- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
I'm going to play it again - this time, with a smaller group that I know better