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.
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.
Caught this podcast this morning walking the dogs and it really spoke to me from a game design perspective. I went through all of this on a recent thing and struggled to get back to non-big-project stuff. The takeaway is that completing a major project is never as fulfilling as the project itself, and hoping that out will be leads us inevitably to a crash.
Space Wurm vs Moonicorn Episode 7 GMing While Stoned
Last night was our 7th session, and the beginning of our next big “arc” of SWvM. It was also the first time I ran a game while feeling pretty weird/off/spacey on a new medication I’m taking. I was for-real concerned that I wouldn’t be able to bring my “A” game to the table! But apparently I did okay. For a game that’s as psychedelic as this, it turns out I really need to be stone cold sober to pull it together.
We’re now settled into 3-ish hour sessions and it feels just right in terms of solid play time. It’d translate into a 4-hour con block if we had to go through all the setup stuff in the beginning, and it really does feel like we mostly hit all the notes I’d want to hit.
Almost everyone is level 4 or 5 now, and the flat 7XP/level thing is working just fine. I think…three of the players have chosen advances that themselves grant additional XP to one another, so there’s been a very slight uptick, I think, in advancement speed. That’s also combined with my new DW-style approach to running the game, which is to say I’m sending players to the dice all the damned time. It feels good! Players love rolling dice. The vibe is notably different than the “let’s just talk until you run into a move” style of, say, Sagas of the Icelanders.
I’m super-enjoying how the game feels with so many additional moves in play. They’re exciting moves! Even rather (IMO!) dull ones like The Other’s +2 bump to her armor. That character used to be this super-weird wander-through-the-scene type of almost comic relief, but now she’s fairly beefy. Armor 2 and 19 hit points makes for a pretty sturdy defender.
One thing I know I’m being lax on is requiring camping/down time for leveling up. I figure it’s pretty easy to assume that in SWvM, where scenes are fairly chunky and there are big narrative jumps between them. If we were playing out our days — which I assume straight Dungeon World is built toward, what with ration requirements and whatnot — I’d hold them to that tighter. No big. It’s about the same as ignoring coins.
This new arc started with me introducing not one but two dangers from the Religion front. I’d telegraphed and hinted at the dangers for several sessions, so it wasn’t a huge surprise for them to come up for air after defeating the Space Void Madness danger and taking the Interstellar Travel front off the board. Now they’re facing a wide-ranging Faith War (there are two major opposed doctrines, and one minority-but-important faith that’s still tied closely with the travel guild), as well as the first rumblings of a God War. I was a little skeered about the God War, because it’s one of the dangers I’m not totally sure how they’re gonna defeat! But I’m trusting we’ll fumble our way toward resolution, just like we did with Space Void Madness. I have no idea what it’ll look like for, say, Space Wurm to assert control over, say, The All-Seeing Eye. It probably looks like co-opting that god’s worshiper base. I’ve introduced four gods, all of whom I’ve hinted at in the past (even if the players don’t recognize those hints yet).
Some exciting new developments:
* We saw the first and very heavy use of Space Wurm’s Ceremony skill, used both by SW and by the Lover, to whom SW has granted total control over the Transport Guild. We were a little wary of just how to play out the ceremony, but I’m getting the syntax of the move now: the GM comes up with requirements and that is what the Ceremony comprises. The first Ceremony was by the Lover, who wants to convert the travel guild into a more free market/deregulated body (it’s currently a tight, clannish hive-mind of the ships themselves) and I gave her a really hard Ceremony. Then, to compensate, when Space Wurm wanted to disrupt the asshole terrorists who regularly bomb the travel guild’s ships and facilities, I gave him a relatively easy Ceremony. It’ll take some time to dial in the just-right level the move needs.
* Another big Space Wurm upgrade is the Fifth Column move, which lets him infiltrate groups and then use Ceremony on them as if he controlled them. Give the player a whole shitload of powerful input into the game. Now he feels quite a bit more like a co-GM, although it is still fun to push back via the Ceremony requirements.
* Space Wurm took a move called The Bait, which basically gives him a psychic insight into what any character — PCs included — wants from him. Then he offers it, and if they take it they get 1XP. Interesting! It’s a new flavor of leverage, but it interacts in kind of a weird way, mostly non-mechanical, because you can’t use Parley on PCs. Still, it seemed to do the job. The player is still feeling out how best to use that move.
* Moonicorn has a few nice moves now, too: Aura of Innocence lets him just shut down attacks once he’s been injured (which costs Integrity, which juices his need to chase Integrity, yay!). Disarm lets him use CHA instead of STR in Hack and Slash and then lets him merely disarm his opponent in a fight. A Good Person lets him bribe people to do things with XP. And I think he just took Change of Heart which, holy shit, turns NPCs into rebels via a 12+ result on Parley.
* Now that we’re used to the constant presence of the Full of Grace meta-move, it’s not so onerous to fold that in whenever Moonicorn stands up to anyone at any time. Which is pretty much all the time. The choices you get when you’re Full of Grace feel shallow, unfortunately, and the additional effect(s) you buy when you roll while you’re Full of Grace aren’t that interesting. But it’s fine. Mostly interesting color. We haven’t had any surprise moments where, say, Moonicorn thinks he’s gonna be immune to an environmental danger, fucks up his roll, and oh surprise!, you’re not immune to the vacuum of space after all. It’ll happen, it just hasn’t yet.
* We’re fairly accustomed to the Lover’s overlay of effects and choices via her moves as well, but I did that by making “You Are Loved” props that list everything and giving it to her two loves. If I had a warning to others thinking about running SWvM, it’s that a lot of the moves aren’t really moves in the traditional sense, rather modifications to other moves and game-states. Make props for everything, it’s a great way to keep track of how it all works.
* I’m having a tough time getting the Other integrated into the events of the game, and that’s a combination of the player (who I’m sure was attracted to the Other because it’s so standoffish/special snowflake-y) and the rules themselves. She’s Chaotic, so her XP trigger is “get involved in a situation you don’t understand.” Which is pretty much all the fucking time because, wow, the whole setting is batshit insane. She’s choosing mostly defensive/turtle-y advances, and they’re fine but I know she’d be picking more active get-involved moves if she as a player felt like she wanted to get involved. It’s not a showstopper. Just an observation.
* I very nearly, I think due to my medicated state, had Space Wurm roll his “when you defeat a danger” move because of his Ceremony to disrupt a terror cell. In fact he did roll it, but I thought about it for a while while folks talked about their level-ups and later decided to rescind the offer. Happily he was okay with it, and agreed that it didn’t feel as resolved as the last time they made the roll.
* Once again I’m faced with the characters split up: Moonicorn is back on his ruined homeworld, which has been returned from the Void Between the Worlds into normal space and is now a refugee crisis. Meanwhile, Space Wurm, his Lover, and the Other (who now hangs out with the Lover because why not? And she has the Other’s heart crystal because it’s the blingiest bling in the galaxy) are all back at the capital planet getting into shenanigans with each other. Happily, the Lover’s player has cooked up a reason/scheme to get everyone together again next session.
* I introduced Earth! It’s tens of thousands of years out of contact with the rest of the galaxy, embargoed by the Space Gods themselves for their…sins. It’s the target of their next big adventure and I’m super stoked to go there. I’ve had the most fun with everyone in the same location and away from Space Wurm’s center of power.
* I think it was a good call to leave the Religion front’s dangers unaddressed for now. I’d telegraphed all the important bits but it was nice to pace those out when I wanted to, rather than having to cram it all into the game at once. I’m sure this is SOP for vanilla Dungeon World but the Fronts are much more mechanized than I’m accustomed to. I kind of ignore the concept when I’m running other PbtAs, maybe going through the exercise once just to get my thinking in order. This experience might make me a Fronts fan!
And now here are some friendly void dolphins, which chase around the voidcraft as they travel between worlds.