Friday, November 08, 2013

[Shooting the Moon] Fleeing the Empire

Introduction

Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss is a game I've had in my possession for a very long time, but which I'd never played before. (I think. I may once have started a game with Jasper Polane, but if so, I don't think we managed to finish it.) Last Friday, I got online with Sam Ashwell and Emily Short to finally play this thing. Both of them had played it before. Emily once, I think; and Sam quite often.

Like Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon is a game about love. (At least it claims to be a game about love. See below.) Whereas the former game shows two people coming together, the latter gives us two Suitors fighting over the Beloved, who is also pursuing a dream of his or her own.


Creating characters: the rules

Character creation is where the rules of this game really shine. It is very much a group activity, so much so that we did most of it before we chose who would play which character. (We finally decided that I would play the Beloved.)

The three players first work together to give the Beloved six attributes that are, by definition, desirable in the setting. This at once establishes three things: (1) the Beloved's character; (2) what is romantically attractive in the setting; and (3) that the Beloved is attractive in the setting.

As the player of the Beloved, I found it very useful to know that my main traits were by definition attractive. During the game, your character gets into all kinds of trouble, and may look soiled afterwards. But I always had a way of re-establishing that my character was attractive: I just played up my attributes, and it was immediately understood that the Suitors and the rest of the world would fall for this.

Then the Suitors are created by giving each of them some attributes that are synonyms or antonyms for the attributes of the Beloved; after which a "but" is added to each of those attributes. This means you automatically end up with characters defined by traits that are interestingly related and that have a clear relation to the value system of the setting

Also, the characters are guaranteed to be completely different from what any of the players would have made up on their own. Like the web of association in Breaking the Ice, the shared web of attributes, synonyms and antonyms really gets you creativity flowing in directions you would not otherwise have explored.

Creating characters: the result

After some discussion we decided that our characters were passengers on a space ship fleeing from the Empire to impart important information to the Rebels. The Beloved would be the person with the important information.

Beloved attributes: mysterious identity, protecting an innocent, higher calling, crossing me means trouble, fierce, savoir-faire.

Synonyms and antonyms:
Fierce: forceful / physically cowardly.
Higher calling: idealist / cynical.
Mysterious identity: deep cover / famous.

At about this point, we decided that I would play the Beloved. I decided that me character was the Emperor himself, deposed in a palace revolution and trying to get the Rebel army behind him. The Suitors know that I have important information, but are in the dark about my real identity.

Opportunity (why is the Beloved available to these two suitors): We're the only known rebels on the chartered ship.
Obstacle (what is making life difficult for the Beloved): the entire Empire is after me.
Dream (what does the Beloved want even more than love): the rebels swear allegiance to me as the rightful Emperor.

Further creation led to the following two suitors, and, for completeness, the Beloved:
  1. Carmen Steel (played by Emily) is an ex-space-bullfighter.
    • Cynical, but secretly soft-hearted.
    • Famous, but glory has faded.
    • Forceful, but has an old wound.
    • Person: Fidelis Mandelbrot, ship's engineer and big fan of old.
    • Place: the ship's bar.
    • Thing: light sabre.
    • Conflict: angling to restore her super-wealth.
  2. "Clea Woolford" (fake name) is the ship's security officer.
    • Idealist, but bad conscience.
    • Deep cover, but identity compromised.
    • Physically cowardly, but not when protecting someone.
    • Person: Captain Erskine, the ship's captain.
    • Place: planetary combat simulator.
    • Thing: identity badge with real name on it.
    • Conflict: mistrusted by the Rebellion.
  3. "Peter" (fake name), a passenger, but in fact the rightful Emperor.
    • Mysterious identity
    • Protection an innocent
    • Higher calling
    • Crossing me means trouble
    • Fierce
    • Worldly knowledge, savoir-fair
The unfolding story




Almost a week has gone by since I played the game, so I'm sure I cannot reconstruct all the scenes in detail. But the main plot was as follows.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Someone has figured out that Peter is the Emperor, and anonymously tries to blackmail him. Peter and Carmen put the money somewhere, then ambush the person who comes to collect it: it turns out to be Erskine, the ship's captain. This means trouble, but for now they convince him that they have many dangerous friends and that he should keep quiet.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) Clea makes sure she can talk to Peter in private by disabling all the technology that the captain uses to spy on him. He tries to sexually seduce her, but without much success. Erskine's goons come to investigate why the camera's have stopped working, and before Clea accomplishes anything worth talking about, she's taken away by them and put under disciplinary supervision.

(Beloved scene.) When they're docked on some trading asteroid, Erskine sends Carmen and Clea to "retrieve" an old weapon that he claims to be his from a shady arms dealer. Violence follows, and the ship has to flee the asteroid -- but Carmen has grabbed lots of cool weapons in the process, and ends up with the trait: "Unknowingly owns a small-scale antimatter device."

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Carmen tries to give a great present to Peter: a personal energy shield. She doesn't really know how it works, though, and soon the two of them are trapped in a very personal shield. Peter believes the things is a weird sex toy, and suggests politely that this isn't really his kink -- but Carmen doesn't know how to turn the damned thing off, and finally they have to be rescued by the ship's nerdy mechanic, who is also Carmen's greatest fan and secretly in love with her.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) The three of us meet at a private place in the ship to discuss a plan Clea has drawn up. The aim of the plan is to get rid of Erskine, who is endangering our mission, while making it look like an accident. Carmen has by far the most dangerous role to play. Clea has a very reasonable explanation for that, but Carmen isn't buying it -- until Peter leans towards her, and whispers in her ear that he is in fact the Emperor. Clea only sees the look of shock of Carmen's face, and hears how she immediately acquiesces to the plan, but doesn't get the same information. She feels left out. (Sam wasn't rolling well, and didn't get many points during most of the game.)

(Beloved scene.) The Empire has found us! They're already on the ship, looking for us. Peter tells Clea that it is essential that he rescues a certain 8-year old girl that's also on the ship, though he doesn't explain why. Meanwhile, Carmen will bring Peter to safety. They both confront difficulties. In order to get an escape pod, Carmen has to threaten the mechanic who's in love with her with what she believes is a grenade; he recognises it as an anti-matter device that would destroy the entire ship, and quickly allows her to leave. Clea finds that getting to the girl is easy, but that all the marines on the ship are looking for the child. She finally decides to announce through the intercom that she's actually Lt. Rhea Stone, infamous rebel commander, and hated and feared by both the Empire and the Rebellion (because she once sacrificed an entire Rebel cell to save herself). In the ensuing chaos, they all escape, though Rhea and the child land on a different part of the nearby planet than the other two.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) The planet is low-tech and backwards. Carmen and Peter manage to get the local populace to help them search for Rhea and the girl, but only by promising to stay very far away from any villages.

(Suitor scene: Rhea.) Rhea finds the others. She is not amused, and demands answers. Peter explains that he is the Emperor Paul III. He also has to tell his Suitors that the girl is the daughter of the Rebel leader, and his own future bride. Carmen and Rhea are perplexed and scandalised. There's a harrowing scene between Paul and Rhea where she asks him what they're fighting for if they're even willing to use children as pawns in political games. Paul is forced to confront the depths of his own moral degradation.

(Beloved scene.) We arrive at the Rebel base, where Paul and the child are heartily welcomed. Rhea and Carmen, however, are met with open hostility and lots of guns pointed at them -- Rhea because the Rebels hate her guts, Carmen because she's carrying an anti-matter bomb. At this point, Paul asserts his authority; then the Empire attacks in force; and Paul leads his two Suitors in a heroic attempt to ward off the attack. "Let's fight! Let's forget the past! We'll start anew, and make the Rebellion something to be proud of!" They mount the anti-matter device on a rocket, and use it to blow up the gigantic Empire ship that is threatening the planet. The Rebels win, though, unfortunately, the Rebel leader has died.

Then we roll dice, and Sam, who rolls least dice, nevertheless wins. So he tells us how Paul becomes the leader of only a small section of the Rebel force, and never wins back his Empire. He is, on the positive side, a morally good leader, a point of light in a dark galaxy. And, of course, he has a romantic relationship with Rhea, who becomes his right hand. Carmen lives on as a shady arms dealer.

Thoughts about the system

As I said, I love the character creation system. Having Suitor turns and Beloved turns, in which different players work together or oppose each other, also works very well. The Suitor turns create a bond between the Beloved and the Suitors, while the Beloved turns serve to remind us that there is something the Beloved wants more than love.

I also like the dice mechanic, in so far as it is very, very random. I haven't done the math, but if you're rolling 6 dice against 4, there's still a very good chance that the person with 4 dice will win. As a player, you do not have a lot of control over who is going to win, and this adds an amount of unpredictability to the game that seems to be appropriate here. All is fair in love and war; but let us not forget that all war is chaos.

What I'm not convinced about is the whole system of Traits, both the ways that you gain them and the ways that you use them.

Traits are supposed to be rewards or failures. The Opponent in a Suitor scene can threaten you with a nasty trait, and you might not want to accept this; in fact, you may choose to gain less dice, simply because you wish to avoid a bad trait. But in fact, gaining a trait is never mechanically bad. Nor is it ever mechanically good. There is a strictly limited number of moves you can make in any scene to earn dice; and there will always be enough traits to make all of these moves. Neither you nor your opponents are ever helped or hindered by you having, or not having, certain traits. There is, then, no mechanical effect of gaining traits.

So why are we making them? How can we threaten each other with them, or gleefully give them to ourselves? It seems to me that if traits are mechanically inert, as they are, we'd be better off just using narration rights and forgetting about traits altogether.

Nor do traits have a clear story effect beyond the narration in which they get established, since they do not act as constraints on what can be narrated later. (The game text isn't entirely clear about this, but I think they cannot act as constraints, because there is no way to change them as the fiction demands.) So overall, the whole trait system seems to be pretty useless.

Also, I'm not too sold on the whole "think up three responses"-stuff. There's a notable pause in every scene while people try to think up not just one response, but three of them -- and in suitor scenes, each Suitor must think of three responses! That often makes the game slow down remarkably.

In the end, I decided that in Beloved scenes, I would make each Suitor describe one response; then I would narrate some more; then they would make another response; I would narrate some more; and finally they would think up the third response. This worked fairly well, but if this is how the game is meant to be played, I'd like to see it in the book. And I'm not sure how to apply this procedure to Suitor scenes.

I obviously need to play the game again. But my current feeling is that the rules for playing out scenes aren't nearly as good as the rules for character creation, and could in fact use some changes.

A game about love?

Don't believe Emily Care Boss. Shooting the Moon is not a game about love.

Of course it's not a game about love! Here are three characters playing a zero-sum game. It's not just the rejected Suitor who loses; no, one of the two others must also lose. The Beloved isn't looking for love, and getting together with one of the Suitors will ensure that he doesn't achieve his dream. The successful Suitor, if there is one, can only capture the Beloved by destroying his dream. That's not love. Love is not the situation where you conquer someone and then force them to give up their dreams. Love is not a fight where you try to beat someone else to a prize who has no say in the matter.

Just think about this: the Beloved has no say, no say at all, about which of the Suitors will win his hand. All he can try to do is make sure that neither of them does.

Shooting the Moon is a game about power. It is a game about forcing other people to do what you want, and to be what you want. The Suitors are trying to force the Beloved to be a prize, to be the desirable object they can show off -- primarily to their humiliated rival! The Beloved is trying to force the Suitors to help him achieve his dream, without giving them anything in return; without taking their needs into account.

This is a game that poses as a game about love, but is in fact a game about objectifying and using people. Is that a comment about how we often tend to think about romance, especially in popular culture? Undoubtedly. And the fact that Shooting the Moon generates stories that do look like romance on the surface makes that comment all the more believable.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Victor, Thanks for playing the game! Great thoughts. Love in the game, I've found is a motivator, but the real story is the changes of the characters, and their choices. The game is often a tragedy.

    But it is meant to be a conversation between the three--how can the Suitors woo the Beloved. This works best in the 3 player version. Though in the end, it may be that they gain what they want and the Beloved does not. Or perhaps the Beloved will go on their own, accomplishing their Dream.

    This was particularly interestings:

    "Neither you nor your opponents are ever helped or hindered by you having, or not having, certain traits. There is, then, no mechanical effect of gaining traits."

    Yes, there is not a limit on the number, they are not scarce. Instead they shape and flavor who your character is, and what you choose to do with them. Just as Traits do in Breaking the Ice. And the other players get to co-author who your character is as you go along. Of course, each player gets to choose how they implement that.

    Thanks for playing! Sorry it didn't seem to gel entirely for you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I may not have made this clear in the main post, but we had a lot of fun. Also, all my thoughts are based on playing the game once, so you should take them with a grain of salt.

      That said, I think I can quite accurately describe what the difference is between Traits in BtI and in StM, and why they fee much more relevant in the former. In BtI you have a lot of mechanical opportunities to gain rerolls, but it can be hard to find fictional reasons for them. So you're really driven to use every trait, conflict and compatibility that seems even remotely relevant. This way, almost all traits come up regularly, and getting a new trait has a lot of impact, because you will be pushed to make use of it.

      In StM, on the other hand, the number of opportunities for getting dice is strictly limited, and the number of traits is much larger than the number of opportunities. Halfway through the game, the Suitor and the Beloved will have more than 20 traits in total, and they'll need to use only 3 of them to get all their dice in the First Pool. So unlike in BtI, where there is an abundance of rerolls and a scarcity of Traits, in StM there is an abundance of Traits, and a scarcity of opportunities for using them. This means that they feel much less substantial, and many of them will never be used.

      As an example, I'll look at the traits Peter gained during our game.

      1. "Erskine believes I'm useful to him" -- no longer relevant at the end of the game, since Erskine was dead.
      2. "Doubt the competence of my allies" -- no longer relevant at the end of the game, since they'd both shown to be quite competent.
      3. "Loves Carmen's kink" -- never came up after being established.
      4. "Carmen knows who I am" -- never came up mechanically after being established, and was something we would have remembered anyway.
      5. "Feels grateful for Carmen's rescuing him" -- same as with 4.
      6. "Everyone can gain from selling me out" -- same as with 4.
      7. "In the middle of nowhere" -- had been relevant for exactly one scene, after which we got to the Rebel base.
      8. "Doubting my own moral fibre" -- a good summary of the end of scene eight, but quickly abandoned during scene nine; also, same as with 4.

      So looking at those traits, I just don't fee they really did anything for me or my character. Many quickly lost their relevance; many were never used mechanically; and those that established something important didn't need to be written down as Traits in order to establish something, because these were the main events of the game.

      Perhaps this was very specific to our session, though.

      Delete
    2. While, on the other hand, my attributes were very important! That I suddenly introduced an 8-year old girl in scene six was only because that attribute "protecting an innocent" was staring me in the face all the time.

      Delete
  2. Ach, I wrote up a great big comment and then somehow it vanished. Let's try this again.

    Of course it's not a game about love! Here are three characters playing a zero-sum game. It's not just the rejected Suitor who loses; no, one of the two others must also lose.

    It can definitely be about unsavoury or selfish or downright scary varieties of love, yes. This is not inevitable.

    Technically, all three characters are allowed to get what they want, if it makes sense with the story. 'Winning' just means that your character does get their goal. If it makes narrative sense for all three PCs to get married and colonise Mars, that's cool. The apparent zero-sum nature of the thing is, at its best, a way to have the characters all pulling in different directions, because that's interesting.

    I've played StM where all three characters get along and support one another, and the romance aspect is sort of a crush that complicates a friendship but might, under the right circumstances, develop into something more. I've played StM where it quickly became apparent that one Suitor and the Beloved are made for one another, and that the other Suitor was plainly the antagonist; there the question became about whether there was going to be a happy ending or not. I've played games where, by about the halfway point, it became clear that the Beloved's Dream was horrible and messed-up and would be the worst thing in the world for them. I've played games - these tend to be the least fun - where the characters never quite bridge their emotional distance and the thing does play out as a pretty stark competition. And you generally don't know how it's going to play out until you're in the game.

    This does mean that it requires a really complicated distinction between playing-to-win and playing-to-make-the-story-better, more so than most narrative RPGs - you need to both be always working to win and not take that attitude very seriously. I've definitely been in games that foundered upon that. But I think that at least part of what it's getting at is that nobody, coming into a relationship, has exactly the same set of interests as their prospective partner.

    If anything, I'd like the character-creation process to be expanded, to establish the setting a bit more firmly - a lot of games I've played have suffered because the setting was too hazy - and to give the PCs more of an established relationship at the outset, because with a nine-scene limit you don't have a lot of space for establishing/introductrory scenes. (Partly I want to make up a hack for this just because I could then call it Setting the Moon. Also, it would mean that approximately 50% of play time was setup.)

    Neither you nor your opponents are ever helped or hindered by you having, or not having, certain traits. There is, then, no mechanical effect of gaining traits.

    There is no mechanical effect of gaining traits if the game is viewed as a machine. I'm pretty content with that. In practice, I'm often helped immensely by having a trait that enriches a character in unexpected and fruitful ways - frankly, I want other characters to be giving me some of my traits as the game progresses. When I'm dealing with a conflict, the presence of a trait that offers interesting possibilities, rather than boring ones ('I use my Engineering Knowledge to fix the warp core') can make a world of difference. The main problem with traits is that it's hard to ensure that they're interesting and fruitful. (In our game, our situation changed substantially such that a lot of our heavily-situational traits were rendered moot, which limited things somewhat.) But my very favourite games have come about because traits showed me things about a character that I didn't know when I started the game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "There is no mechanical effect of gaining traits if the game is viewed as a machine."

      I hope my explanation to Emily above makes it clear that I'm not exactly viewing the game as a machine. The point is more that BtI forces you to use your traits and work them into the narrative, whereas StM makes it impossible to do this with all traits, and so you'll end up ignoring most of them. While it seems to me that the really important ones, the ones that make you understand your character in new ways, would also be established just by the narration, without making them into mechanical parts of the game. Do you disagree?

      I guess the real conclusion here is that we need to play this game again. :-)

      Do you have any concrete ideas about creating a richer setting?

      Delete
  3. (I think. I may once have started a game with Jasper Polane, but if so, I don't think we managed to finish it.)

    I don't think so, I never played it. We played Breaking the Ice, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have this faint recollection that I brought it to your place once ... but maybe we didn't play it? Or maybe my recollection is just wrong?

      We definitely did play Breaking the Ice, yes, as well as Trollbabe and a rather successful game of The Shadow of Yesterday that I fondly remember!

      Delete