Monday, November 09, 2009

Left Coast: The First Playtest

Back in 2005, I wrote a game called Left Coast, where you play science-fiction authors in 1970s California who are all struggling to write novels and hide your growing insanities from your families. It's a quirky, funny setting with a very clear target audience - and until last Sunday no-one had ever played it.

What that meant is that I had an idealised version of the game in my head. I was pretty confident I knew what sort of stuff would happen, what sort of fun would be had, and what problems would emerge. I was making a lot of assumptions, and the process on playing and testing the game on Sunday was really a process of challenging those assumptions.

I thought that setting creation would be fun and easy, and that the characters would wander around hanging out and having conflicts naturally emerge. What really happened was that setting creation (which involves brainstorming a sprawling relationship map) was fun but slow, and when we started to play, it wasn't at all clear what should happen in a scene. Additionally, I became disturbed that:

+ the game lacked subtext
+ there was no process for turning the stuff in the setting's relationship map into scenes
+ there was no sense of what the characters should do.

(You can find a previous thread discussing this game, here.)

In this post, I'm going to briefly describe the characters and setting Simon and Malcolm created, and give an equally brief description of the two scenes we played through. After that, there's a short list of the huge issues that this playtest threw up for me. I'm hoping that Simon and Malcolm will join in with their thoughts on the playtest, so I can see it from their point of view.

In other words, I don't have a clear 'goal' for this playtest report yet. What I'd like to do is gather some impressions and mull the experience over. (Also: I'm not actively working on Left Coast yet. My current aim is to finish Bad Family by the end of the year and then start thinking about what's next. The opportunity to play Left Coast is an important part of that.)

Characters and Setting

Characters in Left Coast are defined by the type of author they are, a first or middle initial, a significant relationship, and a goal. Malcolm created K. Joshua Fresnel, a Jewish right-wing idealogue whose dog 'Benito' talks to him. Fresnel's goal was to find someone to put on 'Traktofaktori!', the musical satire of communism that he wrote while locked up in a psychiatric facility.

Simon came up with Richard H. Long, a hack and a pervert (think: your worst sterotyped assumptions about the author of the Gor novels) whose most significant relationship is with his feminist daughter. Long's goal was to find a publisher for his serious novel, 'The Wandering Years'.

Setting design consists of brainstorming elements to do with Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien activity. This was a fun but problematic stage of the game, but we came up with elements such as Behind (an alternate reality), Karl Hickenlooper (editor of 'Stories from Beyond'), Rabbi Schlomo Troutmann (who Fresnel owes money too), and Richard Nixon.


We played out two scenes - one for each author. I was disappointed in myself (as GM) during both of them. Primarily because the game doesn't provide a way to turn all of this interesting setting material that the players are excited by into scenes.

However, there were also problems in:

+ identifying conflicts (and whether conflicts, in fact, need to exist)
+ what to roll when the conflict doesn't fit into one of the existing arenas (Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien), and
+ taking a 'Californian' approach to scene selection - leaving what dice to roll undefined until the conflict is clarified.

I'll let Malcolm and Simon talk about the specifics of what happened in their scenes if they want to. The short version is that both scenes were supposed to be about the author taking a step towards their goal only to have someone interfere with that. As a GM, I felt I was being pretty clumsy about introducing an obstacle/NPC into the scene, and that things felt increasingly adrift as the scenes went on.

The Big List

I took notes throughout the playtest, and afterwards the three of us spent quite a bit of time debriefing. I tried to identify some of the fundamental issues that I'm going to need to address if this game is going to end up working. I've ordered these so that the issues I think are most important come first ...

What is Left Coast about? What's its subtext?
The major thing that threw me during the game was while Simon very reasonably started to explore what the first conflict in the first scene was actually about. We were talking about whether there was stakes-setting in this game, the free-and-clear phase in Sorceror and IIEE. And all of a sudden, Simon asked, "What is this game about?" Which completely threw me - it's a question I don't have an answer to; it's a question I've usually needed to play a game a couple of times before I start having an answer to it.

Related to this was that in the two scenes we played, the game lacked subtext. There was no story going on underneath the events we were playing out; there were no NPCs with hidden motivations; there were no conflicts or agendas pushing back against what the authors wanted; and there was no sense of significance or resonance to the events we were playing. That felt like a problem to me; the game felt hollow.

What's the situation? What do the characters do?
Left Coast seems to be a game with a strong idea of who the characters are and a clear setting (in fact, I felt all three of us were a little bit in love with the setting - I certainly am). The game just lacks a situation that combines the characters and the setting together.

When Simon and Malcolm pressed me on what the characters do, I thought about it for a while and then said, "They try to form meaningful relationships." I'm not sure if that's 100% right; I need to think on it more.

Why do you have conflicts?
When do you hve them and what do they resolve?
The main reason I pushed for conflicts was that they are the way of introducing more stuff into the setting. They're also a way for the PCs to advance towards their ratings. But that's not an answer to the question of 'Why do you have conflicts?' It's got to be more than just me as a GM putting obstacles in front of the characters, doesnt' it?

How can I make it easier to GM? How do you turn the piece of paper with all the setting elements written on it into scenes and conflicts?

How can I make setting creation flow smoother?
It needs to be more fun. It needs to be faster. This was probably the area of the game we discussed the most, and had the most ideas about. Starting points to explore include: reducing the number of facts each player has to create; introducing elements via playing out scenes with them; using Apocalypse World's technique of 'walking around the setting' during the first session, just to set everything up.

Should I amalgamate the Nuttiness and Alien ratings?
These two ratings felt like they covered similar terrain - imaginative, weird stuff in the setting. In addition, 'Alien' is supposed to be about abductions, UFOs, government conspiracies, invasions, etc. When we were playing, it felt like that was locking down the subject matter of the game too much; as the person who'd written the game, I'd pre-decided what the weird elements of the setting where going to be - and that didn't interest me when we sat down to play it.
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