Friday, August 25, 2006

[Actual Play] Exalted: The Gates of Heaven, Game Two

Introduction
First, please go back and check my first Actual Play post for more background info. This one is where I start to try to tackle things on more of a ‘what interesting is going on in this game here?’ kind of way.

So why am I doing this? Well, I’m writing a thesis on RPGs, so I want to get used to analyzing games I’ve run/been in, and I also want to develop the ability to talk about them with people, especially communities like RPG.net, Story Games, and the Forge, using the ‘Actual Play’ model.

The Players
The players all know one another from the live-action Changeling game that runs in town, and I’ve known all of the players for at least two years, though I spent last year in Oregon rather than Bloomington. The players are in their early to mid (late?) twenties, all residing in Bloomington. I’ve gamed with all of them before, though most I’ve only LARPed with.

I have in my group a Seamstress by night/Manager at a Telemarketing center by day (female), (playing Kaimana), a (female) Art major and game store employee (playing Dahn), a (female) anthropology/folklore PhD student published fantasy author who also studies RPGs (playing Vajra), a (male) independent ‘Rouge’ scholar/occasional bank employee now working for the same telemarketing firm (playing Dusk Sky Lover) and a (female) folklore PhD student/belly dancer who is very new to tabletopping (playing Lanar). That for those of you at home is four female players and one male player, with a similar gender balance in the party. This is the largest proportion of female players I’ve had in a game that I’ve run, which is cool, but I can’t say it’s specifically affected the way I run the game. I’m honestly fine with this. I’d run the game the same way with four men and one women, really, as I believe the way I run games leaves room for people to enjoy themselves and explore topics without feeling self-conscious due to gender expectations. Definitely no cooties-fear here, folks. And this consideration is worth having, considering that Lanar’s player works fairly extensively with gender theory, and I’ve been making my own forays along those lines.

For completeness’ sake, I’m a early-twenties (male) Folklorist grad student/tango dancer/speculative fiction writer (as of yet unpublished).

Game Summary
Before we started playing, we went over XP and the PCs tried to figure out what few things they really needed to pick up before the end of the game, since in a four-shot, they were only getting XP three times (I could award 1 million XP after the last game, but what does it matter?) At first, I had pondered not awarding XP at all, since it was a short-run game, and it would cut out some effort of having to deal with the difference in costs (geometric vs. arithmetic, etc.), but as one of my players said, and I agree, only once you get into a game will you realize what things your character should have, what you should have taken, especially in a larger-than-starting points package where players get to build up some aspects of their character and then realize they neglected something essential.

This is more a problem, I think, with games that have big complicated chargen like D&D or WW games or HERO or something, but it can happen in any game, since I know at least for me, I have a better idea of who my character is once I’ve played them some. This is part of why I like the idea of preludes when you can do them, especially in a focused way like Dogs in the Vineyard does it.

One of my players had to work until 9:30 (our game runs from 7:00 to 11:00), so I decided to go with my impulse to have this be the segway game, more setup than big payoff, since the payoff should come at the end anyways. In fact, I didn’t do much prep for the game, but I did use the little bit which I had prepared.

Partially as an experiment, and partially to address comments by my players that we ‘sidled’ into IC RP at the start of the first session, once XP had been handled, I moved directly into setting the scence.

And by directly, I mean, (possibly paraphrased) “It’s the middle of the night, there’s a dead Sidereal on the floor in your room. What are you doing?” which certainly threw some of my players off. One of them specifically said that the shift was abrupt. High-Speed Keying, yo! Bateson in the hizzie! (Gregory Bateson being the scholar who put forward the idea of ‘keying’ as the mode of shifting from one frame of performance/life to another. “Once upon a time” is way to do ‘keying’ verbally.)

The other part was the fact that we called the last game kind of abruptly due to time considerations, since several of the players work early in the morning. They wrapped up the scene, with the Zenith cremating the body after the group decided it would be better to not tell the Celestial Lions about the confrontation, keeping things on the down-low.

From there, they got their license for Serene Guardian, who was able to join them rather than the group having to go back to the edge of Yu-Shan. I described some about moving through Yu-Shan, brought back the Celestial Lions, who in this game have been conceived as kind of diva-like, being very cat-like in the vanity/I’m very purposeful, of course! kind of way, mostly from the players finding my original portrayal of the Lions very amusing in that way, so I’ve rolled with it. It’s their game.

This actually gets at my personal GM philosophy. I run games because I think that the people I’m playing with can put together a great story, and its like I’m the host. It is a party, after all, right? I’ve got ideas of what kind of stuff we’ve got set up, but I’d rather flow with their desires.

However, I certainly utilized narrative control to set up the scenes I had planned. I said there was a big park around, which would be a good place to set Serene Guardian down for the night. The first scene I led this to was the introduction of Swift Jie, a Gold Faction Sidereal, the ones who opposed the killing of the Solars in the first age, and have been working to re-instate the Solars as the rightful rulers of creation. Understandably, the characters were nervous about Jie, since just twoish scenes/days previous, a group of Sidereals attacked the group without any indication. Jie explained his desire to help, and eventually swore an oath with Dusk Sky Lover, the Eclipse, that he would serve the circle in their efforts as long as they kept doing what they said they were doing. I’m pleased that they were suspicious and didn’t just read a ‘oh, look, friendly NPC!’ flag. Especially since the next scene was on the other side of the Sidereal extreme.
I experimented with a bit of firm framing and fiat to say that the party were down in the park in the evening. I described the bushes, and the trees, with the trees in the forest as giant-sized bonsai trees, with gods coming to the garden to trim their personal trees, and as a sign of status to show off to other gods, one of the billions of ways the gods play their status games. And then…the Sidereals showed up. The four living assassins from the attempt last game, as well as six Celestial Lions, and an elder Sidereal riding a Lesser Elemental Dragon.

The elder Sidereal, Uncomprimising Zu, is my Mid-Boss for the game. I wanted to put a face on the Bronze Faction, so I decided to include my world’s leader of the Bronze faction as the antagonist for the middle of the game, short though it may be. Zu showed up and basically tore into the PCs, talking about how the Solars were going to destroy creation, how removing the Solars was the only reasonable response. He talked about the horrible things Vajra’s previous incarnation had done, and generally was, well, uncompromising. Some select quotes from the conversation.

Uncompromising Zu: "The Uncompromising Zu is never wrong!"

Regarding the Sidereal ambush . . .when Unrelenting Zu (Uncomprimising’s son) died.
Uncompromising Zu: "He was acting on my orders."
Vajra: "So you sent your son to murder us."
Lanar: "So you sent your son to his death."

This after Zu chided Lanar for not having snappy comebacks. I <3 my players. Vajra’s player talked about how Zu was trying to goad them into attacking so the Celstial Lions would take the Sidereal’s side in the conflict. Mostly, I just wanted to introduce Zu as a despicable villain.

With good argument, they managed to get Zu to budge first. He shouted for the hit squad to take the PCs out, then flew off, as such bosses often do.

Then, combat! I had the siddies using one Elemental Dragon style each, with the Fire-stylist being the guy who died. Since the first combat got cut a bit short, I wanted to be sure to let the group get the combat-y bits sorted out so we could have smoother combat later on in the finale, so that the combat takes up less of the game’s time, leaving room for dramatic RP.

The players, despite most of them being tired or sick or having had crappy days, did a fantastic job of stepping up with great descriptive combat. The combat started pretty dicey for the PCs, with the Water-stylist bearing Lanar’s Infinite Melee Flurries fairly untouched, being outnumbered by Lions (though I had Dahn, whose player had yet to arrive, holding off half of them off on her own), and, well, me knowing the Exalted combat system better than them and being ruthless in my attacks to make the combat real, or at least threatening.

The Earth-stylist was nearly untouchable, and the Wood-stylist was 1 success away from outright killing Kaimana, using the charm at the top of the form. Fortunately I did in fact roll 1 less success than I needed to kill the character. The tide of combat turned, however, when Vajra used Shockwave Technique to knockback the ‘I’m surrounded by huge earth armor’ Earth-stylist into the Wood-stylist, succeeding enough to just plain kill her. Squish. I narrated the Wood-stylists horrible crunchy death.

Dusk Sky Lover had the Air-stylist on the ropes, eventually shooting down the tree behind him and dropping said tree on the Sidereal, snapping his left arm off. Lanar took out the Water stylist with a with a two-attack narration involving spiked poi, flippy bits and snapped neck/backs, earning (by consensus from the other players) the first 3-die stunt of the game.

Kaimana played smart, going on the defensive once the Celestial lions pressed the attack. In violent disregard for the rules, I decided that one of the Lion’s nails would shoot out and become housecat-sized mini-Celestial Lions. As she was a Twilight, her anima banner prevented damage from the ones that did hit, leading to her watery anima washing two of the lions away, leading to tiny golden wet-cat Lions looking very pathetic. Good comedy moment mixed in with the violent fight-y bits. Dahn’s player arrived in here, and was caught up on the action as we cooled down from the fight.

The group finished off the other Sidereals, then converged on the Air-stylist, who was on the brink of death, pleading for his life. I RPed him on the fly, and in good solar fashion, they Social-Charmed him into serving them, with his stipulation that he wouldn’t have to hurt any other Sidereals.

The PCs came out of the game up two Sidereal allies, knowing who their primary antagonist in the Bronze Faction is, and next week, they get to find a way into the Jade Pleasure Dome to set right the gods.

It’s great to be back in the saddle, both as an ST and just in playing tabletop games regularly after having been engaged with gaming only on the academic angle. One of my players is very new to tabletopping, but has been doing a good job of using the advantages of the tabletop form in the combat-y bits. Next time, I want to shoot for more opportunities for the PCs to interact with one another before I send them up against the various bads, and try to draw out more participation from everyone before the big extended Kung-fu sequence at the finale with the Three-Stage Boss-Fight and corresponding soundtrack! Because if any game encourages me to have a Final-Fantasy Style Three-Stage Boss-Fight, it’s Exalted.

Analysis
So, what about the theory? I’ve got actual play, which means I have the necessary material to talk about all the backstage stuff, right? And as one who studies RPGs as an academic and likes thinking about the underlying stuff, it’ll be fun to do anyways.

I think that I did a fairly decent straightforward job of setting up the framework of the game and taking people’s creative desires into account. I’m not a huge fan of forefronting creative agenda classifications, though I did try to feel out what kind of fun the players wanted from how they designed their characters.

The subject matter of the game (going to Yu-Shan to correct the defunct Celestial Bureaucracy) was picked by the players, though I was the one who did the recruiting of the players and who said ‘I want to do a short-term epic Mythic-y Exalted game.’ I like to think that my approach was much the same as a director or producer who went ‘I want to do a movie with mythic-y drama and kung fu, lemme go get some good actor/storytellers and see what we can do together!’ I was just as ready to run a Fight-the-Deathlord game as a Work-for-the-Deathlord game as a Fight-the-Alchemical game as the one I’m actually running. I pushed to get the players and put forward the basic framework, but I hope that I was leaving enough space for the players to play the game they wanted, if not pull on a mechanical level, at least give-and-take on the social level.

I’ve got more agendas going on here than just a game. I want Actual Play material for my thesis about role-playing games. I’m trying to have our last game video-taped so I can go back to it and study the kinds of things I can’t be paying attention to when I’m running a game, even if I were to be running a fully-written module. For starters, I don’t like modules anymore, really, and also, I prefer to be the ‘seat of my pants’ kind of storyteller, at least for short term games.

So far, I’ve been impressed with the player’s RPing, as they’re up to the standards I expected of them from their LARP experience, but there’s been less PC-PC interaction than maybe there would be in other games. Vajra has been particularly active, and has dropped into the leader-ish role, speaking more than others, at least to Uncomprimising Zu. That went both ways, since when she was the one giving me a strong response, I kept speaking towards her, occasionally making a swipe at the other PCs.

The biggest hurdle we’ve faced, I think, is the system, and by that, I mean that we didn’t all know Exalted 2E before playing, so there’s been a learning curve mixed in with the game that ideally, I’d have taken care of before the game. But I wanted these players more for their storytelling ability than their familiarity with the system, and it’s worked out so far. Like I said, I’m hoping that everyone will be comfortable with the system by the time we get to the climax of the (short) game.

System Considerations
This brings me back to rules drift/omission, which got discussed some at the Story Games thread that linked to the first game. (thread here: http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=1136&page=1#Item_5)

Here’s a breakdown of what we’re doing differently:

1) No attunement cost for artifacts. – Mostly because I forgot to tell them about said costs.
2) Combos for free (w/Willpower cost, still) – As long as they follow the Charm construction rules, it’s all good. – Because it’s a short-term game, and I think it’s cooler if they can just do stuff. My ‘Say yes’ philosophy again.
3) I’m mostly ignoring social combat unless someone asks for it. – I haven’t spent the time to integrate social combat and physical combat as well as I’d like. I told them they can flurry social attacks in with physical attacks if they want. This may come up in the next couple games more.
4) I’ve ignored some of the more intricate combat-y bits. When someone wanted to do a knockdown, I just docked them 2 dice and told them to roll.

Most of this is for simplicity’s sake, since it’s a short-term game and not everyone knew Exalted before starting. And plus, I wouldn’t use all of the rules even in a longer-term game. I’m much too much a fan of letting the system be my safety net when we can’t do things on our own, at least past the basic resolution mechanic. I like rules, especially rules tailored to the setting and the game. But I seldom need encumbrance rules and things of that nature. It’s not my style. I’m looking forward to playing more of the games designed with the intent of providing nice solid rules for exactly what you need them for that get out of your way all of the rest of the time. My players were somewhat frustrated with the complexity of the combat system, with Excellencies and Infinite Masteries and all, but I blame most of that on ‘new system adjustment’ rather than ‘Exalted is a bad system’

More on my choices for using Exalted is available in the 1st session post.

Additional analysis will become reasonable as the game goes on and concludes, and I think most of what I’ll be able to look at is how people portray characters that are supposed to already know one another without having played through that familiarity, and how to keep pace in a short term game run mostly improv-style while responding to more firm objectives of making sure the players get to be cool in the way they’re hoping to, as well as getting a good opportunity to role-play the way they like, and what happens when a cinematic-combat-loving Storyteller runs a game with players who range greatly in predisposition towards big improv-described combat.

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