Actual Play – I’m an 8 Year Old That Doesn’t Like Mustard and You’re an International Bank Robber? (7/18/2009)

GM: Paul Tevis
Players: Sean Nittner, Justin Evans, Mike Bogan
System: A Penny for My Thoughts

Saturday morning was great in a lot of ways (see my previous post for some of those details). One specific way it kicked butt was that Paul Tevis, author of A Penny for My Thoughts introduced Justin Evans, Mike Bogan and myself to the game and we played a few hours of it.

Part of the genius of this game is in its simplicity. I’d feel bad that my AP report will tell someone all they need to know about how to play the game, but Paul (er Peter) has already done that on the back cover the book… and on his website… and in about fifty other places. So if you read this and think “Awesome, I can totally play that game now.” Sweet. Play it. Just make sure to swing by IPR and drop $15.01 into the kitty jar while you’re at it (which will incidentally give you a whole lot more awesome than I can offer as well).

I’m also going to skimp in a few places because the actual actual play was recorded and Virtual Play style will be cut up into little snippets that along with our follow up discussion will create Narrative Control, episode 35 (arriving in two weeks to an ipod near you).

So, with all that said… here was the recap of, you know, the game we played.

Paul was our Reader. Mostly because I wanted to get some recordings of him, but in truth any of us could have done it.

The Reader starts by telling us that we are all patients in the Orphic Institute and we’ve all lost our memories. We’re going to work together to rebuild those memories and ultimately decide if we want to know who we used to be.

The reader shares the Facts and Reassurances document. A document to set the ground rules for what genre we’ll be playing with. In the default setting we assume the following. The world is the contemporary one we know. We’re not in the future. There are no super powers or supernatural phenomenon. None of us are action heroes. Essentially, we’re all mundane individuals. Yet still we’ve all done something than caused us to lose our memories. The cool thing is that this is just one setting. The book has an alternate sheet in the back for a Bourne Identity spy setting, another for a Cthulhu setting and the website (Orphic Institute) gives ideas for creating your own.

We are also presented with a questionnaire (which like the Facts and Reassurances document, varies based on setting). In our case we were asked to recall one pleasant memory, one unpleasant one and finally what caused us to lose our memories. The format for all three is “When I think of _____ I remember _______”

How we answer those questions is the game itself. We start by all writing down five “Memory Triggers” on separate slips of paper. These can be anything or idea that might evoke a memory. The examples of triggers that were drawn were “The taste of strong mustard”, “The smell of fresh baked cookies”, “Canon in D”, “the sound of a bell tower ringing” and “shouting”. There was a really obnoxiously loud squeaking door to a bathroom right next to us so one that I put in (but wasn’t drawn) was “The sound of our basement door squeaking”. Everyone writes their memory triggers, drops them in a bowl and then the Reader starts off the game by telling us each to take a penny from the jar and say “A Penny for My Thoughts.” Once we all have a penny, he hands his to one person (called the Traveler), who begins a journey that his fellow guides help him with.

I was the first Traveler. I drew a memory trigger out of the bowl and got “The taste of strong mustard”. After that my fellow Guides the other three players asked me questions that I had to answer “Yes, and…” to. This started the memory. After three questions we found out that I was 8 years old at a baseball game with my father his new wife. I had just taken a bite of hot dog but spit it out because the taste of mustard was too strong. I hid it from my step mom because I knew I would get in trouble if she found it, but she caught me and I was grounded. Having nothing but “The taste of strong mustard” and three questions from my Guides, that because the start of my memory. The whole thing was going rather poorly for a while, but eventually ended up with “When I think of the tastes of strong mustard I remember having ‘guy time’ with my dad.”

My memory was very mundane, but it was meaningful to me as a player. My dad died less a year ago and I’ve only recently started processing some of the emotions that come from that. Addressed a father and his son bonding, even though I never went to a baseball game with mine and never had a step mother (they were married until he died), still had a powerful impression on me. I don’t think this is an intentional product of the game, but it was something I took away from it.

The next memory, Justin’s, was shorter. Unlike me (I’m very verbose, if you couldn’t tell) he kept things brief and directed. His memory was baking cookies and deciding to open up a family bakery with his husband. Mike’s was similarly pleasant. He remembered eloping with the woman of his dreams just days before their wedding because he just couldn’t stand to live another day without being married to her. When it came around to Paul though I decided to take the kid gloves off. The other two guides had just asked him questions that placed his memory (of bell towers ringing) as reuniting with a friend he hadn’t seen in years. My question (the one he has to answer “Yes, and…” to) was “Did you chase after her when she started running from the police?” Paul elaborated and quickly we all realized he was an international bank robber. Yeah, good times.

We ended up breaking and then not getting much farther into the game (Mike’s second memory was shouting at his newlywed wife and ending up at the “Donkey Show”) because of time constraints. Afterwards Justin and I did an interview with Paul to talk about the game play that Penny creates and its origins. If you’re interested, stay tuned to Narrative Control as the episode will be coming out soon.

What rocked

The sudden shifts in the game brought the memories to life. I really had no idea what my memory would be about when I read the trigger but by the end it felt very real to me.

Each player can get what they want. Mike was clearly telling starting with a fairytale love story of the woman of his dreams. I (being a character masochist) kept giving him options that would damage or change that relationship but other players picked up on what he wanted and made him offers that fit better with the story he was trying to create. This gives all the players involved tremendous control over the narratives, but always in meaningful ways (i.e. no random aliens coming down, only actions that follow from the last thing that happened).

Playing with a net still feels like playing without the net. During the start of the memory questions like “What that when you were in rehab for your heroin addiction?” or “Was that after you stabbed your mother?” are all fair game. We started by taking baby steps “Did you get caught by your step mother” but graduated to “were you shouting at your wife on your honeymoon” pretty quickly.

The game never leaves you hanging. Sometimes as a Guide it hard to think of what the Traveler should do but you never ask “umm… what do we do now” as I’ve found myself wondering in some games. There are clear steps provided by the Reader and the flow of the story is very natural.

I would love, love, love to run this as a prelude for another game. Spy or Mythos genres would be cool, but I could see it equally in Supers or Fantasy as well. Ooh… I just thought of another. Samurai waking up after the Rain of Blood. Rock. Okay, back on target.

What could have been improved

I wish I was a little more with it. One down side of being so excited about the con is that I was having a hard time focusing. I kept looking up to see how things were going with the other gamers, at the store and with my wife. A couple of the answers that I gave were less than inspired.

I wish we had a little more time to play the game through. As is I had a great time but would have liked to see where all our characters ended up.

Thanks all for playing Penny with me. It was killer.

8 thoughts on “Actual Play – I’m an 8 Year Old That Doesn’t Like Mustard and You’re an International Bank Robber? (7/18/2009)”

  1. We are also presented with a questionnaire (which like the Facts and Reassurances document, varies based on setting). In our case we were asked to recall one pleasant memory, one unpleasant one and finally what caused us to lose our memories. The format for all three is “When I think of _____ I remember _______”

    How did this work? I mean, it sounds like you all ready formulate the memory. So how does this interact with the memories the group designs?

    It also seems like you design what made you lose your memories, instead of discovering it.

      1. We start the game will all of our questions unanswered. When we get to our first question (in this setting “Recall one pleasant memory”) the Traveler goes through the following steps:
        1. Pulls a memory trigger out of the jar and reads it out loud.
        2. Selects one of the guides to ask him a question about the memory, for which he has to respond “Yes, and…” After that he repeats with another guide until each guide has asked him a question. In my case the first question was “Were you with your father when you tasted the strong mustard?” To which I answered “Yes, I was eight and we were at a baseball game together. He had ordered me a hot dog. The mustard was too strong for me and I thought it was gross.” The next question followed up “Did you spit out the bite you had taken?”
        3. Once the three questions have been asked the scene is set for the memory to take place. Although the answers to those questions form the backdrop for the memory, they are not the memory itself. The memory starts just proceeding these events (usually immediately after, but I imagine there could be some distance).
        4. The Traveler starts describing the memory. He can control every aspect of the memory except for his actions. He essentially is GMing himself, including what the other people do, what he was thinking, but not what he did or said. Once the Traveler gets to a point where he would do or say something he hold out a penny in a closed fist to one of the guides and says “What did I do or say then?”
        5. The Guide then offers up a potential action of the Traveler for example: “You ran out of the house and hid in your tree fort”.
        6. The Traveler then turns to another guide, offering the same penny and asks “or was it?” The second guide then offers another action such as “You crossed your arms and refused to talk to your step mother”.
        7. The Traveler then says “Yes, I remember” and repeats one of the offered actions by the Guides and then gives that Guide the original offered penny. In our game there was then much gloating and smack talking from the guide who received the penny, but I doubt that was a formal construct of the game.

      2. 8. The Traveler continues his story, repeating steps 4-7 and offering a Penny at each decision point until he is out of pennies. At that point he wraps up and ends the story with “And that is what I remember.”
        9. The Traveler then picks up one penny from the pot and says “A Penny for My Thoughts” and writes down the answer to “When I think of [Memory Trigger Drawn], I think of [A synopsis or meaningful part of the memory].”
        10. Play proceeds to the next traveler.
        There are a few other fiddly bits that factor in who can be traveler based on number of pennies, but that is easier to explain in person. In my case I answered “When I think of the taste of strong mustard I remember ‘guy time’ with my dad.”

        That memory was entirely generated by the steps above, I really had no idea what was going to happen before the card was drawn. I don’t think I could have.

        For another example of how this is played out read the blub on IRP

  2. Thanks for making the time to play this with me. I’m continually surprised at how much fun people have with it.

    Are there any questions we didn’t get to in the interview that I can answer?

    1. My pleasure Paul. I had a blast. Thank you as well.

      I have one follow up question. I was listening to our interview, specifically your mention of leaving room for the Traveler to fill in the details, or more generically leaving room for the “and”.

      I wonder where you see that fitting in other games without a mechanic for passing control of the narrative? We want to have games that flow from one person’s ideas to the next so that there is this great melting pot of story, but it’s really easy to mess that up. As a GM (or player) it can be hard to hand over and idea to someone and have faith that they will do it justice. So we often over explain, leaving the other players no room for the and. Ironically this leads to the exact behavior we don’t want, which is for the player to abandon your lead in for something of their own, totally unrelated.

      Anyway, I think this is a topic worth covering. The skill of giving your fellow players a compelling an evocative narrative but still leaving room for them to build on it and add their own creative agenda.

      Was that a question?

      1. To me, that’s what Bangs and (and to some extent, Kickers) are. As a GM, I’m giving you something that is necessarily incomplete and leaving you to fill in the “and.”

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