Saturday, 6 September 2008

Runaway Slave Never Going Back (II)

Okay, there is something good about Steal Away Jordan. I was discussing it in this thread at the rpg site and discovered that one of the core conceits of the game is that the GM isn't aware of the players' plans - those are all set out in secret and kept "for their eyes only".

When I first heard that my immediate reaction was "Ugh, more fashionable forge-ite gimmickry without any practical worth". I pictured the players deciding "Okay, let's dig a tunnel to freedom" while the GM was out of the room, and then when he returned telling him, "We're going to dig a tunnel." Utterly pointless, in other words. But then I had it explained to me that in fact, the point is that the players (the slaves) write down lists of goals which they keep secret, so they get no help from the GM in achieving them - because they're slaves.

Now, I don't buy into the whole "let's examine the psychological implications of slavery" thing. I know what the psychological implications were: very very bad. That's why we don't keep slaves anymore. I need to discover how bad slavery was about as much as I need to find out how mean Stalin was or why we shouldn't like famine.

(And where does it stop, by the way? "Let's examine the psychological implications of torture and murder!" Er, no thanks. It reminds me of a play I went to see when I was a uni student, because a girl I had the hots for and who was taking a Drama degree wanted to watch it. My university was just about the top Drama school in the country at the time and a hive of "edgy", avant-garde types. The point of the play, kept secret until everybody had arrived and bought tickets, was - guess what? - to get the audience to simulate raping each other. And that isn't a joke. Apparently the idea was to gain a deeper understanding of the psychological implications of sexual abuse - although it may have been couched in different terms - and needless to say it wasn't a roaring success with the audience.)

But that idea (the GM leaving the room; not the simulated sex acts) actually strikes me as a good one to use in 'regular' rpgs too, particularly sandbox style games. Just imagine: everybody sits down to play OD&D. They all roll up characters, and then they write down lists of character goals and put them in an envelope so nobody could see. It could be anything from "get really really rich" to "become Baron of Blahblah" to "become a proxy of Anubis" to "marry a dragon". And the players have to work towards those goals over the course of the campaign, without the DM ever knowing what they are. When, in a year's time (or however long) the campaign is over, the envelope gets opened and we see who succeeded and who didn't. The winner then gets a prize - the "pot", maybe, which everyone stuck 10 quid into at the game's opening. Sound like a fun idea?


  1. I might look up Steal Away Jordan, sounds interesting...

    ...but first tell us more about this play you went to...

  2. It didn't last very long, to be honest. First one of the actresses splayed herself (clothed) across a table and invited some nearby male members of the audience to simulate raping her. They politely declined, everyone (there were about fifty people there) looked around awkwardly, and then the actors and actresses started haranguing us about how we had to get involved because it was participation theatre. We left then.

  3. It's an interesting idea, and I can see where you're coming from with it; in sandbox play, there is no plot as such, and the players make their own plot. As such, the Secret Plans would seem to dovetail nicely with that, as the players pursue their own goals.

    But... I'm not sure how well Secret Plans would work in practice. Although players do make their own plots in a sandbox setting, it's only to a certain extent; the GM has to "tee up" opportunities for the players to pursue their own goals, and if she is not aware of those goals, it would be difficult to do that.

    Not impossible, mind. A really perceptive and quick-witted GM would, in theory, be able to pick up on what the players are doing and respond appropriately, even if he has no idea what their end goal might be; if one player is spending time making alliances with increasingly powerful npcs, then it's a safe bet to assume that his goal is of the "Baron of Blahblah" variety, for example.

    The other way to make it work would be to have the sandbox populated in such detail that most or all of the players' goals are accommodated from the beginning, regardless of how much the GM knows about them. I'm not sure how much fun I'd have running such a game though.

  4. Or indeed whether I'd be capable of all the prep work; I think if I ever ran a sandbox campaign, it would be some variant of the West Marches, in which scenarios and settings are created according to where the players decide to go next, rather than having everything set out in advance. I'm not sure my approach would be compatible with Secret Plans.

    Perhaps a good variant would be to have each player have two goals; one revealed to the GM (and possibly the other players) and one kept secret. Obviously they'd have to be different, or the "sub game" of achieving the goals would be unfair, but it would allow the GM to serve up appropriate adventures while also maintaining that extra level of play in which the GM tries to figure out what the players are up to.

    It's a fascinating idea!

  5. Kelvin: Yes, that's pretty much what I thought - you'd have to create a hugely detailed world, of the size and scope of the Forgotten Realms to the power of x. But that might be kind of fun, you know... If there's anything I like, it's planning out homebrew worlds.

  6. If I don't tell the other players (by which I mean, all humans with which I am playing, regardless of the role assigned them by the rules) about my characters/my cool plans, then they can't be entertained by them. And then they can't try to oppose, support, or otherwise contribute to them, and I will be denied the opportunity to be entertained by those ideas in turn.

    Not that there's no other alternatives; the aspect of Steal Away that you mention really caught my attention as well. Keeping secrets skews social interaction at the table towards hostility, which I've never seen be a good idea...unless everyone knew that was what was going to happen, and they were interested in how it turned out when that feeling was induced in the group.

    I've seen a lot of movies that feature rape. And I've enjoyed a lot of them. I don't think too many people would seriously think that means I condone rape. I mean, there was a bit of outrage after Grey Ranks won Indie RPG of the Year. People who claimed to like the game were accused of basically getting off on the holocaust, etc. But someone had made a movie about kids growing up quick and dying quicker during the Warsaw uprising, then no one would accuse the critics who lauded it of something so baselessly awful.

    There's more to fiction than adventure. That's true of every medium, including games. Distressing emotions are also part of the palette.

    There's this roleplaying movement in the nordic countries called "jeep" that is (as far as I've figured it) 100% about inducing unusual and extreme/nuanced emotional states in the players. They're the people who might say "Hmm, what mechanics can we use to come closer to feeling what it's like to torture and murder?" Obviously, those games, just like those movies, aren't going to be enjoyable to everyone, but that's a very far cry from saying they're valueless.

    And anyway, almost every game includes murder, and in those where it's the central action of play (D&D is the easy example), there's little consequence for it, and that certainly gives players license to "cause damage" (torture) people when they want something from them besides their lives. I am much more concerned by a game that doesn't include consequences for murder, or (less commonly) slavery or rape or prejudice or any other social ill, than a game that examines those consequences in depth. It's the same as being more bothered by violent gun-heavy action films that don't show blood than violent gun-heavy suspense films that do.

  7. Nick: I am much more concerned by a game that doesn't include consequences for murder, or (less commonly) slavery or rape or prejudice or any other social ill, than a game that examines those consequences in depth. It's the same as being more bothered by violent gun-heavy action films that don't show blood than violent gun-heavy suspense films that do.

    I'm not sure I agree. Or, at least, I rarely think of games such as those created by the "jeep" movement as genuine efforts to understand torture, rape, slavery etc. - in fact they often sound more like attempts to court controversy to me. I also find it slightly worrying that somebody would want to explore how it feels to torture or murder (or be tortured or murdered). I know that those things are bad. I don't need to experience them vicariously to understand that. Of course, understanding why human beings do such things is important. But I believe it's best left to geneticists, behavioural psychologists and sociologists to tell us why. Or particularly brilliant writers, maybe.

  8. Yeah, I only proposed them as semi-straw men. It seems like there are people who think that it is by definition good to by able to sympathize with other humans, period. They don't do it to understand why those people are right or wrong. I think. I mean, I don't really propose to understand, since it's not wholly within my experience.

    But, I doubt that it's necessarily voyeuristic or harmful, and I definitely think we deserve a better treatment of the bad things of the world than to say "they're bad." Slavery and racism are bad, but that doesn't mean watching Roots or Amistad or Crash is pointless. There's definitely a danger of falling in love with controversy or near-fuge-state levels of confusion between fictional and actual thoughts and feelings (there was an ad for a swedish ARG that I assumed for the longest time was a trap to pull people into a cult, that's how much it emphasized how cool it was to "live the game"), but there's also a danger in complacency or simplification, in resting assured that you already know everything there is to know about whatever terrible aspect of the human condition the movie/play/novel/game examines.