Friday, July 28, 2006

A fantasy epic in 3 hours (or How I took the Gloves off)

This happened back in January, on the first day of Kapcon, I think. It’s one of my favourite role-playing experiences, for reasons I’ll surely discover as I write this out.

Four players – Ivan, I’d never met before. Margee was a friend from just hanging out with people we both knew. Jon and Nasia I’d only played with for the first time earlier that day. I introduced them to Universalis, a game where you figure out what it’s about as you play it – each person paying Coins to create elements of the world, introducing new characters and create conflict.

Here’s the key to what happened next: if you don’t like what someone else has introduced, you can Challenge it. At first you just talk it out, try and negotiate a solution. If that doesn’t work, you can start a bidding war & other players can support or oppose what’s being challenged as well.

So, the game starts with the Tenet phase, where you go around the group, stating one fact each about what you want the game to be about. I went first and suggested something I like to throw in, just to sound out where everybody’s at, “This game’s set in the Real World.”

Immediate challenge from Ivan. “Screw that,” he says, “I don’t come to cons to play real world stuff.” He took the turn and introduced Black Wolf, a wizard. Basically, he was introducing the world of Ralph Bakshi’s movie, ‘Wizards’. And I was uncomfortable with that – I didn’t want the game to slavishly recreate the plot of an existing fiction.

Straight up, I told him what I was feeling, and said that I was going to mess with it. So that’s the first thing – I’ve never been that overt before, and certainly never taken such an oppositional role.

“That’s fine,” said Ivan. “That’s what the game’s for.” So he got it.

First thing I did was trash a major component – the city of Montegaria – which shocked the hell out of me, and I wonder if it shocked the other players.

Cool stuff that came out as the game went on:
- Everyone was comfortable with challenges.
- We created a full on fantasy epic in 3 hours. And it was gripping – I went to the toilet at one stage (and ‘cos of the way Uni works, the game kept going without me), and can remember actually running back to the game because I wanted to know what I missed
- The most important components turned out to be a Dead Baby and a Prophecy. Players were wresting control of the Prophecy, trying to get the right to write down what it said.

There was a real creative tension – and each player contributed a different thing. There was the competitiveness between Ivan and me. Margee kept making these amazing, subtle connections between the different characters; Nasia focused on relationships and introducing elements that were epic in scale & usually concerned with religion and the Prophecy.

And Jon … Jon kept blowing my mind, because he’d shift the timeline around so much. First scene – city laid to waste, epic confrontation between the villain and sort-of-hero wizards, a princess fleeing for her life. Jon gets the second scene, and says, “… Three months earlier.” Once we cut back to the ruined city and kicked off a three-way chase across the planet, the real heroes take refuge in Crusk, a safe haven surrounded by force fields that the wizards can’t enter. “… 20 years later,” says Jon.

That’s about it. There was a final conflict, which I wanted to kick off straight away but everyone else felt that that would be too soon – so we manoeuvred components around, introduced traits, set up an eclipse. Not much actually changed, but everybody felt comfortable enough after about 20 minutes to get things started.

After that resolved, we were approaching the end of the session and everybody was getting a bit drained. Epilogues were being narrated for other characters, but we couldn’t figure out what to do with the two wizards who’d kicked the whole game off. “They die,” said Margee, which everyone was satisfied with.

Full disclosure: there was a little bit just at the end of the game I wasn’t happy with. Black Wolf, the wizard-villain, was definitely Ivan’s component, and used all the Coins I’d won in the final conflict to buy-off every one of its traits, effectively killing it. Of course, we were never going to play this game again, but it still felt a little bitter, or like a pissing contest. Maybe I wasn’t used to that level of competition.

Anyway, to mollify myself, I bought a new trait for Black Wolf, that he was lauded as a saint in the future of this fantasy world – which actually seemed consistent with all the crap he’d pulled and carnage he’d committed. It actually had helped bring about a better world.

That’s the key to why I enjoyed this so much: full-on competition without acrimony gave Universalis a *zing* I’d never experienced before, and the whole game was incredibly satisfying as a result. Not just its usual unpredictable self, but tense - and I felt utterly involved in wanting to get an outcome I’d be happy with.

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