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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Jason Morningstar on February 19, 2008, 12:15:08 PM

Title: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on February 19, 2008, 12:15:08 PM
(Cross-posted at Story Games)

We played the first three chapters of Grey Ranks last night – me, Clinton, Remi, and Joe. Our plan is to play a complete, ten chapter game over three Monday evenings.

I was a little nervous playing my game with these guys. We play every week, and we play short-form stuff, and they are all very, very good players. Clinton and Remi make games, too. So despite the fact that they have been with me through Grey Ranks’ creation and even playtested a bit, this was the first time any of them got to see the final, finished game in action. I know it doesn’t suck, but I still had a little anxiety.

We set up our crew without any trouble. Joe is playing Danusia, a pious and judgmental Catholic girl. Clinton’s playing Bogusław, an impulsive 17-year-old from a dirt poor family. Remi is Zygmunt, a farm boy and lothario. And I’m playing Robert, who contrasts nicely with all of them – he’s rich, he’s a city slicker, and he’s got no time for God. The thing I hold dear is my first love, who is Remi’s character, Zygmunt. That’s already proven really interesting and fun. For some reason the gay angle gets downplayed most of the time in Grey Ranks. We were happy to bring it into our game.

We talked about the likely content – anti-Semitism, fascism, children getting killed and hurt, sexual violence – and agreed that we’d be open to what happened, keeping the worst of it off-screen. We all trust each other and agreed to check in often once things got crazy in the game. None too soon, really – in my first mission scene I outed a Jew and got him killed. This was a harbinger of bad things for Robert, who is turning out to be a real shit-heel.

There was a palpable tension as we played the days leading up to the Uprising, which was very satisfying. Everyone really brought their best game and we pointed our characters, and various NPCs, directly at each other. In chapter two, during the mission, I narrated a scene where I was stopped at a German checkpoint – alone but within sight and sound of my crew. I bribed the sergeant with a thick wad of Reichsmarks. Now Clinton had introduced the Bank of Poland as a situation element, where of course my father was a managing director. So he interrupted the mission to cut in a personal scene, where Bogusław and Robert went to visit Robert’s fat-cat father and beg for a loan for Bogusław’s impoverished family. He failed, my guy’s dad became this towering asshole we’ll definitely meet again, and he handed Robert a fat wad of Reichsmarks “to spend on something nice.” So wham! Back to the mission, here’s Bogusław watching me give away the money that would have turned his family’s water back on. Really cool. That’s how the game’s supposed to work.

The game’s opening, which is entirely freeform, was a little rocky, but it always is. Once we’d nailed down our reputations it really caught fire. Three chapters in, and Joe’s already invoked Danusia’s thing held dear. My guy Robert (thanks to mission leader Clinton, getting revenge for the Deutschmark thing with my wholehearted support) has already visited the nervous breakdown corner. We’re all super excited to play again, and now that the difficulty is ramping up we can all start to see trajectories for our characters.

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 21, 2008, 10:00:38 AM
Hi Jason,

I am going to ask a personal question. In the past, this very group (before Joe joined) occasionally experienced arguments and resentment based on what characters did to one another.

How's that working out this time? My impression is, better. Is that so? Any thoughts on that?

Even if the thought is, "Butt out, Ron," that's OK too - but it's what's on my mind when I read your post.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Clinton R. Nixon on February 21, 2008, 11:02:08 AM
Hey Ron and Jason - I hope you don't mind if I take a crack at Ron's question.

At the end of our first Grey Ranks game, we could have held hands and sang together, we were so happy. Ron, you're right, we - like every other gaming group that has ever existed - have had moments where the game went a little south. I wouldn't agree that it's because what characters did to each other as much as it's about who has control of the fiction at any given point, but that's a fine point. Either way, no, we did not have any friction in this game. The first session was probably our best first session of any game we've played.

In regards to that, though, the big difference between this game and some others we've played is that all the characters are working together. They fail each other from time to time, but they haven't been at each others' throats.

- Clinton

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on February 22, 2008, 05:12:56 AM
Hi Ron,

We still have arguments!  Resentment is way too strong a word, but as Clinton points out, we are gamers.  To use Judd's baseball metaphor, we usually bat doubles or triples, last session was a home run I think, and sometimes we have singles or strike out.  People who pay attention to us might get the impression that our play is undiluted fabulousness, but that's because we focus on the positive most of the time and we are sort of loud.

You know the first third of Grey Ranks is all building.  So next session is when the difficulty starts to become problematic, and then it will spin completely out of control.  If there's going to be any inter-group friction, it'll be then, but I honestly think we're very happy with playing out those tragic arcs.  Everybody has a lot of control over their own piece of that, so I think we'll all be satisfied. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 22, 2008, 06:19:31 AM
The reason I'm asking is not so much to do with your group as a unique situation, because as you say, it's not. I'm asking because the game has so much adversity built in, sometimes character vs. character - and certainly me as player vs. your character. For instance, I've destroyed more than one Thing Held Dear in my time with Grey Ranks, and it was never my own.

You told me a while ago, Jason, that part of the game design really was to set people against one another ... now, let me clarify, I understood what you meant: that genuine (fictional) adversity put into play was intended to emerge as a positive force for play. But the personal responsibility for the adversity is real; there is no hiding behind "the dice made me do it" or "my character would do that" when I destroy your Thing Held Dear to gain an advantage for my current roll. It's purely me, and it purely hits your character.

What I'm saying is, I think this is a remarkable positive feature of the game. It looks kind of scary and cruel when described on its own, but here's why I think it's good.

1. The honesty involved. As I wrote above, there's no hiding. In a game about teenagers fighting a losing, dreadful battle against Panzers and Stukas, with their heads stuffed full of patriotism and their hormones going nuts, well, there must be adversity, and a lot of it is going to be extreme. Does it come from the book? No. Does it come from rolling on a table? No. Does it come from a special-guy called the GM who says "it's my job" and washes his hands? No. Does it come from listed personality flaws on the character sheet so a player can say "it says so here" and wash his hands? No. It has to come from all of us.

It's part of what makes Grey Ranks special in the same sense as Steal Away Jordan and carry. These games do not let the setting be a fun-imaginary arena that pretends to be edgy. They require the participants to want to create a story in that historical context, and the responsibility-orientation of the mechanics reinforce that requirement. I love it. To me, it's a huge step for role-playing as an activity. We not only play the marginalized and often flawed heroes, we all literally play the oppression, the war, the disaster, and the tragedy, too.

2. On a related point, the historical setting, which as I see it is another form of honesty. It's the opposite of escapism. To play Grey Ranks is not to step away from the world we live in, but to step into one of its causal historical moments. And it's the kind of moment that doesn't fit all that well into the general and vague American narrative of WWII, partly because it's the eastern front, and partly because of the timing of the events. To me, that means that providing the adversity (and the harsher the better) also means enriching one's understanding of that unfamiliar, hard-to-fit kind of history.

So that's the other part of what makes all those games special. (Others: Darcy Burgess' current design in progress, and I hope, Spione.) Playing brings the real people into closer touch with history, which is to say, with Now. It matters a lot.

Does that clarify my question? I am not psychologizing or dissecting your group as people. I'm working with a given feature of the game - player-responsible adversity and even tragedy visited upon others' characters - and asking whether your group has illustrated its strengths. It looked to me in your posts as if it has, but the focus is on the system feature, and how it plays into the home run.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on February 22, 2008, 08:36:24 AM
Hi Ron,

I'll have more to say about this after our next session.  Right now there's been no incentive, social or mechanical, to apply any pressure to one another at all.  It's all been pretty care-free - the worst pressure has been self-administered, I think.  Joe did invoke the thing he holds dear, which was pretty early for that, and got us licking our chops.  It was well established at the player level that we are going to make Danusia hate God very soon, to Joe's evident delight.  Remi declared that he's fighting to stay out of the corners as a meta-goal.  We'll see how it goes. 

In terms of the experience of play providing context and information about the current state of the world and its history, I'm also interested to ask some before and after questions of these guys. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on March 11, 2008, 04:34:15 AM
We finally got our second session in, after a couple of weeks of illness and other commitments.  The session suffered a little because of the lapse - it took us a while to get up to speed and we surely forgot some of the details we'd created earlier.  But the clear through-lines emerged and advanced, all pretty sharply focused on things we hold dear. 

My guy, Robert, is in love with Remi's guy, Zygmunt.  By the end of chapter six we were lovers, Robert's mind was more or less broken, his twitchy nervousness subsumed by an eerie stillness and a slavish devotion to the drunk, horrible, amoral Zygmunt.

Clinton's guy, Bogusław, lost his eldest sister to a horrible mistake, fell in love with a well-connected Russian, got beat nearly to death and executed my cousin.

Danusia, Joe's girl, is hard aground with her Catholicism and in love with the devoted Communist Bogusław.  It was a night of clearing out traitors and informants - Danusia also shot a Catholic priest at the Polytechnic.  She's definitely at the breaking point. 

So it was grim and often moving.  We're set up for a vastly tragic third session with plenty of remaining resources to guide the story as we choose, if we elect to give up our precious stuff.  Everyone but Clinton has invoked out thing held dear, so there are a lot of free dice available.  We've all agreed that he's getting no love from us until he frees up his little sister for us to pick off!  We've definitely played the grid very tactically and cooperatively thusfar.  Robert, my guy, is in the most danger at this point. 

There's something a little unexpected about Grey Ranks' collective missions, in that players have free reign in their description, guided only by the die size they contribute.  This can lead to talky, descriptive scenes where the spotlight player merely says what happens.  Occasionally this is perfect, but groups should take care to ensure that mission scenes involve multiple characters and include some interaction.  We fell into this trap in chapter four and corrected later on. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on March 25, 2008, 04:02:42 AM
We finished out Grey Ranks game last night.  After a soft mid-section, the game ended on a high note.  Well, a low note, but with a lot of excitement, really good quality play, and both enjoyment and pathos.  We returned to form, editing furiously, and driving toward individual and collective conclusions for our Crew.  It was really cool.

Here’s an interesting thing:  we had conflicts and subsequent outcomes that colored everything that went before.  There was a personal scene, a flashback, where Danusia (age 11) learned that Robert (age 13) was gay.  The crux of the scene was how the very young, very Catholic Danusia would handle this information.  Robert lost; she handled it badly, and we didn’t even play out that reaction – suddenly the two character’s entire relationship across the previous two play sessions took on a different meaning.  It informed scenes in retrospect.

Of course the third session of Grey Ranks is rough – you are up against the wall both narratively and mechanically, pretty much destined to fail brutally unless you pull out all your resources, which you have (hopefully) squirreled away.  We blew through everything – the thing we each held dear was destroyed, every scrap of innocence was lost, all four characters were shattered.  Robert visited the nervous breakdown corner a second time and shot himself in Chapter Nine, after repudiating his collaborationist father and saying goodbye to his lover, who he had once held dear above all things but then abandoned in blind panic.  Zygmunt survived him by a day.  Bronislaw watched his little sister get machine-gunned by Russian soldiers as she paddled across the Vistula to safety, and later joined the truly terrible RONA  anti-Soviet partisans in the pay of the Germans.  Little Danusia, so devout, had a crazy, gripping scene in which she talked to the Virgin Mary in chapter seven, asking if she’d die a virgin.  Mary told her “yes”.  Danusia’s denoument – 1965, in a convent school in New York state – a little kid asking about the nun’s funny accent.
We had some seriously good scenes.  There were a couple of times I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach by choices my friends made.

So if you play Grey Ranks, some suggestions, and I hope Joe, Clinton, and Remi will contribute:

My biggest suggestion is to aggressively edit.  If you have a huge issue for your character to resolve, open the chapter with it, and edit near the decision point, and return to it to close the chapter.  This is so powerful.  What transpires in the chapter will inform the outcome in deep and memorable ways.  We were editing like madmen, stopping scenes, jump cutting between scenes, moving around in time and space.  It adds tension and interest and freights small scenes with additional meaning and resonance.  I know I suggest this in the game, but it should be in big red letters. 

Another suggestion – keep your eyes open for ways to support your fellow players through reincorporation.  There’s no need to introduce a new character if an existing one will do.  Conversely, don’t get hung up on using all the situation elements – these are scene painting, and are useful even if they don’t end up in the fiction for that chapter. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: fjj on March 25, 2008, 05:57:16 AM
Reincoporation is so central to good stories, so why is it that it is a detail that most games leaves for the players to know and fix?

Jason, I completely missed out that Grey Ranks was hot when you visited last fall. I've later had a chance to check it out and it is definately high on my must play soon list. I especially like the chapter structure with the broadcast openings, this is so effective to channel the story. I've done a similar thing with Montsegur 1244 (which just might appear in an English version at some point). Flashbacks is also central to Grey Ranks. This encourages tight scene editing, a very effective tool to create intensity.

So how much of the success of the three sessions is due to your roleplaying skills, and how much is transferred through the text?

How accessible is the game as a learning tool for e.g. high school history classes?

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on March 25, 2008, 06:27:15 AM
Those are good questions, Frederik.  I'm probably not the best person to answer.

I know I've played Grey Ranks with all sorts of people from different backgrounds, including at least one person who arrived at a convention table having never played an "indie" game (this particular guy is a big fan and signed up to play again at Dreamation 2008).  It's always worked, with varying degrees of intensity, for me.  More skill equals better game, usually.  I'd be interested in hearing other players' comments on the divide between player skill and text-as-written. 

Personally, I think Grey Ranks is not the most accessible game in the world - it demands complete engagement, for one thing, and there is (quite deliberately) no procedure for initiating or ordering scenes.  I'm not sure it'd be effective as a classroom exercise, although I'd love to be proven wrong. 

I'm looking forward to an English version of Montsegur 1244, as well as a play report from Fastaval!

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: fjj on March 25, 2008, 12:38:26 PM
I have put the play report on Story Games as it is slightly more informal than for an official forge AP:

I guess the play report also explains why I'm asking the questions above for Grey Ranks.

We need to discuss reincorporation, replay value, and learning how to play from text at some time!

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on March 25, 2008, 01:01:38 PM
Definitely.  I hope you saw interesting ways in which your two sessions differed.  Grey Ranks never plays the same twice, although there are common tropes that people are drawn to. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: fjj on March 27, 2008, 03:38:34 AM
Jason, I finished my reading of Grey Ranks last night. It's great, I feel very confident that I can get excellent play from the game, even though it is very heavy material.

But I'd like to ask into the thing about drawing a line about what kind of stuff to keep out of the game. Clearly, the game has potential for a lot of ugliness, but then again, why go into playing such a game if you don't want scenes about the horrors of WWII? Isn't this exactly the kind of emotional impact, you want from a play experience like this? As always, it is just a game and you can step out of character and out of the game for a break after a particularly intense scene. My approach would be to agree on a stop sign during scenes, and then be sure to discuss particular nasty scenes afterwards, but to make no explicit agreement on content up front. Which seems like the approach you made in this particular game, trusting each other to know when to draw the line.

Would the game had been as successfull if you had drawn explicit content lines up front?

Did you stop scenes because someone was unhappy about the content?

Did you not stop scenes, and then later discover that someone was unhappy about the content?

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on March 27, 2008, 04:53:20 AM
Hi Frederik,

There are all kinds of groups and many environments in which the game might be played.  I have the luxury of playing in a couple of very high-trust groups - people I know well and completely trust to be sensitive and forthright with the situations and content they introduce into a game.  As it happens our "lines and veils" discussion for the game I've been talking about in this thread was very loose - we all agreed that we were ready for anything (no hard lines) and that we'd veil material on a case-by-case basis.  We didn't end up doing that at all, as I recall.  Some of the things that I definitely would have asked to "fade to black" simply didn't come up. We didn't have any content-related problems that I can remember.  I do recall checking in a few times when something happened that we thought might be a problem - for example, Clinton's character was very attached to his sisters, and one of them was killed in a street fight, and we double-checked to make sure this wasn't problematic for him as a player.

In convention games, where I may be playing with a group of strangers, this dynamic is totally different.  Usually hard lines are drawn and the game continues to work fine.  A standard line for me when playing with strangers is "no sexual violence".  This may limit the scope of the game in some circumstances but not enough to cause a problem.  I suspect that this won't be an issue for you.  Even if you are playing in a mature, high-trust group, I encourage you to begin play with the discussion, because it serves as a flag that everyone has permission to bring it up later in play if they feel the need. 

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Mk1 on April 30, 2008, 12:51:59 PM
One thing I'm curious about, Jason - did you ever run the game for any Polish players, and if so, what kind of response did you get?

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am Polish, and I have... well, seriously mixed feelings about it, to put it mildly - though I really am asking out of curiosity, and don't intend to use this as a jumping-off point to get all holier-than-thou. Much.)

Title: Re: [Grey Ranks] The Durham Crew
Post by: Jason Morningstar on May 01, 2008, 09:44:21 AM
No, I've not played with any Poles, although I had two native Polish speakers go over the manuscript and help out with editing and fact checking (the responsibility for errors is, of course, mine, and yes, I know the regional map is wrong)

I'd love to have a discussion about your impressions as a gamer and as a Pole, particularly if you get a chance to play.