[Left Coast] I need to clarify 'how to GM' in Money scenes

Started by hix, May 03, 2012, 11:30:04 PM

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Left Coast is my game about science fiction authors in early 1970s California. What I'm trying to do is write a set of rules that encourage exploration of the setting – especially in these two areas:

  • creating new friends and enemies that surround the authors, and figuring out their motivations
  • setting up a conspiracy of weird, alien, or unnatural forces around each author that are trying to change their lives fundamentally

The end result (hopefully) is a game that puts pressure on each author, making it difficult for them to control their lives and difficult for them to focus on doing the thing they love (which, in many cases, is writing).

The dropbox link to the latest version of Left Coast is here: Left Coast (word .doc). I'm just finalising it now, and am going to release it for wider playtesting in two or three weeks. (Next week I'll start a second thread, about the scene framing rules I'm using).

What is a Money scene?
Money scenes are special rules for when an author writes a story during the game. Essentially, in a Money scene the whole group becomes involved in creating the story, with the Author's player guiding events and the other players taking on the roles of characters in the story.

A Money Scene begins with the Author's player coming up with a story idea for her author to write. After giving a synopsis of the story, the Author's player moves from this big picture view of the story into describing the plot and the characters involved. Other players in the group take on the roles of those characters and describe what they do: this is a shift in focus from a synopsis level to a more moment-by-moment style of play. Finally, the story is resolved by the Author's player rolling a collection of 'Story Dice' and the group allocating any successes or failures from that roll.

Here's a link to the Money scene rules. It's a google doc, with comments enabled.

You'll notice that it's extremely procedural, and that I've numbered the specific rules that need to be applied – that's because playtesting has shown me that I need to be very clear if I want to communicate my assumptions about how play should go.

Here's the specific section I have questions about:


Now that characters have been introduced, we begin zooming in on the scene - moving from a wide-level synopsis of the action (the self-assembling Dyson shell is replicating out of control, cooking the Earth in energy), to descriptions of the characters taking action ("This is how the captive Martian-bloc engineer escapes ...") and conversations between characters.

Zooming in is much like 'Exploring the Scene' in the Author's Turn. All players contribute to a conversation where they collectively imagine what is happening in the story. The Current Player controls the world, introduces new characters and information, and keeps events ticking along. The rest of the group act as the characters, describing what they do and having conversations.

We can also zoom back out to synopsis mode at any point, if it feels right to describe the next few events in very broad terms, ... and then zoom back in to focus on a particularly interesting moment between two characters or a significant action.

Exploring the story and contributing to the conversation involves alternating between the following three steps:

9.   Players narrate how their characters takes action to achieve their Wants.

10.   The Current Player adjusts her narration to respond to these characters' narrated actions. As the characters take charge and do stuff, the Current Player will have less and less responsibility to describe what happens in the story.

Instead, the Current Player can:

•   introduce obstacles to obstruct Wants. To do that, ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to this character at this moment?"

•   ask how a character overcomes an obstacle.

•   narrate the consequences of a character's actions (keeping those consequences plausible but generous).

•   decide the outcome of non-verbal conflicts between two (or more) characters.

•   narrate what locations look like when characters move into them.

•   introduce characters. Ask yourself, who is the worst person who could show up? Whenever you introduce a new character, they should have a Want that's in conflict with a character who's already been introduced

11.   At any point, players can have their characters engage into conversations or confrontations with each other.

What do I want to address in this thread?
Essentially, in a Money scene the Author's player temporarily becomes a GM (in an otherwise GM-less game). I want to know if the "Shift into Exploring the Story" section gives sufficient guidance about 'how to GM' and (if not) how I can improve it.

Here's what a playtester pointed out to me:

QuoteI don't really have a clear sense of how this step flows. It feels like an entire subsystem in itself, but it's very vague about how it's meant to operate.

I think you probably intend it to be quite open and unstructured, but you have presented it in a rather structured way. I don't get a sense of what constitutes keeping things moving, or how to manage the parallel creativity coming from all the other players.

In Money scenes, multiple players take on the roles of different characters, my playtester was confused about how to manage all of their creative input, and raised questions like these:

  • How do we prioritise the actions of each player?
  • Does each player kick off independently (filling in a bit of the story that relates to them) and we hop back and forth in the story as a volunteer arises for each character?
  • Does the Author's player identify bits that need to be filled in and the relevant volunteers jump in?

My Questions for you
I've done a fair bit of rewriting to address the above points, but here's what I'd like to hear any ideas on:

  • Can you see any areas of the 'Shift into Exploring the Scene' section which are unclear? Do you have any suggestions about how to clarify these areas of confusion?

  • Do you have any techniques you think could apply here to clearly explain how the different players' roles interact, or can you think of any rules texts that are particularly good on this area?

  • (As a bonus) If you read the rules for Money scenes (about 4 pages long), were there any areas in which you became confused? Do you feel like you have enough guidance to run a Money scene?

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg


I've actually got a few more thoughts on creating the stories than I do on exploring them, if that's alright:

Firstly, what conditions should there be on writing the story? It seems weird that these stories act independently of the rest of the game, is that intentional? That they are primarily supposed to feed material into the game rather than be influenced by it?

Using a money scene as a flashback means that the character's actual financial situation is sort of independent of their money, which can be cool if you flag it up, or form a stumbling block if you don't: Loads of writers feel poor when they have loads of money, or feel rich when they are spending it all away, encouraging players to have a possibly false impression of their character's financial situation can stop them trying to bridge that gap themselves.

Secondly starting with any old crap and going to start with what your excited by can have a bit of a disjunct; what if you're just not excited by the random feminist hard sci-fi robot story? It seems you can't just pick things off the list and go with it, you need to create something that has a basic level of interest to you. Which would be difficult as that list doesn't immediately grab me.

Actually that's another point; although a lot of science fiction deals in changes to the situation, the details you give are not the sort of things that change in that kind of situation. They're not background in the 70s, they're foreground, and most story writing that makes them disappear or change is not weird scifi but idyllic fantasy. Stuff that takes the weird new pressures of modern life out rather than putting them in.

In other words, if I was making a 70s scifi generator, I'd have cults stay, but I'd change something "normal" to that era like microwave dinners or cars or something.

The other thing is that these events don't look to them like they do to us, for example:
When you think of tezla, what do you think of? For me on the one hand it's compulsive brilliance, and on the other it's mostly a sort of riveted world of possibility, between steampunk and 50s futurism, tinged with the usual nostalgia of a view from before it failed. But to science fiction writers of the time, tezla was not yet understood, and as you might know HP lovecraft supposedly used him to create his Nitharlotep character. This is a depiction not based on the substance of Tezla's interests, or our current attempts at a balanced historical perspective, but the outside view from the standpoint of being disrupted by his glamorous strangeness.

In the same way, you might say that it's not feminism that these guys experienced, but women becoming alien and unfamiliar, not watergate, but heroic journalism and leaders revealing hidden grubbiness. Or not vietnam but the communist threat or the raging transformations in young people.

And so on. It seems like these writers often came from a very "eyes on the ground", phenomenological position and although they probably shared the preoccupations of the 70s, those probably came out in a different way to how we now see them.

But that's just my take on old school scifi, to make it interesting my way I'd need descriptions of each of those themes in what they "promised" and what they "threatened", at least to people of that time, and those threats and promises should be contradictory in a few places. That way the authors wouldn't be doing "what if" on those issues so much as taking their own slant on them.

I'd also want descriptions of what normal life is like for those 70s guys, a few reminders of what they take for granted, so that we can make it weird for them, not just us.
And in case I'm not in the groove that day I'd probably want a few short reminders of descriptive prose from different authors to remind me of the cliché's of that era.

But that's just me, I'd be interested in hearing how this system matches to stuff you do that does work.

The generating characters bit is brilliant, I love the idea of having them be based on characters in the author's life, which could be a great way both to conserve creative effort and create interesting links between different stories if both authors know the same people.

The exploring rules seem interesting, and don't really help to keep the things that happen to the outline, which could be pretty interesting, and I also like the whole "what's the worst thing" attitude, should make it easy to make punchy stories, in contrast to the slower world outside.

It seems strange to me that people have a problem with it, in my mind it's a good starting point for breathless story creation.

I'd say that the current player should have control over when it hops back into summary mode, and that scene starting and players volunteering to play certain characters should be tied together:

You talk about a war between two great starfairing races and there is some great plotting strategist leader based on their uncle, then you also mark the scene you mention them in the summary, then when a player comes to play them, they play that scene first, and maybe more as scene's flow out of it. You also can then, when you pull back out, suggest other scenes they might be in, and go back and play them.

That way player spotlight is managed by the different characters they take up, which is probably quite a natural way to do it.

Also, I would let people die in scenes before they are needed, and other things like that, it's a first draft right? So you can presume that the author's second draft sorts out those plot holes.

It's also interesting how resolution of the effect on relationships and critical responses runs in two modes, with the more formal one being about direct opposition (people ruining your life or dissing your work), and the more freeform catchall bit at the end. In some ways that feels messy to me, like that last bit might be neglected, but on the other hand it opens things up to more nuance and flexibility, and often people will want to have those discussions anyway, so it's good to insure they know they have permission.


Thanks for your comments, joywriter. There's some really good observations here:

I'm definitely going to try and apply that strategy you suggest of tying together the 'synopsising of a story' with identifying characters and potential scenes with players volunteering to play certain characters. I'll have to reflect a bit on how I want to try that.

To clarify your first question: rather than being independent of the rest of the game, the stories that are made up during Money Scenes either flow out of conflicts that the authors are having or they show authors doing the thing they love (writing). And the material from the stories flows back into the game in the form of:

- looking at how the authors fictionalise the people in their lives
- having some of those fictional characters cross over into the authors' real lives when things get unstable
- the consequences of writing stories (who publishes them, and how they're received) are determined during a 'scene review' phase.

I also appreciated your take on the process for creating stories. It sounds like I need to make the initial idea generation stuff more evocative and useful, so that it inspires players. My intention is to encourage players to come up with their own ideas, but from your comments it sounds like that hasn't come across clearly - so thank you for helping me identify that. (Plus I'm very  happy to read more 60s and 70s science fiction and look for patterns, to improve the system for generating ideas.)

I like your techniques for figuring out what an issue promises or threatens to the Author. I'm going to mark that up as something to try in the next round of playtesting. At the same time, I'm not sure how much I will need to worry about this: my feeling is that the 'real' story in Left Coast, the one focusing on the authors, has a lot of that nuance that you're talking about - and that the stories created in Money Scenes are more like light relief from the pressures that build up in those scenes.

Find out more about Left Coast (a game about writers, inspired by the life of Philip K. Dick) on Twitter: @leftcoastrpg