Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Grail Epoch appetizer

I just played half a game of A Grail Epoch, Rafael Chandler's remix of Matthijs Holter's Archipelago. Since we attempted to plug it as an afterthought into an already tight schedule, the game went unfinished. Still, I believe I got to taste what's really good about it: it turns the assortment of miniature figures you happen to have available to pick from into a nice set of creative constraints, thus bypassing what's usually a long pre-play phase in Archipelago, the choice of a setting. A side-effect of this, coupled with more additional semi-random constraints (such as the way the map is built and the Exquisite Corpse style of writing Destiny Points), is that the game is turned into something more reminiscent of Fiasco than Archipelago — but whether A Grail Epoch is actually as good as Fiasco remains to be seen, through further play someday.
I encourage you all to give it a try, and by the way the minis don't actually have to be minis: I'm pretty sure you can play this with dolls, action figures, model kits, gashapon or other toys for a variety of effects, as long as your toys can stand (or sit) on the table! Lego minifigs or similarly customizable toys might make a huge difference, though, because you wouldn't be picking characters from a pool of available ones, then, but rather building them from a pool of available parts.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Young Knights of the Round. Part 2: half an afternoon at the library


In the afternoon after lunch break I welcomed a new group of players and started playing Fables of Camelot again from scratch (with a new, blank kingdom map and a full 20 Camelot dice). This one was a more heterogeneous group: two girls of 15 or 16, best friends with each other, and a boy of maybe 14 (high school 1st year), plus one (exceptionally brilliant) girl of 12. The teenagers were all bright, talkative and articulate; as for the youngest girl, I already knew she was used to playing games (board-games, card games, etc.) with older friends, mostly adults.
Character creation went according to script, much like in the morning. One apparently inconsequential detail was later revealed to be important, though: as one of the teenage girls went all blank-page-syndrome before the "name" field, I referred her to the names-list I had provided (in a corner of the character sheet) and, since everybody was over with this part already, she very hastily picked one name and scribbled it in: it happened to be "Gareth", from the "Male names" section of the list.
A short while later, as I was framing the introduction scene, it occurred me to ask the players for an exterior description of their knights. My inner rationale for this was that, this being a more extrovert and more "grownup" group than my vaguely geeky morning boys, I wished to get them involved with both the "thespian" aspect of play and with adding texture to the shared imagined space as soon as possible — in order both to get them to play with a more textured, more satisfying fiction, and to play with them myself more like I would with adults at a gaming convention. As they weren't volunteering such a piece of information themselves, it also occurred me to explicitly ask whether their knights were male or female. I wasn't fully comfortable formulating the question, actually, because I'm generally wary of gender binaries — but in the moment I couldn't find a good enough alternative formulation, either (one that wouldn't sound too exotic to them and potentially make me look like a weirdo when they would later talk about it with parents or teachers). My immediate fear, and rationale for asking, was that some of them could be making assumptions, such as that knights as such were supposed to be male or, worse even, that players were generally supposed to portray characters of their same gender: determined to dispel such fallacies, I resolved to ask. The girl playing Sir Gareth of the Eagle double-checked the name on her character sheet with the names-list while answering: «Uh, I'm… male, I guess.» More on this later.
The adventure I assigned them:
An elven princess and a young mortal man are in love. Not accepting this, her cruel brothers change the man into a white stag and chase him with their wild hunt.*
It is the adventure Eero Tuovinen used when demonstrating the game to me in Helsinki, and what I most like of it is that it affords an impressive first scene, with the deer running into Camelot and right through the Round Table chased by fey hounds: also a great opportunity for having an example conflict already before leaving Camelot! The downside of using this adventure is that it tends to take longer than most, maybe because of the rather large cast of characters involved, maybe due to an amount of colorful, unwritten content which I can't help myself but reiterate (as I know it by heart) from Eero's story-guiding performance: the two elfin brothers serving as villains, for example, complete with characterization, as well as some details concerning faerie magic. But I had quite a long time-slot available for this group (almost four hours), therefore I wasn't particularly worried about pace or schedule.
Just as I hoped, we got action-y already during the introduction scene, so that by the end of it everybody was fluent with the game already. When a knight triumphed in a conflict to keep the hounds at bay, at the price of being wounded, I deliberately broke a rule by inviting the player to narrate instead of doing it myself. My purpose was to show them how we were playing the game together and, while we held clearly distinct roles, theirs weren't subordinate to mine in any way, nor were they acting out "my" story — and in fact the girl explained her victory and wound with no need to step out of the boundaries of her role, nor to play any one of "my" characters in my stead. Players were unanimously distrustful of the elven brothers (known as the Lord of the Dark Oak Forest and the Lord of the Bright Castle of Tall Spires), and at least one of them displayed empathy toward the stag, even as King Arthur ordered them all to go fetch the wondrous beast.
Again, I handed them resource dice as the knights left Camelot and quickly explained what those stood for, which was well understood and non-problematic. Then I threw at them a favorite travel encounter of mine — a purely human one, since the adventure so far was packed full enough with magical stuff:
A "green knight" (i.e. a knight going incognito) camping by a river ford is challenging all who pass by to a jousting duel, lest they're denied passage. He has slain many a valiant knight this way already.
The player knights, who were tracking the white stag, decided they couldn't afford a detour nor a delay, and that they thus had no choice but to joust. After some debate to pick a candidate champion amongst them, nobody being especially eager to fight, the boy's knight reluctantly stepped on up to the challenge. He overcame the foe and I narrated how the Green Knight, grievously wounded and encumbered by armor, fell from horseback into the raging river. The player then wished he could save the green knight from certain death, which I (again introducing this rule) allowed him to do by virtue of overflow success dice. The grateful and repentant green knight thus became an asset of the player characters' (as expressed by me adding one resource die to their pool).
Still on the track, the Knights of the Round Table discovered that the white deer was doubling on its own prints and heading back whence it came: to a pristine forest, overlooked by the tall spires of an odd-looking castle. They finally cornered the magical beast in a clearing of the woods, where they found it was near death, having been wounded by a wicked-looking, white-plumed arrow — then, they head the wild hunt approaching!
It actually took the players a lot of time, in real life, to decide what to do, but they came up with a pretty good plan: half of them were to smear themselves with stag blood and lead the hunt on a false trail, to win their comrades the time they needed to carry the wounded beast away. In fact, the other two knights were supposed to bring the white deer to Camelot, as they all had parsed King Arthur's order as requiring this explicitly (no matter that the animal was instead desperately trying, with waning strength, to get closer to the castle). As the witch wife of one of the knights was with them, her mystical powers were deemed sufficient to both heal the wounded stag (or at least stabilize it) and to mask its scent long enough for the hunt to go after the false trail. This misdirection was, of course, a conflict roll — at which they succeeded, but one of the knights acting as a lure to the hunters suffered a wound: obviously from a lucky shot from the Lord of the Dark Oak Forest's charmed bow, and the wild hunt was now closing onto them.
As a side note, I was and still am very happy with the aesthetics of magic & the supernatural we were collectively establishing as a group: it's obvious that my fellow players got a few clues from me and run with those in perfect "say yes" style, then made them their own. Magic was mysterious in our game, and it was about transformation, healing and "wild" things — not of the ordered, aseptically disciplined, special-effects-based videogame sort. What they asked of Nimès, as we now christened the Wolf-knight's witch wife on the spot, felt appropriately witch-like, and I felt like such an aesthetic resonance was being generally perceived, and appreciated, by all.
With the party split, and having spent some time deciding how to split resource dice (9) between the two pairs of knights, we went on to play two parallel scenes. I asked two of the players to physically switch chairs, so that we could better visualize that. I can't say there weren't any issues with this setup: since players were prone to spend quite a long time debating their options, when one group was trying to decide on their course of actions playing audience to them was quite boring for the other group; but as I tried to remedy this through montage, quickly switching the spotlight from one scene to the other, then the debating party wasn't paying attention to the other one at all.
This far the boy had emerged as being the one spotlight-hogging player, though entirely due to any fault of his own: his Wolf-knight character was the one who had fought the Green Knight and taken him as a retainer, and he was also the one with a witch wife — a substantial asset whom he now commanded to stay with the other group; finally he was the one wounded in the chase. Such a combination of fictional events was clearly directing the spotlight on him, in a Prime Time Adventures-esque Screen Presence sense. Unfortunately, he was also the most analytical player, thus the one dominating debates and effectively delaying collective decisions most of the time. While he risked overshadowing the other players (also relevantly, he was the one with gender privilege amongst them), everybody appeared to be quite enjoying play on their own terms, thus I didn't parse the boy's social role as much of a problem and only took mild action about it, rather than compound the issue by focusing on him to solve it. What I did was just to focus on the other three players as much as I could, talking to them and not letting him step in as a spokesperson for the party. Additionally, I began to portray the witch as a full-fledged NPC, first insisting on naming her on the spot (something which the boy player had unconsciously resisted doing): as soon as she was speaking with a voice of her own, their relationship immediately stood out as being a little conflictual, as her husband was obviously ordering her around like a weapon and asset, not respecting her as a human character; I had her react with sarcasm and a hint of a patronizing demeanor. The teenage girl players obviously took notice, and this subtly affected their social interactions with the boy: bolstered with entitlement, they now clearly had the upper hand in out-of-character chatter (both at the table and later during the break), no matter the role of the Wolf-knight in the fiction.
The knights headed to Camelot had a shorter but, I hope, meaningful adventure with magic. One of them asked the witch Nimès to change the white deer into some smaller, more portable shape — to which she answered that she was unable to change again what was changed already, as this was in her opinion a man in deer form: the mystery was finally being unraveled. I made healing the man-stag into a conflict, focused on removing the (wicked and magical) white arrow which was killing him; I also made it clear that, while they were rolling dice for Nimès as part of their regular assets, the player knights had to take a risk themselves in order to have a chance to succeed. At the whim of the dice, they were both wounded: I described a thick, evil smoke spreading from the cursed arrow as they broke its shaft, which entered their lungs and poisoned them a last act of fey spite. The white deer was stabilized and, through the arts of the witch, brought back to human form. I described him as a "very handsome" young man, and all of a sudden Sir Gareth of the Eagle's player (who was, I suppose, hitching for some romance in our game) openly lamented her unwise selection of character gender: «What? And I'm a guy?! That's too bad!» Now caving in to my latent queer activism agenda, I half-told her that guy-on-guy action oughtn't actually be a problem… then, recovering from my misstep, I instead told her that her former choice of gender needed not be binding: maybe Gareth was a woman all the time, but nobody noticed because of the way she dresses? She looked uncertain, maybe overwhelmed with too much input, and she reserved to think some more about it before deciding anything. Anyway, from the injured man the knights got full back-story exposition — and Gareth's player was like: «Ooh, it's a love story! Nice!»
Meanwhile, the Wolf knight and the Jaguar knight were deep in trouble: cornered by the vengeful elf brothers' wild hunt just under the walls of the fey castle. Like I've said, they debated for a long time what exactly to do, but it was all about tactical options, as I made it pretty obvious that the elves wished them dead. Based on fictional positioning (which was almost entirely dependent on my framing, thus ultimately on my fiat) they read their situation as exceptionally risky: many foes to face (the hounds were magically changed into wild warriors before their eyes), obviously capable of dangerous magic, the moat of the castle behind, and both of them had been wounded already. This is probably why it took them so long to make their mind and pick up the dice; but, on the other hand, I'm happy that they didn't just disregard danger based on such things as the mechanical irrelevance wounds (during the adventure): we instead enjoyed an appropriate amount of tension. They knew their main asset in a battle were their own men-at-arms and followers, and what happened in the end is that we negotiated the exact positioning of said asset: we established/retconned that the two knights were alone when cornered (as befitted their stealth action as a lure for the hunt), but that their men were close by, ready to charge into the fray from the forest, lead by the Green Knight. They rolled the dice, and it was not an easily won victory, as multiple Resources were lost. I took the clue and narrated a fierce, feral battle, with quite a gruesome vignette or three, and in which the Green Knight also met his fate (which was much lamented by the boy playing the Wolf-knight, though again more like the loss of a precious asset than that of a human character).
As one of the elven brother was slain in battle and the other one was instead captured alive, a discussion then arose what to do with this prisoner and, especially, whether to risk entering the fey castle or not. I believe the decision to enter, with the lord of the castle held hostage at sword-tip as the knights' life insurance, was primarily driven by the boy player who believed the elves' claim that the castle held great treasures and wished to acquire those — for the glory of Camelot, of course! It was then time for me to prominently display the last important NPC: the lovesick elven princess. Through this character, who of course made demands of her own, I clarified that the fate of all NPCs was basically in the player knights' hands. The player-level discussion about what to do, then, transcended the strictures of scene framing, as players whose knights were already in Camelot questioned or tried to affect the actions of those in the fey castle. Sensing that play had naturally and emergently proceeded to that phase anyway, I interrupted them to explain the rules for placing resource-dice over the map. Players basically agreed to establish the elf girl as lady of the castle and a retainer of King Arthur and let her and her lover be rejoined, but differed on what to do about the supposed riches of the elves: the boy playing the Wolf-knight was set on requisitioning such treasures as compensation for the losses they incurred, while the girl playing Sir Gareth of the Eagle, especially, vehemently expressed her opinion that the treasures of the castle were necessary to the young lovers for their future prosperity.
Mindful of our real-life schedule (players and demonstrators from other groups were having their mid-afternoon snack break already), I excised a bit of fiat to arbitrate the argument to a quick conclusion: I just assumed independent action from the individual knights, based on their stated preferences, and jumped straight to the conclusion. Using the guideline that the gratitude of powerful people is worth as many Resource dice as there are player knights, I handed out two dice (that is, half the amount) to the boy, representing treasures plundered, and two dice to the girls, representing the gratitude of the elf-princess and the worth of such an alliance to Camelot (and/or additional treasures brought to Camelot as gifts). I then proceeded to do quite a heavy-handed thing: I told the players how treasures forcibly taken from the elves (as opposed to spontaneously given by them) after a while turned into dead leaves — and I then took back two dice from their Resources pool! Was this too heavy-handed on my part? Too judgmental? Did I de-protagonize the Wolf-knight, or give out a wrong message about how the game works? I'm not sure. I can only say that, right in the moment, it felt like a sensible thing to do, according to the integrity of the fiction; failing to do so would have, in my perception at least, trivialized magic and the power of the elves. Were I unconsciously "siding with" the girls to visit an Æsop on the boy? If so, I'm not convinced this was in fact harmful to anybody — rather, with the Wolf-knight having been very actively in the spotlight of the fiction, it only compensated the other players to help them step on the moral high-ground.
A couple interesting phenomena occurred while drawing elements/allocating dice on the map. First, an excessive interest for the quality of the drawing, fueled by the fact that no one of the player (unlike the younger kids in the morning) felt very confident drawing. Which may be an age group thing, considering that after a while the youngest girl took charge of drawing. Anyway, the fey castle was drawn and erased a couple of times — and completely out of scale, I add, with the printed icon of Camelot I had provided. Second thing is, when the "you can put dice into your own domains" thing clicked in, the game turned into Advanced Cottages & Real Estate for a few minutes — everybody wished someone else to draw them a beautiful castle by the seaside, or next to a lake. Despite the aforementioned problem with lack of drawing confidence, that is, the aesthetics of one's domain became a concern and a source of enthusiasm. This is quite different from what happened with the younger, morning group, where each player wished to make an original contribution - not just another castle! - reflecting the specifics of their character; with these people, instead, each created a castle, and castle-creation became an act of wish-fulfillment in itself. Does this maybe relate with a desire for personal space at a certain age, as opposed to a desire for agency/impact over the world in the youngest kids? Their collective enthusiasm for building personalized castles, and difficulty actually drawing castles, carried us way past the expected break time — but we went and had a break anyway.


* = This a variant of an adventure/encounter "core" from the Finnish "ashcan" rulebook: An elven prince and a noble maid are having a secret affair. The brothers of the woman do not accept this, and so try to slay the prince. The prince transforms into a wondrous animal to escape.
** = From the Finnish "ashcan" rulebook, courtesy of Eero Tuovinen (and possibly authored by Sami Koponen).