Thursday, April 02, 2009

Solipsist play by email

I found the roleplaying game Solipsist fascinating, but I couldn't get feeling comfortable enough to feel sure I could GM it. So I got the author to start a play-by-email game going. However, it has been more a source of frustration than anything else, and while I've certainly run into a few lessons of what not to do, I don't feel that much more confident that I haven't missed others. It seems there's a lot of "how to make it work" that is either not in the book, or if it is, that isn't clearly and adequately emphasized enough.

Characters are created more or less in isolation from one another, but the GM started the game as he usually does, with the characters assumed to have already learned about their unique natures, met each other, worked together in the past, etc. Of the three characters in this game, it happens that two of them have visions that are so compatible they almost overlap, and my character, the odd man out, has a vision that is actively at odds with the others. Everyone assured me, and continues to assure me, that it's normal for groups to have conflicting visions and part of the game. But in my case, perhaps just because of me being the only newbie in a group of experienced players, perhaps because of the other problems, it has proven to be an obstacle time and again.

One big lesson I've learned is that Limitations are not nearly as important in limiting what you can do as Obsessions are. When you're writing your obsessions, you're not just expressing your vision: you are essentially listing what your character can do, and thus, by omission, what he can't do. You're listing your abilities. The game goes on and on about how you have the ability to change reality in any way you like, but in fact, you're hugely limited in what you can do unless your Obsessions are written in such a way as to be very flexible and universally applicable. I didn't.

The game also encourages you to be very concise in boiling your Obsessions down to a single line, but that's just begging for a problem where your idea of what they are, and the GM's idea, do not match. Then in the thick of the game you find that you are actually unable to do things that seemed central to your idea of your character, and in my case, that you can't actually do anything at all. Or, worse yet, that you can only do one thing, so there's really no point in being there: the GM can write your actions as well as you can, as there's no choice to be made. It's like I have only one spell, but it's a very powerful spell, so every time it's my turn to act, I just always use that spell.

It's hard to put my finger on what my problems have been, so I can't tell how many of them are with the game, how many with the way the game is written, how many with how this particular play has gone, how many with the particular GM and players, etc. I've tried many times to express the problems and frustrations I've had, and I'll grant that they've tried to help. But at the same time, most of their attempting to help, while well-intentioned, has been dismissive, trivializing, and putting me in a position of having to argue about it or drop it. I've mostly done the latter, but it only puts off the negativity, doesn't avoid it.

Given how far this game is from the "old school" games like AD&D, I suspect there are a lot of roleplayers who would look at this and just not get it. Even people who got past the hack-and-slash and wargamer origins of AD&D and are playing more avant-garde things like In Nomine or Little Fears could easily fall into old paradigms and fail to really adjust to what's going on in Solipsist because of those habits of thought. Given that this game started because of me saying I didn't feel like I'd wrapped my head around Solipsist, I wonder if the GM and other players thought that I was one of those, and have been burdening themselves with preconceptions of what kind of stuff I wasn't getting. Maybe that's why their advice isn't helping and their responses to my thoughts on the game have been dismissive; they're offering me help that would help someone who was still stuck in other ways of roleplaying and hadn't adjusted.

Then again, maybe they're right. I feel that that paradigm shift isn't the thing that's tripping me up, that there's other problems, not of concept but of execution, that I'm stuck on. But maybe I'm wrong. If I were, I wouldn't know I was, right?

I definitely get the sense that I could make a great game of Solipsist given two things. First, the game needs a big rewrite. More examples, and more guidance about what does and doesn't work, with a better emphasis on some elements. A lot of clarity has been sacrificed to maintain a "mood" in the writing; stuff that should be straightforward isn't because it's written closer to "in character" than it needs to be. And the author must come from a background where a lot of stuff that's obvious to him doesn't need to be stated, but if he wants to broaden his audience, he needs a rewrite that says a lot of that stuff. Trouble is, I don't think he'll ever see that. Any time someone doesn't seem to be getting it, he's likely to dismiss it as being someone too old-school. He wouldn't say that, might not even believe it, but I see it happening, and I can't even blame him. Maybe he just needs to be a little more ready for criticism.

The other thing that it needs, at least for me, is a little change in setting. In particular, I think the game needs to be explicit about backstories: about what characters do and don't know about the Shadow, about how they got to meet each other, about how one character Changing Reality affects another character's memories (or his own), etc. Sometimes I think the author has let playing at cons affect his games too much: he takes shortcuts that the four hour con game slot require, even when not in that kind of situation.

The one thing I'm still hazy on is how to prepare an adventure as a GM. The author suggests not doing much prep because the players are going to change the world completely very soon in anyway. So he's made clear what not to do, but he hasn't really replaced it with anything but "improvise everything" and at least in the game we're playing now, it shows. I get the feeling that it doesn't matter what we do, really; the outcome is predetermined and the only thing that decides how we'll get there is what looks coolest. Some of that is acceptable and even good for a GM to do, but it has to be kept at least a little hidden: the players need to feel like their choices matter, and they'll forgive knowing you fudge the story to make it come out better as long as they don't think you're fudging everything and their choices don't matter. In particular, if you have a mystery, and clues, there should be at least something there to solve. I'm hazy on what I'd do to prepare for a game, particularly if I wanted it to be a good game.

I think once I solve that conundrum, I'll be ready to try GMing, though my first time will probably be a failure, but it'll be the failure that makes the success possible. So all I'm doing in the play-by-mail game now is observing in hopes of getting a better sense of that. I'm no longer even trying to enjoy it as a player. I just hope my surrender doesn't make the game fall apart as the others (no doubt) are sure I'm just being petulant (and any attempt to rebut that idea would only support it).

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I'm going to read the book during my long weekend coming up. Both the game and the problems you're coming up against here sound challenging, and I'll comment again when I have something more substantial to contribute.