[They Became Flesh] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, February 10, 2011, 06:47:21 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi Elizabeth,

All righty, I went through the new document and the above email in gruesome detail, and here's where I'm at. As I've been doing here and there, I've made up a character to help me think it through. (Don't know why I didn't figure that out back in the old Ronnies; it's invaluable.) And tried not to bork the rules in doing it.

I'll take the character through some thought-experiment play and provide commentary and questions in italics.

In the absence of others, I rolled d6s to get the starting phrases. It's a land of riches, lapis, and chalcedony, with looming statues of pagan gods. The pagans are superstitious and idle, they have their own explanations for everything. The Fallen have wings of ash and embers, rising from the spine.

I'm kind of glad I didn't roll a 1 because I can't figure out what "feral and connected" means.

Cool - my favorite option from the Fallen list. The animal-screaming voices one strikes me as tres weird, an interesting challenge but not for me on the first try anyway.

Compassion: Their hopes are like a new Creation, all the time. (4 circles)
Fraternity: We are beautiful whereas so much is not. (2 circles)
Remembrance: We sang of the Creation all in voice. (4 circles)

Name: Briah ("bree-yah")

I'll pretend that I'm playing with others and we decide that our characters live in a human community, but in very marginal circumstances. We probably eat leftovers and scraps, and we live "out back" in some nasty part of town. People come to us for advice and help all the time but no one would admit it.

Deciding where the angels live - does this mean all of the Fallen in the setting, or the player-characters as a group? Do I understand correctly that all the player-characters will live together in or near the same human community? Or similarly, if they are wanderers, that they travel in a group?

All right, now it's time for play! The God player and the Humanity player are my GMs. And ... here I stop, a little baffled. I get everything that's on the page in terms of content. But the problem is how the two people arrive at the content, or if they need to. If I were one of them, I wouldn't be sure what to do. I mean, I would be if I were (i) by myself and (ii) going by my already-established practices for other games, especially Sorcerer and Trollbabe, but I'm not sure what to do in the presence of a GMing partner and in terms of exactly what you think is the best practice for this game.

How exactly do the God and Humanity players arrive at scene framing? Do they both just play, talking alternately to set up and zoom in on what's going on? Could one of them take the lead, so to speak, practicing the major scene framing role and focusing on God-stuff or Humanity-stuff as appropriate, and the other fleshes it out for the other kind of content? When and how do the players know it's time for them to start talking too?

Is the phrase "pushes the angel" intended to include a certain authority over my character's actions? Whether it does or not, is it really the phrase you think is the best advice? I mean, it's cool if it is, implying a certain raw and adverse approach to GMing which I sometimes bring to Sorcerer, but if that's not exactly what you mean, then other phrasing - confronts with; offers - should be considered.

Does God play any NPC Fallen or just members of the Host?

OK, with whatever mechanism in place, however it is the two GMs are talking, let's find my character in a situation. A local person of notable status, and his general social clique, have brought Briah to a temple, anointed her, and set her up as a kind of living idol. The implication is, as well, that if she doesn't do this, this social sector will remove the modicum of protection from the Chosen People (a minority in the area, who despise the Fallen) that the small group of Fallen enjoys.

Huh - can't believe I hadn't spotted this and asked it yet - are the Fallen gendered? One, both, or none? I'm saying "she" here on mainly visual terms.

A conflict shows up when Briah is sitting there in the temple and they bring a small child, very beautiful, to sacrifice to her. So now there are these well-off people, generally nice to look at and wearing pretty clothes, singing away fervently, while the child awaits, bound, and the anointed sacrificer-person holds a sharply-curved knife at the ready.

(I'm picking this because all of her descriptive phrases for her Draws involve beauty and an aesthetic obsession with creation. I figure the God player and the Humanity player have zeroed in on that stuff just like they're supposed to.)

Boink! Fuck this, I say. I make up a power, attached to my Compassion Draw. It's, uh, ... supposed to be a person or thing ... wait a minute. OK, the kid ... the cult leader guy. Or the knife! Being a little confused about what this power is supposed to be able to do, I look at the examples of Compassion powers ... and I find emotions, in fact, attitudes and perhaps even constraints on behavior. Hold on!

Thing 1: going by the textual example, "loves the woman" is a power. It's a power? It reads like a psychological descriptor. I need something that permits me to do something. I'm not able to do something to help the kid unless I love the kid, or something? Is that what I'm buying, the right even to say that I can do something that aids the kid?

I can't get over how general the term "power" seems to be. And then I realize, these are unconstructed traits, with all the attendant problems discussed in Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me?; see also [Space Rat] Femme babe action at GenCon. And when you add the emotional element, they appear to be even more weird than that, especially when the capability issue is brought in, as with the loving-the-mother example. In that example, Samael is no longer capable of loving the mother. What is that supposed to mean in play? If the player says he does something that the others decide is too "mother loving," it's breaking the rules?

And let's back up a moment, too. I wasn't constrained to Compassion at all! The rules provide no real constraint on which Draw is involved. I could have drawn upon my Fraternity because my fellow angels' fate is riding on this whole worship thing. I could have drawn upon my Remembrance to elevate the kid out of the temple, and to safety, on a waft of golden light; or hell, let'em slice him up and then resurrect him.

There's gotta be some Draw-specific constraint in what powers can do. The single one from the rules is only that Remembrance powers have special effects. That's not substantive at all.

And allthough I'm getting ahead of myself slightly, this kind of totally open flexibility obviously causes trouble for the whole "cross off a power to get a power you need" thing later.

And now I want to get something done. I am going to use ... this power! Except apparently it's not good enough, or appropriate.

The usefulness of a power - who says? I am very unconvinced regarding with limits to a power's applicability or lack thereof implied by the Samael example. For instance, why not heal the boy with first aid, using the power of the love for his mother as it stands? Who decides this, anyway?

All right, I'm using a power, it's deemed useful, and I am thinking about how many dice to roll, listening to what the God and Humanity players are promising me. The God player promises power over the new cult or whatever it is. The Humanity player promises safety for the child. Clearly, the more dice, the more chance of getting 3 or higher at all, which is good. And considering that at the moment, I see no particular downside to either promise, I'll take both.

So, are promises supposed to have downsides? In which case, how are they different from Prices (resulting from 3-4 on die)? If they are in fact promises and not Prices in disguise, then it seems axiomatic always to accept the extra dice. After all, a Price seems worse than a promise! At least with promise you know what you're getting up-front.

There are things I like about the Promise mechanic. It seems neat to say that they have no intended downside, but could well be undesirable on a personal, opportunistic basis. But it does strike me that they're built to be a win-win - something the player might like, and something the GM would like. So the default is that you're getting the dice. If I have this right, I'm not criticizing it and find it kind of nifty, actually, especially in what is otherwise a crushingly adverse setting and situation type game. But it does render the Samael example completely uninterpretable, as you seem determined to imply that the player has some generalized reason to be suspicious of the die gained via a Promise.

OK, now let's get to what might be called second-stage power management, after Briah's sheet is full up, with ten powers.

It seems to me that ten powers, with what appears to be remarkable flexibility for each, is probably enough to carry me through one hell of a lot of conflicts. God and Humanity are going to have to work hard to come up with something that leads me to want to add a power. Am I wrong about that?

And given that I might have four on two Draws, or five on one, that's quite a bank to suck from while I make up new powers.

OK, let's go ahead and do it. It turns out that throughout play so far, I have failed to take any powers which protect Briah physically. Well, now she's in the burning building and trying to get out with an injured fellow Fallen.

Hey - that brings up another problem. I can't say I'm entirely sure how damage can be done to her if I just say, "She walks out," and avoid using any powers, but let's presume she has to use a power to get out of the building with her friend. Which is a hell of a presumption and needs serious attention. Who says, "To do that, use a power"?

Whew. Burning building. Needs a power to withstand the flames and save the friend. Here's my understanding of second-stage power creation, using the slot terminology.

i) I have to sacrifice powers in slots in the other Draw, not just empty slots.
ii) Sacrificing the power means the slot goes away too, it doesn't remain there, open.
iii) What I get is a new slot with a power already in it.

I have to be full-up in a Draw to do this, right? I can't make new slots + powers for a Draw I have open slots for just because I feel like it, right?

I want to add a Power to my Fraternity Draw, which has to be the friend because it has to be a person or thing. I suppose if I wanted to make it miraculous it'd be Remembrance, for "Flames don't touch me" or something like that. Let's say it's the Fraternity one. I sacrifice a Power from my Compassion Draw, called "the leader of the cult," in part because the cult's HQ is burning down around my ears and half of them have been slaughtered by the Chosen People led by a member of the Host. So now my Compassion Draw has three circles left, all named with Powers, and my Fraternity Draw is newly increased by one circle for three total, with the new one carrying this new Power with my friend's name.

How about Briah's fate, eventually? If I'm clever, I should be able to keep this up indefinitely, switching around and about, always keeping at least one circle on a given Draw. The God and Humanity players are supposed to put the bite on this, eventually resulting me in whittling away at a given Draw until I sacrifice the last one from it.

I don't see how that's going to happen. If I have one circle/power left on Compassion, and I want a new Remembrance Draw, I'll just sacrifice one of them from Fraternity. My total number of circles is alway going to stay at ten, so unless I have two Draws with one circle/power each, and for some reason I simply must have a new power on the third Draw despite have eight (!!) powers on there already, I can always sacrifice from the Draw with more than one circle/power on it. I see no problem with keeping this up forever.

I'm pretty sure I am not merely being a nitpicky git with all this. These points are all genuine stopping-blocks, body-checks, to being able to play the game. The good news is that I think, given a strong look at them, that you will be able to get into the mode of designing to address them. I hope this happens rather than going into physical design and production mode when the game is, effectively, not there.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Looking all that over, I need to add some more talk about how I'm talking, and about game design.

One feature of system design that I value perhaps over all others is learning (and then knowing) what has to be hard vs. what has to be soft, for a given game. I'm talking about the way it's played. Scene framing in Trollbabe, for instance, is hard as steel. This person does it, for opening and closing scenes. Other people may interact with this person in a specific way to include their desires in his or her process. There are no exceptions to the procedure, and furthermore, (i) no play proceeds without a scene being open, and (ii) only one scene is actually open at any point.

Whereas in Spione, it's a little softer, but not much. Everyone always knows how many scenes are currently open, and which principal is or is not in one; and everyone also knows whether a principal player is obliged to open a principal's scene or not when the turn comes around to them, or to play in that principal's scene or not. So there are more options and fading in and out of a scene per player and character, but the options are laid out in a menu style that affords no other options.

Whereas scene framing and closure in S/lay w/Me is utterly soft. Anyone can introduce a time lapse, a change in location due to characters' movement in the fiction, a more extreme change in location with a lapse in knowledge, entry into the situation or exit from it by any character, at any time he or she is speaking. Scenes start, proceed, and finish in the course of the game, but no one has specific responsibilities in that regard, only explicit capabilities.

So, hard = the capabilities are both explicit and also divvied up into responsibilities, whether simple or nuanced, whether handled identically throughout play or subject to opened and closed options at different times. And soft = the capabilities are explicit, but simply available for use with no further structure.

Running through all my game designs is an ongoing decision at the macro-level, what is hard and what is soft. I am convinced that a game with too many hard parts is a clunky curiosity, what Tim Koppang rightly criticizes as wind-up toys. I am convinced that a game with too many soft parts flails around. I am also convinced that no single part of a game, speaking generically and generally, is necessarily best being either hard or soft.

However, historically, when I look across published games, clearly we as a design community are not dealing with hard vs. soft. We are looking at present vs. absent. Simple lack of any rules whatsoever, or if present, vague and unworkable crap (Rule Zero, the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast), no matter how often repeated.

So what I'm after with all of the big post above is, be as hard or soft as you like with the rules in question. I'm not calling for hard rules for every single procedure in the game. If the interaction between the God player and the Humanity player is supposed to be unconstructed and soft, that is 100% excellent - but the capabilities in question should be explicitly stated, and then it should also be explicitly stated that the use of those capabilities is soft.

I hope that provides some clarity and perhaps some gentleness as well to the points I made above. Plus keeping the authority and ownership of your game firmly in your hands, not mine.

Best, Ron


I keep wanting to go through this and respond with thoughts and ideas for each roadblock, but honestly, that would be a waste of time when I can just nod along in agreement (with a couple "How did I miss THAT?!" moments, like the non-gendered angels) and write a real second draft which addresses this stuff. I don't think your critique was harsh and actually strikes me as spot-on.

About hard and soft— I think it's my tendency, especially in 24-hour games, to aim for soft and to go waaaay too far in that direction, so that the softness just leaves everyone flailing around in goo. There should be no goo-flailing with this game. It's a good outline, I think, but it needs structure and a hard look taken at powers/unstructured traits and other balance issues.

The only point of clarification: God and Humanity do not offer a die and a promise to the Fallen. They offer a die IF the Fallen is willing to do something for THEM. So the price is built in. There really needs to be some strong GM guidance though, in order to keep people from feeling like they're set adrift.

Thank you so much, though. I've been quiet because I've been thinking. Now I'll probably be quiet for a while more because I'm working. (Unless I get all excited about\temporarily distracted by the next round of the Ronnies, anyway. :D)


Every day since Ron's thorough and useful critique of the trait system in this game, I've devoted time to working on it. I totally get and agree with the problems with the freeform trait system being too tied into the mechanics of the game, so I've been working for a while trying to figure out how to make the traits less freeform while still giving the amount of flexibility I wanted, or not tying them to the mechanics while still getting the mechanical results I wanted, and it was all a giant headache.

And then I got the great idea of getting rid of freeformy traits in their entirety.

This is what I'm thinking so far:

You've got the three draws, with the little bit of color you're supposed to write to describe them. That's fine. Other than that, there are no other traits or anything; instead, you have 10 dice.

Every time you want to roll to do something, you can choose the Draw the roll is related to, and choose to roll as much or as little of your current dice pool as you like. But every die that comes up doubles gets locked in to that Draw. Locked in dice can't be re-rolled. When all the dice are locked in, a different kind of endgame occurs (since it's likely you won't hit zero in any of the Draws), but I'm not sure what.

Additionally, God and Humanity can intervene in your life by forcing you to add or subtract a die from your roll. The maximum interference for a roll is +1 and -1— basically, ensuring one GM can cancel out the other for strategic reasons.

A more mathematically inclined friend ran the numbers, and it seems like this system would be good for a 2-3 session arc with the same characters. Less sessions for players who like to gamble, of course. One thing I dig about this is that you can make small rolls or large ones, and effectively have the chance to decide when you're willing to risk this being something that defines who you are. And that God and Humanity can make an action define who you are even when you weren't expecting it, through their intervention. (The intervention is going to have to be intensely narratively connected, and I've got to figure out how to word it.)

What do you think? Is this on the right track?


Note also that the add/lose a die system completely replaces promises.

Ron Edwards

H'mmm. I smell genuine game design.

Little stuff first. (1) Is 10 dice enough? Seems like the whole process is fun from the beginning, so why limit it that sharply, or rather, why not provide the option to roll at least a couple big ol' handfuls in the course of a longer game? There's a playtesting question for sure.

(2) How about the scope of immediate and specific actions, then? What can my guy do? Can I blast a person to ashes by singing his name? Can I sleep in a spot and wake up in a perfectly-built, gorgeous house? Can I kill nine men in a fight without breaking a sweat? This kind of pure thematic-based pool-play needs a common ground of imagined scope. What are your thoughts about that?

Big stuff. This is what Callan is always on about, and why I keep trying to get him to articulate it more and more accurately and precisely as the years go by. Ultimately, trait-based play is merely "everyone says so" or "Bob says so" unless there is some way to invoke the mechanic first to establish that the fiction obeys. I am not as hardcore as Callan is; if I read him correctly, at least some of his posts flatly decree that the latter invocation should be always and only the means of applying something on one's sheet. Instead, I see a kind of dance between "the circumstances allow it" thinking and "it's on my sheet so I'm using it" thinking. And the actual steps of that dance remain unknown, or at least, only briefly touched upon in the threads here.

In one of those threads, I reflected upon my own designs to discover that I never use such traits in my games. I mean, I play them all the time, and I aver that they are not merely devolved into "Bob says it's OK/not-OK for you touse your Good Aim trait" exercises, but apparently there is some understanding in my own creative self (who I imagine to be very grubby indeed, working most ferociously all the time, and not at all nice to visitors) which says, "don't go that way." One thing that is clear to me is that designing "sheet first," so to speak, is solid ground.

Elizabeth, it looks like you decided to step onto that solid ground. I won't say the alternative is quicksand straight into the "Bob says" territory of play, but it is certainly still not a good place to venture out of habit, because it can go that way.

Best, Ron


Here's the next iteration of the PTD - the only major change is the dice mechanic and the way the endgame works. I've been busy moving to California and completely redesigning a Facebook game at work, so I haven't had a lot of time for tabletop stuff. Now I'm making the time, though.


Please let me know what you think.