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Author Topic: [Within My Clutches] Ronnies feedback  (Read 5630 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: April 19, 2011, 12:04:04 PM »

I placed David Berg's Within My Clutches as a Runner-Up. My take on the terms is that lust and chains are near-synonyms, making the game about one thing rather than two things which have emergent properties in their interaction. That doesn't mean the game isn't based on a good idea - it is a good idea, not to mention hitting me in one of my most favoritest sweet spots, the Marvel supervillain. My biggest problem in assessing the game is keeping my own emotional commitments to this topic from entering into the judgment. That's probably why it's taken me considerably longer to get this feedback done than for the other games in the round.

The first big question is whether the whole thing is played as parody or not. And that hinges on how serious the question being posed is, meaning, how seriously are we supposed to be taking this question. For example, the subtitle question of my game-in-design Doctor Chaos is, "What if the world's most powerful supervillain were not actually a moron?" Which implies that (a) they are occasionally and possibly often depicted as moronic as well as (b) they have immense potential for fun and powerful stories when they are not. In this game, the question is explicit right up front: why would such powerful and consequential individuals be so easily defeated? And again, my concern is whether we take that seriously or use it as a door to open parody.

Working my way through this tricky issue carefully, I think the next point is whether the game's stated question is open to investigation through play, or fixed in place to be experienced as the (author's) answer. I stress that either way is OK, and what matters if it's fixed if what the answer is, in order (again) to see whether it's serious or parody.

Preparation

You've got my love for the Wants. Beautifully stated, totally on-target for the supervillain subject matter, and each one more tempting than the last. I also think your "trim from the bottom" rule is great, which is to say, I think your ordering of the Wants is great, and I think it ought to be the rule and not subject to the current modifier or qualifier.

I also really like that my character's area of supremacy has been satisfied. It makes me hope that everyone's B-goals start encroaching on everyone else's areas of supremacy. So I'm very interested in whether that is a feature of play.

I'm a little baffled by the crazy-quilt of preparation with all those NPCs. Let me see if I even understand it: given five players, each with his or her own player-character, each also plays one of five supporting characters, each one of whom is key to four goals, whether different or the same doesn't matter. That's twenty separate character/goal axes in one spot. It also means that my own character has four separate NPCs on his or her plate, one for each goal.

What is all this for, again? Time to check out resolution.

Resolution

And ... I'm about to give up entirely. The section on defining the supporting characters and the various responsibilities about Goals is resisting my best efforts for maybe the fourth or fifth time I've tried to read it. Maybe if I understood it, I wouldn't suggest this, but at the moment, I find myself simply wanting to streamline it considerably. Fortunately it seems to me the perfect model already exists from The Great Ork Gods which is to say, Look, my character's area of supremacy is Adoration, so if any of y'all are out for Adoration, you have to deal with me playing the adversity you're facing, most likely with my Supporting Character.

Then again, on reflection over how scenes and attempts are resolved, I really don't see the point of having the Supporting Characters at all. They look like a subroutine which requires a ton of work for no particular benefit. I find it likely that if the group genuinely wants to play this game in the first place, and if the model I suggest above is being employed, then emergent NPCs will appear and grow right out of ordinary play. Am I missing something?

I'm also unconvinced about the chosen dice mechanic. As I've mentioned in previous Ronnies talk, as soon as you start splitting dice in a system like this, you're begging for massive whiffing. Now, I may be missing the fun of authoring all those Contingencies and dealing with the emergent Expectations and all that stuff, but as I see it, the game needs a certain degree of success as well as failure. In fact, as far as I can tell, ending play requires at least one character to get all of his or her goals, so I'm hoping play wouldn't go round and round endlessly.

Theme and meaning

The sort of slow/sickening wrench began when I read about the periodic meeting among the characters, as established in prep. Wait ... they hang out together? They're in therapy together? They trade stories about their supervillaining? They care what one another thinks of them? My fears of parody vs. substance arose right at that moment. No-fourth-wall self-reference is not a productive feature of supervillainy; all the supers comics I know which bring it into the story instantly devalue their villains into feebs and fools.

And then, as I came to understand the game better, what I hoped was merely a side-bit of fun for character creation turned out to be central. You get together in the group scenes regularly, and you vote as players on which characters you like, and those characters are given genuine if momentary social cred by your characters. This links the self-referential character of the in-fiction group scenes directly to the genuinely self-referential content of player opinion being expressed via characters, so it's pretty overt.

But! This isn't my game. It's yours. And it's undeniably true that along with the political and psychological features which I personally value most in Marvel supervillains, they are whiny-butt drama queens of the first degree.* I sucked it up and said, OK, David is dealing with the questions he raised his way, and the question is whether the game does it in a fun way.

My take is that the game (i) borders on parody via the self-referential features, but may not live there entirely; and (ii) answers the stated question a priori. It's the second part that I'm having some trouble with. We don't get to answer the question of why very competent and even frightening individuals fail to get what they want, we are acting out the explicit answer that what they really want is for other people to approve of them, specifically to raise their self-esteem. That one line about self-esteem seems very important to me: it implies strongly that being a supervillain means having low self-esteem.

OK! Breathing hard through my nose. Resisting going into debate mode. Pushing down very hard on overstuffed boxes of comics overflowing in my mind. It's David's game, it's David's game. The only really viable question, the only appropriate question for me in this role for this endeavor is, Do (i) and (ii) above make this an un-enjoyable game?

I'm thinking that either one is a strong basis for enjoyable play, but not both. If it included the various jokey and/or self-referential features, but did not front-load the esteem issue, then that would have some delightful possibilities, perhaps along the lines of Pumpkin Bomb or at least in that neighborhood. Or if it got rid of all those features but started with a direct psychological slant on the esteem-centered twists of supervillain mentality, that would take on some of the genuine drama found in Batman: The Animated Series, specifically the villains retooled or originated by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.

Best, Ron

* Heh. I would even accept "lust" and "queen" as a viable term pair for this game on that basis!
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David Berg
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« Reply #1 on: April 19, 2011, 12:25:02 PM »

Hi Ron,

I have lots of thoughts and questions, but I'll start with a central one:

Did your impression that "all this is about self-esteem" come from the group meetings?  Do the meetings seem more important to you than the going after the Wants? 

My intent was the opposite.  I was hoping to take the meat of play (going after the Wants with whatever degree of vigor), and use some petty competition (the meetings) as garnish for it.  If a given supervillain is after Control at a given moment, I would hate for that to be dominated by a sense that "this is really about self-esteem".

Thanks,
-David
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David Berg
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« Reply #2 on: April 19, 2011, 12:37:26 PM »

Er, just realized that I should clarify:

If your reading is that any protagonist who seeks respect, adoration, wealth, control and status is, by definition, endeavoring to raise their low self-esteem, then I have no gripe with that.  To me, that view wouldn't seem to make the game any less fun.

But it seemed from your review that the Wants left you in a more-fun place, which something else made less fun.  So I'm asking about that gap.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: April 20, 2011, 10:16:13 AM »

Quote
Did your impression that "all this is about self-esteem" come from the group meetings? Do the meetings seem more important to you than the going after the Wants?

They are more important, not as a mere reading on my part, but as a textually and procedurally explicit feature. To answer further and to address your second post's question about the gap, it is profoundly expressed in the players voting on which character they like, which is really and actually voting about one another. That mechanic trumps any and all other aspects of playing the game because people are real and the characters are fiction. Since it occurs in tandem with the fictional activity of the group meetings which is itself a self-referential, effectively Green Room technique or, especially, the Confessional mechanic in Inspectres, this entire complex of techniques is itself "what play is about." That's the meat. Whatever happens to the goals and expectations and all that is at most, the venue for electioneering for the votes. And the garnish - instead of being meat - is the supervillainy, which is reduced to triviality.

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #4 on: April 20, 2011, 11:54:26 AM »

Ah!  Now I understand.  You vote on how much you like my roleplay, thus my primary motive in roleplaying is to impress you.  That's not what I intended at all.  In looking back over the text, I can see that my real intent doesn't come through.  Here's what I had in mind:

Each vote cast is cast in-character, reflecting each player's judgment of who his/her character would like.  In this context, we get to explore peer relations between villains.  Do great achievements get appreciated or envied?  Is underachieving mocked, or appreciated for making others look better in contrast?  And most importantly, what does that interaction look like?  The bonus die just represents that no one is completely impervious to the attitudes of their peers, and that approval lends some fuel to their pursuits.

Roleplaying the supervillains chatting was the primary point; the voting was just to provide a small impact moving forward.

Do you think I can achieve this by:
a) simply specifying my intent -- "Voting is an act of character play, 100% in-fiction.  Vote for whoever your character would vote for, regardless of whether you as a player like them or hate them, or would like to see them succeed or fail."
b) the above plus ditching the bonus die -- vote results would then be pure color
c) ditching all voting of any sort; nothing else will suffice

My gut says that (b) isn't worth the bother.  I know I'd have no problem voting in the spirit of (a), so I'd like to think others could too... but I don't want to be fighting incentives to get there.

And then, the big question:

Given that I'm ditching the dynamic that you identified as most crucial, does the rest of the game seem functional to you without it?  I continue to struggle to put the premise into words, but it's something like, "Given that pursuing your wants full steam ahead will entangle you in a web of obligations that drains your emotional resources, how do you, as a supervillain, proceed?"

A few notes:

Parody:  It's only supposed to be parody insofar as farmer Thanos might look back on his Infinity Gauntlet mission with, "Yeah, I guess that was pretty silly."  Loving mockery is fine; punchliney contempt is not.

Resolution:  Crap!  The text looks clear to me, but I guess that's bias.  Thanks for giving it 5 tries.  I take it the flow chart on page 9 didn't help?  We're talking about Part VII, right?  Can you call out a numbered section where I lost you?

NPCs:  Yes, they would naturally emerge out of ordinary play.  My set-up procedures were just aimed at consolidating NPC functions in a smaller number of more developed, recurring NPCs, as opposed to a huge cast of throw-aways.  It's not central to the game concept at all.  I envision the set-up to be quite quick and easy, but if I'm wrong, or if other problems emerge, I'll have no trouble ditching this.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: April 20, 2011, 04:28:18 PM »

Hi David,

Now that I know that you do not want the self-esteem issue to be the answer to your question or to be the point of play, I have a recommendation which may be too strong for you: eliminate the group scenes entirely.

Your stated premise strikes me as awfully clunky and vague. What's wrong with the crystal-clear first paragraph of the game text? I can't imagine a better phrasing than that.

As for whether the scene and resolution and secondary-scores system works on its own, well, I don't see why not. It looks ready for playtest to me, and for what it's worth regarding one person's opinion, without the group scenes, I'm quite interested in doing so.

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #6 on: April 22, 2011, 12:22:07 PM »

Hi Ron,

Group Scenes

I really want to allow players to offer a take on their goal-seeking outside the process of actually doing it.  I'd like to give everyone the opportunity to say how much their supervillain cares about the esteem of their "peers" -- a lot, a little, not at all, actively hates the concept of "peers", etc.

Here's an idea:

There's an abandoned secret lair.  It belonged to a hero/villain who's now dead or gone from this time/dimension/planet (group customizes to taste).  All the protagonists have access to it, and can communicate with each other.  There is a past history of supervillains meeting at this place to hang out.

Either before or after their scene, any player may send out a summons to meet at the Secret Lair.  Every other player then chooses whether or not to attend.  Those who attend, play out the scene.  Anyone at the table can call "time to wrap this up" to close the scene whenever they get bored or feel some urgency to get back to pursuing Wants.  After that call is made, everyone in the scene gets to speak once.

Stating the Premise

I'm happy with the text version for handing to players.  For discussing the game's design, though, I acknowledge that the text doesn't clearly answer your question about what's open vs determined by the author.  My rules are designed to ensure that going full-steam after your wants will saddle your life with lots of stress and complication.  So I thought perhaps I should state that explicitly.

For what it's worth, a big part of how I would play this game would be deciding how full-steam to go.

Resolution instructions

If you can tell me where the text is unclear, I will be happy to try to fix it!

Thanks,
-David
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: April 22, 2011, 03:34:16 PM »

Hi David,

What you're suggesting sounds like it's right on target for what you're saying you want to do. I'm trying to stay separated between my own inclinations and what your vision is, which is tough because we're talking about material which is very high on my bestest-favorite list.

Also, I don't claim that your text is unclear, only that I was having a lot of trouble with it, and that's just one person. It may well be that if I were sitting at the table and following the instructions as opposed to sitting by myself and imagining doing so, they'd be fine. So I haven't recommended changing the instructions for just that reason.

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2011, 01:19:18 PM »

Played this last night. 
- Needs a way to either spice up or disincentivize "pursue the same Goal over and over without Committing". 
- Needs a way to mechanically integrate the group scenes if there's gonna be more than one of them (our one was amazing). 
- Procedure and instructions for writing down each other's Names, Wants and Goals needs streamlining.
Otherwise, awesome.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2011, 03:04:23 PM »

That is excellent.

I think you have a flair for game design. The entries haven't placed high in the Ronnies either due to some kind of inherent bias of my own, or some aspect of your alpha presentation, or both, but I want to put it out here that your work is clearly doing something at the table that should attract our collective attention. I don't know if it will help (me) for you to write out whatever it is you're doing and saying and then use that as the instructions, but maybe a crack at that, for a playtest-type thread in Game Design, would see different groups trying out your stuff.

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2011, 08:59:22 PM »

Thanks, man!  After much stopping and starting on this, I've finally posted a playtest report and created a new rules document.  Hopefully the new "first scene" flowchart will help teach the resolution system, and the thread will give a better idea of what the game's many steps look like at the table.
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