Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Probably one of the most neglected elements of storycraft is that of theme.  People love to talk about characters, settings and plots, but they often neglect to discuss or decide what a story is really about, or what it's really driving at.  I'm guilty of this too: Why worry about what a story is about when I'm in love with characters or a particular setting element?  But even so, I've found that themes serve as a strong foundation for a game, helping to shape my characters, my plots and my sessions.

If I had to pick a single, driving theme for Cherry Blossom Rain, it would be that of wabi-sabi.  The sentiment is similar to the Western concepts of "Seize the day!" or "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," but decidedly less uninhibited or optimistic.  Wabi-sabi is noticing a wrinkle on a beautiful, young woman's face and seeing a hint of the grandmother she is to become.  It's watching the autumn leaves fall from a tree.  It's noting the ding on your favorite sword and finding that it has more character now.

Part of wabi-sabi is noting the effect time has on things.  Cherry Blossom Rain has a deep background: The legendary blades aren't just magical, but they have stories.  The clans and this war was already in motion.  Many games treat the history of a setting as a sort of eternity: The good king has always ruled the righteous kingdom, the evil empire has always threatened the freedom of the world, orcs have always rampaged at the borders.  If there is history, it happened thousands of years go.  In Cherry Blossom Rain, it happened yesterday, and it's still in motion.  The players find themselves not in an eternally unchanging world, but in a world that was the result of heaps and heaps of small changes over time, and that's changing still, changing around them and changing with them whether they want it or not.

But the main thing most people take away from wabi-sabi is the concept of fleeting beauty, the knowledge that you might have seen something beautiful, something worth cherishing, and now it is forever gone.  I've tried to steep my game with this notion: My game is not an endless parade of samey duels, but distinct moments that the players will never be able to get back.  First, wild adventures through the sinister Kamurocho and a unique opportunity to serve tea to their enemies and get to know them better.  Then, a moment of camaraderie in a hot springs.  Now, they stand on the precipice of war, frantically sharing their last moments with the ones they love, struggling to preserve what they have, knowing that tomorrow it'll all be gone.  I've complained before that my game has slowed to a glacial pace, and it's not because the players have nothing to do, but because they're doing so much.  Part of this, I think, comes from their growing awareness of the how fleeting the moment is.  They're grabbing onto these last few days and holding on tight, because tomorrow their beloved NPCs won't be there.  They might not be there.  Raoul in particular feels this keenly, as he sees himself as the most likely to die on Sword Mountain. Even the name "Cherry Blossom Rain" speaks to the concept of wabi-sabi, because I'm explicitly trying to evoke the image of cherry blossoms falling from trees, a moment of beauty caught just as it ends.

I really can't think of a better medium to show the principle of wabi-sabi than in a role-playing game.  A picture freezes the moment forever.  A recording or a video can be played over and over again.  But nobody will ever have a chance to play Cherry Blossom Rain again, not this way, not with these people, not this story.  It's behind us and done, a stream of fleeting moments, enjoyed and now cherished, but forever gone.  I find this the most poignant element of role-playing: My art is an art that's lost as soon as its shown.  No matter how wonderful a session, future generations will never have a chance to marvel at it the way they might marvel at one of Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings.  In that, a session's beauty is even greater precisely because of its fragility, the very essence of wabi-sabi.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Games I play: Houses of the Blooded

Ages ago, Erik Moll complained that this "Monday Night Group" didn't want to play Houses of the Blooded while he very much wanted to run it.  Setting aside a discussion about the very contentious social model that resulted in that situation, I suggested that he run it on his own and simply invite the people he wanted to the game, as he had more than enough cred to cobble together an all-star team.

He took me up on that and I must say I was flattered when he invited me to join, and so I've been playing Houses of the Blooded for... what is it, nearly a year now?

Let's get the bad out of the way by talking about the system, because you never really get to know a system without playing it fairly extensively.  John Wick put together an amazingly elegant core system for Houses of the Blooded.  I have a few small quibbles over the value of various virtues (like Courage) and inevitably there's a discussion of how broad an Aspect can really be, but ultimately these mechanics work.  But where the system completely collapses is the Season Actions.  Weirdly, John Wick took his excellent and well-crafted core system and... tossed it aside for something completely new.  Worse, the chapter is badly edited (recently Jimmy and I had an argument over how Spying on Regions and Conquering Regions actually worked... until we realized we were getting our information from two different sections, mutually contradictory, in the same chapter titled "Conquer." I'm not joking), and the balance is whacky and the situations that it creates are often uninteresting or create samey characters.  For example, Frank plays an unrefined Falcon who, in his words "Has a Strength of 2 and a Cunning of 3, which should be switched, but I like my Season Actions too much." I don't blame him given that Season Actions are experience.  Or the fact that you need all of the resources, so inevitably everyone has the same sorts of terrain and nobody specializes.  It's just a shame that Wick didn't extend the same amount of careful thought that he applied to his Virtue/Aspect/Wager system that he did to his Season Actions.

The game itself, though, has been delightful.  I've played with Erik before, years and years ago, and while his wasn't the worst game I'd played in (by far), I found the game to be tedious, and that he had a tendency to want to maintain a status quo.  I haven't played with him for years, and he's clearly shed that inhibition for change, because this game is dynamic and constantly changing (he didn't bat an eye, for example, when some dice rolls and some suggestions resulted in the death of one of his primary NPCs.  Instead, he pushed it further and used it as fodder for more stories).

What makes the game, though, isn't what Erik does, it's what he doesn't do.  He carefully chose aggressive, strong players that would know what they want, and then he gave us a world and then sat back and let us play in it.  He's not lazy, I should be clear: He's adding elements as quickly as the rest, nor is this a "GMless" game, as he maintains the role as ultimate arbiter, but he allows us to heap on elements, notes them, and then finds ways to add more and more on them until we've created something fascinating out of nothing.  I've seen people try this sort of game before, but I've never seen anyone pull it off as successfully as Erik has.

Let me use last night's session as an example: We did our Season Actions for Winter, and we were missing some rather important players, so Erik didn't want to move forward with some of the bigger events (Like a planned wedding).  So, instead, he asked for suggestions.  I noted that I still had trouble in my Swamp region ("the Hungry Earth"), and so we decided to deal with that Trouble.  The players asked for a description of my lands, which laid before them, and we played out a quick scene in my castle, with players negotiating the price for their assistance (and Erik playing as his own, personal PC, at my request), whereupon we made our way to the Hungry Earth (again, more description from me) and players began to add additional elements to the story with their own rolls, which Erik would take, along with my description, and wove them together into a story about a decietful and beautiful treasure hunter, ancient and terrible artifacts bound up in the secret of my own artifact-blade, and dark, cthulhu-esque monstrosities and a plot by the children of Mahl.

From nothing, we got that.

As with Xavier's game, I find myself marvelling: I don't think I could sit back and trust my players that much.  I'd be too worried that the game would fail.  I couldn't just let go like that... and if I did, I wouldn't be able to adapt so rapidly and smoothly as Erik does.  Better, Erik has really mastered the art of letting you have want, on the one hand, while complicating your life in a way that's interesting without leaving you feeling powerless or screwed.  I've talked before about trust, and here, in this game, Erik definitely has my trust.

I'm playing as Moryandal, a treacherous Serpent from the Valar family (which apparantly suffers under a long-lasting family curse), known for his size and his glowing, haunting white greatsword.  Unlike in Xavier's game, I let a bit more of my dark side show, the parts of me that I really, really enjoy in a game.  So far, I don't think it's damaged the game, but sometimes I worry that I do push the game too much and represent too strong a presence in the game (though Jimmy and Maartje do help guide the game away from my hands).
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