Posts Tagged ‘Reading Group’

[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. Continue reading


[Reading Group] The Revenge of Vincenzo di Monforte

Wow. Can it really be done this briefly?

So it would seem. The Revenge of Vincenzo di Monforte takes up a total of five pages A5 – and one of them, the front page, is spent on a largely superfluous (yet handy and mood-provoking) list of of the cast. The rest contain a list of 10½ scenes in two acts, descriptions of the characters and the extremely brief rules for the game – the game doesn’t use a GM, and each player should be familiar with the entire text of the game.

The game is a pastiche of an operatic tragedy, with a love triangle between two lovers and her old, unattractive betrothed and a pair of servants for the two lovers. Five characters, two of them optional. The descriptions of scenes give a comprehensive list of what’s to happen in each, leaving the details to the players. It’s an excercise in “creativity through constriction” – giving very firm guidelines with the goal of making the players do even more with the little space they’re given. I think I would have preferred a less comprehensive outline, with some leeway within each scene – this seems like it could get a little constrictive. It may be a matter of taste, though, and who knows – maybe this hits the balance between freedom and guidance perfectly.

In any case this game is a refreshing change from scenarios like Being Max Møller (150 pages). It constitutes a remarkable achievement – in particular considering the fact that it was written in 1993. The closest comparisons I can think of are the two Bækgaard-scenarios I’ve tried (Evening Stars and Murder of Kings [Kongemord]), which share the strong dramatic structure, but are both considerably freer in structure – and considerably longer.

The Revenge of Vincenzo di Monforte deserves to be remembered – it should be required reading for new scenariowrights. Hmm… maybe we should ask scenariowrights to justify themselves if they want to turn in scenarios longer than five pages?

What can we learn?

  • Brevity does not equal lack of substance.
  • Please, oh please, remember to proof-read (the game has a couple of glaring typos, all the more noticable in such a short text).

Who should play this?

  • People who can take part in a shared authority over, and responsibility for, the game, and who do not mind acting retarded in an exaggerated, dramatic fashion.

A question for the “oldies”

When did the GM-less scenario have its breakthrough? I honestly wouldn’t have thought that it was in style as early as this.

[Reading Group] Tropical Zombies

So, I finally got around to reviewing the scenario that I chose myself: Tropical Zombies!

I stumbled upon Tropical Zombies around a year ago, when I needed a scenario to play with the people in the Swansea Roleplaying Society. That required a scenario with few enough handouts that I could translate it in the minimal time I had available. And for that, Tropical Zombies is ideal. All the characters are one page – between them! Yep, that’s right, two rows of three characters, with a picture, basic stats like “Part,” “Sex,” and “Age,” a name, selected skills, selected weapons, background and a quote – and only the background is in Danish. Just what I needed.

But I didn’t just pick it for the easy translatable characters. I picked it – and opened it in the first place to look at the characters – because it looked fun. And guess what? It is.

Haff you met my gut Freund, Der Doktor?

Six American teenagers find themselves stuck in the Amazon jungle when their bus is pushed over a cliff. Luckily, a sleepy little town just happens to nearby. The townsfolk all praise Der Doktor, who lives nearby and is the great benefactor of the town. Soon, however, the peace is gone as zombies descend upon the unfortunate teens.

The characters parody classic horror movie cliché as much as the plot does. We have Janet Goodgirl and Mary-Lou Bimbeau, as well as Jonathan Gheek and DUNC. They each fulfill a character cliché, such as the “token asian” and the “boorish quarterback,” and each character description contains an estimate of how long that character is likely to survive, based on their moral character and likeability. The skills further enforce the stereotypes, giving DUNC “Beer Drining 85 %” and “Cow  Tipping 75 %,” while Janet Goodgirl has “Moralize 70 %” and “Hysterical Screaming 45 %.”

The final part of the scenario is a few advices on how to enforce the movie cliché. In many ways, a very minimalist scenario without long preambles, gm instructions or NPC descriptions.

And yet, it works

The scenario, as written, is in many ways as the movies it emulates: very typical and without grand inventions in plot or production. Sure, the layout and drawings are quite good, and the whole thing is mercifully brief and easy to navigate. But the scenes are sketchy, and the plot is linear and railroading. As I said in the beginning of this review, I played this scenario with great success. So, what’s the secret to success in the zombie infested jungle?

To metaplay.

One game sidebar contains the advice to play the game as a B-movie. Not just to plot it as a B-movie, and to use as many clichés as possible. No, to actually pretend this is a cheap movie, and to describe how microphones enteres the picture frame, and how you can clearly see the cheap make-up on the zombies. The bus-driver and the shopkeeper are played by the same actor, and the scenery may fall down at any moment. The players are really actors, and the GM is the director – who may yell “cut!” and demand another take of the scene. It’s a brilliant idea, and one that can quickly take the scenario from the amusing to the absolutely hilarious.

When I played it, however, we took it one step further.

Anyone will have heard horrible tales of on-set drama. And honestly – who believe that Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson really are the heroes they portray?

With that in mind, we played a significant part of the game outside of the camera’s view, with the actors playing out their own personal intrigues and petty fights. And of course, the actors weren’t necessarily anything like their characters. “Michael Goodguy” was really a lecherous, stuck-up SOB, who was disliked by everyone – and so on. The result was absolutely, rolling-on-the floor hilarious. As a gm, I often didn’t get to say a word – but I didn’t mind, because I was in stitches by the players’ antics.

And so, that is the beauty of Tropical Zombies. It’s not what is in the text of the scenario that is so brilliant, but what it allows the players and the GM to do.

So if you want to have a night of fun without any pretensions to art or deep emotional development, Tropical Zombies is definitely worth a look.

So, my usual summaries:

What can we learn?

  • Sometimes, the brilliance is not was is in the scenario, but what isn’t (even if a scenario should always strive to guide the gm and players well).
  • A character doesn’t need to be long to be useful for great play.

Who should play this game?

  • Anyone can play this game.
  • The game game will benefit from players who are able to improvise to the benefit of the group. That means finding a tone and doing silly without it derailing the game completely, and without hogging the spotlight. Also, it requires players who can relax, and accept the silly – pretentious or artsy players may not find the game funny.
  • The gm should be equally comfortable railroading with extreme prejudice, guiding the players along the predetermined plotline, and sitting back and allow the players to take over the game with their riffing clichés and wackiness.

Written too hastily, and not penetrating as deeply as I had hoped when choosing the scenario. But, alas, my time is brief at the end of the year, and I’d rather get it done (like they do in Copenhagen (one may still hope in this 11th hour)) than have a perfect review stuck in my head.

[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: Unik

I had decided that I didn’t have time to do a reading group review this month – then I started reading the scenario, and decided I might not HAVE the time, but that I wanted to MAKE the time.

Because Unik is rather quite unlike any of the other scenarios we’ve looked at in the Reading Group. Locked Doors may have left the resolution of the game firmly in the hands of the players, and the Mirrored Reality may have been purposefully unspecific in its instructions to the GM – but both are firmly in the business of telling a story – a specific story concerning some specific characters in a specific location.

Unik is also in the storytelling business – but it doesn’t tell a specific story, it contains no set locations, and its characters are archetypes and functions within a greater, archetypical story: the story of lovers that meet, fall in love, only to fall apart and start the cycle all over again (there, I gave the ending away). All the specifics are invented by the players during play.

In fact,Unik reminds me more of a storytelling Indie game than a scenario – a story game with individual characters and a firm framework to govern collective storytelling (I imagine Polaris or maybe Shock or In A Wicked Age to work like this).

Oh, I’d better remember to say that Unik was written by Klaus Meier Olsen, and won the Jury Special Price at Fastaval in 2005.

Unique Toolbox

Superficially, Unik contains at last some of the trappings we expect from a scenario: a number of scenes in order and a group of characters. But the characters rotate and mutate, and the players set the scenes rather than the GM or even the gamewright. In many ways, the “scenario” is more like a tool box that will allow players and GM to create a story of a certain kind

Characters are divided up in two parts that are brought together to form a starting point for what you are going to play. On one hand, each player has an archetype, defining an approach to love and relationships: the Hunter, the Beast, the Ascetic and the Profet. On the other hand, there are four Positions that move from player to player from scene to scene. The Positions define what function or role you will have in the scene – either Lover, Beloved, Friend or Enemy.

So, do the specific characters you make follow the Positions or stay with the archetypes? Funny you should ask – because it is not clearly stated in the game text. Two things are stated explicitly: First of all, the Positions remember what has happened to them earlier. This would indicate that the character follows the position. On the other hand, the text mentions that changing environment from scene to scene is entirely possible, having one scene in revolutionary America and the next in Ancient Greece.

I think it is done this way to allow the players to make the story they want to make, instead of a rigid game getting in the way of good storytelling. It is like a good writing prompt: it will provide structure to fuel your imagination, and not get in the way of it.

Alongside the characters, there are 13 scenes. Together, they form the story arc of a particular kind of love story, going from the initial meeting to the break and potential reconciliation. Each scene has a title that should be written on the blackboard in order to remind everyone what we are doing at the moment, a section that should be read aloud, a “GM only” section concerning the purpose of this scene and, finally, a number of suggestions about how this scene could look.

Finally, the text contains a section on three tools the GM can use to keep the game under control – he can Ask the players questions about the game world (“What does it look like?” “What is he doing now?” and so on and so forth); he can Instruct the players, thus dictating how the players should play things; finally, he can Narrate, taking active part in the storytelling and potentially creating a Narrator as a fifth (rather peculiar) character in the game.

Scene before?

The game is a very easy read, and enjoyable as well. It is built around a simple idea, using a great number of literary concepts without any remorse to create a potentially powerful tool for storytelling. I am particularly fond of the way the game is fixed very firmly around a number of archetypes and archetypical story structures.

There are issues with it as well, however. The number of scenes seems rather large, and they are very fixed in their place in the structure, without giving good guidance to the GM about making the scene do what it’s supposed to do. Several scenes underline the importance of the Lover and Beloved not breaking up yet – why not let them, skipping scenes if this would serve the story better.

Also, the game seems to have a very fixed idea about what a relationship is, and how they develop. It is not for me to say how accurate that idea is – but what if the players do not agree with this idea? A gamewright should of course be allowed to tell the story they want to tell – just as a writer, a painter or a movie director. And if you write a very specific game with fleshed out story, characters and location, you can allow yourself great control over the development of the story. However, the more of the story you want the players to provide, the more space you should provide for the players to shape the story after their own mind. Now, I can see how each scene in Unik has a function in the story arc – but it might have been a good idea to allow for some flexibility, in case a story develops in a very different way from the standard layed out by the game.

Arrogance and schoolmasters

As much as I enjoyed reading the game, there are a couple of places that made me wince. The worst is this:

“Desværre er spillere ofte forbløffende inkompetente, så de kan sandsynligvis ikke håndtere det ansvar, scenariet giver dem”

[“Unfortunately, players are often astoundingly incompetent, and so, they probably can’t handle the responsibility the scenario gives them”]

Now, I shall freely admit that I have often had the urge to yell loudly at players, at Fastaval or otherwise. But equally often, I have raged against gamewrights who believe that their text is blatantly simplistic and self-explanatory and that all the GM’s reading their game will think (and GM) like they do, when their text is really an obscure mess, understandable only by themselves and the close circle of their friends who think like they do.

In any case, no matter your feeling towards the people (“cretins”) who is going to play (“ruin”) your scenario (“masterpiece”), expressing such arrogance is not going to win you any friends. And it is NOT going to help your scenario being run smoothly if you start out predisposing your GM against your players. In fact, with all the focus this game gives to making the GM a facilitator of player creating, it seems downright counterproductive.

On that note, I’ll turn to the other quote I want to mention here:

“Så vær ikke bange for at irettesætte dine spillere, hvis de ikke udfører deres funktion [som dikteret af deres Position]  godt nok. I sidste ende er det til alles bedste.”

[“So don’t be afraid to reprimand your players if they don’t perform their function [as dictated by their Position] well enough. In the end, it is the best for everybody”]

NO, NO, NO! This is probably one of the worst pieces of advice I have heard concerning how to get people to contribute and open up to common storytelling. Kids, don’t do this at home. If you start rebuking your players you risk them being a) mad at you for challenging their ability to play their character (in particular if they feel superior/equal to you), b) sulky and uncooperative (if they feel almost equal to you), or c) afraid to contribute to the story (if they feel inexperienced or insecure in their own abilities). None of these are desireable in a game – especially not when you can’t play around a noncooperative player, as in this game, where everybody will be playing a main character approximately two scenes out of four.

Now, I do admit that I am reading this advice like the devil reads the bible, and that it might be appropriate to point out if a player is not living up to the Position he’s playing – it is easy to being confused at the changing Positions, and start just playing your Archetype. My issue is simply with the tone of the advice – especially since some GM’s are blathering idiots who will take advice like that seriously.

Shall I compare thee to a Unik day

Arrogance aside, this game is, by the read of it, a gem. If nothing else, it’s worth reading through for inspiration, both for writers of Danish style scenarios and “Indie”-style gamewrights. Playing this would probably be a grand, if possibly a bit surreal, experience. It also exposes players to the important role played by archetypes and schematic stories in human thought.

It is also an interesting study in player-GM relationships, casting all the players as semi-GM’s, instead asking the GM to moderate this “GMs’ conference.” Not that it is unique – many other (newer) games, Indie games in particular, have a similar distribution of narrative power.

Unik may not be as unique as when it came out. But it is still solid craftsmanship, still well worth playing, or reading, for that matter. Besides, it is one of the relatively rare scenarios that can be replayed or even read, then played, without it taking anything away from the enjoyment

What can we learn?

  • Make sure the freedom of the players matches the expectations placed on the players.
  • Don’t predispose your GMs against their players – especially not when you need them to work together so closely.
  • Simplicity and brevity are no crimes, as long as you tell your players and GMs all they need.

Who should play this?

  • The players should not expect to be fed a great story. Rather, they should be keen on taking equal part in the storytelling, not being afraid to get in there and define the game we’re playing
  • As the players take more control over the story, so the GM retires. The GM who runs this should not be a control freak, yearning to perform and entertain the players. Rather, he should be content to oversee the players’ game, jumping in only when necessary.

Also read Morten’s, Johs,’ Thais’ and Simon’s reviews

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.