August 2nd, 2006

geek out

I'm going to geek out for a bit, hopefully I'll keep it short and interesting.

Our Tuesday evening gaming group has been playing a pulp-space-fantasy story in the tradition of John Carter of Mars (aka 'Barsoom') and Flash Gordon, which John, who's running the game, has titled "Tales from the Aether: The Thought Lords of Mars." We're using the system from The Shadow of Yesterday, which is working great. The system rewards the players for playing to the goals, desires, and duties of their characters, rather than the traditional D&D style of "kill things and take their stuff." This gives all the players a fair amount of freedom in driving the game in the directions they're interested in, rather than trying to guess at and follow the convoluted preconceived plot the gamemaster has constructed. The anecdotes I'm going to relate should help illustrate that.

The characters include Dr. Lem, an Earth scientist; Cass'ul, a native Martian descendent of Atlanteans who has been in exile on Earth; Oumrau, a Neptunian who claims to be the rightful king of Mars; and my character Claire Tremont, a powerful psychic from Earth. Our ostensible reason for traveling to Mars was to rescue Jane Halliday, a movie actress known as the "Jade Empress" after a character she played, who had been kidnapped by the Thought Lords of Mars, mistakingly believing she's actually the ruler of Earth. Oumrau was the exception, as he had arrived on Mars separately pursuing his own goal. In actuality, each of us had our own plans as well, which we mostly invented and developed during play.

When we arrived at the beginning of the first session, our space capsule crashed into a hovering giant squid-like monster that was attacking a pair of flying ships. The creature fed off energy, and eventually absorbed or destroyed the capsule and one of the ships. We managed to escape, rescuing Oumrau from the wreckage of one of the ships in the process, and fell in with some Martian corsairs who happened to be Cass'ul's people. Within the first session, each of us developed our own plots in collaboration with John and input from the other players. Dr. Lem began making claims to be an official representative of Earth, come to arrange a beneficial exchange of technology, and won an important conflict against Claire to persuade the commander of a Martian fleet that his claim was true. Cass'ul was simply an exile before the game began, but Brandon (judaicdiablo) and John invented a former lover he hoped to reclaim, and a sinister figure called "the Reconciler" whom Cass'ul, as an exile, would have to face probably at the risk of his life. Claire learned that the Thought Lords ruled in secrecy and were virtually unknown to the Martians, and quickly decided she'd have to overthrow them before they moved more strongly against Earth. Finally, Oumrau began trying to convince everyone of his claim to rule Mars and to convert people to be his followers; when he learned of the Jade Empress and saw her picture, he also fell in love and declared she would be his bride.

Now, we just played our fifth session, and I'm not going to give a detailed synopsis of everything that's happened so far. In summary, we managed to commandeer an Imperial Martian fleet; free the fleet commander from the Thought Lords' control; successfully reach the impregnible fortress tower of the corsairs that the fleet had been besieging for the past few years; deal with the Reconciler and win back Cass'ul's true love - who turned out to be the Reconciler; and persuade the corsairs and imperial fleet to join together in an assault on one of the Thought Lord strongholds in order to rescue the Jade Empress. What I am going to describe are two anecdotes about my part in the game.

As I mentioned, the game system rewards players for pursuing the goals, desires, and duties of their characters. These are written down as "Keys". For example, Claire has the Keys of: the Mission, to learn the secrets of the Thought Lords; the Revolutionary, to overthrow their rule; the Theosophist, to explore mystical phenomena and powers (this is a fictional version of Theosophy, of course); and Wondrous Arcana, to use her psychic powers in amazing ways, in dangerous situations, to help others. Each Key has two or three levels, earning from 1 to 5 experience per use. When I'm able to bring up one or more of the Keys during play, I earn experience that I can use to improve the character - including buying new Keys to gain experience in new ways. It's my responsibility as a player to find ways to bring them into play, and then my right to claim experience for them, although that's subject to vetoes from the other players.

During the early part of the session, we were helping Cass'ul rescue his love from the Reconciler, and I hadn't seen many opportunities to call on my Keys, I think just an instance or two for Wondrous Arcana. However, I knew I was going to need a lot of experience soon, because we would be heading off to confront the Thought Lords and I'd need to be able to buy improvements as needed. After some thought, I was able to come up with a plan that hit all four Keys at once. I would experiment with my mystical powers (Theosophist, 3 xp) to draw forth knowledge of the Thought Lords' stronghold defenses (Mission, 5 xp) before the fleet arrived, thus giving us a big advantage in our assault (Revolutionary, 5 xp); this experiment with my psychic powers would put me in danger from the Thought Lords while helping to save the fleet (Wondrous Arcana, 5 xp). This plan was perfectly in character, because I'd designed her that way; it fit into the story setup that our group, including John as gamemaster, had been creating; it gave us the opportunity for an important advantage in the game, but I still had to win a conflict for it to work, so it was a direct part of the game play; and regardless of the conflict success, it would earn me a bunch of much-needed experience, rewarding me for both being involved in the game and also looking out for my own interests. That is how a well-designed game should work, and how so many of the "traditional" role-playing games, including Dungeons & Dragons and White Wolf's "World of Darkness" line, do not work.

So, I did win that conflict, and as a result I was able to pierce the veil of invisibility that kept almost everyone from knowing of the presence of the Thought Lords' stronghold, revealing the tower to the fleet. As we advanced, the Thought Lords attempted to use their powers to disrupt the fleet, but we successfully resisted them. That left the tower's fearsome array of laser cannons, more formidable than the ones in the corsairs' tower that had held off the imperial fleet for years. We discussed how to get through to the tower. The obvious approach was to use the fleet to distract the tower while our ship slipped through the defenses, but it was clear that the fleet would be devastated and many would die, and no one wanted that. Dr. Lem had rigged a one-shot superlaser onto our ship earlier in the session, but it was clear that wouldn't be enough to get us to the tower. Brandon was arguing that maybe the fleet could distract the tower just long enough for our ship to zoom high up and then descend straight down over the tower, but that didn't seem likely; I suggested perhaps we could land our ship and make a run for it, but we feared the tower could still pick us off. There was a pause as we gloomily contemplated our dilemma, and then without thinking about it I suddenly said, "You know what we need... a fucking giant flying energy-eating squid." Everyone looked stunned for a moment, and then huge grins and chuckles burst out around the table. Of course that's what we needed! We had to summon as many of the giant squid-monsters from the first session as possible, even the Thought Lords' tower would have trouble facing those creatures.

It was a great moment that neatly tied the game series together; it was wholly unplanned and fully appropriate; it was a clever way to deal with a major challenge for which John had not pre-decided the "right" solution, or indeed any solution; and it was another moment of player input into the game that made the whole experience more thrilling and surprising and enjoyable for everyone, gamemaster included. In contrast, in the "traditional" gamemastering style and in most prepackaged company-produced game adventures, the climactic challenge of reaching the tower would have one or maybe a few "right" ways to be solved, and the players would waste a very long time trying to guess the correct actions to take, resulting in much frustration and little fun for everyone.

The plan worked beautifully. Dr. Lem reconfigured the one-shot laser cannon so that it would work as an energy beacon to attract the squid-beasts; he got a "legendary" result for his work. John described how the squids were very territorial creatures and it was rare to see more than one at a time, but our beacon attracted over thirty of the monsters, far more than anyone had ever seen together, and we led them toward the tower, where the laser cannons proved to be tempting targets for the enervores. In the confusion, we were able to land our ship on the tower and enter... and that's where the session ended. Next week we wrap up this game, finding out whether the Empress can be saved, whether the Thought Lords can be stopped, whether Oumrau will take the throne - and take the Empress to wife, and whether anyone meets their end or whether their adventures will continue in the next series...