Following up from this earlier post, I spoke with the wife a bit more about what it is she liked about Tim Power’s Last Call. With it comes the question of, “How do you pull this off in a traditional RPG?”
The element that she highlighted with Last Call was that there were parallel stories going on, each significant of their own accord and interwoven through each other. There was the mundane problems going on where there were hitmen and what-have-you. But then there was this mythic element, where the actions taken also tied in to and reflected a larger coherent myth. And the mythic aspects reflected back into the prosaic world, sometimes miraculously.
Using Last Call as a specific example, on the one hand you have a general play for power with elements of the supernatural drawn in. But on the other hand you have aspects of the Fisher King myth woven in there as well, impacting the effects and in turn impacting them.
In a novel you can seamlessly blend these elements together because, as an author, you are in control of the details and can weave it together pretty tightly. But the wife and I could not think of how you would work something up like that in a traditional roleplaying setup. Especially without leaving the players feeling like they’ve been railroaded. That last is extra hard. You can focus success or failure in a scenario around some myth that’s floating around in your head, but more likely than not you’re just going to have pissed off and frustrated players.
In a traditional roleplaying game (which I will use in this post to refer to immersionist play in the actor stance, you jackasses), you’ve got the players portraying characters that are presumably clueless about the larger myth that is going on while the GM is the person that has the big picture but can’t really make the players follow the cosmology. (Hell, sometimes it’s just hard to get people to make characters that fit in the setting. “I’m Batman!”) Running a simple murder mystery game alone can be very hard. This sort of game seems to take a few steps farther down the “ZOMG that’s hard” path.
In a more story-game style setup, I imagine you could have some sort of collaborative exploration of the myth as you go along, having the player group as a whole building the myth as you go along. But I really like the idea of being a player who doesn’t entirely know what is going on but gets swept up into the events and having to respond to the events in the game from that point of view.
As I started on this post, a few games came to mind that have elements of this in them, but I honestly haven’t played most of these so I’m not sure how well any of them actually work. (And, after I thought about it, I don’t know how well it would work if you blended them all together.) So here’s a recap of some existing games that I think touch upon these ideas.
One of the functions of being a Noble is that you are able to switch back and forth between mythic and prosaic reality. In mythic reality the sun is pulled around the Earth by a dude in a chariot. In prosaic reality the Earth rotates on an axis so that the sun appears to travel across the sky relative to a local observer on the surface.
So with this you could pick a lock in a conventional fashion. Or you could switch to the mythic version of things and smooth talk the spirit of the lock to open for you because actions in mythic reality reflect into the prosaic reality. And sometimes prosaic reality fills in the back details based off of crazy things done in mythic reality. So if you shoot down the sun with your bow and someone replaces it, the news will report it as an eclipse. And records will indicate that the eclipse was predicted.
Additionally, a key way for Excrucians (the Big Big Bads in Nobilis) to attack Nobles is to undermine concepts in a symbolic fashion. Reinhold, Sorrow’s Regal, might suddenly find Excrucians seeking to undermine the nature of Sorrow, perhaps causing tragedy to be a thing to celebrate or removing causes of Sorrow. The more subtle and insidious the damage, the bigger impact it will have.
Reading through examples in the book, like the attack on Treachery in the book, the thought of it reads like hot and burning awesome. But how do you impliment that in play yourself? I guess on a certain level you need to be a devious bastard that knows how to really mess with player’s minds. But I don’t grok how you would readily run this on a casual basis. I often get the impression that people who actually play Nobilis have far more mundane sorts of games than you read about in the book. (But feel free to correct me on this.)
The notion of concurrent mythic and prosaic realities, as well as the highly symbolic attacks, fits well with the ideas I suggested at the beginning. So, outside of the gross difference in power level, the cosmology seems like a good fit. The challenge, I think, is that it still doesn’t address how to have the events in mythic reality form a larger role than just “create color on the spot for the rare occasions when players remember that they can interact with mythic reality.” The book is high on awesome, low on practical advice. =(
One of the things I found interesting in the back of FS 2e was the notion of the Passion Play style of game. (With one of the creators of the game reading this, I’m going to feel like a huge dork for getting this wrong.) The basic premise involves working with the notion that the events of the games will ultimately be interpreted in the future as having some greater significance. It suggests 3 techniques towards doing this:
I like this a lot and I wonder how well this would fit with a larger myth within the myth. So, if instead of a simple theme of “The Triumph of Good Over Evil” it had a theme of “The Legend of the Fisher King.” It does seem to bypass the problem of railroading players into a particular myth, by just having it nudge reality instead of being tied into it. On the other hand, it also seems to gives more space between the prosaic and the mythic. So you could technically play the entire game without tapping into the mythic stuff… which… is less than satisfying. It avoids the whole reason for trying to run this sort of game in the first place.
But as I think I mentioned before, I’ve only played Fading Suns once and only got about a half hour of actual action. I’ve certainly never used the Passion Play rules.
Star Wars Saga Edition
In a similar vein, one of the new rules they’ve implimented into the new Saga Edition is “destinies.” It’s what some people point to when you whine that Star Wars Saga Edition is really just an overrated miniature wargame. The idea seems fine, though the implimentation seems a little poor. The general schtick is that you have some sort of destiny: You’ll destroy something, redeem something, corrupt something, whatever. When you take steps towards that destiny, you get some bonus for 24 hours of game time. When you take steps away from that destiny, you get a penalty for 24 hours of game time. When you complete your destiny, you get a permanent bonus and may choose a new destiny. Having a destiny also means you get Destiny Points, which are cooler versions of Force Points.
We’ve been using destinies in the Star Wars game I’m playing in, but I think my experience has been atypical. We haven’t had any destiny bonuses or penalties as yet. I don’t know if it’s because we haven’t done anything notably towards or away from our destiny or if, due to the fact that we will often cover a year in one-to-three sessions, a 24-hour bonus is largely irrelevant. I honestly haven’t thought to ask. Now, we’ve spent most of the game also not knowing what our destinies were. We all said we wanted a destiny for our characters, but no one seemed to have an idea what sort of destiny they wanted. So it wasn’t until this last session that we had an inkling of what it might be.
The more individualized approach for personal myths might be a good variation for individual paths. One person may be in the role of the Fisher King, another might be Isis, etc. Hmmm…
An aspect of Last Call that I see reflected in Unknown Armies is that of the Avatars. In the novel, there are several instances of characters going through great lengths to better resemble a particular archetype: ritual cleansing, avoiding certain foods, etc. Similarly, by following taboos and acting within the role of one of the archetypes in the universe, characters in Unknown Armies can gain powers and possibly even ascend to godhood (possibly replacing the previous person to ascend into that archetype). The key difference, I think, between Last Call and Unknown Armies is that some people just are the archetypes. Other people go to great lengths to take on the role instead and usurp the role from others, but some characters were just born in those roles and have a significant advantage over those that don’t.
Still, the Avatars take a really strong step in the direction of Last Call and could really help to establish the feel I’m looking for.
This whole musing started with me wanting to do a Delta Green/Unknown Armies style Star Wars game, and my wife indicating that she’d want to play if it was more like Last Call. Which made me wonder if I could do a Star Wars game that drew in elements of Last Call. I mean, I’d originally imagined it as mainly being a bit more Delta Green, with PCs dealing with manifestations of the Dark Side and maybe poaching a sanity system from somewhere. But this really pushes the limits of what Star Wars is conventionally defined.
To draw elements from what I discuss above, could I run a Star Wars game where there’s an animistic mirror to the universe (a la Nobilis) that can be interacted with on some level? Perhaps having ways for people to shoehorn themselves into power without being properly Force sensitive, instead drawing upon extensive rituals to cast “spells” or taking on archetypes to gain powers (stealing from Unknown Armies)? It could even be that some PCs are plugged into an archetype without being aware of it IC (borrowing from Fading Suns and Star Wars Saga Edition), gaining bonuses and penalties as they work in concert with or contrary to their myth? To condition the players into thinking of it in terms of myth, there could even be a debriefing period at the end of the session to discuss whatever symbolism came into play during the game, again drawing inpsiration from Fading Suns. This debriefing could help build within the player’s minds a perception of their characters being caught up in some larger myth or drama.
But would it be Star Wars? I’ve run a few Star Wars games over the years, and I can never seem to run straight Star Wars. I’ve done mash ups of the universe with The Matrix, The Illuminati, Call of Cthulhu, Resident Evil, Illuminati, Fading Suns, etc.
Yes, there were lightsabers and wookies and starships. But I never came away from the games feeling like, “Yeah, this was Star Wars.”
And the other element is: Should I even worry about it?
Input and commentary welcome.