KapCon Round 5 – A World of Possibilities

Warning Label: This is the last of these detailed game write-ups, so after this you’re going to have to source your spoilers, analysis and/or vitriol someplace else. You should make yourself feel better about it by hugging a xenomorph.

Like most old-timers on the convention-GMing circuit, I end up running most of my games a decent handful of times. There’s usually a play-test, sometimes two, two or more runs at conventions and then a revival for those who missed out followed by longer-term nostalgic re-runs such as my round 5 of GMing at KapCon this year.

Usually this is a process of incremental refinement, changing the game each time to adapt to player feedback and hone the basic plot. Death in the Streets, for example, was play-tested twice back in 2008, then run at Fright Night, then re-play-tested before KapCon 2013 and run at KapCon 13. Each run having major additions and deletions of scenes, characters and except for the last two, system changes.

Not so, with A World of Possibilities, which I wrote, sent to Liz Slessor and Ivan Towlson for editing, then entered in the SDC and ran for the first time at KapCon itself, achieving two runs of near-perfect scores. Having re-read it again for KapCon 2013, I am confident in pronouncing it my best game so far; sure, the ending is a little weak, but the scenario has momentum, interest and flexibility backed by an iron-clad railroad to which recalcitrant or incompetent play-groups can be strapped. The text for each run has been stable, with no significant changes, and so the variability from run to run so far is down almost entirely to the players.

This variability has been quite a lot more marked than I had expected, and it has made me appreciate just how genre-grounded this game is in the police procedural and crime narrative generally. It surprised me because of the major design objectives of the game was to write a game about policemen that required literally no investigating. Everything that the players need to know is embedded in the structure of the scene, from the sabotage that isn’t a sabotage in the opening scene onward. You shouldn’t need to play a police character here, just a character who is a policeman, but it was exactly the portrayal of police characters which made the first two runs so successful, and which meant that the subsequent runs have been adequate but uninspiring.

It began to become clear to me on the first run, when Idiot played the greenhorn cop, recently promoted to the detective bureau. He was so nervous about fitting in, and about his first major investigation, especially because he was partnered with the squad leader, a man busted down from Sergeant. He wanted to prove himself so badly. That first group investigated the hell out of the scenario, and I was ready to supply the real clues: that it was not a crime, but a reflection of a deeper change in reality.

In both groups the players took their roles as investigators and professionals really seriously, following Idiot’s lead in the first run and Steve Hickey’s in the second. That meant they were solidly grounded in the reality which I was pulling out from under them as the central action of the adventure, and that meant that the plot worked beautifully. By buying into the apparent premise, they automatically bought into the real premise, and so when their cellphones stopped working, and the NPCs stopped responding to the female detective with respect, and when the military’s lies were patent… they were there with a contra expectation, and they played real responses to those stimuli.

My favourite single moment from those two early runs was Scott Kelly as the lead detective, Kurt, basically having to be dragged off from taking a swing at Col. Spencer, the person apparently in charge of the city while under martial law. Spencer’d pushed his buttons on all the little details of procedure that Kurt, as a policeman, was there to see done correctly, and the scene never played out quite that way again, because no subsequent group was prepared to drive that characterization home to the hilt.

This time out, it seemed to me that the group started off following James Plunket’s lead, being a bit cynical about the whole police enterprise. James had used his charisma and story savvy to create drama within the group in two previous rounds with me at KapCon, but here none of the rest of the group took a strong contra position of the diligent police as exemplified by Idiot in that first run. The game doesn’t require investigation, but it does require engagement in a way that I hadn’t quite appreciated, and the cynicism about the efficacy of the police operations meant that from the very first second of play, this group were adrift, so the rug being moved underneath them went largely unnoticed.

They drifted through the scenario until late in the adventure one singular aspect piqued their interest. One of the small handful of set piece scenes has the characters called to observe the military doing something in a graveyard. Usually, the PCs notice this, then talk to Spencer, who fobs them off – the real action here being something being fishy about Spencer. No other group has then returned to look at the graves closely. This group, deeply cynical about Spencer, decided that talking to anyone was a waste of time and decided to exhume the bodies being affected by the military action. And thus, were the first group to encounter the Gospog, that I had thought would be a significant part of the adventure when writing it.

Having said all that, I must confess that I was not at the top of my game when GMing this scenario. In professional tennis the difference between a killer shot and a point for your opposition is measured in millimetres – it’s a game where tiny errors literally turn things around. When Scott encountered Spencer, I pushed back at the right pace and in the right mode to escalate. When James encountered Spencer, he was less grounded, and I just pushed him over. A transcript of the two conversations might not even show the difference in the dialogue up until the point it shredded. It was taking those chances in the first run through which elevated the game, and here if I’d just aimed for adequate, the game might have run a little better in detail.

Nevertheless, like The Salt Bond, the structure of this game is tight and strong and so it’s forgiving. Mistakes can be made by both sides, lots of them, and the thing should roll on to a conclusion, hitting the different facts you need for the story and getting the job done. That, I think, remains the gold standard, and one that’s a lot easier to achieve if you’re running something whose mechanical structure matches the story structure; a technology I’m really only starting to get to grips with now, with EPOCH for Death on the Streets and The Mountain Witch for Succession. I bought into the kickstarter for Fate Core after running round 5, because I think that’s what I need for new TORG at KapCon 2014.

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4 Responses to KapCon Round 5 – A World of Possibilities

  1. catnip_mouse says:

    As one of the offending players, I don’t think it was so much difficulty in engaging with the idea of playing police. It was more that there didn’t seem to be any sign of a crime initially. In the power plant there was no evidence of terrorism, the evidence pointed to a software failure which is not a police issue (or at least needed to be examined by technical experts first). The arrival of the army and declaration of martial law then closed down any opportunity for further investigation. In our case things probably weren’t helped by the fact that everyone in our chain of command seemed to be pushing us to do nothing.

    As a police officer I was reluctant to undertake any illegal activity, which the scenario seemed to be pushing for. It became obvious early on that the army were up to no good, but the proper course of action would have been to collect evidence of their illegal activities and then arrest them all once martial law had been lifted (something you made clear wouldn’t work in this scenario).

    I still enjoyed the game, but as a group we did kind of miss the plot flags.

    • Anonymous says:

      Heh, I think your run of this for me didn’t rate analysis. From memory, I think the greatest challenge of this scenario (and i guess the underlying game) is that the change feels initially like overzealous GM fiat, rather than a spooky or stange mystery. That’s not your fault, and I’m pretty sure we managed to push through it, but I remember thinking – damn Mash, you’re really asking me to trust that you know what you’re doing here. Any time you are going to poke at the PC’s perceptions of reality (and change the SIS) in a one-off ‘con scenario, you are likely to run into PC schemas of bad GMs (highlighted by some of your comments on Phase Shift).

      • mashugenah says:

        Well, I developed the scenario and how it plays out, so it’s at least a little my fault. 😀

        It’s true though, it does need the players to take a lot on trust, not only that the things which go wrong are part of an important feature of the game, but that they’re not just dicking you around with a lot of irrelevant stuff.

        In terms of a comparison with Phase Shift – the main thing about the GM feeding information in that scenario was that you have no contra or complementary information to work with, so you feel in a void. Whereas in AWOP, the realism of the scenario and apparent world function means that you can use every day life to work with too. Also, in AWOP, the information is all basically optional – the KapCon group didn’t feel worried by the progressive technological breakdown, so they went off and did other things. In Phase Shift, that information is all structured around an immediate decision that you need to make – you can’t simply not care about it.

    • mashugenah says:

      …we did kind of miss the plot flags.

      This comment cuts to the heart of what I think didn’t really work in your run of the scenario. I tried really hard to write the game so that there isn’t one true path through the scenario, and actually, I’d love to conceive of the “plot” here as an environmental change with the real interest coming from the players’ engagement with their world in whatever form. So if you guys had knocked off work and gone for some beers, I think I could have worked with that just fine to do what is really important about the scenario, which is the change in the world around you.

      I had a similar experience with The Storm Breaks a few years ago, where at the CONfusion run, the group just submerged themselves into the ambience and in exploring the pressures placed on the characters by the change from modern Scotland into a medieval high fantasy. That was a brilliant experience and remained a high water mark. When I ran the game at KapCon the next year, the group kept trying to “win” the scenario – a totally understandable response, and one I should have predicted, but which basically just doesn’t work because the characters are just not equipped to really win. It’s all about the experience.

      You guys were wedged between those situations… not really leaping into either tackling the obviously illegal martial law, and not really fully disengaging with it to live out your lives either.

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