Tuesday, 1 October 2013

All That Jazz

Sometimes you just gotta brag on your group.

I recently played in a game that I thought really knocked it out of the park, and I got a glimpse of what a really high functioning HTHD group is capable of. We've had great moments, and great games, around our table before, but this was something else.

A little background: this is for the game that I'm not allowed to tell you much about, which is a kung fu epic set in ancient China. Well, that's not quite right. It's a kung fu epic in the mold of things like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. You know... the depressing kung fu genre.

Anyway, this is a game that has an ambitious framework. We are extrapolating on our friend Rob's idea to play out flashback sequences without actually knowing what's going to happen, as posited (but possibly not fully explored) in his recent Cold City game. In our game, we have three characters whose lives are thoroughly tangled up; in the past, their personal tragedies were all connected, and now they're all coming together again because of a wedding. The game interweaves action in the present and scenes in the past which fill in the gaps in what we know about the characters.

We started out deliberately avoiding creating a complete backstory for the characters, and concentrated on creating provocative gaps. We knew that Megan's formerly stoic warrior fell from grace and was horribly scarred, but not how or why. We knew that Colin's monk character had been a drunken, carousing thief, but not what drove him to a more reflective path. We knew that Amanda's blind warrior/seer was the child of the former (assassinated) governor, now grown, but not the details of how she managed to survive her family's death and lose her eyes.

I had remarkably little prepared when we sat down to play, and we simply went around the table several times calling for scenes. What I had imagined was that we would play a few scenes to find our footing in the game, to get to know the characters. I got a lot more than I expected.

Since each of the players at the table were playing characters that were closely connected, and they each knew the fragmentary back stories of the other players, what emerged was a game where we were able to build and riff on each other. A scene with one character in the present could hand off to a scene with that character and another in the past, which drew a parallel (or a contrast) to the scene we had just played.

If a provocative question was asked, we could jump in time to answer it. A character's state of mind in one time period could be illuminated by moving to a formative scene.

It was like jazz.

We all knew the main tune, and could let a given "musician" draw the music into an interesting digression, build on the digression, turn it around, then return to the melody. (I'm describing jazz badly, but you get the idea. We were entirely improvising, but around a shared set of ideas; the context let us set up scenes for each other which underscored something the other players had been describing.)

This is the sort of thing that pays off years of practice and trust at the table, not something that happens by accident. And I think it is not an accident that it happened with a group of only three players and a GM -- that makes for extra intimacy and understanding, whereas a larger group allows you to have more complex interactions and stories. Three was the sweet spot for telling this kind of focused story where all the characters were important in each others' lives.

And it was sweet, sweet music, brother.

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