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.”


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.

6 thoughts on “Actual Play – The Space Between (12/15/2013)”

  1. So do you no longer agree with some of the thoughts from Narrative Control 32? Namely that secrets can work as a currency which if I’m reading the summary/remembering right means that they should be game element, are tradeable, and that acquiring a particular player’s secret shouldn’t be the goal of the game.

    I don’t mean to argue that playing without secrets is an invalid means of play or that playing without secrets makes your gaming any less meaningful.

    However, deduction can be an enjoyable part of gaming and I think there’s any number of board games, including the whole genre of hidden role games, that manage to incorporate secrets as core elements while still be enjoyable and, albeit in a subset of cases, generating interesting stories.

    I totally buy that gaming has Too Many Secrets and you give great examples here and in the past of that. However, I’d still think that secrets as currency is a viable element some types of role-playing games.

    It may well be that radical transparency has something that scratches that deduction itch, but I think secrets, properly integrated into the system and used sparingly, are a natural tool.

    1. Greg, you’ve totally got the right of it. I was painting with too broad a brush.

      If secrets are a real game element, like say the game Dirty Secrets where no-one knows the killer, or where each character has a secret aspect hidden behind a tent card called “secret”, or in a Gumshoe game where uncovering secrets is part of play, then yes, bring in the secrets. For sure. They are addressed in the context of the game, they have mechanical way to be unveiled, and revealing them pushes the game forward in a new trajectory.

      1. Sean, thanks, that makes sense and helps me draw a brighter line between when they are a good idea and when they aren’t.

        I’m finally running my first MonsterHearts mini-series and have been playing it open by default to good effect (in keeping with the style of the game). I can think of some sparing occasions where it may be fun to have one character get some information first and have it come out to all when dramatically appropriate or as prompted by someone Gazing into the Abyss or the like.

        I think as a self-discipline measure, I may try to adopt a variant of the tent card approach. Namely writing the secret on an index card or the like (maybe with a +1 forward when used) and handing it over upon discovery. That approach has the secondary advantage of being slightly inconvenient, which should moderate against overuse.

        I definitely have become more sparing with secrets since I started listening to Narrative Control. Thus far I may have missed an opportunity or two because of that policy, but I’ve avoided mistakes that left me badly burned in the past.

  2. Thanks for thinking about the game and taking the time to do a write up. That is really awesome of you.

    I am sorry you didn’t have a better experience with the game. I was hoping to put together something special, but for a lot of the reasons you gave, it fell kind of flat. My game last year wasn’t terribly well received either. (I feel really sorry for Nik, cause he was in both :P)

    I agree with most of what you have to say about it and understand where your personal criticism is coming from. It all makes a lot of sense. The expectations was a definite problem. Skylar mentioned that as an issue for him as well. You all came out with these really amazing angles and background for your characters and I put you in a situation where further exploration of these details was minimal or they didn’t come back into play at all. Partially this was due to time, partially it was because things went off in a little screwy direction, and partially it was due to a lack of play testing. All of these things I could have managed better.

    My intended mood for the complex was a darker one with psychological conflict and a lot more of the players background waking up and haunting them. One of the areas of horror that I find most interesting involves what people do when social constrains are lifted. Fantasy situations aren’t scary for me. I am personally not afraid of ghosts or devils. I don’t get squeamish with gore or body horror either. What frightens me are other people and myself (or more accurately what I could be if I were put into an extreme situation….and sharks…sharks freak me right the fuck out) This is the horror I was trying to bring into this game by putting players into that world with those characters. My hope was to give characters to players that were fundamentally stripped of the invisible ties that dictate “moral” behavior. They were cut loose and given an opportunity to get a little dirty in a playground of sociopathy without consequences. You guys took the lack of constraint in some amazing places that I hadn’t even considered.

    Once arriving at the complex, the intent was to have those moral drivers, (like physical pain, wounding, and relationships), be reintroduced to the players’ characters a little at a time. The hope was to force the characters, (and by extension the players), to reevaluate their own decisions and personal mores. I wasn’t trying to give you guys freaks for freaks-sake . I was hoping to get the players to push themselves outside of their comfort zone by making a table where creative and extreme behavior was not only normal but almost benign. After the freedom and exploration into what it would be like to be a human without a lot of the things that constitute our physical understanding of humanity, the player’s character is given back some portion of their physical humanity. The question then to the players is “What does my character hold onto in light of things that conflict with his sense of self and what does he let go?” Needless to say, for a bunch of reasons it didn’t quite work.

    I think the secrets and notes issue is just incomparable play preferences. I probably should have taken less time with the individual players and given the players who were left at the table a situation to play while I was away, but I personally really like games where there is secret play going on. I like the experience of either working out what is happening behind the scenes or having the layers peeled away so it all only makes complete sense in the recap when everyone brings all of their individual experiences and motivations together. I like being a part of that as a player and I don’t have any problems when it is another player who has a secret-keeper role. I like games where players have crossed motivations. I also really like the subtle player to player tension it can cause when you don’t really know what other character’s true motives are. As a player I find joy in narrative discovery especially when other players are contributing to the mystery. I competely agree that there are games that benefit from total transparency and where the player is trusted to seperate their two tiers of knowledge. Some stories and game styles don’t benefit from this type of openness.

    The idea for this game came, in part, from a game my friend told me about, which he ran years ago. It was some TSR Mofia setting. All the players, except for one were Dons of rival families in a shaky alliance. The last player was a newspaper reporter. The Don players were all secretly told that some high ranking official was murdered and they were the ones who, by intentional action or not, had ordered his hit. The reporter was tasked with discovering who had murdered the official. As the game progressed and heat came down on the characters from the law, the players needed to work together to accomplish a goal but also pass of the crime off onto someone else, or kill the reporter. The reporter in turn was being led towards the real killer, an NPC. He pulled it off and it sounded awesome. To me, the best part was after the game when one player asked “Can I tell them who the real killer was?….It was ME!!”. Then the debriefing and recap really began with everyone discussing what was “really going on” with their characters and decisions. A serious play-through this game would have been impossible without a good amount of secret play. If all the players had full transparency, it would surely just turned into a campy comedy of errors without the same satisfying hook at the end.

    I was trying to recreate that experience with the secret societies and the destruction of the ship. As a player, these are the games that I really like to play. I wholeheartedly understand your perspective on how secrets effect collaborative play and I hope you don’t think I am discounting your feelings or making excuses for a bad game. I just wanted to explain where I was coming from. Your comments and criticisms are hugely helpfull. I was seriously considering just hanging this game up and not running for DOW after my second strike. After reading your write-up and the fact you took so much time with serious thought to it, I think I will go back, work out the kinks, and give it another go at the next con. And seriously, thanks for doing a write up on the game. I do really appreciate it. 🙂

    1. I think I will go back, work out the kinks, and give it another go at the next con.

      This makes me super happy to hear. I love the ideas you want to present with this game and I’m really glad you going to give it another shot, as I think you’ll make it rock. Also thanks for being receptive to my critiques and point of view, as well as explaining your own.

      Here’s some additional thoughts based on your reply.

      What frightens me are other people and myself (or more accurately what I could be if I were put into an extreme situation….and sharks…sharks freak me right the fuck out) This is the horror I was trying to bring into this game by putting players into that world with those characters. My hope was to give characters to players that were fundamentally stripped of the invisible ties that dictate “moral” behavior.

      I would lead the game with this. Letting your players know that the horror you’re looking for, is what people will do when they don’t have any consequences. And then what happens when they suddenly have to face them. This lack of consequences followed by sudden enforcement can appear in layers throughout the game. First with the “9DIX” character being reprocessed, and then later with the introduction of Alpha Complex.

      I like the experience of either working out what is happening behind the scenes or having the layers peeled away so it all only makes complete sense in the recap when everyone brings all of their individual experiences and motivations together.

      This is how I’d introduce the secret aspect of the game. At least for a player like me, who’s nature is to avoid secrets at the table, if you address them up front and talk a little about the role they will have in a game, I’d personally have more buy-in to them, rather than being taken aback when secret meetings and note passing starts.

      My intended mood for the complex was a darker one with psychological conflict and a lot more of the players background waking up and haunting them.

      It was just unfortunate circumstance that we all entered the complex by dying outside of it. Had we made it in, explored some, and gotten to think it was real, and part of the same world we had been playing in, then I think dying and waking up would have felt more like Resident Evil, and less like classic Paranoia. Waking up in a red jumpsuit, greeted by the computer, etc, were all just telltale signs (for me at least) that we were playing in a very different game than we just had been. Had the transition been more gradual (or at least not linked to our death) then I think there wouldn’t have been that disconnect.

      You all came out with these really amazing angles and background for your characters and I put you in a situation where further exploration of these details was minimal or they didn’t come back into play at all.

      The questionnaire you put out was excellent (as were the character backgrounds), so I would assume you’ll get another set of rich, interesting characters, next time you run it. Building in time for them to reflect, reasons for them to share some of their story (like even some required “getting to know you” counselling session every newly formed T.R.U. has to go through), is good. Also, if possible re-incorporating those ideas where you can in the story will be a big win. I’d say, use NPCs they characters know and care about to twist the knife as needed.

      I look forward to hearing about this game more. I think it has some awesome potential and I really appreciate you putting the time you already have (and continue to) into it.

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