GenCon – Part 5 (Thursday Night, 8/13/2009)

GM: Joe McDonald
Players: Zach, Justin, and Sean
System: Ribbon Drive

The End of Innocence

So Mr. Joe McDonald, author of Ribbon Drive was cool enough (or just peer pressured enough by me) to run Ribbon Drive for us in his room.

The game was somewhat complicated by the fact that we needed three separate soundtracks to play it. Power to the iPhone. Zach, Justin and I all had iPhones or iPods that put out music just loud enough that we could hear it if we were quiet and close. Perfect for a game of Ribbon Drive.

The setting for the game is a road trip, but it’s really about re-examining your beliefs and determining of they are still meaningful to you. Each player brings a CD (in our case a playlist) and one of them randomly will determine the setting and trigger character creation. Easier to explain through examples.

Here are the playlists we provided:

Zach: Portland
Justin: Techno
Sean: Is you is or is you isn’t a Swinger.

Joe shuffled the lists and mine came up first so we used that for setting creation.

First song: Meat Loaf “Hot Patootie – Bless my Soul” For the the first line really set the game for me. “What ever happened to Saturday Night” It felt like a story about remembering the good old days. We agreed to come from some little town lost in time. Kids heading to college and seeing each other for probably the last time (even though they all swore they’d get together during the summer).

The second song was Bobby Darin “I’m beginning to see the light.” A cute song about romance coming alive. Consequently, three of our for characters had some kind of romantic drives for their future. After that song we had the army cadet, the drama guy, the mousy girl and the popular girl who had to dumb herself down to be cool. It felt like out own version of the breakfast club.

The game was amazing. It wasn’t about in your face conflicts, and yet we were running from the police, stole license plates, and went skinny dipping under the lights of a carnival. We also had really meaningful conversations and people going beyond their own expectations. I can’t really summarize the game. I mean I could go through the scenes, but I wouldn’t do the story as a whole justice. Suffice to say, it was the best game of the con for me. Probably one of the best games I’ve played in a while.

What rocked

Something needs to guide a story. Sometimes it is the GM, or a rotating GM. Sometimes a player perusing their character’s beliefs. Sometimes the game system tells you Zombies are now breaking down doors, or that the infidels are now making major victories. In this case, however, it was our inspiration based on a song. A swing dance song, a techno song or a song of Portland. Every scene starts with a few moments of listening quietly to a song and then one player frames a scene. Each other players steps in adding to the scene with their color. Either their own character, an NPC or something going on. I’m not sure why it worked so well but it did. We had a certain magic that each of us fed of the other and all invested in the ideas everyone brought. This was a story I would have watched on a big screen (okay, maybe a rental) and that is WAY more than I can say about most games.

The method for changing soundtracks was cool. Every time the roadtrip gets stuck and we didn’t figure a way out, the sound track changed and we started a new scene taking another route. When the playlist went from swing dance music to techno, it was like the little bubble around the character popped and now they were suddenly in the big bad world.

The game was anti-gonzo. Instead of being about “how much can my crazy antics top the next guy” it was a question of how can I relate to the next guy. Those relationships were the power of the game. After character creation we took a short break to call home and check in with the family. I talked to my wife for a while and told her “I know this story is going to make me sad, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Giving up on the future. The protagonist of the story is the person who gives up on his or her previous notions. Hanging onto them might make you happier (or not) but letting them go admits that you don’t know what life is all about yet and what you believed isn’t necessarily the truth. I was really happy when the game ended with Carl (our army cadet) realizing he may not be home for Christmas, he may in fact die in the war. Either way, he was a better person for being our friend. I loved this scene.

Pacing. Again, there wasn’t a hard mechanic saying “this is when you give up your first future”. In fact as far as mechanics go, there isn’t much at all (activating and crossing off traits is pretty much it), but the playlists ending tell you that a powerful theme (even if a yet unnamed theme) has ended and signals that the story is getting close to ending as well.

What could have been improved

I would have liked to be more familiar with the other music. It usually takes me a few times listening to a song before I can make out most of the words and when we’re talking over it, that makes it even harder. I don’t think we were at a loss for meaningful scenes but I think if I was more familiar with the other songs they would have informed my participation more.

Nobody got laid. I mean really… a teen story and nobody has sex? Maybe that is part of what made the story as powerful as it was. We didn’t fall victim to that trope.

Overall, a great game. I bough Ribbon Drive from Joe on Sunday at the end of the con. I’m not sure if I’ll play it again, but even if I don’t the physical artifact will serve a memoir of the game.

More to Thursday night?

I know there was more. I’m sure we played board games or shot the bull but for the life of me I can’t remember (and my twitter log isn’t being helpful). Zach or Justin, if you remember what’s missing, let me know.