Posts Tagged ‘Morten Greis’

Archetyping classes: why the wizard can hog the spotlight.

Nis has spotted one of the big problems with the way AD&D was put together: a Wizard would start out as the wimpy apprentice, but end up as an all-powerful master of cosmic forces – think Elmister, Gandalf or beyond. The story of Raistlin Majere in Dragonlance is a very good example of this journey: he starts out as the sickly kid who is brought to the academy of magic by his strong and attractive brother, but ends up travelling the time-stream to go up against the mightiest wizard in all history, and ending it all by making a bid for divinity.

So, what’s the issue? Raistlin’s story is a very traditional story of the nobody who becomes a somebody, a very typical tale in fantasy literature. You can find the same tale in Wizard of Earthsea, in the Pern books (though they are rightly science fiction), Star Wars, both the old and the new (which are rightly fantasy). A true Hero’s Journey!

Yes, and that is all well and good for the person playing the mage. But the problem is that it is very much a story with the mage as the clear main character. And in a campaign with four or five players, you want four or five main characters, unless the point is expressly to have one character as the lead. Take a look at the place left for Caramon, Raistlin’s Brother: he starts out as an able warrior, but ends up as a chubby tavern-master in an insignificant little village. And while that could be a good story if told right, it pales when it has to compete with Raistlin and his play for power.

The problem, when viewed within the scope of D&D, is exaggerated because the character class of wizards have their own sphere of activities within which they excel, AND they can excel at all the other classes’ areas of expertise as well. Their fireballs and magic missiles can out-damage the warrior, while their knock, clairvoyance and invisibility can out-sneak the rouge. Furthermore, none of the other classes have much of a chance to beat the wizards at their own game: it takes a wizard to detect magic (a priest could probably do it, but they are in many ways on the sideline of this equation, being the “healer” who is indispensable, but in a support position).

Having identified this problem, Nis suggests a number of ways to scale down the wizard s0 that the others will still be able to shine. Some of these are: allowing non-wizards to detect magic, requiring concentration for keeping spells going, imposing risks of failing spells, requiring longer summoning times for spells and restricting the domain of spells each wizard has access to. Much of this has already been done in other games. Warhammer FRP 3rd edition restricts wizards to one of eight rather different schools and requires summoning spell power before casting your spell. Summoning too much power risks invoking the Ruinous Powers, with potentially horrible consequences. Shadowrun, on the other hand, requires a roll for casting a spell, and casting a spell deals an amount of damage to the wizard.

In many ways, I agree with this approach: in D&D, magic lacks the feeling of dealing with arcane and mysterious forces. With boring names (Summon Monster I-IX, anyone?) and no-flavour castings, wizards have become Reality Technicians rather than Wielders of Arcane Forces. Many other systems capture this element of wizardry far better, like the above mentioned – and Mage, of course. But I do feel that there is something else that could be done.

Re-archetyping the heroes

Morten identifies this other approach, although I disagree with his suggested solution: Wizards are so powerful compared to fighters and thieves because of the way a fighter and a thief is perceived: a fighter is someone who fights, and maybe breaks bars and lifts stuff, while a thief sneaks, steals and back-stabs. The domains covered by their archetypes are very limited, and so they are easy to replace.

If that is the case, we should change and broaden the archetypes, giving them more to work with, and making it more difficult to replace them. Morten suggest the “adventurer” as a replacement for the fighter and the “soldier of fortune” (or rather, the Danish equivalent, “lykkeridder,” which is far less soldiery) as a replacement for the thief. The adventurer is all about fighting monsters, exploring dungeons, talking to people on his way, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Soldier of Fortune is all about using what Lady Luck sends his way, using sleigh of hands, deception, attention/intuition, sneakiness and a skill for talking to people. This would retool the characters in a way that still gives them a relatively clear domain, but one that covers many activities instead of a few. The adventurer is not JUST the fighting machine, strength powerhouse, and the Soldier of Fortune is not JUST the lock-smith and go-to sneak.

My first issue with these two examples is that they are both very clearly oriented towards adventuring. The good thing about the wizard is that he will graduate from his travelling life into a life of traversing the planes, being political and tending to his magical menagerie – there is a vision of maturity build into the archetype. In AD&D, the Fighter had a built-in assumption that he would eventually settle down as a castle lord somewhere, and most of the other classes had similar built in assumptions. But an adventurer is not an adventurer if he’s not adventuring. In other words, the adventurer is stuck as the travelling, restless guy for ever. Similarly with the Soldier of Fortune: if he’s not living on his luck, what is he?

My second issue is that these two classes don’t have clear appeals to archetypes of what we are striving to become. The Wizard is striving to become Gandalf, Merlin, Elminster or Raistlin. But what about the Adventurer? Marco Polo?

Instead, I’d like to suggest some other archetypes, and thus replacement classes, for some of the standard D&D classes. I’ll also try to indicate a starting point for them, on par with the wizard’s feeble apprentice.

The Fighter: The Hero/the Knight/the King

To my mind, the problem with the fighter is that he is more or less just a brute fighter. But if we look to literature, who are the great warriors? It’s Hercules, it’s Conan, it’s Achilles. In Norse mythology, it’s clearly Thor, the great god of thunder. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Robert Baratheon is an example of this archetype at its disgraceful end. They are the great martial heroes, wielding their powerful weapons, conquering their enemies. At the same time, they have a certain charisma, inspiring both fear and respect, seducing women and making boys want to be them.

There is another aspect of the warrior archetype, one that could either be perceived as part of the fighting class, or as its own class: that of the more strategic warrior, keeping a cool head and using strategy and wit to best his foe. Think of Tyr from Norse mythology: the god of war, not of fiery fights but reasoned battles and calculated sacrifice. In ASOIAF, it’s Eddard Stark, the intelligent, conscientious warrior. This is the archetype of the Lord, the General, or indeed, the King.

Which brings me to the one and only King, and no, it’s not Elvis: it’s Arthur, of course. Arthur bridges two fighter archetypes: he is the King, regal, authoritative, wise. But he is also the Knight: brave, courteous, inspired by Duty. Arthur’s Knights all represent this archetype, as do Joan of Arch, St. George, Jaime Lannister and many other people from ASOIAF. You could probably point to many people from the Saga’s, and I’d say that Beowulf sits somewhere between this archetype and the Hero

Now, in D&D, the Knight sits somewhere between the Fighter and the Paladin classes. Which gives me an opportunity to ask: does the Paladin have a place as a separate class, or is it just a fancy way to allow a Fighter/Cleric dual-class? Sure, Holy Warriors are a stable of many mythologies – but does it require a separate class? Not only that, a separate class, only for knights who can ALSO conjure miracles. In many ways, I like the Paladin, but if I were designing a role-playing system without any consideration for traditions within the genre, the Paladin, as a class with tight restrictions on morality, background and equipment, wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d consider it better to encourage people to multiclass as Fighter/Clerics (or possibly Knight or Hero instead of fighter).

As for starting out point, fighters in classic D&D start out as fairly competent warriors. But I would perhaps start them out a little lower in the hierarchy: maybe as militia, as young squires, hoodlums, or young men, just setting out.

The Rouge: The Trickster

In D&D 3.0, WotC actually broadened this class considerably, rebranding AD&D’s Thief to the more catch-all “Rogue.” Nevertheless, more could be done with this archetype.

So, who are the icons of this archetype? Off the bat, Loki seems the obvious poster boy for Tricksterdom. Varys the eunuch spymaster from ASOIAF is another good example – one might include Littlefinger as well, but he is a far less clear-cut case. Wormtounge is more clear-cut, I’d argue. From Anansi Boys, Anansi is a very good example of a (largely) benevolent Trickster. For some very benevolent rogues, see most of the (main character) hobbits in LotR, not to mention Bilbo in The Hobbit.

The Trickster is the manipulator and the sneak. This archetype is all about hidden dealings and tricking the other party. He is the spy and the thief, but he might also be the scheming courtier. In this way, one might perceive Cercei (from ASOIAF) as a rouge. In fact, retooling the Rouge to being about all kinds of hidden agendas would mean that both the Thieve’s Guild and the King’s Court are teeming with Tricksters.

The Trickster can start out as a low level thief. However, there might be more interesting ways to start off. Maybe a street urchin, a young courtier or a refugee from the courts could all be ways to start off. I feel like the Trickster’s story should also include a Loss of Innocence: getting used to deceiving people as a way of life.

The Bard: The Storyteller, the Observer, the Orator, the Soothsayer

The Bard is a strange bird. I mean, what on earth is his purpose? To tell the other adventurer’s stories? Be a mediocre replacement rouge? Not particularly impressive.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have a purpose. In some way, the bard can act as a counterpoint, or a complementary, to the Trickster. Where the Trickster/rogue is all about not being noticed, the Bard is all about getting noticed. In this way, you might peg him as Friar Tuck of the story of Robin hood, or, in a weird way, Tyrion Lannister and Lady Catelyn of ASOIAF (though the former is perhaps more clearly a Trickster).

I think the argument could be made that this should rightly be part of the Trickster class, but I could accept an argument to keep it alive – moreso than the Paladin.

The Ranger: the Ranger/ the Pathfinder/ the Outlaw/ the Hermit.

Some might think that I’d think the Ranger would better belong with the Warriors. But, no, not at all. You see, the ranger does have a lot of things that sets him apart from the warrior.

Some characters that might be associated with this archetype are: Aragorn (duh), Robin Hood, Faramir, Jon Snow and Artems. Heimdal is a maybe on this: he might be seen as a kind of Hero or Knight, but I’d argue that his primary task is guiding people.

A bit of a dilemma

…and so on. I don’t consider the above a complete list. For one, I haven’t dealt with the wizard, just as I haven’t really mentioned the cleric. One could also consider keeping the Druid (as a mystic/witch/wise man) and the monk (as a mystic warrior/martial artist/spiritual warrior). The Barbarian I’d consider a kind of Hero.

The question is, of course, whether to make very broad, non-specific classes and leave the  fleshing out to the players, or whether to provide very specific and narrow classes, thus also providing a lot of flavour. I am more partial to games that allow me to hammer out my own character with a lot of freedom, and to steer his course on my own. For epic storytelling, however, it might be good to set your hero on a course, and see him move towards a glorious finale right from the beginning.

In any case, I think it’s important to look at the story potential in whatever you want to include in a role-playing game. The game is all about storytelling, after all. And so, to me it is more important to balance story potential than to balance technical game play mechanics.

The Empires Strike back – also, Geiger counts again.

I am currently teaching a group of 9th and 10th graders roleplaying games (though I’m interpreting it very broadly, and including a lot of board games). This week, I had three (almost – more like 2½) whole days – so now was the chance to do something with a longer scope than the usual three hours every Monday. So Tuesday, I had them play Geiger counter, while Thursday, I had three of them run a short story from either Imperiet or Imperiet 40k each, with the others rotating between the three games.

Zombies in inner Copenhagen, and Werewolves in Miller’s Hollow

Tuesday, they played Geiger Counter. Turned out we had just about enough time to do it, then talk about it afterwards.

One group started out with a great idea: to convert Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow into a Geiger Counter game. That group had most of the strong players in the class, so I left them to their own devices, and they seemed to do pretty well.

The other group consisted of mostly inexperienced and weak players, so I decided that I needed to nurse them quite a bit. In the end, I was faced with a dilemma: to what extent should I coach and coax them into playing the game how I thought they should play it, and to what extent should I allow them to play on their own, and experience the game on their own. I think I was rather controlling; on the other hand, I feel like it was my duty to make sure everyone was having fun, and when  someone fails at setting a scene in Geiger Counter, they risk taking the story down a road that’s unsatisfying for someone else, and can leave a story thread hanging unresolved and unresolvable. So I felt justified at the time, though I have since been wondering whether I was doing it wrong.

New hope

For Thursday, I had asked three of the more promising students to prepare three different short scenarios: Averheim Averessen by Johannes Busted Larsen from Imperiet, and Hendes Mørke Skønhed by Morten Greis and Under my Hive by yours truly from Imperiet 40k.

Hendes Mørke Skønhed went very well, as I knew it would. First of all, I had given it to the strongest of the GMs: a guy who’s big and mature, and is doing a performance line here – so I knew he could do both the whispering and the screaming, the two things that, to my mind, makes the scenario great and lifts it over a mere dicefest. It’s a scenario that uses some cheap tricks to great effect: though it is not really a “semi-larp,” it assigns in-game effects to how you act at the table. At times, you need to be quiet, or more aliens will arrive, at other times, you need to scream and make gun noises to get dice. It makes for a great effect, and I wasn’t particularly surprised when all my students seemed to have enjoyed it.

Averheim Averessen went pretty well as well. This scenario lives off of stress and confusion. It should be played as semi-larp, with everybody doing something all at once. The scenario instates real-time limits to its scenes, and asks for hectic activity within these time limits. Add to that that the action is often completely ridiculous, and it is a sure comic hit.

And finally, Under My Hive. I have a very ambivalent relationship to this scenario. As far as I know, it only got played once at Fastaval that year. On the other hand, that group apparently really enjoyed it. I have run it once myself, last year at around this time, when Hyggemester David asked me to put it up as an intro scenario for Hyggecon. I think people enjoyed it, but I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback. My group certainly went ok.

So, it was with mixed feelings I gave it over to a student to run. And unfortunately, he didn’t quite get it – and his first group of players didn’t, either. Under my hive is a story telling  game. The game revolves around a Russian roulette motif, but the real game is the memories the players have to tell every time they get the gun, asking them to explain why this town is worth fighting for, why they hate their opponents, or how they have made the town less attractive to the opponents. It’s a rather cerebral exercise, and if you aren’t used to telling stories in roleplaying, it can be difficult. And so, the first group played it as a Russian roulette game, and were done within half an hour.

The second group, however, got it. They didn’t finish within the hour and 20 minutes they had – which means they must have been telling a lot of stories. This second group contained some of the stronger players, and I’d made that group from the people I thought would appreciate the game. It didn’t play in the third round, because there weren’t four people who hadn’t tried it yet – the others were played with three players instead of four, something which is not ideal, but which is doable. That is much more difficult in this scenario, where you are supposed to have two pair sitting across from each other.

Anyway. Hurrah for the two Empire anthologies. There are a couple of scenarios that I’d like to try myself, and some I’d like to run with these kids – and it’s great to know there’s a backup plan available.

Ps.: If you wonder why I skipped Wednesday, we had only half a day, so we played games. One group had something to finish up, while the rest played Shadows over Camelot. They didn’t have a traitor and won comfortably, so they need a traitor next time to keep them humble, methinks…

 

Give me your ideas…

So, I have been asked by Morten Greis to write two articles for this year’s Fastaval GM compendium – a booklet of articles with tips for GM’s and thoughts on the noble art of GM’ing. In previous years, a host of illustrious Fastaval people have contributed to the different editions of this tome of knowledge, and it is not without a degree of humility I have agreed to write these articles – I do not feel like I have any particular experience that makes me more suited to write these articles than a lot of other people. On the other hand, I do have some thoughts on these matters, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to share them with everyone who wants to listen.

The two subjects Morten suggested are:

  • How does one read a scenario as preparation for being a GM?
  • How does one GM a group of young, inexperienced players?

I think Morten decided to ask me about the first one after reading some of my reviews for the Reading Group – all of my studies have involved textual analysis, so I guess I ought to be proficient at that kind of things by now.

The second comes from my involvement with “ungdomsskolen” in two different cities in Denmark, teaching roleplaying to kids, something I have done for no less than eight years (my god, is it really that long?).

Anyway, I will post some of my own immediate thoughts later. For now, I’d like to hear from you: how do you go about reading a scenario you are going to run? And what are your favourite tips on how to handle a group of young players? Or, for that matter, which facets of these topics would you like my/an answer to?

[Reading Group] And the next piece is…

I have, by a unanimous vote (Johs was the man, and the vote was his) been chosen to select the next scenario for the reading group.
That left me to decide which criteria to use. One of the great things about the reading group has been getting to read many different and interesting shapes the genre “scenario” can take. So I could definitely choose something that I really want to read.
On the other hand, one of the main reasons for this whole endeavour is to highlight scenarios that have not received enough attention, scenarios that we think other people should read – and play, of course.

And so, these are the scenarios I considered, but didn’t choose (a list I provide as much for my own benefit, so that I may come back to it next time I have to choose):

  • Den Gale Kong George: I played this at my first Fastaval, and was very impressed with it. Besides, I would like to read one of Mikkel’s scenarios, but have never gotten around to it. HOWEVER: It’s not as if Mikkel needs advertising, being already one of the brightest stars in the Fastaval sky.
  • Dragens Dom: I’ve read, but not played this scenario. It looks neat – HOWEVER I have no personal experience with it, and since I’ve already read it, I would rather read something else.
  • Occulus Tertius: I played this a long, looong time ago – in fact, it may have been my first Fastaval scenario ever. HOWEVER: I have no idea about the qualities of it, and remember it as a rather conventional game – so I don’t really want to endorse it before I’ve read it.
  • Memoratoriet: I’ve always been curious about this game. Besides, it’s a larp, and I want to further larps as a scenario form. HOWEVER Morten was one of the writers on Memoratoriet, so it wouldn’t be proper for him to review it. Besides, I want to play it, not read it. And is it even available online?

This leaves this as my choice:

  • Nantunaku Manga, by Malik Hyltoft. This was the first scenario I played at Fastaval 2005, and I had the great privilege of having Malik as GM for it. It won the Audience Otto that year, something I thought was well deserved – it was the same year I played Den Gale Kong George, and while that was quite an experience, it was nowhere near as much fun as Nantunaku Manga. Since then, I have run it a couple of time, and I have a great fondness for it – for several reasons that I shall not gush about here, but wait until the proper review, so that a) you’ll have a reason to read that, and b) my co-reviewers won’t be influenced by me in their reading of the scenario.

And there you have it. I am anxious to know whether you will be as fond of it as I have been, and whether my recollection of it can stand up to scrutiny.

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.

Reading Group: Laaste Døre (Locked Doors)

Johannes Busted has started a reading group with the purpose of reading and reviewing scenarios from the online repository, Projekt R’lyeh. To me, this is quite a brilliant endeavour, with both altruistic and selfish perspectives: the altruistic is that it will make accessible some of the scenarios of the somewhat unapproachable R’lyeh. Unapproachable, because if you don’t know the games, it can be hard to know which game will be interesting for you to read. Also, it may kickstart a discussion of what constitutes a good scenario, something that is always worthwhile. The selfish perspective is this: that I get an incentive to read some scenarios, and someone to point me towards interesting games to read. It is eeexcellent!

What follows, then, is my review of the first scenario, Laaste Døre (“Locked Doors”) by Thomas Munkholt Sørensen – an oldie from 1994, chosen by Johannes. According to its Alexandria page, it won an Otto for Best Handout.

I have considered how to review the games so that it will be easy for me to do, and be of some use to the reader. I have decided to do it very systematically, dividing it up into a number of questions: “What is it?” (a brief description of the game), “What are the aesthetical qualities of the game?” (a fluffy description of my thoughts on the game as art – pretentious? Moi?), “What can we learn from this?” (what should gamewrights, and maybe players/gms as well, learn from this scenario?), “Who should play this?” and “What issues could I foresee with this game?”

And so, without any more ado, i give you…

A review of “Laaste Døre”

What is it?

Laaste Døre is a game about a group of people who are being made into scapegoats by the byzantine goverment of “the State,” the country in which they live. They are locked inside “the Department” until one of them confess to having comitted the theft of a certain, classified document. The game consists of the players trying to unearth each other’s secrets and save their own hide. Meanwhile, strange things are going on inside the building. The game quotes Kafka as a major inspiration – and it shows! The dehumanizing workings of the government come across as as inhuman and horrifying as a good, lovecraftian terror.

What are its aesthetical qualities?

I find the game to be quite an interesting read. It dumps the players into a dilemma with neither an easy nor a desirable exit, and provides the GM with means to keep up and escalate the creepy feelings the scenario lives off.

Also, the many strange occurences and the circuitous logic of the “Government” provides a surreal experience. In spite of this, the game will still seem like a coherent narrative to the players.

Apart from all that, the game document in itself is a very nice read. Nicely laid out, and with many apropriate pencil drawings, the language of the words themselves take you into their universe, making the GM feel it before even adding players. Very nice.

Who should play this?

Relatively experienced players and GMs are required for this game to succeed. The GM needs to be able to keep a very light grip on – or even let go of – the reins, and only intervene when the dynamics of the group require it. The players needs to be able to do intrigue, but should play, not to win, but to enjoy the bittersweet nectar of futility. If you’re playing this scenario, and your game has winners, you’re doing it wrong.

What issues do I see with the game?

  • The game has a very rudimentary system, with three numbered stats: the character’s loyalty to the state and their personal integrety are set on a scale, so that the sum of the two will always be 10. The character’s willpower represents their selfpreservation drive, and is supposed to be used by the GM as a way of forcing the players into gradual meltdown – a kind of safety valve against wrong players, I guess. However, the system doesn’t really explain what the effects of the system is supposed to be. How does one cave in? Why not just roleplay this – if you have a player who needs this to tell him his character is falling apart, can he play the meltdown anyway? And what are the effect of canges to your Loyalty/indviduality? The rules make no explicit explanation of this, and leaves you to work it out for yourself.
  • The game provides the Gm with inspiration for two kinds of little notes to slip the players – memories and suspicion. I guess it makes sense to ask the GM to write out suspicions themselves, as they can then take into consideration what has been going on in the particular instantiation of the scenario – but why not make preprinted handouts of memories that could just be cut out and handed out?
  • I’m not sure if the players will be able to figure out what the story of the game actually is. There is a detailed story in the GM section, which is the real story of what is going on. I don’t think the players will be able to piece this story together in play. If not, it’s a shame. I know that in some games, it’s best to keep players (and characters) somewhat in the dark, in order to rack up suspence. I just don’t think that is neccesary in this game.
  • The game asks the GM to set up the room as an imitation of the main location of the game, and encourages you to do things in semilive. It still has some scenes that are definitely to be done in a traditional P&P style, and it never discusses how, and when, best to go from one to the other. A luxury issue, I know – but still.
  • The game is apparently intended to run real time. But I think it may be stretching it a bit that this game is set to run for six hours. I’d say four to six. On the other hand, if the game is forcibly halted after six hours…

What can we learn from this?

Locked Doors can serve as example in a number of areas:

  • Write story text, even if it’s GM’s eyes only metatext, in a language appropriate to the feel of the scenario. This game is mostly written in a language that brings to mind the Kafkaesque universe we’re set in, and that makes it easy to get in the mood. Unfortunately, it breaks it a few times, and that also takes the top of the mood – but mostly, it’s good writing, and worth thinking about when you’re writing you own game.
  • Tell the GM how you imagine he should run the game. The game starts out with a relatively long description of the different roles of the GM – something I’ve sorely missed in many scenarios I’ve GM’ed at Fastaval. I wan’ you to hold my haaand. Very well done.
  • If you want a homebrewed system, fine – but remember to give us very specific instructions about what it should look like in action.

And so, this review is brought to a halt – finally! It’s been underway for many days now, and I’ve even recieved a very gentle prodding from Johannes as to the whereabouts of my review. Well, here it is. Now go play it – and tell me how it works in real life. The game certainly looks good enough to try.

Also read Morten Greis,’ Simon Pettitt’s and Frikard Ellemand’s – not to mention Johannes’ own. I’ve read none of them, as I believe reading other reviews would colour mine – and I want you to read my undiluted opinion. I might go back on it later, when I hear good arguments from the other readers, but for now, I stand by the above – even if it is, alas, not the best I feel I can do, but only the best I had time to do.