[Tales of Entropy] Actual Play and Sounding Board: Flame and Shadow

I've been playing a rather interesting game recently with a few posters from this forum (I'll let you identify yourselves, should you wish to do so!).

Tales of Entropy is a GMless RPG in a classic "Forge" style (to my eyes, at least), and features strong protagonists in a rather vague or quickly-drawn setting interacting in conflict with each other in a succession of punchy, conflict-oriented scenes.

One very interesting feature it has, however, is that each character has a Flame and a Shadow. These are simply numbers, but they represent a number of related concepts.

Flame - in my interpretation - represents "how brightly your character burns" while "on screen". A high Flame character is a true protagonist, pursuing their goals and passions, entertaining and evocative, and can choose to burn brightly (powerful, passionate, generally means they get their way!) or to burn slowly (and last longer than others in the story, with less chance of "burning out").

I always think of the Blade Runner quote:

"The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long..."

Shadow, on the other hand, only grows as the game goes on. It represents a character's dark side, animalistic impulses, a desire for immoral deeds, lust for power - things like that.

Shadow gives you power when you tap into it, but makes it more and more likely that your final outcome will not be a happy one (via the epilogue rules), and increases your chances of "folding" out of the story earlier than the others. The more you use it, the more it tends to "grow".

Most interestingly, they are independent: either can be high or low, completely independent of the other. In our game, for instance, we have a rather villainous character (with a very high Shadow rating) but who nevertheless has a lot of Flame, as well.

Another unique feature of the game, however, is that the two traits aren't really defined in any clear way: it falls to the group to judge what they mean as the game goes along. Although the player has a say as to the starting value of each trait, once the game starts, your Flame and Shadow increase based on what the other players think of your character.

Here's my question:

What are the most fruitful ways of handling this uncertainty in play?

In a long-term game, eventually a shared understanding of some sort emerges about what such vague concepts might mean. However, Tales of Entropy isn't a particularly long-term game: although it generally wouldn't be easy to play in a one-shot, it's possible for a character to "fold" out of the story by their third of fourth scene.

In our group, we've been handling the awarding of Shadow and Flame points as a nearly silent procedure: we vote and a assign the points. Although over time an understanding of why and how may emerge, we don't discuss this much at all overtly.

However, I've heard that some other people will have open discussions about the nature of Flame and Shadow, to explain why they might vote a certain way, and what about the characters or their choices made them decide a certain way.

A simple vote has the advantage of speed (which the game often needs!) but I like the implications of a group discussion about these elements as we play, in the same way that it often happens with Entropy's other Traits. In addition, since these elements are effectively up to the other players to decide about your character, it can be very interesting to get that kind of feedback more directly. (What if another player isn't giving you Flame because they find that you always underplay your Burdens, for example?)

So:

What are some good ways to do this, and which way seems preferable? What are some useful techniques or favourite ways to have this kind of conversation? Do you like to make a big deal of these moments and discussions, or prefer to leave the implications for the players to work out themselves?

Comments

  • I have an older game draft (also, coincidentally, subtitled The Flame and The Shadow) that's basically a mashup of Lady Blackbird and Don't Rest Your Head, set in a monster-filled alternate Victorian London. It mostly came out of being mad that Unhallowed Metropolis wasn't the game that I wanted it to be, so I made the one I wanted. :)

    I like the way that you describe Tales of Entropy handling it—I really like the DRYH method of pushing dice to use your powers at the risk of going over the edge, but I feel like the way I implemented it for this is too clunky and/or fiddly, which is why it's still just a doc in my google drive.

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/573qkz1ym8acot6/InIgnisetUmbraplaytestv6.pdf?dl=0
  • Paul pretty much summed the issue, but here are my grains on the matter.

    The nature of the voting makes it possible for each player to keep their own view of what Flame and Shadow exactly are. Even though this definition should vary only quite mildly (the concepts of these two entities are quite clear, at least I think so). More than this though, it is possible for different players to interpret the situation and validity of the point-giving based on what took place during the scene. This is where I see the most differences: even though everybody pretty much agree on what flame and shadow are, some people feel that a situation would justify more points than others think. This is ok, and does not hinder the gameplay process.

    About the discussion of the choices of flame and shadow: It feels most rewarding for me when there is a short, clear discussion on the matter, especially when the votes differ from each other. Through this the players can get new insight and ideas how other players think about the events in the game.

    There is always a risk though. Recently I have thought about this quite a lot and have come into a conclusion that game of Entropy can lead to an experience of slowly crawling gameplay. This is due to the fact that the game gives multiple points where players can "dissect" the fiction and include additional details so that the game itself does not moderate how much is enough. This goes through all the conflict procedures (explaining traits, grains, burdens, flame and shadow as well as renewed burdens and grains) and the voting mechanism that is in the heart of this discussion.

    The responsibility of the moderation is then placed on the players themselves. During the two years of playtesting Entropy our group didn't have a big issue over this as we kind of naturally got onto same page with each other. It is only later that I have stumbled into these kinds of issues. Luckily these have been in the minority of my experiences with the game and I have played this a lot with different players.

    So, to sum it up, the group could have a small talk in the end of a session (or end of a scenario) whether the interactions during voting were beneficial or excessive. If the answer is the latter of the two, the players then know to exercise more moderation on their part of the matter.

    Strong and controlling operator-player could also do this. He could moderate discussions that tend to get too long-winded and such. I am naturally not this kind of a person: if I would be then perhaps I would have created a game where there is a GM who has these duties for himself.
  • Thank you, Petteri!

    An excellent answer.

    We played again tonight, and quite organically fell into a short discussion during the voting phase. Just as you describe, there were a few spots where we were in disagreement, and chatting a little about each revealed a rich variety of opinions on the characters' moral stances.

    (Most significantly, we had two players giving 0 Shadow to a character who went out of his way to save the life of a man who had been planning to torture and kill him. However, another player assigned him Shadow, because, in his view, while these actions seem altruistic, the scary part is a man rationalizing pity and and concern towards a doctor who was a Nazi war criminal and a sadist.)

    The conversation was quick and interesting to all involved. I'd very much enjoy having more of these conversations!

    Asking a few questions about votes that seem to disagree with each other seems like an easy way to get there. I'll likely do this more in the future.
  • By the way, a side question: what other games can you name that have judgement mechanics like this? I know that I was reminded of Bliss Stage myself when Petteri was developing the game; in that game the players decide after a relationship scene whether the relationship between two characters (measured numerically) grows closer due to that scene.

    Another example is Kagematsu, of course: the entire game is basically just one player scoring the attempts of the others in seducing the main character. Excellent premise.

    I've been thinking for years that this is a fruitful field of mechanical design, one where it would be easy to expand towards new directions.
    Paul_T said:

    Here's my question:

    What are the most fruitful ways of handling this uncertainty in play?

    I think that it's fun to take it for what it is: an explicit invitation for the players to judge and comment on each other's play. The whole conceit of asking the players to judge is in the game for the sole reason of provoking thought and providing the performing players with an attentive audience. (Old Forge trick, this.) I think that it wouldn't be good to wish this element of play away, as it's simply fun to do: it's fun to tell other players what you got out of their performance, and it's fun to reveal your understanding of how light and darkness relate to the given scenario and its issues.

    By the way, do note that Flame and Shadow in Entropy are not really all that vague; rather, I would characterize them as simply hypothetical or metaphysical in that they combine things in a slightly more poetic way than we usually like to think. The concepts themselves are, I think, no less vague than if the stats were called "Good" and "Evil", or "Quality Roleplay" and "Bad Roleplay". Those are entirely normal words and ideas, yet you would still be forced to exercise your judgement just the same if the game asked you to judge whether a character was "Good" in a scene or not. The need to discuss things and make judgement calls doesn't come from what the stats are, but from the fact that you're asked to understand and interpret an unfolding scene.

    (I have to say that personally I am very happy that Entropy doesn't do either of those stat lines that I suggested above. Good/Evil would be much too staid for me, while directly sitting in judgement of player performance would draw player attention away from cooperation.)
    Paul_T said:

    What are some good ways to do this, and which way seems preferable? What are some useful techniques or favourite ways to have this kind of conversation? Do you like to make a big deal of these moments and discussions, or prefer to leave the implications for the players to work out themselves?

    I've introduced the game to several groups, playing Operator (the player responsible for explaining and directing the game), and I usually start explaining Flame/Shadow voting by giving the players something close to the default explanation in the rulebook: you should vote Flame if the character's protagonist nature was powerfully expressed in the scene, and you should vote Shadow if the character fell prey to their own weakness in the scene. I reiterate these ideas in different ways as the players ask for clarifications.

    I don't actively encourage philosophizing about the nature of the meta-traits, but I support the topic if somebody chooses to open it. I might say something about it myself if the scenario we're playing unfolds in a way that allows me to make an incisive comment about the scenario at hand. The meta-traits provide us with a shared language of literary analysis, after all.

    "You know, I just realized that character A's Flame is completely dependent on their relationship to character B - without B they wouldn't be a protagonist at all!"

    "I think that in this fantasy setting it's impossible to even have Shadow unless you are tainted by Chaos. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."

    "It's pretty clear to me how Flame and Shadow are really just Superego and ID of their respective characters, struggling over the way to be human."

    If players try to control each other's voting by asserting real or imagined definitions of what Flame and Shadow mean, I close that down quickly and decisively; it's perfectly OK to vote according to your own interpretation, and it is permissible to even be mistaken because you weren't in the room at a key moment of the scene or whatever. It is also OK to interpret what the stats even mean differently from some know-it-all on the other side of the table. We do not want to arrive at the "correctly calculated" voting results; what we want is the genuine reactions of the audience, as expressed through the thematic voting system.

    However, if a player votes in a surprising way that seems to hold an interesting insight, I will usually ask them (very kindly) to tell us more. Most votes don't really require the player to wax poetic because it's self-evident why you're voting that way, but it's not uncommon for different players to see really different things in the same scene, and it's often quite interesting to hear them tell you what it is that they see.

    Because I am personally a busybody at the game table, it's not uncommon for me to get inspired to give little political speeches before the vote to ensure that the other players know how to vote. I will, of course, limit myself to discussing my interpretation of what happened in the scene and how that makes character X into a jerkass, rather than try to claim anything remotely like "you need to vote my way because the rules say so". This is obviously a tendency that is only good in modicum. I am glad when other players follow my example and say their own opinion about the scene out loud. The players who performed the scene will of course usually stay out of it; their performance said what they wanted to say.
  • On the side I want to react to this statement : "The whole conceit of asking the players to judge is in the game for the sole reason of provoking thought and providing the performing players with an attentive audience. (Old Forge trick, this.)"
    Giving listeners a task to reduce (=put to use) Downtime is very old game and teaching practice that probably predates our experience.
  • Sure, sure. Having players score a scene after it's been played is just such a distinctively last-decade indie rpg idea that it makes me nostalgic.

    Obviously everything has already been invented, and the most we can say is that some conceits are more common in some places than others.
  • Tales of Entropy feels like a
    "Mid-2000s Forge game" in many, many ways. I find that quite charming!
  • It is probably because I didn't get to play them when they were hot (and didn't understand them either) so I came into the ruins and created a game ten years too late :smile:
  • I don't think there's anything wrong with continuing an interesting trend even though it's "out of fashion"!
  • Folk design ?
  • Sort of, but I think that the rpg theory dialogues I've had with Petteri over the years have a part of the blame in the way that Petteri's game design has developed. He's started to resemble a second-hand Forgite of sorts due to the exposure. There are surely other examples of similar learning out there in the diaspora.
  • Elective affinities then.
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