Space Wurm vs Moonicorn: Session 9

Herding Cats

One of the hardest bits of cat herding I ever have to face is when the players want to plan.

It’s not formalized, more a mood shift. And the kind of planning I’m talking about here seems to only happen in the midst of a long (for me/us) campaign. Nine sessions in a hyperweird collaborative campaign universe is a pretty intense cognitive and creative load for everyone. It doesn’t surprise me that they need to take a step away from the fiction and say “wait.”

Planning was a big chunk of last night’s game. We’d taken last week off so there’s always the gear-grinding and oh-yeah-what-about and generally finding their footing. But in addition to that, each time I’d try to frame a scene, there’d be noticeable pushback from everyone — not just my risk-averse recovering trad player — to gain some altitude on what all is happening in the game. To skip over scene-setting and who all is where and just get right to the part where they talk about what they’re going to do next. Trying to strategize what happens before playing to find out.

It’s still conversation and we’re still playing, but it’s quite noticeably not PbtA-style fiction-first play. Which makes the moves hard to invoke without putting on my GM hat and psychically dragging everyone back into a Scene.

Probably the most vexing bit, for me, about this mood shift is that my players — particularly those accustomed to stakes-oriented games like Burning Wheel — just want me to tell them what dice to roll to get what they want. Because they’re living and thinking at the system level and not the fiction level, they want what they want and have stopped thinking about how to get there from inside the SIS.

Some of that, too, is in the nature of the game and many of its advanced moves. There are a couple level 6 characters now, and the moves in SWvM get big. The Other, for example, now has a messianic cult following her void cat-slash-messenger of the gods character. It fits perfectly and even advanced the Faith War grim portents to its final bullet: Yet more factions emerge, solidifying their local power bases and forging new doctrines of their own design.

I gotta say I love it when the players themselves push the danger toward its final form. They’re right at the precipice now! Muahaha. The messianic cult is a great advance for the Other because she (the player) has been struggling mightily to get and stay engaged with the situation. The Other doesn’t come with a good package of connections and history, and that’s by design, so I think it’d be hard for a player who needs that to play this particular book. As luck would have it, I guess, this player (who is also my risk-averse recovering trad player) is a good match for the Other’s other-ness.

Lots of Space Wurm’s moves are large-scale as well, which also pulls that player out of the fiction and into the planning/system/what-do-I-roll mode. Oh yeah, and since Space Wurm bargained away control of one of the fronts to the Lover, that player also finds himself shifted into that headspace. I think consciously shifting between planning/pseudo-GM mode and acting/fiction-first mode is a skill they need more practice with.

This was also the session where everyone got back together into the same location. Oh thank goodness. There was plenty of good stooooory with Moonicorn off liberating and defeating oppression, but the game is most definitely better when everyone’s moves are bouncing off each other.

I think, hope, that the “but wait, what the fuck is going on and what are we going to do about it?” vibe is gone so we can get back to Framing Scenes and Fiction Firsting. But it’ll be a couple weeks, again, before we can play so maybe not.

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0 thoughts on “Space Wurm vs Moonicorn: Session 9”

  1. These concerns and frames are so far from my experience I can’t really comment meaningfully but it’s always interesting to read.

  2. > my players […] just want me to tell them what dice to roll to get what they want.

    I’m looking at making rolls much more painful (and sheets much more threadbare) in my system to try to avoid this “reach for the dice” / “scour my character sheet” thing. Not sure if that’s the best way to go, though. Sometimes it’s nice to step back and get the big picture.

  3. Paolo Greco what a world we live in!

    Adam Blinkinsop yeah, it’s an interesting impulse and I’m not even especially opposed to it. I do see that it gets really hard to shoehorn in rolls in Dungeon World, and probably most PbtA, when there isn’t any fiction driving them. I let it spool out a bit but it’s always surprisingly hard to get everyone back into the fiction.

  4. I primarily find that when people are watching their sheets, or grabbing for the dice, they’re forgetting options elsewhere. It’s the one downfall of move triggers being right up-front: people forget that there’s a whole world of fiction out there.

  5. Oh yeah for sure.

    The player who has kind of given up on trying to optimize/maximize/engineer his rolls and just waits for me to tell him when to roll? He’s probably playing the best and most effectively, to be honest. Things get really weird — and the moves-aren’t-fucking-skills thing is most apparent — when the players get fixated on “but how do I seduce him? What do I roll? Jesus just tell me!

  6. Trad can have the same problem, of course. Maybe it’s better to see it as an affordance problem? Obvious handles to model the game and change game status are obvious, but I wonder how to replace them with something as effective.

  7. It’s a fine line, right? Like, mechanical details (hold, HP, clocks, forward, etc.) are ways to get everyone on the same page and force one thing to impact the next thing. BUT: the same things give people something much easier to focus on than the nebulous fiction.

  8. I think that’s another reason why R-maps are such a cool concept: they get everyone on the same page, but don’t feel as removed from the fiction as, for instance, clocks are.

  9. Great question. All I know is that fiction-triggered moves continue to be inobvious to all but my unicorn players, i.e. the ones who didn’t grow up playing stat+skill type games.

  10. I hate the Player Planning stuff and I don’t know how to fix it! You tried pushing them into scenes when planning, yeah? So instead of players talking around a table, it’s characters talking in a tavern or something? That tends to spur some of my players on…

    I wonder if it’s just worry about being assertive? Maybe they don’t want to “wreck the game” with their ideas so want to okay it first?

  11. Well, there’s really a moment where it can get… problematic. It’s when it gets out of sync with the fiction.
    But in the general situation, I see following sheets and moves being “how the game wants to be played”. I mean, if the mechanics are done the right way, they’re pointing me to the fiction the game wants me to tell about, so I don’t care so much about “mix/maxing”. Let the game flow with its own fiction.
    The game has mechanics? Let’s put yourselves in his hands: powerplaying/mixmaxing will be the best approach, as in any other game.
    Fictional positioning being one of the basic mechanics that should be understood and used and explained in the rulebooks. It’s too much underestimated.

  12. What I did was, let them kind of talk out the big picture stuff as players. It’s fine, no big, there’s a lot going on and it intersects in surprising ways. I don’t get the sense that there’s worry or insecurity driving any of this, just too much stuff floating around in their heads and on my (very messy) r-map.

    When they started grabbing dice, that’s when I’d stop and make sure there was a scene actually happening so that there’s fiction driving the rolls. Even if they’re rolling one of the abstract moves (Voice of Authority, Ceremony, Messiah, etc.). And even then they’d want to get to the rolling now god damn it and try to push past the physical details, who’s present and who’s not, outside context. Very interesting impulse.

  13. Yeah. I might have a bit of insight here from Gangs & Bullshit playtest. The game is a supertrad moderated freikriegspiele where all players have characters, and all are in the same gang. Each turn is timeboxed in 15-20 minutes of player discussion and 5 minutes of very compressed mechanical resolution and “system tick”. I let them take one action per fictional week, and while sometimes they go “I’ll roll on Bullshit to obtain a customs permit”, usually they just come up with absurd plans and hilarious steps and wait for me to tell them how to resolve.

    So, that single bullshit roll took the group 15 minutes to decide and coordinate, and a lot of other players action might hinge on it, and if it fails the titular Bullshit happens, and… It’s a darned expensive roll, especially emotionally. All rolls are as expensive (except in a few corner cases). It’s a very stressful game.

    But weirdly enough there is very little minmaxing except for the whole “better leave roofs to nimble people”, and I’ve seen people completely unsuited to the task aid in some bizarre ways like throwing up on guards, setting buildings on fire, bribing neighbours, bedding harbourmasters and so on, with scarce mechanical support.

    I have the feeling that the expensive roll compounds with the high rulingness of the game, so players are keen on a solid course of action (meaningful fiction if it was a storygame instead of a wargame) and less prone on leaning on the game system.

  14. Yeah maps in general are awesome at relationship presentation but are not really mechanically loadbearing the way clocks are.

  15. Paolo Greco neat! Yeah, I can totally see that. Burning Wheel does that compressed-roll thing and sorta-kinda tries to get the players to build on that roll fictionally (pulling in forks and help and advantage etc etc), but it’s so system-y that even that exercise often devolves to dice-grubbing unless the GM is super firm about “okay but what does that look like?” over and over again. Your solution is probably more effective, except for the heavy reliance on the arbitrator and folks can be weird about that.

  16. Almost every roll in Exile could kill you, or at least permanently reduce your future capacity. (I’ve had a character die in the first 20m in a playtest, and it was beautiful.)

  17. Paul Beakley​ yeah the arbitration is heavy, and I can see the issue, but it’s a game where the “fog of war” is thick and has several other gang-actors so changing it to be more collaboratively run would be tremendously hard. Fortunately playing it with either OSR types or complete newbs helps in this specific regard, and I managed to run a fun private game for sixteen players at the last Garycon (timeboxing + wargame structure where the referee does a compressed narration of the resolution helps a lot).

    The next day I was violently ill, funnily enough.

  18. I’ve always wanted to play in something like that, actually: big refereed game. Reminds me of these awesome roleplaying-ish games-ish things I did in school where the class was divided into, say, survivors in separate nuclear bunkers and the teacher was the referee/arbitrator.

  19. Those wargames are quite a thing, and it seems as experiences stick to you strongly. The highlight of my first Garycon was playing Braunstein 1 with Weseley, and that alone was worth the intercontinental hassle.

  20. Thing is, Braunstein has no game mechanics (except for dueling), and the referee is usually doing nothing. Again, not sure what to take out of this, but jeez sometimes I feel that, despite all my love of game mechanics and formal systems, rules are too much a conceptual burden in general.

  21. I was in an Unknown Armies game as a player and we were planning and planning and planning. The GM finally said, “This is boring for me. Let’s play. Do something.”

    I thought that was a legit response and have used it when planning drags on.

    And, as with all of our UA plans – it ended up just being: hit them with our car and then shoot them.

  22. we were planning and planning and planning
    Timeboxing turns helps somewhat, but sometimes it’s hard for players to accept it. If it fails, usually bringing this up as “hey, why don’t you plan off the table and we do something now? like, I don’t know, a nice game of Whist or Splendour? a Rosenberg? Pizza?” is more productive

  23. Michael Prescott wow, that seems to be a clusterfuck of bad operations and tactics (and a very risky but interesting strategy).

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