So we played our first “full” or “real” session of Headspace last night. The first was the demo in media res session, but this one started with the cell safe in their homes and plotting their next moves. There’s a rather elaborate relationship-mapping exercise you go through at this point, where anchors and agents and other implied NPCs get added and we work out positive and negative relationships with all of them. The net result is an r-map that looks awfully similar to what comes out of the leading-question style you see in other PbtA games. But rather than leading questions, it’s just kind of a blank slate. It’s totally fine, works great, everyone feels invested.
I also started a second corporation’s “dystopian clock” sheet, working out the three milestones needed to achieve their starting project, which is all baked into the premade setting that comes with the book. For whatever reason, I feel adrift trying to hash that stuff out, and the players started feeling a little restless/bored. Then you also have to work out three session goals — the book is not clear about whether you do that just for the milestone the players have decided to pursue, but in campaign play it seems absolutely necessary to work out all three goals for all three milestones for all the dystopian clocks you’ve got running. It’s quite obvious in play that clever players can pack in a lot of goal-achieving whenever they head out into the world.
Well, so, that’s a lot of brain power before you can really get rolling. This might be an acquired skill, but I haven’t acquired it yet and it felt frustrating. And, apparently, you can keep adding new corporate projects each session — I cannot, honestly, imagine having more than the two going at once. Maybe once one of them gets close to done?
I still haven’t nailed down exactly what makes a good session goal. I knew last session’s were kind of too big, like, each goal was its own milestone almost. So the scale was smaller, but then in play I had to evaluate three outcomes either in the operators’ or the corps’ favor. The process reminds me a little of InSpectres in that the job isn’t done until you’ve succeeded X times, regardless of the fictional positioning.
This all means nine firm wins/losses (3 pie slices x3 goals) have to happen before the milestone is complete. They might even appear to have achieved their goal on the first slice! But two more slices need to get filled, so that’s an interesting and sometimes annoying creative challenge.
In our game, the milestone they were fighting was Yama Corporation’s “lobby the United Nations for total control over water rights.” It was the uh…cost milestone, I think. The time one was physically securing all water facilities in the area, the quality one was destroying a substandard local water plant. Anyway! So Yama Corp is lobbying the UN, which is a great time to pull in a couple of the Agents I added to that relationship map. One of their goals is to recruit a corporate ally to fight Yama for those rights. Great! Scene plays out, it’s mostly talky-talky, and a Coax later, they’ve got their NPC ally: one Operator slice! And then in an parallel scene, a cell member triggers Rage feedback, so back at the negotiating table everyone starts freaking out and the situation goes pear-shaped: one Corp slice! So we’re left with trying to figure out what one more slice might look like.
Although the game doesn’t use anything like Apocalypse World style Moves (I’ll post about that separately), events do snowball nicely via emotional complications. It can also lead to total chaos, and then it’s on the players to figure out how to disentangle themselves from cascading emotional complications and maybe even cascading feedback events. This requires a lot of very hands-on spotlight management on the GM’s part! And it’s a zillion times worse if the cell is split up and pursuing multiple goals.
One mechanism I was skeptical of, I’m very happy to say mostly works okay: the Foster Emotion “move” really worried me because it felt like I was mandating the players act a certain way. In play, I made the move several times and it was actually pretty clear that the players were blowing off “being emotional” to stay focused on their missions. Oh, one player actually played out their feelings (arguably either Rage or Grief) when the ghost of their dead Handler blamed him for her death, which was terrific and weird. It felt like a key fictional moment, learning what operator-ghost relationships might look like.
I think there was one Stress uptick that one player felt was iffy, but I only made the move maybe a half-dozen times so it didn’t feel abusive. It’s highly discretionary since you can kind of fold a Foster into nearly anything else you do as GM.
Some closing thoughts
I went into this session thinking this would be the last time I played Headspace. I’ve got serious reservations about the game’s formal structure, the text is really hard to navigate despite the index, and you need to evaluate the whole thing super-charitably. I get where Mark is trying to go, I feel like the rules don’t do it, but with some effort you can get the game there.
The net product of our evening was that most everyone had a good time (despite my best efforts to spread around focus, one player had opted out of all the action so didn’t have a lot to do). The core conceit of the game is entertaining, I think some necessary skills (related to managing those sheets of clocks-of-clocks) can be developed, and the shared Stress track is the game’s killer app.
I don’t know if we’re going to play it again! When it works and I have the energy to make it work, Headspace is pretty fun. But it also feels like I’m constantly bailing water out of the hull.