, with only one rook and some shielding pawns for protection. I strung play out for about 5 move-exchanges only because I could, but with little real addition to play.

2. Since every set of dialogue and role-playing between a particular player and the GM is mechanically expressed by moving a piece, a trait must always be brought into play. This was not problematic for us; as you'll see, a number of the traits allowed for flexible usage, for instance. What we saw that really matters is that a player may either play trait-front, and then move the corresponding piece in a move that's clearly sub--par for chess strategy, or play chess-front, choosing the best (sometimes absolutely necessary) chess move, and finding a way for the corresponding trait to be involved.

This is not a problem, but a feature. We had incredible fun because both options were always available, and either player did it either way, whichever way the mood or need struck her, throughout the game. It's not chess, but it uses chess as a sub-feature of how to play the game. It was fascinating; the ambiguity between the two hypothetical extreme this-way-only concepts was full of consequences, full of surprises, and really fun. I figure it's like salt: sodium and chlorine, in isolation, are each poison, but the way they combine (which in our case means the net effect across multiple turns) is an amazing thing we can't do without.

Chess and us
As we prepared, Julie said, "How does the horse move again?" ... And now that all of the serious chess players out there have had a coronary, we can talk about how it went. All of us were reasonably competent at moving the pieces around and conducting a certain amount of strategy. I copped an advantage in the beginning, so by turnaround, they'd lost four or five pieces, I'd lost, I think, two, and I had the stronger position. Here's the point. It's obvious but worth mentioning: if one side gains the advantage during the first half, that's the one who's in desperate circumstances for the second half.

This is kind of cool, especially because it doesn't have much to do with success or failure of actions, but more with a general sense of confidence and being in charge. Assuming such an advantage occurs, you either have players with that general sense going on, suddenly thrown into a losing position, which is just right for most zombie-story protagonists; or you have players feeling beleaguered, then thrown into a confident position, which is I suppose more like the survivalist brand of zombie-story protagonist. So it doesn't matter if one side is played better, because either outcome in such a case is dramatically appropriate and a lot of fun.

When the board is flipped around, there's an interesting hitch in the alternation of turns, if black was the last to move, as it was in our case. I suspect that people will carry out the board-flip at the natural end of a "go" anyway, i.e., after the GM has moved, so this may not be an edge case but rather an important issue.

There seem to be two ways it could go. (1) You can preserve chess turn rules, which is to say, black has just moved, so now white goes, which means the GM as a speaker makes a second, additional move. Or (2) you can preserve narrational back-and-forth, which is to say, we go into a new turn of GM scene-framing and announced player-character actions, which means that the chess turn rules are violated because black, now in the hands of the players, goes twice in a row.

We did the latter. Given that I had just adopted the general disadvantageous side, this double-turn whammy for white borked my current position pretty badly and this phase of play saw me pretty much on the run. I'm not necessarily complaining about this, because the game is built to be perfectly functional whichever side wins, but I do think this particular issue needs a rule.

Another interesting feature of the chessboard switch-around is the re-arrangement of the probabilities for the characters' traits. I'd taken both knights from white during the first phase of chess play, and Julie and Maura had become accustomed to no longer using those traits as mechanics. So at the switch, they were kind of suprised to find those traits back. It's another aspect of the radical shift in many features of play at that point, and we hadn't thought enough about it to see this one coming.

We did make one misplay. During the phase after the switch-around, one of them moved their king into check and we didn't spot it until the next turn for that side. I was pretty focused on the threat to my own important pieces and just didn't notice it. I can't reconstruct the board at that moment entirely in my mind, but it's possible that the game might have been shorter if they hadn't been able to scoot their king out of the situation in that direction like they did. Other than that, I think our chess was legal throughout - if, on occasion, based on trait-foremost moves, a bit wild.

Characters
Character creation was as good as we hoped it would be, or better. Here are characters and the traits the players chose from the interrogation notes.

Hans Fleischer (we didn't specify his rank) - Julie said that she went into the interrogation process knowing only that her character would not apologize, and ended up with a frightening, arrogant, and apparently monstrous opening portrait.
Used my commissioned firearm (P), Executioner (R), I did not fraternize with prisoners (B), Doing what needs to be done (Knight), I followed orders (Q), I did not follow orders (King)

Korporal Josep Mann - Maura produced a more two-sided character, clearly prejudiced, but maintaining a childhood friendship with a Jewish character who was now his primary kapo in the camp.
I'd rather hang than remember (P), I shot as many times as I could (R), camp is not a healthy society (B), Jews should know their place (Knight), I grew up with Hermann (Q), I killed Hermann (King)

So they display a couple of interesting points. Both characters were interrogated about a single distinct killing (different victims), but Julie chose to let that be Color for Hans, and Maura chose to make hers into Josep's central trait (by which I mean Queen/King). Whereas Julie focused on an idelogical distinction for that pair of pieces. Traits varied among political and psychological statements, personal background, relationships, and a couple of specific events.

What play accomplished was to deepen, shade, subdivide, and stress both portraits, as well as to examine them from different angles than the initial interrogation. And although none of that obviated, apologized for, or redeemed the portraits, it all served to humanize them. I think that's valuable. I think nothing is served by writing off Nazis (or such groups of any kind), genocide (or such groups of any kind), or the Holocaust itself as a simple spasm of pathology, whether of that political party, of Germans as an ethnicity, or of Hitler as an individual. As far as I'm concerned, doing that is a serious cop-out and it provided (and provides) one of the causal components of the mess Americans, among others, have built for themselves in the sixty-plus years since. Both characters were war criminals and effectively, sociopaths. The issue is not the degree to which people came to be like this or to do such horrid things, but how it is that people did them.

Speaking more artistically, the changes in perspective toward the characters, and knowledge about them, without changing anything about what we first learn about them, reminded me strongly of a film I saw recently, Flame and Citron, and an older film which influenced it a lot, Army of Shadows.

Another incredibly important feature of play
You've probably noticed that due to the specific interrogations and due to choices for traits, certain events were front-loaded for play. This may seem problematic, but it turns out not to be, given certain skillful applications of the GM's authority over scene-framing. I think it's a skill that should be cultivated by anyone who wants to GM this game.

Here's what I mean: given the group's foreknowledge of certain events, the player's scene may begin just after that event concludes, or right at the climactic moment if that makes more sense. I'm saying there is no need to maneuver the events of play into setting up that event, nor any tedious manipulations of the mechanics.

Example #1: We knew from the interrogation that Hans had decapitated a prisoner named Gruber with a shovel, in his, Hans', quarters. The interrogator was puzzled and disgusted with his claim that it was self-defense, considering that Gruber's last medical report had clocked him at 104 pounds. So at some point in the hordes phase of play, I began a scene with Hans coming out of his quarters, and Julie chimed in, "Slinging a shovel aside!" and we moved on into some other action and set of decisions for the turn proper.

This was the easy version of that application, because no traits were involved in Gruber's death.

Example #2: Josep and Hermann presented a more complicated situation because we established a number of details during the interrogation. Investigators had found Hermann's body, eviscerated, with his hands locked around another dead kapo's neck. Obviously somehow Hermann had dragged himself thirty yards and done this deed after being so horribly injured. The second kapo's body had seven bullets in it, all from Josep's gun, and the rest of the clip's bullets had been sprayed all around the scene. Except for one of them, which was found embedded in Hermann's head, shot between the eyes.  Maura took "I killed Hermann" as a trait.

Since skipping to the end of that scene would have denied the use of the trait in play, and more or less ruined the point of the mechanic and Maura's choice to begin with, I framed directly to the moment of truth, including what the interrogation hadn't revealed. This happened after a few scenes in which Hermann and Josep were able to find one another and were seeking to escape from the camp. First, I was able to fold in some events of previous play and identify the other kapo-zombie as a character Josep had tortured for information following the murder of a valuable prisoner. Second, that Hermann, while a zombie, saved Josep's life. Third, our action began just as Hermann looked up at Josep and Josep could see the hunger in his/its eyes take over, and it crouched to spring. Maura stated Josep's action. King trait = 100% success = "I killed Hermann." The action itself was predetermined by the trait, but its nuances and exact circumstances were established both by later play and by the precision of when I placed the opening of the scene.

Plot and play decisions
Our camp was set in Poland; it was a labor camp with male, female, and child workers; it produced important munitions so the prisoners were definitely albeit marginally better treated and fed than some; and there was one important intellectual prisoner present important to the munitions production.

It immediately became apparent that Josep was not being played by Matthew Modine, when Maura had him shoot a pregnant prisoner in order to protect his fellow officer. And I believe that Hans' first act was to shoot a child as a lesson to his companions, although he did not obey the new standing order to kill every child seen outside their designated area. As GM, I confess my jaw was sagging at about this point. We were not in Hollywood.

In the interest of time, I'm leaving out a lot of our scenes and plot points to fill in, with Julie's and Maura's help if they want, in later posts.

Oh yes, since I am helpless and ineffective regarding most digital technology, we didn't have music set up. Some pre-play discussion came up with the idea to roll a d10 after every two turns (i.e. four chess moves, two for them and two for me), and record the value. When any value rolled so far was re-rolled, then we'd move to the hordes phase.As it turned out, this took a while. I rolled five values before getting a repeat, so that means ten distinct trait-based actions and twenty chess moves. So it worked well for our purposes but obviously we were missing out on intended atmosphere entirely.

After the chessboard switch-around, I began with some mysterious stuff like all the guards inside the camp disappearing, and disrupting interactive scenes with scampering, very fast gangs of children. I didn't linger on mystery and mood too long, just a turn or two, and then busted out with pretty scary zombie attacks. But the worst wasn't simply attacking them; I quickly realized that coming upon the aftermath of a given zombie attack and feeding-frenzy was much worse. (My zombies were fast, and not especially stumbly. I am bored by slow zombies.)

As we played it, I'd GM for Maura, she'd move a piece, then I'd move a piece, we'd finish out the narrations of the scenes, and then I'd do the same for Julie. But as it happens, sometimes, I'd "go again" with one of them, more or less depending on which person seemed more eager at the moment. So every two turns, they each got one, but it wasn't rigidly set at back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Rudy, what are your thoughts on player turn order?

The characters didn't encounter one another very much. I tossed them together near the end during the "man, let this end please" part, but it wasn't all that interesting. I currently don't see any reason to treat the characters as especially connected, but if they were established as such through interrogations, or if play-events turn out that way, I don't see any reason to prevent it either.

There was a nice bit of crossing at one point, when marching female zombies were about to trap Josep between them as Hermann watched helplessly from their truck. Maura said that Josep barked out orders at them to see the camp commandant, using the "Jews should know their place" trait, and rolled ... and it worked! That was pretty weird as a scene in and of itself, but it was especially fun as in Hans' next scene, he was seeking a superior officer in order to get orders (anything!) that would tell him something to do ... and of course, he was treated to watching the women zombies swarm, seize, and devour his most superior officer right in front of him, ignoring him. His action that scene was to put a bullet in the man's head halfway through the devouring, thus making him, technically, the man who sought orders above all else, a traitor.

The troopers eventually restored order to the camp, although it was so badly trashed that I couldn't imagine things going well for them after that. Although that didn't factor into the next part, in which we collectively completely forgot about the commendations and the Fuerhrer's praise, and just treated the end of the chess game as a signal to close out.

In the aftermath part of play, I didn't want to influence it too much. The rules don't make clear whether the historians are played only by the people who played the troopers, or by everyone including the GM, and I opted for the more limited interpretation. Maura and Julie opted for a curiously ambiguous conclusion, that they did not discover any indications of the supernatural, but they did discover evidence of cannibalism. I'm still turning that over in my mind, thematically.

So, well, wow. The game has a lot to offer.

Best, Ron
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FetusCommander
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« Reply #1 on: March 10, 2011, 12:28:38 PM »

First off, I want to thank you guys for playing.  It sounds like you had fun, and Iím really glad.

As for point #1, thatís a very good point.  I know normal chess has a concession option (in which the player lays their King down on its side), but I never figured that this would need one.  What Iím thinking now is that a consensus among players, as you described, should be able to end play.  I really donít want people to feel like theyíre ďusing traits just to use themĒ towards the end of the game.

As for point #2: Iím glad this came up in your games.  I havenít gotten a chance to playtest Deathís Head yet, but in a game I have playtested that used similar chess mechanics, most people played trait-front and let the chess game go where it would.  Iím very happy to see that in your game people were doing both and it didnít cause the atmosphere to fall apart.  Iím definitely going to make a note in the game text about this now, telling players that either style of play is acceptable (I was actually on the fence about that before, but this convinces me that both can actually work and not damage the mood).

Quote
When the board is flipped around, there's an interesting hitch in the alternation of turns, if black was the last to move, as it was in our case. I suspect that people will carry out the board-flip at the natural end of a "go" anyway, i.e., after the GM has moved, so this may not be an edge case but rather an important issue.

There seem to be two ways it could go. (1) You can preserve chess turn rules, which is to say, black has just moved, so now white goes, which means the GM as a speaker makes a second, additional move. Or (2) you can preserve narrational back-and-forth, which is to say, we go into a new turn of GM scene-framing and announced player-character actions, which means that the chess turn rules are violated because black, now in the hands of the players, goes twice in a row.

This is something that didnít really occur to me.  It would seem natural to do (1) in chess terms, but (2) obviously preserves the narrative more.  I think you made the right decision.  Iíll have to piddle around with this, but itíll definitely be getting a rule in future edits of the text.

Quote
You've probably noticed that due to the specific interrogations and due to choices for traits, certain events were front-loaded for play. This may seem problematic, but it turns out not to be, given certain skillful applications of the GM's authority over scene-framing. I think it's a skill that should be cultivated by anyone who wants to GM this game.

Iím going to have to figure out a way to explain this in detail in the text.  The interrogation mechanic seems certain to generate a lot of traits similar to what you mention (ďI killed HermannĒ), and I want GMs to be prepared to deal with that.

Quote
Oh yes, since I am helpless and ineffective regarding most digital technology, we didn't have music set up. Some pre-play discussion came up with the idea to roll a d10 after every two turns (i.e. four chess moves, two for them and two for me), and record the value. When any value rolled so far was re-rolled, then we'd move to the hordes phase.As it turned out, this took a while. I rolled five values before getting a repeat, so that means ten distinct trait-based actions and twenty chess moves. So it worked well for our purposes but obviously we were missing out on intended atmosphere entirely.

Awww.  A part of me is sort of disappointed that you didnít get to experience the game with music, but I also know (from the Ronnies thread discussion of the game) that the music is a lot of trouble, maybe more than itís worth.  Iím happy that your solution worked for your group though.  In the future, Iím thinking that Iíll need to include alternate methods of resolving the flip around since hauling in a laptop/boombox might be a little bit more than some groups want to bother with.

Quote
As we played it, I'd GM for Maura, she'd move a piece, then I'd move a piece, we'd finish out the narrations of the scenes, and then I'd do the same for Julie. But as it happens, sometimes, I'd "go again" with one of them, more or less depending on which person seemed more eager at the moment. So every two turns, they each got one, but it wasn't rigidly set at back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Rudy, what are your thoughts on player turn order?

Essentially, I think player turn order can and should be very loose, and adjusted as it needs to be in order to make the most interesting narrative and keep players interested in the game.  This, again, is something Iíll need to explain in the text.

Quote
There was a nice bit of crossing at one point, when marching female zombies were about to trap Josep between them as Hermann watched helplessly from their truck. Maura said that Josep barked out orders at them to see the camp commandant, using the "Jews should know their place" trait, and rolled ... and it worked! That was pretty weird as a scene in and of itself, but it was especially fun as in Hans' next scene, he was seeking a superior officer in order to get orders (anything!) that would tell him something to do ... and of course, he was treated to watching the women zombies swarm, seize, and devour his most superior officer right in front of him, ignoring him. His action that scene was to put a bullet in the man's head halfway through the devouring, thus making him, technically, the man who sought orders above all else, a traitor.

This entire paragraph got me jumpiní!  Wow... just, wow.

Quote
The rules don't make clear whether the historians are played only by the people who played the troopers, or by everyone including the GM, and I opted for the more limited interpretation. Maura and Julie opted for a curiously ambiguous conclusion, that they did not discover any indications of the supernatural, but they did discover evidence of cannibalism. I'm still turning that over in my mind, thematically.

Haha!  Awesome!  That seems like a very fitting end for a horror game.

As a rules note, the historians are played by everyone, including the GM.  Iíll have to make that clear when I rewrite.

Iím sure Iíll have a little bit more to add as I reread your account.  Let me just say that in terms of the feelings I wanted to capture, a lot of this seemed spot on, especially the characters and their use of traits.
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Rudy Johnson
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: March 10, 2011, 04:17:08 PM »

Hi Rudy,

To make sure I'm being absolutely clear about trait-first vs. chess-first, I will stress that both players used both ways at various times during the game. It definitely wasn't a matter of choosing one way out of two and sticking with it. I didn't get much impression that you were mis-reading what I wrote, but I wanted it to be laid down here absolutely explicitly.

I'm bummed too about not getting the music together, and I'll be sure to do it the next time I play. But I'm still concerned about something in the feedback thread, though - I see no point, totally none, in finishing the chess game before the hordes strike. So I'd like to see no choice of that being mechanically possible. That's my only concern about using the music. Any suggestions toward that end?

Best, Ron
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whduryea
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« Reply #3 on: March 10, 2011, 05:35:19 PM »

Just a thought: Why not make it so that something that happens within the chess game triggers the board reversal? All of the current possibilities--music, dice, cards--seem rather tangential to the real action of the game. Maybe it's just my personal obsession with simplicity, but I feel like this would make the game more cohesive. It also might be a way to ensure that the zombie outbreak happens before the game ends, if that's something Rudy wants also.

One possible solution would be to have the board flip as soon as one player places another into check. At the very least this would guarantee one round of zombie outbreak before the game ended, and in most games the first check won't be followed immediately by checkmate. It also means that the zombie invasion will begin at a particularly dramatic moment in play, and that one player will immediately be placed in a desperate situation, which seems appropriate.

One potential downside to this solution is that more strategic players would be discouraged from actively pursuing check in the pre-outbreak game, and opportunistic players might maneuver their into a particularly nasty check in order to score a quick victory (if you can call it that) when the board reverses.
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terrible games about terrible people in terrible situations/
terrible games about terrible people in terrible situations
jrs
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« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2011, 08:55:14 AM »

I wouldn't want to rely on a chess game event to trigger the board reversal. Not being a good chess player, I wouldn't want strategic chess play to enter into the game any more than it does. I really enjoyed playing to traits with the restriction of what pieces can move even if the moves were not particularly good strategically. Adding another layer to what the move on the board could mean mechanically would be more of a distraction for me.

I'd be happy with just setting a timer.

Julie
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FetusCommander
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« Reply #5 on: March 13, 2011, 09:49:30 AM »

I've been thinking over the discussion in this thread for the past couple days, and I'll have to admit that I'm kinda at a loss as far as the issue with the game ending before the hordes stage.  The reason I wanted that to be a possibility is to give people some reason to try for check/checkmate in the camp phase before the hordes come.  Thematically, that maneuvering is pretty important (that is, it's important that players not feel afraid to play aggressively in the first half because they're the ones oppressing; then for the second half, that gets flipped around on them).

I'm not sure I want to pursue the suggestion William made, both for the reason Julie mentioned, and because of the fact that I wanted the onset of the hordes stage to be somewhat of a surprise to the GM as well as the players.

I'm really going to have to think more about this.
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Rudy Johnson
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: March 13, 2011, 12:40:22 PM »

Hi Rudy,

Maybe we're all making it harder than it is. I stepped back a little and thought in terms of pure function.

1. There needs to be a signal to mark the chessboard flip and the in-game onset of the hordes.

2. This signal needs to be unpredictable in some way so that it's not a countdown.

3. Pre-signal play has no required content that we have to get to that might be undercut by the signal (although it's not trivial), so if it kicks off early, that's OK.

A (my thought). Play should not conclude via checkmate prior to the signal. So the only issue is whether it happens too late.

All of this seems perfectly sensible and I think randomized music is an excellent signal device. The more I thought about it, the only thing that concerned me was having so many songs, and the checkmate overtakes the signal.

I suggest thinking of this as an edge case, and if the edge is too likely, then adjust the rules for the number of songs or the organization of the signal, or anything of that sort, to narrow it to a small possibility. And come up with some kind of rule to handle it if it happens.

And that leads me to one other point, which is at the moment, we're knotting our heads over something that has not been observed as a problem in play for real. Maybe that's actually the first step - play it as written, with the music, and see how it goes over a number of cases.

Best, Ron
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