[The Volume of Secrets] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, February 20, 2011, 04:53:59 PM

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Ron Edwards

The Volume of Secrets by J. P. Mullen threw me into a tizzy of evaluation much like the characters themselves, flitting through a fog of unknowns and uncertainties. I'm not talking about the rules explanations, although I do have some questions about them here and there, but about my own standards for judgment. Is it an RPG? Does it look fun? How does it work in the larger sense, in terms of rules-effects and the experience of play? I found myself alternating between "best of show" and "what a mess," and ultimately concluded that most of that alternation lay with me and not with the game. So I had to step back and ask the basic question of whether the parts of play seemed entirely present in the text, and whether what to do with them seemed like something I could do with some confidence.

So J. P., either you've totally been robbed, or it's way at the other end and needs filing-down and shaving and re-organizing. Ultimately I came down on the latter side. As far as vision is concerned, it's an incredibly ambitious, fascinating design which may fairly be said to break new ground. As far as orienting instructions, certain necessary imagined components, and creative agenda are concerned, I need more focus and "gathering together" of usable stuff to do. In fact, this is the game which led me to invent that category. Here are the things which I think could stand a little gathering, then.

1. I advocate for nailing down the whole ethereal player-character identity thing: angels! no, birds! moths! no, butterflies! ... at the moment, it's kind of a blend of angels and birds, but the blend seems uneasy to me. On the one hand you have angels, demons, possession, and similar; on the other, you have owls and ravens and the curious twitchy, birdlike fascination with secrets. I tend to favor the latter for this game, perhaps a more mystical bird thing going on of some kind. Or if you could find a way for the blend to be wholly and uniquely itself - as opposed to the way it seems now, with various details simply "being" bird or angel with no sense of how they go together.

As a side point, I'm not convinced that skill points are necessary. It seems reasonable to me that all the characters have the basic attributes and do things with them, as is possible at all for any character, limited only by one's choices of Affinities. Or if you want to look at it this way, every character would have all those skills, to the max, with the effects of any of them basically already folded into the concept and scores of the attributes.

2. It's intriguing but also a bit frustrating that the text has no content describing the characters, setting, and situations of play from the point of view of what would ordinarily be called the chararacters. If the affinities list is an indicator, then it's set in the modern day. I grant you that any ordinary human community is rife with lies, much as you describe in your opening color text, but it would be immensely helpful to see an example which clarified exactly what is happening among the persons and situations, and how that gets affected by the ethereal beings fluttering in and around it.

What strikes me the most about this side of play is that it is apparently utterly GM-based, and played by the GM, all characters, dialogues, decisions, and actions, lock stock & barrel. Oh - one exception, possession, yes. Anyway, it seems like a lot. What sort of scope and activity of this side of the fictional content do you have in mind?

3. I think there is an inordinate amount of mechanical stuff to keep track of too. So while I'm the GM doing all the stuff in #2, I also have to monitor and upgrade/downgrade all these variables. It looks exhausting, actually.

4. There is some odd language in there about competitive vs. cooperative play. My impression is that this means, if we play competitively, the various player-characters can be of either faction, and if we play cooperatively, they're all of one faction. However, that breakdown doesn't track well in my mind.

i) Those aren't really dichotomous terms. People engaged in recreational competition have to be cooperating at a higher level in order to compete at all, even to do so ruthlessly.

ii) If all the players are a team trying to do something, and they're up against genuine adversity of someone opposing them, then it's still competition.

So I'm kind of clueless about what sort of point-of-play is at work. Also, at one point, you reference some win conditions (self-sacrifice for owls) in a way that implies the conditions are formally laid down elsewhere in the text, but I can't find them. So this makes it impossible to understand what the players would be competing for in the first place.

5. There's some kind of weird GM/player story-control judgment issue going throughout the text. The flat rolls standards are the kind of thing which look good on a page, but are almost never workable in play. (It was one of the very few flaws in Extreme Vengeance stunts, for those who remember that game.) If someone narrates something that "ruins the game," it's either (i) a momentary lapse or sense of disconnection, which is nothing to punish anyone for and merits a certain gentleness to restore the connection; or (ii) the action of a "griefer," which is to say, someone who likes to ruin play and will immediately and effectively challenge such a judgment, prompting an argument about why you escalated the difficulty so unfairly. I"m saying that the technique is inappropriate for people who are desirable to have at the table, and ineffective against those who aren't - and thus has no upside.

As a related point, the whole "The one thing to remember about secrets" section reads almost like gibberish to me. I am pretty sure that it's coherent in your own mind, but I cannot imagine what sort of circumstanes of play are being referenced, or what ideal or purpose is being expressed. It seems to be somehow about playing nanny toward the players, slapping their hands for doing something wrong. And why is pushing a secret "too hard" wrong? It generates specific rules results, and isn't that what the rules are there for? And how is slapping their hands supposed to be fun for anyone?

All of these are pretty hefty issues for game design and experience. I'm interested in the directions you might be inclined toward for each one.

Best, Ron


Thank you for the feedback! I'm currently going through the game mechanics and cutting the shaff from it.

For sure, the rules were not as complete as they should have been, and I've been hammering out some things, such as scenario win conditions, and have been slowly putting together a GM section that explains how to put together a game past the simple scenario format. I also decided that Co-operative play probably was a bad idea, and am moving it off to an appendix section to flesh that out.

1) Identity - I think it's really easy to nail down the identity of the Angels if you have ever read Madeline L'Engle's book A Wind Through The Door (part of the excellent A Wrinkle in Time series). The characters are Basically very much like the Chimera from that book. In my mind, all high level angels kinda evolve into this all wings and eyes, and very little definite body.

Perhaps a good point to go to is to keep the bird attributes as a descriptive thing, but rename the factions as Keepers and Revealers. This make things clearer when a player chooses a side.

1a) I also agree. I already was in the middle of completely ditching the Skill System, and just leaving it all as Attributes. There just is way to few skills to make it worthwhile.

2) The game is a little ambiguous. My default thought is to leave it as Modern Day, however, it also occurred to me that this game could be a interesting tool to use as a side game in other settings, such as when a GM would want to show something in their home campaign, but didn't want the PC's to be directly involved in it. I currently am planning out a short fiction that will take a day in a life of a person who is going to have a surprise party happen to him, and how the Angels conflict around this issue, showing off elements of play.

2a) It helps to imagine that this is sort of reverse GM position. This system (which I need to expand in the GM section) is all about Openness. The Players all know everything about the secret and everyone involved in the secret, because that is what Angels do. The GM is suppose to introduce the situation and the 'players', and plays timekeeper, and acts as a Judge on what is fair to do. The Players, on the other hand, make decisions on how to interfer with peoples lives and manipulate the situation. For the most part, the major part of the story is in players hands.

I am currently working on a set of guidelines that lets players know what they can do. They can, for instance, introduce new people into the secret, or grab wandering people and bring them into the situation. It's less about the GM controlling the situation and more about the GM controlling flow of play, and making sure that there are some surprises as time moves forward.

2b) In this way, it is also important to note that the PC's in this case act like Forces of Nature. They may have their own motives, but it is not a traditional perspective view that they are suppose to have, but more like the 'third person limited omnipotence' point of view. I'll make that clearer in the fiction.

3) That's my fault. I like book keeping and fiddly bits. I'll try to streamline some of the elements.

4) Yeah, one of the things I did accidentally, without intent, was leave out a win condition for the Owls. I've added one so that when a secret moves into the 1-10 decibel range, then it's considered safe, and moved the initial whisper decibel to 35 as a starting default. Otherwise, I'm getting this better focused.

5) By the very nature of this game, it is possible for a player to decide to shortcut the secret step by stepping in, possessing some, and blurting out the secret right away. A anti-griefer rule, or at least obstacle is needed. I will take under advisement that the way I have it set up doesn't work and rework the Difficulty Targets.

5a) Yes, I think the section is probably more vague then it should have been. Basically, I was trying to tell the GM that it's okay for the players to lose, and that to let things end when they are ready to end.

5b) The 0 and 70+ decibel range is all about introducing a losing condition for the player personally. Since characters don't die in this game in traditional ways, there seemed to be a need for a mechanic that let a character 'die'. In Hindsight, this might be too much, and really not needed. It would get around the whole "Dice Swing Is Bad" aspect of the game, but it would then require weight to act differently. This isn't really a problem, just a new tuning of the system.

5c) The idea is that pushing the secret past a talking voice, or pushing it down so that it can never be heard, is the idea that making a secret cease to exist was bad. Making a Secret so "loud' so that people in the next county knew about whatever it was that was the secret is carrying the showing to far, as far as the angel is concerned. Also silencing it so that no one can ever know about it was equally as bad, as that meant that in the end, no one really knew the secret, so it's not really a secret at all. In either case, it is a bad thing, and it makes the angel ignore what their Affinity is about, and if an Angel doesn't care about their Affinity stands for, then they really aren't an Angel at all.

I realize that is confusing, and maybe it only makes sense to me. I might need to toss it out, but part of me wants to still find a way to work it in, because I think that it is *important* to the universe that Angels pay attention to things because to them, it is important.


Really, I am thankful for your feedback. I look to have a new version up in two weeks (So, about the 6th of March?) that should clarify and make some of the concepts clearer. All feedback has been helpful and helps me see holes in the game that I know I miss.

Ron Edwards

Hi J. P.,

I'll look forward to the new draft.

My take on the issue of blurting out secrets: I think that appeals to role-playing ("playing your angel right") and drastic punishment mechanics have shown themselves to be ineffective, historically. I have some suggestions but they're only based on the current draft. I'll wait for the revision.

Best, Ron