I have never had more mixed feelings about a game in my entire life. I’m literally dizzy with conflicting signals.
* I mostly love the game design aesthetic out of Sweden. Even though I knew Symbaroum wasn’t for me, I could mostly see what they were going for. And the Fria Ligan crew (not involved with this game) are batting close to 1.000 for me.
* I have a long history with the genre and subject matter.
* The production of this game looks lavish and amazing.
* The art direction looks like they’re doing all the right things representation-wise.
* Nearly everything else, including some of my upsides.
Like…I’m sure Swedish writers and game designers are perfectly capable of dissecting the Western genre. It’s well explained, well documented, fairly straightforward at least as a surface read. But then I have squirms in my stomach about the inevitable cultural problems, appropriations, whatevers that come along with the genre, especially if you’re going all-in on it. You can’t do the Western genre without your noble savages and whores with hearts of gold and wily Chinese mystics and stoic Buffalo Soldiers and proud sinless Scandinavian settlers.
But every time another Western genre game comes out, my horror grows at how utterly fucked up the genre is. Every single game is a horror show of one kind or another. I hate feeling complicit in the relentless erosion of our country’s actual history and the buttressing of a national creation myth that, frankly, strides right across the line into straight-up evil propaganda.
I hate feeling helpless as a maybe-designer to express these ideas and fears and worries. I hate pretty much knowing that any effort to offer anything that isn’t the genre and isn’t fun gunslinger time and straightforward morality will ultimately be a waste of everyone’s time, especially mine.
I want to own this game. I want to back their effort. I want to hate it. I want to scream at everyone who wants good guys with guns to put down bad guys with guns, starting with me. I want to know how to approach serious subject matter and not instantly discard the effort as trivial.
My recent beau of roleplaying games, the Relationship Map. This is my first attempt at the beast (second, really; but the first time my group used it and took part in its creation) and I’m amazed at how helpful it was during world burning in our new Burning Wheel campaign.
Everyone could visualize immediately all the connections and characters and places and plot threads. It helped create buy-in; something I was worried about because of the seemingly disparate PCs. But boy was I wrong! Seeing the whole picture makes it way easy to bring them together (and in the darkness…yadda yadda).
And making changes is quickly evident to everyone at the table. It solidifies the plot/character changes in a way that’s beyond simple mental notes. It’s a physical change; something about that means so much more to the players. They even asked to keep it out during play. Good stuff!
I need to find some colored pens to highlight things, I’m running out of easily discernable shapes. Plus color will lend itself better to my chicken scratch than my attempts at shapes-as-categories.
Eight! (8)! Ocho! That’s a heck of a good run for my games and we’re not done yet. Probably …. two or three more sessions to go before someone has “won” the game.
Last night we had our first asymmetric victory per the SWvM rules: Moonicorn defeated his hunter and made his when you defeat a danger move, while Space Wurm is still moving his pieces into place. So that’s interesting. It also made me notice that, really, it’s like 80% the GM’s job to line things up so that a roll is possible.
Well…maybe 60%. I’m not sure! But last night, Moonicorn’s victory was the first time anyone had defeated a danger with a Parley. The entire scene was marvelous and a good example of that floor-falling-away feeling I talked about at the top of my “What I Like” post last week. Anyone want a little storytime? Let’s have some storytime.
Okay so Nehanda, aka Moonicorn, is on planet Herazon. It’s his homeworld and it is in ruins. The father of Space Wurm had consolidated his power by shoving Herazon into the Void Between the Worlds, which is not space. Space isn’t a concept these primitive planetary romance folks even know. But the Void! Scary place. The realm of gods and monsters.
Herazon had been returned to our universe through hard work and “Science!” (sort of), but the place is in ruins. It’s been gone for a decade, but much much more time has passed for the inhabitants of Herazon. Many of them have met the gods of the Void and, well, it broke them.
Space Wurm’s troops are on the planet looting it for good shit, and Nehanda is running around trying to keep the refugees safe. In looking for safe quarters somewhere in the ruins, eventually he stumbles on the cult of the King of the Sun. Their jam is totally unrelated to any of the religions going on back in the real world so nobody can really spout lore about it (other than the Other, who is discovering she knows more about this stuff than she realized). Okay right so this Sun King cult really, really wants to spread the Good News — i.e. burn out your soul and your free will with their god’s cleansing light — and Nehanda, loathe to defend Space Wurm’s looting soldiers, knows they’re all going to fall under the Sun King’s spell.
He stands up to the high priestess of the cult, triggering his full of grace meta-move (I think he becomes immune to the blinding light as a result). She’s wreathed in sunlight and is clearly the avatar or whatever of this god. He survives a high-stakes defy danger (i.e. or lose your mind to the Sun King!) long enough to discern realities on this lady. Doing so reveals that the Sun King’s priestess is none other than his long-lost mother, broken by grief when she ensured Nehanda’s safety as her planet was falling into the Void. By putting his life in the hands of the emperor’s own son, a boy who would eventually grow up to be Space Wurm.
Now that he knows the priestess is his mother — although she’s super-weird now that she’s been doing the Sun King’s bidding for decades on this lost planet — he parleys with her to stop her march on Space Wurm’s soldiers. The leverage of course is his love.
He gets it (CHA is maxed at +3) and he had a +1 forward from his discern, so he nails his 12+ result that triggers Moonicorn’s advanced move, change of heart.
Her change of heart is that she takes up his cause of saving the soldiers. And because the Sun King has been actively hunting Moonicorn and is a jealous and fickle god, he withdraws his support, blessing, curse. She’s broken free of the Sun King’s powers and that breaks the entire cult on Herazon. Danger defeated! With a flipping Parley.
Getting back to what I was talking about before the indulgent little break there, there’s definitely a mix of hands-on management and organic development in timing out when it’s right to let a danger be defeated. I’m still new-ish to Dungeon World (maybe not so much these days, having run 8 sessions of it with a super-involved skin over it) so I’m still learning what feels right. It’s a little vexing that it’s such a judgement call but it’s not at all a showstopper. Really it’s up to the players, and nobody is complaining. I guess that means it feels fair?
We’d taken last week off so everyone was a teeny bit hazy on where we’d left off, but maybe 10 minutes of “oh yeah but what about” got everyone back in the groove. They were separated, and that’s frustrating to everyone but nobody was really ready to throw their suspension of disbelief out the window and get together just-because. I think folks are ready, at the table, to get everyone back together again.
Getting the Other’s player to engage is probably my one ongoing problem/quibble. Some of that is the hands-off nature of the Other, some of that is the hands-off nature of the player, and those things synergize. Like, it’s easy for her to look at her alignment and aim for not understanding situations. Which means there’s kinda-sorta a perverse incentive there to not work toward more understanding, you know? She gets frustrated and I get frustrated but eventually we talk our way to the point where, yeah, it makes sense that the Other really ought to do something. The character also has an astonishing amount of agency — being able to bop around at will, being able to summon weird shit from the Void — and combined with not much direction, well. As long as she is up for playing 3-4 more sessions I think we’re good.
Great news: I think everyone’s level 5 at this point, which means we’re about to get into the level 6-10 advances. I’m super stoked! So far I’ve been impressed by what all the moves add to the game.
Picked this up a while back totally out of the blue. I haven’t been following board games as closely this year but someone mentioned a new game in FFG’s Android universe and I was all in.
The premise is pretty straightforward and aggressively, constantly confrontational: you’re playing one of six megacorps sucking the city of New Angeles dry, and you win the game if you end with more capital than your rival (which is drawn randomly and secretly). There’s also a strong possibility of a traitor role in the game: the Feds, who will take your poor city over if “threat” gets too high due to corporate shenanigans.
Well, so, yeah that happened. There’s a corp that gets paid for curing disease, so when it’s time to decide whether to face down a major disease outbreak or do something else, well, your incentive is to let the futuristic cyberplague spread. There’s a corp that gets paid for removing criminals, so yeah, crime runs rampant. And so on and so on. It is intensely, and maybe unpleasantly, cynical.
The two big design threads through the game are easily tracked back to Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (hidden traitor, constant rolling crises, five suits of action cards each with a huge variety of game effects) and Archipelago (the board game not the freeformy RPG) (hidden everyone-loses traitor, regular “we must provide these resources” checks, lots of kicking the responsibility to do the right thing down the list of players until the last ones are faced with the most responsibility). As such, New Angeles also has some of the most difficult/problematic/unpleasant aspects of both those games as well: it’s pretty hard to beat the spoiler, it’s hard to know when you’ve cut your own throat while chasing your goals, and not understanding just how imperfect everyone’s information is. Which means everyone’s questioning everyone’s plays all the damned time.
If you take the game really seriously, it might not be a fun time. I tried really hard to hold onto my victory condition very lightly, and never really felt screwed or despondent, but at the same time I felt like we were all little emotional corks floating on very choppy water. Constantly coming up short, constantly having your plans foiled, constantly having to make the most of a bad situation.
That said, I think I liked it! But that’s a very conditional “like.” We were all in a pretty good head about it because we’ve had lots of experiences with both BSG and Archipelago. It helped to know what kind of experience we were in for.
My condition for being able to enjoy the game is to not take the profound cynicism too seriously. That’s kind of hard these days because it kind of feels like we’re living in a very similar corporate dystopia. Then again, not every game night is the right night to roll out Battlestar Galactica either, which feels a bit like this but way more depressing.
For no reason at all, a list of some of my favorite kinds of moments at an rpg session:
* That floor-dropping-away feeling when someone makes a hugely consequential decision that changes the course of play in an exciting and unexpected direction. A tiny bit of “can I keep up with this?” fear mixed in with “holy shit no way!” appreciation for sheer audacity.
* When everyone is riffing and each addition is greater than the sum. You’re all on the same wavelength or at least compatible ones. When you all see the same pattern you’re trying to complete and nobody ever said “this is the pattern.”
* The table being totally cool when I own up to screwing something up, rewind, and start over. It’s so reassuring. I always feel even more confident after that.
* Feeling sincere investment from other players about the fiction, the situation, or their characters’ arc or well-being. Hearing the first hints of distancing, protective snark and having it shut down by the prevailing vibe.
* That moment when I step back and take stock of how the game has evolved (my giant r-map is a great way to document this) and being able to point at each pivotal moment and how it came about. There’s just something so satisfying about seeing the pieces fit together and how none of it was because anyone planned it. Seeing the inherent collaborative emergence of this thing, a completely different creative and consumptive experience than anything else I do.
* Watching the shift in a player who steps up and asks, “this is what I’m trying to do, how do I get there?” followed by a little collaborative talk and then the shift back into the flow of the game. I have no idea why I like that! Maybe it’s seeing such a clear display of play mastery. I always appreciate seeing skill in action.
* When the quietest player makes a huge contribution. When the loudest player helped make that happen.