Warning Label: Make sure that when you’re off hugging a wolverine instead of reading this offensive post that you take all due precautions as regards spoiling the experience of it.
The lazy way to write an EPOCH adventure is to get a group formed and then put them in some kind of dangerous environment. Every half hour, give or take, you throw something nasty at them and run a ballot. As I’ve said before, recently, the key to scenario design is finding the right structure and in this case that meant spotting the correspondence between what I’d always wanted from FN2′s Death On The Streets and EPOCH.
In other words, add some supernatural grebbly and a group of 1920s bootleggers into one pot and prod at regular intervals. EPOCH is a relentless grind in structural terms; death is inexorable. Once you have a premise which matches that structure the game basically should take care of itself – the burden is very much then on the players to make the game anything more or less, as they prefer.
That burden, as Dale pointed out in his play-test review of DOTS and Igor’s Red Gold is quite high, and the learning curve can be quite steep. It almost necessitates that your setting and basic story premise be familiar to the play-group, otherwise their context for making character decisions can be poor. What surprised me about the play-group for DOTS was that it appeared only Nick Adams and James Plunket had genre familiarity. I was caught out slightly by having to explain to the others about Made Men ™ and the paramilitary structure traditionally adopted by mob organisations and the concept of big mobs being basically wholesalers with little mobs being retailers and territory and all that kind of thing which I thought would be common knowledge.
None of this is a big problem for the scenario. Succession would be paralysed by the concomitant inability to play proactively but EPOCH‘s meat-grinder just churns on regardless meaning that DOTS is a scenario which is adaptive to PC-led stories, but also has a story/structural railroad tucked in its back pocket in case one doesn’t emerge.
One of the key ways in which PC-led stories emerge is, as noted in my discussion on Pleasures of the Flesh, for piggy-backing and intertwining, and I think that the difference in holistic qualities between the play-test and the KapCon run can be illustrated in the opening scenes; partially on how similar the opening scenes were between the two groups.
In the play-test, Ivan’s opening scene was him drinking quietly in a speakeasy where he met a pair of English tourists. He chatted with them for a few minutes in a slightly edgy way until they left, whereupon he followed them. Once out of the street lighting, he brutally beats the man. Cut to Mike Foster’s introduction scene – a young wannabee, waiting in a car in a dim street, watching a drunk couple leave a bar, then a finely dressed gentleman. He sees the gentleman follow the pair round the corner, so he drives the car up to the alley to pick the gentleman up as he emerges, and the pair discuss the necessary evil of violence.
I loved this, because to me it illustrated that Ivan had a character story in mind, one which utilised his genre knowledge and which set the tone suitably brutally. I loved Mike’s piggy-back because it established a clear ongoing relationship between two characters, as well as showing us just how his character perceived the world he was in.
At KapCon, Nick Adams described a similar scene. A party going on at the bar, with a guest of honour being toasted and bought drinks. One man sits alone, on the edge of the lit areas, drinking slowly, calmly, alone. He’s brooding and melancholic. The guest of honour gets up to go to the bathroom, and the melancholic follows him. The bathroom clears out, and they are alone, so the melancholic man takes a gun from his coat and shoots the drunk in the head. “You shouldn’t have talked.” Cut to Rose’s introduction scene, which is that she’s one of the people buying the drunk drinks. Oh, and her character doesn’t have a name. Not so bad. Cut to the next player’s name (I forget) and… the same piggy-back, but at least his character is described as having only one leg.
I loved Nick’s introduction for the same reasons I loved Ivan’s. It was a wonderful evocative scene. It was surprising that both of the following players both wanted to piggy-back in such a limited way, without really expanding anything, just straightforwardly opting out of being creative themselves.
Rose quickly got into the swing of it after that, though it was still clear that her genre experience was low. The other guy however, almost proactively disengaged from the narrative, refusing to make decisions or undertake actions even in the most desultory fashion when others in the group tried to include him. I have never seen someone so resistant to having fun. Mid way through the story James zeroed him, which means forced him to play a second outcome card by deliberately putting him in harms way. His response “I think I’m probably too injured to care.” After that, I think we all pretty much just regarded him as purely audience.
EPOCH is a game designed around the central concept of “player activation”, and that has almost universally been amongst its successes. I may not always understand what players are trying to do, but I can see that they’re trying something. It’s not clear to me what more we could have done here, but it’s an outlier experience that will stay with me for some time.
On the other hand, Dan Z went from having a weak character opening, to rapidly getting the hang of the game and environment and was tied winner of every single audience ballot.
The other thing which interested me about the playtest versus the kapcon run was that the play-test group quickly seemed to form bonds of loyalty and so played a lot of hero cards, whereas the KapCon group played only zero cards, which is apparently more in keeping with how Dale’s original group plays it.
The long-term take away point from this game for me is that genre familiarity cannot really be assumed in any game anymore. Who would have thought that you could find a group of 5 people where only the minority were as familiar with fictive organised criminal enterprise as watching The Godfather or a few episodes of The Sopranos?
On the other hand, perhaps it is I who is out of date, retaining an interest in such retrograde modes of storytelling as the traditional gangster thriller?