Techniques for Illusionist, High Myth, Sim Trad Play?

edited January 2009 in Story Games
(I apologize for the use of jargon here, but I'm very tired right now, and I'd just like to communicate quickly.)

I've got a friend who has dreamed of running a Traveller game for twenty years. We rounded up some friends and gave it a go. But it's my friend's very first time GM'ing, and we ran into some rough patches, caused by my initial resistance to some GM-force.

I want to facilitate my friend's Dream Campaign, because I like it when my friends are happy. But I'm concerned, too, because my friend wants to do a very ambitious Illusionist game using a traditional system. I have played in very similar games with different GM's, and those games sucked for me, and I've got a lot of gamer-trauma associated with those styles of play.

I clearly need to alter my play style, and/or suggest some GM'ing techniques in a manner that won't bug my friend. I'd appreciate suggestions.


So - the basic idea of the campaign is something like this--and I am entirely projecting here because the GM hasn't really said what the campaign's about, we're just playing Traveller, but this seems to be the idea based on a few stray comments:

A long-term Space Opera game involving a group of good-hearted mercenaries engaging in counter-terror operations in a region of space with disproportionate strategic importance, with a lot of high-risk combat, and plenty of questions about who to trust, and what's really going on, and a lot of reference to the Big Unanswered Questions of the Traveller setting.

In play and discussion,
* The GM is very clear that there are mysteries & conspiracies in this game, and we might not solve any of them, or even learn that they exist.
* There's a GM-PC character, whom I foolishly alienated before realizing he was a GM-PC, leading to some tension at the table
* There are some pseudo choices, of the, "Do you do X? No? Okay, nothing happens until you do X" type
* There's a script worked out in advance, and the GM will reveal it to us as we move through it
* The appeal of the game for the players, as far as I can determine, is all about Sim exploration of Setting

This is very much not the style of play I'm used to; in some ways, it's the kind of play I've been trying very hard to avoid; but I want to figure out how to make it work for me.

Maybe the first question is: in Sim play, one of the big things is celebrating genre conventions. The thing is, I don't know jack about Traveller. What's some of the stuff I can do to make the distinctive elements of Traveller really sizzle as a player? My guy is a very seedy wetware surgeon disgraced after a series of unethical experiments on terminally ill patients, now acting as an itinerant gene-splicer and smuggler of bio-contraband one step ahead of the law -- so anything that directly relates to this, or some piece of the setting that I can weave into my play, would be a huge help.

The second question is: how do I learn to love the GM-PC?

The third question is: I know there's a lot of discussion about converting Illusionism into Participationism on the Forge, but it is very long and kinda fumbly as people are working out the meaning of the terms and whatnot. Does anyone have a concrete list about how to address that stuff?


  • What's some of the stuff I can do to make the distinctive elements of Traveller really sizzle as a player?

    Not really anything. Your job as a player is to experience the game, not play it. You kinda sit there and look for the buttons to push that let the GM feel good about showing you stuff.

  • edited January 2009
    I've thought about this one ever since I found myself in a Savage Worlds game that was basic illusionist sim fare. Briefly, the PCs are teleported to a strange new world with a whole bunch of other people, one of whom, "the Colonel" is establishing civilization and order and expects the PCs to join ranks. In that game I immediately jumped off the tracks and tried to get home. All the PCs seemed to think this was a good idea as well. The GM was accommodating, but we went off into the unknown and never got to the fun. Lesson learned.

    So the first thing I would do is craft character beliefs that enthusiastically support the GM set up. My character sheet should have had "I am looking for a great leader to follow!" in bold print.

    In your case, I would do this:
    Posted By: James_NostackThere's a GM-PC character, whom I foolishly alienated before realizing he was a GM-PC
    Belief #1: I must impress GM-PC and win his trust!
    Posted By: James_NostackThere are some pseudo choices, of the, "Do you do X? No? Okay, nothing happens until you do X" type
    Belief #2 I must do X! I must do it now!
    Posted By: James_NostackThe second question is: how do I learn to love the GM-PC?
    Belief #3: I love the GM-PC!

    Then, just play your character to the fullest. Admittedly, not perfect. But it looks like your doing this for your friend's enjoyment more than your own.
  • Posted By: shreyasWhat's some of the stuff I can do to make the distinctive elements of Traveller really sizzle as a player?

    Not really anything. Your job as a player is toexperiencethe game, not play it. You kinda sit there and look for the buttons to push that let the GM feel good about showing you stuff.

    You're probably right... but that's exactly what I'm afraid of, because unless it's a really good story, I usually feel creatively frustrated, which (I'm worried) could lead to interpersonal frustration.

    Sometimes appreciating a story means being the right kind of audience member, and knowing what to look for. I'm entirely unfamiliar with Traveller, so I don't really know what I should be noticing and grooving on. Chris Kubasik wrote an awesome summary of the game as sort of a science-fiction version of [i]The Man Who Would Be King[/i], which is fucking brilliant, but that apparently isn't the Counter-Terrorism Technothriller that the GM is going for...
  • The first thing, it's to understand if your friends is playing like this because he think that it's the way you'll have more fun (after all, this is what it's written on a lot of traditional rpgs...), or if he simply doesn't care.

    In the first case, simply explain what you want from gaming, and what you don't want (yes, I know that that it's not so easy in practice, but I don't see another way: do you really want to sit for hundreds of hours of THAT kind of game?)

    In the second case, see him for pizza or for a movie, not for gaming.
  • James,

    So, I'd like to be all awesome and make this work for you. But truth is, if you don't know Traveler or the particular angles of Sci-Fi that your GM is using Traveler to hit, don't like being told a story rather than telling it, and may have a pixel-bitching GM.... then there isn't a lot you can do.

    I mean, you can probably get some of the pixel-bitching (if its actually that, hard to tell from your summation) to stop by talking to the GM. Many groups can work out, over time, a kind of social signal system for those times when you get the "do X or nothing happens" pseudo-choice -- but its still a psudeo-choice following the GM's story. There are ways to learn to engaged with the internal state of the character in unavoidable circumstances which are quite fun for some players. There are ways to shift the game, if the GM will help, towards living in the world ('making memories of events you didn't actually live") rather than passively eating a story.

    But all of these, they're still a style of gaming it sounds like you don't like. And doing it in a game with a genre you don't know.

    So yea. My advice is either have some really honest talks with the GM, or cut bait.
  • A couple thoughts:

    First off, do NOT engage in Adventure-Avoidance. Take the hook and run with it.

    Second, this kind of set up, from when I used to run stuff in the way you're seeing the GM set it up, was always meant as an initial starting point, from which things then diverged, based on what the players were digging.

    As play progresses, the Gm will tend to burn up their own initial set-up ideas, and more and more gear the game towards what the players are bringing to the game. This is a sort of natural progression.

    Finally, talk to the GM ahead of time a bit about scene-cutting, scene-framing, and fast-forwarding. If he gets it, it'll help avoid all kinds of pixel-bitching bullshit and fake choices. Trust the GM and run with it, and explain that you're really okay with jumping ahead to the exciting bits. Also, get your fellow character players involved with this, to make sure they don't engage in Adventure-Avoidance.

    This too will help burn through the GM's plans fast, and get to the point more quickly where he is now gearing future adventures to the stuff the player-characters are up to.

    In the course of going through the initial adventures that the GM is so hopped up to run, make sure to engage in extremely brief side ventures with your charactre that you're actually interested in. Suggest NPC contacts for your character. Whatever you do, don't side track badly. You want little vingettes, not spotlight hogging two-hour side-tracks. You're laying the foundation for future adventures by quietly feeding info about your interests to the GM. Think of it as reverse-illusionism. Also, you'll end up leading by example and the other layers will likely follow suit.

    Finally, go rent Firefly and watch it. Make sure the GM has watched it. Hell watch it as a group. While you're watching it, make sure you make a comment like "Man, that's what I want a space game to be like: See how they hopped right into the story. That's awesome". Hopefully, everyone else will catch the hint.
  • edited January 2009
    A couple other tips:
    Figure out which member of the Interstellar A-Team your character is, and what the other characters are. Everyone should have a really key thing they're good at during action sequences, and a second thing they're good at in non-action sequences. Make sure everyone is very clear on those things, especially the GM!

    Also, this type of GM, if I'm right, will only have a couple of things in any given session that they desperately want to have in play: A cool villain, a fight scene at some nifty location, whatever. If they get to work that in, they'll be happy as a clam and give lots of leeway on the other stuff. Do what you can to help them get that into play, the same way you'd drive stuff towards the interests of your fellow players in a Narr game.

    Finally, be aware of the Dr.Jekyll/Mr, Hyde GM approach. If this guy is at all like I was for many years, he'll be a bit of a soft-touch with things like PC death and TPK events, EXCEPT WHEN HE ISN'T!!!!

    Meaning, you're probably safe surrendering or being captured. It likely means he wants you to meet the villain and escape. At most one PC death or loss of something important ( probably temporarily).

    OTOH, expect folks to drop like flies and full grittty combat rules to apply in confrontations with the Big Bad.
  • edited January 2009
    Question #1 about getting Sim to sizzle…

    First, remind yourself, just because this game is not Nar, does not mean it is Sim. It might be some incoherent mess, of which you will not get Sim out of either. If such is the case, then that needs to be fixed first.

    From my understanding, the group should, ideally, agree to put the experience of the Traveller world as number one priority.

    I’m toying with this right now and maybe have the rule: Plausibility vis-à-vis Genre take priority over discovering characters through moral tests or winning fair (mechanically) fights.

    Another trick I’ve used, while playing a Boardgame of all things (Twilight Imperium 3rd Ed. Shatter Empires Expansion), was use of the “re-live what just happened through character and situation” usually in terms of camera angle as if reading from a script.

    Something like, “Wow that was cool, I can imagine it now…” and just re-detail what happened but really immersed in the moment as though it were a film. I’ve done this as a player with good results.

    Question #2 learn to love GM-PC

    Find a genre appropriate reason to love this GM PC, that doesn’t jar your sense of plausibility. Maybe ask the GM to add enough Back-story to help it along?

    Question #3 Concrete List?

    I wish. I’m struggling with this issue myself (some threads over on the Forge going on right now).
  • edited January 2009
    Komradebob, thanks for that - I'm really hoping you're right that there's a relatively finite list of GM-Force events that we can burn through.

    We actually ran into some trouble with the Firefly point of reference: it was something the GM had flagged as, "You know Firefly? That's like the perfect Traveller game." So I'm like, "Whoa, I really dig Firefly, this will be great." But the GM really meant to say, "Gang of misfits go on the mission of the week. They talk about their feelings and whatnot in between." Whereas I see Firefly as, "Adorable character archetypes resolve their personal issues through mission-of-the-week shenanigans." This was a little frustrating to me, as I'd based my character on a mixture of Simon-the-Doctor and Jayne-the-Lout, only to be told this wasn't really appropriate to the game. I think I've managed to resolve that dispute, but I think we were both frustrated with each other.
  • Hrm. I think from the sounds of it that you guys are relatively close together. Is there no point of compromise?

    Because, honestly, he's going to have a Mission of the Week.

    What is the rest of the group of players like?
  • Hmm. In thinking further about this, I'd advise keeping in mind that the GM is unlikely to ever completely burn through ideas. Instead, the goal is to burn through the initial ideas, at which point he'll start using your ( the players') ideas as the basis for new Mission of the Week ideas.

    That's a bit different from a Narr, player character centered approach, where things are 90%+ player generated/10% GM, and more like 50% Player generated ( collectively)/ 50% GM generated.
  • James,
    Don't give up. Force yourself to do this. Learn from this experience, no matter how alien it may seem. Personally, I think we don't have enough struggling over hurdles in our games.

    On the other hand, that GM PC is dog food. No self-respecting player in a GM railroad lets the GM NPC out alive. It's your one guaranteed spot to author your own destiny. Kill him in character. Kill him as a player knowing full well that you've just capsized the boat and there are sharks in the water. And when he sends inevitable revenge, kill that too. Outsmart it, out play it, out rules lawyer it. Seriously, you have little recourse to make your mark. Killing the plot and using the rules to save you are two tried and true methods!
  • KB,

    The other players are struggling with some of the same issues, though due to a bit of poor tact on my part in the first session, I think I'm "out in front" in terms of voicing concerns / making trouble. One of the other players has explicitly told the GM he's on board to be a witness/participant in the story and encouraged him to keep GM'ing (he had been feeling down about it). I want to keep playing, too, though I'm not crazy about the witness aspect of the whole thing.

    As you say, I don't think we're that far apart, but I'm still struggling with the "Sir Yes Sir!" style of role-playing.

    We've established a pretty intense animosity between my character and the GM-PC already, but I'm really hoping this can be used to further characterization and and little sub-plots, rather than turning into some kind of real-life antagonism-by-proxy.

    Come to think of it, what I should really do is retire my character and ask the GM to create a pre-gen appropriate to the mission, as many of the problems in play have come from my initial positioning.
  • Posted By: James_NostackCome to think of it, what I should really do is retire my character and ask the GM to create a pre-gen appropriate to the mission, as many of the problems in play have come from my initial positioning.
    Initial positioning is hugely important in this style of play and VERY SPECIFIC pre-game communication is crucial in sandboxy type of games like Traveller. Not just "like Firefly hurr", that never works - and you very aptly put the conflict in what two people took away from the material, nicely spotted.

    In my games, I let people change everything about their character for the first 3 sessions any time they want to. "Oh shit, I put a million points in this skill because I thought JDC said we were going to be doing this activity but now I see he meant we would do THAT activity!"

    Why not ask the GM about specific plans?

    "Hey man, what's going on with this GM PC, is antagonism cool? Is he going to split from us at some point, or become subordinate, or what? I kinda don't like how he is now."

    "This mission of the week stuff is getting sort of old, can I come up with one via my character? How about Jimbo over there? I told my mom about the game and she said 'it would be great if you boys would do X', could we do that?"

    You may be the "point man" for the rest of the group because they all feel the same way as you, or none of them may feel the same way as you. But you have to be true to your feelings no matter what theirs are.
  • Come to think of it, what I should really do is retire my character and ask the GM to create a pre-gen appropriate to the mission, as many of the problems in play have come from my initial positioning.
    In similar situations to what you're describing, I've asked for similar things actually.
    I stumped the GM in question, too. All I really wated was some guidance on what the GM's vision for the game was, and to get some real idea about creating something appropriate.

    I might suggest to the GM that you should collectively do a really open chargen session, with lots of back-and-forth. Couch it in terms of why it'll be good for the game: "I want to have a character that fits well as part of a team and fits the kind of adventures you want to run. I'm having a little trouble doing that in isolation. Can we take a session for a general bull-session about the characters and initial set-up?"
  • edited January 2009

    Are you confident that "setting exploration" is or should be key to this game? Maybe it's more about exploring situations that result from a certain group of characters faced with missions, as KBob alluded to with his "A-Team" reference? You can have good Sim play without really giving a fuck about "the world" of the game as long as you can generate some cool interactions.

    My own most fun approach to the kind of GMing you describe is to team up with the GM. "Okay, you're here to show us the cool plots and elements you came up with. My character has his own brilliant plan of how to use these things for his own agenda! I now care about everything you want to show!" I strive to forge connections. Offer things to NPCs, establishing good relationships with them. Advertise yourself as a potential balance-tipper for every plotline. "NPC Fred wants to overthrow NPC Lou and get his castle? Well, our party is the perfect choice for a recon group to set up the overthrow by gathering info and knocking off sentries!"

    Often, I wind up co-conspiring with the GM and betraying my fellow PCs. GMs in this position love having a player to feed info too -- they don't want to "give away their secrets too easily", but keeping them secret from most of the players is the perfect midpoint! Then, when I'm in the know, I can help steer the other players toward what I can identify as sources of player fun -- kind of being a player-centric GM translator.

    That's all I have to add; most of what KBob's said has worked in my experience too.


    P.S. One specific technique for low-impact metagame communication: Ponder aloud about the possible meanings of things the GM has tossed out that might be hooks, giving him a chance to say, "Intriguing, eh?" for some, and, "Actually, that didn't seem important," for others. Some GMs are more willing to do this than to answer direct questions like, "Which way is the plot?"
  • Some more techniques/advice:

    (Assuming that the other players are having a good time, of course.)

    Problem 1: I don't know enough about Traveller/the game world

    Ask the GM if you can change your character to be some kind of outsider or amnesiac. Someone who also doesn't know about what's going on. Then you can honestly ask about "how stuff works" in-game, and potentially use that information to create fun situations, especially by misunderstanding how things work, and playing off your character's ignorance.

    It also helps remind the GM and other players that you, the player, don't know how the Traveller-verse works. They'll be only too happy to explain things to you.

    Problem 2: What to do during the railroad?

    I think the role of players in such a setting-exploratory railroady environment is just to come up with fun creative actions. Create weird situations (hide in the bathroom for no good reason while the Big Bad is exploring the ship, take the local Baroness hostage) just to see what happens. Once the appropriate story challenges are spotted, make it a game for yourself to come up with the most wonky and unusual way to solve them. Just try to do crazy stuff and see if it works.

    Problem 3: Loving the GM-PC, contributing to the story

    Of course, feel free to use indirect methods when direct ones fail. Mention outloud your theories about how things "really are". Make up some reason why the GM-PC is actually a really important person for you to befriend ("I just know he's secretly a rebel leader... that's why he's trying so hard to act like he's pro-Empire!"). The GM may end up using your ideas in the long term, even if for now everything just thinks you're crazy.

    Speculate outloud out-of-game, and speculate outloud in-character as well. Eventually your ideas will work their way into the game and into the story.

    If that fails for the GM-PC, then make a secret plan with the other players to kill him off. I'm with Luke on that one.

    Finally, of course, always mention stuff that went well during the game. "That was great!" Or even if it hasn't happened yet: "I love how the Princess, who we initially thought was a villain, is turning out to be in love with character X!" (Of course, the GM didn't know it until you said it, but now he does, and he just might go with it, especially if the other players light up when they hear that comment from you.)

    If the people are fun enough, and all enjoying the game, you might be able to enjoy it as well, so long as you don't let your expectations climb too high.
  • edited January 2009
    Has anyone asked your friend wants to run it this way? Is this the way the GM envisions ideal play or is it just the only kind he's every experienced?
  • Dave, Paul - thank you very much. Those are very concrete, helpful suggestions. I'll try that and see if it works.

    Alan - I'm not sure. I think my friend is very much a fan of the older, traditional games (Traveller, Red Box D&D, Villains & Vigilantes) and this "telling players a story, with them as the main characters" aesthetic is very much the kind of thing in vogue during the late 1980's/early 1990's.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyWhy not ask the GM about specific plans?
    To me, those right there are the golden words. All the concerns you have, James, these kind of sound to me like the things you could hash out with the GM, you know, face to face in conversation. Your friend the GM may want the"telling players a story, with them as the main characters", but that doesn't mean people need to employ telepathy to make it work (which is another thing people did back in the day); you can talk overtly about what everyone wants.
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