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steve_hix
This post is DEFINITELY a work in progress. It's the spine for an actual play report on Gametime about my experience playing Bacchanal. So far it's mostly just bullet-points, and when I boil it all down to the main strands, here's what I get:
  • Bacchanal plays very differently from a typical RPG
  • It very deliberately introduces a set of constraints and unusual requirements that frustrated four out of the five people in our group
  • Complaints included that the resulting stories lacked meaning; that characters' stories could end arbitrarily early; that it was difficult for characters to meet each other; and that the content we introduced was repetitive and immature
  • This session was extremely problematic. Even so, I had fun playing Bacchanal, and I believe it can be fun for others. I'm intending to try it again, under different circumstances.
This session played so differently to what I expected, and had so many problems that I didn't notice while running it, that I've been slightly obsessed by it over the last two weeks. With that said, I want to dig into it a bit more ...


What is Bacchanal?
  • Bacchanal is a game by Paul Czege (My Life with Master)
  • It provides rules for telling stories that occasionally have sexual or debauched content in them
  • There's no GM; all players are very much equal contributors as the game plays out
  • Each player gets a turn to tell a scene in their character's unfolding story to the other players
  • Part of the content of these scenes is pre-determined by an initial dice roll
  • When it's your turn to narrate, the other players don't really do anything except listen. They are the audience to your story; it is your job to entertain them.
Bacchanal is a very unusual game - it requires very different skills to most other RPGs I've played. In fact, it might be more accurately described as a 'story-telling diversion'; Bacchanal could provide a couple of hours fun for two or three people who know and trust each other. In fact I have a couple of groups in mind right now.


What's the game's setting?
  • Set in Puteoli, a city south of Rome, AD61
  • The god Bacchus has come to Puteoli and intoxicated its residents with the madness of wine
  • You play a character accused of a crime and who has to flee the city during this chaos
  • But you've been separated from your Companion, and must find them before you can leave


What was my attitude going in?
  • I've been fascinated by Bacchanal for ages
  • I was determined to play Bacchanal this year


How did I prep for it?
  • Realised that you could make a bad roll early in the game and die in the first turn.
  • Created a one-sheet filled with rules summaries and tips
  • Collected together a bunch of Roman names and locations to flesh out the world.

Set-up
  • A two hour con-game
  • Five players - I was slightly familiar with all of them
  • I was slightly nervous because: (a) it's Bacchanal, and (b) the game I'd run in the previous round hadn't gone entirely well
  • Spent about 20 minutes building up trust, creative engagement and running through character creation
  • During character creation, I didn't place enough emphasis on being a stranger to the city and needing to escape. This may have had an effect on some characters' stories
  • Momentum was derailed by my hunt for more appropriately coloured d8s when I discovered we didn't have enough for 5 players


What happened to my character?

Marius the poet was separated from his daughter * He was arrested by a soldier for the crime of plagerism * The soldier executed Marius on the street.

What happened to everyone else's characters?

Flavia awakes and finds her lover, the gladiator Labenius is not in her bed * In a drunken fury, she dispatches her maid to fetch him. * Labenius returns and joins her in bed. * A friend of Flavia's husband joins them in bed. * Flavia and Labenius steal the friend's carriage, and escape the city.

Antonia, a vestal virgin, escapes the temple and looks for her lover in the marketplace * She becomes embroiled in the murder of a soothsayer * Fleeing, she takes refuge in a hedonistic party * The soldiers arrive and arrest her * Antonia dies (in her lover's arms) in jail.

Lucius, a lawyer who has offended the collegium, awakens (along with two collegium enforcers) in the middle of a hangover band of revellers * The revellers smash open a wine shop * They travel through the city for various scenes * The revellers head towards the necropolis, which sobers them all up.

Teritus, a retired ligate also becomes involved with a mob of drunkards. These ones are more dangerous - they break into a house intent on punishing the owner, but instead drink themselves into a stupor on the house's supply of wine.


How did the game go for me?
  • I had fun narrating, and listening to other narrations (in particular, Ivan's)
  • I felt extremely invested in my character's story and was eager to see how it turned out
  • However, I had a bad roll early in the game and died (basically) in my first turn, I still enjoyed being an audience member
  • Ivan and Nasia's characters both got taken out (through Companion and Soldier dice) a couple of scenes after me. At this point, I felt satisfied that the game would draw to a swift conclusion
  • As a group, I think we bonded over the deadliness of Soldier dice (after they killed my character).
  • Changing scene or location is actually exciting! Your movements are so constrained that it's a really opportunity to open out the story.
  • Things dragged on for Richard and Rohan - their narrations got stuck in dice loops (*); there was no certainty we'd end the game in the time we had available. So we agreed to have a final round of narrations and wrap things up.
(*) Here's an example of a dice loop: Richard got stuck with mostly wine dice and kept not getting ties, which required him to stay in the same location, escalate decadence and remove Bacchus to the tray. He also often removed a Wine die on his turn as he included another person's NPC in his narration, which made tied Wine results even less likely.

After we wrapped up the game (without coming to a conclusion via the mechanic for Richard or Rohan), I discovered nobody else felt the game had worked.


The Big Complaints
  • While we had lots of scenes, overall the events of the game lacked structure and meaning
  • Similarly, people felt limited in their ability to create story or move components of the fiction towards a confrontation they "needed" (or want) to have, in order to make the story work.
  • The early knock-outs of players felt unfair; the knocked-out players can't really influence the game anymore
  • None of the characters met each other or interacted at all. It was actually DIFFICULT to interact with other characters.
  • It was difficult to escalate decadence in a way that felt interesting or compelling (there were lots of frat-boy-esque 'getting drunker' narrations)
I've had experiences running games where I've misread the rules and misapplied them in play. I can't remember having an experience where I've so fundamentally misrepresented the nature of the game to potential players.


The Accuser and the Companion

Ivan had a few problems with the accuser and companion subplots:
  • They seemed totally disconnected from each other and from the broader narrative about the bacchanal. 
  • Because players had no control, we couldn’t be influenced by fear of the accuser or desire for the companion. 
  • The mechanics made the subplots hard to introduce (and, as Nasia noted, practically impossible to introduce for more than one or two players over the course of the game) (*),
  • If you did manage to introduce them, bam, it meant there was a good chance you’d be out of the game before you could develop them into anything interesting. 
(*) As only one person can have the Companion die at any one time.

I don't think there's anything actually stopping players from bringing the Companion or Accuser into their narration, and developing those subplots. It's probably easiest to justify if their dice are in your cup; in that case, you case simply incorporate them into the overall narration you're delivering. But even if you don't have their dice, I'm guessing that you can introduce rumours and other information about your Companion and Accuser via other characters who are in the scene.


Insights

I definitely under-estimated how different the gaming experience is when you roll all the dice at the beginning of the scene, and that determines how the scene plays out. In theory terms, that's called 'Fortune at the Beginning', and it did not seem popular among this group of players. It seemed to me that the reasons for the unpopularity included:
  • Ability to take actions was constrained
  • Not being able to change location
  • Not being able to interact with other characters
  • It required a significant shift in how we approached the game - from Bacchanal being a role-playing game, to it being a story-telling game.
The mechanics seem to winnow out players, focusing attention on the remaining one or two players ... whose stories could then take quite a while to come to a conclusion.

As we played, Richard started to completely empty his cup of Wine die. It occured to me that it might be possible to 'drift away' from the Bacchanal by removing all your dice.


Paul Czege's Intentions for the game
  • The goal of Bacchanal is to keep an audience engaged in your story while using unfamiliar subject matter (sex and decadence)
  • Successful play will probably involve some self-revelation about things that you find thrilling, exciting, or transgressive
  • Bacchanal was a Game Chef entry and (I believe) used the concept of Fortune-at-the-Beginning as one of its constraints
  • Happy endings will be rare :)
  • The "escalate, but don't change scene" effect is one of the game's two great creative challenges. You resolve the situation by working your glass toward a higher ratio of non-Wine to Wine dice. Players hesitate to do this when they have Soldiers or the Accuser in their glass. When this is the case, Bacchanal makes you choose between possibly destroying audience interest in your character with an overly-long scene of potentially repetitious escalations, and the undesirability of increasing the chance your character has an unhappy ending. This is a design feature, not a flaw. It aims to convince that dramatic progress is more important to audience interest in a character than a happy ending.



My new pitch


I have to develop a new way of describing this game for next time I run it. Something like:

"This is not a roleplaying game. This is not a game where you play a character, and interact with each other. In fact, it's highly likely that your characters will never meet at all. It's a game about telling stories to each other. [... AND THEN MY PITCH SHOULD HAVE ADDRESSED THE LIMITED WAYS IN WHICH YOU GET TO AFFECT THE STORY ... LIKE: You'll be telling a story based on a few compulsory elements that you'll receive (meaning 'the dice')]."

After talking with Richard, it also occured to me that this game uses techniques that are unfamiliar to some people. Perhaps my running of the game (or the game text itself) could benefit from gradually introducing techniques and improv exercises to get the players into the right headspace for the game. This stuff could be built into developing a shared understanding of the setting and character creation, as well as the first (or first couple of) scenes.


Intentions

I'm going to play it again - this time, with a smaller group that I know better
 
 
steve_hix
I've almost finished posting about the Bacchanal game. Again, this isn't an actual play. The next post will be me starting to draw together the most significant points from everything I've written about over the last few days; I'll be creating the SPINE of an actual play reort.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character (here)
  • What happened to everyone else's characters (in progress, here)
  • My experiences playing the game (here)
  • Notes from post-game talk (here)
  • Did I mis-read the rules? (here)
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts (the first part is here)
Each of these is a separate post. This one's the second half of my thoughts on Ivan's thoughts and some post-game reflections.

Ivan had a few problems with the accuser and companion subplots:
  • They seemed totally disconnected from each other and from the broader narrative about the bacchanal. 
  • Because players had no control, we couldn’t be influenced by fear of the accuser or desire for the companion. 
  • The mechanics made the subplots hard to introduce (and, as Nasia noted, practically impossible to introduce for more than one or two players over the course of the game) (*),
  • If you did manage to introduce them, bam, it meant there was a good chance you’d be out of the game before you could develop them into anything interesting. 
(*) As only one person can have the Companion die at any one time.

A couple of observations before we get to Ivan's fix for this. First, I don't think there's anything actually stopping players from bringing the Companion or Accuser into their narration, and developing those subplots. It's probably easiest to justify if their dice are in your cup; in that case, you case simply incorporate them into the overall narration you're delivering. But even if you don't have their dice, I'm guessing that you can introduce rumours and other information about your Companion and Accuser via other characters who are in the scene.

Secondly - and please bear with me; I'm about to realise something and then immediately change my mind to the complete opposite opinion - i
t just occured to me, you could have the accuser and the companion played by different players.

But my thinking hadn't developed much further than that before it occured to me that this might be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the game. Bacchanal is about your story-telling ability rather than having in-character conversations. It's a game about being a writer and director rather than an actor (*).


(*) In technical terms, you play the game in director stance rather than actor stance.

This is so important (I think) that it goes into whatever my new pitch for Bacchanal turns out to be.

Anyway, moving back to Ivan's fix for the lack of impact the Accuser and Companion subplots have on the game. He suggests
having an accuser and a companion die for each player character.  These dice could be in each player’s cup from the start, have certain consequences associated with using them, and increase in dice size in a certain pattern. (Click here and scroll down to Point 2, for more details/)

I like this. I wonder what would happen if you (a) kept increasing the size of the Companion and/or Accuser dice (which puts a clock on when the end game occurs), while (b) retaining the threat that you could lose the Companion and Accuser dice from your glass (which would probably reset their dice size). It's an interesting variation that (as Ivan says) makes the Companion and the Accuser more relevant to the story.

I do wonder what you lose by doing this. I felt there would be quite an emotional kick if you'd developed your character's story and their search for their Companion - and then finally got the Companion die into your cup. I guess I'm saying that starting with the Companion die seems to defeat the point of narrating your search for the Companion.

I'm not really going to address Ivan's final two points (about figuring out how to describe the escalation of sex and decadance in the game in interesting ways, or alternatives to using a round robin structure) (*).

(*) Although I did wonder at how awesome it would be to use a 'telling stories after it had all happened' structure, and then discover that your character hadn't survived.


--- --- ---

Some final reflections and memory jogs:

I've had experiences where I've misread the rules and misapplied them in play. I can't remember having an experience where I've so fundamentally misrepresented the nature of the game to potential players.

Part of our beginning to play the game was to roughly map the city. I drew a coastline, and each of us added one setting element. A marketplace, a necropolis. I thought this went well.

After my introduction to the game, which I thought went pretty well too, we had to interrupt the handing out of dice, when I realised we didn't have enough appropriately coloured d8s. Total mismanagement on my part - it interrupted the flow will I went on a d8 hunt (*) - and basically led to a late start to the game that defused all the creative momentum we'd built up during setting and character creation.

(*) It totally didn't help that I decided to spend a couple of minutes with Sophie, advising her on her rapidly-disintegrating Capes game (that I felt somewhat quite a bit totally responsible for).

Death or escape are the only two options for the fate of your character. (Although, what happens if you drain all your wine? I believe that's technically possible.)

In play, there wasn't much emphasis on being a stranger to the city and needing to escape ... That was my fault in the character-creation phase; I didn't insist on it as much as I should have. Would it have had more of an effect on, say, Richard's story? I don't know; I suspect so.

I did find it telling that both Rohan and Richard FORGOT about their Companions for a long time in play.

I need to create a new pitch for this game - one that I'm comfortable with. After talking with Richard, it also occured to me that this game uses techniques that are unfamiliar to some people. Perhaps my running of the game (or the game text itself) could benefit from gradually introducing techniques and improv exercises to get the players into the right headspace for the game. This stuff could be built into developing a shared understanding of the setting and character creation, as well as the first (or first couple of) scenes.

The group needs agreement on how they contribute to other people's stories during play. The game needs to address what people do after their stories are finished. But (as per my 'fundamental misunderstanding', above), perhaps they do nothing; they are the audience to your story, and that is all.

 
 
steve_hix
I've almost finished posting about the Bacchanal game.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character (here)
  • What happened to everyone else's characters (in progress, here)
  • My experiences playing the game (here)
  • Everyone else's experiences playing the game (covered below)
  • Notes from post-game talk (here)
  • Did I mis-read the rules? (here)
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these is a separate post. This one's about my thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.

Let's take Paul's quote as our starting point: Bacchanal is a game where the goal is to keep an audience engaged in your story while using unfamiliar subject matter (sex and decadence).

There's an expectation that successful play will involve some self-revelation - that you'll introduce elements into your story that resonate with you; things that you find thrilling, exciting, or transgressive.

There's also the fundamental fact that the game was designed as a Game Chef entry and (I believe) used the concept of Fortune-at-the-Beginning as one of its constraints. This simply means you roll all the dice at the start of your turn and that tells you how things turn out. It's a pretty uncommon technique (*).

(*) Far more common is rolling dice after a bit of roleplaying and then playing out the consequences of that, or sometimes rolling dice marks the end of a scene and your next scene opens in the situation that that dice roll determines.

You will almost certainly have an unhappy ending.

So, with all that said, what's Ivan suggesting?

His biggest issue was that as players we had no choice, no impact, no control.  A player rolls their dice, and that tells them what happens and what dice to take next. Ivan suggested giving the player some options for interpreting each dice roll, or giving the player an opportunity to control which dice they roll (and therefore what direction their narration will go).

My first reaction: I enjoyed having that creative constraint, and having to come up with a narration that fitted with what the dice gave me. However, that's something I've recently been getting into in my gaming - abandoning all preconceptions and attempts to control the direction of my character's story, and just purely reacting to events and following the outcomes of conflicts.

My second reaction: Ivan's fix sounds cool. Slightly more complicated, but totally doable as a variation on Bacchanal's system. And it's a way of addressing what I think is one of Ivan's essential issues: "Where do I, as a player, fit into this game?" It's not enough to just narrate the imaginative content of the game. Ivan wants to have some control over the system - very probably to shape the story into something with meaning (*).


(*) And, it also occurs to me, that there's not much 'game' in this game. It's not very fiddly or adjustable, or affected by player skill at all.

I want to skip to Ivan's third suggestion next: that having to roll the right dice to move to another location is problematic. In Ivan's words, "This rule seemed to achieve little except to make it well-nigh impossible for our characters to get together and create a truly shared experience." He suggests altering the results so that most die rolls allow the player to choose whether to stay in the same location or change location (it would be okay if some die rolls said “you must stay in the same place” or “you must move” but these should be the minority) (*)

(*) Ivan also suggests that characters should start out in the same location, and move together, at least until the accuser or companion come into play.

There are 11 different types of dice results; 6 of them allow you to change scene, and one of them asks you to narrate a scene involving your Companion. Unfortunately, I'm not enough of a probability geek to figure out whether the system is weighted towards delivering 'non-change-of-scene' results.

Another thing I noticed while prepping to run the game is an implied rule: you can always change scene to a location containing another character.

To advocate for the game for a moment, it seems structured to create a sense of wandering through the city (possibly isolated from the other characters), with an emphasis on characters observing or becoming enmeshed in scenes of sex and decadence that sometimes escalate to uncomfortable levels. It's an arthouse game, in other words.

And I'm pretty comfortable with that. That's what Paul's designed the game to be about; if you add in the ability to gradually intersect your story with other characters, then I'm pretty happy with that.

... Holy shit. And reading through the halfmeme press forums, I found this:

The "escalate, but don't change scene" effect is one of the game's two great creative challenges.

You resolve the situation by working your glass toward a higher ratio of non-Wine to Wine dice. You can work your storytelling to provoke the gift of Minerva, which will have that effect. But the gift is no sure thing. So recognize that on your turn you can always reduce the number of Wine dice in your glass by incorporating an NPC from someone else's storyline into your scene (see "The Cup Runneth Dry" on page X).

Folks hesitate to do this when they have Soldiers or the Accuser in their glass. When this is the case, Bacchanal makes you choose between possibly destroying audience interest in your character with an overly-long scene of potentially repetitious escalations, and the undesirability of increasing the chance your character has an unhappy ending. This is a design feature, not a flaw. It aims to convince that dramatic progress is more important to audience interest in a character than a happy ending.

Also: Ivan, when we debriefed about 'Sitting Shiva', you mentioned that you felt the way I was pushing for us to explore the idea that Frank was an actual presence in the room, haunting us, would lead us into dramatically unsatisfying terrain. In a similar vein, I'd ask you to consider what would happen if we were to bring two or more characters in Bacchanal together. What sorts of conversations would they have? What would these 'meeting up' scenes be about? Where's the conflict?

This is NOT to say I'm against the idea. Hmm, double negative. ... OK ... I'm saying I like the idea of characters meeting up, I like the idea of characters who are (potentially) more rational than other citizens of the city being able to comment on the events of the Bacchanal. I'm just not sure if there's much story-potential there.

OK, signing off now. I will try to finish commenting on Ivan's thoughts in the next post.

 
 
steve_hix
I'm posting about the Bacchanal game in a few different parts. This is not really an actual play report (not yet) - it's more of a thought dump.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character (here)
  • What happened to everyone else's characters (in progress, here)
  • My experiences playing the game (here)
  • Everyone else's experiences playing the game ()
  • Notes from post-game talk
  • Did I mis-read the rules? (here)
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these is a separate post. This one's about the conversation we had after the game. These notes aren't really grouped together by theme or topic, it's more random than that. I'm posting a few now, and a few later.

--- --- ---

Ivan's spoke first and said "It doesn't work", meaning the game. He particularly didn't like the early knock-outs of players. Being able to take people out of the game is unfair. The knocked-out players can't really influence the game anymore.

The question was asked "What do you do?" I'm not sure whether this referred to your characters, or your actions as a player.

None of the characters met each other or interacted at all. It was actually DIFFICULT to interact with other characters.

It was difficult to escalate decadence. What we came up with felt a little bit frat-boy-ish. We needed to communicate and be engaged with each other, and we needed the right atmosphere; the one off con environment, not totally familiar with each other, short on time and unfamiliar with the rules, subject matter, and not entirely comfortable share was not the right atmosphere.

KEY: We had scene after scene, but overall the events of the game lacked structure and meaning.

Because only 1 person had the Companion, there was only one person with a chance of a happy ending. Hmm: if I remember right, Ivan had the Companion for 3 or 4 turns, finished his story and returned the Companion to the tray. It was then picked up by Rohan, who had many many dice in his cup.

EDITED TO ADD:

Richard said afterwards that learning the new skills involved in (let's call it) 'story-telling', as opposed to 'playing your character' threw him off.

Someone reported that it felt like 'treading water', in their ability to create story, and their ability to get to a happy ending. Similarly, you couldn't move components of the fiction towards a confrontation that you "need" (or want) to have.

It feels like (now I've played it) my pitch should have gone something like this:

This is not a roleplaying game. This is not a game where you play a character, and interact with each other. In fact, it's highly likely that your characters will never meet at all. It's a game about telling stories to each other. [... AND THEN MY PITCH SHOULD HAVE ADDRESSED THE LIMITED WAYS IN WHICH YOU GET TO AFFECT THE STORY ... LIKE: You'll be telling a story based on a few compulsory elements that you'll receive (meaning 'the dice')].


Other observations I had during and after we played:

It's not totally in your interest to remove Wine dice, if that's all you have. [WHY?]
As a group, I think we bonded over the deadliness of Soldier dice (after they killed my character).
How do players who have been knocked out contribute?
Changing scene or location is actually exciting! Your movements are so constrained that it's a really opportunity to open out the story.

I noted down a comment which I can't really interpret, saying "Not fluid with swapping dice around".

 
 
steve_hix
25 May 2009 @ 09:27 am
I'm going to post about the Bacchanal game last Saturday in a few different parts. This is not really an actual play report (not yet) - it's more of a thought dump.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character (here)
  • What happened to everyone else's characters (in progress, here)
  • My experiences playing the game (here, obviously)
  • Everyone else's experiences playing the game ()
  • Notes from post-game talk
  • Did I mis-read the rules? (here)
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these will probably be a separate post. This one's about my experience playing the game.

In short, I had fun. I enjoyed setting up my character's starting situation. I enjoyed narrating - and trying to keep my narrations reasonably short and vivid. In particular, I felt emotionally invested in Marius' story; using elements from my own life, and keep the emotions primal ("Where is my family?") really worked for me - I wanted to know how things would turn out for Marius.

(I wonder if the other players were as curious.)

When I rolled Soldier high on my first turn (basically dooming my character to die after about 15 minutes of play), I felt OK about that. The idea of rolling Soldier high early on in the game had occured to me when I was reading through the rules, preparing to run it. Brief bullet-points of things that occur to me:
  • I was pleased that it happened to me; if one of the other players' characters had died this early, I think the game would have completely crashed and burned right there
  • At least one player (Richard? Ivan?) was really apologetic about giving me the Soldier die in the first place. I tried to make them feel okay about that, because ...
  • ... Dying genuinely didn't bother me. I knew it was a highly probable outcome of playing the game (*)
  • I knew I could take the sting out of dying (for the other players) by suggesting I create another character. This isn't in the rules, but it seemed possible. I decided against it because (a) it isn't in the rules, (b) I felt that adding extra characters in would detract from telling a story about THESE people in THIS Bacchanal, (c) it might make the game run long if everyone could do it, and (d) it felt like a cop-out -- let's take death seriously, I thought.
(*) The other outcome in the rules is to escape from the City with your Companion. There does seem like there might be another possible outcome - as we were playing I saw Richard start to completely empty his cup of Wine die. It occured to me that it might be possible to 'drift away' from the Bacchanal by removing all your dice. I'll have to re-read the rules to see if that's right or not.

Afterwards, I participated by playing NPCs in other people's narrations. Mostly I did this if asked; sometimes I just jumped in with a characterisation or a bit of background crowd noise.

I also paid close attention to everyone else's narrations. I tried to be a good audience member (**). I got a lot of enjoyment out of listening to and visualising everyone else's narrations - a very clear picture of our particular Bacchanal emerged: a seedy morning-after experience, where things had gotten out of control the night before, and were just starting to pick up again.

(**) One of the best things about my Day of Games experience was that I felt I was developing good listening skills.

In general, I had fun. Towards the end, I could see things were dragging on for Richard and Rohan - they were stuck in dice loops with no clear way of ending the game in the time we had available. So we agreed to have a final round of narrations and wrap things up.

It was at this point I discovered that nobody else felt the game had worked.
 
 
 
steve_hix
24 May 2009 @ 02:26 pm
I don't think so.

I've mis-read a game's rules a few times (*). It's something I've come to accept - a period of shaking the game down, seeing how it plays and how everything fits together.

(*) My game of Trollbabe with Luke and Same being the most serious, as I completely misinterpreted what an 'exchange' consisted of.

In the case of Bacchanal, that didn't seem to happen. I thought there was a mechanism for giving a specific die to another player. After having another read through, it doesn't look like that is true.

I definitely under-estimated how different the gaming experience is when you roll all the dice at the beginning of the scene, and that determines how the scene plays out. In theory terms, that's called 'Fortune at the Beginning', and it did not seem popular among this group of players. It seemed to me that the reasons for the unpopularity included:
  • Ability to take actions was constrained
  • Not being able to change location
  • Not being able to interact with other characters
  • It required a significant shift in how we approached the game - from Bacchanal being a role-playing game, to it being a story-telling game.
I also didn't appreciate how the dice could capture players in narration loops, where nothing much could change. I need to describe real examples of this. Richard got stuck with mostly wine dice and kept not getting ties, which required him to stay in the same location, escalate decadence and remove Bacchus to the tray (**). He also often removed a Wine die on his turn as he included another person's NPC in his narration, which made tied Wine results even less likely (***).

(**) I interpreted this to mean take Bacchus from whoever currently had it and put it back on the tray. Was this correct?
(***) This could lead to some interesting effects, including running out of dice completely.

I can't quite remember what happened for Rohan but he seemed stuck in a similar loop - but in his case (because I seem to remember he had a decent variety of dice) it seemed more like bad luck on the dice rolls than mechanically pre-determined results.

Overall, the mechanics seemed to winnow out players, focusing attention on the remaining one or two players ... whose stories could then take quite a while to come to a conclusion ... and in fact, DIDN'T, during our game.

--- --- ---

I'm posting about last Saturday's Bacchanal game in a few different parts. This is not really an actual play report (not yet) - it's more of a thought dump.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character (here)
  • What happened to everyone else's characters (in progress, here)
  • My experiences playing the game (here)
  • Everyone else's experiences playing the game ()
  • Notes from post-game talk
  • Did I mis-read the rules?
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these will probably be a separate post.
 
 
steve_hix
I'm going to post about the Bacchanal game last Saturday in a few different parts. This is not really an actual play report (not yet) - it's more of a thought dump.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character
  • What happened to everyone else's characters
  • My experiences playing the game (and everyone else's experiences)
  • Notes from post-game talk
  • Did I mis-read the rules?
  • Ivan's thoughts (here)
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these will probably be a separate post. This one's about my story in the game.

Character creation in Bacchanal is simple. You answer three questions: Who are you? Who have you been separated from (your Companion)? Who has caused you to get in trouble with the law (your Accuser)?

I came to the table with no preconceptions about who I'd play. I thought it would be fun to play a writer, so I created a poet called Marius. The obvious crime a writer can be accused of is plagiarism, so I made my accuser a rival poet who felt I had stolen from him, diminishing his reputation in the city. Finally, for my Companion, I drew on some of my post-break up reflections and decided that Marius had been travelling with his 11-year old daughter.

After assigning dice, I had a cup full of Wine, together with the Accuser and a Soldier. Clearly, that meant Marius' story was going with him waking up. Gradually he becomes aware that the house he's staying in, that should be filled with his friends and his daughter is silent. Abandoned.

Panicked, Marius runs through the rooms of the house, calling for his daughter. No one answers.

Someone KNOCKS on the front door. Relieved, Marius runs to it, expecting to find his friends. Instead he finds Tertius Fabius, noted poet of the city of Puteoli, stinking drunk and leering at him. At his side is a solider.

Marius tries to tell them about his missing daughter, but instead is roughly thrown up against the doorframe and placed under arrest.

... at this point, all the other players had their turns establishing their starting situations. When it came back round to me, I rolled my dice to determine what would happen in my scene.

The Soldier was the highest die. That meant my Accuser would leave, and the next scene would be my last. Looking at my available dice, I realised that by the rules of the game, I had no chance of surviving.

I narrated Marius walking through a marketplace that Richard had created. Introduced one of his NPCs - a doomsayer. Rounded things off by having my Accuser leave and the Soldier considering whether to take me to prison or throw me to the mob gathering in the street.

I spent the next round of scenes looking for any opportunity for the other players to get rid of the Soldier die that was about to kill Marius from my cup. No luck.

Last narration: I decide that what happens to Marius will depend on how high I roll on the Soldier die. Low = taken to jail to rot. High = immediate action.

I roll a 7.

Throwing Marius up against a wall, the Soldier holds his sword to Marius' throat. Marius begs for his life; after all, his daughter is alone out there, and he has to find her.

The Soldier's eyes darken, fill with the unearthly presence of
Pluto, god of brutality and the underworld. "I'll find your daughter," he says and smiles savagely. Marius' last feeling is of fear and despair as the now-bestial soldier draws his sword across Marius' throat, splattering poet's blood across the cobblestones.

--- --- ---

Oh, and here are the 2 threads for the game that got me interested in playing Bacchanal in the first place:

Bacchus Owns me

[Bacchanal] Gen Con demos and more

 
 
steve_hix
23 May 2009 @ 11:19 am
I'm going to post about the Bacchanal game last Saturday in a few different parts. This is not really an actual play - it's more of a thought dump.

Things I need to get down include:
  • What happened to my character
  • What happened to everyone else's characters
  • My experiences playing the game (and everyone else's experiences)
  • Notes from post-game talk
  • Did I mis-read the rules?
  • Ivan's thoughts
  • My thoughts on Ivan's thoughts.
Each of these will probably be a separate post. Easiest to start with Ivan's thoughts, as he's already written them down. Here's Ivan (with some trimming and formatting adjustments from me):


- 1 -

... in retrospect my biggest issue with "Bacchanal" was that as players we had no choice, no impact, no control.  You roll your dice, and that tells you what happens and what dice to do next.  I felt pretty much superfluous to the entire story-making process. 

Possible fix:  a minimal fix for this would be to have multiple options for each die outcome, so that the player could choose between them.  Another idea would be to give the player more control in the die rolling mechanism, e.g. the player chooses which dice to roll, presumably with certain constraints and perhaps with costs or different outcomes depending on what they have chosen to roll (the risks they have taken) and what they have left in their cup (the things they’ve refused to confront).


- 2 -

The second biggest issue was the accuser and companion subplots.  These seemed totally disconnected from each other and from the broader narrative about the bacchanal.  I’d assume that the point of these subplots was to give people something to worry about and something to aim towards, so that the game didn’t devolve into undirected narration of revelry, but because we had no control, we couldn’t be influenced by fear of the accuser or desire for the companion.  Additionally, the mechanics did their best to neuter the subplots, making them hard to introduce (and, as Nasia noted, practically impossible to introduce for more than one or two players over the course of the game) (*), and if you did manage to introduce them, bam, it meant there was a good chance you’d be out of the game before you could develop them into anything interesting. 

(* As only one person can have the Companion die at any one time.)

Possible fix:  have an accuser and a companion die for each player character.  The accuser might be in each player’s cup from the start (and could not be removed except at significant cost, e.g. burning the companion or a benign god), representing an ominous threat rather than physical presence.  Obviously in this case the accuser would need to be a smaller die.  Or perhaps the accuser starts as a D4 but goes up a die size in each scene. Perhaps also soldier dice are weak but the accuser can keep adding more and more of them. 

Not sure what the challenge would be for bringing in the companion die: or perhaps the companion die also starts out in the cup but weak, and there is some sort of challenge to make it grow.  In either case, the challenge should probably be a player choice thing, and related to the accuser subplot, the bacchanal story or both, e.g. if we hypothesise the “choose which dice to roll” example above, perhaps making a riskier choice – e.g. including a god or the accuser in your selection – is what invokes the companion (and/or making a conservative choice invokes the accuser – you are more likely to be in the place they’re looking!).


- 3 -

Finally, the business about having to roll the right dice to move to another location.  This rule seemed to achieve little except to make it well-nigh impossible for our characters to get together and create a truly shared experience.  I propose Towlson's Law: any RPG rule that acts needlessly to prevent players from communicating should be removed from the game, written on something fragile and flammable, and shot out of a cannon.  (Exceptions are permitted for games such as "Geiger Counter" where isolation and ignorance are part of the shared experience, on receipt of an application in triplicate on Form A11/17.) 

Possible fix:
most die rolls should allow the player to choose whether to stay in the same location or change location (it would be okay if some die rolls said “you must stay in the same place” or “you must move” but these should be the minority).  Also, perhaps characters should start out in the same location, and move together, at least until the accuser or companion come into play?

Please don’t take the above the wrong way.  Despite my comments I would actually be interested to try “Bacchanal” again now I have a better handle on how it works (even if with only the minimal mandatory tweaks to prevent the bang-you’re-out scenario that whomped you, Nasia and me).  When I lived in the UK I used to playtest board games for a prolific German designer, so believe me I have played my fair share of ugly ducklings: if I bailed on a game just because it was broken the first time I tried it out, I’d have missed out on some very cool games indeed.  “Bacchanal” has the kernel of something cool even though it needs a lot of bashing into shape; and although what I got from those two hours was some ideas about game design rather than an intense emotional experience, that’s still good value in my book.   The game may not have worked for me on the roleplaying level, but since it has me still feverishly thinking things over several hours later, I hope you’ll count that a success of sorts!

--- --- ---

To which I then linked to a thread I'd found about Bacchanal, in which Paul Czege said:
 

It becomes immediately apparent in play that Bacchanal is an endeavor of audience management.

It's Fortune-at-the-Beginning: you roll, everyone sees the result, probably some suggestions are offered, but the buck stops with you, and you narrate.

And Bacchanal flips roleplaying's traditional sex/violence ratio, putting you into dramatically less familiar narrative circumstances. As roleplayers, we have a pretty well developed understanding of how to orchestrate the drama of violence, but we don't hardly know a damn thing about the drama of sex. So, in part, the game is compelling because it offers the player a chance to learn something worth learning: audience management using less familiar subject matter.

But the game is also thrilling. (There's a correlation between self-revelation and audience interest, because someone showing us their soul commands our attention.) Have you read any of Robert Browning's poetry? The poems of his first volume were very revealing of his most private emotions. And when they were rather savaged by the critics, he took it very hard. So in his later poems he developed a style that protected his emotions; he wrote them from the perspective of invented characters. And they're awesome. They suggest the author, they expose him, but indirectly. Browning's poetry went from utter vulnerability to more powerful veiled vulnerability. Bacchanal, I think, takes the roleplayer into that space from the opposite direction, from entirely opaque to veiled vulnerability.

The overwhelming feel of play, for me, was not unlike a somewhat risky game of Truth-or-Dare (fun in a true and voyeuristic way) fused with the satisfaction of meaningful creative activity.

--- --- ---

To which Ivan then replied:

That's interesting, and would definitely have helped. And it sounds like some of my comments would take the game towards something other than what Paul wants it to be. Nevertheless, even on his terms, I think "Bacchanal" currently fails.

For example, he talks about learning how to narrate sex instead of violence (paraphrasing here). That's a noble goal, but "Bacchanal" doesn't really help. Most of the guidance it gives seems to be "tell something more/less decadent than the last thing" (or tied up with the accuser or companion subplots, about which my comments stand).

This doesn't really help players create narrative interest, tension or revelation: it provides only the staccato framework of pornography, the disconnected recounting of thrills sought and taboos broken. His reference to "truth or dare" is telling: as a drinking game for people to tell each other about their own taboos and fantasies at a safe remove, "Bacchanal" might work, but that's neither role-playing nor story gaming: it is indeed "truth or dare," minus the dare.

(Also, if this is what he wants, the accuser and companion elements become even more mystifying: do they serve *any* purpose other than to tell you when to stop playing?)

Contrast this with Stephanie's "Sitting Shiva." That had a similar concept of creating self-revelatory narratives around themes other than ye olde RPG violence (death and remembrance, of course, rather than sex). But "Sitting Shiva" was much more effective in unfolding and structuring a narrative arc, through the gradual introduction of elements which built on what went before and through the guiding presence of the dead and of the host (and, albeit to a much lesser extent, through the provision of archetypes to suggest attitudes and actions).

"Bacchanal" would benefit hugely from that additional level of structure and guidance. In fact, thinking about it, Stephanie's structure of people sitting together relating stories would fit nicely with Paul's declared goals for "Bacchanal," much better than the chaotic bacchic dance of locations of the current design. It would also better handle different levels of engagement: personally I am not willing to discuss my sexual taboos and fantasies with a random bunch of con-goers, even at one remove, an attitude which "Sitting Shiva" handles neatly by
allowing players to adopt an "audience" stance whereas "Bacchanal" insists that everyone take their turn to stand naked under the lights.

And, dash it all, it would allow and even encourage *INTERACTION* rather than relegating each player to a passive role or to out-of-character brainstorming for 80% of the time.

Also, he talks about "audience management" but I find this hard to reconcile with the round robin structure. He talks about the poetry of Browning but I don't recall that in between each stanza of a Browning poem there were interspersed stanzas of four completely separate poems by Keats, Burns, Dickinson and Larkin. A better structure might be something like "Baron Munchausen," where the player tells a complete story rather than having it artificially broken up, but other players have an active in-character role in the story-telling (as in "Baron Munchausen"'s challenge mechanism), so that they are not merely passive observers as they are in "Bacchanal" and can therefore sustain their interest in longer narratives. (Hmm, and thinking about it, "Baron Munchausen" also refracts the stories through a dinner party setting. I'm beginning to notice a theme here...)

But as you'll have realised by now, my issues with round-robin games could fill a much longer email than this one... *grin*

Anyway, looking forward to seeing your writeup, and I hope the other players will comment as well -- I get the feeling that we all took away
interestingly different impressions of the game.



 
 
steve_hix
06 February 2009 @ 02:35 pm
(This post is a work in progress)

This conversation on nzrag (INSERT LINK) has caused me to write a free-form LARP system. Probably works best for 3 to 7 players. 

The basics:

+ First create the setting and then create the situation (what's brought you all here, what sort of crisis do you face) by each taking turns contributing one fact. (based on Universalis)

+ Extract potential characters from that list of facts. (based on In a Wicked Age)

+ Choose characters

+ Decide what they want (their Best Interests), and who's opposed to them. (based on In a Wicked Age)

+ Select an enemy: this is important for the conflict resolution system. Everyone must have a different enemy. (inspired by Best Friends)

+ Create the stats (arenas of possible conflict that are relevant to this setting and situation): one per player. So in a 4 player game there will be four stats. (inspired by Shock:)

+ Each character gets a unique rating in each stat; only one person can be the best at something, only one person can be the worst. (based on Amber)

+ Start playing.

+ In a conflict, the higher-rated person wins, unless the lower-rated player gives a certain number of tokens* to their designated enemy. (based on Best Friends)

+ Let it ride: you can only play out a specific conflict between characters once (if X beats Y in a fight, then they're beaten for the whole game).

+ Bring Best Interests to a head and resolve them (using votes, maybe?)

***

There you go. I think that'll work without a GM.


* Give a number of tokens equal to the higher-rated person's score in that stat.
 
 
steve_hix
06 February 2009 @ 10:05 am
Writing out the games I played last year has me in the mood to plan out what I want to play this year. Last time I tried this, I think I was overly ambitious; this time, I'm keeping it simple:
  • I want to run a 3 to 7 episode game of Mouse Guard - which my Tuesday night group is already doing. [ DONE! ]
  • After that, it looks like we're going to play Season 2 of our Primetime Adventures: 'The Other Side' game. This would make it the longest running game we've ever done, and the first time we've revisited one of the stories we've told. [ DONE! ]
  • I'm going to run Bacchanal this year - a one-off game of wine and decadance in ancient Rome. [ DONE! ]
  • In terms of publishing, I want to finish putting together the Bad Family ashcan so other people can read and play it. Then I want to choose a 3-page game to publish - at this stage it's looking like either the Zombie Plan or my untitled LARP game.
Last time I did this, I saw themes in my choices; this time, not so much. It's simple stuff that I really want to do - Bacchanal is probably the only point where I'm pushing myself. Hopefully, keeping this list small and focused will give me lots of space to fit other intriguing gaming opportunities (such as TORG, Spione, and Capes) if they arise or if I get excited about organising something.

What about you? What's your game plan?