Monday, 17 October 2016
Into The Great Beyond: NOT FADE AWAY
This past Saturday night, we wrapped up NOT FADE AWAY, a game I'd been running at my table since February of last year. As with all games that have any longevity at all, I have complicated feelings about it, but I'll try to talk about our experience here with as much objectivity as I can.
I talked about the specifics of the game here, back when the game was brand new, and that's an excellent starting point if you're new to these parts or (as is likely) you've forgotten what I wrote way back when. The liner notes version is that this was a game about reincarnated beings called Pilgrims who have been battling shape-shifting enemies for thousands of years. In 1999, they are drawn together again by another Pilgrim at his house in Paris. He is tired of immortality, and he plans to kill himself at the end of the week with an alchemical formula. And he has enough for everyone, if they want to join him...
Structurally, we used the scenes in 1999 as a framing device, and played out a large chunk of the game in flashbacks to the Pilgrims' dramatic lives in various time periods. Each player character had a "signature" era that was intended to be important to their story, with spotlight episodes centered there. This was a big challenge for the players initially, as we tried to get our heads around a game that had a massive scope, and for at least one player I think it proved an insurmountable obstacle. I like a challenge, and I think it was a fine way to generate complexity, but there's no denying it's difficult to juggle where your character is at, emotionally, in so many settings spread through time and space. I noted in my February posts that I told my players we weren't going for perfect, so we shouldn't worry about that; I stand by that, although it's my nature to look back on the game and criticize my own mistakes and things that I could do better, and in general I think the game was a very fruitful and sometimes very rewarding mess.
That's okay. Good games are often messy, rather than laser-focused. Sometimes it take a lot of work and struggle to get to the really meaty scenes, and we did get there eventually. By the middle of the game's run, we had two or three episodes with scenes that were extremely strong, and they left most of us feeling pretty pumped up. Once you know you're capable of climbing that high, you can do so more often, and you have something to aim for. My wife and I often take late-night walks after sessions, to help us wind down from "gaming buzz", and there were some pretty excited conversations happening on the shadowed suburban streets of London last spring.
A big problem we had -- and it's a pretty common one, for adult gamers -- is that the game played out in about twelve sessions over the course of nine months. We try to play every two weeks, but often we don't get there, or the various demands of life keep us from that schedule. This exacerbated the difficulties of the game, because in the late stages we were often trying to find our way back into the material after a gap of weeks or months. That's tough even for great players, and I have great players.
And now, the self-examination part, which will probably include some self-flagellation.
I'm overall pretty happy with NOT FADE AWAY as a game. I knew going into it that we were trying to grapple with difficult material, and also rebuilding a social framework for the group after some changes. I think we did pretty well with the challenges, although there were some moments of growing pains where we had to have some out-of-game conversations to resolve issues.
I chose to run the game with FATE, which is one of my favourites, though I'm not sure we really used it to its full potential. We play out a lot of dramatic scenes at our table, which don't require a lot of input from dice or mechanics, and I avoided large-scale combat scenes because I don't think anyone at our table enjoys that kind of thing very much. That meant that, without the use of dice and mechanics being a regular thing, my players didn't use the mechanics as often as they might have to seize control of the narrative and add their own twists to the story independent of my control. (In my defense, I think I pretty much just let them add most of their own ideas as they wanted, and tried to hold the whole story very lightly.) I still haven't yet played a FATE game that I felt lived up to its full potential as a shared narrative experience, but it may happen yet.
As I said, my mission going into this game was to step back from narrative control of the game as much as possible. I wrote a kind of short "bible" about how Pilgrims and their shape-shifting enemies the Rakshasa operated, early on, just because I felt we needed some kind of solid platform to build stories on. I had a starting point for the story, Smoke's "wake" for himself, which I lifted from Denys Arcand's THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS, but I really didn't know where it was going from there. I let the characters just explore their relationships and conflicts for a few episodes, before deciding that I needed to move things along a bit. The next logical thing was for Smoke to commit suicide using his alchemical formula, so that was what I had happen next, and I decided to develop an idea one of the players introduced about having been part of a secret society. The secret society, The Order of Minerva, were still around, I decided, and they were in the business of capturing Pilgrims for research purposes.
Knowing that the players wouldn't like to be captive for long, I presented them with an opportunity to make an escape very quickly, assisted by another group of Pilgrims. I thought it would be interesting to have a group of Pilgrims presented to the players who had very different takes on morality and violence, problematizing the narrative of the Pilgrims being "heroes" of the piece, and introduced the idea that the Rakshasa maybe weren't all bad, or at least were more complicated than that. The objective of all of this was basically to present difficult situations / ideas for the players to grapple with, to see what they decided to do about them and where it would take us next. A lot of this game was about building an elaborate framework for the player characters to fight about ideas and what kind of a world they were actually trying to build. Was it right to kill the Enemy indiscriminately? Were the humans they protected worth all the sacrifices the Pilgrims made in their name? In a lifetime that spans hundreds or thousands of years, what do guilt and sin look like? And most of all, how do you sustain faith in anything - even yourself - over that kind of timeline?
That was my strategy in this game, more than anything, from the first session: Not to set myself up as a storyteller so much as a collaborator presenting interesting and complex questions for the players to wrestle with. I hope the game succeeded on this level, although I suspect that not all the players liked the shifting moral ground as much as I did. It was one more thing that it was difficult to get a firm grip on, in a game full of shifting perspectives and identities.
One of my players had a great deal of difficulty with this game, which he described after the last session as "frustrating". Part of this was the material, which wasn't really to his taste, and a lot of it was down to his character, which he struggled to figure out. He never came up with a solid core concept early on, and I made the mistake of trying to keep developing as we played rather than work out a solid starting point. Again, shifting ground under your feet. His core concept of the character changed several times over the run of the game, to the point that we had trouble keeping track of the different character sheets. Ultimately, I think he found something that worked for him, but it was so late in the game that I'm sure it felt like a baffling mess.
One last thing I'll mention, and it's a bit self-indulgent, but where else do I indulge myself, if not on my blog? I have mentioned various times that I sometimes use scripted pieces to start (and occasionally, end) sessions. I made infrequent use of that technique in this game, but I tried to play with it in different ways, rather than write neutral screenplay-style scenes. I wrote an intro script for one of the spotlight episodes that described a flashback scene being staged like a Julie Taymor style theatrical production. I went in that direction because I'd been thinking about how to represent that particular scene, which takes place in a kind of mythic past. It made me start thinking about the scripts as a place I could call attention to the media of the game, where the fiction was broken for a moment by presenting a scene as theatre or dance or spoken-word script. I was hoping to draw attention to the idea that on some level, this was a game that was about roleplaying, about people who try on different incarnations of themselves and live many lives in different worlds. I didn't make this an explicit thing, just a subterranean current running through the second half of the game, but I thought it was a tasty idea worth including.
It was a big, crazy ambitious, messy, thoughtful, sad, introspective, epic game that I enjoyed a great deal, and I'll miss it.