Fearful Symmetries: Trial (In More Ways Than One)

This post has been delayed, because I’ve needed to do some thinking and formalizing the stuff I’m going to say here. The reason is that I tried something kind of new to me in the last session, inspired by reading games like Leverage RPG and Apocalypse World. It was an experiment in a different narrative structure to the adventure, breaking away from the start-middle-end assumption and defined events to something more free-form and collaborative.

What does that all mean? Well, basically, it means I ran this session as a flashback episode.

At the end of the previous session, we left things with our heroes about to descend on the house where, they were told, a cell of Catholic spies were based. They wanted to bring these spies in and thereby clear Emeric’s name of charges of espionage. In the time between that session and this past one, I had been thinking about the kind of game this has become, and how I wanted to provide a few more options for the characters, and how I didn’t really want this round-up of a spy network to be a kick-in-the-door-kill-the-bad-guys scenario ((There’s nothing wrong with those, but there’s been quite a few of those in this campaign, and I wanted to offer some possibilities of different kinds of solutions.)). On the other hand, the characters are good at that kind of thing, so I didn’t want to take that option totally off the table.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a couple of off-hand comments that my players had made about not getting a lot of use out of their social skills, and about some of their goals – specifically, about wanting to become more involved in keeping Prague safe in the face of the impending arrival of the Catholic League. Both those things implied wanting to be more involved in the upper levels of society in the city, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to make that happen, too.

Apocalypse World offers some interesting perspective on creating scenarios: don’t do it. Play to find out what happens. And Leverage RPG allows the use of flashbacks to establish facts in the past for effect in the current game. And we’ve all seen and loved movies and TV shows that start in media res and then fill in the backstory as we go along ((Things like The Usual Suspects or Sunset Boulevard or the Nevada Day episodes of Studio 60 for example.)). I got this idea stuck in my head that it would be fun to do a game like that, giving a lot of the creative control over to the players to decide how they managed to get to their current situation, and then letting them use that stuff to get them out of it.

It was a big enough departure from the usual way we do things that I spent a lot of time agonizing about whether I should try this or not. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place: I talked to my players about it ((To be fair, I talked to one of my players about it, and she talked to the other player about it. This works because they are husband and wife.)). They agreed that they’d be interested in trying it, but that they didn’t want to waste the evening if it turned out the approach crashed and burned. I thought about that, and said that I could build in some trap doors to abandon this approach in favour of our more traditional one if we felt it wasn’t working.

Based on that feedback, I went ahead and figured out what sort of structure this experiment was going to use, and how I wanted to incorporate the mechanics of the game into the story we were telling. My primary goals were:

  • Provide a way for the characters to begin interacting with the nobles of Prague.
  • Give them some use for their social abilities, ideally through some Social Conflict.
  • Let them write as much of the backstory as they wanted to.
  • Make sure we all had fun ((Of course, this is the most important point of consideration. The only reason it’s listed last is because it should pretty much go without saying.)).

I went for a pretty sparse set-up: the characters were standing before a council of nobles in the throne room of Prague Castle, being asked to account for themselves and prove that they were not spies. There were about two dozen nobles present, but I figured that there were really six key figures that they would have to sway to their side in order to gain their freedom, and that swaying was going to be accomplished using the Social Conflict rules.

To this mix, I added some minor rules for flashbacks. Specifically, I had a short list of key questions that the council wanted answered, and each time one was asked, it would trigger a flashback to provide the answer. In addition, players could call for a flashback if they wished to introduce an event or fact that would affect play. Each completed flashback would allow the players to put an Aspect on the scene, which they could tap in their attempts to influence the nobles.

We got off to a rocky start, mainly because I hadn’t explained my assumptions and expectations clearly enough to the players. The fact that I didn’t have any real expectations of what had happened between them learning about the spy ring and them having to account for it took a while to sink in – they kept wondering what I wanted them to do, and I kept waiting for them to take the freedom and run with it. We hashed that out in the first flashback episode, and after that we were rolling ((More or less, anyway.)).

In the flashbacks, we found ((Though not in the order I’m laying it out here.)) that the characters had staked out the house in question, and that Izabela had gone off to follow one of the many men coming and going from it, seeing him meet with many servants of the noble houses and exchanging messages with them. Emeric, meanwhile, was spotted watching the house and pulled inside to answer questions, where he managed to convince the spies that he was working for a sympathetic party and had come to warn them to move house. As the last one was about to leave, he cold-cocked him to keep for interrogation.

The interrogation led to finding that at least one of the noble families was collaborating with the spies, and that there was evidence of this collaboration hidden in a cemetery near the now-burned-out Malvora manor. Izabela made a deal with another captured spy to let him leave the city in hopes that they might still be able to broker a deal with the Catholic League that would prevent the bloodshed she knows is coming ((I’ve decided that, though we’re going with most of the historical facts of the Thirty Years’ War as of 1620, the actions of the characters have a chance of changing how things happen, and she’s trying to do just that.)), which kind-of upset Emeric.

In helping the spy escape the city, she faked an explosion, which stirred up the guards. As Emeric is already being sought as a spy, they tried to disguise themselves as a housemaid bringing her drunk master home in a wheelbarrow to get across the Charles Bridge and retrieve the evidence. It kind of went south, and they wound up under arrest, but their friend Captain Amiel was in charge, and so they wound up in front of the nobles’ council with a chance to tell their story.

During their trial – the framing event for the flashbacks – they outed one of the collaborating nobles, swayed a couple of others, and intimidated another into shutting the hell up. In the end, they took the whole gang over to the cemetery, got the evidence, and proved their innocence, as well as making some powerful and valuable friends among the nobility.

So, how did things work overall? I’d call it a qualified success. Here are some things I learned, that you may want to consider if you decide to try this approach with your own group.

  • Be clear in your explanations about how this is going to work, and what the players’ options are. We almost had a complete train wreck forty minutes into play because I hadn’t been clear enough. Especially be clear about how much or how little you want to be defined during play. Which brings up the next point.
  • You’re asking your players to essentially set scenes for themselves, and then play through them. Give them some guidelines as to how much you are going to let them establish in the scene-setting portion, versus what questions will need to be answered through play. For example, “In this scene, we interrogate the captive and find out that he’s in league with a noble house and where the evidence is,” defines a lot of things that might be more fun to come out during play. If you’re not cool with that, let them know so that they can give you something like, “In this scene, we interrogate the captive to try and find the extent of the spy ring.” Everything else comes out of the questions they ask the captive and the answers he can be convinced to give ((This is an application of the old writing principle of “Show, don’t tell.”)). If you make this clear to the players, you can avoid doing what I did, which was often saying, “That’s too much stuff. Let’s get back to the basics of the scene, and see what you can do in play.” Which is just another way of saying no to players, and that’s something I like to avoid.
  • Have some things in your back pocket to toss in if the players are coming up blank thanks to the choice paralysis. In my case, the questions from the nobles provided some guidance, but picking out two or three main flashback scenes that you’d like to see in the game and prepping them gives you some options if they get stuck.
  • Keep the flashbacks short. If they just play the adventure straight through in a so-called flashback, it’s not different than just playing the game normally. You can also throw them in out of chronological order, which is fun, but it requires that both you and the players keep more careful track of the other flashbacks, so you don’t wind up with a paradox.
  • Recognize that this approach is not going to work for some players, especially those that prefer an immersive play experience. Players have to pull back from their characters to set scenes, to call for flashbacks, and to decide what Aspects they get out of the flashbacks, as well as to keep track of the chronological weave you’re making – all the meta-thinking about playing the game instead of living through it as a character. A flashback structure demands more meta-thinking from players than the more traditional style of play.
  • I don’t think this approach is sustainable as a default game style. Maybe every now and then, as a change of pace, but too frequently and it would just get annoying and bland.

So, that was my big narrative structure experiment with the game. In the end it, it worked, but I’m certainly not planning on trying it again anytime soon. The bite-sized flashbacks of the Leverage RPG are easier to handle, less disruptive, and more in keeping with the genre, and I think I may allow similar things to take place in this game, but the longer, more elaborate, more gimmicky style that this was? No. It needs more work, and more polish, and more testing before I could say it’s a truly usable tool in my GM toolkit.

That said, many thanks to Clint and Penny for agreeing to try it with me. It was a fun experiment. And now we’ll return to our regularly-structured games.

At least until I get my next crazy idea.

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One Response to Fearful Symmetries: Trial (In More Ways Than One)

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