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Edited Discussion on Mythic Games (with Combat Transcript)

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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.

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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 ?

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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!

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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?

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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."

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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.

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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)

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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.

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