You are here

Edited Discussion on Mythic Games (with Combat Transcript)

16 posts / 0 new
Last post
Edited Discussion on Mythic Games (with Combat Transcript)

Earlier this year Jay (Silmenume) and I had a long discussion about the Middle Earth game he plays in, which has been discussed before here as well as on Story-Games and the Forge. Jay kindly shared with me some Actual Play recordings of his group, since I was considering running a game in a similar style. This prompted a long discussion by PM about quite a few aspects of the game.

Since it has been a perennial topic of interest, I thought it would be a good idea to post some of the discussion here for other people to read. With Jay's permission and help, I am have edited the logs from our conversation to improve the flow, correct errors, and improve clarity. The discussions have reorganized so they are sorted by topic (rather than original chronological order, which frequently jumped from topic to topic as we revisited ideas over a period of time).

Here is the document with the edited discussion logs.

To provide further context for this discussion, here is a transcript of the combat scenario that we discuss. Some names have been changed (both in the transcript and in the accompanying discussion).

Note that we also discuss another example of (non-combat) play, but it has not been transcribed.

Finally, here is a document I wrote (mainly for myself) about the role of the GM in the game.

Tags: 
2
------
The sheer number of

The sheer number of principles for the GM ! It requires professional gestures and qualities. It's like a draft for a youth work qualification in TTRPGS. And still some table and player reading advice would be missing to referee between one stance and another. The GM needs dramatology AND psychology. Where do they train them ?

0
Fantastic

As someone who has studied a recording of Jay's group in some detail, it's great to see someone take the time to write this up in such detail. Thank you! This will really the conversation move forward. I'll be to look this over in more detail later!

0
Thank you for writing up

Thank you for writing up these principles & your conversation with Jay! There's a lot in there.

Have you actually run your spicy game, Billy? How'd it go, or what's still stopping you?

0
Those Principles are awesome!

My favorite quote: "Remember that the greatest tales are tragedies, filled with fear and pity. It is up to the players to find their way to comedy."

0
I did get to run a couple

I did get to run a couple sessions a few months ago, though not under the best possible conditions. Since then circumstances have not allowed the same group of people to be gathered in one place, so my ambition to run it further is waiting for the right day and moment. Right now I am working on getting together a somewhat more traditional West Marches type D&D game with some newer acquaintances--the Spicy Dice game is one I would find harder to run except for a trusted and familiar group.

For what it is worth I can say a bit about the few sessions I did run.

The first session was character creation, following essentially the same life-path system that you (Jeph) describe in your Apothecary's Laws document. The second session was very short. There was a bit of interaction with some NPCs but not much happened. The third session was also quite short (basically a second half of the previous one); the players set out on a journey and we had a small combat encounter.

The character creation took a long time - I didn't rush it and there were a number of unexpected twists and turns of fate. At first I had a very hard time keeping the game going. Generally my players did not volunteer very much, being a little unsure about how this game would work (and one a bit sceptical of it, generally preferring games with very clear and logical rules, like D&D 3e). Eventually, after about 10 or 15 minutes so I was able to find my narrator voice and force things forward more effectively. I had to do a lot of talking before the players started to get more engaged (a little hard for me since I am naturally a little meek and don't always have so much self-confidence...).

One of my players offered as a character concept "an elf who wants to travel around and make friends with everyone." The idea occurred to me that this elf might be especially beautiful, so I called for a d20 roll - and it came up as a natural 1. So I narrated that the elf was mysteriously wrinkled and disfigured from birth, as no other elf was known to be. Suddenly the character was changed from the social butterfly we had been imagining to a figure of pathos, trying to find friends but always aware of the suppressed looks of pity and disgust he occasioned from others. My originally sceptical player ended up taking over this character and became very interested in role-playing this "damaged" person.

Another one of our characters (also an elf) started out without much concept in mind, and meandered a little with no real direction during character creation, first growing up an orphan under a cold and distant father, then living as a hunter in the forest for a time, then as a poet and minstrel, then finding favour with the elven king and becoming a court bard, then taking an interest in magic, then in crafting jewellery...

For each of these life stages, I called for a d20 roll to see what was the character's aptitude, and generally had middling results, so I would just let the player roll a few dice for relevant skill points, then proceed to what came next. I was thinking the character was about done, but on the d20 roll for making jewellery, a natural 20 came up! So I went ahead and narrated that, after long hours working to cut a gem perfectly, guided by instinct as much as skill, the elf held up the gem he had been cutting and beheld a tiny mote of light twinkling within it - a rediscovery of the secret art of crystal lamp-making that was thought lost among the elves.

So, certainly the natural 1's and natural 20's were the highlights. The rest feels more like "making things up" while waiting for fate to speak. Trying to make something happen and keep the story going forward without a strong die roll feels like applying DM force - whereas when the strong rolls come up, it almost feels like things "just happen" of their own accord.

One mechanical innovation I was pleased with was an audaciously simple stat generation system: For each of the six standard D&D stats, just choose a number from 3-18 that reflects how you see your character. We did this part way through playing the life paths, once the players had some sense of who their characters were. I was pleased with how this worked - obviously, it would be possible to give yourself all 18's, but the fact that you were allowed to choose whatever you wanted helped to convey that the scores were not there to gain mechanical advantage so much as to help provide a richer description of the characters as unique people within the fictional world.

Of course, if someone HAD dared to give themself the stats of a demigod, I would have taken it as license to hound them with such trials as Hercules never knew... but, respecting the spirit of the game, everyone chose fairly modest scores except where some event in their life path so far had already indicated an extra special aptitude.

One of my players was delighted with how the skills worked - that you would add marks based on what you spent time doing, or when you made a good dice roll on something related. She said something like, "Oh, this makes so much more sense!" [than spending skill points in D&D]

The slow character creation had the desired effect of making the characters come to life and become memorable and distinct individuals - more so than many D&D characters I have played with for much longer.

A real difficulty was getting the characters together for the start of the adventure - as their life paths had scattered them in all directions. This required a certain amount of willful suspension of disbelief to contrive how to gather them to one location and introduce them to one another. We didn't fulfil very well the requirement that every character should have a strong and compelling motive to participate in the adventure - and this faling hurt the feeling of the game. Definitely figuring out how to prepare the characters and the scenario together better would be worthwhile - how much to plan, how much to leave to develop on its own.

As I said before, the second session was not very good, and it left me feeling a bit discouraged. The main problem however was just that two of the three players were tired and were zoning out a bit from the game.

The other problem was that the scenario was not compelling enough. I had decided that I would run a scenario called "The Eaves of Mirkwood", which is an introductory module from the "Adventures in Middle Earth" line by Cubicle 7 games. However, it is a low-stakes mood piece with fairly generic NPCs, and is written as a rank railroad besides... and these flaws which might have been forgiveable in D&D felt more painful here, in a game aimed at digging into the depth of the setting and the drama. So we ended up with players talking to some NPCs who had no real depth, and making some dice rolls that had no real stakes.

(Why did I choose this poor scenario? My overall goal was to run scenarios from the book "The Darkening of Mirkwood", also from Cubicle 7, which is much more excellent and in all ways better suited to a Spicy Dice type campaign. I still think this would be a good choice. But I made the mistake of thinking that therefore the introductory scenario from the same product line would be a good choice - which it wasn't.)

To be fair to the module, it may be that the opening section is designed to be safe and boring to give players time to get into character and settle into the fictional world - but obviously, this was unnecessary after the lengthy character creation, and we should have just jumped to something with more action.

The third session was better - the players were more awake, and the characters had left the boring starting town. We had a short journey through the wilderness, the discovery of an ancient overgrown statue, and then a brief but vicious skirmish as the players tried to rescue some dwarves who had been attacked by goblins (all material from the module mentioned above).

Combat was fierce and deadly--perhaps not least because in the fun of the life-path character generation, the characters had not especially been built for fighting. Two of the characters went down, one nearly killed.

One player pursued a very poor combat strategy, something like this:
- I stab it in the face! (roll)
- You almost hit, but it blocks your thrust with its sword.
- I stab it in the face! (roll)
- It blocks your blow again - it was expecting you this time.
- I stab it in the face! (roll)
- It easily deflects your blow, and lunges forward to counterattack, nearly hitting you.
- I stab it in the face! (roll)
- It knocks aside your sword and slashes you in the chest! Take 5 damage!

Afterwards I asked why she kept trying to use the same strategy even though it wasn't working and the goblin was completely prepared for it. She said she was hoping to stall until she rolled a natural 20...

One thing that I noticed (and didn't much like) in the combat was that I held the power to save or doom the characters by controlling the spotlight. That is, as soon as a character was in trouble, I could "save" them by yielding the spotlight to another character who was doing better, who would then come to the rescue. I didn't have a very objective sense of how much time had passed in each of the time slices for the different characters, so it was hard to say fairly whether the other character would in fact be able to arrive in time to come to the rescue. So this would be an area where I'd like to develop more clear principles.

Overall, I thought the game ran well, and reactions from my players were positive. I don't think I was running at anywhere near to "Cary" quality, but it's a new skill and one I'd like to develop further.

Aside from what Jay and Jeph wrote, a very valuable resource to me for figuring out how to run this game was the book "Impro for Storytellers" by Keith Johnstone. The major theme of that book is the improvising good stories by being "obvious" and doing what everyone expects, not undermining what is already established - then eventually at the right moment adding a "tilt" (unexpected twist). These principles sounds very simple, but the book goes into a lot more depth about all the different ways that one may be tempted to ruin the story by being too clever, trying to subvert expectations, stalling, being afraid to use your best ideas, etc. This matches fairly closely what is required to adjudicate middling rolls vs the natural 1s/20s. Much recommended.

0
Congrats!!

Hi Billy,
I’m delighted that you gave the process a go. I’m sorry it didn’t go as well as hoped.

I have some thoughts based on the limited information at my hands that I like to share with you. Hope you don’t mind.

“The rest feels more like ‘making things up’ while waiting for fate to speak. Trying to make something happen and keep the story going forward without a strong die rolls feels like applying DM force.”

I’ve been playing this mode of play for so long (about 25 years) that I had forgotten some of the feelings that might arise from DMing this for the first time. One thing to remember is that DM Force is player deprotagonization. Pushing events at players is not inherently deprotagonizing. It can be if either the event being pushed was already dealt with in play by the players or if the players have an expectation to have control over the Setting/Story. Other than the above having a lot to say is not a problem for this style of play…in fact it is an extremely fundamental component. Consider the following analogy. Think of player characters as sailing in single sail dinghies. You, the GM, are the winds and weather. The players really can’t get very far unless they have wind. The sailors (the PC’s) may or may not have a specific goal in mind but you provide those winds that in turn provide that motive force. Those winds could be headwinds, a beam, tailwinds or anywhere in between. They can be fierce or nearly calm; steady or changeable. But you must have them in order for the craft to move. The choices and solutions the sailor makes in order to navigate to their goal (or just survive) is akin by analogy to how the PC responds to events and troubles in the game. The struggles and choices made are what make the experiences of play and instead of winds you the GM provide those motive events that the players need to respond. It is not GM Force in THIS CA to constantly present interesting events to the players be they conflicts or romances. But whatever it is you place in the path of the PCs it should always intersect with the players’ interests. If you are out of “story” ideas go with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, rush towards the bottom and go with physical danger and needs. Build to higher level needs and goals when you regain your footing. However, none of this can happen unless the GM is constantly acting in the role of the buffeting winds.

The players and the GM are constantly “making things up”. That’s the whole point of this CA. More than G/N this CA is truly about the very act of communicating meanings, whether verbal or otherwise. This CA happens between the die rolls, not because of them. If it feels like you (either player or GM) are “waiting” things to happen then something deeply fundamental is wrong. Things “happen” because you and the players are talking (be that straight dialogue all the way to combat) about things. If things feel like they aren’t happening then it’s because the players (GM included) are not communicating “interesting” things at the table (interesting being locally defined at the table). By the way, I really hope you’re not reading this as negative criticism. It’s not. I’m really trying to be as straight as I can be with what I’ve read in your post and how those things feel in relation to my experiences and theorizing. Things become interesting when you communicate interesting things back and forth – not because some mechanic says so. I know we never spoke on it directly be we do have some mechanics, especially WRT battle but they are there primarily to help the GM normalize behaviors during battle as well as act as dramatic spice. The game does not hinge on 1’s and 20’s. Interesting things happen all the time without reference to dice but they’ve got to be placed into play by you or your players through the act of improvisational/creative imaginings that are communicated. There is more to this but I want to touch on other topics that you brought up in your fascinating post.

You mentioned or implied that the world you’re playing in is Tolkien’s ME. Cool. But then I saw that you ran a published adventure. That’s seriously problematic if it was used as anything more than just background/Setting information. If there was a plot that was to be followed that is very serious conflict of Creative Agendas. Pre-programmed events other than game opening bangs are anathema to this CA. Even then the bangs do have to fit the characters, the events of past play and the Setting itself as a whole. I can understand your desire for assistance in running the game the first few times out but you are much, much better served by relationship maps and bangs. The real art of this mode of play is being able to look at the “things in the bricoleur's closet” and be able to fit them together in such a way as to create conflicts or interest in your players. Let’s go through some of the things you spoke of and how they could have been used towards this end. Much of what I’m going to offer is going to reflect the aesthetics of our table but they are interpretations based upon the writings of Tolkien. Our take on the material may not match yours and that is totally fine. Actually so much the better because that means you’re finding your own aesthetic likes even if it happens to be found in contrast to what I’m offering here.

You mentioned one of your players chose to play an Elf. While at first glance that might seem to be just a choice of race it is so very much more than that. When choosing to play an Elf the player should be fairly knowledgeable about most of what was written about Elves in the LOTR’s books, the Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, and Unfinished Tales. There is inconsistency between these various works but the material presented is vast, moving and beautiful. It also covers much of the early history of ME which sets the stage for why things and peoples are why the way they are NOW. This is sooooooooo important to the game if you are looking for a deeply ME experience. Unless the GM has a deep understanding of the history of Elves and their place in the cosmology and history of ME then much of what ME is will be utterly lacking. It is good if the player of an elf has similar knowledge but this is not quite as important as the GM knowing this material through and through.

So this player decided that their character was an orphan. Seize on this! Why is the Elf an orphan? What happened to the parents? There is an implicit story here that doesn’t have to explored immediately but it could make for some great future events and you can layer in some foreshadowing on this topic. Elves are immortal unless slain or literally give up the ghost. So an orphan means something tragic happened. The death of immortal is much more tragic than the death of a mortal, especially immortals that are as close to perfection physically and with as many gifts as the Elves have. Losing Elven parents is a Big Deal in ME. Having a distant foster father would also run very deeply against the grain of what it means to be an Elf. That means there is a latent story here to that is begging to be explored and should have a profound impact on the Elf PC. Due to some of the aforementioned gifts of the Elves they were tied very closely to the physicality of ME. After the 1st age and the cessation of the Leaguer of Angband we never really see Elves eating animal flesh. Elves delighted in the life of Middle Earth and sought not to bring death anywhere save in the protection of their lives. For an Elf to be a hunter would be a strange thing indeed and at powerfully strong odds with Elven society, culture, values and what it means to be an Elf. This can happen but it would be a very strange Elf and would need to be part of the daily events of said Elf. Would the Valier Yavanna Kementari, Vana and Nessa have something to “say” about an Elf who slew the charges of these Ainur? Would such an Elf be accursed? What would drive an Elf to do something so against their general nature? (Yes I understand and remember the kinslaying and wars led by Feanor and his sons – all the greater the tragedy). Now, all Elves can sing and compose, such are the gifts of First Born, so to be recognized as talented in such things means that such an Elf would be a mighty wordsmith indeed. Which of the Kings did this Elf have favor? Cirdan? Elrond? Thranduil? Celeborn? Each choice brings with it much baggage, history, ties and flavor. All this is very important in making this character unique while helping fleshing out their relationships and world view plus helping aid them determining who their person bonds are with. How old is this Elf? Old enough and there are other kings and events that this Elf has known and suffered through. That this Elf has also shown the skill of crafting Feanorian lamps would be a HUGE thing among the Elves. The elves have not created anything great since the Gwaith-i-Mirdain and the forging of the Rings of Power in the Second Age. And the woe that fell upon the Elves as a result of their craftings (Sauron destroying Eregion seeking the rings and the deaths of all the Elves as a result of his attack – including Celebrimbor) including the unintended creation of the Nazgul. Would the Wise even want such a gift in the world again? I’m not saying they wouldn’t but this would put the character directly on the map of Mighty of the World – including Sauron.

Are you beginning to see what I am getting to with all these connections with the books and history of ME. How each development in the character’s history would be weighed and measured against all that has happened before. How this would affect the character’s present as well their future? The Elves are the most extreme in this because of their place in the cosmology as the First Born of Eru – the Elda – and their actions which drove so much of the history of ME.

Are you beginning to see how bricolage applies to this all? Are you beginning to see how everything affects everything? How certain things do fit and other things do not? This is the normalizing effect of myth at work.

I apologize that this is so rushed and not even a complete post but I ran out of time and wanted to get something posted. There is much more to go on about if you wish and if you have any comments or questions I would look forward to them.

Best,

Jay

(One thing that I am very interested in is learning about the other PC's beyond the Elves)

0
Winds and lamps

Hi Jay,

Thank you for the long and detailed comments. It perhaps did not go as well as hoped, but I should say it also went much better than feared -- definitely overall I felt the positive was more than the negative, even if in my description I dwell more on the problems and issues.

I may not be using the phrase "DM Force" quite rightly -- but I did not necessarily mean that it was a problem theoretically. I think my perceptions when playing agreed with your statements here, that if anything the game ran better when I applied more force (or "wind", let us say) to keep things moving, and the players did not seem resentful. More what I meant was that when I needed to provide most of the momentum for several minutes at a time, I found it a bit creatively draining. That is, basically, I was worried about running out of ideas and things to say -- or, like you say, I didn't feel like I was saying very "interesting" things (interesting to myself or to the players).

I think it was definitely becoming easier by the third session, probably because the players were becoming more engaged with the game and everything we had already brought into play was feeding forwards and providing context and meaning to things.

> But then I saw that you ran a published adventure. That’s seriously problematic if it was used as anything more than just background/Setting information. If there was a plot that was to be followed that is very serious conflict of Creative Agendas.

Yes, this is something that became very clear. I don't know if I have much more to say other than that I agree. It was actually pretty striking to me how unsuitable the pre-written content felt once so many of the "D&D-isms" (classes, adventuring party, etc.) had been stripped away from the game.

I do still think the other book I mentioned ("The Darkening of Mirkwood") would work better as the basis for a campaign, but that is because it is much more open ended - basically a book of 30 different scenarios, most of them only partially fleshed out, so that it would be easy to take and use the conflicts and ideas from them without trying to play out the pre-written story.

I'll try not to dive too deeply into the Tolkien discussion, since I imagine it could balloon into a lengthy digression. Briefly, the elves were both Mirkwood elves and the elf-king mentioned was Thranduil. The detail of hunting in the forest comes from The Hobbit, where the wood elves do seem to hunt deer (being more wild and perhaps, for want of a better word, less "holy" than the elves who have been influenced more by the Noldor). The foster father was not deliberately distant, but was very old and wise, quite stern, long past the usual age of child-rearing, and beginning to feel the call of the sea - a poor choice of a guardian for a spirited elvish youth.

Of course I would love to have players who were deeply steeped in the lore of the world, but if I asked them to read the Silmarillion before playing, I am afraid I would have no players!

Although I was summarizing above, we did take quite a long time on playing through this character background, including spending time fleshing out details of why the elf was an orphan and so forth. Throughout all this I certainly did try to draw out the connection to the world and the history, perhaps with some success. This orphan elf was the first character we started to create and I likely did rush over things more than I should have. At the same time, I didn't want to spend too too long going through everything, because I wanted to bring the characters up to the "present day" so they could take part in a scenario together.

Recreating the lamps of Feanor of course was astounding -- and it isn't something I would have thought to allow except that it came out suddenly from the natural 20. Once it had happened (the faintest glimmer of light within the gem! without knowing quite how he had done it!) I was glad that it did -- since it made the character unique and exciting in a way that he had not been up to that point, and made us all interested to learn about what would become of him. He was quite young (for an elf), so it was all the more extraordinary, a rare prodigy. The elven-king ordered him to go and learn from a certain expert who had spent his whole life studying the lore concerning the elven lamps, and to attempt no further experiments until he had obtained this master's approval to continue under his guidance... an interdiction that our young elf somewhat resented...

Aside from the two elves, there was one other character, a hobbit. This player had a pretty strong idea about the character she wanted to play. She wanted to make her character an amateur botanist, essentially. So we went with this, but I am not sure how well the character fit into the same story as the other two. As things developed, our hobbit was the son of a large but poor family of tobacco farmers; something of a day-dreamer, easily distracted, none too hard working; eventually left home and travelled a long way from home (a few miles) to become one of the "bounders" who patrol the woods at the borders of the Shire; again, did not do so well, tending to wander off and get distracted looking at plants and flowers. One day a wolf entered the Shire and injured someone near by where he was patrolling. He felt it was his fault, and, ashamed, he ran away and lived for about a year as a hermit in the forest.

After all this we were left with the problem that we had two Mirkwood elves in the Mirkwood area and a hobbit way over in the Shire, with no reason to end up in the same place. So I contrived that, in the course of time, our wandering elf (the disfigured one -- called the "year-sick elf", since his wrinkles had the effect of making him look aged like a human...) happened to meet our hobbit while travelling with some other elves who were going towards the Grey Havens. Then he and the hobbit (feeling some companionship as fellow outsiders) ended up travelling together back east, first to Rivendell, and from there back in the direction of Mirkwood... so we got everyone together eventually, but it did feel a bit strained, since it came more from outside necessity than from the characters' internal motivations.

Anyway, that's me trying to be brief... without much success. Like I say, I think the overall results of all this were fairly good and were enjoyable, despite the mis-steps and difficulties I mentioned. The biggest thing I would like to do differently when I am able to pick it up again would be to arrange the scenario and the characters better in advance - so that they fit together more correctly, with the characters fitting the story and the story fitted to the characters.

0
Some more thoughts...

Hi Billy,

“… what I meant was that when I needed to provide most of the momentum for several minutes at a time, I found it a bit creatively draining.”

Ah. Yes. That can be an issue. I know on the very few times that I’ve run I had similar feelings. There are comments I can offer on the topic. Doing this type of constant creative off the cuff speaking can be very difficult to maintain in the beginning but it does get easier with practice. After a while you begin to build a sizable repertory of stock phrases and go to actions that can hold the game giving you time to work on what’s next. Sort of like live storytellers who work in verse who have fall back phrases they use while they work out what to say next. This works in that you are not creating every word and event whole cloth which eases the creative load on your brain. One of the tricks Cary used to use was to take a bathroom break for the purpose of giving himself time to come up with something. Another thing he would do when rusty was to create a sheet before a game of NPC random encounters. Each NPC would have a motivation/goal and a one word personality trait. These were meant to be fall backs if he ran out of ideas. Another thing he would do is to have at least one NPC with that night’s party to stir the pot if things got slow. Let me tell you how effective a tool that is!! If you’ve got good/practiced players a GM can simply ask, “What do you do?” Finally, if you really find yourself in a jam Cary’s ultimate piece of advice was, “Throw Orcs.” By which he meant if events have ground down to a stop and he didn’t have anything coming to mind immediately he’d instigate some sort of combat encounter on the spot. It doesn’t have to be Orcs but in our interpretation of LOTR Orcs are the most common monster by far in the world. The reason why they don’t get stale as an encounter is that he’d make them truly terrible to deal with. They are vicious, cowardly, cunning and deceitful. You have your standard Orc in a gaggle so you were typically out numbered. Orc have scouts which are bowman and tend to be skillful fighters and have a tendency to use poison on their arrows. You might run into an Uruk-hai which very tough as they are smarter, stronger and are not troubled by daylight. Or maybe you’d run into a Ghurka-hai which is a berserker Orc which is a nightmare! They feel no pain, are utterly fearless, ferocious and don’t die until they are D-E-D dead. What I mean is that because they don’t feel pain they continue to fight even after suffering grievous wounds that would break or incapacitate other orcs. Lose an arm? Keep fighting. But the worst was if the Orcs captured a PC alive. Ugh… Orcs like to play with their food before they eat it and he would play out those scenes precisely so we, as players, would grow to viscerally hate Orcs (and dread any encounters with them). It worked. We players really, personally hated Orcs viscerally. As you can imagine this type of intensity is not for every group and such limits need to be felt out.

As far as letting the game go where it will here is an example a friend of mine (The East Coast GM and the friend of Cary’s who introduced him to D&D when it first came out) told me about his game also set in ME but around the 1600’s of the third age. One of his players was playing a Paladin named Troy who had been tasked with a chore and just happened upon a town enroute to his destination. Troy entered an Inn to rest and eat when he overheard a man telling tales of himself doing great deeds with this Paladin named Troy. The player of Troy waited a while and then went over to the table of the men and the storyteller. Troy had never met the story teller but the story teller recognized Troy and grew very nervous. Troy approached the story teller with a big, warm smile and spoke to the story teller as if they were long lost friends. This resulted in the story teller being so moved by Troy’s generosity that he started an order of knights devoted to following and acting in a similar manner. This order is now a major scenario in the game world and a Power. The point is that a small random encounter can grow into a major part of your game. That’s the beauty of this mode of play. Anything, no matter how passing at the time, can grow into something powerful and compelling in your game if the GM and the players invest their imaginations and their hearts to the world. Be open to saying, “Yes,” which I think you are. The real skill is being able to recognize those things that resonate and or are important to the players and creating with said players seamlessly.

You are right in that this CA requires vast reserves of on the spot creativity, endurance, skill and commitment from everyone involved. It can be taxing. Very taxing. It is learnable, but then just like the other CA’s it may not be for everyone.

“ I didn't feel like I was saying very "interesting" things (interesting to myself or to the players).”

I know exactly how you felt. I felt the same way the few times I GM’d. I felt like a complete fraud and that the players must have been bored out of their minds. But when I asked them afterwards they said they had a good time. I didn’t run a great game, but they felt it was a good game and they wanted me to continue running in the future. Even Cary worries all the time that he isn’t doing a good job, that the players aren’t invested…bored. In the end you have to listen to the players talk after a game session to get a clearer picture of how they thought about the game. Lots of questions after a game is an excellent indicator of investment. Players talking excitedly amongst themselves is also a good tell. Listen quietly to what they are talking about and use that for fodder for your next game. What they are talking about is what interests them – can’t get better intel (or idea inspiration) than that!

“I do still think the other book I mentioned ("The Darkening of Mirkwood") would work better as the basis for a campaign, but that is because it is much more open ended - basically a book of 30 different scenarios, most of them only partially fleshed out, so that it would be easy to take and use the conflicts and ideas from them without trying to play out the pre-written story.”

Exactly. Rip and strip but don’t follow the plot. You don’t want destinations, you want motives. Maybe you are already doing this but I'd pull everything out of all thirty scenarios and put it all together into a big lump to draw upon. Use the NPC’s motives as the winds buffeting your players. You can use locations if they make sense and style them to match your table’s aesthetic. If a location doesn’t make sense then don’t use it in your game. Knowing all these NPC’s in the world and where they are you can use loose foreshadowing of fear or “darkness” when a PC is near such an NPC and happens to roll a ‘1’ or even as a random encounter. Think about the NPC’s. What do they want? What are they doing to get what they want? What resources do they have to get what they want? What constraints and stresses are they under? Make them real not just targets or XP bags. If an NPC doesn’t really work for your party either rework the NPC or just don’t use it. Consider the movie “Die Hard”. Hans Gruber and John McClain had no relationship or interest in each other. Hans was a master thief, with a brilliant plan and only quite by accident swept up the wife of John as a hostage. John had no idea of what Han was up to nor did he particularly care. He just wanted to get his wife out and survive the event. While Hans was pursuing his goals John was pursuing his and thus the two came to be quite relevant to each other at the end. Let this type of conflict develop over time in your game. Not everything need be Orc screaming down a hallway at the PC’s. Things that are only incidental can grow to be large parts of a game if you are sensitive to the possibilities as the game progresses.

“The detail of hunting in the forest comes from The Hobbit, where the wood elves do seem to hunt deer (being more wild and perhaps, for want of a better word, less "holy" than the elves who have been influenced more by the Noldor).”

Ah! See! This is a prime example of how the source material truly affects play. We don’t really use much out of the Hobbit as far as cultural norms go. The events yes, but in our game we’ve redressed the events in the style of the Silmarillion and the LOTR. Elves don’t get drunk. Dwarves have more dignity. Not that our take is “right” but our aesthetic is more…er…hard core(?). The Hobbit was written for children while the LOTR was written for adults so we chose the “style” of the LOTR over the Hobbit. That’s what threw me and there is absolutely nothing wrong with what books your table chooses as source material. What your table likes is what your table likes and that is ALL that matters. FREX – in our game we’ve read the Noldor not as “holy” but as proud and having had spent time in Aman so gained many gifts that the Moriquendi – e.g. the Sylvan Elves whom as a people did not receive. The Sylvan Elves still are among the first born but lacking the light of Aman tend towards some mannish/mortal tendencies.

“Of course I would love to have players who were deeply steeped in the lore of the world, but if I asked them to read the Silmarillion before playing, I am afraid I would have no players!”

You’re right about the players, but I would say that the GM should have read the Silmarillion. You as the GM can bring in bits and pieces of the book through NPC’s who lived through those times, are knowledgeable about them or are/were affected by the event therein. If you sprinkle in pieces of the ancient past this gives your game depth and also gives it a sense of permanence. What happened in the Silmarillion is still affecting the world today!

I have more to offer if you are interested but I am running out of time right now. Again, as I go through your post I’m not saying you did anything wrong, but just trying to bring some additional light to the process of your game.

Best,

Jay

0
It’s great to hear about

...someone else attempting to run a game in this style. The results match my expectations pretty well, which tells me my understanding of the playstyle is fairly close at this point.

I loved reading that exchange between the two of you; very frank and quite illustrative. Thank you both

0
Another session - and a key technique

Well, I had the opportunity to run another session of my "mythic" game over the Christmas break. We played for 90 minutes or so before I decided it was time to break off the game since one of the players was no longer enjoying himself. More on that below.

We picked up from the same place we left off last time (part way through the "Eaves of Mirkwood" module I mentioned before, right after a skirmish with some orcs). This time I was better prepared by having taken apart the rest of the module. Basically I pulled the interesting ideas, characters, and situations from the rest of the scenario into a "soup" in my mind which I then drew on freely as the flow of the game suggested. I also prepared some more notes on characters from the players' previously established backstories so I could weave them into the game as required (though in fact we didn't get to the point where these characters came up).

Similar to what I mentioned last time, the beginning of the session was hard to get going, with a feeling of, "What do we do now?" Once we got into the flow things clicked into place and the game ran well.

-----

Here is a very important GM principle that I realized is missing from what I wrote before. Whenever you describe something as the GM, focus on supplying details that emphasize its essential nature.

Example: During this game, the players ventured into the forest of Mirkwood. The essential nature of Mirkwood is that it is a dark, scary, and evil place, infused with the malice of the Necromancer. So, whenever I had reason to mention the forest, I spouted whatever details came into my head that would emphasize this nature. The atmosphere is dark and hostile... the air feels cold and still... the ground feels damp and mushy beneath your feet... you can barely see the path ahead of you... long dark beards of moss brush against your face... there are strange sounds in the shadows... and so on.

Maybe this sounds like very obvious advice, but it wasn't obvious to me before running a game in this style. To put it another way, I didn't prep detail about what the forest is like, but because I know the "thesis statement" of the forest ("the forest is scary"), it suddenly became easy to talk a lot about the forest in a way that wasn't just meaningless surface details ("You see a dead tree... you see a big log... there's a stream with some boulders... you see some more trees...").

When I talk about the "essential nature" of something, I suppose perhaps I am getting at the same concept as what Jay has spoken about as the subjective meaning of things within the myth.

Basically, to bring the world to life, I figure the GM should be doing this for everything in the game world. Decide out what each thing is fundamentally about, or what it "means". Orcs are ugly and cruel. Elvish weapons are beautiful and extremely sharp. Then, whatever thing comes up in the course of the game, just keep on talking about details that reinforces its nature. You can see Cary doing this a lot in the combat transcript posted above; Roger can't make an attack without Cary talking about how beautiful and sharp his elvish knife is.

This is a bit of a tangent, but after I was thinking about all this (from these discussions, and from Jay's AP recordings, and from the sessions I ran a few months ago), I re-read some of The Fellowship of the Ring and realized Tolkien is using a similar technique. That is, the point of a lot of his writing is to show the phenomenology of the fantasy world. The chapter where the characters visit Lothlorien is a good example. A great deal of the chapter consists of detail after detail which all tend to suggest that Lothlorien is a place outside the normal flow of time. Nothing is really happening, but they keep on noticing weird things like not being sure how long they've been there, or seeing things happening that actually happened fifty years ago. That's basically the whole point of the chapter - if there WERE an enchanted land outside the normal flow of time, and you wandered into it, this is what it would feel like. Then at the end of the chapter, Frodo sees Galadriel's ring and understands why the land is the way it is.

Of course, a lot of people think these parts of Tolkien's books are pretty boring, so maybe the technique is better if you intersperse it with high-stakes dice rolls. : )

-----

Without going into too much blow-by-blow detail, the scenario we played a few days ago ended up involving our wounded main characters (along with some NPC dwarves) hiding in the forest, trying not to be found by the orcs who had come back in greater numbers (and with warg allies) after retreating from the earlier skirmish.

This turned out to be pretty chilling stuff, despite the summary sounding like standrd D&D fare. As mentioned above, I was hammering pretty relentlessly on how scary the forest was. I also kept mentioning details that would suggest how everything the players were doing might give them away. And of course (following the procedure for this game) I called for dice rolls constantly, which I imagine added to the tension.

I was very gratified when one of my players said, "Billy, this game is activating my sympathetic nervous system!" (That is, the fight-or-flight response.) He was struggling to decide what to do, but obviously very into the game. I was surprised since this is a player who has tended more often to zone out or fall asleep when playing other D&D-type games in the past.

Shortly after that we reached the point where one of my other two players wasn't able to keep going any more. He was looking distressed and said (roughly) "This game is too hard for me. You keep asking me to make hard decisions, and I don't know what to do. These are exactly the kind of decisions I don't know how to make in real life, and now you've made a whole game about them!" At that point we quickly wrapped up the session, talked things over a bit, and moved on to play a more relaxing game of cooperative Roller Coaster Tycoon.

So, I guess the game works as advertised! I couldn't help being reminded of some of Jay's stories about players being overwhelmed by the intensity of Cary's game.

0
Outstanding!

Hi Billy,

We picked up from the same place we left off last time (part way through the "Eaves of Mirkwood" module I mentioned before, right after a skirmish with some orcs). This time I was better prepared by having taken apart the rest of the module. Basically I pulled the interesting ideas, characters, and situations from the rest of the scenario into a "soup" in my mind which I then drew on freely as the flow of the game suggested. I also prepared some more notes on characters from the players' previously established backstories so I could weave them into the game as required (though in fact we didn't get to the point where these characters came up)

That sounds like you had a lot a material at hand ready for the game. How did you feel this time running? Did you have the same feelings of creative burnout? Did you feel that you were "uninteresting" as you felt before? Did you have the same issues with speaking for extended periods?

Similar to what I mentioned last time, the beginning of the session was hard to get going, with a feeling of, "What do we do now?" Once we got into the flow things clicked into place and the game ran well.

Here are several off the cuff ideas if they are of any interest to you.

Always end with a cliffhanger. Or less dramatically always leave them wanting more. The idea is that you close the night either without having answered every question or the players having not accomplished everything they set out to do.

The last thing you do before closing the game is have everyone roll a '20' and say, "You see/feel/hear/notice something in the woods...but that is a story for another time."

Have an Orc arrow zip over head then close out.

Have one of the NPC's say something vague or portentous just as you dim the lights. Or maybe one of the NPC's makes a reveal about themself or their cause that ups the stakes.

The whole point of end on something incomplete is that it give you a very easy starting point for your follow up game while keeping your players emotionally invested. Speaking as a player I hate(!) incomplete things but then I think about the possibilities all the way through until the next time we play. Very, very effective.

You can do a recap of the previous game's ending to ease into the way into the current night, in a way refreshing the Player Character's goals.

You can start off with an encounter. Start with a Kicker. You can work in back story for one of the PC's as a prelude into the night that will color their view on their current situation. What we aren't doing is a realtime adventure where every minute must be played out. You can skip ahead in time or you can go back in time with one of the PC's that is dramatic and character revealing before coming into the specific scenario. As a CA we're not bound by the unities of action, space or time. You can open the game with with a huge battle and final death of an unknown person that happened in this location several thousand years ago that happens to be in one of the PC's dream that night. Maybe something to do with the founding of Dol Goldur? Who knows? Be creative and think outside the box. Maybe it was an elf that dies in the dream and it was an ancestor to one of the PC's? But you don't have to reveal that fact right off or ever if it never comes up. The point is that everything that happens should have pointers to other possible meaningful events.

Anyway, the long and short is don't end at a static moment and try and start the scenario off with something interesting that you as the GM brings to the table. Don't wait on the players. Buffet them with "winds" all the time - including the starting of your night. Unless it doesn't make aesthetic sense.

Here is a very important GM principle that I realized is missing from what I wrote before. Whenever you describe something as the GM, focus on supplying details that emphasize its essential nature.

[...]

When I talk about the "essential nature" of something, I suppose perhaps I am getting at the same concept as what Jay has spoken about as the subjective meaning of things within the myth.

Excellent! Note however that you didn't use abstract terms, "the forest is dank, dark and scary," but rather you employed "concrete" exemplars of those essences and let the players draw or feel their own conclusions. Very much like myth. Also, and this is very important, you didn't tell the players that their characters felt that the forest was scary, you created an ambiance with words that was scary (or at the very least you created the circumstances such that a very strong emotional response was felt - whatever the emotion) for the PLAYERS!

You painted a picture using concrete "things" to evoke an emotional response. Those "things" in and of themselves are just objects, but it is the entailments that have accumulated to those concrete "things" in popular culture over long years that created the "meaning" you were seeking to convery. You were engaged in mythic-bricolage! And, by your account, doing a very effective job of it! Congrats! Like myth you limited your physical/concrete choices to the aesthetic that is commonly associated with dark and scary forests! This is what is meant by the myth is both a process and an aesthetic constraint. You did both! Very hard to explain, but easy to do. Throw in a few black squirrels and spiders and you've got yourself not just a scary forest but the Mirkwood specifically! This is AWESOME!

Your "essential nature" is the equivalent to a single myth. All the objects you employed in describing the physicality of the forest are other objects with meaning structures (read - myths) that when all used together not only create the "essential nature" but leaves you other entailments to work with in the future. What was interesting to me is that once you made that cognitive leap away from abstractions and towards concrete mythic thinking it came easy to you. How do I know? Because you reported that these things that you seeded the forest with weren't empty descriptors. They had "meaning" and that's the big tell right there.

[...] I re-read some of The Fellowship of the Ring and realized Tolkien is using a similar technique. That is, the point of a lot of his writing is to show the phenomenology of the fantasy world. The chapter where the characters visit Lothlorien is a good example. [...]

That is how myth works! In Western Thinking it could be very poorly summed up by saying, "show, don't tell." Badly summed up because "show, don't tell" misses much of the entirety of what is the whole of the mythic thinking process and aesthetic concerns but it does capture one small facet of mythic thinking. What you said is the aesthetic that grows out of the process of myth construction. This is the experiential process that I've been talking about. Its not just first person or Character Stance its directly aimed at the Player with the Character acting as a filter or lens.

Of course, a lot of people think these parts of Tolkien's books are pretty boring, so maybe the technique is better if you intersperse it with high-stakes dice rolls. : )

Actually, as you noted in the recordings such things can be directly mixed into combat. This "essential nature" as you call it, can be employed in all circumstances and need not just be part of the exposition. The "essential nature" of something can be exhibited in its behavior, thus how a Dunedain NPC acts represents his "essential nature". Do this often enough and your observant players will come to recognize a Dunedain just by the way he/she acts. This is all part of the "meaning construction process" of myth and you've hit upon it in your game!

This turned out to be pretty chilling stuff, despite the summary sounding like standrd D&D fare.

That's exactly right because of the mythic process of the game and the way myth imputes meanings (many meanings) to objects and events. It is those meanings that we are focused on and playing with. This takes the ordinary or trite and makes it important on a visceral level to the player. They are not traipsing through the terrain at dis/advantage looking for things to kill and loot, but rather the players are experiencing a harrowing trek through dangerous territory with important wounded trying to escape with their lives by avoiding encounters. It was what is going on in the game right then and there that is what is important, meaningful and emotional.

I was very gratified when one of my players said, "Billy, this game is activating my sympathetic nervous system!" (That is, the fight-or-flight response.) He was struggling to decide what to do, but obviously very into the game. I was surprised since this is a player who has tended more often to zone out or fall asleep when playing other D&D-type games in the past.

You have absolutely succeeded! You and your players have created and experienced the potential power of this Creative Agenda. Well done! There are many other situations/emotions to play on and bring to personal life. Like I've said I've seen players raging at the table and openly weeping in joy or grief. It is very powerful and some can handle it and some can't.

Congratulations!

Best,

Jay

0
Fantastic

These last two posts from you two - Billy and Jay - had me cheering along all the way. Very nicely done! That sounds like exactly the right stuff, and this was a wonderful insightful dialogue. That gets to the heart of some of these concepts, while also illustrating them very nicely.

(Then again, I always *loved* those bits in Tolkien, too. I never found them boring at all! However, I read mythology obsessively as a child - I read and reread every mythology book we had at home! - so it's right up my alley anyway.)

0
This made me think "heh Jay

This made me think "heh Jay will now point out that mythology is very different from non-literate myth, so not terribly relevant or a good model" which I first intended to keep for myself, because it's not very productive and I didn't want it to come across as sniping from sidelines, but then a question occurred to me that might be productive: Tolkien is an important wellspring of power and resonance for Jay's games, and Tolkien is very much literate Western mythology, rather than non-literate myth.

Is Tolkien, in fact, somehow different? Or is it that Jay's group takes the myth approach, even if Tolkien didn't, and Tolkien's world is rich enough in detail to provide them with enough pieces to do that with (like the real world is rich enough in detail to give actual non-literate cultures enough pieces to construct their myths)? Or is it more or less a historical accident that these games were first based on Tolkien specifically (not entirely, obviously, Tolkien's world is tempting to base a game on by many measures), and the main power comes from having been steeped in it for decades?

0
Very Interesting Questions, shimrod!

Hi shimrod,

Is Tolkien, in fact, somehow different? Or is it that Jay's group takes the myth approach, even if Tolkien didn't, and Tolkien's world is rich enough in detail to provide them with enough pieces to do that with (like the real world is rich enough in detail to give actual non-literate cultures enough pieces to construct their myths)?

Yes and yes.

Before I start, I just want to be clear that I am not a lit crit person. I have absolutely no formal education in it and lack the formal skills to really function in such a capacity so most of what I spoken about re: Tolkien's writing will be 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc., hand. From those who are conversant in non-literate myth and Tolkien, whose writings I have read, do say that Tolkien did something was "different." He wrote in a manner that was deeply influenced by Western Literate myth and such mythology deeply suffused his work. On one level his writings were supposed to read and feel like Western myth. He was very open about drawing strongly on the Viking Sagas. As you rightly noted there is a huge difference between Western "myth" and non-literate myth. It is unfortunate that two such things that are superficially similar but fundamentally different should have the same name. Very confusing. However, it is felt that the Western myths are likely the recordings of earlier oral non-literate myths. In the process of conversion of form they raw vitality of oral non-literate myths lost much of their strength and power - but not all. These echoes of the oral tradition myths can be weakly felt in the Western literate myths. This is some of what we are feeling when we read Tolkien as he too was trying to create a myth. Some of that old power, though much diminished, leaks through. We feel this power, however diminished, and it is compelling. For example Gandalf bears many traits of the "Trickster god" that is common to so many non-literate myths and cultures. Characters in his books aren't just people populating a world, his Characters are both a reflection of the world but also add to the totality of the vibrant world such that the totality of the fictional is diminished in its power by the loss of any one main character. Main Characters are the world and the world is in the Main Characters. That interconnected meaning structuralism is a part of myth but not the Western novel.

WRT our own oral myths in game, you have the right of it in that Tolkien's world is rich enough in detail to provide us with enough really useful pieces to easily allow us to create own on myths. However, the details Tolkien has in his writings are not just noise, but bear some of the form of myth. We are drawn to his writings because somewhere within there are echoes of the power of preliterate myth so it makes it both easy to inspire the desire for more of that power while also bearing the echoes of the structuralism of pre-literate myth. IOW his material, being closer to pre-literate myth than most prose, makes it much easier to use as a source for use in oral pre-literate myth. By reading Tolkien's works we see through a mirror darkly of the power of preliterate myth and thus we are more inspired to try to use the material as fodder for preliterate myth production. It's easier to use because the effects of pre-literate myth are in there, somewhere.

Or is it more or less a historical accident that these games were first based on Tolkien specifically (not entirely, obviously, Tolkien's world is tempting to base a game on by many measures), and the main power comes from having been steeped in it for decades?

I think history has its place too. His form of fantasy dominated fantasy writing for a long time. So a game wasn't based on Tolkien's writings specifically then it was likely to have been inspired by one that used many of the tropes of Tolkien's writing. I don't think the main power comes from historical inertia, though I agree its presence is felt. I think that Tolkien's writings have a tremendous power and the main reason many games harken to his style is for the reasons I've indicated above. Fantasy literature has finally broken free of Tolkien's lock and as avid consumer of said genre my stinky opinion is that there is some very good stuff out there in fantasy that is non-Tolkien but in the end they lack the unique power of Tolkien's writings precisely because they don't deal with myth on the level Tolkien did. They are pure novel with all its wonderful strengths and weaknesses.

I don't know if I said anything of interest or use, but there you go. I just hope I don't raise the ire of those who think talking theory like this has no place in public discourse thus wasting invaluable time and space not spent directly on designing a game.

Best,

Jay

1
fwiw

If there's any place on the web where eclectic and unusual ramblings about RPG design theory are welcome, this is it. :-)

1