Liner Notes: Three Act Tragedy in Gold, Red and Black

I still owe those who played a few explanations about last Thursday’s game, so here are a few notes for anybody who is interested …

It started with a joke, a bit of World Cup humor about magical face paint and the way it can transform its wearer. And that was that.

Yet sometimes jokes take on a life of their own. One minute you’re telling someone to bet on Germany scoring seven goals, the next you’re wondering why the universe decided to take you seriously. Some jokes stick around. This one did, too.

There was something familiar about that joke, echoes of old Moorcock stories. Why shouldn’t face paint play the role of Stormbringer? There’s a game in there somewhere …

There’s a game in there somewhere. Once that phrase is in your head, it’s hard to let go.

On the way home that night, a story took shape. A bleak story about bad things that can happen even to those trying to do the right thing. A tragedy.

The colors red, black and gold immediately suggested fitting themes. (I’m just glad we weren’t watching an Ireland game. Orange doesn’t really stand for much except citrus fruit.)

What system to use for that story? One of the Stormbringer or Elric games seemed like the obvious choice, but I had been thinking a bit lately about that game last year in which every player started off playing in a different genre, and that that was kind of fun. Of course, you can’t do something like that twice. But switching systems within a scenario? Hmm …

And so the second joke was born, a chance to poke a bit of fun at the sytem matters debate as well as my own stubbornness on that subject, while also examining to what degree system truly does matter.

But if you’re going to make a joke like that, you have to do it seriously.

So let’s take the system matters point of view to its logical - if extreme - conclusion: If system matters, and the choice of system is key to the events of a game, shouldn’t that mean that you would need a different system for every scene?

The problem with that, of course, is that I had no idea what the players would wind up doing. How can you choose an appropriate system if you don’t know what that system will actually be used for? What if they go to Wisconsin in search of a ring?

I couldn’t figure out an answer to that one, so I cheated a bit and used the different systems in a different way: to represent the passage of time and the growth of the characters, from humble beginnings (H Engine, perhaps the simplest resolution system around) to heroes (this probably should have been Stormbringer, but character generation would have taken a while, and I was already worried about packing all this into one evening, so Sherpa had to fill in) to something darker (Tahamaat). The d8 (7 to 1) to represent tapping into the dark powers seemed like an obvious choice.

All that wasn’t etched in stone, however.

The hardest part of all this was resisting the tempation to script things, to put the story on rails. There were two things I wanted to happen: Alrik should be given the face paint, and the game should lead to Tahamaat. And it’s hard not to railroad when you know - not just think, but know - that one possible option is simply better than another. But still, you have to leave things be and let the chips fall where they may. Otherwise, you might just as well tell a story all by yourself.

But you can hedge your bets a bit. You can’t - absolutely, positively can’t - force the story go where you want it to go, but you can plan for various possibilities. Defeat the demons with help from the paint? Sure, that leads to a Tahamaat situation. But couldn’t losing to the demons wind up doing so as well? Or even trying to take on the paint itself and free its wearer from its influence? (That last option would have led to a very strange form of Tahamaat indeed, which might be recycled into a future adventure.) All roads didn’t lead to Tahamaat - with this group, I’m fully expecting any scenario to turn into a completely different genre than I was expecting - but quite a few of the more interesting ones did.

Lose to the demons? Absolutely. The game may have been an elaborate joke (or two, even), but it was still a serious game with an old school mindset, and those demons weren’t just window dressing. Balance? What balance? Getting completely overrun by the hordes was a very real possibility, and only some good ideas, not wasting any time (a key factor here), and rolling very well when the chips were down won that battle.

So that’s basically it. The scenario was an attempt to combine an elaborate joke with a serious adventure, to pack many years’ worth of story into one evening. Or something like that. I’m not so sure that’s a great idea, or whether combining “joke” with “serious” on your list of goals is a recipe for disappointment all by itself, but seeing where the players take the plot if you give them the freedom is always fun, and so was seeing them battle as dragons and fish, with spells and songs, demonic blades and wooden buckets.

Hmm … this little summary seems to have become a lot longer than I intended. And nobody reads liner notes anyway - I’m convinced that Mick Jagger and company keep all their passwords and tax records in those little sleeves and booklets, secure in the knowledge that nobody will ever look there. But if you did want to know what this latest dose of strangeness was all about, now you do.