[Anathema] Blood on our hands

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Ron Edwards:
Hello,

So I finally got to play it! Phil, Crystal, Sam, and James joined me at the Dice Dojo to check it out.

I oversaw character creation very precisely by the book, step by step.

Crystal: Combat 2, Perception 2, Manipulation 6, Resistance 4 - the Kindly
Will 7 (increased to 8), Anathema 0 (increased to 23)
Died of deprivation; Famine 3, Despair 2, Misfortune 3 (note mis-play here, it shouldn't exceed 2)
No preferred victim type; avoids the happy and fulfilled
Vindication = minimized suffering (rationalization), Rebellion = refusing to kill
Died seven minutes ago. Memory fragments: overbearing boss (enemy), office flunky job, fiance, other boss (enemy)

Sam: Combat 2, Perception 3, Manipulation 6, Resistance 3 - the Violent
Will 10, Anathema 0 (increased to 15)
Died of old age; Atrophy 3, Pestilence 1, Misfortune 1, Despair 3 (another similar mis-play)
Preferred victim: the healthy, wealthy, and wise; avoided victim: ambivalent indie rockers
Vindication = beat the opposition, Rebellion = getting personal and powerful
Died five months ago. Memory fragments: female partner in polyamorous relationship, third business partner who'd done him wrong, friend who'd co-founded a social network for Swiss bank clients (!), baby brother, male partner in polyamorous relationship

Phil: Combat 3, Perception 3, Manipulation 6, Resistance 5 - the Lost
Will 10, Anathema 0 (it increased but I don't have the final value)
Died of old age; Atrophy 3, War 1, Misfortune 2, Despair 2
Preferred victim: gang bangers; avoided victim: the wealthy
Vindication = piecing together the past, Rebellion = doing so at the expense of killing
I don't have the notes for how long ago this one died. However, this character ended up with no starting Memory fragments.

James: Combat 4, Perception 3, Manipulation 4, Resistance 5 - the Lost
Will 9 (decreased from 10), Anathema 0 (increased to 18)
Died of illness; Pestilence 3, Atrophy 1, Misfortune 2, Despair 1, War 1
Preferred victim: self-righteous wealthy socialites; avoided victim: the homeless
Vindication = piecing together the past, Rebellion = doing so at the expense of killing
Died ten minutes ago. Memory fragments: childhood ball game at abandoned field (happy occurrence), friend's wedding with street party and dancing (happy occurrence), beaten by gang member, cornered in shanty (enemy)

GMing - playing the Balance is easy, managing PC placement and opportunities is hard or at least not yet constructed. I had my own ideas about how to do it, but I'd much rather know Devon's best practices and follow them.

One assumption I made was that the player-characters are sent or tossed or (in this case of the opening scenario) manifested for the first time, in a group in a single lcoation. I didn't have a clear idea of exactly how the Balance instructs the Anathemae, but decided not to dwell on that, as I liked to think of it as general-goal based but not logistically-based. They coalesced into existence in the midst of what I liked to think of as a "Today, we kill here" situation. I placed the four Anathemae - their very first "awakening," as per the rules - in a situation based on Tahrir Square, with literally hundreds of thousands of people present, during the fighting on the bridge that pushed the police out of the square. I didn't state it outright that this was that exact place, but modeled it on that event.

(Interestingly, it took a few scenes for some of the players to realize that we were not even in America, although I'd specified near the beginning that the people were Arab. Lord knows what they thought was going on prior to that realization!)

My logic in setting in here was first, to have tons of people available, most of whom were engaged in some kind of interesting conflict with some of the others, and much of that possibly violent. Second, I wanted to have certain sides be easily visible so that different Shrouds might have different interpretations of whom to kill. It worked out well enough to be interesting, for instance, when Phil asked if a squad of Xe operatives qualified as "gang bangers" and at least two people at the table instantly shouted "Yes!" Looking over the player-characters' descriptions, which I didn't have that much time to do, I probably should have chosen a setting with more immediate concerns about wealthy people. A gang of thugs attacking a bunch of rich people would have thrown various player-characters into more conflicted observations and decisions.

For whatever reason, I placed the four characters in slightly different places. Two were separated pretty far apart, in essence, alone. Two of them were on the bridge and after a bit of initial carnage, did in fact come to a disagreement about whom to kill, which lets me know that perhaps it would have been better to start with all of them really directly right in one another's faces, not scattered over the whole area.

The details of the bulk of our scenes can wait for further posts. All four characters pitched into killing, at first whomever they got their hands on, and then refining their activities to seek Preferred victims.

Now I faced a really big GMing question. Given a scene like this, in which the killing can go on effectively indefinitely, how to close it? Should I be thinking cinematically and simply cut away after a particularly interesting moment, in pure disregard for the in-fiction logic that they could stay there for weeks and rack Anathema up effectively forever? Or should I be thinking about some kind of internal content which acts as a signal for them to stop and do something else?

That question is important because there are a whole lot of personal implications and nuances on every player-character sheet, and it seems to me that the game will really sing when the characters are given more opportunity to be proactive. To do that, I can't spend the vast majority of play heaving them into a killing-zone and having them pick people off like flies forever and ever; we've got to have some kind of way they can "breathe" a little, do a little looking around, and decide exactly what they want to do. I can see some hassles emerge from either of the two relatively extreme options I named above, so Devon, let me know what you think.

I really, really liked all four characters. They jump off the page for me, in terms of personality, potential for coping with difficult decisions, and possible fun scenario prep. I especially like the way they have no names, not even "codenames" - it seems like a fine opening into investigations about one's life. All of us could clearly see that this is definitely a long-term play game design, just as Devon states in the rules. Whole sessions about the past life of one character, whole sessions about difficult and multi-sided opportunities for killing, and similar - there's a lot of fun waiting there to be discovered by seeing what they do and what happens over multiple situations and as information accumulates.

And that leads me into the big question: when and how such investigations, or information relevant to such investigation, come into play. This is the flip side of the above question about how and when to close scenes defined by unending opportunities for mass carnage.

This issue was thrown into special focus because Phil's character began with no memories at all, and he struggled with the necessary jump-start logic to get his self-investigation going. However, I don't think this is an edge case, but a manifestation of the larger question that applies to all characters in the game. At its most basic: do they find out stuff about themselves proactively, or is that stuff fed to them regularly by the GM?

As a sort of practical exercise, I said to the players, "OK, I think we get it, now let's try something else," and asked them what each of their characters would do if they had a little me-time. Unsurprisingly, both the Violent and the Kindly characters moved straight for the locations of their deaths, and both the Lost characters were ... well, a little bit lost.

We can talk about the Lost later, but I want to stress that this moment turned up another feature of this question: where all the characters were when they were alive, and the practically-inevitable consequence that they will be active in separation locations. I don't see that as a problem necessarily, but perhaps as a feature that can be understood and turned toward a productive side of play. I also think that the textual possibility of having them all die together is both tricky, given the time-differences since death, and a bit ham-handed and less interesting. Again, I really want to know your current thoughts on how you plan to GM this. For instance, would you take some prep time as GM to make a time-line, location-map, and possibly more back-story about the characters' lives? And again, how would you handle the "what do you do" statements and necessary scene-framing?

During and after play, discussion about the game was spirited and enthusiastic. I don't have time to outline the issues in too much detail, but here are a couple of the topics.

Crystal liked the way that a player actually got into the killing in a cathartic way, in that play brought out one's dark side in a fashion that could not be sanitized or objectified in the way that, say, killing orcs and orc babies may be, and that this guilty-pleasure satisfaction is, later, going to experience its own crisis. The game looks likely to confront the player with that crisis when one realizes that in practical terms, the Balance cannot be satisfied by one's player-character, and that one will have to face the question of "who?" and "how many?" in terms of self-imposed limits.

James brought up the interesting tension between extermination vs. assassination, in that the Balance is clearly invested in the former, but uses agents who are more invested in the latter.

Best, Ron

Janussary:
Hi Ron,

Having this game as my first Indie RPG night at the Dojo spoiled me a bit. If there's a chance of further playtesting I would be very much interested.

What if characters had either a per-encounter or a per-day limit of how much Anathema they could gain? This might give the GM a natural way to "close" an encounter, and lead PCs into an investigation-based phase of the game once they were full up on Anathema points. Play would then develop a rhythm of "kill some people, go investigate stuff." In addition, it would force players to be a little bit more selective about whom and how they killed. Every round of play, we started going for maximum body count as soon as we realized that while Vindication is nice, the amount of power to be gained by racking up huge death tolls made it seem silly to focus on accomplishing a single death with style.

In discussion after play I know we mentioned the balance of the powers--some almost too good, some a little weak. It's an easy fix for the designer but I wanted to bring it up here at the outset. James used Misfortune to excellent effect; my memory is fuzzy but I believe he caused an accident to happen to a soldier sitting in the turret of a tank, or holding an RPG launcher, which resulted in many subsidiary deaths. On the flip side, none of us used Atrophy at all. The infliction of instant death was very easy, so it seemed a waste of time and points to cause unnaturrally fast aging. Nor did anyone use Pestilence, for a similar reason. Though I liked the way Ron handled the use of Famine. Near the end of the session I had my character obliterate all visible food and water in the refugee camp; he ruled that "over the course of the next few weeks" a certain amount of people would perish as a result, and rolled a pool of dice to determine the exact number. This method would work well for the Pestilence power as well, I think.

Our game never really got the the "investigation" phase; it's possible the "weaker" powers would work better as scare tactics for NPCs from whom the characters are attempting to extract information.

However, it was pretty easy, even in the "let's kill everyone" part of the game, for the PCs to avoid each other almost completely. Thus if there's not some sort of bond between them there's basically no reason for them to interact at all while they are investigating. The only options I can think of from a design standpoint are either a) there is some pre-existing relationship between the PCs from their lives as humans, or b) the Balance imposes a relationship on the Shrouds when they are resurrected.

Ron Edwards:
Hey Crystal,

I'm glad you reminded me about the auxiliary death rolls I took to making, as it represents the only really dedicated rules-Drift I employed. In circumstances in which a number of people might easily die due to some action, I just grabbed a handful of dice and rolled to see how many and granted the Anathema right then and there.

In retrospect, this could have been done much more elegantly by looking at the player's actual roll and treating that as a total, which has the benefit of rewarding high scores in a very concrete way. For Dominion applications which don't use rolls, using the Dominion score itself as a dice pool would work fine.

On an unrelated point, another thing in my notes I wanted to get down into the thread was how many players pumped a bunch of their points into Manipulation, arguably the least relevant ability after Perception. I was a little surprised, but perhaps, having read the rules, I was the only person who knew this.

And when I get a chance, I want to talk about how determining preferred and avoided victim status should be done, regarding characters right there in the scene.

Best, Ron

Phil K.:
On a procedural note, my character died something like 13 minutes before play started.

As for the game, I was impressed with how clearly my character was defined in my mind after creation even without the presence of memories on the character sheet.  Ideas came forward readily and were surprising to me when they did. The closest example for how I envisioned my character in life is Melvyn Douglas' character Ben Rand from "Being There" - a wealthy businessman/industrialist on death's door but kept alive through some amalgam of machinery and chemical infusions. It's a terribly frightening way to envision one's end and really highlights the futility of staving off death.  As the game has such a long-term focus, I don't feel like I was really able to bring any of that out during the game. Such is the life of a playtest character, I suppose.

With regard to putting points into manipulation, that is definitely an artifact of not being very familiar with the rules. I read them when the initial Ronnies feedback post went up but hadn't looked back since. The description tossed out during the character creation session was "like NFA from 3:16." I actually assumed there would be a lot more non-combat action going on. Who knows, maybe there would be in a longer game where we are able to investigate things and explore the setting.

As said in the feedback thread, I would love to see the Dominions reworked so that they can all be used for visceral effect. Reveling in being a shroud is definitely something that comes out of the game in the short term. Tweaking the Dominions would bring it out more and can really help add creativity to play.

Wow, did I flounder on self-determined action in this game. My character had zero memories and was summoned forth to lay waste to humanity. The only way I could see to play this was as a creature of pure instinct - I was brought back to kill, so I would kill. This could have been a really big problem because I was literally at such a loss that I would not have shifted the scene because I couldn't think of a reason for my shroud to go anywhere else. Unless something triggered a memory, my character was going to be perfectly happy to just stay in the square and kill people slowly. There was no internal conflict there - that conflict is what drives this game.

It was suggested after the game that every shroud have at least one memory and if a Lost rolled a zero (like me) then that memory was of his or her death. I really like this idea. It would have at least given me something to work with and explore.

All in all, I think the game has promise and I'm definitely going to follow its development.  Right now, it needs a lot of work to get tuned up and run smoothly.

Devon Oratz:
I'm a bit intimidated by this thread, to be honest. I have been making games for eleven years, but I have always unfailingly been the sole GM of my own games. Seeing my work in someone else's hands is...dizzying. Like, butterflies in my stomach. It is an ongoing exercise in letting go.

First off: Thank you for playtesting and thank you for the report! I'm going to be coming back to this thread as more and more thoughts occur to me.

First thoughts: I really, really, really like everyone's preferred and avoided victims. They are really specific and they provide a LOT of characterization. So, good job w/ those, guys. (One thing I think I certainly failed to convey in the rules is that part of the player's/Balance's job is to refine each memory fragment from an abstraction to a specific, extremely vivid sense memory.) Also, sorry for not having a character sheet! I'll work on it.

Quote

One assumption I made was that the player-characters are sent or tossed or (in this case of the opening scenario) manifested for the first time, in a group in a single lcoation. I didn't have a clear idea of exactly how the Balance instructs the Anathemae, but decided not to dwell on that, as I liked to think of it as general-goal based but not logistically-based. They coalesced into existence in the midst of what I liked to think of as a "Today, we kill here" situation. I placed the four Anathemae - their very first "awakening," as per the rules - in a situation based on Tahrir Square, with literally hundreds of thousands of people present, during the fighting on the bridge that pushed the police out of the square. I didn't state it outright that this was that exact place, but modeled it on that event.

(Interestingly, it took a few scenes for some of the players to realize that we were not even in America, although I'd specified near the beginning that the people were Arab. Lord knows what they thought was going on prior to that realization!)

(You have me needing to remind myself now that what the PCs are are Shrouds, not Anathema.)

That is a really really brilliant job of setting the scene, honestly. I should probably add a line to the rules/instructions about Shrouds coalescing in places ("Portals", perhaps) where violence or death has, will, or is occuring. Other possibilities would include a derelict alley where a gangland execution was about to take place, or a hospital room in a ward where millions of patients have passed over the years. Some place where the veil between life and death has worn thin, in other words.

As to how the Balance instructs the Shrouds, well, I have a feeling some people here have a problem with this phrase, but "it's up to the GM". If you're asking how it COMMUNICATES, I think it says somewhere that the Balance is like a voice in their "heads", as literally as is possible for beings without heads. If you're asking how it structures its missions/orders, that is really up to the GM. Having the Balance order the PCs to work together is perfectly viable, by the way. It need in no way shape or form explain its reasons for doing so: it is pretty inscrutable.

Quote

Now I faced a really big GMing question. Given a scene like this, in which the killing can go on effectively indefinitely, how to close it? Should I be thinking cinematically and simply cut away after a particularly interesting moment, in pure disregard for the in-fiction logic that they could stay there for weeks and rack Anathema up effectively forever? Or should I be thinking about some kind of internal content which acts as a signal for them to stop and do something else?

What I would do (off the cuff) is try to serve up some kind of a climax, hopefully nothing too artificial, which would temporarily pause the chaos and killing. One thing you could do, honestly, is have some of the more competent paramilitary personnel present notice the Anathema and begin focusing fire on them. The PCs would be in no danger of dying to lowly mortals but they would begin to lose Anathema from being machine gunned, grenaded, etc.  Also having a really large bomb go off, killing most of those present and forcing the rest to scatter, bringing an end to the availability of victims. (They could later find out that the "bomb" was really an NPC Violent Shroud, immediately giving the Violents in the group some meaningful competition, or not.) As the killing subsided, the PCs could start to wonder...hey, what the hell are we? What were we just doing? Asking each other and interacting in the vein hope of finding answers, etcetera.

I think I would probably have frontloaded the uncertainty and angst while I was GMing, whereas you frontloaded the killing. Either one is perfectly valid.

Of course, the game does not have any actual structure for separating these kinds of scenes. Like for instance how some games have "Drama" scenes and "Conflict" scenes, for instance? To make a potentially incendiary comment that I may or may not come back and explain later, I absolutely hate this concept.

However, one idea that occurs to me right now for scene changes is that Shrouds don't necessarily have continuity of consciousness. They're not really alive, after all, so why should they always be conscious? There's no reason they can't literally "black out" between scenes. For instance, if in your bridge massacre scene the next moment they were suddenly in a deserted roadside shack in the backwoods of Wisconsin, with no explanation of why. This would immediately cause a downshift, I think, from action to dialogue, and the weirdness is (to me) evocative. I wouldn't have this happen too often, not wanting to mess with player agency, but for an intro I think it would be perfect.

I guess, as a final note, as I imagine Anathema it is very very very very firmly a game where the PCs are proactive and the GM is reactive. Where the PCs declare what they want to do and the GM reacts, creating challenges. I do not see it as a game where the GM sets forth challenges and the PCs react, trying to overcome the obstacles--at least not as a primary mode of play. I do see the idea of GM "bangs" if you will as being a viable part of Anathema, but probably being a secondary mode of play from the Shrouds acting on their (conflicting) natures and the GM/Balance modeling the consequences accordingly. So I guess I am agreeing with you that I see PC proactivity as being very key.

I'm interested to hear how the rest of the session went and I'm hoping (against hope, probably) that you guys will somehow find time to make it into an ongoing campaign. I think with more time SOME answers to some of your questions may arise organically: I'm certain that more questions and issues certainly will.


 

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