Spiders and Sunflowers. My first Lacuna game

Last night I ran a game of Lacuna (part one: the creation of the mystery and the girl from Blue City) for three friends. Planned for five, but with two unavoidable cancellations. It went well. None of the players had played Lacuna before, but one had been very keen to ever since I’d showed them the book.

I had plastic baggies with a bunch of same-coloured d6 for each player, because everyone likes choosing a colour. I couldn’t explain why I felt that plastic baggies of d6 feel appropriate for Lacuna, but they did. As I was expecting a large group with no experience of the game, I put together a player handout for them to refer back to.

First impressions were good. The Agent Sheet did an amazing job setting the initial tone, as did rolling for pseudonyms (“I don’t even get to pick my name?”). When describing the work of Agents and The Institute, the biggest “aha!” moment was when I told them that they were like the agents from The Matrix, so I’ll definitely go right there when the other two players join.

The players came out with some surprisingly awkward questions - “Do we work for the institute, or are we volunteers?” “What do I do outside of work?” “What do agents look like?” This caught me a bit off balance. It’s hard to stay vague when confronted with direct good-faith questions. So I gave informative non-answers - “Agents are drawn from the original Nasrudin Institute experiments. Agents are discouraged from bringing their personal lives into the field” and then took my control hat off to explain that certain details are left unstated and that they could decide some personal details for themselves during play.

We began play with the mission briefing. There is a man on the slab. It’s too late for his victims, but we can still save him. We are currently in the rare position of being overstaffed and so, as new agents, this is an ideal opportunity for you. Tomorrow morning a team will dive into Blue City and eliminate the hostile personality responsible. Tonight your team will dive in and carry out preparations for the second team. You will not be required to confront a hostile personality.
Rendezvous with your contact at the steam factory
Retrieve the package and deliver as instructed
Return to the insertion point for retrieval
Do not enter the museum
Requests for clarification were met with repetition of the four-point briefing, or a vaguely threatening “Agents are expected to exercise a certain amount of initiative in the field. Do you require further training?” And after counting down to insertion, I started a numbers station compilation for a “soundtrack”.

My planning for the mission was a couple of encounters, some obstacles between each, and trying to imagine how the agents might react to those obstacles. I also had a short list of static triggers, events to trigger on certain static levels, a list of random names, buildings and visual motifs.

Main plans:
A group of drunken bravos in official uniforms would confront the agents for no good reason.
The contact would demand that the agents get her out of the city before she gave them the package - “Have you seen the blockades? They know I’m here. Get me out of here. Take me with you!
The package’s delivery instructions were a note saying “Destination: Museum. Spider wing.
Once static was high enough, the fibreglass exhibit in the museum’s main hall - “as if a shark was a dinosaur” - would move when it wasn’t being watched, weeping-angel style.
Due to Apollo protocols, any distressing visuals in Blue City would be replaced with sunflowers in the agents’ perceptions. The players did not know this.
At 11 static Control would give one of the agents a regulation handgun without prompting and with no further instructions.

Things went mostly according to plan. The players were initially reluctant to take any action without talking it over a lot. So whenever they suggested something sensible I took to just narrating as if they’d done it (with an opportunity for them to backtrack).

The Agents were taken aback by the request from Tatyana (their contact). “Is that even possible?” “No it is not. What do you do?”. They decided to fob her off with promises and a +3 wallet of cash (from taking the bravos drinking) so Tatyana could buy her way to safety in the meantime.

They were utterly, utterly paralysed by the delivery instructions contradicting their mission objectives. After the game they told me that it had felt like a puzzle to be solved.

They argued among themselves (generating static). They examined the delivery instructions closely (forcing me to come up with something on the fly – that the instructions were written in thick ink over a biro note to Tatyana from Apollo Chelicera warning her that “they know”).

They called control multiple times for clarifications. I was trying hard not to screw them out of a successful roll, so I repeated their mission objectives to them, but made sure to specify that they were in order of priority. So delivering the package was more important that not going into the museum.

Eventually they ended up round the back of the museum with the grounds-keeper's ladder, trying to get the suitcase into the (first floor) spider wing without actually going inside. This was when I had Tatyana charge back onto the scene, swearing at them for being liars. Followed closely by the military police. This railroaded them into a quick hustle up the ladder and into the next set-piece: the spider wing was a wooden desk with a single drawer in infinite field of sunflowers under a blue sky. Behind them, instead of the window there was a staircase down.

After depositing the suitcase into the drawer, they went downstairs into the museum’s main hall. I’d expected them to go through the main entrance, and then find themselves in the sunflower field after taking the stairs. This actually worked much better because, as they immediately pointed out “We didn’t go into the museum, we’re only leaving it”. Well played agents, well played.

The rest of the session was just an action/chase sequence. BPM limits were pushed. Static rose higher. Control was uncooperative about equipment requests, generally giving them something useful, but not what they requested. A request for wire cutters was met with a crate of thermite with no detonators. Which worked out since I’d established that the cars ran on large aerosol-looking batteries that were recharged at the steam factory. The exhibit monster caught up with them, had its leg blown off, slithered into the canal when they weren’t looking. When they had to cross the bridge, it attacked them from below where they couldn’t watch it. Rolls were failed, last second rescues occurred, but static hit 21 and a spiderman rounded the corner behind the retrieval as they were legging it to the insertion point. They ejected just as it started to draw something from its coat.

Debriefing demanded that they justify why they approached the spiderman despite policy. They tried to explain that they were running to the insertion point, not to the spiderman. They insisted that no, they did not talk to the spiderman at all, nor had they had any prior contact. It was made clear that in future they are to avoid contact with spidermen at ALL costs.
Did control just tell us they’d rather we died than met the spidermen?”

Comments

  • edited October 2018
    Things I had to emphasise a couple of times and will double down on in future:
    Blue City is not a dream and the personalities in it are not people sleeping in the real world.
    One of three stats is about requesting information and equipment from control.
    I am not looking for opportunities to screw you over for trying something. This one was honestly pretty understandable given the adversarial tone I’d established from control. My bad. So I just told them outright.
    I cannot roll dice, nor can I give you penalties. The dice are your friends, not mine.

    Things that went down well:
    The push-your-luck BPM system. People liked that they could re-roll, and got nervous about rising heart rates. A good pacing mechanism.
    Despite word-of-god to track static privately, I did it by putting black and white glass beads into a dish. This made the players very tense.
    Blue City. I tried to stick to the general aesthetic from the book and threw in some weird motifs: Five-wheeled cars, aerosol batteries, potted plum trees everywhere, wandering brandy sellers (made from street windfall). The players liked it and eventually decided that they were invaders to Blue City and it was responding with antibodies.
    The unasked for gun from control was sinister but useful. She also took the "armed" technique after the mission.
    In fact, everyone loved picking out a technique. And combined with the talents, they're now solid archetypes: a master of disguise with ALL the gear; an armed commando; and a fast-talking infiltrator. Each from three stats and two words.

    Things that went wrong:
    Paralysis over what to do. Asking permission rather than just saying. I will be clearer that I’ll roll with what they do, not penalise them for guessing wrong.
    One agent wanted to throw the package into the museum through a window and eject. I tried to work out how to stop them from voluntarily sitting out the rest of the session, but was saved when another player pointed out that control had given “return to insertion point” a higher priority than “do not enter the museum” (a different order to the handout – my lucky error).

    Stuff I’m not sure about:
    I didn’t feel great about when I called for rolls. A couple of times I realised that I had no good way to make failure interesting. I just about managed to gloss over it, but next time I’ll try to be more on the ball. And to remember to trigger static events from failures.
    Nobody worked out what the sunflowers meant (at one point a starved dog ran by with a sunflower in its jaws...). But they were creeped out by them. Good enough.
  • The sunflower idea is excellent. I've been doing a surreal/creepy comic book game with Masks and it's vitally important to make things like that not feel random or pointless. You, the GM, have a rule by which the surreal imagery appears and what it means to you. The players will receive the feeling that it's real and proper, but will project their own meaning (or if they can't puzzle it out, their own feelings) onto it. Similar things happen in the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu, where attacks of Mythos-inspired "insanity" permits the GM to rewrite the background of the character sheets. Are these changes remembered realities or are they new delusions? The player will have one idea, and perhaps the GM may have another, but even if they don't match, it works if you've done it with careful attention to what's going on.

    Great summary. I love Lacuna, I gotta get it back to the table soon.
  • edited October 2018
    Nice writeup! Helps me some with thinking of how I'd want to run my own Lacuna game. I've been itching to run one for a long time, but I've always stopped short of getting it together. My main stumbling block has been that I can't figure out a way to run it that's not just "Deliver an experience to the players". I personally hate playing games where I'm just responding to the GM:s puzzles and trying to get through, and I'd like to give the players some story authorship and have them make decisions that are meaningful in a story sense. But at the same time, I really want to run with the confusing themes of the game, and it seems really hard to give players meaningful choices when you're confusing them and keeping things from them. How can they make a meaningful choice and feel confident in making up interesting things when they don't know what's going on?

    EDIT: Perhaps sandboxing is the way to do this? Take some notes from Sandra's rulebook and run the Blue City as a place to explore? I'm thinking I can steal some things from Don't Rest Your Head, too.
  • I certainly ran this session as a tour rather than a sandbox. I gave them things to react to and decisions to make, but no real agency.

    An option I'd considered before the game was to borrow from Inspectres and give each player one "confessional". This would be a flash-forward to the debriefing. The agent's report to control would shape the narrative back in the present. But it seemed risky to mod a game I'd never run before.

    For the second session, Control will ask them to Identify and eliminate a hostile personality at a masquerade ball that is also an ambassadorial reception.

    These are held monthly in Blue City. It is hoped that agents of the other side of The Conflict will take the opportunity to attend so that deniable communications can occur. There is no evidence of this ever having happened.

    A single location, dense with personalities and a task that can be approached multiple ways. I'm hopeful that that will provide more opportunities for them to shape the scenario.
  • edited October 2018
    Our subject is Walter Evanson. Evanson broke into his neighbour's flat and beat him severely. Evanson justified the attack with complaints about his neighbour's "incessant violin practice". Evanson is a lapsed alcoholic with a history of affray with street musicians.

    The hostile personality is known to be at an ambassadoral reception tonight.
    Infiltrate the reception
    Identify the hostile personality
    Eliminate the HP
    Do not implicate yourselves or the institute
    Preparation for mission two was:
    Static triggers (including "anyone becomes unmasked")
    Queue of static effects
    A list of guest archetypes (bored dilettante, desperate peacemaker...)
    A bunch of dialogue snippets to fall back on
    A table of 60 masks to roll on
    A stack of index cards
    A big black marker

    When the agents meet a new guest, we roll a mask and write it on an index card, which gets folded into a standee. The players can then note observations and suspicions onto the card to keep track of all the people they meet at the party.

    In order to make their task of ID'ing a suspect at a masked ball a little easier, and to ratchet up the weirdness, one of the attendees was The Broker, who wears a pied mask, has a taste for gaming, and can enable any equal trade.

    What worked:
    Much fewer trust issues this mission. Less "Can I/may I" and more assertive actions.
    The index card standees were fun. I doubt any of us could have kept the guest list straight without them. And the players liked playing detective based on the clues in the HP's bio.
    The mask list. Random tables are fun. And the players went on edge when we rolled a sunflower mask for one guest. And realised that sunflowers aren't sunflowers when one agent commented "Oh I love your sunflower mask" only to be told "My what mask?"
    One of the static effects was a flash forward to the debriefing. Control asked each agent a leading question - "When did things start to go wrong?" "What were your contingency plans?" "Why couldn't you save the concierge?" then the players had to respond. This ratcheted up the tension and let the players establish some new details.
    The Broker. One agent played a game of three card monte (wagering their identity under the mask), and won the ability to play Blue City instruments. The agents spent the rest of the night terrified of The Broker. Though the ability came in handy.

    What didn't work:
    Also The Broker. Scaring the players away from him also meant they couldn't use him to help the investigation.
    The final confrontation with the HP. It was all over in a flash. Once they made the HP, the players came up with a solid plan, executed it well and I didn't want to cheat them.

    What I'm not sure about:
    The identity of the HP. This wasn't predetermined. I intended to pay attention to the players' speculations and just make their most interesting theories true. This didn't turn out great because due to Broker-phobia, they relied a lot on eliminating suspects one by one. If I'd had more of a plan going in I feel I could have set up a more satisfying reveal. Perhaps the HP should have had some kind of plan that the agents could notice and foil.
    Rolling dice. I still feel uncertain about calling for rolls, and there was a lot less dice rolling this session. In hindsight there should have been an agenda whenever an agent started a conversation with a goal in mind. Access remains the most fun stat to roll.

    Lacuna seems to put a lot of burden on Control (ie the GM). There's a lot of freedom in how you run it, so that might be my own fault. Nevertheless I don't think I can keep these games up forever so I'll make next week a finale. The personalities from mission 1 and 2 that got the biggest reactions will return. And end with some kind of crazy revelation. Fingers crossed it all comes together.
  • edited October 2018
    Nothing went as planned for anybody this week.

    A political figure has come to the Nasrudin Institute voluntarily, hoping that they could excise certain politically inconvenient inclinations. Control told the agents that this was a golden opportunity to eliminate an HP pre-emptively. And to win some very useful influence for the institute.

    Control was unusually forthcoming in the briefing, answering lots of questions . The HP "Olivia" was mostly seen in and around the church in the glassworks district.

    After insertion the agents found themselves in a tram car and immediately started making plans. All of which became irrelevant when Olivia got into the same tram car. After two missions with contradictory or impossible briefs, the players were deeply, deeply suspicious about their target appearing immediately in front of them.

    I'd planned for this session to be a lengthy action/chase sequence through Blue City, as rioters filled the streets (led by their contact from mission 1, Tatyana). Instead we got a stealth mission as they tailed Olivia through a broken City. The fibreglass monster model from mission 1 was spotted broken up and lying in a pile of rubbish.

    Agent Chaffer went ahead to cut Olivia off at the church. There he found his old fremesis The Broker, making trades to help families escape Blue City. The agent was still scared stiff of Blue City's resident dealmaker and investigated the doors at the back of the church instead. Which opened on to an incongruous lift. Thanks to the Thief technique, he was able to take it down and found B1 was dilapidated hospital corridors, B2 was an empty auditorium, and B3 was a vault door with a Bakelite keyboard and an LCD display. Notably, the keyboard was in readable English, not the whirling nonsense-letters of Blue City. A few passwords were tested with no luck.

    Agent Chaffer called Control for advice and was told that the church had no basement. Warned him that he may be suffering from Lacuna narcosis and that he should rejoin the other Agents asap.

    Meanwhile agents Todd and Sadler caught up with Olivia after a brief chase. Between the pre-emptive nature of the mission, and the fact that Olivia never fought back, they felt very uncomfortable about eliminating her, but did so regardless. Control notified them that agent Chaffer was suffering from narcosis and to rejoin them ASAP before ejecting.

    At the church, Chaffer had a brilliant idea and arranged a deal with The Broker. Knowing better than to wager their own identity this time, Chaffer promised The Broker whatever was behind the door, in exchange for the password.

    I spelled out the exact terms of the deal for him to confirm three times. Because when the players looked back on this, I wanted it clear that he brought this 100% on himself.

    The squad reunited and decided that ejecting could wait (3 static for all disobeying control...) until they've investigated the church basement. The Broker, who they discover is named Apollo Chelicera (answering a long-running mystery from the Mission 1 handout) inputs the password "SUNFLOWER", to much slapping of foreheads.

    Behind the vault door was a long dark room, wallpapered in faded sunflower print and lit by flickering CRT monitors. They walk past empty IV stands and gurneys to find three slabs, with three familiar figures lying on them. Its the bodies of the three agents, asleep in their mission pyjamas. Here in Blue City.

    Agent Chaffer blind-bargained away their real bodies to Apollo Chelicera.

    This was too much for the players and they ejected. But they woke "more awake than you've ever felt", not in the institute, but on the slabs in the church basement. And in front of Apollo, where they had been standing when they ejected, were three spidermen in agent uniforms.

    End of game. No debriefing.

    I think this mission was the most fun we've all had so far. The agents were more unpredictable than normal and I had to think on my feet a bit, but it wasn't as hard on me as the reception mystery in mission 2.

    What worked:
    Asking for insight rolls at the start of an interaction, then playing out the conversation based on the result. When the player tells me their goal up front, I can make sure the flow of the conversation gets us there. You made the roll, you're going to get your answers; your question doesn't need to be perfect.

    Showing my working! The notes for Mission 2 were lying around and it did no harm if the players looked at them. I think it reassured them that I wasn't just coming up with surreal nonsense to mess with them moment to moment. It was planned surreal nonsense. Felt like that made a difference to them.

    I worked in callbacks to the previous two missions, the agents found out who Apollo Chelicera was, and we even got a payoff on the sunflower symbolism, even if it wasn't what was originally intended. I worried the ending might be a bit of a cliché, but the players were into it.

    Unfortunately they might have loved it a bit too much. I'd intended this as a finale, but the players read it as a cliffhanger. They liked all the little elements coming together and are super excited to find out what's "really" going on next time.

    I'm going to have to do some thinking about whether I can deliver on that for one more session, or if it's better to leave it as is. I've got some ideas for answers, but the mystery is so much more delicious.
  • Great stuff, I love how no two people run Lacuna the same way.
  • Hey, this is really interesting. Could you point me at an introduction to Lacuna / a place to get hold of it? My Googling skills seem too weak...
  • Of course -

    Game's page.
    Previous discussion on story-games.
    Drivethrurpg link.

    To borrow an introduction I wrote elsewhere:
    The characters are operatives who act in Blue City to remove harmful personalities and investigate the lacuna and other mysteries of blue city.

    Blue City is the collective unconsciousness of mankind. In the setting it's been discovered that all criminal impulses are a disease, caused by hostile personalities within Blue Bity. Personalities are characters inside Blue City. Hostile personalities are twisted and wrong personalities who cause criminal behaviour in the victims in the waking world. The lacuna is a metaphysical black hole that devours memory and subconscious thoughts. Mystery Agents are authorised to use lacuna devices to send hostile personalities to the lacuna.

    The rules cover events inside Blue City. Three stats - force, instinct and access (access is your ability to requisition stuff, either within blue city or sent to you by your real world support crew). When you want to do something, you roll dice equal to stat and you want an 11 or more. If you fail, you can try and roll again, but your heart rate goes up. Heart rate is important. It's the state of the character's body back on the slab. When your heart rate is in its optimum range, you get bonuses. When it isn't, you don't. If you don't eject before its too high you die.

    Static. Static is also important. It's the interference between you in blue city and your support crew in the real world. And static's more than just communications interference - when static gets high enough control might deliberately feed you false information.

    Certain things can trigger static to rise, like inter-agent conflict, or not buying something from Bosscow's shop, or when the spidermen show up.

    When static rises things happen. Like a personality becomes persistent so you might encounter them again, or something surreal occurs, or maybe the spidermen show up.
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