The VSCA has at least two games that are almost ready to publish. Before we get there, though, we need to get back into playing these games after almost a month away from it all! This is surprisingly hard work — enthusiasm you generate at the table fades rapidly over time and can be very hard to recover. Flailing around trying to even remember what was cool about it is painful. Sure, you can start over with a new character and world creation session (and this is often the solution we use) but this is in danger of being a never ending cycle. And we love character creation, so there is little resistance to doing this. Danger, Will Robinson, as they say.
Trying to bull it out and just fabricate the enthusiasm is dangerous too. After an hour or so, if it doesn’t come back to you, the session is shot. You’ll either play through and be dissatisfied but be in no position to decide whether it’s the game or the situation that caused it (which doesn’t help design and development at all) or you’ll quit early and play Battlestar Galactica because it’s a reliably awesome game with built-in enthusiasm generation.
Oh yeah, I already thought about that last bit. Can you make a role-playing game with built-in enthusiasm generation? I think that, because it’s usually a staged event, the initial session is exactly that and then you count on momentum and regular play to keep that up. And that works.
Anyway that’s not what I’m here about. I don’t intend to re-design these games to create mechanisms for generating flash every session. I think that’s a problem of a whole different sort and I also don’t want to go back to the drawing board for these games. Instead I am thinking about what I am actually going to do to regenerate enthusiasm. As a referee for the game (and host as well, which is a related issue) I am assuming an obligation to make the session work. Certainly I expect the players to cooperate and stuff, but I have already taken up the mantle and the viking hat and so whether or not it is my moral duty, it is a duty I have decided to adopt.
So the problem of “how do I regenerate my enthusiasm” is now “how do I propagate my fabricated enthusiasm”. Interestingly, this latter one is easier than the former. Huh? Because I love to teach, to demonstrate, to mediate. I am already enthusiastic, not necessarily about the topic but about the process. So that’s step one: I will deliberately take on the responsibility of re-selling the campaign.
STEP ONE: Deliberately take on the responsibility for re-selling the campaign.
(I was just re-reading Diaspora this morning and loving the rule call-outs in it. They work. I will re-use them.)
So part of what was making me enthusiastic about this campaign back when we started generating characters was, not surprisingly, my character. Yes, even when I intend to referee, I usually generate a character. It becomes and NPC and may die or something. That’s not important. The character is my touchstone in the world, and that’s important. It gives me a person to imagine acting in the world and some eyes to see through, not so much during the game but before while planning. And given my prep style, by planning I mostly mean “thinking about” and not necessarily writing anything down.
STEP TWO: Grab the thing that used to be fascinating and look through its eyes at the world.
If this doesn’t generate a spark for you then it’s possible there never was one. So for me, this is The Gan, a mechanical shaman in a mechanistic world who talks with ghosts. Until recently she was certain that there was no such thing as ghosts — that she and all her machine-exorcists were charlatans. That changed, though, and with it everything else. Now she collects the raiment of the cultures she visits outside the Machine of her world, Cognate, which are places where spirit and ghost and the unexplainable are expected features. They are assumed rather than denied.
Okay so now I have eyes and a mind. I will add a voice. I will riff a vignette where The Gan is the eyes of the scene. I’ll use some things generated by the other players in this vignette because I don’t want to simply preach or tell stories, but rather I want to make them excited about their creations too.
STEP THREE: Tell a story that celebrates the creations of the other players.
Doing this is a form of praise and people love praise. Even people who know you are manipulating them with praise still love it. It’s like the swallow reflex. You have no choice even though it makes you feel dirty sometimes.
Okay maybe that’s too vivid. But remember every picture in your head there is your own fault. I didn’t say anything about oral sex.
So I write that because writing gets me jazzed too. I just like doing it. Here’s what I came up with:
Ee-ket holds up the sky, she does
And sunset is all the colours of her ass.
She chases death for laughs, she does
And she lets him kiss her coloured ass.
Ee-ket is dead as shit, they say
They tore her to pieces for sport and for joy.
The chimps devoured her brain, they say
And danced in her sky without joy.
The sky stands aloft
But the earth now free
Of elaborate fickle bonds
Is torn by the whims of murderous
Lusts. Ee-ket still holds up the sky, she does.
Sunset is all the colours of her ass.
— a folk song of the Timpani mandrill tribe, Rotten Spray Cove
The Lost One, the old hag, that bitch who moves you where there are no gates, she’s missing now and you are stranded (at least Stefos says you’re stranded — “There are no gates here. None secret, none hidden, none.”) on a rich island in the sky of Sephira. It is hot and humid because it is nearer to the sun than most, and you are the guests of the King of Rotten Spray Cove, a crowned baboon who rules over an ancient city carved from living granite and strung with jungle creepers and vines. Every building is open to the sky and the locals revel in the sudden rainfall that drenches them ever few days.
Stone faces are carved into every flat surface and stairs lead up and down needlessly everywhere. The city is home to all apes (well, all that have hair) and some monkeys, but each kind tends to keep to itself in regions of the city unmarked in any way you have yet determined, though the gorillas among you suspect scent is the key. The only race without a place are the Rakes, murderous bands of chimpanzees that rush through the broad stone streets at night and kill without purpose and without fear of punishment. Sometimes they are slain in this night frenzy, but they are never pursued in the day. They’d be easy enough to catch as they sleep all day, wherever they were when the sun rose.
And so it is, for some of you a little familiar, and you rest in the care of Badang and Ripat, the bonobo diplomats of the king’s court. You can hear inane laughing chants of the baboons as the sun sets, their song that keeps the Cove in the sky where it’s warm. You are comfortable but stranded. The Gan hums and clicks and whirs and Ord lies dead asleep (he seems to either feel rage or sloth and naught in between). Stefos paces.
A babble rises in volume to a thousand-voiced cry in the city. Badang, the smaller of the pair, rushes in. The King has been poisoned.
Poisoned. An invisible killer has somehow returned. Ee-ket’s pact has been broken and the nameless god she chased away has gained some purchase again.
The Gan strides to the window that overlooks the Meet, the vast assembly space where the King holds — held — audience at the base of his ziggurat. The Gan inhales, which is something none of you have ever seen before. He turns and says, “A plague is on the wind.”
Now this is incomplete — I really grabbed on to one player’s creation, the ape-world of Sephira, which has lots of embedded culture and has a great rule: there is no invisible death. Inhabitants die of violence and stuff like that but there is no poison or disease. Whenever someone hands me a rule, the hook that it obviously recommends is to break that rule.
STEP FOUR: Break a rule to break the ice.
This works because I know I have at least one player invested in that rule and I know they trust me. And so I reasonably expect that the reaction here will not be “Brad is a cock for ruining my creation” but rather the in character reaction, “Oh my goodness everything I have believed is turning out to be false — how could this be?” Hopefully followed by, “we better investigate.”
When we meet I will re-tell this. Some things might change. I will try to make each player think about what this means to them by offering some narrative about them as the event unfolds — it’s essential that everyone be attached to the opener.
STEP FIVE: Touch everyone.
And then I’ll sit back and hope it works. When everything goes right, the players attack the hook and create the game. I have several cool NPCs to talk with, and that often livens things up. Whatever, the point is, if it livens up, the session will work.
If it doesn’t, I have Settlers of Cataan handy.