My Tuesday regulars are going along with my break from storygaming with a run through Godbound, Sine Nomine’s demigod sandbox game. I wrote about starting it up a couple weeks ago. Running it has been pushing completely different buttons in my head: some old and rusty ones, some I didn’t know existed until I started grappling with the first principles of roleplaying.
We added a fourth player to our group, pretty easy since we’d only had two sessions and everyone had only leveled once. The two sessions of play under their belts provided a lot of training, though, both in reminding everyone how the basic D&D skeleton works (attribute rolls, combat, saving throws) and in how the Words of Creation and their accompanying economies work. It was fine, I think he caught on pretty quick. Don’t know that I’d be able to add anyone else, though: four players is (at least) twelve Words, and that’s a big portfolio.
The big thing that jumped out at me was a reminder of an earlier age of play, but not in a heartwarming, sentimental way. Over and over, the table would enter this … I don’t know what to call it! A fugue state, maybe, where everyone identifies The Problem and then pools their assets to discuss Possible Solutions. It happens completely at the player level, despite my repeated attempts to drag these conversations back into the fiction. And it’s not just one player, it’s everyone at one point or another, breaking out into baldly tactical player-level talk right in the middle of scenes.
I mean…they’re having fun, which is the point of a game like this. It’s just interesting to watch from the outside, and completely breaks my engagement with the game, since while they’re in this fugue state there’s nothing for me to facilitate. Other than a nudge back into the fiction.
The characters are received at court by the “king and queen” of this survivalist community in the ruins of a city (my previous post about Godbound lays out the setting). They aren’t actually royalty, and it becomes apparent throughout the scene that they’re being propped up by this secret council of magicky folks. This is all a product of the various sandbox tools the game provides, which have been producing super interesting results (but not all the material I need, more on that in a bit). Anyway! The community is living in the walled-up remains of a university campus, and court is held in this vast lecture hall. In the center of the hall stands statues of the “king and queen,” huge, and obviously enchanted.
Throughout this scene, I’m getting peppered with tactical questions: how do the statues work? Are the priests using magic right now? Can I turn the statues off? Hey character A, if you use your Knowledge Word we can do X, Y and Z. After a few minutes of this I start putting my foot down: what does this look like in the fiction? How are you doing this? How are you communicating your tactics while you’re standing in court, in clear earshot of the NPCs and in front of an audience of thousands? There are, obviously, fairly easy answers to all these when you’re semi-divine. But the players zip right past the immediate situation and right to the endgame of defeating this court and taking over the city.
This game has given me both a new appreciation for the immediacy of fictionally triggered Apocalypse World style Moves, and a profound confusion as to how anyone is supposed to achieve any kind of headspace I would recognize as “immersive” using these tools.
Funny thing is, this is the air I breathed for, I don’t know, decades. This is the land of Fluff versus Crunch, where the Fluff is the thin rationale that carries you between important moments of Crunch. Oh my god do I hate that. So very much.
I’m assuming this is a matter of player habit, possibly (probably) facilitated by the structure of the game itself. I contended with this style for years and years, just have to knock the rust off.
I’m thinking about the absence of tools to mediate interpersonal conflict, mostly. When you don’t have a formal procedure to mediate disagreements, the players will find other means. Maybe the loudest or most forceful player cows the rest of the pantheon into something. Maybe everyone agrees to make CHA ability rolls (barf). Maybe the folks who disagree just get kind of passive in their play, character-level and player-level resentments interchangeable. I guess there’s a kind of immediacy to that.
In broader storygaming terms, I’m also realizing that not only does your game need a strong holding environment, but the rules have to at least not interfere with it. I mean, being a trad-informed game, job one was to get everyone to agree to why they’re hanging out together. So there’s the fiction of characters coming from the same community and having family ties and bonds, but also the social contract between players agreeing that they’ll hang together in a pantheon and do pantheon things. Which comes with a lot of unaddressed assumptions, like what will happen when one of the characters decides the rest of the pantheon is doing the wrong thing. The rules won’t help if it comes up.
Here’s the funny thing about that: I keep telling them “play to find out.” That’s my answer. You’ll find out when you play. It’s simple and elegant and how could you possibly complain? You disagree with your pantheon? Great, act on that. Let’s play to find out what happens when you disagree. But! The players’ impulse is to pre-play that, to grasp for every tool at their disposal to ensure they have the backing of the system, to minimize risk in a way that’s removed from both the fiction and human whim. And if I don’t provide a “straight” answer, you know what happens? They get distrustful. Ugh.
I get the “rulings not rules” thing but boy howdy do my players prefer rules.
None of this is new or insightful. Anyone who’s played any conventional tabletop RPG for more than a year has, I’m sure, run into this. If you’re more experienced you’ve contended with it for years. I keep hoping that my table’s decade-and-a-half of playing other, different, story-oriented games has somehow percolated down into my players. But it hasn’t. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe there’s some alchemy between system and habit that awakens the old ways.
I’m not complaining at all about the gameplay itself! But I’m wary, you know? As much as I want the players to embrace their individual characters, there’s just something about breathing this air that makes it easy to revert to treating their characters like stacks of abilities, and the aggregate ability stacks as the pantheon’s shared portfolio. If (when) the game fully moves from four Godbound with their own drives to one Pantheon with a dozen Words at their disposal, I’ll be done playing. A mix will be nice, though.
About Those Sandbox Tools
One of my favorite bits of running Godbound has been having something to do while my daughter’s swim team meets twice a week. That’s two one-hour slots of uninterrupted me-time, and it’s been pretty great. I’ve got my tablet with all the PDFs, a notepad, a couple pens. Bliss!
The various sandbox-generation tools in Godbound have been the source of a whole lot of lonely fun. He’s nailed a really good formula: lots and lots of tables that interact with each other and provide provocative dots to connect. They don’t generate weird shit, they generate situations. Outstanding!
I’m working out the balance of how much to generate, and to identify the blanks the tables leave behind that maybe aren’t explicit. Some of this is dumb and obvious and just me getting used to this approach to prep. For example, I didn’t actually think through why the secret council of magicky priests was propping up the fake royalty. I mean in retrospect, totally obvious that I should have done that. But it wasn’t a blank in the Mad-Lib so I didn’t bother. In other cases, the Mad Libs will clearly generate an antagonist, usually with a retinue of other implied/specific mini-antagonists, and I just completely forget that I need to at least think through those a bit. At least I don’t need to think about threat-balancing. I keep warning my players that they may very well run into things they can’t handle and should run away from. Wonder when they’ll believe me?
It’s an interesting balance, generating just enough sand that the players have enough to play in, but not so much that there’s lots of wasted sand. If the lonely prep fun was less fun I’d be more uptight about that.
Anyway! Thought it was time I post something more fundamental to my day to day gaming life.