Nov 242009
 

This is a sort-of follow-up to my earlier Vinge post.

I’m the sort of guy who wants to love Shock:, the role-playing game of social science fiction by Joshua A. C. Newman. It has a simple but potent engine for generating Big Ideas for science fiction — “situation” of a sort.  It should get me excited, and the ideas that can come out of the method often do, but the (admittedly) few times I’ve played it the experience has just come out feeling pretty flat.

(This is definitely a “for me!” thing, so let’s skip the impassioned defenses.  I’m 100% certain Shock: works great for many people who I’m not!)

Shock:‘s idea generator is a simple grid, one that lays out social issues vertically (you might list, say, “racism”, “socialized medicine”, and “gun control”) and “shocks” horizontally.  Shocks in this case are shocks-to-the-fabric-of-society ala science fiction: time travel, alien visitation, medical immortality, that sort of thing.  Shocks are usually few (unless you’re planning on running a monstrously long game).

The juice happens when you look at how these two axises intersect, and work as a group to determine what circumstances arise from that intersection.  In one game I played, we had an issue “AIDS in Africa” and the shock “alien first contact”.  Some crazy-beautiful ideas came out of that: our aliens were living, sentient microbial colonies, shape-shifters as far as we were concerned at our level, able to take on a humanoid form or something monstrous.  Their landing happened over Africa — no big ships over the world’s major cities, here — so there was plenty of regional volatility primed to explode in the face of their arrival.  We also talked about them “precipitating” through the atmosphere, travelers on a one-way vessel sent to colonize our planet, the “sac” they were traveling through space in dissolving upon entry.  And questions arose as to whether or not it was an earlier colonization by their kind that gave birth to some of the planet’s worst diseases.  Some pretty meaty stuff to tear into, there; big ideas.

But the characters and, consequently, story that arose from that point didn’t do much of anything for me.  In Shock:, ideas get explored by creating a protagonist at those intersections, with the rest of the table doing the antagonist and supporting-cast work when that particular intersection has the focus.  So your cast can rotate around a lot (though it didn’t in the session I’m talking about: we focused on the one protagonist, the one intersection).  Which is probably one of my first points of disconnect: the thin connection between me as a player and any character I might play is a sign, overt or otherwise, that I shouldn’t invest much attention/affection/interest in him or her.  This mirrors a lot of sci fi out there that I’m already not interested in, where the Big Ideas are so much bigger than the characters that the characters end up being incidental.  When ideas trump characters, I’m yawning and setting the book down.

Likely in service to this idea that the cast of a Shock: game is big and likely to shift around as focus moves around the grid, characters in Shock: are not extensively detailed in terms of system.  Coming as I do from the Fate background & perspective, that’s deeply unsatisfying — I don’t have a lot on my sheet to invest in, nor to communicate to others.  So again I’m left with ideas trumping characters, and characters that feel as thin as the paper of the character sheet.

So let’s keep that in mind while reflecting on what I had to say about Vernor Vinge’s fiction.  He’s definitely a Big Ideas kind of guy, but his ideas don’t trump the characters.  Really, his ideas sneak in around the edges. He hits you with the interesting, investment-worthy characters in the foreground, but populates the background with those crazy-beautiful ideas that draw people to science fiction in the first place.

So this is the important lesson, and the critical place where I think Shock: missteps — characters first and foremost, ideas second.  Shock: has that the other way around. Which is not to say that the game should have players creating characters before the grid that makes the situation; it just needs to make the characters more important, more three-dimensional, instead of using them simply as the tools for exploring the ideas.  I don’t want to play (or read about) a tool, I want to play (or read about) a person.  My problem as a reader with those sorts of stories is that they can end up feeling awfully antiseptic, and they really require the ideas to be wall to wall stellar.  A good but not great idea and this treatment can fall apart fast.  A good but not great idea and a characters-first approach on the other hand can still rock.

In my next post, I’ll talk about Diaspora and how I feel it can (and already does) conquer this problem — and what it can learn from Shock:.

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  • http://twitter.com/noahtheduke Noah

    I think you beat me to it, but half-way through this (really good) post, I thought, “He should combine Shock: and Diaspora!”

    I await the next post with anticipation!

    Noah

    p.s. Someday, I’ll own Shock:, and hack the two together myself. Something like, discuss a big idea during Cluster gen, and randomly roll (or figure out from a roll n Cluster gen) for which system gets the Intersection. *shrugs* I’ll think about this.

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Noah, you’ve pretty much got the meat of tomorrow’s proposal, though just *slightly* differently oriented. It’ll be fun to see the comments tomorrow and find out what different approaches folks suggest from my own…

  • http://buddha_davis.livejournal.com/ Jon “Buddha” Davis

    I think I understand how you feel. Shock is definitely about the big idea! I know when we play that we often lament the fact that the traits on your sheet are simply color, rather than impacting play. That said, I have had a heck of a lot of fun with Shock, so I’m coming from a slightly different place than you are with it…

    What I think is interesting though, is how I’ve found my groups tend to play Shock… We do tend focus on character and motivations as much as possible, often evolving or retconning the big idea to fit, and I’ve seen both big sweeping stories and small, very personal character stories as well in the same game. We also tend to interconnect our characters or at least aim them in each others’ direction, so there is a relationship map-thing or a “one character’s actions affect the others” thing going on.

    But in the end, you’re right, the character tend not to be very deep and all the games I’ve been in have been one shots. I’m curious if those people who have played longer interconnected Shock games tend to play the same characters or not, and if that helps to deepen things…

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Yeah, I hear you, Buddha. I’m trying to be respectful, here, of the folks out there who I know have (and are having) good play experiences. At the end of the day, I need more *scaffolding* for my characters, whether that’s simply process (ala Fate’s phases) or structure (character stats with real play impact). It’s certainly clear to me that folks *can* focus on character stories and motivations in Shock: — but it also seems to me that the game doesn’t encourage it. The game doesn’t discourage it either, but I like my games to give a more deliberate nudge.

  • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

    Fred, you’re perceptive as ever.

    Shock: is very deliberately for “ideas first” science fiction. One of the design specifications of the game was that it give the players enough distance to put their characters in really tough situations. Audience members also need to be assured that the horrible shit they do to the Protags won’t be taken personally.

    The survival rate of Protagonists is very, very low. Players need to be able to make a choice like, “Do humans, including my family, live; or do human learn to live in the dolphins’ imaginations?” The idea was to deliberately connect the player to the Issues by giving them the cushion of the Shock and the tools of the *tagonist.

    But you’re absolutely right: it makes a weakness. I’m working techniques into Xenon: to address that, because Xenon: is about viscerality, but Shock: is about what happens to a bunch of tiny people — no matter how big they think they are — when the world changes.

    On the other hand, I’ve been carefully watching Thor Olavsrud and Terri Romero when they play the game. They do something, and I don’t know what it is, that’s deeply affecting. They really take their characters to heart. To some extent, I wish I could bottle that, but I just can’t figure out what they’re doing. Like, I ended a game at a con a couple of years ago and checked to see how the other Shock: table was going, and Thor was on the verge ofcrying. How could I not want both that level of personal investment and the scale of ideas the game induces? I just only know how to induce half of that equation.

    Now, as for Vinge, I don’t read him for his characters. His characters are a tool to make the ideas matter, and they’re very good at that. Pham is an impervious superhero, marred only by periods of brooding or waiting to strike. Other characters around him are either villainous or tossed in the sea of change. To be sure, there are characters that would be hard to do justice to with Shock: but I think that has to do with me figuring out rules that are 10-20% better for characterization, rather than a core flaw in the game.

    (And a subtle correction: you don’t lay out multiple Shocks in preparation for a long game. A long game generates multiple Shocks, with a possible new one each session. There’s very little planning ahead in the game, with the exceptions of Story Goals and Intents)

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Yep, fair enough. I knew my memory of Shock:’s exact procedures was a little flawed, which is why I tried to breeze past that and instead talk about effects. :)

      I’m not saying that Vinge’s characters aren’t tools for making the ideas matter, but he’s very, very good at making me care about the characters. So I think you’re right — the trick is to figure out rules that are better for characterization, or perhaps more importantly, investment.

  • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

    Sorry, x-post with you guys.

    What I think is interesting though, is how I’ve found my groups tend to play Shock… We do tend focus on character and motivations as much as possible, often evolving or retconning the big idea to fit, and I’ve seen both big sweeping stories and small, very personal character stories as well in the same game. We also tend to interconnect our characters or at least aim them in each others’ direction, so there is a relationship map-thing or a “one character’s actions affect the others” thing going on.

    Hey, Buddha, I’d like to know how you do that and how it works. I’ve become much more interested in the last year or so in how to make powerful color. Because Fred’s right: more powerful characters in addition to the Big Picture tools would really help this game.

  • http://buddha_davis.livejournal.com/ Jon “Buddha” Davis

    @Fred – Fred, as ever, you are both respectful and insightful! Looking forward to the Diaspora post, as we’re gonna be doing a semi-regular game of it with a Bab 5 feel…

    @Joshua – I’ll shoot you my gmail so we don’t clutter up Fred’s Comments (Unless he totally wants us to!). Also, my friend Sam has played a lot of Shock, so I’ll see about picking his brains for what works, too.

    Man, I love talking about rpgs!

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Dude, I’ve got no problem whatsoever with the conversation happening in the comments.

    • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

      Yeah, me too.

    • http://buddha_davis.livejournal.com/ Jon “Buddha” Davis

      Cool!

      Here’s some quick comments/ideas:

      Well, one quick and easy way to connect the characters is location. By focusing our characters in one place, they are able to interact if desired, or simply to see the effects of each other’s scenes on the place where they live. This tends to make things more personal, like when one player broke into another’s lab to stage a religious protest and invalidate his work.

      In the same vein, sharing an Issue helps to connect the characters. We had two artists in our “Ghosts inhabit anything carved with a face” Halloween Shock game, which led to a bitter, interconnected rivalry of odd one-upmanship.

      We don’t write down minutiae unless it’s at the beginning of play or it’s staggeringly huge! If we were doing longer term games, we probably should, but in play, we tend to not want to interrupt the scene’s flow. We usually just assume the owner of the shock/issue is responsible for speaking up if we violate the “rules” of the shock/issue, or we turn and ask a quick question of them.

      Also, the choice of antagonist is a strong tool for creating character. There’s a huge difference between “A cabal of international banks” and “DJ Sizemore, who’s trying to get me to sign with his label”. We had a huge game with “Mental Domination” as the shock, where the characters were all tied up in the grand idea side of things… except for one, whose focus was totally on her trying to make a name for herself on the club scene as a DJ, the rival DJ who was trying to co-opt and sign her or just ruin her…

      Really, in the end, it’s all about investment in the character and their story. Story is pretty easy to invest in, but the way Shock is laid out, it leads to short sharp stories, with less character involvement due in part to that very shortness.

      Ahhh! I just saw Fred’s comment about “story-building” games not being as much his bag… and that is definitely part of it. Shock is very much a story-building game, rather than a character-focused one!

      Well, Joshua, I hope some of this helps, if anything more coherent comes to me, I’ll write it up!

    • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

      Well, one quick and easy way to connect the characters is location. By focusing our characters in one place, they are able to interact if desired, or simply to see the effects of each other’s scenes on the place where they live. This tends to make things more personal, like when one player broke into another’s lab to stage a religious protest and invalidate his work.

      You know, that’s something that I just don’t address. It often shakes out that way, that characters are in the same place, but because I didn’t want to encourage that over wholly parallel stories, but it’s no doubt a way to integrate the characters with each other.

      In the same vein, sharing an Issue helps to connect the characters. We had two artists in our “Ghosts inhabit anything carved with a face” Halloween Shock game, which led to a bitter, interconnected rivalry of odd one-upmanship.

      I’ve noticed this, as well. I think there’s probably an interesting Hack, where you can have one player being the Antagonist for two Protags. I’ll have to try that out.

      We don’t write down minutiae unless it’s at the beginning of play or it’s staggeringly huge! If we were doing longer term games, we probably should, but in play, we tend to not want to interrupt the scene’s flow. We usually just assume the owner of the shock/issue is responsible for speaking up if we violate the “rules” of the shock/issue, or we turn and ask a quick question of them.

      Yeah, totally. No one can write down every single idea. I don’t think anyone really writes the stuff down but when it’s the beginning, they’re drawing something, or it’s something weird enough that they’ll have to remember how it works later. For a series, it’s probably a good idea to write down a bunch of Minutuæ at the start of each session from the previous chapter.

      Thanks, Buddha. You’ve made concrete a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having of late and confirmed things that I’ve been wondering about.

  • http://githyankidiaspora.wordpress.com/ Judd

    When I play Shock:, I am definitely ready for a different frame of mine, more of a “let’s make shit up with friends” than “let’s immerse in a single character for four hours.” The joy is having tons of scrap pieces of paper with Minutiae on it as a world comes into focus through play and seeing how the characters are tossed around by history or maybe throw history over their hip and do some throwing of their own.

    It is almost as if one has to look at the world as a communal character that we are all playing and the protags and antags are just parts of that.

    But yeah, it is quite a different four hours than Burning Wheel or Sorcerer or Diaspora.

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Makes sense. One thing I’ve come to realize is that for my own preferences, “story building” games have a much harder time sustaining my interest. I’m not looking for capital-I immersion, but I do want to deeply identify with a character that’s “mine” and ride shotgun as he experiences things.

    • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

      It is almost as if one has to look at the world as a communal character that we are all playing and the protags and antags are just parts of that.

      I’m glad that’s how it works, cuz that’s how it’s supposed to. The only protagonist that gets what it wants reliably is the change of the world. Other times, characters change with it, discarding what they thought was important for what was really important, and often losing it anyway.

  • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

    I’m excited to see some potential improvements for Shock: coming out of this. Yay!

    • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

      There’s not a conversation about the game that doesn’t get me thinking about better ways to do stuff.

  • http://www.berengad.com/blog/ Christian Griffen

    I’ve had (two sessions of) a really good game of Shock:, and a lot of it was character-driven. But much of that was due to the fact that my protagonist ended up serving as the antagonist to another protagonist. It’s not really set up that way in Shock:, and in fact, it’s hard to really have the protagonists interact with each other. That’s the only thing that dampens my enthusiasm for it, because my personal play preference, if we’re going to have multiple tagonists, goes in the direction of In A Wicked Age. I want all the main characters to be involved in and important to each other’s lifes (scenes, plots, development, etc.).

    • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

      Christian, that stuff is in the Hacks section in the back of the book. I’m glad it was working for you!

  • http://glyphpress.com Joshua A.C. Newman

    Hey, Fred, I just thought of this post while writing. It’s a direct descendant of Shock:Human Contact, in fact. All the stuff about player/character intimacy, rich color, and inter-Protagonist scenes is addressed therein.

    You can seen some of the stuff, much of which is woven into the setting, over at the Shock:Human Contact wiki.

    Xenon:’s on the back burner for the time being because I’d rather this stuff work in Shock: now, then develop in new directions for Xenon: I’ve got some cool stuff to try, but what I was working on before really sucked.

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Thanks!

  • http://glyphpress.com/ Joshua A.C. Newman

    Wow. November 2009. That took a bit of thinking.

    This conversation is one of the reasons Shock:Human Contact is a real thing, premiering at Dreamation this year! Thank you Fred, Buddha, Judd, and Christian!

    • http://www.deadlyfredly.com/ Fred Hicks

      Happy to hear this played a part in Human Contact. :)