[Sign in Stranger] this moon may not mean what you think it means

Started by David Berg, August 24, 2011, 05:59:02 PM

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David Berg

We knew we were going to an arboreal moon, which included the non-native, dominant Tylaxmeearks, as well as the Tridlians and Arcopaths.  We knew we were requested as Life Judges by the Tylaxmeearks, who we'd heard were both majestic and unstable.

We landed on a giant leaf of a giant tree with sharp protrusions near the top of the trunk forming something vaguely face-like.

We took a ride in a silver prism that was bigger inside than out, but it spat us out when we told it our names.

We rode on the platform of a creature whose black tentacles acted as stretchy lifts, transporting us among tree levels.

We threw our corn-based rations at the prisms and tentacle-platforms, and both instantly produced smaller versions of themselves.

We complimented the "baby" prisms on forming a nice shape, and they held that shape forever.

We tried to sleep on leaves during the reddish "night" but found that our body heat melted through them.

We tried to take a core sample from a tree and were greeted with a horrific spray of blood.

Rinchen grew tentacles from her forehead.  Vidia became addicted to a plum-like fruit.  Burt's legs turned into wheels.

At some point we discovered that the Tylaxmeearks were not the trees, but rather invisible microbes that communicated by inducing hallucinations, and tracked information by tagging genes.  They also altered our brains to divert the resources we'd use to remember each other into recharging, thus obviating sleep.

In the end, we were deemed terrible life judges, but were asked to stay in order to teach the Tylaxmeearks how to ask questions.  The tentacled platforms turned out to be the native Tridlians.  The flying prisms, the Arcopaths, were captives, deprived of their space travel capabilities by the Tylaxmeearks' alterations to their skin.  We negotiated their release.  Burt and Rinchen were eager to leave, and took an Arcopath to Earth's moon.  The rest of the colonists stayed, with Vidia and Mallory accepting genetic alterations that caused them to age faster but be much more productive.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

From the journal of Burt Forster, a 32-year-old former Seattle software engineer turned medic out to explore the universe as a self-improvement kick:

Day 1:
Entry 1

Exactly what I was hoping for!  Grand, powerful, exhilarating.  I am kind of nervous about getting accidentally crushed-  No, don't think like that!  I hope we can be really good Life Judges here.

Entry 2
Don't compliment the elevators.

Day 2:
Entry 1

Tylaxmeearks are psychic creatures that communicate via hallucinations.  In a world of the illusory, they want us to judge, in order to make things more concrete?  Maybe they have visions & want us to validate them for fixing in place?  The "baby" arcopaths sticking in a shape when Rinchen said "Good job!" -- that's what got me thinking along these lines. 

Maybe proper names are seen as rudely flaunting permanent identities?

Rinchen is either the most take-it-as-it-comes zen girl I've ever met, or she's losing it and in denial. 
I continue to like Vidia's practical, no-nonsense approach. 
Pareem's good intentions are nice too, even if he can be a dork.

Entry 2
New arrivals!  Mallory seems bold & creative, maybe we'll go faster now.

Day 3:
Entry 1

We seem to have the tools for Life Judging, but no guidance about standards.  If the six of us are left to find agreement on anything, good luck -- there's already some China/Tibet tension going on here. 

I hope when the "gavels" show us individuals to judge, it'll be in some sense I can parse.  Hallucinations and orgasmo plums and mind-melding with trees and throat-singing is getting to be a bit much.

Entry 2
OH FUCK MAYBE JUDGED My legs are gone AM WHEELS Rinchen's nice LOSING MY SHIT it's funny we're guinea pigs like Luca in the lab.  Remember WHAT I remember when not asleep for microseconds forgetting who I came with.  GAVE PAPER so they don't forget ME.  Got food, but lashed out - NOW THEY KNOW HUMAN VIOLENCE  I hope they don't use it - communication FUCK

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Now I am jealous. This is a game I've been wanting to play in extended, unrushed, indefinite fashion, but have not yet managed to organize.

Dave, if you're interested, check out the PDF I made for the game, available at my Science Fiction RPG Project page.

Did your group keep track of the colony resources? What happened regarding that variable?

Best, Ron

David Berg

I think we whiffed on colony resources.  There might have been a good reason for that.  We played 7 sessions (I think), but it was only 3 days for our colonists! 

I like the images you chose for your PDF!  The description of the game seems very useful for someone who hadn't played it and wanted to know more about it.  Was that your intent?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Hi David,

That's part of my intent, absolutely. These are supposed to be "one man's notions" about how a given game operates mechanically and thematically, in very practical terms. Also, as my website text implies, I'm doing sort of a recognition & rehabilitation survey for science fiction role-playing games which, again according to "one's man's notions," really do science fiction.

As you can see from the handout, I call attention to the rule about using the words very strongly: that the word on the slip of paper should not be stated out loud and should not be literally brought into the fiction. Em's text is brutally clear on this point. If someone draws "kangaroo," they are not supposed to introduce a kangaroo; in fact, it's the one thing they cannot introduce. Instead, they brainstorm something about a kangaroo, as they see it, which can be brought into the fiction. The effect is definitely weird, but it's not as chaotic and cut-up as a literal reading and incorporation of the slips would generate.

I'm talking about this because I'm interested in what words were drawn and what impact they had on the fiction, at that moment. Can you describe how you did that, for any moment in play when the words were used?

Best, Ron

David Berg

Ron, yes!  This is my single favorite thing about the game, easily.  Someone (Emily?) pitched the mechanic to me as "like Mad Libs", which is a convenient shorthand, but I find it misleading about the game's potential.  Mad Libs are goofy absurdist humor and nothing more. 

Sign in Stranger can be an overwhelming horror trip about the search for meaning in an environment devoid of familiar signs, symbols, and experiences. 

Or, well, if you're into that like I am, anyway.  I was the only player in our group pushing that angle and roleplaying freaking the hell out beyond brief moments of Panic on failed rolls.  I'm not sure why my fellow players have been consistently disinclined to go there.  Maybe sitting down to play a fun game about exploration impels people to assume that the exploration should be fun for the characters?  Does "alien exploration" evoke brave adventuring and Indiana Jones and Stargate more than fragile prodding of the majestic and intimidating unknown?

Anyway, the need to interact with the results of our random word-inspired narrations kept our game from goofy absurdism, but it was as close to Mad Libs as an honest, by-the-book game of Sign in Stranger can get, I think.  I tried to be tonally consistent and expand upon the planet-as-established, but I think a lot of the players felt strained to their creative limits just to connect each drawn word to the fiction.  If they could do it, they were done, too bad if it was a non-sequitur.  In the process of fleshing things out in their minds, they often introduced colors that weren't on our Color Table, and added new mysteries onto our already overfull plate.  As a group, our responses to these out-of-nowhere narrations ranged from, "Huh, weird, okay, whatever, moving on," to, "Oh crap, that seems urgent, we should do something!"

I remember there were times when I drew a word to answer a practical concern of the characters, like, "What looks like our best place to rest?" and there were other times when someone just asked, "So when we exit the prism, what do we see?"  In both cases, the asker just turned to me because I hadn't gotten to narrate in a while, or because I looked the most enthusiastic.

I seem to remember the rules being mute on all that.  I know that on Actions and Investigations, my Medic character was supposed to lead the action and I was supposed to roll the dice.  But for the word draws, I don't think we found any textual constraints on the freedom we employed.

I am trying to remember specific instances of "get asked, draw word, read, think, narrate".  Hmm.  The player who introduced the Tridlians had drawn the word "elevator".  I can look through my folder from the game for something to jog my memory.

Feel free to zero in on a specific question to guide me!

Pardon the rambling.  I think my brain has a pretty heavy backlog of things I want to discuss about Sign in Stranger.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Hi David,

Another procedural question: I may be mistaken, but my little brain is telling me that the actual word drawn is not revealed. Is that in the game text, or am I making that up? And then, either way, whether your group did reveal the words - my impression is "yes" from your account, but I'm not sure.

I don't have other specific questions, but I can give you a musing or reflective take on my own (slow, delayed) process of gearing up to play this game.

I'm sort of bummed by your description of at least one or two of your fellow players' lack of engagement with the potential depth of play. That is, I'm glad you presented it here for discussion, but given your clear commitment to what the game has to offer, I'm bummed that you weren't at the table with like-minded folk. You can see from my handout that I'm very into that aspect of the game, that it's not a gimmicky self-contained amusement but rather a dedicated engine to finding out a lot about one another in an experiential, creative way.

So, without either a dedication to the various alienating or revelatory aspects of the plot events, and without the crisis aspect of how well or poorly the colony is doing (with a strong swing toward poorly as far as my understanding of the mechanics goes), I'm seeing a certain lack of ... well, of danger, or conflict in the Lit 101 sense. Those two absences, or perhaps the minimal group commitment to those things, appear to me to be at the heart of why the contributions were so often piling on mysteries or throwing in non-sequiturs.

OK, enough bitching. I'm still jealous you got to play at all, for seven sessions no less, and as far as the content you described in your first post goes, I think it's delightfully weird and well worth my time to read.

I'm trying to understand your point about narration - are you talking about who gets to speak/interpret a given drawn word? My impression is, the person who drew it, case closed. But I also am under the impression that general speaking is left unconstructed, letting certain things like NPC ownership and origins of adversity either get centered on a given person at the table or not, as an emergent property.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Hi Ron,

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that keeping the word hidden is in the rules.  I told everyone not to reveal their words, and our group kept to that the vast majority of the time.  The only exceptions went like this:

"Okay!  What do you see?  You see..."  (draws word, long pause, false starts, exasperated eye rolls)  "Who wrote this?!  Okay, uh, a long thing that, like, spins, and then there's some other things hanging off of it, and the big ones fly outward and the little ones go to the middle...  Don't look at me like that!  What do you want?  I pulled 'centrifuge' as my word!"

But that happened only a few times in the early sessions, and never in the later ones.

Philosophical aside: Personally, I dislike it when people do stuff in play that snaps me out of envisioning this weird environment, and saying "I drew 'centrifuge', then I made up that!" qualifies.  But if you're less picky than I am, word-revealing might not be a huge deal.

As for my point about narration, my question is about selecting a player to draw-and-narrate (you are correct in that "draw" goes with "narrate").  How is it decided when a word is drawn, and by whom?  My current impression is that the system allows a lot of freedom on that score.  We figured it out socially, and our solutions were good enough, but maybe short of optimal.

I should probably give some more context about our group, so I don't give too many false impressions here.  That will follow shortly.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

So, here's the group:

Me - played before, helped bring it to the group, attended every session

Matt - our host, played before, owns the book, read the errata, learned the rules well, helped me keep everyone else on track

Abel - liked the game and attended every session, though the draw-and-narrate thing was tough for him at times

Mendez - disliked parts of the game but liked others, only attended the first and last sessions

Marsha - hated the game, attended all but the last (2?) session(s)

Betsy - liked the game, attended the 5th and 7th sessions (I think)

Dan - attended the 5th session

When I say "the game" above, I mean "Sign in Stranger".  This really wasn't Marsha's bag at all.  She requested that we play something else, but was a good sport and gave Matt and me a shot to sell her on it. 

Mendez had scheduling complications.  Dan and Betsy joined late and then had scheduling complications of their own.

We all had well-defined characters with distinct personalities.  Betsy was probably the most eager to grab the spotlight and show hers off -- much speculating, trying random stuff, reading her tarot cards, etc.  Matt, Abel and I all played fairly practical characters focused on scientifically understanding the planet and how to survive and do our job there.  Marsha did the same in a sarcastic and comic-relief-filled way.  Dan was a Chinese spy, Mendez was a rapper escaping beef with the west coast.

So, y'know, not the ideal environment for intense psychodrama.

Hopefully anyone who's reading can now judge my other posts in a more accurate light.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development