Warning Label:I’m reviewing the KapCon games I played in some detail. There will be spoilers that make it impossible to play the game, and I will be naming names of people I played with and things I both liked and disliked. If you think you’ll be offended, I suggest you stop reading now and go hug a Panda.
I have spilt a lot of virtual ink already trying to get to grips with this scenario and why it hasn’t been coming together. At Fright Night itself, I felt like it almost, just about, very nearly did. Sitting down at the table at KapCon I was still ambivalent about many of the core choices that needed to be made in order for a functional scenario of whatever kind, and so in the end I didn’t really push the game much – I let it be character driven.
The characters that were spawned by the randomised cards were pretty similar to the previous couple of runs – a mix of regular folk without too much really going on. The first spark of any life for any of the characters came from one James Plunket and Ruth Harper quickly and gently on that spark trying to get a fire going. James played an old school misogynist bastard with a long-suffering wife, and Ruth played the man with whom she was having an affair. I think the entire group really enjoyed the adventure unfolding and giving his character the walloping he deserved! As with most outrageous characters, he consistently won or placed the ballots. I’m not sure what that says about humanity.
These two characters idled along in their domestic drama, with increasingly cool and interesting cameos from the uber-feminist character played by Auryn. Who knows – if either of the other two players had seemed aware of the unfolding domestic drama, we could have chucked out vampires altogether and had some real characterisation and interest going on. But, alas, they mostly retreated into their own little separate stories, and in the absence of a consensus I wombled on with my plot.
Crucially, this divergence meant that the game fragmented into split narratives – the basic structural problem with the first play-test. Naturally, my horror-GM instincts when you have players alone is to pick them off, one by one. EPOCH doesn’t really allow that, and so instead I kept passing up golden opportunities to put the screws on, and punish the loners.
I think this is effectively a story/structural limitation of EPOCH – it can’t handle group fragmentation very well. The GM is always contriving within the fiction to either stage multiple simultaneous-but-separate challenges, or gently redirecting players back into the same fictive space. In real terms, you’re never safer than when you go off alone to investigate the whatever.Abandoning or more adroitly circumnavigating these systemic limitations and pushing the loners could have rescued this game.
So much for my side of the problems. The players in an overtly character-driven game must also bear some responsibility for the ill-functioning of the game. The warning signs were big, and early, when one of the players responded to my briefing of a group of pensioners from South London by creating a Northern Irish Catholic Priest whose main schtick was to rail against corruption and vice. That, my friends, is a very challenging choice for a character in a game entitled Pleasures of the Flesh. You can pull it off – by highlighting their inner torment over their rhetoric, and their weak nature. Or you could not pull it off and seem to miss the whole point of the environment.
Then, once we have a strong story forming in the opening scenes, you need to jump on board, especially when you’ve had your chance to frame something interesting for yourself and passed. Now, that story was also problematic, inasmuch as it has very closed possibilities. A long-term affair is found out – in order to have an interesting next step, there needs to be a lot of possible collateral damage on the table. There wasn’t.
I was late with pushing my story front-and-centre, but not as late as the players were in noticing it. I gave them 4 NPC companions, plus one from James, and I’d killed all 4 in mysterious circumstances before anyone started to get suspicious. The most sinking moment was when the question was finally asked about where Eileen had got to (the missing 4th), another player asked “who?”, clearly having not been paying attention to the other half of two separate conversations they’d had. Now, you could argue that means simply that my NPCs weren’t memorable enough, but when there are only 4 and all 4 are gone, you might expect some kind of response.
In a lot of ways, it is the inertia of the players that perturbs me more than my failures to railroad them into my plot. Given a free choice, the people they created were, on average, boring. If I asked any of the players whether they would read a book about the character they chose to play… I’m not sure that I’d get much of a positive response. The problem here is too much choice; given a completely blank slate, the players are trying to create something from a blank starting point, without much idea of what the scenario will require. James was really the only one able to spontaneously generate an interesting (albeit, monstrous) character, and Ruth was savvy enough to piggy-back on that creation. Is this a basic limitation of player ability?
I think it would be an interesting exercise to sit down with a group of gamers and ask them to sketch, with no other information, someone interesting. I really wonder how that would turn out. In Pleasures of the Flesh, it turned out badly.