Last week came and went without much progress on this project. I couldn’t get a small group together until Sunday. This post will focus on my experience trying to present and explain the conceptual aspects of the game to my players, as well as making characters.
But first, I had better explain it roughly to you as well.
First off, credit where credit’s due. Much of this is either inspired or derived from either The Pool or mods and hacks of that system, such as The Puddle. To summarize: the players ability to affect – and control – the outcome of the story is much larger than in traditional role-playing games and the character sheets are reduced to little more than descriptive phrases.
Meeting up last Sunday, we started out by talking about what kind of world I had envisioned. I guess it could summarized as: a historically accurate portrayal of early 20th century, and whenever things are not historically accurate, it’s because magic. We don’t hand-wave it, we get up and make cart-wheels around it.
Also, this is a game designed to rely heavily on improvisation – both from players and GM alike. The mood and tropes of film noir would serve as our main crutch and starting point of improv, and the high-fantasy was our main tool for messing around with the tropes in question. So, we finally sat down without any kind of prep whatsoever, except one thing – a question:
“Four-finger Elric was fished out of the docks last night. Why is that really bad news for your character?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t even know who Elric was, why he apparently had four fingers, nor what the normal amount of fingers ought to have been. Any eventual questions about it from them was gently but firmly returned to sender. When they caught on, we all brainstormed a bit and the final result was a great twist on the “sleeping with the fishes”-trope. Elric was a slimy character living at the waterfront. Of amphibian heritage, “slick as an eel”, yet snatched from his home by unknown assailants. The perceived murder-mystery had suddenly become a kidnapping-conundrum.
The GM should not establish more facts other than presented in the initial question. She may join in with suggestion and questions, taking notes for future (a)buse, and could (read: should) act as a moderating party, re-focusing the discussion on the question at hand – why is this really bad for the characters? Being really bad, it should: a) not be something you can ignore in hopes of it blowing over and b) neither something you can simply run away from.
Whatever consequences this missing amphibian hustler may have, they need to require action from the characters we were about to create. This is still more or less an open discussion, with all participants talking and contributing at the table. Explaining why the characters are forced to act should hopefully produce more details about the player characters themselves, as well as other persons or factions that may affect future events in the city. From this, we will define a couple of phrases:
- “Race and class”
- A phrase that ties into why it was such bad news
Let’s start with number one. This is best pronounced with wildly exaggerated finger-quotes attached to it. What I aimed for was to give the players a way to acquire racial and professional traits for their character. Or rather, to trigger associations to either the nature or the perceived skill-sets associated with archetypical races and classes in role-playing games:
A dwarf is short, but sturdy, and quite resilient to poison. A rogue might represent a street-smart hustler, surviving by wit, charm and sleight of hand – or the occasional pocket-sized revolver hidden on their person. An elf is slim and agile, and renowned for their marksmanship. A paladin might represent a clean cop, trying to maintain law and order while guided by moral conviction, but nevertheless tempted daily to act both judge and juror in the fight against corruption. However, we’re not limited to traditional DnD-classes or anything in its ilk. A “class” could be whatever has a good set of skills associated with it.
Whenever a racial trait or professional skill implies that the character would perform better at whatever the GM trials them with, the player is free to take advantage of that.
How this advantage manifests mechanically in game will be discussed in the next post. Sorry.
The second phrase we’ll define is a little bit trickier, so we’ll use my players examples and reflect upon those:
First we had Roghan, a drow cleaner that got “I keep my word” as his second phrase. The explanation was that he was a hitman employed to make sure that Four-finger Elric kept his mouth shut about something. Preferably taking whatever he knew to the grave. The bad news was that it wasn’t Roghan who found him first and his professional reputation depended on ensuring that the secret in question was kept… well, secret. That also implies that the character is someone who is proud, trustworthy and dedicated – and people in the biz knows this and respects it.
Then we had Reïn, a drow paladin fallen from grace who got “This concerns not only me, but my whole family” as his second phrase. The character had spent time in prison for passionate murder and Elric kept something hidden for him while in jail. Something of great importance not only to himself, but to his whole family, and should it fall into the wrong hands, he would surely forever be persona non grata in the eyes of the clan matriarchs. Apart from presenting an immediate need to retrieve this object, it also established his family as a faction of great importance, attaching a bit of manners, money and fame to the character as well. Or at least his surname.
Now, the exact wording of the phrases are not that important. The real importance is that both player and GM have a shared understanding of what the phrase is supposed to represent. And as with the first phrase above, whenever the phrase – and what it represents – implies that the character would perform better at whatever the GM trials them with, the player is free to take advantage of that as well.
Worth contemplating is that their explanations often were as sketchy as written out above. We didn’t establish the secret Elric knew, nor the nature of the object he was keeping safe. We didn’t even establish who hired the hitman, nor the nature of influence this apparent family of nobles wielded in the city. This isn’t necessarily a bad (or plain lazy) thing. Leaving it open gives the GM – or even other players – the opportunity to improvise from that which was established in prep. Being the GM, your job is instead to encourage the brainstorming and guiding them back to the original question if needed. But above all else, you take notes. Lot’s of notes. All these unanswered questions will be a handy framework for introducing new twists and turns in the game later on.
Finally, we let the players make up a third phrase that could be whatever they wanted – as long as it was highly characteristic for their roles. It could be unique skills, relationships, belongings, titles, convictions – as long as we could find a couple of possible scenarios where it could come into play, it’s good.
The hitman got “Never without a spare tool hidden on my person”, that would not only ensure he had a multitude of hidden weapons, it also defines him as a resourceful person that carefully prepares and plans actions in advance. (If both player and GM is clear about that, then the GM is of course “obligated” to punish the character for rash or ill-prepared actions *cue evil laughter*)
The disgraced noble got “Mama’s boy”, which not only gives him a powerful ally in a family ruled by matriarchs, but also gives him a manipulative streak and quite skilled at “appealing to authority”. (Since the family is loosely defined thus far, the GM is free to introduce jealous siblings later on in the game *cue evil-er laughter*)
As with the other phrases, whenever this phrase – and what it represents – implies that the character would perform better at whatever the GM trials them with, the player is free to take advantage of that as well.
That’s the prep. Next post will be about conflict resolution and improv-gaming.