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Author Topic: [Serial Homicide Unit] Who cares for the victim's goal?  (Read 7269 times)
Moreno R.
Member

Posts: 547


« on: July 16, 2009, 10:05:49 AM »

Hi!

This post is late, very late. I should have written it at least a couple of weeks ago, with the convention game still fresh in my mind, but I could not at the time. I hope my game notes and the rules reference sheets I took home (I don't have the game) will be enough.

I want to talk about a specific kind of game failure. As in, some games...  I read a lot of very beautiful actual play threads about them, from people I trust. People I know in real life tell me they rocks. Then I try them, and they fail. Completely. Flat. Not the kind of "flat" that can be caused by the subject matter, or by incoherent play, or by tastes or creative differences: the kind that it's more like "this don't work, and I can't even see how it could work for anybody". But obviously it can, and it do. For other people and other groups.

I had a rather clear idea about what's "wrong" in them, for my way of playing, but I lacked the vocabulary to talk about it until recently, when I did read some posts here at the forge and at "anyway", Vincent Baker's blog, that touched very similar issues. So, when it happened again, at a game of Serial Homicide Unit, I thought about posting about it here.

Let's start with some items useful for the discussion:

Item#1: The Czege Principle: "creating your own adversity and its resolution is boring". Not as such, but as an example, a particular case, of a more general principle about boring narrations. Having to "narrate" something when what you narrate doesn't mean anything is boring.  It's like when you hit somebody in a OD&D "to hit" roll: you should narrate what happened. But... who cares? Who do it? Who narrate 10, 20 "to hit" rolls in details? After a while even the most detail-loving GM don't care enough anymore and simply say "hit" or "miss".

Item#2: the thread [Liquid] Well, I just rolled the dice for show from last February. At first I could not share Frank's point of view (my experiences with indie games, PTA in particular, were with a SIS much more detailed and meaningful that the games I played before), but then Frank made me think about the exceptions. The times I felt the problem I talked above. And he did write this: "In my experience, if you have a game system that works perfectly well without investing much in the SIS, people may tend to rush the story and their imagination of the actual in-game situation gets rather blurry".
And this one way to see what happen when these games fail.

Item#3: inspired by that thread, Vincent Baker post this in his blog: Dice & Cloud: a Symmetry.  In the comments I posted about 2 games where I felt the SIS "disappear" during the game: "3:16" and "contenders". I wrote "The two games where I noticed more the "lack of a meaningful SIS" problems were 3:16 and Contenders. I have read some actual play threads about both games full of detailed and colored narrative, but both games need a very strict "discipline" from the players, a dedication on building and caring about a coherent SIS that has really little impact on the rest of the game, that my group simply lack. After a difficult start we ended playing both games almost as boardgames."
I saw this especially with 3:16. The better actual play thread literally bleed colorful narration. It's a game so light in "crunch" that it really need colorful narration, or a GM that like to show off, make voices, something like that. But... I don't know if I can explain what I mean, but it's something that you do OVER the game. Not with the game. All that colorful narration and the game stay on two different places, and don't meet. One is almost a boardgame, the other is entertainment. You entertain the players, or the players entertain each other.
Another thng I wrote in these comments:
"What happened was that.. I don't know if I can explain it well enough in English... but narrating something to get the +1 for the next roll didn't feel like what we were narrating made any difference. Narrate SOMETHING, get the +1, roll, get from the game the number of kills, narrate how you kill them... it made no difference whatsoever what you narrated to get the +1 and how you killed the aliens. After a while we simply stopped the narration and used the numbers alone.

In DitV when I narrate something, the other players can build on it to make other raises or see. (once, at a convention demo with a player who had never played dog before, the player did choose to describe a fallout of 12 after debating with a possessed person as having broken his hand hitting it hard on the table to make a point. Then, I asked him if he wanted to wait for the doctor before making his next action or if simply had the hand bandaged by his friend right there. He asked me "what difference it make? It's not like I lost hit points...", and I answered "but you are leaving yourself right open to this possible future raise: "your hand was not bandaged well enough, and so..."
It's this "building on the narration", this perception that what you narrate MATTERS, that I felt missing from 3:16 and Contenders.

It's not the fiction. The fiction still stands. You narrate _something_ or not, but even if you play it like a boardgame, it produce fiction. What it doesn't produce it's a "real" vibrant, dramatic Shared Imagined Space of "what it's happening right now to us".


Item#4: Another take by Vincent about the same issue: Lazy Play vs IIEE with Teeth

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So, after reading all that, a little more than two weeks ago, I played a game of "Serial Homicide Unit" at a Italian Convention, and it happened again. That and more.

I don't have the game book, but I did get a copy of the rules reference sheet. The organizer didn't use the audio files (they would have been useless for a not-English-speaking audience) but translated the text during the game. So I am sure we lost much of the game atmosphere, but I think we followed the rest of the game's procedures pretty closely. So we at first create the potential victims. For the profile we opt for "musicians", my "civilian" character was a young unemployed violinist who hoped to, someday, be able to make a living with her music without having to search for menial jobs. All the others civilians play some instrument, and have some dream of their own  Then we deal the envelopes, write the obstacles, everything, and star the civilian scenes.

And it's this time that the game, for me, fall flat. Hard.

I know, having read some article about the game, that the civilian scenes are there to "humanize" the characters, to make the players care for them and want them to reach their dreams without being killed. But they had, for me, the opposite effect. It de-humanized them.

How these scenes work? Every player, in turn, play "a day in the life" for his or her civilian character. That player (1) choose the obstacle that the civilian will face, from a list written by the other players, (2) set the scene, (3) cast other players as characters in that scene, (4) "play out that scene", (5) roll to see if the obstacle is overcome, a even roll who isn't influenced in any way by points 1-4! the obstacles, the scene, the players, the acting out, don't matter a bit, the only thing that count is the roll, always the same, "even numbers win, odd numbers lose".
So, what did that mean, at the table? That the scenes turned into comedy sketches. You say to another player "you play the club owner", and to another "you play my friend Jessica who already work here and it's vouching for me", and what you get? It's like an Impro scene: you can get players who stare at you like cats caught by the car lights in the middle of the street, or, if they are good at improvising, they can Impro a funny scene. At that table, with a lot of very good impro players, most of the scenes were funny. At first. After a while I got bored (there is a scene for every civilians, for every turn. With six players this mean 12 impro scenes before the first kill, 17 before the second, 21 before the third, and they are really a lot...) and in my last scenes I asked to go directly to the roll without wasting time.

All these funny scenes had the effect to de-humanize the civilians. As cartoons. Made them less of a person. I think I cared for my character more _before_ having to play all that.

This is one of the question I want to ask in this thread: I really don't see as someone could play scenes like these, where all you are doing is waiting for a roll, with any real participation at all. Still, somebody do. How?

Next, we played the investigation scenes. And it got worse. Nobody even tried to "play the characters" of the investigators this time. The narration of the clues was a chore, and it didn't mean anything. Roll, get the clues, put them in chains, if you like your chances roll to find the killer, if not go for another round of civilian scenes.

What really disappointed me, thinking about the game, it's that nothing we narrated or "played out" made any difference at all.  I couldn't find a way to enjoy the game. As thematic play, was doomed from the start: not the right crowd, no premise in sight. Seeing that everything was decided by casual rolls that I could not influence in any way, the only step on up possible was to be even more funny in the civilian scenes, and it was more tiring than fun. And there was really no "dream" at all at the table, the SIS was a mess made up of separated scenes and disappeared completely during the investigation scenes.

And the second question is: you would have enjoyed this game?

Because all the other player did. And this is what surprised me the most. It wasn't my usual group: when I described the game to my usual group of jeep-forged gut-wrenching emo-porn lovers, they were even more surprised than me. It was a group made up for the most part by room-LARP players, and for some of them I could suspect that they were more used to zilchplay than coherent play. But not for everybody. They simply considered the "fun" of that "simply playing" during the civilian scenes "fun enough".
It's not like they were more interested than me in investigation scenes (they weren't), or that they disagreed on my observation about the game. They agreed. But even so, "just play" was enough.

And it was never enough for me. Even when I played AD&D so many years ago.

Is this the difference? The reason because some games don't work for me?

,



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Ciao,
Moreno.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)
jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #1 on: July 16, 2009, 12:01:39 PM »

Hi Moreno,

I've played SHU once.  My experience was only about 50% of what I wanted/expected but it wasn't nearly as bad as yours sounds.  The key to making the game work is that you do have to care about the victims.  The reason the game I played in felt 50% was because we were 50% invested in the victims.  The victim profile we were working with was: Child Care Providers which the group (of mostly strangers) deliberately choose because it had just enough emotional weight to keep things serious but enough distancing effect to keep everyone relatively safe.  After the game we played one player suggested that for optimal impact the victim profile really should be some kind of demographic that everyone in the real-world group has in common.  I actually tend to agree.

So how do you care about the victims?  The group I played with didn't have the "sketch comedy" aspect you describe AT ALL nor r do I see a violation of the Czega Principle.  This is how I see it working.  First of all, the obstacles are defined by the other players.  Second of all, when you pick one all you're doing, really, is picking a topic.  The scene has to refine the topic down to the actual moment of REAL adversity which is what you're rolling the die over.  One player did express some concern over the "meaninglessness" of the die rolling but I don't think it's a 100% meaningless.  It's mechanically disconnected but systemically relevant in that I find it informs the players choices at the end over whether the survives get their goals or
not.

As for the investigations scenes I find their "faceless" nature to be a feature not a bug.  I always imagine them taking place in a dark and smokey room where either the table or perhaps a bulletin board is brightly light and the investigators are all kind of vague but identifiable shadows and voices calling out from the darkness.  For me the real emotional factor in this scene was how amazingly "real" the killer became to me.  As we built these chains and clues I honestly saw the "pattern" and began to develop a real sense of who this guy "is."  Which kind of creeped me out since I knew, intellectually that there was no "pattern" and that there was no "guy" for this stuff to be describing.  However, a lot of this may have been due to the fact that the player who was playing the psychological profiler and did a bang up job of "explaining" the evidence and giving a personality to the killer.

As for what Creative Agenda this supports I put this firmly in The Right To Dream with the reference point being serial killer documentaries.  The "payoff" is the constructive denial built up around the killer.  As I said, he really felt *real* to me.  However, I think the engine that makes that possible is the support beam of Premise-like activity in the victims.  The players SHOULD be developing a Premise for each of the victims story specifically for the horror of having the thematic payoff robbed from them.

The way a game like Burning Wheel uses competitive elements to support the development of Premise.  I think SHU uses the development of Premise as a support for the real payoff of having the whole experience feel like it could have actually happened.

That's my take on the game anyway.

Jesse
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FredGarber
Member

Posts: 95


« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2009, 08:26:22 AM »

I listened to the Demo Audio of SHU, but I've never played a full game.

Would it work better if the round of civilian play was set at a specific time.  Instead of a generic "day in the life," what if it was "the day right before the next murder"?  That way, when you're playing the civilians, you have some connection to the investigation scenes.  And when you're playing the investigation scenes, you know what the victim was doing before, because you just played it out.

Incorporation (and Re-Incorporation) of the events of the previous round into the current round seems to be an unstated Technique to create a solid game.

(Potential example from your session: "It looks like the violinist hadn't been working here long: The killer must have known him from his previous job!")
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Moreno R.
Member

Posts: 547


« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2009, 07:01:44 PM »

Hi Jesse!

Thank for the play description. It confirmed my impression of how the game should work, and of the civilians scenes as the break points.

Investment into the victims wasn't very high during the game I played.  Most of the players had never played together before, and the convention atmosphere, with a lot of noise and laughter around, facilitated a very "safe" and superficial way of playing (at least a couple of character were played like caricatures from the beginning). But I am used to these problems when I play at a convention without a separate room, and I would not have written about it.  My post was about a separate, more mechanical problem.  I did not expect a very good game in a situation like that, and the disconnection between players and characters did not surprise me.

More important for the purpose of this thread, and more telling, is the description of the civilian scenes: you said:
Quote
First of all, the obstacles are defined by the other players.  Second of all, when you pick one all you're doing, really, is picking a topic.  The scene has to refine the topic down to the actual moment of REAL adversity which is what you're rolling the die over.  One player did express some concern over the "meaninglessness" of the die rolling but I don't think it's a 100% meaningless.  It's mechanically disconnected but systemically relevant in that I find it informs the players choices at the end over whether the survives get their goals or not.
There is an issue completely lacking here, that is instead enormous when I am asked to roleplay a scene like this. At the end of the scene, everything said or done is compacted in a single roll. that you could have rolled from the beginning (and the game system in practice allow you to simply roll it). The game _system_ in this case is acting like a GM who would completely ignore everything you said.

The other games I talked about (3:16, contenders) were almost boardgame-like, but not completely: what the character did had some importance, even if it was only a +1. I used Serial Homicide Unit for this post because it's the most "pure" form of this kind of design I have encountered: it could be played from beginning to end without any roleplaying (and I am not talking about play-acting or making funny voices: I am talking about having a character and not a token, and narrating something. SHU could be played using non-narrated obstacles, "obstacles 1", "obstacles 2", etc.)

Using other games as examples: In Spione, what is narrated don't give any mechanical "bonus" , but at the same time, there is no need to: everything stay on the narration plane, everything you say matter.  Or in Sorcerer, it's very important to keep track of what everybody is doing at any point during a conflict: you have to maintain a coherent SIS.

In SHO, it doesn't matter. If I narrate my character going to night club and ask the player to my left to play the owner, and he misunderstood what I said and believe that we are in a bar, it doesn't matter. If he doesn't remember and think that my character is a male instead of a female, it doesn't matter. At the end you simply roll the same die to get the same result.

To describe the way this appear to me... think about Monopoly. When you arrive on a train station, instead of simply paying the cash, you start to narrate the story of why your character is at the station. And you do the same thing every time you move your token. But everything about the game remains the same.
Even if you are the best narrator in the world, chances are that at the end this would be a boring exercise, for you and for the people who are waiting. They want you to pay so the game can go on. You are stopping the game. The same thing with SHO: why lose so much time roleplaying a scene that doesn't matter? You are stopping the game, there are other players waiting.

Except, for the people it works, obviously matter. Seeing that the game don't give it any importance, I see that "mattering" as coming directly from the players, even against the game push.

I don't want to give the impression that the problem is that I dislike role-playing if I am not "forced" by the game. I play Jeepform, LARPS, freeforms, etc. It's that this thing (acting in character) that I usually love doing, become so...  meaningless,  to drain any life from it, to the point that I find difficult and boring even a quick narration in third person.

Returning to your actual play... did you feel something like this, even if not so strongly? Did you ever fell something like this during other games? Did you feel any difference in the SIS "strenght" playing SHU and other games where there is no collapsing of a scene in a roll (like Spione) or where the SIS influence the roll (as Ditv or Sorcerer)?

@Fredgaber:  I am not searching for a way to make the game "work" for me. There are probably a lot of way to change the game to avoid that effect (the simpler one would be to remove that die roll altogether, and simply play the scenes, with the assumption that the victim will be killed ten minutes after the end of the scene), but this thread is not about that. It' about the reason because that game "fail" for me. Thanks for the suggestion, anyway.
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Ciao,
Moreno.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)
Callan S.
Member

Posts: 4268


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« Reply #4 on: July 18, 2009, 10:30:52 PM »

Hi Moreno,

If someone had a job of judging a scene as to whether it, say, evoked quiet hope or angst. And hope added certain points and angst added different points and both points changed things latter in the game in different ways, would that make a difference with you? Maybe not a huge difference, but atleast something? It's a rough example.

Onto why these guys 'like' it - I'd suspect they would also go to a food place that has food they don't like all that much, because they don't come for the food but to gather with the other people. As long as the food doesn't actually poison them, it's adequate. Have you ever seen a movie you weren't really keen on, but friends wanted to see it? It's that. Or so I'd guess.

You say it was to the point it was difficult to give a quick narration - what sort of narration did they give? Alot of cliches and expected/predictable narrations, perhaps? Almost like going through the steps of a ballroom dance?
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Moreno R.
Member

Posts: 547


« Reply #5 on: July 21, 2009, 05:28:15 PM »

Hi Callan!
Quote
If someone had a job of judging a scene as to whether it, say, evoked quiet hope or angst. And hope added certain points and angst added different points and both points changed things latter in the game in different ways, would that make a difference with you? Maybe not a huge difference, but atleast something? It's a rough example.

Maybe. It would depend a lot on the exact mechanics, it wouldn't be easy to avoid the de-powering of the roleplaying that usually go with a numeric conversion.  As I said above, if I wanted to hack the game to make it more enjoyable for me I would probably go in the other direction - removing the die roll altogether and use the possibility of murder for tension at the end instead of a roll.

Quote
You say it was to the point it was difficult to give a quick narration - what sort of narration did they give? Alot of cliches and expected/predictable narrations, perhaps? Almost like going through the steps of a ballroom dance?

Some were rather boring and cliched, but with many players with some experience in room-LARPS and Impro, most of the time they were improvised comic sketches.

For example, in one of my scenes, the obstacles was "the perception of classical music as not commercial enough", and the scene was about my character (a violinist) trying to get work in a Country Bar.  The dialog was for the most part a discussion about how really, all you need to turn Bach into Country is a hat and remembering to stomp the feet on the ground...
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Ciao,
Moreno.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)
Callan S.
Member

Posts: 4268


WWW
« Reply #6 on: July 21, 2009, 06:56:09 PM »

Hmmm, well, you know, for the guys who give the comedic sketches - they're getting a stage, an audience and they probably just ignore and forget the dice rolling bits. So that's probably what they get out of it and come to game sessions for.
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2009, 06:09:07 PM »

Moreno,

I think you're letting the presence of the die roll in victim scenes distract you.  Imagine for a moment that there was not die roll at all.  That this was more like like a Jeepform LARP.  The purpose of the victim's scenes is to raise sympathy for the victims.  If socially the group isn't doing that, they're literally failing to play the game.  Yes, the SIS doesn't matter *for the die roll* but the SIS is VITAL to achieving the intended experience of the game.

If the SIS doesn't garner sympathy for the victims then there's no tension in detective scenes.  If the SIS doesn't show us where these people's lives are going then we nothing to base our vote at the end of the game.  If the SIS doesn't develop the details of their lives then there's nothing to base our clues on when do the detective scenes.  If we don't properly connect our clues to the victims there's no sense of "reality" to the killer which as I said, is the ultimate payoff for the game.

So why the die roll at all?  It's a data point that adds variance.  In Sorcerer or Dogs in the Vineyard the SIS impacts the dice because Theme is informed partially by Outcome which means that the narrative "weight" of the SIS has to be reflected in the dice.  What you as a player choose to have your character stand for needs to be factored in.  That doesn't matter in SHU because the die isn't about theme and the game isn't about the victims standing for anything.  You aren't *fighting* for your victim's goals, you're just generating sympathy for him.  The die just lets us know if things are getting better or worse for the victim because either outcomes breeds two different kinds of sympathy, "Man, he's having it rough" or "Oh, he's really pulling through this."  The point is the sympathy, the TYPE of sympathy is irrelevant so there's simply a 50/50 chance to see which kind we generate this game.

Does that clarify things?

Jesse
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