I went into this game with a lot of varied expectations:
- Duane has run this game several times and I had heard good things about it. Magnificent Seven + Seven Samurai meets Zombie hucksters. I had very high hopes! (I was not disappointed)
- The Idleman family was present and accounted for. I love playing with those two guys. I was in “But the Night’s Eyes Never Closed” with them the year before and really enjoyed it, they are both great gamers.
- I sat directly across the table from Shannon, which I had some concerns about. Shannon and I are both dominant personalities in games. We play leaders and we push hard for our character’s motivations. My experience when playing with another alpha is that if those motivations are different but both sympathetic and appealing to the other players, then we can create some awesome conflict. If the motivations are similar, unsympathetic, or fueled by ego rather than purpose, it can lead to pointless jabs, bickering, and cock-blocking. The later happens when the fight is more about asserting dominance (being alpha) than it is about achieving specific goals. Sometimes games make this worse by not offering a setting rich enough to have divergent goals (i.e. we’re all in this for one reason only and there isn’t room for anyone to disagree), and I wasn’t sure how that would play out in game. More thoughts on this below.
- I know Jill but I have never gamed with her before. I was happy I was sitting next to her as it meant it would be easier for our characters to interact. We ended up not riffing off each other that much, though she was still a delight to play beside.
Duane started off the game with a novel method of character selection that bled into backstory. He gave us each a little prompt like “a gunslinger faces off against three men in a dusty street” and then asked the question “who are you?” Based on the answers, Duane picked a character for the player to play. Some of the prompts were pretty obvious, Tom for instance responded “I’m the gunslinger, facing all three of them at once.” I played a gambler, a Doc Holiday figure, specifically a British bounty hunter… and that started everything for me.
I asked to be excused for a moment, told them I needed to get something from my room and then raced out of there. When I came back I was dressed in my Dicken’s costume including the ridiculously frilly cravat, long vest, frock coat, top hat and cane (thanks to Ryan Macklin). “Hallo gents, top of the morning too you!” From then on I was a British Gentleman, card shark, gunman, and oh yes, Zombie!
Story – Character Interactions
Duane said he wasn’t running the game again, but I’m not sure. He took enough notes that he might give it one more spin, so just in case I’m not going to go over the plot of the story, it’s best when it unfolds in play. Instead, here are some specific interactions PC to PC and PC to GM.
Tom and I had this great and elastic relationship. He was a better gunman, but just barely. Though we never came to drawing on each other, there were several competitions between us to show each other up. Philosophically though we had a lot to discuss. It started with his character filled with disdain, marking me as a dandy and vagrant. In turn I was trying to gain his respect. Later, in the game, when my character however, was at his weakest, it was Jarred (Tom’s character) that bolstered me, gave me courage. In the end though, he broke and showed that his lofty principles were no better than mine. He wasn’t a noble soul, he was just proud. And both of us, our vices revealed grew closer together, and stronger for it.
Patrick spent much of the game playing the dupe to my cons. He was great because he kept willingly falling for my tricks, allowing his character to be indebted to mine and then acting on my behalf to pay that debt. I think there was a some fundamental player trust here that I really appreciated. Patrick knew (or at least I think he knew) that I wasn’t going to use my character’s status to wreck his experience playing. When I had him in my debt, the things I was always doing was putting him in the spotlight, to do a task or take a risk that frankly needed to be done in the game, and gave him the glory for it. It allowed both of our characters to be totally true to their personalities and never suffer (in fact often gain) because of it. There is a reason I like playing with the Idlemans.
Jill had a secret. We all had secrets, but Jill had a capital “S” secret. It did get revealed in game, by Luke in fact, and the reveal was AWESOME. It changed the tenor of the game, created a new axis for our characters to play off and generally rocked the house. It got me thinking an awful lot about secrets in game. In general my stance is that open secrets (i.e. those know by players but not characters) are awesome. Because the players know them, they can push on them; tease them, and generally making the reveal incredibly potent.
I’m thinking in particular of the Burning Wheel game Kristin and I are in where we all know she is my half-sister, but my character isn’t aware of it. The player knowledge of that means that every scene between them is charged with this awesome tension. Every time our characters interact, there is a subtext of “because I’m your big sister is why!” So, take my indie-hippie gamer player secret hating self and put me in a game where we all have secrets that aren’t necessarily going to be revealed. Results: I’m torn. The reveal was amazing. It wouldn’t have been nearly as strong if the players had known, there would have never been the “ahhh” moment we had. That said, what if it hadn’t come out? What if Luke revealed it before Jill was ready?
Also, my secret, I wanted the players to know. We had six hours and I didn’t want to hint at it forever, I wanted it out in the open so people could just push on it rather than dancing around it and leaving them guessing. So early on I just revealed it to the players. I told them my problem and asked them to play off it as they would, but it felt wrong, like I was breaking the social contract. So, hrmm, the jury is still out on secrets.
Shannon and I ended up being powerful forces pushing on different planes, by which I mean that we both had motivations but they rarely intersected. His character’s regard focused strongly on the safety of a small village, where I was focusing on my own dark fate. Because of that, he ended up running the show (his motivations pushing the plot) and I got pretty introspective. I can’t remember if we had any confrontations, but if there were any they were small. All in all, I think this was a good, or at least acceptable, way for two alphas to interact.
Thoughts on the game.
I like that Duane keeps the dice mechanics flexible. I’ve played Shambles before but it was a really long time ago so I don’t know what the “core” mechanics are, but Duane said he adapted them for a horror genre. While I don’t think they enforced the horror setting (no stat or currency to represent powerlessness, isolation, uncertainty or transgression), the system as we played it worked just fine and the threats presented in the game presented a very grim “wow, this is dark” backdrop for our adventure.
Mid-game Duane added a little tweak to the currency mechanics, which I liked as it made us feel a little more competent (It’s hard to be the deadliest gunman this side of El Paso if you’re missing shots left right and center).
I made one move that I regret and I’m ashamed of. At one point Duane said nobody’s ever eaten Zombie brains before… so of course I did just that! That isn’t what I regret. Duane and I agreed that I could get some knowledge the zombie possessed and that it would come at a great price. I agreed and presented him some options. The one we settled on was my character being in some kind of service to the villain. That isn’t what I regret either. Duane then gave me some pretty gnarly visions (scorpions and crap spilling out of my mouth, seeing things through a peep hole in death’s door, etc) and sent me back to the group with information about our foe. That I don’t regret either, in fact it was kinda crazy awesome. I then proceed to be vague about what I learned and not giving the other Boneslingers (the name for our kind) specific details.
Two things were going on here. One was me wanting the players to go along and not worry so much about the details (we had already had a planning session that nearly made me lose my mind). The other, and this is the regrettable part was a bit of wanting to be the special guy with the shining sword of plot. God… I can’t believe I’m admitting this. Ug, I disgust myself. I find it such a childish and insecure move to withhold information so that other people need you, but I know that a little part of me was saying “I paid dearly for this, I want it to have some value and not just be tossed into the pool of collective knowledge.” Well, it’s out, and it’s a good reminder for me how not to play in the future. My salvation was that I pretty quickly ceded this point and gave the info to Shannon’s character who then distributed it to the others.
We had a planning session was nearly done right. The done right planning sessions, as I think of them are the ones made Wilderness of Mirrors style or Leverage style. They are composed of each player creating a fact that is a problem “They have sharks with lasers” and then describing a montage of how they address the problem “we helicopter in seal meat to distract them.” These kind of planning sessions make the characters seem hyper competent (good thing), don’t require reading the GMs mind (good thing) and make for an easy way to give the players a bonus during the actual encounter (also good thing). The way most planning sessions go, the players spend forever (bad thing) trying to mitigate all risk (bad thing), while trying to read the GMs mind (bad thing, it isn’t possible) and often end up bickering over what will work and what won’t with the other PCs, which takes more time (bad thing) and is still based on trying to read the GMs mind (another bad thing).
Duane in this case gave us the problems “sharks with lasers” and a suggestion for the fix “there are seals over there” and then let us fill in the connecting bits through a montage scene. Not a bad way to do it, but because he didn’t specifically says “just tell me how you prepare and then you can use that as a bonus die” (or something to that effect) we still spent a long time planning… This was especially anti-climactic as the big bad fight didn’t end up happening (or at least it didn’t where thought it would) so all our plans were for naught.
This wouldn’t have killed me except shortly after, when the situation unfolded differently than we expected (go figure, we still can’t read minds), we started making yet another plan. I asked Duane, “Hey, can we just say we make a cool plan and then cut right to it being executed and use at the front door?” Duane mostly agreed, giving us a couple challenges to face and then placed us where we needed to be to advance the story. Well done sir.
In the end, as part of the epilogue I got to be the next bad guy. Giving everyone at the table another adventure to undertake. Yay!
A final note that I can’t really explain without giving plot away, so I’ll be annoyingly vague: A derringer up the sleeve with a spring loaded grip that doesn’t come out till the last few moments of the game is made of 100% awesome.
 Kristin Hayworth is a great example of this. In most games we play our characters soon come to ideological differences that neither of us will back down on. We fight, and we fight hard, but we do so because of our beliefs and the product is an awesome story, tons of fallout and most importantly character growth. My experience with more petty contests is that rarely anything satisfying (regarding the character’s relationships or the character’s growth) comes out of it.