Actual Play – The Space Between (12/15/2013)

Nemesis_rpgGM: Christopher Ory
Players: Sean Nittner, Nik Gervae, Skylar Woodies, and June Garcia
System: Nemesis ORE

Warning: Details of the game (spoilers) included below.

Description: You are the member of a T.R.U. (Tactical Response Unit); an elite, genetically modified, team that solves…. problems. T.R.U. teams are sent from one corner of the galactic empire to the other cleaning up other people’s shit; usually the hubris of some fat fuck diplomat or egghead that can’t see beyond their own damn dreams of wealth and dirty tranceclub blowjobs. But what the hell, you don’t feel pain and every time a limb gets blown up or ripped off by some monstrous bio-job, it just grows back. You just wish you weren’t given such stupid fucking callsigns.

Your unit is busy. Every time you put out one fire, another breaks out in the next far flung dirthole. It doesn’t take a historian to see that the empire is crumbling. Corruption is rampant. There are traitors everywhere. It is completely possible that despite all humanity has accomplished, a new dark age is coming and you can see it will envelope entire worlds instead of a single filthy continent.

This time a research station on some unnamed rock has gone silent. The intelligence you’ve been given about this mission is minimal. What you do have makes almost no sense. To make this detail even more fucked up is that you have been pulled from your regular unit and stuck in with a bunch of strangers. At the end of the universe, and the end of recorded history, it is not going to be a good day.

Our Game

A goal I had this year was to try new GMs that I hadn’t played with before. All three of my spots were with GMs that were new to me: Bryan Hitchcock, Mike Garcia, and Chris Ory. All great guys whose company I enjoy.

This was a game that I had very mixed feelings about, and most of these come from my expectations going into it. Some of my other issues were self-sabotaging due to being tired, punchy, surrounded by profanity, and my loathing of secrets.

I’ll break those down piece by piece.

Mood – Dickery

Gil was running his Bad Santa game right next to us. The game is specifically designed to be lewd and indulgent of adolescent humor. And it’s fantastic at it. It’s also loud and contagious. It didn’t destroy the mood, but it flavored it. As the night went on, as more beers were drunk, and as we got more tired, we slid down that slippery slope and were acting just as raunchy and vulgar oursleves.

Suggestion: Not much really. There were several environmental factors (fatigue of the last game of the con, drinking, and company) that individually might have been addressed, but collectively the formed a collage of gonzo irreverence that didn’t do service to the serious intent of the game.

Secrets – Pervasive

I can’t say how much secrets bother me in games. Players keeping secrets from each other is like actors keeping secrets from each other in a play, and none of them knowing which script the other one is reading off. It is ludicrous to me. Players keeping secrets means we’re all playing different games, an it isn’t until the secrets come out that we can start playing the same one.  It’s lonely fun, and worse, it’s selfish fun.

Jason Morningstar uses a term I think he picked up from the Swedes called “Radical Transparency”, which just means at all times the GM and the players are going to be completely honest with each other allowing the characters (PCs and NPCs) to lie, cheat, manipulate, and swindle each other as a collaborative rather than competitive effort. We’re telling a story together, keeping secrets makes that story suck.

This was the element that set me off from the beginning and continued to grate on me as we played. The characters were handed out and their history, origins, and affiliations were all a secret. We were also given four questions to answer which the GM saw but otherwise were a secret. I really enjoyed the answers to my questions so I asked if there as any problem sharing them, but Chris wanted us to keep them to ourselves.

I played cool with this, at least at first. I was confident that I’d play a character who would be so transparent, finding opportunities to reveal his secrets to the others would be easy. I hoped that once they saw me unveiling mine (both to the players and the characters) they would feel more comfortable revealing their secrets, at least to the other players, if not in character.

The came the secret meeting. Chris had individual meeting with everyone outside the game. I see some merit in this tactic used sparingly. You can empower a PC to come back to the table with some new information, and allow them to lead the story for a bit. In this case though, our characters were given more secret information, and performed secret actions.

This was hard for me because now secrets were not only distancing us as players, but they were also halting the game. Every time someone walked away from the table the game froze until they returned. During one of these downtimes I went and visited friends at other tables, got Karen some water, and listened on some other games. By the second round of private meetings though I had lost my patience, and more, my investment. I just told the players outright everything about my character, and that is when the damn broke. We all swapped stories and then I picked up the missing player’s character sheet and read his aloud to everyone.

And this is the point where I let my frustration get the better of me, because instead of confronting the Chris head on about this, I was sabotaging the game. I didn’t feel like anything were were doing actually mattered, so I stopped caring, and just started fucking around in the game. I don’t think players should have secrets from each other in the game, but if we do, I should have respected that and not broken the social contract by reading them.

Suggestion: Radical transparency. Tell your players that the world in the game is full of secrets and manipulation, but at the table, we’re going to trust each other. Which means trusting each other to separate character knowledge from player knowledge, and use the secrets your character doesn’t know to drive towards drama and conflict. Reinforce that throughout the game by encouraging and/or reminding the players to have their characters act on their imperfect knowledge in ways that would further the excitement and development of the story.

Don’t suffer anyone insisting on lonely selfish fun.

Setting Expectations

The game opened with a rich introduction to the setting. We got several hundred years and several generations of genetically engineered evolution and space exploration detailed before we picked our characters. Each of them had two to three page back stories explaining our history and motivation. There was also a questionnaire to fill out to answer some persona questions about the characters.

By the time we were done with all of that, I was interested in both the setting, my characters, and their prospective relationship with the other characters (part of the premise was that we were knew to each other). Though I had a hard time empathizing with my character (see below) I accepted the world we were playing in and wanted to explore it.

Chris had a really brilliant idea for a transition into something else, and I think if I was prepared for that transition, I would have embraced it, however when it became clear that we were playing a completely different game than the one I signed up for, I felt hoodwinked, and that I had wasted time and energy investing in my character and in the world they (originally) inhabited.

Suggestion: Preface the game in the description and at the start with “This is an origin story, showing how one existence is birthed by the end of another. Both the characters and the setting of this game will transition so embrace the idea that your playing through the end of one era, and the beginning of another.”

Empathy

The far flung future evoked two things that I had a really hard time with.

1. A fascist military state that ruled unquestionably and metered out death sentences at a whim.

2. Completely self-absorbed and immoral class of humanity that mercilessly bullied and tormented all those weaker than them and had no sense of mortality or fear of consequence, but answered unwaveringly  to the previously mentioned government.

But of these were hard pills to swallow because not only was I having a hard time empathizing with any authority structure in the world, but I also thought my character was a raging dick. Having the the first element is great. You present a tyrannical authority and the players get to rail against it. That is good times. By making the players pawns of this authority, as well as raging assholes themselves, and I don’t know how to empathize with either my character or what they are doing in the story.

This wasn’t a buzz kill, because my character seemed to be  morally curious (aware of primitive naturally born humans and theorizing that they were close to god). He also had religious convictions with a pretty broad license for how I should interpret them. I chose to assume a stance of energetic hubris. He believed that mankind had reached a kind of perfection and that they had ascended the celestial ladder to angelic status (his saliva was holy water, his voice was the word of God, his vision and convictions irrefutable) but in doing so had lost some of God’s gift to men, the gift of imperfection and of forgiveness. This gave me a direction of a character arc, as he was fascinated by God’s Creation (referred to in the setting as “monkey-born”).

It did mean however, that once that character arc was no longer viable to pursue in the game (after death, instead of encountering rapture and judgement, his new body was greeted by “Friend Computer”), I had nothing I cared about. His relationships with the other PCs were superficial, the world as he knew it was gone, and as a player I didn’t have any interest in starting up a new game within the current game four to five hours in.

Suggestion: Make the characters more human by our standards. While it’s amusing to watch a freak show, it’s not amusing to be a freak. Also, focus on their relationships and give them ties into each other’s lives. Give them reasons to want the same things and fight over them, or to protect each other, or to have strong but adjacent views on the same subject. Give them some hooks so that when the world ends as they know it, their characters still have something to hold on to and to reach for. The 606 character (Skylar’s second character) had this built in. I’d work towards developing more of the characters with those motivations.

Thoughts on the game

Plenty of those above, but also worth noting the player composition was excellent. Nik, Skylar, June, and I played off each other very well. When otherwise I might have been frustrated, the camaraderie at the table was fantastic.

Say Yes! With only a few exceptions (specifically butting heads with central command), Chris was great about interpreting the world through the players eyes. He encouraged us and enabled us to detail and expand the world. He built off the player contributions and re-incorporated them back into the narrative.

I liked what Chris was going for, and I’ve been specifically elusive about the details in this write up because I don’t want to give spoilers if he runs the game again. The thought he put into the genesis of a new worlds was really impressive and I’d like to see it fly.

I feel really bad about my behavior in the game. There was a point that I checked out and stopped participating and started pranking, which is just rude. In retrospect I wish I had either voiced my thoughts and concerns as frustrating elements arose, try to stay engaged throughout, or at worse, excused myself from the game. I apologize to those I gamed with for not being more mature at the end of the game.