I’m still cutting together the fun footage of the LARP, and you can scroll back to see how successful the Iron Game Designer event was, but Saturday was RPG day and I played two new games for me: Golden Sky Stories and Durance.
Bad news first, so Durance: As I’ve said before, I really don’t like the way Morningstar designs games. He’s really good at fluff and providing mechanical fluff to kickstart stories and then phones in everything else, as if mechanics are just some afterthought he needs to qualify as a game. Durance is just like Fiasco in this: great set up, terrible mechanics. I believe it works for Morningstar because he and his group know exactly how to phrase cutting dramatical questions that force people and their vows into conflict, but at a con, with strangers, when you’ve never done it before, there’s a lot of flailing. Now this is true of Smallville as well, of course – finding the way that values and relationships conflict is not always easy – but the mechanics drive those conflicts. Durance’s mechanics are “roll some dice, decide what they mean in that situation”. Like I said, I’m sure it works for him, but I write better game mechanics in my sleep. They tell me that Morningstar doesn’t write games about mechanics, but that’s like being a milliner who just makes hatbands. I mean they’re GREAT hatbands, but there’s more to hats.
That said, because Australian convict settlement is rife for power structure tilting and character vows highlight strong conflict, we cobbled together an excellent story by the end of it, but in spite of the mechanics, not because of them. And we enjoyed ourselves once we started feeding our characters gleefully into the woodchipper of plot (although I was doing that in part to drive the game towards an end, which might never happen otherwise – and like with Fiasco, it does not encourage any attachment to character). Story sharing with four other creative geniuses was and always will be super fun, though, and I didn’t want my time back. Durance is just like Fiasco: a good story kicker of random tables.
It didn’t help Durance that in the morning I played Golden Sky Stories which is an amazing RPG in every way. Truly revolutionary in concept and focus, and with some super mechanical strength to back it up. On the surface, GSS seems to be “just” a cute game with a child-friendly focus: you play characters out of an animated show: magic animals who can turn into humans sometimes, and have a few others sweet powers. But like Durance, it’s the laser-like focus on its setting that makes it so much more than that.
This isn’t a big open world to explore, it’s just your Town, and you like it, and it likes you. And you don’t go on great adventures. You don’t save the day. You don’t achieve amazing things. You make friends and help people have a nice day. And you build your whole RPG, mechanics and setting around that concept, you get something unlike anything else. The tight focus makes the things you do feel epic. In Durance I juggled the lives of men on a desperate frontier and it was all very Deadwood-meh, but when I reached out and connected to a girl who wanted to make friends but didn’t know how to do anything but push people away I felt a hundred feet tall. Run superbly by our GM, we also told stories of getting a boy’s soccer ball back from a policeman, and helping the policeman learn to let go of his need to always be working, even on his vacation. Through character interplay and mechanics we probed these dilemmas, and lent our friendship to heal them. And we got to play with a nine year old girl and all be on the same level in terms of story ideas and problem-solving ability.
And the mechanical support is excellent. The only way to do things is by building relationships with your fellow party members and with new friends. If you like people more they get to do more cool stuff, and if they like you more, you get to do more cool stuff. And there’s traps to get in the way of that – everyone likes being an animal, but if you talk to humans in animal form they might have to roll on the Surprise table, and being Surprised makes it harder for them to talk to you and bond. I remember when I first hit Paranoia and saw there were like five skills for fighting and fifteen for bluffing people, and I knew where the focus lay; the same thing is rife in GSS. For example, most games with emotional mechanics let you choose a wide array of ways to feel about people – hate, jealousy, lust, spite – the list of emotions available in GSS are Like, Love, Affection, Admire, Accept, Protect, Respect, Trust and “Family”. Accept is the most powerful, and you have to have special permission for the GM to take it.
Normally things you have to clear with the GM are really powerful ways to hurt people; in GSS the most powerful thing of all is the really powerful way to love someone. Something very few of us can do, a very unique and special power indeed. One thing we can do with RPGs, though, is engage in wish-fulfillment, to try and acquire magical powers like empathy and acceptance, and to achieve incredible things like understanding another’s pain that they hide, and letting them let go of some of that.
That’s what I did in Golden Sky Stories, and I didn’t just learn more about the world, I learnt more about myself.