Story Games Seattle Message Board What We Played › What We Played: What Child Is This… (While the World Ends)

What We Played: What Child Is This… (While the World Ends)

Ben R
thatsabigrobot
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 232
players: Jess, Rob, Jerome, Ben
Oct 27

This game could have been very silly. Our ideas could have devolved into goofy. But they didn't. Instead they got really solid and really heavy, because the players at the table rocked it. My hat is off to you all.

Case in point: nuns running an abortion clinic. Yep. Now imagine that not being a joke, but being an entirely serious idea. God had appeared to one of the sisters in a vision and told them this is what He wanted. Why? God does not explain. This is serious heresy. Rome sent inquisitors, the sisters who didn't relent were excommunicated, but they went on regardless, cast out of the Church they'd given their life to but trusting (hoping!) they were really doing God's will…

By default While the World Ends has more of a dystopic sci fi feel, but given the season we wanted to go more spooky horror. I'm not going to cover all the fiction (which was awesome) but we spun up a world that was normal on the surface, but silently and disturbingly going askew:

- People you've known all your life seeming different, like they've been replaced by someone who's exactly the same, but not… or maybe you're the crazy one.
- Animals turning up that are subtle abominations of nature.
- Disturbing dreams for some, crushing insomnia for others.
- And the icing on the cake: immaculate conception. Lots of them. Inexplicable pregnancies on the rise.



(I have to throw in how the abortion nuns came about, because it was a textbook example of story game brainstorming. We had spontaneous pregnancies on the table and so we had to come up with a location that existed because of that. There had been some Planned Parenthood discussion earlier in the meet, so naturally we thought of an abortion clinic. Serious drama there. We were fishing for names and someone (Rob?) suggested St. Mary's, which I think drew the elicited the very sensible response that that would be the *last* thing an abortion clinic would be called (Catholic hospital, yes, Catholic abortion clinic, no). But then we said, well wait, what if it was? Why would that be..?)

I think initially we were going for a creepy "invasion of the bodysnatchers" kind of thing, but in play it slowly and inexorably walked towards a Biblical Revelations feel. There were definitely some parts where I was thinking we'd included too many different strange elements and they weren't going to integrate, but man was I wrong. We wrestled the beast and brought the threads together in what felt very satisfying. The Mother Superior (Jess) sitting with the Book of Revelations on her lap explaining to Jerome's pregnant park ranger about the beasts of the end days was beautiful. And her choosing to get the abortion was chilling. "God knew you were coming five years ago. He made us ready for you." And Rob plays a solid drunk. Really. That's a hard role and he nailed it.

But what about the rules?

We all agreed there were some wonky bits with the rules, so let's discuss. I think this is definitely a case where by the end the mechanics were getting in our way, but like pro gamers we rose above it and rocked the fiction.

You guys brought up some good points about While the World Ends after the game, so jump in.
Jess
cyndisision
Seattle, WA
Post #: 4
Thanks for the write-up, Ben!

I'll talk a bit about the rules that we didn't like, since I know I was the one sitting there right after setup going, "wait, what? I don't understand the options and restraints on framing this scene." I felt throughout the game as if some of the rules were something tangling round my feet as I tried to make this awesome fiction.

First, coming up with locations that *only exist as a result of the changes* was hard, especially in a story where the changes are only just happening and nobody knows about them. I think we fudged on a couple of the locations, honestly.

I think we all felt that being constrained to the locations on the map where we had mutual relationship connections for 'driving' (story goal oriented) scenes pushed us into some very forced scenarios that weren't necessarily where the story was going. Sometimes that can provoke more creativity, but the whole "why am I meeting my elderly mother at the zoo, just so I can get that story token?" question really sums up the contortions that we had to do--even though we handwaved that one. Then there's the strategic element of gameplay that comes in when you realise you have to develop mutual relationships just to be able to get to other locations--but preferably not ones with your story opponents in case they hop over to your location and steal your token. This usually didn't seem to work in service of the story; it just created what felt like rules hurdles we had to overcome. It seemed like, as a consequence of that, the directions of the relationship arrows (beyond the setup, which has rules for that) was just "what benefits me as a player trying to pick up tokens," which felt very metagame-y.

I think it was Rob who suggested maybe just putting all the tokens in the center. That would definitely circumvent a lot of these problems, but I think the locations and relationships should mean *something*--it's just that how they currently work is awkward.

The whole thing where your character's story goal helps push toward a (possibly completely unconnected) overall tone of the fiction goal was a bit arbitrary to me, also, though I'm not sure how to fix that.

One thing that was not rules-related, but me-as-a-n00b-storygamer-related was that my character's goal was, well, boring. It didn't leave room for interaction with most of the other characters, and so in each scene I could either further my goal and do some science, or I could be interesting, and talk to my daughter who has possibly been replaced by a doppelganger. It occurred to me the next morning on the bus (second best place for thinking, after the shower) that instead of "Stop the Institute from being closed down" I could have had "Having been shut down, continue the research in secret." BAM! Now I'm enlisting the others in unlicensed experiments, going to the daughter's school to use lab equipment, borrowing animals from the zoo for my research, etc. Also it would position my character as someone who strongly suspects that these weird changes mean something and researching them is important enough to risk her career over.

Which brings me to another thing I was thinking about re: me being a n00b. In one-shot games where there's a mystery of some kind, it seems to me that you don't want to make the characters start out oblivious that the mystery even exists. That's what I tend to want to do, and have the mystery revealed as part of play, but when you only get a handful of scenes, you don't have time for that. So my character remained fairly clueless, and ended as much outside the action as she started.

Having said all that, I really enjoyed the game, and not because we overcame the rules with sheer awesomeness (though we did do that). I think there were some really thought-provoking aspects of the setup, and I loved that there was so much interaction between player characters.
Ben R
thatsabigrobot
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 234
I'm agreeing with just about everything you're saying Jess. The tactical pressure to establish relationships and move around the map felt more like distractions than help making a cool story.

It seemed like, as a consequence of that, the directions of the relationship arrows (beyond the setup, which has rules for that) was just "what benefits me as a player trying to pick up tokens," which felt very metagame-y.

Yep. As soon as rules add an unrelated mechanical meaning to something fictional, there's a risk that the mechanics can overwhelm the fictional meaning. In other words, we stop caring about the relationships as relationships between characters and focus on how we have to use them to get tokens. They become a means to an end, which is wrong because they should be important for their own sake. (I don't think you've played Microscope yet, but the Light/Dark part of the game is intentionally designed to avoid this issue) Lots of other games use relationship maps (the general term for diagrams like that), and they can be very useful for keeping tracking of characters, but getting dice or scene power for relationships is a totally different thing.

Two things you disliked that I think work are making locations that match the aspects (which I think works fine, even if being bound to those locations is cumbersome) and having character goals loosely associated with world fates. But that could also be a case where the players have to work to make it fit: if you're not rigorous they won't click.

I should also add that we were pushing the boundaries a little by trying to make a stranger horror setting, instead of the stock dystopic sci fi setting. So that may have made our job a little harder, at least as far as locations, aspects and goals. But either way, the relationships / locations / chasing tokens dynamic wasn't my cup of tea.

One thing that was not rules-related, but me-as-a-n00b-storygamer-related was that my character's goal was, well, boring.
Yeah, that was our fault, not the system. You're dead right that picking good goals is a developed skill, and it comes up in a lot of games. Like I said at the game, I take the blame for not spotting it and coaching you to take something juicier. This will not be the last game where you kick yourself afterwards for picking a bad story goal ;)

For the mystery thing, you're right, it can be a trap. You have to very consciously author-up and frame scenes that show your character discovering the mystery. That's true for most story games: you have to make the plot happen, not wait to see when it emerges. I usually make scene one the "now I find out something strange is happening" moment.
Jess
cyndisision
Seattle, WA
Post #: 5
Two things you disliked that I think work are making locations that match the aspects (which I think works fine, even if being bound to those locations is cumbersome) and having character goals loosely associated with world fates. But that could also be a case where the players have to work to make it fit: if you're not rigorous they won't click.

These definitely aren't game-breaking problems for me. I think it's just that they are unique requirements that, since I wasn't aware of them while we were picking issues and character story goals, sort of came as a surprise to me. Maybe now I know the whole deal, it'd be easier next time to build in those connections from the start.

Yeah, we did make things harder on ourselves by changing the tone of the story, which was more than half of the problem we had coming up with locations that only existed because of the issues. I must have enjoyed the game, though, because now I'm thinking about how I'll do it better next time I play :D
Ben R
thatsabigrobot
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 236
You're highlighting a very critical point about all these games: the first time you play, you're using up a lot of your brain learning the rules, so it's harder to focus on creative play. That's why we always recommend playing a game more than once (unless it's an absolute bomb).
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