Reading Group: Den Spejlvendte Virkelighed (The Mirrored Reality)

The Mirrored Reality (Den Spejlvendte Virkelighed) is a scenario, written by Michael G. Schmidt for Fastaval in 1995. It was nominated for the Otto for “Best Scenario,” and has been chosen by Morten as the next scenario for the reading group.
Last time, I chose a very rigid structure for my review. Looking back, that turned out to be a bad decision – the review turned out in a very chopped up way, and I had a hard time drawing a coherent picture of the scenario. This time, I am reverting to a more free form (appropriate, since it is more freeform), though I am keeping two of the “boxes” from last time: “What can we learn?” and “Who should play this?”

The Mirrored Reality

Fear. It’s about as basic as it gets. Animal and man alike dance to its tune, playing the age old game of fight or flight. But for us, the primary fear is not the fear of being eaten. Rather, it is the fear that the world might not work – that the world we think we know is a lie; that we really live in a universe where we don’t know the rules.

Because fear is rooted so deeply within us, it also fascinates us more than anything else in the world. We seek it out, though preferably when it’s safe, in books and movies – and in role-playing games.

The mirrored reality is a game that wants to provoke fear in the player. It does this in two ways: by presenting you with a world that conforms to the norms of neither player nor character, and by evoking terrible images of violence and degradation far beyond the bounds of comfort.

The game is set in the universe of the role-playing game, Kult. In this universe, as in quite a few other (WoD and Unknown Armies spring to mind) the world we see is an illusion, enforced on us by some other entity. But this reality is beginning to fall apart – and the players are some of the unfortunate souls who happen to fall into the cracks.

The Mirrored Reality is set in a generic American city, with a rather generic set of characters, each with their own personal trauma – the Jock, the Beauty Queen, the Pizza Deliveryman, the Artist, the Religious Nut and the Average, Suburbian kid. All except the Pizza Deliveryman are college students. The game starts by showing the characters in their idyllic normalcy, on their way to a movie. But soon, they are thrown in the way of a strange, horrifying set of events, revealing secrets and tearing away the fundament of their life along the way.

Seen descriptions

The scenario is built up as a string of scenes. Each scene is described with a very lyrical version of how that scene might play out, plus a number of pointers as to npcs, subplots and so on in each scene. The pointers, when they are there, take up the bottom third of the page, the description of the scene taking up the rest.

There are many ways of describing scenes. Sometimes, you have a fairly thorough script, with bits to read out and “if the players do this, this happens” guides. Sometimes you have a very general set-up, and maybe a few pointers as to possible outcomes.

The Mirrored Reality takes a different approach – what we might call the “subjective description.” The scenario gives no precise, objective description of the events of the scene. It only hints at what the scene contains, instead giving a subjective portrayal, letting the GM share the experience she should attempt to convey.

This is an admirable attempt. It is not, however, one I’d be quick to copy. It leaves the GM with only a hazy idea of what should happen, and requires a large amount of preparation and improvisation from the GM to pull off. Most problematic is the fact that most of the scenes never tell you how to transition from one scene to the next. Why, for instance, do the characters suddenly decide to go visit the Deliveryman’s mother? The game just assumes that this is the natural thing to do at this particular point in the game.

No-choice adventure!

The lacking transitions is even more of a problem because the game is so highly linear. If this game had been a “Choose your own Adventure!”-book, most paragraphs would read something like: “Whatever you do, go to paragraph whichandwhatever.” A few of the scenes have subplots to spice things up, but they are mostly “scenes-in-the-scene” that the GM can apply to one or more of the characters. And none of them seem to lead towards the next scene.

In the beginning of the text, Michael G. Schmidt states that this scenario is for people who know the genre, and who therefore don’t need to be dragged around by the nose. That is an admirable sentiment. It just isn’t the kind of game I see when I read the text of “the Mirrored Reality.”

Of course, there may be reasons why it’s written that way. In the beginning, Michael G. Schmidt also states that horror is a very personal thing, and that he expects the GM to choose a direction with the game that suits that particular GM. That might also mean that he expects the GM to fill out the gaps in the game. But he doesn’t say so specifically – and he doesn’t give helpful suggestions along the way, to help less experienced GM’s. The subjective scene description seems like a good idea, but it can’t stand on its own. That makes for confused GMs. There is even one scene, and a fairly important one at that, in which I simply don’t understand what is supposed to happen, at all (scene 8, for those who are reading along).

Laying it out

That is not to say that this game is bad. It contains many potentially powerful moments, and with the right group, it could probably make for a great evening of roleplaying.

The layout is also amongst the better. The text is nicely laid out, in decent fonts, and spiced up with evocative pencil sketches. Unfortunately, the text contains a lot of typos and spelling errors that add considerably to the obscurity of the text.

There are two aspects of the layout I am particularly pleased with.

The first is the small band that runs at the bottom of the pages, which I mentioned earlier. It contains little titbits of gamestuff relevant to what is going on on the rest of the page, and thus, it breaks up the very linear structure that many scenario-texts have. A scenario, by nature, contains a great deal of alinearity. But too many scenarios present their material in a mostly linear form, instead of breaking up the form to accommodate the content. The Mirrored Reality does this quite well.

The second thing is the players’ descriptions of the characters. They are made to be folded along the middle, and placed in front of the player (it doesn’t say so specifically, but this is how I read the layout). One side contains information to the player, the other contains the other characters’ views of that character. I like the idea that everyone 1) will have their character’s name and picture in front of them while playing, and 2) that everyone knows roughly what everyone thinks of the others. I can see how that might help the interaction between the players.

All’s well…

All in all, there is a potentially powerful story in play here, even if the presentation of it is less than perfect. The story presented contains both the hair-raising horror of the Lovecraftian, transcendent, unfathomable terrors from beyond, and the heart-pumping, stomach-churning fear of human atrocity.

But really, despite what the game may say, it is not the Lovecraftian, but the human side of it that will have players in its grip. We may be scared by beasts and terrified by the unknowable. But that which can really send send icy water down our spine is the malice that can hide in human hearts. Even in the Mirrored Reality.

What can we learn:

  • Layout is important – it can work with or against your text. Try to make the document support the nonlinear structure of your game.
  • Speaking of which, if you make linear games, make sure that your GM knows how to make the transition from one scene to another. And, of course, that the players will accept the railroading.
  • Subjective descriptions are an interesting concept to work with – but make sure you still tell the GM how to run the scene.

Who should play this game?

  • A group that can accept the premise of the game: that there is one, and only one, way through the game.
  • In Model terms, Immersionists are the most likely type of players to truly enjoy the game, I feel.
  • The GM should enjoy, or at least accept, fleshing out the game and setting the mood according to her style.

And there we have it. Done in far better time than last time, though I think I’ll let it mature a bit before posting it, so it will come out around the same time as the others’.

Just a historical note, towards the end: after my review of Laaste Døre, Kristoffer supplied some helpful info on the historical context of the game, something I am completely oblivious about – I started roleplaying around ’97-’98, and I didn’t participate in Fastaval until 2006. I had questioned why Thomas Munkholt had included such a loose system as he had in Laaste Døre. Apparently, the year from 1994 to 1995 would have made a world of difference, being the year when “system-less” (what is the proper English term? Someone told me that freeform is something different) roleplaying really came through in Denmark.

Reading this scenario, I can believe it. This game in about as “system-less” as they get, throwing flowcharts and structures to the wind to focus on the subjective experience of the players.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] – Den Spejlvendte Virkelighed Husk også at læse: Eliases og Joneses anmeldelser af […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by Simon James Pettitt on September 29, 2009 at 3:39 am

    I sat several times an thought, this is almost a sort story telling a scenario. So the feeling is that the writer have given up on some of the things we miss, such as telling the gm how to do things because the writer doesn’t want to break up the flow of prose for this?

    But this is just my speculation.

    I think I would as a gm use very sharp cutting style. Simply hopping from one scene to the other without telling the players how they got there. This would go well with the surreal fell of the game.

    Reply

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