Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Dark Space: Black Waltz

Around the end of 2011, I finally got some inspiration for running a new campaign with my own game system, PowerFrame. It would be based on a gothic sci-fi game I'd run about five years prior, but set 50 years after the end of the previous campaign. Rather than focussing on the xenophobic human-ruled Mandel Empire of the old game, the new campaign would start in the cosmopolitan, diverse heart of the Gaudelain Trade Concern.

I discussed the game's set-up and expectations with all the players, billing it as a cross between Blake's 7 and Captain Harlock. I indended this campaign to be a vehicle for trying out a bunch of the new theories I'd read about recently. My main idea was to bind together a group of disparate characters with strong individual goals, and explore the conflicts that arose as they pulled each other in different directions. I would run it as a sandbox, responding to the proactive plans and actions of the PCs.

After character creation, we had the following cast:
  • +Andrew played Gottlob Asche, a minor noble whose family had fled the Mandel Empire just before the loss of the homeworld to a mysterious dimensional hole. However, his family's lineage was bogus, and he was hoping to surreptitiously return to the Empire and claim a position among the aristocracy.
  • +Melysa played Merru Rah, a catlike Valon hunter from the distant reaches of space. The Gaudelain had recently made contact with the Valon, and Merru had stolen a weapon and hijacked a ship. She was fleeing the Trade Concern's pursuit, but in turn her goal was to track and hunt worthy prey. 
  • Rohin played Xar-Kar-Shek, a turtle-like Vin and member of a cult that believed enlightenment was achieved at the moment of death. He was fleeing his home planet after a purge of the cult's headquarters, harbouring the ultimate goal of destroying the universe to enlighten all life. 
  • John played Adder, a cowardly combat android who had gained sentience and fled from the Empire. He was desperately fleeing the agents of the Library of Arcane Technology, who had created him and were now hunting him down; ironically, his ultimate aim was to use his developing psychic powers to manipulate and take over the Library, using them as his puppets and liberating his fellow enslaved robots. 

The Black Waltz

The four began the game on board a tramp freighter. The captain got word they were being pursued by a Library ship, and figured they were after one or more of his passengers. He insisted on dropping them off at a nearby desolate world, and said he would come back and pick them up once their pursuers were off the scent. On the planet, the group discovered a mysterious abandoned but as-new spaceship buried in the desert, and decided to make it their own. They discovered it was called the Black Waltz, and possessed some fantastic capabilities - it couldn't travel through SylphSpace like other ships, but instead had the ability to teleport instantaneously to any location, based only on the wishes of its crew. It was also a fully-functional "Dancing Ship"; a model that had not worked properly since an event 50 years ago, when the souls of Sylphs bound into the Imperial ships were emancipated. The four PCs became psychically linked to the ship, thus cementing the group together.

For a while, the game played very well. I gauged which direction the PCs intended to go, and only then prepared material for what they would find. Initially I could probably have offered a few more options in response to a stated intent, but they always had the option to ignore something and go in a different direction. As it was, Gottlob ended up following a thread related to his family all the way through, waging a war against a criminal syndicate, destroying their power base, stealing all their weaponry, and imprisoning their head.

Group Dynamics

Despite Andrew eschewing the role of captain, it was largely only he and John putting forward proactive opinions. Melysa's character Merru took on a fairly passive role as Gottlob's bodyguard (although she enjoyed the occasional active combat outing), and Rohin's Xar-Kar-Shek was mainly interested in collecting weapons and the technology to create weapons. Adder was acutely paranoid of the Library; while desperately trying to avoid them on a Gaudelain world, he brought the Black Waltz into disrepute, which angered Gottlob who was hoping to establish a power base there. This sort of conflict is exactly what I was hoping to provoke, making people deal with the consequences of their own actions and the actions of the others in the group.

Gradually, Gottlob's desire to have his claim to aristocracy legitimised by the Empire so he could return and live the good life became one of the major driving forces in the game. This was fine with me, as I could see the inherent conflict in this - Gottlob wanted the Empire to welcome him with open arms, while the Empire wanted to capture Adder and held no love for the two aliens. The closer Gottlob came to his goal, the harder life would be for the rest of the group. However, despite the players pointing this out, nobody acted definitively in-character to alter the campaign's direction.

As the situation became more tense, there were occasional raised voices; usually, it was Andrew and John butting heads, as their characters expressed the strongest drives. Whenever this happened I made sure that the argument was in-character, between Gottlob and Adder, and that it was not the players themselves getting upset. However, despite their assurances, in the end the pressure-cooker environment I had subjected the PCs to boiled over into real-world tensions. One extremely hot summer's day, Adders's repeated attempts to exercise a petty vendetta against Gottlob led to flared tempers and the dissolution of the game.

After the End

While the game had been going swimmingly as far as I was concerned, I think there were several factors at play that caused the game to collapse. These are my opinions, and while I don't want to re-open any old wounds, I encourage any of the players to express their opinions in the comments if they disagree or have other insights. I can only see things from my own point of view, after all.

At the very least, it was a valuable exercise in crystallising the gaming priorities of some of the players. Andrew expressed a clear distaste for intra-party conflict. Melysa thought that she would have been happier if the game had taken longer to reach boiling point; that she expected it to take six months to reach the point of seriously considering shoving PCs out of airlocks instead of less than two.

Because PowerFrame is a fairly old-school system, it doesn't contain any mechanisms for resolving anything other than physical conflicts between PCs. It's possible to use social skills to influence NPCs, but players always have final say over what their characters think and believe. Therefore, conflict between PCs was largely mediated by the players' own abilities and willingness to argue with each other. Dominant voices tended to get their way, and those who didn't want to rock the boat ended up being dragged along into undesirable situations. After the game ended, I thought a system like Smallville might alter this dynamic by mediating disagreements through a universal conflict resolution system, but now I think it's mainly a matter of approach - "social contract" rather than mechanics. For a game like this to work, the players need to be willing to make poor decisions, and to have their PCs experience adversity - often caused by the other PCs - without taking it personally or treating the game as a secret information war.

I also learned some lessons about open and hidden secrets. In a game where you just play your character and experience the world as they do, you tend to only want to know what your character knows. If the group's working together, this is no problem. If the group is working at cross purposes, this tends to manifest as secret meetings and note-passing, which can generate mistrut and paranoia in the group. Nobody knows who's out to get whom. It was this style of play that Andrew expressed a fervent distaste for. Just before the end of the campaign, I had invited John to privately message me about a secret plan he wanted to discuss. I soon decided that was a bad idea, but he didn't end up messaging me anyway.

In a game with open secrets where the characters are at cross-purposes, all of the players know what everyone is up to, but the characters don't. This requires a more active separation of in-character and out-of-character knowledge, which I think tends to interfere with the "immersion" of just being your character. For a game with open secrets to run smoothly, not only do the players need to not act on OOC knowledge, but I think they should try to minimise peer pressure on the other players to alter their plans just because it will make life difficult for other PCs. After all, the aim of this type of game isn't to keep your character safe, or to "win" by beating all of the other PCs; instead, it's to experience a rich drama with highs and lows, victories and setbacks. The GM acts as mediator, but the conflict is largely initiated and driven by the other players, which I feel could result in more worthwhile adversaries than the GM trying to run several NPC villains. It requires more a spirit of collaboration than competition, though.

After the Black Waltz campaign finished, I started feeling more limited by games that required a rigid party structure and enforced co-operation between PCs. I yearned for a game where the players could feel free to express their characters' desires without being considered a disruptive "special snowflake"; in other words, a game about the PCs, not about the scenario. This was the sort of game I'd been trying to run with the Black Waltz, which had ended with mixed success.

This vague feeling of dissatisfaction led into my odyssey to try different games with innovative mechanics; mechanics designed to provide a gaming experience I'd never had before. I wanted to find out if the gameplay I was looking for could be found in a rule system, or if it was just a matter of player buy-in to a particular style of play.

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