A venal conjurer walks into a bar

Wake up, babe, new S/lay w/Me AP just dropped!

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I really liked playing with you, @pigdog. The rest of my comments are on Adept Play.

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Quite an interesting report - so detailed!

This is a challenging and fascinating game. I myself haven’t played it, although I really enjoyed reading this public epistolary version of the game - it’s compelling as fiction as well as a having some great discussion of how the game works (you can read the preceding and subsequent chapters, as well):

How did it feel to have a more villainous character at the heart of the story? Sometimes I find that such games (which are so heavily based on the characters caring about particular things) can sort of fall apart or feel unsatisfying if we don’t have genuine sympathy/care for the protagonist and can’t “hook them” in terms of things that really pull on their heartstrings.

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It felt a bit weird, in a surprising way. I don’t think it was a problem in this instance, but also I don’t want to play more of Agathon’s story. It seems to me like Agathon made a clear choice here to be a villain, and he’d probably be a Monster in someone else’s story, rather than one a Lover is willing to embrace.

He reminded of the Jack Vance character Mazirian the Magician. And like Mazirian, such characters often meet terrible ends, if fate is in any way just.

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I don’t think I want to play more Agathon either. Maybe if he hadn’t gained such godlike powers he’d be more interesting – we could see him pursue vengeance on his as-yet-unspecified rivals, and maybe be distracted by a lover.

I’m curious about the idea of making him a monster. To what extent do people tend to write the monster with the hero in mind? The game doesn’t dictate it one way or another. Or are you saying that he simply acted as a monster might have acted?

If we kept playing in a continuous world, I could also see making slight references to him in the background. Mention some sort of horrible lunar sorcerer-king.

I talk a little bit about this in the adept play comments. I never felt like Agathon was seriously tempted by the Lover. He kept his goal solidly in mind, and never worried about the human cost of his activities.

I usually play bad guys so that wasn’t a departure for me. In fact one of my goals in experimenting with narrative games is to try out more human, virtuous characters. (In D&D I often feel hamstrung by morality; one will be much more effective if one is willing to commit war crimes.) It was a bit of a shock to take a step back and hear people’s reactions to Agathon’s villainy.

That said, I’ve never played anyone this evil before.

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I’m saying that with this story, in my opinion, he turned into a monster—morally, conceptually. Therefore, I see him better acting as the Monster in a following story rather than the protagonist.

That also sounds great.

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A bit of a conflict here with her earlier worry about the curse; if she doesn’t believe in their gods, why is she worried about the curse? But neither of us noticed it at the time.

I find this happens, every now and then, when the characters take up more space in the game that you planned for. You just follow them and forget some detail of earlier (which is usually from a moment they aren’t really established in your mind). The important thing is to roll with it instead of backpedaling. Maybe there’s a reason they changed and you can explore it later. Or you could always say they lied at a certain instance.

One of my favorite games ever played turned around one of those moments and I loved it.

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I consider the dilemma (or question/concern) of what to do with a protagonist who is “monstrous” or not sympathetic a really central problem for roleplaying as well as fiction in general.

Everyone has slightly different boundaries for this, and different interests. Sometimes it can really feel like a different perspective on why roleplaying is enjoyable at all or why we engage in it together.

For instance, about seven years ago we were having a discussion about how to play a “one shot” or pickup game using Apocalypse World (“AW”). Vincent and Meguey were working on the second edition of the game and clearly taking some inspiration from the new movie which had just come out: Mad Max: Fury Road.

I decided to try a quick thought experiment and posted a “scenario” for AW intended to take advantage of people’s familiarity with the film to get a game running quickly. I posted it in a few places (although right now the only copy I can find is in the Story Games archive - link to scenario).

I am still unsure, in retrospect, exactly how well it would work, and we never ended up playing it. But I was struck by the different responses. Some - as the responder in the linked thread - really liked the idea. But Meguey immediately said that, no, the Hardholder here cannot be a PC. Implied is that only sympathetic or “good” characters can be Player Characters. I thought this was interesting!

For me, it can depend a lot on the specific game we’re playing and what it’s “about”. In games that are about character-centric drama (in the play tradition arguably descended from Sorcerer, what some people might call “story games” or Narrativist or Story Now games - stories focused on specific characters who are protagonists and whose personal interests and values matter), I’ve often run into trouble with this very similar to what happened here with Agathon and the Lover.

If a protagonist is insufficiently sympathetic to me, or doesn’t have relatable human interests and passions, such games can kind of fall apart at the table and feel really awkward to play. Much like Agathon taking advantage of the Lover here, a character willing to do evil can undercut the game’s procedures or system: if it’s my job to offer moral dilemmas to the character to see how far he is willing to go to defend his family (to pick a stereotypical example), and the player’s answer is “haha! He doesn’t care about them at all!”, we can end up floundering and feeling like we’re not playing the same game together at all. We don’t get any traction happening between us; neither recognizes the “moves” the other one is making.

Is he still the protagonist or is he, in retrospect, the Monster? Do we care? Does it affect our desire to play the game again? I believe that I heard that elsewhere Ron Edwards (author of this game) also objected to this, at some level.

I find this to be a pretty fascinating topic, and I like that it’s come up here in this post.

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I think this is extremely personal. I’ve really enjoyed playing characters I’d gladly punch if met in real life, but we (me and the other players) agreed on this from the start and accepted the idea we’d probably have to bend some parts of the game (you can pose moral dilemmas to villains too, but maybe instead of protecting their family they are trying to take over the government). A good gateway for this kind of play, for me, was Hell4Leather, which didn’t really focus on moral choices, but focused on giving depth and structure to really unlikable characters. It helped moving from “play the bad guys because it’s edgy” to “play an awful character to see how they would behave”.

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Sorcerer’s Humanity mechanic is interesting to look at in this regard: there it’s the Humanity going to zero that signals “now this guy is not a fit protagonist for further stories”. But, since there’s always a chance that bad action won’t actually lead to Humanity loss, it’s not quite so straightforward in play that it outright prevents monstrous PCs. I GM’d a game of Sorcerer with two PCs: Larry was played as being very selfish, bordering on sociopathy at times, but he kept succeeding at all his Humanity loss rolls; Rudy was played as basically a good guy, most of the time, but over his head, and he lost just about every Humanity loss roll he made. The game ended with both of them at Humanity 1, with Rudy only not dropping to zero because he finally succeeded at a Humanity loss roll following one of his few truly bad actions in the whole game.

The dynamics of the Humanity rolls and changes throughout the game ended up coloring how we saw the characters in the way that writers or filmmakers would work to put over a character as more or less sympathetic through how they framed the character’s action. Larry ended up coming off as a basically sympathetic asshole, whereas Rudy much more of a sad sack who deserved what he got. It was pretty satisfying.

I’m not sure if this can generalize at all to other instances of playing with these kinds of PCs but I think an important point is that the potential was there for them to be taken out of play because they were no longer fit protagonists. Likewise, the option was there for both of them to turn over a new leaf and just do good, Humanity-gaining activities.

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A small aside for @Paul_T—I don’t think what the majority of people call “storygaming” now has anything to do with Sorcerer. I accept you’re using the term meaning that, but I just want to make that clear so that we don’t start establishing some weird terminology. I’d rather talk about play beyond categories and such.

All of that said,

The issue raised by @Paul_T hits the nail on the head regarding what in my opinion is the salient takeaway from this experience. Thanks for stating the issue that clearly. I’d really like to get in more depth with some of the examples you posted.

Regarding our session, I think it’s fine to make an aesthetic judgement and say “holy shit, that Agathon guy is a massive jerk, I don’t know why anyone would like to play him”. I’ve actually heard this from a couple of people that read @pigdog’s report and I can’t really disagree (not judging Canyon here). For me, it was fun to play with Agathon, but it’s not a character I’d play. I think we made a story that’s fundamentally tragic, and it was absolutely fun to discover, but his conquering of his Goal felt to me as the moment he became truly inhuman—he’s now a Hannibal Lecter type, someone with stunted or no empathy.

I think that for how S/Lay W/Me frames its protagonist at the start of the story, in my opinion such a character is not suited to be one. I’m fine discovering that a character is like that, but starting as one is different. After having played the game multiple times with my girlfriend, I’ve concluded the game fundamentally revolves around love and romance—as the “fruitful void” that isn’t explicitly covered by the rules, and essentially Agathon’s actions felt like a rejection of love and romance. Which is fine! To be able to say anything strong about love and romance through play, Agathon’s actions also need to be on the table as a possibility.

When the Lover embraced him, and made herself vulnerable, she also dropped all manipulation tactics and attempts to get things out of him, and just opened up to him as she hadn’t done before. I think that asked an implicit question to Agathon if he would meet that level of vulnerability and engage with her on that authentic level. Agathon did the opposite—not only he didn’t engage, but he exploited her vulnerability to the fullest. In the context of this session, it felt like a valid thematic statement, culminating in tragedy at the end: “Sociopathic jerks get what they want after all.” However, seeing how someone might continue to exploit and manipulate people in future stories feels beside the point. It’s definitely allowed, but is it good to do? I personally don’t think it is, although it’s my own aesthetic judgement.

There’s more to say about playing edgy characters well and what really is the difference between a PC and an NPC (none, really), but it’s already taken me a while to write this, and I chose to focus on the information that was most grounded to the actual play experience we’re commenting.

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Great responses!

I think there (at least) two issues here, and it might be helpful to think of them separately at times.

The first is our experience of playing the game and the way we feel about the protagonists. This could be totally subjective or vary from player to player as well as case to case. Do we still find something redeemable or interesting in a story about a villainous character? (So, in the case of the play example here, it seems that it was quite interesting to both participants so long as this was still an open question. Will Agathon turn out to be a villain after all? Once that was settled, it seems that continuing play with the character was no longer as interesting.)

Of course this varies a lot, and can depend on how the character is portrayed, whether we personally can relate to their particular character flaws, and all kinds of others things. (I can even imagine someone getting excited about a particular game about an Evil Protagonist if they were cheering for one of their opponents and starts to become really curious whether the Brave Princess will manage to overcome him or escape alive or some other concern. I don’t know if this would ever turn into a functional game, but at least it’s conceivable.)

The second concern is whether we are able to get some traction or useful dynamics going around the character. What does the game demand, and how do we get it to work? There are many games where character priorities and cares and passions really matter, and the job of the GM (or other players) is to push on those and to challenge the character. For instance, in Dogs in the Vineyard, the question is posed: are you willing to commit to violence to enact your judgement? If a given character’s answer is always “totally, I don’t care about them”, unless there’s sufficient doubt that this could change, the game risks stumbling and screeching to a halt.

If the game asks us to present them with dilemmas or to see what they are willing to sacrifice for what they care about, if we can’t find some interesting passions and cares, we might have trouble engaging the rules in play and actually engaging in successful play at all.

I once had a player who was really good at self-managing this, which is a useful technique:

We were playing a game of my design in which other players offer “Risks” to threaten the protagonist, and then they must choose to spend some in-game currency if they wish to avoid those Risks. If the Risks aren’t weighty for them, the game breaks down a bit.

The player immediately grasped this, and actually would correct us in play. If one us offered a Risk that didn’t threaten him, he would say:

“Nah. That’s not scary to me at all. Come up with something else.”

This was great! And it really helped us get on the same page. (It’s generally a good idea to be explicit about whether rewards or threats work for you or not, and in games like these it is particularly so.)

Those are two factors that I see (perhaps there are others). Of course, if you get both of them happening at once, then you’re really going to struggle.

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