[Reading Group] Oculus Tertius

Oculus tertius was, as far as I can remember, the first Fastaval scenario I ever played. I have mixed memories of it; part of this, I think, was due to the group I played it with, another is that we were a little young to be playing the game – I remember resisting the idea of playing a female character.

Now I’ve come back to look at the game, and find out what this game is really about.

The Great Machine

The first thing that springs into my mind when I try to describe my feelings concerning this game is: I’m puzzled.

Why write a game that hides most of its premises from its players? Who is this game written for? And why write a game that presumes to take its own, fictional world seriously, while fielding its supposed sponsor as the villain? There are many things here that make little sense to me.

The game is set in 1977, at Third Eye Manor in England. Sir Roos, who used to be the head of a spiritist society at his old university, invites the old members of his society to the unveiling of his “Séance Machine.” The guests (the players) arrive, each with their own agenda for the night. As the game progresses, these agendas will clash, and hopefully bring the players into conflict with each other, and with the NPC’s.

But the intrigue is only apparently what’s at stake. In reality, something else is going on underneath – the game has an object that is distanced from the things that are going on in the sphere in which the players find themselves. The author has attempted to create something akin to the film “The Others,” where the plot takes place in more than one plane, and only one of them is really seen on screen.

This can work in a Hollywood production with top-actors in the lead; recreating it in a role playing game is a perilous affair to say the least. It’s the challenge that faces any game of the “mindfuck” variety: the world of the game is flimsy enough as it is; if you mess too much with the basic presumptions of what’s true and what’s not, the players lose their faith in the game world as it appears, and the shared imagined world starts to break down.

Not only that, but if you move too much of the game to realms outside of the players’ control, the players lose their involvement in the game. If you aren’t careful, the players will leave the game feeling cheated, feeling like extras in the novel you should have written instead.

Now, I’m not saying that Oculus Tertius falls into these pitfalls – but it balances perilously on the edge. For one thing, the entire resolution of the game hinges on things that only appear very indirectly, and the actual resolution is never shown, but is only told to the players after the end of the game. Secondly, a huge chunk of what is going on is left to the game master to know, and to deal with.

Not bad, but…

Having read the game, I am not a great fan. There are interesting aspects of the game, to be sure, but the game doesn’t leave me feeling eager to run or play it. I would be afraid to be left with disenfranchised players, frustrated at being having the control over the fate of their characters robbed from them by the game.

I am also not impressed with the way the game is written. It is filled with flavour text; even in the GM’s section, a lot is presented in “in fiction” writing. For one thing, I prefer GM text being precise and to the point; add to that that the writing is not stellar, and the game becomes somewhat frustrating to read.

There is also something about the game’s treatment of its subject matter that irritates me. For a somewhat serious scenario, I feel like the game is laughing at spiritism. The game features weird geegaws and scheming ghosts, and all the characters are somewhat parodical examples of characters that might be found in spiritism. But would the intrigue of the game suffer by taking out the spiritism? I doubt it.

Having said all that, this is not a bad game. It seems coherent, and even relatively inexperienced GM’s should be able to run the game. When I consider how much I have often had to invent and modify scenarios I’ve run at Fastaval, that’s a pretty good achievement for a scenario.

In short: I wouldn’t choose to run this scenario, but if asked, I both could and would.

Who should play this:

  • Players who like the drama of intrigue, but who aren’t in it to win it.
  • Gm’s who like having a beaten path to tread.

What can we learn from this:

  • Be careful not to disenfranchise your players.
  • If you are creating a game that places a big part of the resolution of the plot outside of the player’s sphere of knowledge, stop and consider why you are doing this. It might be ok, but only do it if you are sure this is what you want to do.

One response to this post.

  1. Good review. I find interesting, that you also draw parallels to The Others, but at least the scenario came before the movie.

    You adress a few points, that I neglected in my own post – but there some many things to say about this scenario – as I too was puzzled about how the author adresses spiritism. He does seem to have an agenda, though I am not certain which. I do suspect, that he has his own religious worldview, that somewhat clashes with the scenario making him point his finger at spiritism – as he points his fingers at skeptic professor of religion, thus proving that he does not approve of the skeptic/scientific/atheistic worldview (though this is difficult to read from the text, since the characters in this aspect are so stereotypical – and a common trope in Hollywood is to prove the skeptic wrong and that the atheist is just a Christian, who has lost his way – this last trope, however, is not present in the scenario).
    I do also believe, that the author is playing a little bit with an extra meta-layer, where he tries weaken the walls between the player and the character, not so much in his constantly calling the ‘characters’ for ‘players’ (though it annoy me), but in the fact, that the scenario is intended to be played at the same time as the scenario takes place. It seems to me here, that he wanted to play around with the seance-concept with a player playing a character pretending to be possessed and then suddenly that character is involuntarily possessed. This is very well developed, however.

    That the plot is hidden from the players is an element of the period. This was very common then, and it is a vestige from the Exploration & Investigation-period (which I recently covered at the planB-blog), where the concept of exploration necessitated secrecy, and this was maintained in the following periods new type of story-based roleplaying. This does however weaken the scenario.

    I am perhaps less critical of some of the flaws you point out, but I cannot help but read these old scenarios with a slight nostalgic nod, as they are from my youth.


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