New on Desk #30 — Quantum Opium

Another meandering and ineffective week rolls by. Perhaps the most interesting part was finishing the story game scenario we’ve been grinding down with Club Hannilus.

GMless story gaming

The game we’ve been playing, Land of Nod, is something of a hidden pearl from the ’00s; Paul’s never gotten around to publishing it despite developing (playing) it enough to firm it up into a finished entity. I’ve got some similar projects in my drawers as well, but it’s not common for them to gain this much definition without ending up published in some way. Interesting situation in that regard.

The specific kind of game that Nod is has quite a pedigree — it’s a rotating-narrator PC-protagonist scenario-based drama game, a form that is probably familiar to story games connosseurs as something that came into vogue in the Forgite scene in the late ’00s. The core conceit of these games is that the players each run a distinct protagonist character, and they take turns framing scenes for the various characters, such that a story emerges. Early examples of games of this form are the likes of Universalis, Legends of Alyria and Death’s Door; the second wave was full of stuff like Zombie Cinema, Fiasco and Archipelago. The form has been popular over the last decade, producing games regularly; Tales of Entropy, which I’ve been messing with a lot over the last few years, is a precise treatment on this sort of thing as well.

(There are a number of well-known GMless games that aren’t quite in the specific box that I’m gesturing at above. Polaris, for instance, doesn’t quite do rotating-narrator; rather, it’s multiple-GMs, which is slightly different. It Was a Mutual Decision doesn’t have PC-protagonist equivalency. Capes is rotating-narrator but not quite a drama game in this sense. I’m mentioning this in case you’re wondering why I cherry-pick the specific games I mention. It’s actually quite interesting how the already specific box of GMless gaming includes this even narrower box of games where everybody has a protagonist and everybody frames for each other nilly-willy.)

Many rotating-narrator drama games are also “blood operas”, meaning that the PC-protagonists are specifically set against each other, and will likely come to blows over the stakes of the scenario as the game proceeds. Nod is interesting in that it explicitly harbours a different kind of vision regarding how the stories of the individual protagonists cross: the PCs by default do not encounter each other at all during the game, and their stories are only woven together subtly by shared setting elements, tropes and motifs.

Another notable categorical feature of the game is that it’s a generic story engine with no in-built scenario or even genre bias. Just like grand-daddy Universalis, you’re literally supposed to sit down to a tabula rasa, armed with nothing but a vague desire to create something together. Following the procedure, you set up a scenario, develop some protagonists, and then start trudging through the story to knock down the pins and finish with something exciting and well-formed. The motivation to commit to an activity like this presumably arises socially, out of a desire to do something together, as there’s no preliminary promise of any specific fictional topic. The game could be about growing turnips, or it could be about saturday morning cartoons; you’ll find out by playing.

Paul is interested in revisiting Land of Nod with an eye towards refurbishing the old war horse for new times; I can understand the desire, as it’s a solid thing as it is, but also one that can surely benefit from revision. The headspace I’m in myself nowadays leaves me pretty cold on a game that insists on bootstrapping the entire dramatic scenario on the spot — feels too much like work — but there’s nothing specifically wrong with it.

Putting the story together

I’ve mentioned our Nod sessions in passing in prior newsletters, but I haven’t put much effort into explaining what the game has actually been about. The reason for that is simply that the story’s been so convoluted and shrouded in mystery that it would have been premature — and frustrating — to try for a big picture view before the game concluded. Now, though, I can try to give some impression of what was created. Still won’t go scene-by-scene, that’s just boring.

Our story was set in an urban fantasy late 20th century United States setting initially characterized as “Twilight Zone”. The politics of the age revolved around ecological issues and increasing conviction in the reality of Hell; it was a tumultous era with potential for social change. A bit like a rerun of the civil rights era a generation later, with new age spiritual ideas mixing with concerns of ecology and increasing corporatization.

A central event that I feel captured the atmosphere of the setting from early on was the murder of a young homosexual man, only known to us as “Jim”. One of the player characters, Sammy, was involved with Jim in a way that we understood in very romantic terms early on, but came to realize to have been extremely superficial, more reflective of Sammy’s personal nature than the reality of the relationship, later on. The mystery of Jim’s murder drove much of the world-building as the game progressed, as we knew from early on that he had died for a reason: whatever the cause of Jim’s demise in the gross dark room of the nightclub, that fateful night when Sammy fell in love with him, it was sure to signify the zeitgeist and therefore orient us towards the meaning of the story.

As the game’s conceit is that the protagonist specifically are not in the same story with each other, the stories of the other characters brushed against Sammy’s search for meaning in Jim’s death, but did not concretely cross with it. Deirdress Anachrombie was a physicist dedicated to disproving the existence of Hell for personal reasons; Albert Henriquez was a man working for a company that he suspected of murdering his lady love; Mr. Cardinal was an apathetic police detective yearning for a political solution to the problems wracking the society of the age.

The actual play of Nod is largely straightforward: players take turns framing scenes for the various characters, conflicts are established and events resolved. Characters strive towards their Desires (as established above), and one by one achieve them, with the game ending after all the characters have conluded their journeys. Familiar fare for those who’ve encountered similar games before.

There is an inherent duality, a contradiction of creative desires, baked into this type of game: the players can make the various creative choices in the game with ease of play in mind, sticking close to familiar genre tropes, or they can choose to be ambitious and introduce nuanced, complex ideas. The former risks being boring (specifically, being obvious risks causing the gameplay to become routine) while the latter risks being incomprehensible as the players struggle to get on the same page in progressing the story.

The game’s system was not particularly at fault, except maybe in the scenario setup being sort of crude; rather, it was the players who initially made ambitious creative choices that left their co-players struggling to keep pace. For instance, consider these early moves:

  • Sammy, the young man obsessed with his romantic notions over the dead Jim, happens to be an astrologist. He’s the member of a local astrology club, and the immediate plot point driving his story at the start (the “Kicker”, as we say) is that he’s discovered an astrological connection between Jim’s murder and the inflamed zeitgeist. However — and this is important to the player — the astrology club is indeed important, enough so to feature heavily in the first scene of the story, but it is not adventurous; whatever you’re thinking of as thriller plot logic here it’s not the case, and the club is just a hobby club of the most boring sort.
  • Mr. Cardinal has a simple Desire for “a political solution”, but he does not have an immediate drive or a concrete plan: he’s a government official vaguely dissatisfied with the way the political process has been going, but he is not a revolutionary, he is not in the middle of a romantic situation that just so happens to lead towards a happy ending, just add gunplay and some talking heads. In fact, his recognized primary difficulty in achieving his goal is his own complacency.

In hindsight I can say that both of those character concepts flubbed in the early game; they were too weird and therefore difficult to realize in practice for the random co-players who had to start developing them. Sammy’s first scene with the astrology club meant literally nothing, and his story only got going when the club was discarded entirely as a plot concern. (I am in fact somewhat uncertain even now what kind of story the club would have fit in; maybe some kind of slice of life thing where the fact that Sammy has a hobby works to establish some human connections that’d keep him stable through trying times.) Mr. Cardinal, meanwhile, was a very realistic, very existential character stuck in a kinda cartoony story about generic terrorists whose political platform was literally so trivial that a narrator later retconned the whole thing to be a government false flag operation. Nothing wrong with the terrorist plot, but for the fact that it was an ill-fit for the character, so their reactions to the events remained generic and superficial.

(I can see how somebody might take this as a flaw in the game system: wouldn’t the game ideally ensure that the players actually understand each other’s characters and what to do with them, being as how the game is about specifically taking each other’s characters and framing them into situations that advance their issues? For me this is more of a skill and creative chemistry issue than an issue of design, but I can imagine somebody who’d want to make a game that guarantees success in this aspect of play.)

The play group is skilled and ambitious, insofar as I am any judge of these things, which of course explains how we were able to go too ambitious for a full 50% of the characters; this sort of self-created difficulty is more of a veteran gamer thing. The other two characters were intelligible in this sense for the group at large, so we didn’t have major difficulties running relevant scenes for them, but the fact that two characters were wandering rather aimlessly did put a bit of a crimp in the proceedings.

The actual creative material that the individual narrators introduced was top notch. If anything, I’d say that the challenging dramaturgical and thematic issues caused us to paddle all the harder to stay afloat, which resulted in the game being very entertaining in literary terms while not being very easy to play. Lots of fun storytelling in the best traditions of tabletop roleplaying.

The stories of the protagonists approached the nature of reality from their own angles: we learned about super-computers being able to output quantum foam with nigh-magical properties, and about corporate conspiracies dedicated to distributing derivatives of the substance to society in the form of various drug and food products. We learned about the temporary, contingent realities that may exist in the false vacuum state maintained by the quantum foam process, and the horrible things that the run-away military-industrial complex has done with this power. There was a distinct urban fantasy angle in how “the street named Smythe”, a NSA secondary reality, could be accessed with the right drugs by the everyman. There were serial killers, supposedly trained as psychonauts for cold war purposes, who’d ended up running the whole show as a grotesque faux-Hell that delivered the foam, and therefore gained the loyalty of the entrenched interests in this newly developing social contract. Once we’d established all this conceptual stuff about quantum para-realities and body possession via quantum foam, there was an extensive crossover between Being John Malkovich and Resident Evil, which was a nice practical application for the world-building.

Yeah, the story stuff was good, there’s a lot here that could be used for things. Towards the end of the game, as we got out of the early doldrums, there was a lot of exciting stuff in there. The two problem-child characters never got quite up to pace compared to the more conventionally protagonistic ones, but we managed to finish everybody’s stories in a more or less satisfying manner, so overall it was a success, I guess?

Monday: Coup de Main #7

Meanwhile in Flanaess, the Coup campaign had a calm set-up session after their first successful scoring run. The actual operative content concerned bringing the party back to the Ysgrame Chateau after a two-week downtime period, with the intent to continue exploring, but being as how that part proceeded relatively uneventfully, the two interesting bits for me were actually on a somewhat different level:

The mystery of the historical time-line: Phun Eral, this scholarly southern fellow who’s totally not an initiate of the Scarlet Brotherhood, has been collecting all the data he can on the background and mysteries of the Mad Archmage Zagyg Ysgrame. Arguably this whole manorial affair at the man’s old house is because Phun wants to figure out as much as he can before the adventurers attempt to breach the mysteries of the titular Castle Greyhawk, in some sense the centerpiece of the entire setting.

So anyway, Phun’s been gathering data, and he’s discovered an interesting phenomenon where the local oral histories and various on-paper records in the City of Greyhawk and the town of Yggsburg disagree rather severely on the particulars of the Mad Archmage’s life. Specifically, there’s a century or maybe even two of lost time in the accounts, which is disconcerting, as Phun has pretty solid reasons to believe that e.g. the City archives aren’t mistaken about the City becoming a republic like a hundred years ago (presumably after the disappearance of Zagyg), while the guy Phun interviewed himself in session #1 in Yggsburg actually knew the Mad Archmage personally just 15 years ago. There’s clearly something convoluted going on with the timeline if the two communities living just 50 miles apart can have a 100–200 year contradiction in their political timelines relating to a person of great importance to both places.

(It’s not like the contradiction would be caused by overlaying multiple, different campaign setting sources into one setting. No, much more likely that it’s some eldritch time magic of the Mad Archmage himself that’s to blame.)

The real backstory of one Sir David McCould: Sir David is a new character Antti rolled up after the untimely death of Bobby the Fighting-Constable in an owlbear wrangle a couple sessions back. He’s a man truly born under the fortunate stars, as Sir David’s gotten the benefits of being both foil (my version of the high-stat XP bonus familiar from old D&D) and nobility; truly a man among men, a Fighter among Fighters. As we’re still developing the conceits of the campaign, we left the noble thing for later consideration when Sir David achieved this distinction by a lucky dice roll. We’d need to define how he’s a noble, what his background is for that to be the case, but it could wait for later.

In this session, right in the middle of the manorcrawling, I was reminded of the matter. Antti had by then established that his character’s is from the Shield Lands, which is sort of a Paladin theme park — a country managed by a chivalric order, a bit like how the Teutonic order held significant swatches of Eastern Europe as feudal fiefs at one point. Something about the Shield Lands thing inspired me to claim a story, the story of a knightly family surrounded by false friends and untrue knights. Perhaps Sir David was not a paladin (despite qualifying for it stat-wise) because he was cheated out of it in the tests? Perhaps this was because the neighbours of his father’s, the lords of the neighbouring keeps, are lying liar backstabbers in bed with Horned Society Factors? Sounds dramatic, and would explain why Sir David is now here in Greyhawk, disgusted with the circumstances back home and hoping to prove his mettle!

To be clear, this was a “push offer”, so I narrated my idea and Antti got to take it or deny it — and perhaps get inspired to offer his own suggestion. The noble thing in chargen is supposed to have pretty wide leeway, the character’s background can be pretty exceptional if he belongs in the ~8% of the generated characters that qualify for nobility. (The technical minimum requirement is that the character is familiarly associated with a Name Level person of some sort, so there are plenty of options.) Antti was excited about my idea, so we locked it down, and now Sir David has some interesting backstory and adventure hooks: he wants to become a Paladin the hard way (in play), and he wants to go back home to save his father and family from the untenable political situation they’re in. Good stuff, and all the more so when Sir David falls down the stairs and dies in the next session, or something like that.

Aside from those two topics of wide-ranging discussion, the session was mostly the usual: the Thief crits on a Listen check, the party decides to not go that way after all, etc. I expect we’ll go check the manorial cellars in the next session unless the party gets their backbone back from the Thief and decide to brave the attic after all. We’ll find out tomorrow!

Session #8 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 27.7., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Club Hannilus Minutes

I’ve been trying to make these newsletters more compact to cut down on the writing time, but I guess I can fit in a status report on the cultural saloons. Some things we’ve talked about at Club Hannilus:

  • One of the contributors has established a habit this summer of writing quick actual play reports of their old school D&D campaign for us. I absolutely love these, as the game’s premise is so fresh: he’s GMing the game, set in Mystara, for his wife, who’s basically playing a group of adventurers with an ostensible main PC and a bunch of henchmen. I’m not sure about how neutrally refereed it is (I mean, would you let your wife suffer a TPK?), and don’t really care; the basic procedure is clean, the rules are generally beautiful, and the situations are very thought-provoking, so the discussions engendered by the events are always interesting.
  • We’ve talked a lot about Land of Nod, featured above, of course. I feel like I could probably say more about it, but I also feel like our process works well with Paul as long as he just keeps prodding for particular discussion topics and perspectives, so hopefully he’ll just keep prodding patiently. I’ve already captured a few ideas for my own use out of the process, so it’s not like we’re just benefiting this specific game development affair.
  • So, is old school D&D really Gamist, or could it maybe be Simulationist? Talk about age old questions. This one was actually inspired by a contributor’s blog post positing that they might be more interested in the game as an adventurer life simulation than as a challengeful war game. Fair enough, you do you!
  • What is the appeal of being a story creator in story games? It’s important to realize that it is a quite different thing compared to the appeal of playing an adventure game such as a traditional roleplaying game. You often see people conflate the two despite them being rather distinct activities; why would you assume that somebody who enjoys one also enjoys the other? Because the traditional GM is such a story tramp?
  • We’ve been reading Wonder & Wickedness, an old school D&D spell book (that is, revised spell lists) authored by one of the contributors. Great stuff: it’s a sort of middle-of-the-road modern minimalistic grimoire fit for a wide variety of old school campaigns. Simple, clear, useful spells with a fair amount of atmosphere. Clean to adjudicate, too, so what’s not to like. Easily superior to orthodox spell listings from the old books, which is as it should be, standing on the shoulders of giants.
  • How to properly construct a one-session story game? The key seems to be in structural formalism: by establishing the game in three clear phases, namely “setup”, “development” and “climax”, you can ensure that the climatic phase can be triggered by the clock, whenever it’s time to end the game. This way the game can actually have a conclusion instead of stopping midway as they often do.
  • An interesting discussion about implementing “Final Fantasy style summoners” (basically Pokemon trainers) in D&D. Nothing particularly difficult about it, and I like the colorful idea of playing a summoner who enslaves monsters and then brands them with their “Summon Sigil” to later call them to battle by magical means.
  • Following from that, how about an old school D&D Final Fantasy sandbox? Hell yeah! I won’t even comment on that any more here, it’s obviously a very workable idea. The best part is that everything that’s nice about Final Fantasy as a franchise can easily be included, and all the dumb parts (e.g. gameplay) can be excluded.
  • One more FF observation: job crystals would make a rather interesting magic item for an old school D&D campaign. How about an item that makes you a Thief while you’re equipping it? (Somebody’s probably done this already, I distinctly remember seeing an item that does this somewhere.)
  • Flame/Star/Night game development! We’re going to continue playtesting the game soon, which may have inspired Tommi to prod at the game in various aspects. The current discussions have revolved around whether the game wants to have situationally specific special rules for advanced buildings and such — basically, the question of whether it’s better to have flat and universal rules mechanics, or to have the mechanics reflect important fictional differences a bit. I’m on the side of controlled, intelligently used mechanical crunch myself, but there are a variety of perspectives.

State of the Productive Facilities

Eh. Situation nominal. Hope reigns eternal, tomorrow’s a new week, etc.

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2 thoughts on “New on Desk #30 — Quantum Opium”

  1. Interesting overview of Land of Nodd here, Eero. I’m surprised you omitted Annalise and Intrepid from your list of games, but perhaps you are not familiar with them. Nevertheless, Annalise and Intrepid (as well as an unpublished game called unWritten, by Alex Duarte) form a very clear “family” of game design, following in the steps of Land of Nodd (although I have no reason to think the authors are familiar with my game, the designs are exceptionally similar, with minor differences rather than structural ones).

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