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Author Topic: [Secret Lives of Serial Killers] Yes, a Playtest  (Read 3049 times)
Willow
Member

Posts: 224


« on: March 14, 2011, 03:47:28 PM »

Saturday I playtested this game.

Shortly after receiving the Ronnie, I was bursting with pride.  So of course I told my best friend, Shari, and Tim had been in on it from the start, and I deliberately mentioned the game to a few others so I wouldn't be tempted to run it for them.

But I figured our friend Brendan as the perfect test subject for the game: he's suitably twisted (he's one of my favorite players for Escape from Tentacle City- he came up with Hobart, whom some of you may remember), and he's got an eagerness to playtest new games that the fake game wouldn't be too out of the ordinary to get him to play.  Also, he knows how to take a joke.  I hope.

The icing on the cake, of course, is my choice of Killer player: Shari, who usually plays sugary-sweet paladins, volunteered, looking for an opportunity to explore her darker side.

We played at Shari's house- Tim wanted none of it, and at Brendan's there would be the chance his wife would decide she wanted to watch, which would 1) probably make her uncomfortable and 2) make it impossible for Brendan to ever run it for her, if he's a sick enough bastard.

The whole game took just under 2 hours, but could go longer depending on how much detail people get into.

Act 1:  We meet our Killer, Mary Jane Smith, who has an immaculately clean little house she inherited from her aunt, a cat (Snookie-Wookems), two fridges (one big for her food, one little for the catfood), and a boring job working from home editing technical journals.  Foreshadowing involved the making of an omelet, a block of knives, and Mary Jane cutting herself with the knife.

Act 2:  We meet our 'sunshine,' Levi, a travelling encyclopedia salesman who has massive enthusiasm, but little sales acumen.  We see him doing his pitch for a skeptical housewife who only wants to buy the 'D' volume (so she can read more about the Da Vinci Code), and some bungling of the expensive volumes.  Brendan jumped into the role of sunshine with aplomb, perfectly happy to play the cheery fool.

Act 3:  Levi stops at Mary Jane's house, who invites him in and listens to his pitch, and agrees to buy the whole set (sans D, which he agrees to get for her.)  Some humor: Levi slips in dog doo on the sidewalk not once or twice, but three times, Mary Jane asks him to read aloud the Destiny entry.

Act 4:  In brainstorming for the unexpected reunion, we learn that Levi is homeless, and sleeps out of his car in the local supermarket parking lot.  Mary Jane, having stalked him there and "recognizing his car" knocks on the window to wake him.  There's more humor as he gets out of the car, sans pants, quite shocking Mary Jane, and then they go shopping to convince each other that they're in the supermarket parking lot at 2 in the morning for completely normal reasons.

Act 5:  I call act 5 the Turn; after all, it's where the game abandons any real pretense of being a romantic comedy, abandons the script, but yet keeps on going.  Levi, having traveled to the resupply depot (6 hours away) and getting there in the dead of night, finishes loading up his car, only to see Mary Jane as soon as he closes his trunk.  Brendan nervously laughs "so, is this a horror game now?"  I just kind of shrug and glance at Shari, despite having framed the scene myself.

Mary Jane offers to give Levi a ride to her place so he can deliver the volume, and then a ride back, which he for some reason agrees to.  On the way, she asks him to read various D entries.  Once back, she feeds him dog teriyaki, hits him with a frying pan when he tries to get away, ties him up, cuts off his hand, and finally feeds him a Levi-hand-omelet before finishing the job, meanwhile scolding him for making such a mess.

This is also where the 2 on one nature of the game finally becomes obvious- Brendan remarked to me after the game that for a while he thought Shari had just gone bonkers or something and I was simply humoring her- Levi goes in the bathroom, asks if there's a window, and I say yes, a little tiny one at the top of the wall (and also describe a wastebin containing full prescription bottles of antipsychotics).  Brendan tries to leverage his background as encyclopedia guy to say he knows about varying psychoses, and how to react, and I say sure, but really he needs to just get out.  When Shari narrates cutting off the hand, he narrates standing up in the chair and swinging it so it hits her- I block it, having him trip up and fall over.  Eventually, when I ask him what he does, I get answers like "I say nothing."  "I do nothing," and finally, "where is this going?" after which I ask Shari to wrap it up, so she feeds him the hand omelet and kills him already, and I reveal the whole truth.

One of the questions posed as a reaction to the text is, what's stopping people from just getting up and leaving?
Social pressure for one- I mean, you agreed to play this game right? and the other people seem to be having fun, although it's getting kind of weird.  If it were one on one, this totally wouldn't be an issue- I think one would just call bullshit, but its harder with a 3 player dynamic.
There's also the issue of commitment and sunk costs: by the time the Turn comes, you've been playing for an hour, and the game's almost over, according to the script.  Why not see it through to the end?

Brendan apparently forgave us, since we went on to join some more play boardgames, eat dinner, and get a little drunk.  Or perhaps he's plotting his revenge more subtly.
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Brendan Day
Member

Posts: 26


« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2011, 10:11:37 AM »

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research
April 18, 1979

AGENCY: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

ACTION: Notice of Report for Public Comment.

SUMMARY: On July 12, 1974, the National Research Act (Pub. L. 93-348) was signed into law, there-by creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. One of the charges to the Commission was to identify the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects and to develop guidelines which should be followed to assure that such research is conducted in accordance with those principles. In carrying out the above, the Commission was directed to consider: (i) the boundaries between biomedical and behavioral research and the accepted and routine practice of medicine, (ii) the role of assessment of risk-benefit criteria in the determination of the appropriateness of research involving human subjects, (iii) appropriate guidelines for the selection of human subjects for participation in such research and (iv) the nature and definition of informed consent in various research settings.

The Belmont Report attempts to summarize the basic ethical principles identified by the Commission in the course of its deliberations. It is the outgrowth of an intensive four-day period of discussions that were held in February 1976 at the Smithsonian Institution's Belmont Conference Center supplemented by the monthly deliberations of the Commission that were held over a period of nearly four years. It is a statement of basic ethical principles and guidelines that should assist in resolving the ethical problems that surround the conduct of research with human subjects. By publishing the Report in the Federal Register, and providing reprints upon request, the Secretary intends that it may be made readily available to scientists, members of Institutional Review Boards, and Federal employees. The two-volume Appendix, containing the lengthy reports of experts and specialists who assisted the Commission in fulfillingthis part of its charge, is available as DHEW Publication No. (OS) 78-0013 and No. (OS) 78-0014, for sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

Unlike most other reports of the Commission, the Belmont Report does not make specific recommendations for administrative action by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Rather, the Commission recommended that the Belmont Report be adopted in its entirety, as a statement of the Department's policy. The Department requests public comment on this recommendation.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects
of Biomedical and Behavioral Research

Members of the Commission

Kenneth John Ryan, M.D., Chairman, Chief of Staff, Boston Hospital for Women.
Joseph V. Brady, Ph.D., Professor of Behavioral Biology, Johns Hopkins University.
Robert E. Cooke, M.D., President, Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Dorothy I. Height, President, National Council of Negro Women, Inc.
Albert R. Jonsen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Bioethics, University of California at San Francisco.
Patricia King, J.D., Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center.
Karen Lebacqz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Pacific School of Religion.
*** David W. Louisell, J.D., Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley.
Donald W. Seldin, M.D., Professor and Chairman, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas at Dallas.
Eliot Stellar, Ph.D., Provost of the University and Professor of Physiological Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
*** Robert H. Turtle, LL.B., Attorney, VomBaur, Coburn, Simmons & Turtle, Washington, D.C.

*** Deceased.

http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/belmont.html
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Brendan Day
Member

Posts: 26


« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2011, 10:21:50 AM »

I appreciate that you submitted your work for peer review.  I seem to have suffered no lasting harm, and was properly debriefed.

I'll post my observations later this week.
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happysmellyfish
Member

Posts: 49


« Reply #3 on: March 16, 2011, 04:29:18 AM »

I personally found the set up more interesting and fresh than the twist here. How many ways are there to tie and cut somebody up, anyway? Don't answer that question. If you role-played in high school, you know the answer - a heap. Which might be why I found the established world more interesting: romance in the suburban village from Edward Scissorhands. That's cool.

It seems like you were really building to something great, but all of that was pushed aside by this freight train. It may just have been a one-off, to do with this particular session, but it might not be. Am I making sense? Reminds me of some films, where you've got this interesting world and you really want to stick around for a while and see just what's going on here, but inevitably the director decides to throw in a bizarre history lesson or whatever. (I'm looking at you, Hancock)

Maybe if the stuff going on in the first half was a little more connected to the stuff going on in the second half, it wouldn't feel like all those great ideas were wasted.

Or did the session not feel like this at all? I could be way off base.
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Baxil
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Posts: 84


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« Reply #4 on: March 16, 2011, 08:40:39 AM »

Happysmellyfish,

If you weren't watching the February Ronnies, this game is a deliberately broken exploration of that "freight train" you mention.  Willow didn't link the rules, but it's been discussed here before. 

Specifically I'll echo Ron's caution in the other playtest thread:
Quote
This is kind of a different game which may exist more as a thought-piece than as a game to be played.

For reference: [The Secret Lives of Serial Killers] Ronnies feedback, which includes a link to the text.

Devon is quite brave and/or ... well, I dunno and/or what, for playing it, and the experience is definitely interesting to read about. However, I think people reading this should know that the game text itself explicitly acknowledges that the game is not socially functional. Whether and how it might be, or whether the dysfunction can operate as its own productive form of satire, is currently under debate.

New subject: I'd like to note that in both of the playtests so far, given a mixed-gender pool of potential playtesters, the organizer has selected male players as victims and female players as killers/facilitators.  I suspect that this arrangement is the optimum "safe" venue for playtesting, and that certainly seems to raise gender questions. (Note: I want to carefully avoid the suggestion that this game could be useful as a commentary on gender privilege issues.)  Willow, if and only if you're comfortable opening that can of worms, any thoughts on that?

Bax
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Willow
Member

Posts: 224


« Reply #5 on: March 16, 2011, 08:53:52 AM »

Baxil-

Generally speaking, serial killing is tied up in sexual violence.  While there's not any explicit sexual content here; I think it's certainly implied- does anyone not realistically think that Mary Jane is getting off from feeding Levi his own hand?  (And the hair-brushing of the victim in the other game- definitely sexual there.)  And the fact is, women are much more likely to be the target of sexual violence than men.

So yes, subjecting anyone to this game is icky.  A man and a women, or two women ganging up on a man; as opposed to two men ganging up on a woman, is a way of mitigating the ick factor.

On the other hand, it's just a sample set of two playtests.  A female friend I explained it to immediately wanted to run it for a third female friend.
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happysmellyfish
Member

Posts: 49


« Reply #6 on: March 17, 2011, 03:29:48 AM »

Hiya Baxil,

I had read the feedback, so knew that freight train was the whole point of play.

It just seems like a rather elaborate practical joke, and I'm not sure I get the punch line. Maybe I shouldn't say any more until Brendan spills the beans.
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Phil K.
Member

Posts: 31


« Reply #7 on: March 17, 2011, 07:34:01 AM »

Willow -

Procedurally, did the game go the way you thought it would? That is to say: did things happen according to the rules the way you intended while writing the game.

Brendan -

What is your general opinion of movies with a sudden twist near the end? Think of anything written by M. Night Shamylan (Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, Unbreakable) or films like BASIC and Shutter Island. Ron and I were talking on Tuesday about the thematic cohesiveness of SLoSK and its acceptance by the victim may be influenced by the ability to tolerate such twists in fiction.  Just collatin' data, as they say.
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Brendan Day
Member

Posts: 26


« Reply #8 on: March 18, 2011, 08:37:08 AM »

Of all the films in that list, Unbreakable is the only one that Iíve seen.  I disliked the ending for various reasons, but the fact that it came as a surprise wasnít one of them.  Itís interesting that I havenít seen any of the other films listed, though.  That alone suggests that I donít care for trick endings, as I have somehow managed to intuitively avoid them.

What are some other examples?  I liked Memento and Fight Club.  I don't mind being kept in the dark, so long as there is a flash of recognition when the lights finally come up.  That is certainly the case with Secret Lives of Serial Killers.  Of course it's a story about a serial killer and her victim.  What else could it possibly be?  The signs were there all along, but I ignored them.  When the lights finally came on I may have blinked a few times, but I didn't shake my head in disbelief.  I nodded in stunned approval.
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Janussary
Registree

Posts: 2


« Reply #9 on: March 19, 2011, 06:06:41 PM »

When Ron brought the rules text for this game over to the Dojo last Tuesday, I was mostly disappointed that simply by reading it I'd lost my shot at being a Sunshine. XD At any rate, I do agree that a majority of RPG players have whatever combination of emotional flexibility and tolerance for disturbing storylines it takes to make it through "the Turn" without being actually upset by it. However, there is a distinct possibility of emotional damage if the GM and Killer players deliberately choose a Sunshine who lacks those qualities. Which is why it reminded me a bit of the Milgram experiment.

Still, I love the idea of the game itself and wish I'd had a chance to be surprised by it! Had a similar experience when The Blair Witch Project was new. The first knowledge I had of it was an article in the Chicago Reader describing the reactions of theatergoers who had not been warned and (spoiler alert, I suppose) thought it was real. From what I recall some people were genuinely scarred by the experience, believing they'd just watched actual homemade footage of a bunch of young people getting picked off one by one by a shadowy killer still at large. I don't recall the filmmakers getting sued though--I'd think their lawyers might very well have used the "what's stopping people from getting up and leaving" argument if so.

The real difference between a movie like Blair Witch (which I liked anyway!) and this game is, I think, the participation factor. A movie rolls on no matter what the audience chooses to do or refrain from doing. An RPG, especially one with so few participants, requires that each person contribute to the evolution of the story. It's far more personal, and occurs in the context of a trust-based relationship--fellow RPG players are often real life friends in addition to their shared gaming hobby. In fact it would be difficult, if not downright irresponsible, for a GM/Killer pair to select a Sunshine who was not a fairly close friend. Otherwise the likelihood of the Sunshine reacting poorly, being genuinely hurt, would be far greater. The GM/Killer have to know their Sunshine well enough to accurately conclude "this is a person who can handle this twist and might appreciate it". And the Sunshine's got to have enough trust in the GM and Killer players that they will interpret the Turn as a hidden twist in gameplay, rather than a personal attack.

If the shock and intensity of the Turn are too great for the pre-existing trust relationship between the players to cushion the blow, then this game could very easily end friendships. Or result in the kinds of deep resentment that can send an online gamer into a cars to make a cross-country revenge trek against another gamer who's, say, killed their character once too often, defamed their honor, etc. It blurs the boundary between character and player, making it necessary for the Sunshine player to essentially put more of themselves into their character midgame. The Sunshine player has to make the choice to double down on their emotional investment AFTER the in-game character has, in essence, been betrayed in the worst possible way.

Just throwing this out there. Sex and torture are, in a sense, both extreme forms of intimacy. The essential difference between the two rests on consent and intention, even though the logical conclusion of one is life, the other death. Yet either can contain any combination of pain and pleasure without making the categorical jump. They don't necessarily have to be combined in this game, although given the setup it's likely they would be.

Willow, I do hope your female friends run this game! :D I'd look forward to reading a recap.
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Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
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« Reply #10 on: March 20, 2011, 07:43:55 AM »

Hi everyone, and hello to you, Crystal!

Brendan, that second post of yours nailed it. I've been intrigued since the beginning that the revelation at the end of the game can be productive, and not merely a practical (and vicious) joke.

I do understand what all the objections are about. Here's a clip from last Tuesday's dialogue at the Dice Dojo, where there has been a weekly, ongoing discussion about this game. I posited a situation - which is historically unfortunately accurate - in which two or more players collude, beforehand, to have their characters rape the female character of another player. Consider the GM, or DM in most cases, to be one of the colluders. Consider as well that the in-game statement "I do this," "I do that," of the targeted player are rendered irrelevant and ineffective by the GM as part of play.

As I said, this is not some hypothetical scenario but something which has really happened, often enough to be a recognized feature of the subculture. I've never witnessed it personally, but I've also briefly played in or sat in on tons of D&D and other fantasy games which I then avoided strenuously, and wouldn't be surprised if some of them had included it.

For someone who is rightly appalled or worse, scarred by such goings-on, Willow's game must seem like absolutely nothing but a foul reprise or unaccountable celebration of this ... what do I call it, "practice." Unreconstructed, or worse, reactionary, from all the work we've done here at the Forge regarding Social Contract as the foundation for all aesthetic and procedural features of play. I bet that's what Moreno and I are going to discuss when I get to Italy next month. It's also why Willow wrote "no one should play this game," in the beginning of the rules, and why I found that a reasonable statement.

But ... the question is not about Social Contract, but rather Technique. The Technique in question is transparency, not in the gamer sense of how the rules work, but in the more general sense of relevant knowledge held by one or more members but withheld from others. How far can the lack of transparency can go, and still be powerfully productive?

Point #1: We need not over-idealize full transparency. I'll pick one example. It is flatly the case that GM-held knowledge of back-story is a productive feature of play. It's not required for all games, nor is over-protection of that knowledge necessary during play, but the last thing I would want as a Sorcerer or Dogs player, for instance, is to know the GM's back-story prior to beginning play. That lack of knowledge is a feature of those and many other games. This goes double (ha! tenfold) for classic exploratory/assault fantasy games, such as Tunnels & Trolls.

Other examples have proliferated since then, which do not rely on the classic centralized-knowledge model of GMing. The Dark Secret in The Mountain Witch, the Trespass in Spione (initially pilloried as "dangerous and wrong," if you remember), and more, all utilized lack of transparency on an individual-player basis.

Granted, there are some other game designs in which transparency is maximal: Universalis, With Great Power, and more. All that means to me is that transparency is a genuine Technique dial, much like the four Authorities and much like how resolving-narrations might be distributed.

Point #2: Revelations which absolutely redefine what has gone before are a much-desired feature of stories for some, and much-loathed by others. I'm talking about information which, once it has appeared, forces the audience to revisit everything they have seen or read until this point. Much of what they thought was rock-solid is now shown to be a lie. Certain things that were seen as excuses or lies must now be taken to be true. And one key feature of such films and stories is that prior to the moment(s) of revelation, the techniques of presentation (in film: music, shots held for a second longer than usual, other signals) were all deliberately pointing the viewer/reader the wrong way. The skilled creator is able to do this and still pull off what Brendan talked about: the sudden understanding that all sorts of details and features of the story so far are more consistent with the new/actual interpretation than with the previous one. In other words, it's a trick, but not a cheap trick - the payoff being that the ultimate story is better than the one the viewer thought was going to play out.

Point #3: Narrativism is about thematic punch. That doesn't necessarily mean constant punches; buildup and pacing are all big parts of the Techniques tool-box servicing that CA. Nor does it mean - as I wearily, wearily repeat as the years go by - story-conferencing by a set of absolute equals in terms of Technique. And perhaps that issue may even extend to Premise itself. If a revelation recasts all that has gone before into a different, better Premise, then the concealment of that information prior to that point would be itself, a productive Technique.

In the Ronnies feedback thread, I tried to articulate exactly what thematic content I was talking about: specifically, the deconstruction of a common, trite theme in many movies to reveal its similarities to - and disturbingly, affinities with - another phenomenon entirely.

Point #4: And now look. Two playtests so far, among people who apparently are not psychotics and who I presume are not so outstandly virtuous or talented as to be above the rest of every other gamer on the planet. Regular people, who among other things have very strong commitment to their Social Contract - so strong, in fact, that it can endure what appears to be unforgivable strain (the D&D rape) - to see whether it is, in fact, something else. And when it does turn out to be something else, because of the "makes more sense this way" effectg and the thematic punch, the result seems to be ... acceptable. And in fact, fun.

That's why I think the Milgram experiment is not necessarily the model for what's going on with the game, although it definitely belongs in the discussion for purposes of comparison. Nor do I think the game is merely a practical joke, or worse, a recapitulation of remembered abuse.

Perhaps a discussion of "No One Gets Hurt" vs. "I Will Not Abandon You" should come next.

Best, Ron
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Brendan Day
Member

Posts: 26


« Reply #11 on: March 20, 2011, 04:32:58 PM »

I was disappointed to learn that everyone else in the world knew the truth about this game, as it meant that I would have few, if any, opportunities to play the Recluse.  If I could somehow play again as the Sunshine, I would.  It would help me figure out what I think of this game.  Itís tempting to dismiss Secret Lives of Serial Killers as a cruel joke, but I want to believe that thereís more to it.  I have to believe there's something more.  It's taken me a week to respond because I'm afraid that maybe it is all a joke, and I'm a fool for taking it so seriously.

I was surprised to learn that Sunshine Boulevard was a game of light romantic comedy, but really, what else could Willow do after Escape From Tentacle City, the game of hateful stereotypes?  She had followed that road to the end, and now she was setting out in the opposite direction.  I kept expecting Sunshine Boulevard to turn into a satire, but we were told to play it straight, and we did.

That proved rather awkward, as I was a married man playing a romantic rpg with a single woman.  Perhaps this was all part of the design, and the game wasnít as harmless as it seemed.  One player is married and the other single, and it's the job of the third to arrange this awkward pairing and then block the exits.  But why?  What was Willow trying to accomplish, other than to make us uncomfortable?

Just last week Shari told us how she went to a fetish bar to study how people flirted.  Perhaps that was a clue.  It soon became apparent that she had no idea how to construct a conventional love story, either because she was riddled with kinks that she didn't want to reveal, or because she was emotionally illiterate.  In either case, it made for an awkward afternoon.  This was supposed to be a light romantic comedy, but there was very little chemistry between the Sunshine and the Recluse, and the only comedy came in the form of slapstick.  Perhaps it was my fault.  My Sunshine was a lonely traveling salesman, a recluse in his own right.  Shari was indifferent to his advances, until at last the Recluse developed this weird fascination with him, if only because the rules dictated that this should happen.  She started following him around, but there was nothing romantic about it.  She was just stalking him.

Was this Shariís idea of a love story?  The game continued to unravel around us, and I smiled and nodded.  I didnít want to offend Shari.  I've seen groups disintegrate as players act out their dislike for one another, and I wanted Shari to like me.  But was it too late for that?  Had I already done something to offend her?  I sensed no overt hostility in her tone of voice or body language, but perhaps she was trying to keep it hidden.  Or perhaps she was angry with Willow, and was punishing her by sabotaging the game.

In these situations I usually disengage, allowing others to pick up the pieces, but with only three players, the game left me nowhere to hide.  Instead, I took refuge in my assigned role.  I remained chipper and energetic, like a puppy.  I chased the chew toy into the sink, and when it disappeared down the garbage disposal, I jumped in after it, barking happily.  Yes, we were having fun.  I looked up at Willow and Shari, and waited for something to happen.

They flipped the switch, and it was not fun.  I said nothing.  I did nothing.  My character was in a state of shock, and so was I.  At last I pushed my chair back and asked ďWhere is this going?Ē.  It was too late, of course.  The train had already flown off the track and exploded, or rather, the roller coaster had taken its final, sickening turn.  It was about to glide to a halt.

Why didnít I stop and ask the obvious question.  Are you all insane?  This canít be real?  You canít be serious?  Why didn't I see through the deception?  I could have made the Sunshine a masochist who wanted nothing more than to be eaten alive by his sadistic beloved.  I could have beaten Willow at her own game, if only I had seen her palming the cards.  I'm glad that I didn't, because that would have spoiled the trick.

Sunshine Boulevard is a broken game.  It's supposed to be.  That's part of what makes Secret Lives Serial Killers work.  In the final moments I was ready to dismiss it entirely, to sweep the pieces into the box and burn it.  Nothing could possibly be done to fix this game, until suddenly all the pieces fell into place, and I realized that it wasn't broken at all.  It was a puzzle, and Shari and Willow had tricked me into assembling it.  Of course it was a story about a serial killer and her victim.  What else could it possibly be?

I blinked in amazement.  For two hours I had been an actor dying on stage, and just when I was about to bleed to death, the lights came up, the director rushed out in a cape, and everyone started to clap.  I wasn't an actor at all.  I was a magician's assistant.  I had been locked in a box and sawed in half, but now the two halves of the box were clicking together, and I was emerging from the hidden compartment, shaken but unharmed.  We all took a bow.  Willow had made a clever game, and Shari had played it brilliantly.  I hadn't quit in rage, and thank god I had kept all of those terrible thoughts to myself.  Think how embarrassing it would have been if I had shared them?
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #12 on: March 20, 2011, 06:01:40 PM »

It occurs to me after reading Brendan's post that what would stop me from running this game or designing along similar lines is social accountability: the cabal players really aren't leaving themselves any justification at all for what they did if the victim does not end up appreciating their creatize zeal in tricking him. In other words, I have difficulty understanding how playing this game could be considered virtuous in retrospect if it so happens that the victim retroactively condemns it as a cruel trick. That's awfully lot of responsibility to take, to shoulder the blame while leaving the justification of the act (forgiveness, essentially) up to your victim. Whether you think that roleplaying is mere consensual hedonism or art, the theoretical problem of justification doesn't really go away.

Asymmetric knowledge itself is a crucial design tool, though, so I've no mere technical concerns here. In fact, it occurs to me that I have a very similar game in my desk drawer from way back (before he Dance and the Dawn, which also does this). My game is for three players, one of whom plays the romantic interest while one of the others plays the bad lover while the other plays the good lover. The tension of the game is in the fact that the player of the romantic interest has to choose between the two through play without knowing which is which, while the other two are bound by certain rules in how they lead and mislead the romantic interest. Of course there's a crucial difference between these games in that Secret Lives doesn't introduce the uncertainty into the diegetic framework while Dance and the Dawn and my game here both very much incorporate it: Secret Lives is not problematic because it includes uncertainty and hidden knowledge, but because it abuses (uses against intent, literally) the implicit social contract to enforce its surprise.

I'm harping about this not to condemn anybody morally, but to wonder whether the game couldn't achieve its artistic goals without abusing the ritual space of play. Ron has a good list of reasons for why the game needs that surprise; I especially appreciate the idea that awkward story material can be recontextualized to make perfect sense with new, surprising information. In this regard, consider the game that is almost the mirror image of this except for consensuality, It Was a Mutual Decision: in both of these games it is possible that what seems like a love story (well, relationship drama anyway) will be recontextualized as a horror story in the latter parts of play. IWaMD achieves this by rolling dice. It's basically like if everybody in Secret Lives knew in advance that it might be a serial killer story, but after the third act dice are rolled to find out if it is or isn't. Would something important be lost artistically if the game worked like this?

Another way to include the actual game within the envelope of pre-accepted possibilities is to play with a very auteuristic GMing culture, with the expectation that you don't really know what you're getting into when you play a game. We get a lot of this in Finland, at least as a certain sort of ideological ideal. The "hah haa, you thought that you're playing a modern teen drama but you're playing another Vampire chronicle after all" bait and switch is pretty well-known in this regard. If and when the local play culture is like this, playing Secret Lives seems much less outre as the players are already subscribing to the idea that the GM has the right to surprise them totally insofar as the subject matter of the game goes. I don't object to that, but I do find it something of a weakness if the game can't be made to work in a different social context.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: March 20, 2011, 07:17:50 PM »

Hi Eero,

Would you apply that final point to fiction or film? That a given work is "weaker" given the social context of the person who walks into the theater or picks up the book?

I don't think you would.

Best, Ron
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #14 on: March 21, 2011, 03:16:58 PM »

Well, I suppose I would be willing to criticize the relevance of an artistic work when and if it's obviously insular in its execution. There's nothing wrong in making works of limited and special interest, of course, but it's also good craftsmanship to consider seriously where you need to sacrifice in general comprehension to achieve your artistic goals. Being incomprehensible or unenjoyable can only be justified by artistic vision when there is an actual artistic issue requiring you to sacrifice legibility - it'd be merely lazy to create a movie or novel that is more incomprehensible than it needs to be, insofar as art critique is concerned.

Note that I didn't decide for myself that Secret Lives is unnecessarily cruel, I just asked the question as fellow designer, interested in the answer: is it unnecessarily cruel, or does the cruelty bring something positive to it as a game or art or whatever it strives to be? I would be happy if the answer were deeper than the average postmodern artist's rallying cry where any reaction whatsoever from the audience, no matter how negative or frustrated, is considered a sign of victory for the artist struggling with his own irrelevance. That is, I'm not sure if you can hold the fact that the game is better at hurting people as proof that it's also better as a game.

I do admit that I find it a bit scary as a designer if the truth truly is that a game actually becomes better by intentionally consuming social trust and breaking not only expectations of content, but expectations of the rules and limits of the game-activity itself. Of course isolated works are one thing and general trends are another, but I can't help but think that a gaming culture that routinely accepts these sorts of tricks in the hunt for stronger experience is playing with fire; it's like doing bondage without safewords, which is problematic from a best practices point of view even when nobody actually got hurt this time around. At the very least it encourages objectifying of co-players when you accept the idea that a single player or some subset of players can renegotiate the nature and boundaries of the game unilaterally merely to improve the experience. There was a movie about this, actually... The Game, a particularly incipid piece about pervasive gaming and how a gamemaster comes to view their co-players as objects of their art.
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