A Funny Story

A Funny Story

Last time I ran Tenra Bansho Zero, it was at NewMexicon back in October. It was my only meh/bad event. I think I could see the writing on the wall during the game’s Zero Phase. 

A little background: TBZ’s Zero Phase is this very cool bit of tech, where you have a small hard-framed prequel scene showing off a PC. Every PC has one. It gives the player a shot at feeling the character out, deciding how it’s gonna work in the actual game. As a warmup exercise it is terrific, and I’ve thought about doing more like them in other settings. 

So my table is full of folks who have never played TBZ (except MadJay Brown​) and there’s lots of teaching involved. That’s fine and expected. Then we start doing our Zero Acts, and dammit I should have gone with Jay first so he could set the pace, but I didn’t. That was a mistake.

Instead, I pick someone else at the table. He’s chosen to play a Samurai, which is a pretty straightforward hitter type. I set the scene:

Me: You’re out celebrating a promotion you’ve just earned, and are at a tea house. Are you there by yourself or with someone?

Him: I’m… by myself.

Me: That’s fine. Are you just there to drink and dine? How do you celebrate?

Him: Mmmm…I … play some music? 

Me: Great! You have a … whatever you call those Japanese sitar looking things? Shamisen I guess? Great.

Him: Are we done?

Me: Oh no, not yet. So these punks come in, totally disrespectful little gang of toughs. One of them tips over your table, another nudges you with his shoulder but it’s totally not an accident. What do you do about that?

Him: I leave.

Me: Seriously? They know you’re a samurai. You’re bearing the mark of your Daimyo or something.

Him: I guess I fight them.

Me: Okay, so since this is the zero act there’s no die rolling, we just talk it through to get an idea of what you’re about. Do you win that fight?

Him: Yes!

Me: And do you kill them or leave them humiliated?

Him: I smoosh them!

Me: Right. But are they dead or alive after?

Him: They’re smooshed!

Me (panicking): Aaaaand does that mean dead?

Him: Smooshed!

Me: So you’re … standing on them after the fight.

Him: Right!

Me: And are they dead or alive?

At this point the entire point of the exercise is lost on not only him but the entire table. Such a simple and clear statement, no real stakes involved. I still have no idea why it was so hard for him to commit to an answer. I speculate that he’d maybe never had to make a declarative statement about a character before, but that’s pure speculation. It felt like he was more fixated on the “did I win or lose” half of the thing than the “are you a murderer?” half.

No lesson to be had here. Just something that’s stuck in my head all these months.

0 thoughts on “A Funny Story”

  1. I’ve had a game of Anima Prime at a con where a player froze during our first turn of conflict. Others went first and were describing cool little maneuvers. Then it was his turn, and he’s like, “I don’t know.” So we all give some suggestions. He keeps saying “I don’t know what to do.” I explain that it’s totally cool to literally just say “I punch the giant robot” and then roll his dice, like you would in any trad game, and that he’s not going to be ineffective or missing out on supporting the team or what. Still didn’t want to do it. It was an incredible drain on everyone.

    At first I blamed myself for maybe not helping him enough. But I was later stuck in a different game with the same guy, and still, no creative input whatsoever. And that was Microscope! Why’d you sit down to play Microscope if you are not ready to add anything?!?

  2. The one time I played 13th Age there was a player like this. We each hod to come up with some background, the One Unique Thing or whatever, and she simply couldn’t. No amount of coaching helped, even explaining that she could literally say anything she wanted, any cliche, and it would be okay, no judging. It’s just a freakin’ one-shot. Her response: “Maybe if I had a week to work on this at home.”

    I know I should not be judge-y, but honestly it just reminds me that there are a lot of people in this hobby who are probably doing seriously dysfunctional shit in their home games that would totally horrify me.

  3. Super judgy! But I hear you.

    Really I think folks are just very spooky about putting their creative stuff out there on display. 

    (Maybe they’re afraid of being judged, Delsing.)

  4. I thought that we didn’t get to enough of the good stuff but it was enough to give me an appreciation of the game system! I still don’t understand why folks don’t go full bore in a one shot! Especially one as crazy as TBZ! I regret I left half of them yakuza alive!

  5. I don’t know about your guy Paul Beakley (honestly he sounds like he was being an asshole) but a lot of times people like this have been socially brutalized in other settings for making creative contributions. And you are playing with strangers! It is always a risk, but more of a risk if you’ve been hurt before. I try to have some empathy and support them for even trying. it’s hard, though, because you have a whole table being drained.

    I’ll also say for me personally, “dance, monkey, dance!” mechanics that demand ‘creative” input shut me right down. I hate them so much I’ll stop contributing. I don’t think zero phase quite reaches this level but it is a thing with me, and maybe with others too.

  6. Jason Morningstar​ same re monkey dance! But like you, I don’t feel like Zero Act is like that if the gm is just asking questions. Then again, strangers + weird new game + first one to do it.

    He wasn’t being an asshole. He had the unmistakable deer-in-the-headlights look. Nicholas Hopkins​​, you remember this?

  7. Well, there’s a lot of latent homosexuality in samurai culture. Maybe what he wanted to do was smooch his foes. Seriously though, what how many hours long was your demo? I am still curious about how long a one shot needs to be.

  8. “You are a Samurai. You have a Shiki bound within you that allows you to transform into a giant, hulking killing machine! These guys are messing with you and insulting your Daimyo! Do you want to rip off one of the thug’s fingers and throw them like shurikens at the rest of the ruffians? Do you slice through the table with a ‘SHING’ as you advance upon the leader who you recognize from long ago?”

    “I’ll ignore them and continue drinking my tea. They will probably go away.”


  9. I think the “peaceful warrior” route is very cool, if he’d played it for real. You get to see how far you can push him before all hell breaks loose! Then – back to his tea.

  10. Nicholas Hopkins Excessive caution in one-shots is a pet peeve of mine.

    Jason Morningstar makes a good point about brutalization. I ran a god-awful game of Mouse Guard for some guys that were very obviously a) not used to this kind of game and b) seemed regularly abused by their GMs. One especially damaged guy was asking me endless questions about mouse physics before we began, and no amount of me saying “Look, don’t worry about it, I’m not here to screw you over; It’s not that kind of game” could do anything to abate it.

  11. Mark, that was my regular group of players for about two years! Because I’d been the brutal GM often enough. Half of them dropped out when we entered my current phase of high-trust gaming, half stuck it out and now it’s smooth sailing.

    Smooth-ish. Sometimes weirdness still crops up.

  12. Interesting! Yeah, when I run TBZ for folks who haven’t played or a mixed table, I tend to pick the first zero act from the following:

    * Aim for the person who has played before, especially if I know they have “juice”
    * Aim for the story-gamer
    * Aim for the person who seems to have a dramatic flair

    The other thing I tend to do is drag zero act scenes on for too long. I think “fast zero act where you describe your character, say two lines and the GM gives you Your Session Goal” was the goal back in 2001, but since then character-focused RP has changed in that it’s more interesting to drag it out that much more. So I tend to:

    * Bring in another player (giving them an Aiki) as a secondary NPC to the zero act, even if they’re just a hype man contributing a line or two to the scene.
    * Still drag it on too long; which is to say, have a great and fulfilling scene for all that was 20 minutes when the game originally intended like maybe 3-5.

    Topical, too: Last night I ran TBZ for the first time in a long time for my Thursday crew (jan w tobia dh and Monica), and it was super awesome and intense. We sat down to order drinks and food at 7:00 (we played in an Izakaya over mixed drinks and fish and fried awesome shit). We stopped between 10:30-11. Given time fucking around with menus and stuff aside… those 3, 3+ hours were dominated by the explanation of the setting and simple rules (30-60 mins?) and 3 zero act scenes.

    Intense, awesome, fulfilling, all cylinders firing, engaging with the Aiki system and the Emotion Matrix. 

    It’s clear that the most enjoyment I have with the game comes out of the stories that last more than one session. At this point, it’s weird to call it a single-session game (unless all members understand/have exp with the rules beforehand); for new players it’s really a 4-6 hour (2, potentially 3; depending on the player count) session game…

Leave a Reply