The Shadow of Yesterday: Freebooters One-Shot (Second Run), Post-mortem

So the HQ: Firefly game that we’d slotted to run on Friday didn’t come off. I think I need to restructure how we’re trying to make that game scheduling work. The current thing isn’t working — one every three months is barely gaming, let alone a campaign — and I’d really like it to.
So, with four interested players present, I decided to pull out the “Freebooters” scenario and pre-gen character that I’d used only two days previous with a mixed group of strangers, people I’ve played with a lot, and people I haven’t GM’d much a’tall, and see what THEY thought of the system.
The Good:
* A lot of laughing around the table and enjoyment, I thought.
* I think I set stakes pretty well in most cases, so that if the players won the conflict (which didn’t happen much, as noted in ‘ugly’, below), the results were cool, and if they failed, the complications were ALSO cool. Easiest example for that was “If you win, you get the lock open before the Guy comes back… if you fail, he comes back before you open the lock.” The player failed, and in walks The Guy. It was part of what made up what was probably the best scene of the evening.
* I tried to remember and use “Failure Doesn’t Mean the Character Looks Bad”, but there’s a corollary to this: “They CAN look bad, especially if that’s what the player wants.” There were a couple of failure-situations during the evening where player simply thought it would be cooler/funnier if their character just really flubbed up and looked kinda silly doing it. De really blew a “convince them I’m not a witch” conflict, and Lee actually had his character set his own beard on fire as the result of a too-cunning-plan-gone-wrong. It was fine for a one-shot, and honestly that kind of slapstickyness does fit the pirate genre pretty darn well, provided the characters get to turn around and be cool thereafter (which both did).
* Players taking charge and doing some aggressive scene-framing. This fell along the lines of “ooh, that thing with Jackie is cool for my character too: I want to be there. Jackie can I be there with you? Yeah? Okay, I’m there,” and lo, it was good.
The Bad
* Dogs in the Vineyard has this rule for the GM: “Say Yes or roll dice. I said ‘no’ on two occasions when I should have rolled dice or just said Yes. As impossible as I thought it was, I should have just dropped penalty dice on one of the sneak thief’s more hair-brained schemes, set Stakes, and let the situation fall out as it would, and I shouldn’t have balked Dave’s request for a few more XP from his Key as a result of a cunning plan. That last thing? I don’t even know WHY I did it. It was stupid.
* I wasn’t weaving the character’s scenes very well — there was too much downtime for some of the players, and not enough going on in the other scenes to interest them, AND *way* too much “wandering off when I’m not playing”, which was partly fed by the other two issues, and partly by outside factors, and it just made things not-hum. Also, when the other players aren’t really paying attention to or interested in your scene, you’re less likely to get Gift Dice from them spontaneously.
* Laughing and enjoyment is some good peanut butter to put on a sandwich, but I spread it out unevenly — too thick in some places, too thin in others, which means that I think the girls got a lot of screen time and the guys not as much. I just didn’t manage that very well. This ties into the scene-weaving problem as well, and contributed to the results.
The Ugly
* I was rolling really well, and the players were, as a group, rolling absolute shite. All night. It was truly atrocious. They would roll bad, then spend a pool point to get bonus dice, and the bonus dice would suck… and someone would give them Gift Dice, and they’re roll THEM, and they would suck EVEN WORSE. It made things a little frustrating for the players at times, I think; difficult to narrate at times, for me; and sort of ate into (1) the suspension of disbelief and (2) the enjoyment of the system and (3) their faith in their character’s competency.
* I used the exact same pattern for starting play as I did on Wednesday, part of which involved explaining the rules by using the character sheet right after everyone had selected their character for the evening. The problem that arose was that that period of play was the absolute worst 30 to 40 minutes of the evening for unavoidable non-play interruptions, which meant that for almost every one of the Six Key Points I needed to cover, I had to repeat myself at least once and maybe even four separate times to make sure everyone heard, didn’t check for understanding, got tired of giving the same examples over and over… and all that resulted in some confusing during play and mistakes. I’m not sure how I could have worked that better, except for maybe just jumping right into play, but that carries it’s own problems, so… that might simply have been out of my hands, somewhat — I’d avoided it on Wednesday night by having no kids around at all and no extraneous distractions, but that’s not something that’s going to be possible for years and years in my regular group.
All in all: fun night, definitely. One frustration was that we didn’t actually finish (some scenes ran quite long, the intro-rules portion ran about double of the first session, we were really laughing it up at times, and for whatever reason my regular group runs slower than a convention-style group) and I’m not sure when I can schedule a sequel without ‘using up’ a time slot in which I could be trying to get the Firefly game humming along regularly.
There is a lot to be said, as a GM, for having a simple, wide-open, reusable scenario with some easy-to-grasp pregen characters, then running the scenario two or three times with totally different groups; it helps you work on scenes and techniqutes where you didn’t do as well as you’d like “the last time”, it helps you hone some of your better tricks, and it illustrates in a very clear way how your player-friends are different from one another, AND similar. The danger in doing all that is that you can get in a bit of a rut, expecting people to react to a situation the same way as ‘last time” (they never do) and (the CARDINAL sin for repeat-sessions) tempts you to tell a later group some cool thing a PREVIOUS group did in a similar situation. Keep that crap to yourself — maybe forever, and at LEAST until the end of the session.

30 Replies to “The Shadow of Yesterday: Freebooters One-Shot (Second Run), Post-mortem”

  1. Our game (the Wednsday one) was fun but I can’t see enjoying the system for any sort of campaign. 3-5 sessions tops.
    Your anecdotes about people who really knew how to game the system made it clear that it would be near impossible to play a character with a definite personality and remain competitive. Massive point gain seems to lie in rapid shifts of Keys and therefore motivations and other main personality traits. To avoid that you’d need an entire group to agree to not do the things the system is designed to reward.

  2. Eh. I’m not explaining it well then.
    You cash in a Key and switch it for something else: you get 10 points. Sure, that’s a big deal.
    However, all of your Keys have those nice, fat 3 and 5 point rewards for continuing to play your character exactly along the same lines WITHOUT changing them, and while the 10-point ‘buy off’ reward is nice, it’s one time only: on a good session, you could pump out twice as much by NOT changing the key and instead hitting a series of scenes that reemphasize who you are right now. You then use the points gained to become even more… you.
    The 10-point moments are interesting to me because they are moments of profound change for the character — a sharp, definable moment that you can look at later and say “that is when he stopped being all about kicking other people’s asses” or “that is the moment when her love for Joe became stronger than her fears.” That’s cool, when that happens, and I love that the system gives you nice send-off into your new vision of the character when that happens. There isn’t any other game system, period, that gives you a reward for saying “I’m giving up my cowardice because I need to protect my lover.” In fact I can think of a couple that would penalize you, cuz you’d have to buy off some disad like “Cowardice.” Most systems wouldn’t even notice. For that matter, they don’t reward you for hitting scenes that are truly important to your character — they just penalize you if you don’t. TSoY notices all that.
    That said, you are not in any way obliged to continue to do that from session to session, and it would (obviously) be stupid to do so for any length of time, because it makes the character meaningless.
    I’m surprised (actually, astonished) you think I need to be reminded of this, honestly: I’m the person who dumped games like d20 in favor of games that reward coming up with meaningful story — obviously I’m not going to tout a game whose sole purpose is to change your character so much that the story becomes meaningless. I mean… obviously. I think I can point to few artifacts of evidence that indicate I favor a coherent story… honestly.
    Are there times when I can see someone hitting a ton of ‘buy off’ conditions at the same time? Sure. I can think of a perfect one, really. Let’s say your GM has told you that the game is going to involve a big war, and that the story is going to start in a city all of you live in, that’s about to be attacked by the enemy. Take X advances, and we’ll start.
    I make up an acolyte of a local temple. In my advances, I buy …
    … Key of Faith (or I could do Key of the Vow, or Key of the Pacifist… however I see the religion)
    … Key of Unrequited love (for another person in the temple)
    … Key of Conscience (helping those weaker than me)
    So in the first session, during the attack, I frame scenes where the temple itself is being attacked. During those scenes, my unrequited love is killed, as are most of the rest of the members of the Temple. I flee into the sewers to save my life.
    I buy off Key of Unrequited Love and, with some of that reward, pick up Key of Vengeance.
    I buy off Key of Faith, because this senseless slaughter of the faithful has made me lose my faith in the gods. I use this to pick up some skills and Secrets that will help me with my new Vengeance thing.
    But Key of Conscience I keep — I want to help those weaker then myself — if not me, who? Certainly not the Gods, who have forsaken us, or never existed to begin with. This is the new core of my character, because it is the link between my old self and my new self and a Key I’ll probably never get rid of.
    Will I keep Key of Vengeance for many many sessions, and hit the hell out of it in the process? Sure, and when I finally feel as though my vengeance has been had — OR when vengeance itself has become meaningless to the character — I’ll be rewarded for that change.
    Maybe introducing you to the system with a one-shot wasn’t a great idea, because the whole point of the sessions was simply (a) to teach people the system and (b) to encourage that kind of rapidfire key hitting/change, by giving you pregen characters and showing you how fast you can change them to make them more like someone you could continue to play.
    I mean John B took a bog-simple cut throat assassin and tweaked him around in about one hour so that he’s a grand-standing glory hound who thrives on conflict far more than killing. I’d bet if he continued for a few session, old Gull would develop some very John-like cunning (buying up the Reason pool), starting making some deals, and eventually buy off both his current Keys for things like “Key of Power” or “Key of the Hypocrit”…
    and then I doubt he’d change as much, because he’d be something John could fully enjoy.
    Anyway, I’ve rambled on a bit.

  3. Also, this bit confuses me:
    “it would be near impossible to play a character with a definite personality and remain competitive”
    Competitive against… who?
    Let’s take that Acolyte from my last post:
    Am I ‘gaming’ the system in setting up my character to sell off Keys right off the bat? Sure. I’m a gamer — I like crunchy systems I can play the hell out of… it’s one of the things I like doing… however, is that whole scene a thematically interesting and compelling transformation? Well, it is for me, and I’m the one playing the guy, so…
    … and if some other player gets grumpy cuz I just hit the hell out of my Keys and am now… ‘ahead’ of the other characters? I’d suggest they need to get off their asses and start playing, because you only get that gamer “ding” from playing the hell out of your character.
    You’ve got Key of the Coward? You (the PLAYER) better put yourself in a lot of dangerous positions. You’ve got Key of the Pacifist? Ditto.
    I mean… aside from that, when was the last time we worried that people were all powering up at the same rate? Good lord, Quinn was a full starting PC’s worth of points ahead of everyone else in the game by the end of TiHE.
    If you mean ‘competitive’ as in ‘I’m hitting my Keys as often as everyone else…” well, get the hell out there and start hitting them! Who in blazes is stopping you?
    No one. In the Friday night game, everyone was walking off the ship, and splitting up. Jackie headed for the home of Mario Chalk, head lamplighter. De was tentatively heading somewhere else. I explained that the house was packed to the gills with Lamplighters, the “law” in the town and De said “Oh, I want to be there – Jackie can I be there? I can? Okay, I’m there.”
    Why? Because her character had Key of the Wanted Man, and she wanted to maximize her chances to hit the hell out of that Key, so she framed herself into the scene.
    A table full of players aggressively going after “The things my character is about?” Bring. It. On.
    Oh, that would be a glorious campaign. A game where all the players were pushing their character to hit their Keys — the core of what their characters are about — as often and as hard as they can?
    That would be a hell of a game to see.

  4. Competitive against those who’ve designed their characters around point engines — you gave a couple of examples of such. Against those who really got the system, like Whatshisname planning his character around dumping Keys in rapid succession within the fist session to rack up the points and make such an engine. But, in another instance, changing his mind because a particular Key was paying off unexpectedly well.
    It looks to me like that is what the system rewards as well as what you talked up as examples of people really getting the game. Not what we were doing quite yet — though with pregens, doing so makes a lot more sense than in constantly morphing a character you made up yourself.
    Fun for a while. Great for one-shots, but for exploration of character I’ll take HQ or Dogs or (theoretically) True20 or even M&M.
    It’s the rapid morphing mechanism that would lead to, well, rapid morphing that leads me to view it askew.
    I could certainly be wrong. It would be a terrible shock since it happens so seldom… right. Anyway, a short series should prove it out one way or another.

  5. Actually, to ask another question of Randy (and because I can’t seem to shut up): does your assessment of whether or not you could enjoy the system in a longer campaign come from (a) your experience in the session you played or (b) my anecdotes?
    Because… fucking ignore the anecdotes.

  6. *reads Randy’s second post*
    I’m… having trouble following one or two of the sentences.
    First paragraph: he kept the Key for awhile because it was actually interesting (and, yes, profitable) to play the guy as a Paragon of Virtue for a couple sessions, before dumping it — that was something he wasn’t expecting that came out in play and made him alter his plan.
    Second paragraph: Too many pronouns for me to sort out what you’re talking about, exactly. I think what you’re saying is that the system rewards both hitting the hell out of your Keys as they currently stand, or in getting rid of them when they don’t interest you or make sense anymore. That’s true.
    Somewhere in there is an implied statement of “the game works better for someone who really gets the system”, to which I can only reply “well, yeah.” That’s true of any game, period. I would submit that, while true, TSoY’s rules, at a whopping 40 pages, are pretty darn easy to ‘get’… two of those (damned) anecdotes I shared were about players who’d never played the game before, and one who’d never played ANY RPG before TSoY.
    I feel compelled to prove a point about TSoY’s ability to enable character exploration — when your Keys are wholly about who the character is, and you’re rewarded for engaging in scenes that *illustrate* those keys… a very very clear picture (and story) of your character should be the product. You seem to see buying off a key as muddying the waters of character definition, where I see it highlighting the key turning points in their story.
    I’m curious if my Acolyte example above feels like rapid morphing to you — maybe we just see the same thing in a very different ways.
    Finally, I’d have to agree — a short series seems a good way (now that the one-shot has adequately illustrated the basic conflict mechanics) to really kick the tires on the game and see if it’ll run.

  7. In a tearing hurry here, but:
    By “get the system” I really meant “game the system” in the munchkinny sense.
    “You seem to see buying off a key as muddying the waters of character definition, where I see it highlighting the key turning points in their story.”
    Sure, in a short game rapid change can indicate character growth in crisis circumstances, or in a sudden widenening of opportunities. But to continue changing at that pace leads to something like the classic Claremont X-Men. “Today, I’m an African tribal goddess. Tomorrow, I’m a young Modesty Blaise. Day after, Punk Leathergirl. Then, Sgt. Rock. Then…”

  8. So… actually aggressively using the system as intended is a negative thing to do? (I’m assuming munchkin is negative.)
    Let’s say I’m playing that ex-accolyte in war-torn [country], from my examples up above. I’ve got Key of Vengeance and Key of Conscience… when am I playing like a munchkin?
    When I try to exact my vengeance on the invaders for killing my unrequited love?
    When I risk my life to protect those weaker than myself from the invaders?
    Or when I do either of those things, and then tally up the XP I just earned?
    Does it make those first two activities somehow less interesting or full of character-driven story, because I’m getting xp for it? Or that I have to ask for it? Or that I, as the player, am purposely driving my character into those situations?
    Am I being a munchkin, or exploring, scene by scene, what vengeance is doing to him?
    Second point: I’m not using the word ‘rapid’ anywhere in my examples of buying off keys. Obviously, you’re not going to change your character with the same speed in a campaign as you would in a one-shot. It’s a one-shot. You’re cramming.

  9. I shouldn’t have balked Dave’s request for a few more XP from his Key as a result of a cunning plan
    Ah, but you only balked a few moments, and you did say Yes. Gave me a small bit of satisfied triumph.
    when the other players aren’t really paying attention to or interested in your scene, you’re less likely to get Gift Dice from them spontaneously
    I was not helping (or, rather, the person who left the Jon Stewart America book on the table was helping me not help), but I tried to follow along a bit.
    and someone would give them Gift Dice, and they’re roll THEM, and they would suck EVEN WORSE.
    Meh. Shitty dice happen. It’s not like things weren’t even close, it’s just that the dice fell as they fell. Didn’t feel manipulated or let down or frustrated.
    I’d avoided it on Wednesday night by having no kids around at all and no extraneous distractions, but that’s not something that’s going to be possible for years and years in my regular group
    Yup. And I don’t have a good answer, and it’s frustrated me before from both sides of the GM screen.
    On the bright side, we made a concerted effort to get started in a timely fashion (we could have easily spent another hour upstairs chit-chatting and eating), so …
    for whatever reason my regular group runs slower than a convention-style group
    Because for us it’s as much a social gathering to be with each other as a gaming opportunity. In other words, joking and laughing and socializing with Lee and De and Jackie (and you, and Margie while she was there, and the kids) is an important part of the experience, and ain’t nothing going to change that (one would hope).
    So adjust expectations accordingly. (And, yes, it’s frustrated the hell out of me before, too. 🙂 )
    tempts you to tell a later group some cool thing a PREVIOUS group did in a similar situation. Keep that crap to yourself — maybe forever, and at LEAST until the end of the session.
    Heh. Yeah. I was mildly irked, irrationally, to be told that Randy had had much the same fundamental idea as mine for resolving the Groffo problem. And, yes, irrationally. 🙂
    The 10-point moments are interesting to me because they are moments of profound change for the character — a sharp, definable moment that you can look at later and say “that is when he stopped being all about kicking other people’s asses” or “that is the moment when her love for Joe became stronger than her fears.” That’s cool, when that happens, and I love that the system gives you nice send-off into your new vision of the character when that happens. There isn’t any other game system, period, that gives you a reward for saying “I’m giving up my cowardice because I need to protect my lover.” In fact I can think of a couple that would penalize you, cuz you’d have to buy off some disad like “Cowardice.” Most systems wouldn’t even notice. For that matter, they don’t reward you for hitting scenes that are truly important to your character — they just penalize you if you don’t. TSoY notices all that.
    And I think that’s neat. Really, it’s a nice way of handling that sort of thing. But, as it stands, there wouldn’t be anything mechanically (just violation of the social contract) to keep someone from shifting Keys willy-nilly in order to maximize XP. The anecdotes you told about how fine the Key system is all (or frequently) emphasized that Key shift thing, including “see how X was able to get lots of points by Key farming” (not your words).
    Which maybe means that “fucking ignore the anecdotes” is a better prescription. Because it *is* neat that the system allows for a straightforward accrual of points for what a character is all about (combat or no), and also for a radical realignment thereof if the game shifts.
    Anyway, I liked it. I’d be interested in doing more of it. Heck, retrofit Firefly into it, if you want. 🙂
    If there were some way to disincent abuse of the system (outside of frowns around the table), I think that would be even neater.

  10. ular reason, my mind turned to Luke Skywalker. (Ignore whether these are the actual keys — I’m sure there’s something that would fit).
    Beginning of Ep4:
    Key of Duty (to his uncle/aunt)
    Key of Glory Hound (seeking to be a hero)
    After his Aunt/Uncle get gacked:
    Key of Vengeance (striking against the Empire)
    Key of Glory Hound (still)
    Ep5:
    Same.
    Ep6:
    Somewhere in here (early on in the movie, or at the end of Ep5) we change to:
    Key of Redemption (of DV)
    Key of Glory Hound (yet, still, some more)
    Arguably, he actually keeps Key of Duty, he just keeps shifting it from Duty to Owen/Beru, to Duty to Obi-Wan, to Duty to the Rebellion, to Duty to Yoda, to Duty to His Friends, to Duty to His Dad (as he defines it). He keeps getting points for Duty, though, as he keeps saving people.
    But he stays a freaking Glory Hound through the entire series, too.
    Just noodling here.

  11. I’d thought about the Firefly game, certainly, but honestly? I like Heroquest TOO, for some different and some similar reasons, and I think it would be … annoying … both for me and the players to ‘lose’ some of what’s there in the HQ sheet in order to transfer to TSoY.
    I’d be more inclinded to run some other nascent thing in TSoY… such as
    1) the Xian Quan (spring fountain) game, where (a) we never really played our HQ characters and (b) what we did do was ages and ages ago. There’s a group running an Ancient China, Three Kingdoms game right now who’s going to dish on their Secrets and Keys in the next few days, so that might push me more that way.
    2) Just… something else entirely in the actual setting of Near that comes with the TSoY rules — something in a humid, decadent city of intrique and assassins and slavery and lotus poisons.
    … and yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of Leiber and Howard. Why?

  12. I enjoyed the Wednesday night game, but I think I agree more with Randy on the utility of the system. The system begs for experience-maxing key turnover, making it more suitable for short runs than long campaigns IMO.
    While a life altering metamorphosis is fine and easily rationalized every once in a while, I can see the experience point incentive of key-turnover causing frequent and rapid significant changes to the character. Fun on short runs, but I think it would result in a mess long term as far as character consistency goes.
    You can always try a longer campaign with it, but I would put some sort of artificial limit on frequency of buying off keys if you do. Otherwise I fear someone will continually turn over one or more keys every session just to match his current key to the current plotline in order to maximize experience point earnings (i.e. playing the system rather than playing the character).
    Just my opinion.

  13. Also, on the potential for abuse of “key-churn” through buying off a series of Keys:
    1. I would not discount the potential power and usefulness of disapproving frowns (ie: “Social Contract”) for controlling such things, especially if we simple say ‘please make your character progression make sense in a story-sense. We’re all grown-ups, AND friends, and that shouldn’t be that hard for all of us to do.
    2. Someone who was worried about this situation came up with a houserule that basically said “If you buy off a key, you get either 10 xp or the number of points you’ve generated with that Key since taking it, whichever is lower.” Clinton didn’t like that rule at all, but DID think it was workable if it read “… whichever is HIGHER.”
    ((Also, note that the STANDARD rules suggest 10 xp, not 5 xp for advances. 5 xp is the ‘fast advance’ setting, which I used for the one-shot because… well, it’s a one-shot and I wanted to see some advances happen.))
    To quote Clinton and a couple others on the subject:
    Clinton: “I would like to address your worry, though: key churn is nigh impossible. Each key has a buyoff which isn’t necessarily easy to do. In addition, each Key can only be taken once ever per character, so you’re going to start to run out. Lastly, playing with someone who really, truly, manages to find a way to do this means you’re playing with a genius or a dick.”
    While we might have some geniuses, we don’t have dicks, in my opinion.
    And a TSoY GM who’s running one of the games I’ve seen some great “key hitting stories” from:
    Even my most aggressive XP-maxing player — Tony Lower-Basch, author of Capes, which is driven by resource churn — hasn’t come anywhere near “breaking” the Key system, whatever that would mean. At his most intense, he took a Key (Imposter) at the beginning of a session, hit it for the 5 point reward at least once, and then bought it off at the end, for a net gain of at least 10 XP… but it also produced beautifully dramatic play, as his character pretended to still be bound by various religious dicta she’d actually renounced the episode before, only to reveal her apostasy and take public revenge against her religious superior at the end of the session. So no problem for the story, there.
    Nor for the mechanics: Yes, Tony’s character has become significantly more powerful than the other two players’, but (a) he rather deserves it, as he’s driven more than his share of drama in his fierce quest to hit his Keys; and (b) the diminishing-returns effect — that it takes exponentially more XP to buy up Abilities as they advance — has kept him from racing so far ahead it beomes a problem.
    And meanwhile the Keys system is sheer glorious brilliance with rocket boosters. Screw “roleplaying vs. rollplaying” and the old “munchkin” canard: In this system, the more greedily your players seek XPs, the better the story will be.
    For myself, what resonates in that quote above is the GM’s “He rather deserves it, because he’s pushing a lot of dramatic play,” is exactly why it didn’t bother me that Quinn had a lot more points than other characters in the Things in Heaven and Earth game.

  14. ” In addition, each Key can only be taken once ever per character, so you’re going to start to run out.”
    That does make a big difference and wasn’t clear from my one night of playing (part of the problem when working with a single data point). Still, there are an awful lot of keys with more being added or suggested all the time.
    I’m curious about Tony LB’s “dramatic play”…was it dramatic for that one session or was he looking at the overall history of the character? In other words, although dramatic moments were plentiful, did it really make sense that someone could go through that many changes and be anything other than a soap opera character?
    I guess the answer to that might depend a lot on the genre you are playing. Let me know how it works out if you try a longer campaign with it.

  15. Two thoughts about John’s comments:
    You can always try a longer campaign with it, but I would put some sort of artificial limit on frequency of buying off keys if you do.
    The thing with key turnover being “the thing that will net you the most points” is a fallacy — which I think is created by the nature of the one-shot. It ALWAYS more profitable, if it suits your character concept, to keep the keys you have and hit them consistently.
    Example: I’ll make you a deal: I’ll give you ten bucks today, right now… or I’ll give you five bucks every day for the next two weeks. Which would you rather?
    Otherwise I fear someone will continually turn over one or more keys every session just to match his current key to the current plotline
    A ha! I’m starting to see where the disconnect is happening.
    John: I don’t run scenarios. I don’t have plotlines. Period. With the exception of that damned d20 game I couldn’t seem to quit, I haven’t come to the table with a plotline or scenario in… (checked Actual Play blog entries). Over two years. Since before March of 2004. Even that one-shot was just situations where the character’s choices determine what would happen. It’s much more constrained than normal in DURATION, but not in choices.
    Here’s what I do:
    There’s a situation with a bunch of NPCs. To greater or lesser degrees, the PCs are tied into that network of NPCs. All the NPCs want something from at least one if not more of the PCs. During the session, I play the hell out of the NPCs.
    To prep for a session, I look at each character sheet and come up with three “Bangs” for each character — situations that I think (hope) the character will not be able to ignore — something that requires some kind of REACTION.
    “A room full of goblins to fight.” is not a bang.
    This is a bang: “The pack of goblins you’ve been chasing splits up — one group is bearing off the holy relic of your Order, the other group is leading a string of slaves, one of which is your sister. The groups are going different directions. What do you do?”
    I make that list up a few hours before the game. I make sure the Bangs are written in a way that I really don’t know what the player will do.
    In TSoY, the flags that I would look at in making my Bangs will INVARIABLY be your current Keys. Therefore, every session, for every character, will involve elements that directly address the characters Keys. That is, in fact, my OBLIGATION as the GM.
    In ADDITION to that, the PLAYER is pushing for scenes where their Keys come into play.
    Example:
    Me: okay, Joe, what’s going on with you?
    Joe (who has Key of the Pacifist): Let’s start a scene where the enemy orcs have found my hideyhole in the abandoned barn and are about to find me in there, in a room with a bunch of sharp farm implements.
    Me: Awesome.
    —-
    There is no way that any player should EVER “have to” change their Keys to fit the session’s events — both the GM and the Player are aiming events AT the characters. The ONLY reason to drop a Key then becomes The Story for that character.
    So if they do that… the next session, I’d make up my Bangs, aimed at their NEW Keys.

  16. As and example from our own play, I’ll point out that John made more xp off of hitting his existing Keys (Masochist and Renown) in less than an hour than he did from buying off Key of Bloodlust.

  17. Now, did he do a buyoff to get there? Sure. Would there be any particular reason for him to dump those Keys in a long-running campaign?
    “I get xp from getting into tough conflicts… and by bragging about it later… when is that opportunity NOT going to be there for me?”
    Now, maybe it’s going to be more enjoyable for JOHN to have a guy who’s being the Power Behind the Throne, and the like. Certainly Gull Trecher isn’t the kind of guy John would make up from scratch in the first place, but let’s say he starts off with Gull, and he wants to take that simple cutthroat from his beginnings of mugging rikshaw drivers all the way up to being the brutal advisor to the local Governor of the whole region, with a local brute squad of enforcers and the ear of said Governor.
    That would be an AWESOME story, with probably a half-dozen instances of Key buy-off on the way, but I daresay the story would be coherent, and each of those Keys would, before being replaced (ultimately by Key of Power and Key of the Imposter, maybe 🙂 ) generate great scenes and truckloads of xp.

  18. “John: I don’t run scenarios. I don’t have plotlines. Period.”
    I think we have different ideas of what constitutes a plotline. Wednesday night we all were given the task of recovering a key. Although the choice was offered between the demon or the Captain as final recipient, it was definitely a recover the McGuffin plotline IMO. It just had more sideshows attached.
    With regards to your general style though:
    A bang is usually merely a choice of “plotlines” in that the circumstance favors a character reacting in only a few ways. Not often is a bang ignored entirely by a player. In your example, the player is most likely to pursue one of the goblin groups, but not go plan a theft of an entirely unrelated McGuffin. So you’ve really narrowed his likely actions into a “pursuit plotline”. Now if that is tailored to the character’s current key I agree you will have a better chance of avoiding key turnover. However, characters are not in a vacuum…they also usually get to deal with the other player’s bangs too.
    If the other player has substantially different keys (resulting in a substantially different bang), there may be incentive to piggy-back on the other player’s situation by emulating his keys as well. This would be especially true if it is substantially easier to hit their keys than your own due to the details of the key or of the bang.

  19. Wait: Something just occured to me. I realized I keep seeing a Key Buyoff being associated with Life-changing Metamorphosis.
    That’s not true.
    Look at Gull. Gull starts with Key of Bloodlust. Gull gets into lots of fights — at a very basic level, Gull is a bargain-basement assassin.
    In the middle of the Wednesday game, Gull got beat in a fight and John opted to get rid of Key of Bloodlust. He picked up Key of Renown and Key of the Masochist.
    What has changed about Gull, from an OUTSIDERS point of view? Nothing. Gull is still a violent, violent man, picking fights and taking names.
    The change is subtle and internal: it’s not BEATING someone that really charges him up — it’s the HARD FIGHT that really gets him going (and after the adrenaline rush from the building-flattening fight with the Witch, that makes TOTAL SENSE) — and after a hard fight like that, he wants people to KNOW what happened.
    The change isn’t life-altering: it’s subtle, and it can be summed up in one sentence:
    Gull is becoming proud of himself.
    Anyway, I wandered far afield on this, but the bottom line is this — these aren’t (or aren’t always) life-changing shifts we’re talking about — it can be as subtle as a minor change in motivation… or buying off Key of Unrequited Love to get Key of True Love when your heart’s one desire finally reciprocates.

  20. “Wait: Something just occured to me. I realized I keep seeing a Key Buyoff being associated with Life-changing Metamorphosis.
    That’s not true.”
    Well, it’s not necessarily true. But instead of Gull taking masochism, etc., he could just as easily taken up pacifism which would have been a drastic change. I just chose not to push the boundaries of logic and tried to be as realistic as possible.

  21. So you’ve really narrowed his likely actions into a “pursuit plotline”.
    Except I don’t care about the chase; I care about which thing the player choses. THAT is the point — what are you going to say about your character by your choice?
    And I didn’t say “Which group are you going to chase?” I said “What do you do?”
    Saying “hell with the church, and my sister — I’m going to go rob a bank and live like a king in Patagonia” is a perfectly viable choice… a VERY interesting choice.
    The issue of having dealing with each other’s Keys isn’t relevant — I don’t run party-style games — the players can hare off and do their own thing, OR work together because they thing there’s some goal-synergy.
    What keeps the players weaving back and forth over each other? The situation: I might (as I did for the last HQ game) make up a network of NPCs in a Barony and say “make up whoever you want for this game, but define relationships with at least three of the NPCs I’ve provided in which SOMETHING IS AT STAKE.
    That gives me overlap and coherency. If different players have a relationship with the pretty young nun (one loves her, another is jealous of her becuase the first PC loves her, and a third is her father, but unrevealed), all I have to do is squeeze that NPC with a Bang, and the whole room winces.
    But it’s not a scenario. I’m not aiming for an end. All I’m doing is keeping the PCs in motion — when the action bogs down — toss out a Bang and see what happens.
    Now, yes, in the one-shot, I gave everyone a Key in common, so that everyone could all do their own thing and we’d still come to the same basic scene within a reasonable timeframe (as I said, it’s a one-shot. I needed something that would come to a close FAST.) That was entirely a convenience required by the time-constraints of activity we were doing for that night, but in no way were any of the events that occured required.
    Consider: before the actual play even starts — you knew what the macguffin was, and you knew exactly who had it. You could have gone right after it.
    Everyone had something better to do. 🙂
    ((And don’t tell me the Quartermaster’s missions forced you to go after some other mission — people BEAT him and went after that stuff anyway, just cuz it sounded cool.))

  22. “Well, it’s not necessarily true. But instead of Gull taking masochism, etc., he could just as easily taken up pacifism which would have been a drastic change. I just chose not to push the boundaries of logic and tried to be as realistic as possible.”
    Right! 🙂
    Why? Cuz you’re a genius who’s not a dick. 🙂
    Or, more cogently, you’re interested in the story and a story that makes sense.
    I would submit that, when you’re sitting at a table with people you trust, you can trust them not to do something completely asinine with their characters, because they want something logical too.
    I can see a scene where some character (NOT Gull, but some character 🙂 ) gave up Key of Bloodlust and took Key of the Pacifist or Key of the Vow or something that was a drastic change.
    Would THAT be a life-changing shift? Sure. However, if I were playing with players I trust (and WHY would I play with anyone I didn’t trust, exactly?), I have no doubt that the scene that LED to that change would make such a drastic shift seem entirely believable and thematically sound.

  23. “”And I didn’t say “Which group are you going to chase?” I said “What do you do?”
    Saying “hell with the church, and my sister — I’m going to go rob a bank and live like a king in Patagonia” is a perfectly viable choice… a VERY interesting choice.””
    By listing only a few pertinent facts (the nature of the bang), you are implicitely “loading the dice” as far as what the player chooses to do. Nine times out of ten the player will opt to deal directly with the bang, even though other actions are available (as they are in any game- even plotted out ones with a definite task “assigned” to the character). In any case, the act of making a choice will not hit any particular key, it is the character activity *after* the choice is made that generally does.
    In the example of Gull, he could either choose not to pursue the hit on the witch and do something else or he could accept it. Making the choice itself netted him nothing from an experience point standpoint. However the activity that resulted from the choice (i.e. the violence he committed in pursuit of the task) netted him all his points. See the difference? The decision itself made a character statement but earned no points until he actually engaged in violent activity required by his key.
    “Now, yes, in the one-shot, I gave everyone a Key in common, so that everyone could all do their own thing and we’d still come to the same basic scene within a reasonable timeframe (as I said, it’s a one-shot. I needed something that would come to a close FAST.) That was entirely a convenience required by the time-constraints of activity we were doing for that night, but in no way were any of the events that occured required.”
    That is usually what a plotline is for..for convenience given time constraints of the game. It does not have to mean railroading to a particular result or a required event. In an ongoing campaign I can see where you would not want to rely on the technique, but the moment you come up with a bang to get things moving, you are implicitely narrowing the likely field of character activity, i.e. creating a soft plotline.
    “Consider: before the actual play even starts — you knew what the macguffin was, and you knew exactly who had it. You could have gone right after it.”
    Yet by the end I (and everyone else) *was* involved in going after it so it was not ignored- just delayed in execution to enjoy some of the “sideshow”. Now we certainly could have ignored it entirely (being just another available choice), but like any choice in a game there are consequences/repercussions. In this story, the likely consequences would have been loss of life (pissing off the demon) or livelihood (pissing off the Captain).
    Here’s my unscientific take on bangs/plotlines. Players are lazy bastards just looking for a good time. Some will be proactive and generate their own conflicts/choices without GM input, but most will react to the implied choices offered by the GM’s bang rather than do the mental work required to generate their own from scratch (unless they really dislike what the GM has come up with). As a result, when you frame a bang it will usually suggest one of a few options to the player by the nature of the information offered to them. This in effect creates a soft plotline for the player to follow. That does not mean you have details (or even the destination) planned out ahead of time, but you have created a general sense of where the story is likely going. To me, this is creating a soft plotline.

  24. John, I don’t think we’re disagreeing here:
    By listing only a few pertinent facts (the nature of the bang), you are implicitely “loading the dice” as far as what the player chooses to do.
    Maybe in a one-shot. I have to believe that in a campaign-type setting, the player is aware of lots of facts of setting and their own character beyond those given in the goblin-sentence… that the bank-heist wasn’t out of thin air.
    Nine times out of ten the player will opt to
    I disagree. Nine times out of ten, the player will think of some action that I didn’t think. That’s the only reliable RPG axiom. It’s easier for me to not try to think of anything. Odds are *good* that I wouldn’t be wasting my time to stat-out a pack of generic goblins ahead of time, but they aren’t *sure*.
    In any case, the act of making a choice will not hit any particular key, it is the character activity *after* the choice is made that generally does.
    And here’s where we aren’t disagreeing. You’re totally right. Bangs don’t give you xp — actions give you action. Bangs are about making a choice — making those choices creates (in part) the story… taking the actions that net you xp* also help create the story, but the two things aren’t synonymous.
    ((* The player can also take actions that do NOT net xp. You did this with Gull a number of times — solving problems without using the violent options that would have gotten him XP. That’s a cool choice, too.))
    In the example of Gull, he could either choose not to pursue the hit on the witch and do something else or he could accept it. Making the choice itself netted him nothing from an experience point standpoint.
    Right. When I say that that’s what I as the GM care about — I mean from a story point of view, not that that’s what the XP system is watching. You’re totally right… bang-choices and xp-gaining-actions are usually two totally different things.
    the moment you come up with a bang to get things moving, you are implicitely narrowing the likely field of character activity, i.e. creating a soft plotline.
    Only retroactively.
    If I, as a GM, write up a scenario in the traditional format: “guy hires group to go do this thing, and here’s all the things that they can or will run into on the way to do said Thing,” that is what I’m thinking about when YOU say “the plotline and/or scenario for the session.”
    I’m not doing that. I have a network of NPCs you’re tied into, and they all want stuff, and they’re trying to get it… I’m not plotting things, I’m just playing the NPCs in the same way that you’re just playing your PCs.
    Afterwards, you’re looking back and saying ‘what happened between the beginning and the end was the adventure’s plotline,’ and to me, what you’re looking at is the summary of what happened.
    I guess a “plotline”, to me, is the GM writing down what’s going to happen ahead of time. I’m writing down … not that. Something else… I’m writing down something that will force the players to decide on a course of action (or inaction — that’s viable too) — and what comes from that is “what happened.”
    Here’s my unscientific take on bangs/plotlines.
    Okay, we’re getting too binary in thinking about Bangs, due to my laziness in the Goblin scenario.
    Here’s the Bang that we started off Randy’s character with in a Sorcerer campaign two years ago:
    “You open up your walk-in closet the morning after a long evening alone in your apartment and find your girlfriend, dead, hanging from a meathook.”
    Still a perfectly viable Bang. (in some ways better than the Goblin thing — the Goblin bang is better if the character in question has a religious tie and a family tie to choose between. :), and better in some ways because it’s more open to any kind of reaction.
    That does not mean you have details (or even the destination) planned out ahead of time, but you have created a general sense of where the story is likely going. To me, this is creating a soft plotline.
    And… to me… it’s creating a setting that’s in motion, rather than static. It’s a plotline in the sense that I know what the NPCs would do in a vacuum. It’s situation.
    What do I mean… hmm… how should I say this more clearly? I’ll try another example.
    If the PCs aren’t inserted INTO the situation as presented, stuff would still HAPPEN. If the PCs weren’t inserted into the Freebooters situation… Vira’s spell would result in Grofo (probably) killed or maimed by the Lamplighters, for example, and she’d be left alone again, looking for her next lover.
    Hmm. I just realized something, talking about this:
    The *problem* with that Freebooters scenario as written is that all the stuff around Grofo and the lamplighters is in motion — things are actively changing, right at that moment. By contrast, the stuff surrounding the Key of Siotam is static: if the PCs don’t show up… Nothing Happens. Nothing will change. The “MacGuffin” part of the scenario is very much traditional “adventure” stock — and I think that’s why it always seems to be kinda plain and less-interesting than the stuff that Grofo needs done.
    Huh. That’s cool. I can fix that. (It’s not my scenario, but I’m still going to fix that.)
    So… yeah, I totally see what you’re saying, John. I see your “soft plotline” and my “setting in motion” as two terms for the same thing. In a sense, yeah, it’s a plotline — by setting up a situation where things are in motion, I’m setting up a situation where certain things are more likely to happen, or that at the very least it’s likely that SOMETHING is going to happen.
    It’s not a village where everyone’s just standing in the stores, waiting to buy stuff from the PCs or sell them stuff: the grocer is sleeping with the mayor’s wife… the wife wants her husband dead… her son wants the grocer run out of town because he knows what’s going on… etc etc. I dunno if that qualifies as a plot…
    Anyway, bottom line, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing on anything but terminology 🙂
    I’d really like to run some more games with everyone who’s been posting on this thread, regardless of system.

  25. “”You open up your walk-in closet the morning after a long evening alone in your apartment and find your girlfriend, dead, hanging from a meathook.””
    Heh. I like that one.
    But yeah, I think our main difference is in terminology. For example in the above “unitary” bang, I still see an implicit plotline where you obviously don’t. That being to discover who killed the girlfriend and why. At some point in the game, I’m sure you had to figure out the answers to those questions to allow Randy to progress with the story. That is a plotline, even though a nebulous one when you made up the bang. The fact is, someone killed the girlfriend and put her on a meathook…there is a story there the PC is meant to discover.
    I mean, theoretically at least, Randy could have just had his character shrug and close the closet door, then go on to other things without a second thought. But the strong likelihood is that he will strive to find out who did it and why, then probably take action if appropriate. He was given information by the GM that he was implicitely meant to act upon. The nature of that information *usually* channels the player to a certain degree being my point.
    Getting back to keys and how they relate to the planned use of bangs- if you are tailoring your bangs with the character’s key in mind, you are in effect trying to predict how the player will react to the bang (that is to choose a path that will allow his key to come into play), which really means you are biasing the character towards a certain general course of action you’ve thought of whether you realize it or not.
    Now in this context that is a good thing because it gives the player more opportunity to hit their keys. Like you said, the game is all about hitting the keys and driving the play. However, no player/character operates in a vacuum and IMO the “grass is always greener” comes into play on occasion. My prediction is you will see a lot of key turning, even when the bang you provided (meant for the player’s current key) should allow for hitting the current key at a reasonable pace.
    I’m sure “sweet spots” will come up where a character stabilizes for a while because the key is getting hit alot- but the system encourages change to a great degree. In your prior analogy of asking if you would rather have ten dollars today or 5 every day afterwards, a more accurate analogy would be to ask if you would rather have ten dollars today followed by five dollars tomorrow, then maybe another ten the day after that ad-infinitum (until you run out of keys to pick after which you get 5 dollars a day) or just a steady 5 dollars every day.
    Anyway, I wouldn’t mind giving the system more play testing myself (as long as the genre isn’t one I dislike). Fun discussion by the way.

  26. I mean, theoretically at least, Randy could have just had his character shrug and close the closet door, then go on to other things without a second thought.
    Except that, in that instance, that was the campaign starting “Kicker” — sort of a super-bang that the player comes up with as part of character generation — with the express instructions that it has to be something that the character *can’t* ignore — there’s a literary term for it I can’t remember right now — an event after which the character literally CANNOT return to the life they had.

  27. Getting back to keys and how they relate to the planned use of bangs- if you are tailoring your bangs with the character’s key in mind, you are in effect trying to predict how the player will react to the bang (that is to choose a path that will allow his key to come into play), which really means you are biasing the character towards a certain general course of action you’ve thought of whether you realize it or not.
    That’s… not my goal in the least. Keys give you xp. I look at your Keys and say “He’s got key of [whatever]. I will come up with some bangs that involve scenes where those Keys can be hit, either easily for a few points or with more sacrifice for BIG rewards… and the Bang portion of it also means that there are decisions being made that are thematically interesting.
    But I’m not picking the path. The PLAYER did when they picked the Key. They said “This is what interests me. Scenes that let me hit this stuff is what I want to play.”
    Same as that Kicker/Bang for Randy — *he* wrote it — I just played it.
    And yeah… I did eventually figure out who’d killed the girlfriend… as soon as Randy told Dave who he thought had done it — that was who it was.
    Player. Authorship. Whether they realize it or not (and some of them get downright uncomfortable when I point out how much of the story came from THEM, not me), that’s what’s going on. I’m just looking at what they’re TELLING me they want their story to be about, and (my contribution) giving it to them in various hopefully interesting ways.

  28. I don’t even cast illusions that I’m doing that — I don’t draw attention to it in the middle of the game, but I don’t even try to imply that I come up with this stuff. I don’t.
    Last HQ game I ran, I’ve got a character in the group who’s a young female squire who’s goal is “become a knight” and who took an attribute “underestimated by men”, and an antagonist relationship with (a) the knight she’s assigned to and (b) the guy in charge of all squire training in the barony.
    I think it’s crystal clear what she wants her ‘stuff’ to be about in the game. Should could have just as easily written me a note saying “hit me in the face over and over again with male chauvinism and disregard and let me deal with it head on.” And that’s all I did — no finesse to it at all. I gave it to her, session after session, until the end of the campaign, and she was shaking her head and grinning every time it happened.
    “The head knight wants you to keep your charge, the noble heir, out of trouble. Your mentor, Lady Whassername, wants you to let him make an ass of himself, so people realize they need the Baron back. The heir’s younger brother has hinted that he’d like you to be his squire instead, and your friend would like the chance to seduce the Heir and get him to marry her and settle down a little bit.
    The Heir announces he’s heading down to the pub to tie one on. What do you do?”
    I swear to god, I didn’t write a word of that: the player told me what she wanted to deal with, and I just pointed the right NPCs at her and let them pull her in their own different directions.

  29. Holy crap that’s a lot of posts! Interesting too.
    Reading through my worries about the system are a lot less than they were.
    Whatshisname (Tony Lower-Basch) is apparently not the munchkin that I’d gathered, and munchkinism (point-engine builds) not the ideal to emulate.
    Rapid, point-maxing change was rather a theme in your examples/anecdotes. Or so it seemed to me. Good that it isn’t necessarily so.
    The once per Key rule makes a big difference, as does lower xp rewards for switching them out.

  30. It occurred to me this morning (thinking of John’s words ‘play testing’) that the little print-outs of the rules that I gave everyone might have given the impression that the game wasn’t finished.
    Certainly not the case. It’s been out in book format for 2 or 3 years. Clinton has also released the raw text for free, however, under the Creative Commons license — of which he is quite the proponent.
    http://www.anvilwerks.com/ : Anvilwerks, Clinton’s company
    * http://zork.net/~nick/loyhargil/tsoy2/book1–rulebook.html : A very nice HTML version of the 2nd ed. rules

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