Sunday, 17 January 2016

Bloodwaddle (A brief Fiasco game summary)

We tried Fiasco for the first time last week, and I didn't immediately have time to write down everything I remembered about it. I wish I had, because I had been worried that the excellent Tabletop play-through of the game was misleadingly good (because they had such unusually excellent and expressive players, all professional storytellers) and that our amateurish attempt at creating a story from scratch would never reach that level. But it's such an excellent rules system, so cleverly made, and we're apparently not half as inexperienced at this stuff as I worried - it is still basically roleplaying - so everything turned out great. The story ran smoothly without feeling too obvious or forced, and we had a great time.

We used 'The Ice' playset, and as one of the first elements to come up was a bookie/gambler relationship between two of the characters, everything was built around trying to justify that. And so we had a tale of murder and deception flowing out of the illegal penguin-fighting ring of MacMurdo Station. Please bear in mind that we took this all dead seriously, even though we'd all already watched this video clip in our pre-game research into how penguins fight:

The cast was as follows:
Steve Kent, glaciologist, here for the first time, bunk mate of Pendlebrook (Damon)
James Pendlebrook, structural engineer, who found the body with Ekstein (Scot)
Janave Ekstein, outpost accountant who runs the penguin fights, owns Smitty's gambling debt (Sita)
Smitty, seal expert and research rival of Grant (Jamie)
Gavin Grant, ornithologist and fellow first-timer with Kent (me)
Cookie, another structural engineer, not a cook, who was found shot dead out on the ice at the start of play (NPC)

I immediately love how all the major defining elements are always shared between at least two players, never tied to only one of them, so that anyone tugging on any thread will eventually cause all other threads to shift too. We added official occupations to our character descriptions to help explain why they're there at all, but where traditional RPGs would almost entirely focus on what an individual character is, what it can do, what its skills are, what its job is, those are all fairly trivial, unnecessary considerations in Fiasco. I'm sure there's a Dumbo's Feather analogy here.

I also liked how easy it felt, unavoidable sometimes, to leap back and forth along the time line, doing flashbacks to fill in missing details as if it were perfectly natural and not (as it usually feels) like an erroneous break in the smooth flow of the plot.

I wish I'd written even minor notes about the order in which things played out, but it was roughly something like this:

Having stumbled across the body of Cookie and the gun that killed him, Ekstein wants to cover it all up and make sure she can arrange one last big illegal gambling event out at Ross Island (where the penguins are and the authorities are not) before winter darkness sets too fully and the fights have to stop until spring. Pendlebrook, on the other hand, is eager to get Kent involved in the investigation, and since Kent had once walked in on Cookie plucking and cooking dead penguins (I forget if this was to eat the evidence or just because he liked eating them, but either way, it's where his nickname came from), Kent was eager to help uncover more of the station's dark side. Grant tried to convince the station chief (we never looked up the correct title for the head person at MacMurdo) that Smitty was behind the suspicious decline in penguin numbers, but lacked solid enough proof. Meanwhile, Smitty had hatched a scheme to get out of debt by modifying a dodgy penguin (wings sewn to its sides and similar sabotage) and using it to rig a fight.

Ekstein and Smitty found mutual usefulness, stumbling into each other out at Ross Island, one dragging a dead man, the other carrying an obviously mutilated penguin. Smitty helped Ekstein hide the body, so that it wouldn't cause her gambling event to be cancelled, and in turn Smitty used this to blackmail Ekstein into slipping his dodgy penguin into the fights for him. Just as they'd agreed to this, Pendlebrook, Kent and Grant surprised them, on the literal trail of the murder. Grant, furious at catching Smitty red-handed with an abused penguin, bolted straight for him, and Smitty bolted straight out into the gathering evening mist. Grant stumbled on the loose snow over the freshly-moved body, losing sight of Smitty, but revealing the body to all.

Smitty managed to sneak back and slip Cookie's body away, sinking it into the ocean near an ice-fishing location he knew well. Ekstein was brought to MacMurdo, but with no body, the authorities saw no reason to hold her. She took the opportunity to make one last effort to secretly get a few people to the fights. She hadn't counted on so many people being excited about it, with rumours of the event spreading by word of mouth, and so the crowd ended up being far larger than expected. Pendlebrook alone tracked Smitty down to an ice-fishing hut, and the two of them negotiated a plan for Smitty's debt to be cancelled if he'd take the fall for Cookie's death. At the same time, Kent was searching through his bunk mate's belongings, and discovered evidence that Pendlebrook had a strong motive to kill Cookie (I forget what it was, something to do with accounting records, which also tied Ekstein in?). Grant, now armed with plenty of solid evidence, arranged for an official raid on the fights that evening, specifically aiming to pin it on Smitty. Pendlebrook came back to his room and realised that Kent must have found the evidence against him.

Storming in with MacMurdo's security people, the gambling crowd quickly broke into panicked flight in all directions. Grant spotted Smitty, but was knocked unconscious (by something?), and Smitty got away clean. Pendlebrook used the chaos to booby trap Kent's snowmobile, setting engineering explosives inside of it. Kent was extremely badly injured by this trap, with the explosion only adding to the chaos.

In the end, Kent's Antarctic career ended in disability and lifelong pain. Pendlebrook successfully covered up his first murder and his second attempted murder, but seeing Kent suffering in the base hospital brought him sudden realisation that it was his own friends he had been hurting. He fled to South America, never able to let go of the guilt. Ekstein was jailed for the illegal gambling ring. Grant continued his research, but lost most of his funding to Smitty, who not only escaped blame for everything, but was promoted and given a huge funding increase, partly taken from Grant's funds. With Ekstein gone, Smitty took over the penguin-fighting ring himself, with many others now in debt to him.

I'm sure there was plenty more to it than that, but this is all my frail human memory retained. Perhaps the other players can add more in the comments.

It might not be the absolute most original story ever, but it's clearly a functional plot, assembled from a small number of very simple random elements, which is cool. And the really exciting part, which is maybe lost in the re-telling now, is watching it all emerge in front of your eyes, as if from nowhere. If you've ever tried to invent a whole story from scratch, and especially if you're very familiar with writer's block, it's astounding how this game just pours a whole story out like it's the easiest thing in the world. It's a beautiful process, and Bully Pullpit can rightly be proud of it.

It's also a very social game. Some games, including even some roleplaying games, push players to keep quiet, to focus on their own characters/resources/pieces/whatever and treat other players as distant obstacles on the board. But Fiasco works best when everyone is talking to everyone else simultaneously, in an environment where creative ideas are encouraged and enjoyed. I really like that.

I look forward to trying it again, and I hope the basic mechanics can be easily adapted to other genres. I can see all sorts of other good uses for it already.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Periodic Pantheon

This interesting article summarising the recent history of element-naming controversies reminded me of an idea I've had for years, but can't seem to find a use for. In short, I thought it would be neat to have a mash up of the periodic table and a polytheistic pantheon, with each deity tied to a specific element. I think it could make an interesting background element for a (probably science fiction) story, a part of a culture (human or otherwise) that sits in the void between scientifically advanced and archaically superstitious. I simply haven't needed it yet, so I thought I'd drop it here and maybe someone else will make something interesting of it. I'm aware that elements (pun) of this idea have already been touched on elsewhere, but I have something less literal in mind, something that would work equally well in settings with and without anything supernatural.

Halfway there already.

I think this is a religion devised after the discovery of chemistry up to at least a typical modern high school level, so that the periodic nature of the elements is understood, but then explained as a pattern reflecting supernatural intervention. It's no more irrational than the interpretations of intelligent design believers who like to paint themselves as sciencey and rational. And then from that, you can branch out further into sects of the periodic pantheon that reject as much of the non-theistic interpretation as possible, sort of the opposite of the real-world progression from openly religious creationism to the rational-facaded intelligent design. My point is that it's probably believable enough that someone might develop a religion around this view of the elements.

How the periodic pantheon interacts with other religions, including presumably some older, pre-scientific ones, depends on the needs of the setting and the story, but it does seem to have one unusual implication. Most polytheistic religions in history have been quite tolerant of outside beliefs, often incorporating them into their own, mixing and matching deities like trading cards. But the periodic pantheon seems to me like it should be much more rigid, limited to only the known elements. This makes it an unusually intolerant, perhaps more dogmatic form of polytheism.

But those are all fuzzy side issues to me, things that would be determined more by the needs of the story you're trying to tell than by the essential, central needs of the pantheon concept. What I'd really rather focus on, for now, is how I see the deities of the pantheon as characters, with personalities embodying the physical traits of their respective elements. Some of this can be quite straight forward, with the iron god representing endurance and strength, generously distributed to almost everyone, while the polonium god is elusive and deadly. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon should feature as special characters, dominant in the spheres of living things, fuels, all sorts of synthetic materials, etc. Fire is always a big deal in both religion and reality, and the idea that the oxygen god plays such a crucial role in fire would definitely earn it a lot of worship. In a setting with nuclear energy and weapons, the gods of uranium and plutonium are terrible super-monsters offering immense power, a devil's deal. Hydrogen as a Sun (and general nuclear fusion) god possibly sets up a good-vs.-evil dichotomy with the subterranean fission gods.

Beyond these individual deity characters, I also see the groups, periods and other repeating patterns of the periodic table telling neat, predictable stories about families and factions among the deities, sharing common traits. The alkali metal deities are all fiery and unstable. The noble gases don't represent nobility, but weakness, etherealness, lack of involvement. The halogens are frightening, too eager to change the world in nasty ways. The metals collectively represent similar traits of strength to iron, but not all to the same degree. The commonness of the elements in reality, roughly tied to period number, would tell us how involved in the setting the deities choose to be, or allow each other to be, or are allowed/required by some even higher law. Perhaps the older the deity, the more right it has to influence the world, while its children/underlings get to make only smaller contributions. The synthetic elements would need a fair bit of theological explaining, if your setting is aware of them. They're almost like compelling the gods to give us stuff, maybe even causing new gods to come into existence. Perhaps some sects might be horrified at this idea, while others are thrilled by it.

I'm undecided whether I prefer the interpretation that the actual atoms things are made of are literal pieces of physical gods, somehow distributed into the world, or merely the physical gifts given to the world by more ghostly, abstract gods. I think both interpretations could be embraced by different sects. In the latter case, compounds are not that interesting from a theological perspective, as that's then just crossing the line into natural science, making stuff out of stuff the gods dropped off. But in the former case, when part of the body of the sodium god touches part of the body of the chlorine god, we now have need for even more storytelling about conflict and cooperation between them as characters, and how this results in salt. You might not bother to do this with all of the millions of compounds, but a few parables and fables built around some of the most common and important compounds could flesh out the religion further. These stories give a chance to develop the character of each deity, to give them some personality and depth, or at least some dialogue for school plays to re-enact.

In a setting without the visual table representations of the elements that we're used to, this kind of semi-literal storytelling could be a feasible alternate way of explaining and remembering the periodic patterns of the elements. I wouldn't prefer that myself, I think the periodic table works brilliantly. But it's not an inevitable and unavoidable way to portray those facts, and it's interesting to think how we'd be teaching chemistry today if we'd never had a Mendeleev to come up with the table idea.

Finally, going back to the article about the naming of elements, it would probably be worthwhile to have a think about what these deities would be called, and what the elements are called if they're not sharing exactly the same names. In a setting based on our world, you'd have to either go out of your way to rename the elements, or you'd have to settle for some pretty dumb god names. Lead and Tin don't sound like very good personal names to me. Plumbum and Stannum at least sound more classical. But this is all pretty subjective. In a setting not based on our Earth, it becomes more feasible, maybe even necessary, to rename the entire list of elements. This could start drifting into conlangs. It all depends on how much world-building you want to do.