[Nod] A very intriguing, but frustrating game

edited June 2014 in Story Games
We just finished up a game of Nod and have very conflicting feelings about it. The game created some very cool imagery and we were all enjoying the city and its odd mysteries. Everything was going well until we realized that the Barbarian has basically zero agency in the game. It's not exactly railroading, but he has to get maneuvered in place to experience the other characters. Then, when he shows up in their realm, he has no power because they have Agency over their domain, followers, powers, etc.

The Barbarian tried to stab the Sybarite (to get fresh entrails for the Apothecary to read *AWESOME*), but since the Sybarite has Authority over his clique, he made one of them take the blow. He was well-nigh unstabbable. Likewise, the King of Worms can nay-say anything the Barbarian does in the necropolis, and the Proprietor in his establishment. The Dawn controls cats, so it's nice that the Barbarian can talk to animals, but those cats aren't listening.

Personally, I think part of the problem was the first directive to players: 1. Try to get your character what they want. When that's combined with "If you’ve got authority over a situation, it’s up to you to decide how things go for the Barbarian," it's bad news for the Barbarian. I think if we end up playing again, we'll add directive 0: Value the story over your character. Tell the coolest story you can. Make a movie you'd want to watch. With that you don't even need the resolution cards (which often didn't fit the situation). Just ask the group - is this bitchin? Then it totally happens.

I hope this doesn't come off negatively. We were all really intrigued by the concept and execution of the game, which is why its shortcomings were driving us nuts.

Tagging in @Steve_Hickey @Simon_C @snej


  • Very interesting. Looking forward to hearing this discussion!

    (Very oddly, I myself designed a game called "Land of Nodd" many years ago, with presumably the same inspiration for the title. The game was described by several people as "railroading made fun", so, while it wasn't a *problem* in my game, there was a very similar dynamic at play. Coincidence? Perhaps.)
  • Hi Keith!

    Thanks for posting this thread! I'm sorry that your experience was mixed, and I hope that you give the game another chance.

    Let's talk about your specific issue:

    The three principles you're talking about are as follows:

    1. Try to get your character what they want
    2. Be honest to your vision of the character and the world
    3. Let yourself be surprised by where the story goes

    (The full text of the rules is here for those who are curious.)

    To my mind, that second principle answers the issue you're talking about: Was the Sybarite's player being honest to their vision of the character? There's a blade-wielding barbarian with pantherish muscles and an uncluttered mind right in front of the Sybarite, and the player says that one of their rejectamenta or hangers-on dives in front of the blow? Does that sound plausible to you? Do you think it sounded plausible to the player at the time?

    The second principle instructs you to form a vision of the fiction in the world, and honestly describe what you see there. As players we have to trust each other to follow our visions on our authorities, and we also have to live up to the trust that the other players put in us. If I honestly see my character as unassailable in this situation, then I am within my rights to describe them as such. But if my appraisal of the situation tells me that my beloved Sybarite is toast, I am required to describe that instead. If I honestly can't say, we go to the cards.

    The third principle tells us to let ourselves be surprised. This echoes what you raised - place the story before your character. But that's not quite what we're doing. Instead, no one has authority over "the story". Instead, we trust our vision on the moment-to-moment events in the fiction, and let the story take care of itself.

    I'm very curious to hear more about how the Tarot didn't fit with the situations in the game, because that's not something I saw in playtesting. Can you describe more around that?
  • edited June 2014
    Hi @Keith -- You are correct about the contents of Directive 0, although I'm surprised it has to be written out explicitly. That's the whole point right there. It's not like the non-Barbarian Players are invested creators of their own PCs, bound by personal desire to "win" or whatever. They should be thinking more like GMs playing NPCs than Players playing PCs. That said, the rules do plainly describe the decision-making mechanics for non-Barbarians, including fallback procedures, and the implication is that while they may be lords of their own domains, they are not omnipotent or indestructible (quoting at length, emphasis mine):
    If you’ve got authority over a situation, it’s up to you to decide how things go for the Barbarian, whether physical force will prevail, who is quickest, whose will is strongest, who has the advantage and how much it will gain them.
    So at first it's a narrative choice, not a forgone conclusion. But...
    Sometimes it’s not clear who should win. You don’t know enough about the antagonists or their relative strengths to decide who should emerge victor.
    True that, and that's an important piece of undecided information that needs to be decided. But it's clearly not always supposed to be done in a "I PWN UR ASS" kind of way, because the rules go on to say...
    Other times, it feels like there’s too much riding on the outcome of a conflict for you to make a fair decision. You could call it one way or the other, but you don’t think you can make an unbiased decision because the stakes are too high. When it’s your responsibility to decide how things turn out, but you don’t feel like you can make a good decision, you can turn to the Tarot.
    I think the players' approach may be the problem. Are they playing these characters like they were their own personal Pathfinder characters? The object is to work together more, thinking on the our story level, not the my character level. If you're playing a non-Barbarian and you're giving the Barbarian no agency or refusing to do anything other than defend your status (and stasis), you should feel artistic guilt, like a railroading GM or a bad author, you should feel a conscientious concern to defer to the fiction, or if it's still unclear, to the cards. And even the cards have a fallback - if the card you draw doesn't make sense, you simply draw another one. This is all in the rules book.

    TL;DR: Your first two paragraphs are missing the point of the exercise. Directive 0 is spot on.
  • Hitting a few points:

    @AsIf I think if the first thing you tell players is to pursue their characters' agendas - and you tell them twice and in bold print - that's what they're going to do. In a game they've never played before, written rules will trump unwritten ones. Honestly, even re-ordering those directives may have helped out. Or possibly add an Apocalypse World-y "Be a fan of the Barbarian; give them opportunities to succeed grandly and to fail miserably."

    Although I agree that "the players' approach may be the problem. Are they playing these characters like they were their own personal Pathfinder characters? The object is to work together more, thinking on the our story level, not the my character level," I can't fault them for said approach. Game text says to get your character what they want, so they did. Yes, the story itself should be more important. If you're only hoping grizzled story gamers will play the game, you can probably get away with not saying that. But if you want someone who is schooled in Pathfinder to have fun playing the game, it does need to be spelled out. For informational purposes, our mix was 2 story gamers, one middle-of-the-roader and two more traditional gamers.

    @Simon_C The Sybarite's player was definitely honest to his vision. He had set Father Clement up as the leader of a cult designed to "end this pointless existence in style" and was overjoyed whenever the Barbarian hacked apart his followers, which had happened in spades (and was *AMAZING*) in an earlier scene. He was a terrifying Svengali who had his followers completely under his thumb. That said, it would have been way more awesome to see the Barbarian pulling the Sybarite's guts out then to have a mook get killed.

    Re: The Tarot deck. We didn't go to it a lot, but when we did we found ourselves struggling to answer the questions. Who does have the most applicable training, knowledge or experience when it comes to the Barbarian driving his bloody thumbs in the King of Worms' eyes in order to try to give him what he dreads most, life. So we drew another one. Who has the most applicable physical prowess, strength, speed, endurance? Well, the Barbarian is strong, but the King of Worms can probably endure until the end of time.
    Now, if we got the Kingfisher there it would have been clear who had the advantage of surprise, or the Pit to tell us who is the most desperate. If we had bypassed the deck and gone with what was cool it would have been the Barbarian all the way. Instead the Blind Gods had us roll a die and the Barbarian was tackled by the King's thrall. It was very anticlimactic.

    Anyway, I hope to get to facilitate this again. I think with a different intro/pitch we could get very different results. The thing that is needling me is how very close we came to an incredible story and I want to push past the barriers and figure out how to get that narrative with regularity.
  • Cool. You're not wrong, btw. You've pointed out a problem that many storygame rules have; a sort of tacit assumption that the "spirit" of the game is already understood. This is why games need editors.

    The order in which rules are presented, the language used, and even things like the layout of pages and size of fonts - all may affect the reader's interpretation in ways the author doesn't expect. Glad you liked it. I like it too.
  • You've pointed out a problem that many storygame rules have; a sort of tacit assumption that the "spirit" of the game is already understood. This is why games need editors.
    If it weren't for this I could actually get my group to play 90% of the games I´ve seen featured in this forum since I started lurking around. It's not a capital crime, but as a designer you should certainly make sure that players actually understand where's the fun in your game and how are players supposed to get there, instead of assuming that everyone is thinking the same that you do when you look at your game rules.

    Now, don't anybody please get me wrong about this, but if a trad player can't get a story game, it's probably because the game is making too much assumptions about the player's way of having fun.

    For my group, I've found that games work better if the best practices for the game are actually ingrained in the rules in a sort of imperative form, otherwise they tend to ignore the best practices and go back into "oh, so I can just GM/roleplay it like D&D" automatic mode. Even I had trouble understanding AW and it's variants until I found a text explaining the mechanics in a different way than the ones I had seen up to that day. Basically the text said something like "GM it like you've always done, but, whenever the players fail the roll, make something else happen, instead of telling them that they miss or fail. Since you get to do things if they fail, you don't need turns for your monsters/NPCs to act, nor you need to roll the dice" And though it's actually explained in all *W books in some way or another, it wasn't until then that the light finally hit me and I saw the lord's work on the holy work of Vincent oh thrice blessed his name.

    So please follow my advice, next time you write a story game, try explaining it like if a hardcore trad gamer is gonna read it.

  • So please follow my advice, next time you write a story game, try explaining it like if a hardcore trad gamer is gonna read it.
    I think this is why Dungeon World has been so successful. It very clearly lays out how to play and run it and makes very, very few assumptions about what you should know or may have done in the past.

    Now, that being said, I don't think every game has to do that. If you don't care if your game is widely accessible, then don't take the time to explain from scratch. I'm working on a game that if you haven't played*W games before it will not make a lick of sense. That's OK because the game is going to have a terrifically small niche audience and I expect all of them will have the experiences needed to play the game.

    Nod, I think, has the potential to be a great first RPG for some sword and sorcery fans. It's evocative, inspirational and rules light;It could be fantastic "gateway" game. That's why I think it would benefit greatly from a "ground up" explanation of the rules.

  • Keith, I'd be really interested to read your version of that explanation. To be honest, I wrote the text of the game in the most straightforward and direct way I knew how. To my mind, the game doesn't make any assumptions about what you know coming into it. Clearly thought there was something missing for you, so I'd love to hear more about that.

    I want to clarify something though: "Going with what is cool" is not what the game is about. Sometimes the Barbarian loses and it sucks. Sometimes it would be really cool if a thing happened, but it doesn't. That's what "Let yourself be surprised by where the story goes" means. My experience has been that when we focus on just the moment-to-moment details of the fiction, and let the story take care of itself, the resulting events are far more exciting and meaningful.

    I wonder if your issue with the game is less about creative agenda, and more about resolution? Nod's resolution system requires a really disciplined focus on the details of the fiction, as well as the ability to make quick decisions about your authorities. Those are all skills that you develop through play, and not all games use them. If the resolution system doesn't seem robust to you, it's possibly because you don't have a background in games that use those skills.

    One of the things I did in the design of Nod to accommodate this was to make the resolution system entirely independent of the rest of the game. That means that you can replace it with any other system you like, and the game handles it fine. You might find that you enjoy the game more with a system that handles more of the fictional details with concrete rules and procedures. It'd be a bit of work to stat everything up, but I reckon Pathfinder would actually be a really good choice for this. I've idly considered publishing a Pathfinder version of the game, but I don't think I know the system well enough to do it justice.
  • edited June 2014
    @Simon_C +1 for thinking modularly about subsystems. I totally dig that.

    A few days ago on G+ someone said that there seems to be a high incidence of players "in the storygames crowd" (as opposed to players in trad crowds) who are themselves GMs. At least the ones who "really get it". I find this to be true as well. As GMs, we are always improvising to negotiate highly abstract conceptual terrain, and we can become so familiar with this strange art that we may not even notice what a specialized skill it is. This can lead to unspoken assumptions in the game rules we write. I see it all the time, actually.
  • Great thread, Keith. Here's what your account of the Sybarite's actions made me think: Authority means you're responsible for saying what's true about the aspect of the world that you control. This truth doesn't automatically go in your character's favour.

    Maybe the "Be honest to your vision of the character and the world" principle is a little confusing because:

    a) it introduces the idea of 'the world' when it's actually using 'the world' as shorthand for talking about authority?
    b) the phrase 'Be honest' hides the tension between 'advocating for your character' and 'exercising your authority'?

    So maybe it'd be better if the principles spelled this out:

    1. Try to get your character what they want
    2. Decide what's true about the things you have authority over (even if that truth opposes what your character wants)
    3. Be honest to your vision of the character and the world
    4. Let yourself be surprised by where the story goes

  • edited June 2014
    1. Try to get your character what they want
    2. Be honest to your vision of the character and the world
    3. Let yourself be surprised by where the story goes
    As instructions, those do seem pretty close to direct contradictions: advocate but don't advocate.

    If each was happening during different parts of the game, I could see that working (e.g. "get what you want when starting conflicts, but be honest about the world when judging the outcomes" or whatever) but not both at once.
  • Ben, I don't see them as contradictory. They're what we do in many, many games.

    As a player in, for example, Pathfinder, I try to get my character what they want, but I also balance that against my knowledge of who that character is, and what they know.

    As the MC in Apocalypse World, I play my threats smart and hard and I don't pull any punches, but I only make the moves for them that make sense in the fiction of the game.

    There's some important context that's being missed. The game explicitly tells you what your job is as a (non barbarian) player:

    "The other players together play the supporting characters. Their job is to make the world come alive around the Barbarian, to make the city feel real, like it has a life of its own."

    The principles are tools you use to do your job as a player. When you try to get your character what they want, you do that because it will inevitably put them in the path of the Barbarian, and draw the Barbarian into a network of shifting allegiances and conflicting desires.

  • Those examples don't fit. A pathfinder player has no authority over the world, only their character. An AW MC controls a myriad of characters with different agendas, not one character with a single agenda.

    Consider this one small change. Instead of:

    "Try to get your character what they want”

    Would you be better off saying:

    “Have your character try to get what they want”

    There’s a vast difference between the two, particularly when players control aspects of the world, not just their character actions.

    Does the barbarian ever get to call upon the tarot to challenge outcomes they don’t like (a la Archipelago “that might not be so easy”)? It looks like the answer is no. If that's true, I can see why play would fall flat.
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