Originally posted to Story Games.
So my friend Wishsong and I played a short adventure in the Transhuman Space setting. The protagonists were an uplifted (human intelligence) talking kitten, Miu, and a sentient AI implanted in Miu’s head, Pacific War veteran Tien Ba Dinh. Transhuman Space as a Disney feature animation, in other words. The rulebook we used was Mythic Role Playing, and to test it out we went GM-less and prep-less. It was very entertaining, and the shortfalls and stresses in the experience were good food for thought, in particular regarding what constitutes a story game.
The way Mythic works, basically when a situation comes up and you have to decide what happens, you frame it as a question. Everyone decides on an acting rank and a difficulty rank. Then you match this up with the Fate Chart, which will give you a percentage where those two ranks meet. Roll 1d100 same as or under that number and the answer to the question is yes. Roll over and the answer is no. This is the fundamental way both GM emulation (“Does it rain?”) and resolution (“Do I persuade her?”) work.
The climactic next-to-last scene, in particular, really brought home to me what story games are about. Lieutenant Tien, the AI powering the implant in the kitten Miu’s head, tries to resist his own programming in order to save Miu’s life. His Will was Exceptional, but Wishsong and I decided that it is horrendously difficult for an AI to resist its programming. Being used to story games, I thought it was lame Miu might die just because Tien failed this check. Wishsong, whose gaming experience is much more traditional, seemed to be used to the phenomenon of the system fighting what the players wanted.
That made me realize what a story game meant to me: A game that supports what the participants think of as a good story, instead of imaginary probabilities potentially getting in the way of those story goals. If everyone has the same amount of fun whether the kitten lives or dies, there’s no tension there; if not, a system that recognizes only physical odds can actually take away from the fun. Story games take away that tension by dealing directly with story elements.
What came after was really revelatory regarding a second important element in story games. Tien makes his check and briefly resists his program, warning Miu not to listen to him when he tells her to go to the subway station, and instead to find the police and ask for help. Then his program takes over and Tien tells Miu to hide from the police and go straight to the subway. Poor Miu is really confused, but decides to trust the first Tien. After a couple of other checks and events she finds safety. In the epilogue scene Tien, downloaded into a new bioshell (basically becoming a regular dude who doesn’t live in a kitten’s head), comes face-to-face with the now court-order-protected Miu for the first time. They do some explaining and forgiving, and the story ends with Miu falling asleep in Tien’s lap.
I was pleased as punch with the outcome, and was a little surprised to learn that Wishsong had wanted a different one. He had wanted Miu to be sacrificed, feeling it would be an appropriate ending to show the harshness of the Transhuman Space setting. On the other hand I wanted Miu to live, erm… well, admittedly because of a desire not to see cute widdle critters get hurt, and also because I wanted to explore the meaning of sentience and free will with an AI fighting its program.
It occurred to me that Mythic had no real way to reconcile these conflicting visions, or to help us come up with something altogether different. Like most non-story games it didn’t actually do drama, just logical probabilities. A story game would have systems in place to handle this kind of thing instead of leaving it to the kind of polite dissembling that social interaction is likely to involve. (“Damn, I want that furball to bite it but Eldir seems really attached to a non-existent talking kitten, so…”)
That’s basically what I came away about story games by playing a game that wasn’t one. It was fun overall, but I felt I was fighting the system to achieve that fun and poor Wishsong didn’t get his dead kitten… er, his creative vision didn’t get a place in the story. A story game wouldn’t have that tension between fun and system, and would have some way for conflicting visions to come out and be reconciled. I think it would be fun to try starting again at the same starting point with a different system and see how it goes.
A couple of other points that I came across in play were narration control and the nature of checks.
Since Mythic handles GM emulation it’s possible to play GM-less, which we did and it worked okay. However, there was some awkwardness because neither of us had narration rights over NPCs or the outside world. We had to keep going back to the Fate Chart to frame the question and decide on the ranks, which was obviously much slower than someone just saying something. It wasn’t necessarily the lack of GM that slowed things down, but that there was a void in narrative rights over non-PC things.
After the first session I suggested we take turns handling traditional GM duties, and if the other player wanted to object, or add something, or if the GM was unsure, we’d do the Fate Chart. This sped things up tremendously. And since we were both still players, the non-gamemastering player would pick up the NPCs that were interacting with the GM’s PC. Overall I think I prefer games with better-defined participant roles. Not necessarily the traditional GM and players, but in the sense of knowing at all times who has narrative control over what.
Also, another difference I came to notice between Wishsong and me was the number of checks and what they handled. Being used to conflict resolution, I felt it a little odd to make multiple checks on a dramatic outcome that I felt was already settled, such as “Do they escape Vietnam?” “Will Miu live?” And so on. Wishsong, on the other hand, was used to task resolution and didn’t see resolution as settling a dramatic outcome. For him the questions were more like, “Will Tien resist his programming?” “Can the police dogs find Miu?” etc. Mythic is a task-resolution system, so it supported his way better than mine.