[Solar System/World of Near] Using Key Elements

Started by d.anderson, April 23, 2010, 03:55:36 AM

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I'm posting over at Story Games, as it seems to have higher traffic for casual opinion-collecting, but I wanted to cross-post here, just in case.

I'm running World of Near on Sunday.  It'll be in Maldor; we'll be making the characters then and there, so my prep needs to focus on what I'm interested in and what I can predict of my friends' interests.  I'm interested in using Key Elements, since they expand on my usual prep method (touchstone inspirations jotted down, and a lot of names names names).  My issue is, I haven't been able to track down much AP specifically addressing their use.

So, I want to know what experiences others have had using this method or something similar.  Any notes are great, but I'm wondering about how you reconcile your scene-framing rights with the introduction of Key Elements - if you aren't telling the players what they're looking for then is it a matter of them stumbling upon it?


I've yet to use Key Elements in a Solar System game, so I am not sure if they are meant to remain secret from, but "discoverable" by, the players. If they are, then my advice isn't much help. However, if it is okay for the players to know what the Key Elements are, then I strongly recommend a collaborative approach to creating them.

One really nifty method to generate Key Elements in this way is to get players to create them themselves. Ask each player to come up with a Key Element, or perhaps a concept that you can turn into a Key Element. That way you know what the players are interested in because they have created the Key Elements for you. Also, they have "bought-into" the game more as they know they created these elements.

A quick way of doing this is to give each player a slip of paper and ask them to write down one detail of a concept for a Key Element - it could be a place, a character, a piece of equipment, etc. Then, they pass the slip on to the next player and add another detail. Continue until each player has added a detail to each slip. Then, collect all the slips and voila, you have the basis for Key Elements!

Paul T

I've had fun making a list of things I'd like to see characters get involved with or interact with in a game, and then putting it out in the middle of the table. I had some things like (I'm making up the numbers right now, though):

* The marriage of X and Y. 3 XPs
* A Tchegaran sets foot in the Church for the first time. 2 XPs
* A challenge of honour. 2 XPs

The players knew they would get the XPs if they were in a scene where one of these elements was featured, whether it was by interacting with it, by making it happen, or any other variation. So, if X and Y decided to get married, there was 3 XPs in it for any character who would show up at the wedding. But maybe the characters would rather prevent the wedding? Or perhaps even orchestrate it themselves, if one of those NPCs decided they weren't interested in the marriage after all.

That worked pretty well, although many of the elements were ignored altogether (as expected).

I'm sure Eero will chime in soon: I think his approach is much more like a "GM award", where he prepares set pieces, like cool scenes or NPCs he wants to feature in play, and when he brings them in, the players get the XPs.

Eero Tuovinen

I wrote my piece in the SG thread, pretty much - good stuff there, do check it out. Paul's right in that I prepare the Key Elements alone without player input, mostly because I'm a boring stickler for character advocation; having the players "order" content that I then scurry to execute as the SG seems like it robs me of much of my own creative input into the game while requiring the players to take charge of backstory in a way I'd find confusing as a player. The most input I'd take from the players would be generalities like "My character goes to Khale, what do I see?".
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Simon JB

I've mostly used Key Elements in the beginning of our Solar playing, and when new players have entered the group. After the players have learned how to use ordinary keys to effect I usually feel them to be redundant.

Quote from: Courage75 on April 23, 2010, 05:33:27 AMOne really nifty method to generate Key Elements in this way is to get players to create them themselves. Ask each player to come up with a Key Element, or perhaps a concept that you can turn into a Key Element. That way you know what the players are interested in because they have created the Key Elements for you. Also, they have "bought-into" the game more as they know they created these elements.

A quick way of doing this is to give each player a slip of paper and ask them to write down one detail of a concept for a Key Element - it could be a place, a character, a piece of equipment, etc. Then, they pass the slip on to the next player and add another detail. Continue until each player has added a detail to each slip. Then, collect all the slips and voila, you have the basis for Key Elements!

Very nice suggestions, that would suit my group very well, I think. Will put them on the table next time we get into something. But then, we play very collaboratively in any case (collectively storyguiding every session, and so on).



The game was indeed set in Maldor.  My decision was to share the Key Element list with the other players, and to set conditions under which they would score an XP for the character engaging an Element (places required a scene involving exposition and interacting with the details of the location, people required engaging their motivations, situations required simply being involved).  The list was larger than I usually put together for play; I will post it if there is interest in the details.

I ran the game, of course.  I am married, have a young child, work, and live some distance from my friends, so I had to set aside the day to play (and drink, ahem).  This means a pretty high degree of investment on my part; I don't have many opportunities for social recreation these days.

I was responsible for transporting Steve.  He and I have known one another for maybe twenty or twenty-one years; he is recently back in the area after being away for most of the last ten years.  I met my wife through him.  Steve has always played 'magician-type' characters in fantasy games, so I directed him to read the Three-Corner section of the WoN material, and he was pretty stoked to try it out.  We talked it over on the way to Jeff's.

We played at Jeff's house.  He has been a close friend for about twenty years, and we have been gaming, intermittently, that whole time.  We have a hell of a lot of interesting history, and his personal accomplishments read like a Mary-Sue GURPS character.  Jeff plays extremely self-sufficient characters, but has no compunctions about getting involved in other players' character's motivations.  Once I had pulled out the character sheets and went over the basics (both Jeff and Steve were at least vaguely familiar, having played some Solar System games with me before), we got down to chargen.

I went over Maldor again (class issues, religious issues, post-apocalyptic fantasy).  Steve latched on to the idea that his wizard had been alive before the apocalypse; I suggested that he had spent time in magical stasis.  We decided it had been intentional but had not been ended at the intended time, and that his character, Lucius, had deteriorated from his former competence, as well as being somewhat amnesiac.  Jeff initially wanted to make a support character; as we discussed it more, he decided (much to my surprise and with no prompting) to take both the True King and Lunar Child Secrets, and with a little discussion, the Key of Not Caring!  Pretty sweet.  Haam was very young, eight or nine years old; Jeff took the Cripple Key to represent this and Haam's stuttering shyness.

Haam also began with the Relationship (Lucius) and Martial Survival Keys; between all these Keys and his attention to the Key Elements, Jeff was rolling in XP right out of the gate.  Lucius began with the Past Key, and the entirety of his starting Advances went to his magic (Magical Hand, Create Anything, Create Volume, Creation [Craftwork], Artifice).  I am sorry to say I do not remember the events leading into the creation of the Keys that Steve later wanted for Lucius, but he also ended up with "Arrogant Bastard" and "Beard" Keys (his notes say 1XP ACT IT 3XP ACT IT AT COST BUYOFF SHOW HUMILITY and 1XP WANT TO GET RID OF BEARD 3XP GO TO GREAT LENGTHS TO GET RID OF BEARD 5XP BEARD ACTUALLY MATTERS BUYOFF LOSS OF BEARD).  It is clear that the buyoff condition wasn't considered important until I pointed out that Jeff would probably be able to cash in Relationship and Martial Survival for 15-20XP by letting Lucius die.

After characters were completed but before we got going, I printed out the Key Elements and ran quickly over them, explaining that I didn't have a 'plot' as much as I had stuff I was interested in, relationships in motion, and events unfolding.

I decided, despite the Relationship Key, to begin with Haam's attachment to a group of scouts sent by a militia Sergeant from a local fort to investigate increased ratkin activity in a nearby ruined city.  This touched several established Key Elements (the worried sergeant, the fort, the ruins).  The scouts did not return to the camp he was guarding, and, believing that he would be held responsible, he headed in to find them.  I got to flesh out my contact points for the ruins, then had the character fall into the hidden chamber that held the stasis crystal.  Jeff took over some narration here, describing visions flashing across the crystal of another lifetime where Haam knew this person, as well as some visions that were oriented to his lunar sympathy; he specifically offered to take Harm from exhaustion, but I didn't feel that was necessary or even a good idea.  I said that if he was exhausted, it might mean a penalty die for later activity (it did not come up again).

The crystal disappeared at the end of the vision, and Steve and Jeff took over interacting, dialogue, and some exploration of the characters' personalities, establishing a close relationship.  Steve flexed a little magical might, getting some feeling for the nuances of the Secrets and Abilities involved, which precipitated writing down more details and reminders.  This also introduced the Moon, and thus scored on the Past Key a bit.  I think we interpreted the Past Key pretty liberally.

They left the ruins, then discussed their course.  I framed in Luis the ghoul-goblin's hardscrabble subsistence farm, and this was the first actual conflict roll.  Jeff decided to have Haam steal some food, and I decided that he might get caught; we rolled, and Haam almost got spotted, getting away with some scrawny roots.  Jeff used this result to establish an Effect - again, getting a feel for the system.  I was not using the limited or fragile Effect options, as it was an introductory game.  This was also the first (and only) refreshment scene, with the two of them eating and chatting about the Moon and other changes from before the Skyfire.

They arrived back at the fort where Haam came from; when the guards challenged Lucius, he set the crabapple trees out front on fire (he decided to interpret a failed roll this way).  They sent Lucius up to talk to the Captain, and Haam snuck away from the kitchens to be in on the conversation.  This precipitated some fun, as I enjoy PC dialogue with NPCs, and Lucius got to cook off some more magic to impress the commanding officer.  They went along with the captain's orders to head to court, to root out rebel spies there (another Key Element); Jeff established another Effect, stealing supplies from the kitchen.

I believe we took a short break here.  When we settled back in, I set the arrival at court, and an interview with the Seneschal - ths took a couple minutes as I looked through IMDB for castillian names.  This was a fail on my part, as I had made all the Key Element characters but not written down any names for off-the-cuff encounters (I usually do, since improvising names is hard for me and causes a big break in engagement).  I had Salvador (as he was now known) begin by being condescending to the PCs, and Jeff took this opportunity to buyoff his Cripple Key, as well as employing the True King Secret to gain a couple Advances, all to utterly browbeat the Seneschal.  This was accompanied by an intense bit of roleplaying - this kind of verbal confrontation is uncomfortable and emotionally volatile for Jeff in real life, and it took a moment to adjust to the sudden intensity around the table.  He rolled a Legendary result on his new Expert Etiquette Ability, and opted to turn it into an Effect; I was careful with how I played Salvador's submission, and used the opportunity to point out the danger of revealing himself as a contender for the "Absolon-Reborn" title.  The gauntlet was immediately thrown back with the Not Caring Key.

There was to be High Court that evening, and all kinds of people were going to be there; they got clothes and there was some failed effort to get the barber to cut Lucius' beard.  Shortly after this, our friend Dave showed up.  Dave wanted to play, so we took a break to put his character together (Thaddeus, a weapons engineer, secret rebel, and possessor of the first musket).  This took a while, and by the end I was pretty drunk.  It was a great opportunity to introduce a court dandy (a Key Element), and Steve and I had a great time ratcheting up audacious challenges until he had Lucius summon some fiery 'dragons' out of the chandeliers; in the meantime, Jeff and Dave were talking among themselves (somewhere in there, Dave established that he had some grenades as an Effect).  The shit hit the fan, with Haam rushing to protect Lucius from these 'dragons', with the out-of-character intent of impressing the King (entering the Hall at that moment) with the importance of Lucius' character.  I was letting Ability check interpretations go pretty widely.  Then Mike showed up; Jeff and I rattled off a character for him to play, but the game pretty much stalled out, which I was (and still am) fine with as it had been six or so hours (there's a lot of detail not covered here).


The Key Elements were clearly engaging and and a fine prompt or guide to focus for me and the other players.  I scored them at 1XP each, and they got somewhere around six, although they might have laid claim to more if we were paying attention.  I will definitely be using them in the future, in a similar fashion.  Steve enjoyed himself tremendously, specifically mentioning system qualities he liked; Jeff was more reserved but seemed to have a good time.  Neither are used to this kind of all-out protagonism, and I didn't introduce anything that was a real challenge to their resources, so there were some moments where we hurtled along, interspersed with slower expository material that felt a little out of synch with the pace and framing, but this quality of play was a very mild consternation.  More difficult, of course, was maintaining focus for hours on end.

Eero Tuovinen

Ha, I love it! Those are some great character concepts, I especially like the wizard who was frozen in stasis before the Darkness. I imagine you'd do something like that with Enhancement (I) magic. The tricky part is making the Three-Corner magic self-sustaining; Three-corner doesn't do "permanent", but I've gotten around that before by making the magic sustain itself somehow. How was your experience with Three-corner as a mechanical system? I'm always interested when people want to play Three-Corner wizards, as they're pretty complex, but also surprisingly weak for the amount of XP you have to sink into it to do anything. I like this, but how did your group find it?

The child messiah is excellent as well, True King and Not Caring is a rather amazing combination. Piling Lunar Child on top of that is just crazy; the spirit of the Sun has been subverted by the Goddess, what better way to usher in a new age? I'd expect the character to encounter plenty of witches willing to work with him in many different ways... I'm curious, do you remember what Haam got from activating the Secret of True King? The way I've played it it's sort of a big deal with obvious supernatural effect when Absolon Reborn uses Athelas or draws the sword from the stone or whatever it is that he should be able to do as the King - I'm curious as to what your group found so integral to the Sun King that it could be paid for through that Secret.

I like the Key of Beard, that's an absurd comedic Key. The Wise Beard Man is not to be underestimated, I should say. There's plenty of other nuance to appreciate in the creative choices during the session as well - the ghoul farmer, the refresh scene in moonlight, establishing status in court setting, all evocative.

Very gratifying a read, thanks. Are you going to play more? The mechanical intensity of your game is high, I like that; I myself play pretty intricate crunch, and it seems that your group's gravitating towards the weirder stuff I wrote into the book. It'd be nice to see what you make of it in the long term.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


The idea we hashed out regarding the stasis chamber was that it used to be normal for senior Three-Corner mage-craftsmen to build their own; imitating the actual tombs of wizards, they were hidden in (normally) inaccessible places, where a mage could retire to pass time without aging, a kind of cheap-ass immortality option when the chips were down and all your Divinations are coming up "Broken Tower" and inverted "Death", or whatever.  The plan was to be woken later by some loyal servant, but the extreme length of Lucius' stasis deteriorated both his memory and his former magical potency.

Steve was very enthusiastic about the Three-Corner magic system; he liked the flexibility.  The, erm, power level and scope didn't seem to be a problematic limiting factor.  I don't find them significantly constrained, myself; the 'limits' provide the same kind of setting context that Bamboo Fighting and a chapter on poisoning people do - easily ignored if they're a problem and a great place to create goals, find or design solutions, create challenges, and sink resources if they're not.  They sort of just left the stasis chamber behind without a second thought, and I made no comment.  If they had wanted to make use of it, depending on their approach and intentions I would have made a peice of Equipment (requiring Advance debt) or established an Effect from Scrounging or Enhancement or something along those lines.

I was sorry that the dynamic combo of character qualities and the Secrets and Key for Haam were not given the kind of long-term development and challenge they deserved.  The only activation of True King was accompanied by brilliant coronas and immanent majesty in the Seneschal's office, but I'm afraid the Advances went to the rather utilitarian and prosaic purpose of rocketing his Etiquette to Expert, which, because of the aforementioned intense role-play that accompanied it, was just fine by me.  The character transformed from a stuttering, almost feral child to a slick and forceful young advocate (it might have better for me to at least suggest Speak or Charm or the like, but I was already a bit drunk, as I mentioned, and it didn't stretch plausibility or thematic propriety, from what I recall).  The spectacular display was not subsequently brought up, but it helped justify the Legendary Effect held over the Seneschal.

It is much to my chagrin that I will almost certainly never continue that game.  Steve is returning to the west coast soon, and Jeff will moving on to his post-doctoral work elsewhere in the country at the end of the summer.  The unpredictability and scarcity of opportunity I have to devote time to face-to-face gaming means a long-term plan is infeasible.  I've been trying online gaming of various sorts (VoIP, chat, PBP, PBeM, wave) and had mixed success (most of the success being with tSoy/SS, actually); if I could find others nearby I could trust to coordinate a regular thing, then I'd do so in a heartbeat, but as it stands I haven't.  I am going to be at Gen-Con this year, where I hope to get into a few games or get some going; though I haven't seen any Shadow of Yesterday (etc) games on the schedule, I'll be in the Embassy, where a lot of 'indie' people seem to collect and play more-or-less spontaneously.  Maybe something good will come of it.