[The Cycle of Seasons] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, February 20, 2011, 10:13:35 AM

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Ron Edwards

The Cycle of Seasons by Nathan Paoletta is going to be the hardest judgment to justify. Why not a Ronny? Or if I think it's unsuccessful, why almost a Ronny? It's totally unlike the other Runners-Up, all of which suffered from a single crucial difficulty in knowing how to apply the rules. Here, everything is clear and written out without confusion. My issue concerns terms that usually fray people's tempers, including Wind-Up Toy and Zilchplay. So, fair warning about that, I guess.

To start, I really like the use of the terms. The "morning whisper" combination was clearly the most open-ended of the bunch, and here they're set up as an ecological, philosophical, and cultural dichotomy as literally and ideologically fixed in place as the heliocentric model of the universe as part of Catholic doctrine around 1300 C.E. I'll paraphrase play in my own terms to find my feet in talking about it. It's played in episodes, shifting back and forth between dramatically different winters and summers of not-exactly-a-year of varying length. During winter, the culture is dominated by the Whisperers, scholarly witches; during summer, it's dominated by the Knights, brash and active warriors. During winter, the GM plays the head Whisperer (the Witch of the Moon) and the players play knights, which is to say, members of the relatively marginalized part of society, trying to hasten the arrival of summer. During summer, the GM plays the head Knight (the Prince of the Sun) and the players play Whisperers, which is to say, again, members of the relatively marginalized part of society at this time, trying to hasten the arrival of winter. The two sets of player-characters are entirely different people, so you alternate between playing your own two characters.

The games that come to mind include, in order of importance, Pendragon, especially the generational possibilities, Polaris, for the link between personal activity and ecological transformation, and Agone, for its season themes.

In games like Pendragon, I appreciate a powerful theme fixed in place, and I definitely see it here. Time and culture proceed, functionally, through an equilibrium of adverse influences, for a very Tao and centrist message. Neither side is wrong nor right, although they may villainize one another I suppose, and both are necessary to keep things happening. It's kind of interesting to have Balance be the overriding goal, but the activities to preserve the Balance appear oppositional and contentious when you're engaged in them. It makes more sense that way, instead of (for instance) Law being authoritarian and warlike, Chaos being wacky and frighteningly magical, and Balance being ... uh, I dunno, whattayou wanna do today? So yeah - dynamic centrism, that's cool.

However, one may well ask what the big deal is in hastening the onset of one's desired season when it's going to come more-or-less after a year is up anyway. At first glance, I really like the idea of playing each group of characters when they're not in power, but there's a certain lack of urgency to it. I find myself looking at the Charybdis of why-bother (the current reaction) and the Scylla of inserting some Eeeeevil-afoot which the Knights and Whisperers must band together to defeat, putting aside their differences, blah blah.

I'm also a little baffled about playing the Knights. During the summer, the Whisperers can lurk about and meet together at night; it makes sense that a lot of their activity might concern one another and whoever else might want to act secretly. They're not really out of their comfort zone in this situation. Whereas during the Winter, what's a band of Knights to do? Sally forth with gleaming shields? It's not like they can mount a campaign or anything else martial; no one would do it, and it'd be logistically nuts. I have this image of them meeting in bars with their helmets on and complaining about the Witch, getting drunk and disorderly until everyone yells at them to go home.

Now here's the part that strikes me as most interesting. As the years pass, the characters age and may have children; play is expected to cover a considerable amount of time to see at least a couple of generations go through their cycles. A family saga seems likely, with members being found as both Knights and Whisperers.

One minor system question that cropped up when I was thinking about this is, what happens when one finds oneself playing only Knights or Whisperers? I'm not sure if this might happen due to moving into the next generation of characters, but it certainly would be an issue when your current Knight character turns into a Whisperer, or vice versa.

I thought hard about whether I was excited to play upon considering the generational issues, but ultimately, although pretty in terms of pageantry, bringing that part forward didn't do anything except extend the same situation through fictional time, with no particular tension or difficulty or issue arising because of it. Nor does being a little fiddly about personal experiences, like switching roles, or playing a male Witch or a female Knight. All of this is normal for the setting, and therefore the odd flatness persisted even with the little variants included.

Am I looking at what is effectively a well-designed, working, but ultimately one-noted windup toy? I racked my brain about generating situations for play, and I can't see playing NPCs without them becoming the main characters, and I can't see PCs doing stuff that matters in purely fictional situational terms, as opposed to the larger thematic seasonal ones.

I can't answer that question, obviously, but I know that I could not find it in myself to play this game given the choice between it and a number of entries that were mechanically far less well designed, but packed with emergent and personal properties. Nathan, what are your thoughts?

Best, Ron

Nathan P.

Hey Ron,

Thanks for the feedback. I think, in my head, while the players obviously are the main focus of play in whatever role (Knights or Whisperers), each of those as in-setting cultural institutions are not exactly equivalent to each other. Like, regardless of season, the Whisperers are always on the fringes, in the shadows and concerned with knowledge and witchcraft (implying that general society is not particularly inclined to preserve wisdom or practice witchcraft), and the Knights are always an important part of the feudal power structures that keep the lifeblood of the wider society flowing.

So, in Winter, the Whisperers are stronger and there are more people willing to be influenced by them, but the Knights are still endowed with legal and hereditary authority. However, exercising that authority is more difficult! For Knights, I was seeing situations such as: monsters invading helpless border villages; lords and monarchs being "twisted" with Whisperer secrets to become more insular and care less about their people; close relatives falling under curses; stuff like that.

In Summer, the Knights are respected and feared, and the Whisperers truly do retreat to the fringes. For Whisperers, I was seeing situations such as: an arrogant prince is going to raze a families ancient library to put up a new festival ground; girls are being kidnapped to slake the local lords lust and their bodies start turning up in the river; war is coming and the Whisperer's families are split between the warring sides; stuff like that.

There is a reactive element (the characters reacting to situation that the GM comes up with), which is kind of intentional. I'm was thinking about GM-empowered sandbox-y kind of games when I was sketching out the structure.

The lack of depth that I think you're seeing is probably because the game lacks a layer between big-picture effects and individual effects. We know how to impact the Cycle, and we know whether an individual action succeeds or fails, but there's still a bit of a "why" that needs to create continuity between them. I started to address this (in intention, at least), with the Bloodlines rules and the nods towards family and Bloodline really being a big deal in this world. I imagine that this is the first place to look to try and move forward with the design.

Also, I had an idea last night that maybe the Cycle should be hidden from the players, so it's less of a strategic game to move that around, and one of the GMs jobs is hint at the character's progress without revealing exactly where they are. This would also open up the opportunity for some Witchcraft to allow the player to peek at the Cycle. I dunno, something to throw out there.

So, um, yah. Does any of that make sense? Unfortunately, this game is probably not something I'll really be able to devote any time to until the summer, but I am interested to get any additional feedback!
Nathan P.
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Ron Edwards

I want to focus on the situations of play, not only in personal and dramatic terms for the characters, but for thematic content as well.

1. Is the side (faction? group? type?) currently in power, i.e., not the PCs, generally supposed to be a source of adversity? Your examples make it seem so, whether indirect or direct. When the Whisperers are in power, the monsters start roaming, curses start causing grief, and the local authorities become weird and insulated. When the Knights are in power, the lords' energy and arrogance get out of bounds, and the warfare has its predictable collateral effects.

2. Seems to me that the moral high ground apparently skews slightly in favor of the Whisperers, given both your post and the game text. Part of it has to do with their role toward knowledge, which works well for game symmetry but isn't consistent with the enlightenment-style solar imagery we often use for scholarly, political, and intellectual achievements. The Knights come off as bozos, a bit, and your post outlines their negative side in both seasons, not just one. Maybe that is merely a feature of your examples and phrasings to date (insofar as it's not merely a projection of mine, which it could be), without being a feature of the setting, though.

In terms of situation, all that is my setup for asking whether my player-character (either one) could well be pitted against his or her own side in play, due to the negative effects of the "underdog" position they're in at the time. So it might not be that when you're a Whisperer, you play vs. the Knights in power, and vice versa; but rather, as a Whisperer, you have to deal very frequently with the negative side of the Whisperers themselves, and same for the Knights.

3. I am really interested in family dynamics across the Knights and Whisperers. Clearly families include both, and clearly intergenerational issues are at work too. Marriage, the childhood experience, maturation, and similar stuff all seem important to me. Bloodline seems like any such thing in games I've played before, a possible venue for social disagreement and alliances, but not too useful as a primary driver of conflict.

4. I can't get excited, as a potential player, about the turn of the seasons. I mean, it's going to happen. Making it happen faster just doesn't seem like a big deal. As a gamer, I accept it as a colorful and reasonably useful logistic device to operate game time in the world and to signal our switch to the other player-characters, but that's it. I can't see it as a situational feature.

So that's where I'm standing at the moment. I agree there's a gap right at that intersection between (i) characters in a situation and (ii) consequential mechanics of play.

Best, Ron