Saturday, September 11, 2010

Applying Hamlet's Hit Points: A Changeling Session Analysis

Introduction
Following up from my review of Robin Laws' Hamlet's Hit Points- I thought I would try applying Robin Laws' beat analysis to a game session after the fact. Will that be doable and will that be useful? I didn't take beat notes while playing, so I've reconstructed a minimal sketch for this. Given that I'm working in retrospect, I break the beats into larger chunks than Laws does-- he maps all the beats of scenes and conversations. I think that kind of specific analysis would require a recording of the game. Instead I collapse several beats together. Consider this analysis a level up from the ones Laws presents in HHP, and therefore at least a degree weaker. I should also note that while the arrow images are available as a CC download in several format from Gameplaywright, I'm not using those-- as I haven't installed the more sophisticated image software I do have (Photoshop) and Blogger doesn't accept the presented formats.

The session was one in an ongoing Changeling: the Lost campaign. We have four players, two who have been there from the start and two others who joined more recently, perhaps a half dozen sessions ago. We don't used the nWoD system but instead our home brew, Action Cards. We've done some heavy specific adaptation for this specific setting. The system ends up narrative-focused, based on low rules detail and high trust. For more on this specific campaign and the background you can see some session reports I posted on RPG Geek. We didn't have any combat this session. We actually haven't had an extended combat in the game for a number of sessions. However the threat remained that the group might end up in a serious physical confrontation.

Background

The group is a motley of Changelings in the fictional Midwest city of Wayward. The Freehold is divided between two unusual Changeling Courts-- the Court of Gardens and the Court of Rust. The players are split fifty-fifty in membership of those Courts. While they have many plots outstanding, the most recent threat has been the return of a group of vanished Changelings. They left Wayward 20+ years ago and have just returned, having been lost in the Hedge (this time appeared as a few years to them). These Changelings are the Winter Court, seasonally aligned and apparently dedicated to bringing down the present power structures. They appeared, had a conflict with the PCs and then vanished underground. They represent the most urgent looming threat.

PCs
Sarah No-Tears: A Wizened Physiker
Black Annie: A Darkling-Ogre hybrid
Nick Diamond: A Diamondflesh Elemental
Leo Black: A Hunterheart beast

I've given a quick tag line for easy beat or set of beats followed by the type and (in parens) direction up or down, representing Hope or Fear. I hope my first attempt isn't too wildly off the mark.

1. General BSing: Gratification (Up)
While outside the narrative, I think its worth considering how the general discussion before the game sets the tone of the session. Depending on the topics this might be a Commentary or Anticipation beat. I'd consider this part of the beat analysis in that we're looking at the response-- Hope/Fear-- on the part of the audience, who in this case are participants. Here we talked about potential changes to the damage system and a few of the ideas from Hamlet's Hit Points.

2. Recap of Previous Session: Gratification (Up)
Another meta-moment, but I think an important one. Depending on how the GM sells this, they can create a Hope or a Fear beat to threaten or energize the players from the outset. Of course that depends on where the players left off in the previous session. As I mentioned before, I think the breaks and timing that the session structure implies does affect how the narrative is received. Gratification comes from players first spending their experience points. Buying things always seems like an upwards movement-- unless players find themselves buying to fill in gaps or problems exposed in a previous session. In that case it can be a reminder of a Fear beat or perhaps seem like an obligation.

Continuing the Gratification beat I tried to sum up the events of the previous session quickly, focusing on their victories and successes. That carried through the previously established Hope level and glossed over losses or failures. Obviously I could have approached that from the opposite direction.

3. Overview of Plotlines: Pipe (Neutral)
Still in the out-of-game meta-mode I tried to go over what I saw as the major outstanding “group” plot threads. This lays some pipe for what the players will decide to do this session. I don't want to steer them, but I do want them to know what in my mind (as the GM) stands out as interesting plot threads they might pursue. The players also suggest a couple I haven't mentioned-- which means those are top of mind for them and I ought to make sure to be thinking about those.

4. Group Goal Discussion: Procedural Pipe (Neutral)
Never underestimate the power of the group assessment and discussion to change the Hope/Fear dynamic at the table. If the group's divided or some players are in bad moods, this beat can add problematic tension. On the other hand, if they're on the same page and come together with a plan, then this can increase the anticipation. I try to stay out of the way of these moments and I don't situate them in time and place unless I want to have an NPC chime in to clarify a point or give their perspective. Usually, as in the case of the beat for this session, the planning portion lets the players orient themselves from outside the game and then move to the actual play.

5. Returning Lucky: Procedural (mixed)
The plot from the last session had them hunting down a magical dog named Lucky. I decided not to do a full scene on the return of the dog to its Hobgoblin owner. But I wanted to emphasize the success for the players and especially Black Annie, who'd taken on the quest. So that functioned as an Up beat. However, I then put the player on the spot asking them what they wanted as a reward. They hadn't had a chance to think about that and so my springing that on them managed to actually create a Down beat. So mixed results there.

6. Discussion with Hopscotch: Procedural (Down)
The group decided to share information they'd uncovered about the Winter Court with an NPC, Hopscotch Takebacks. This advanced the plot, but Hopscotch also warned them about the dangers of confronting the Court. While they succeeded in their goal of passing information on and building social links, the discussion here served to build up the looming threat.

7. Hopscotch on the Detroit Changeling War: Procedural (Down)
They also asked Hopscotch for background on a plot thread about the entire Changeling Freehold of Indianapolis vanishing. Hopscotch gave them some further exposition about how the stresses in other Changeling Freeholds and how several nearby stood in a perpetual state of war with Wayward. That raised the general tension and reminded them of the stakes involved.

8. Sticking Hopscotch with the Bill: Dramatic (Up)
I might instead describe this as a Gratification beat. They stuck Hopscotch with the bill for breakfast, as they've done in several previous encounters. A small victory, but a good one at the table.

9. Hunting the Winter Court: Procedural (Up)
I collapse a longer series of tests and exchanges here. Essentially, the group located one of the houses the Winter Court members are laying low in. They wanted to surveil and gather information without being seen. So we have the continual threat of being spotted by the Court (and neighbors) hanging over their process. Using various magics and skills the PCs confirmed some information, got a sense of the grounds, an estimate of number of people, and some other details and hooks they'll be able to use later. I didn't push the spotting threat too much after the first couple of checks-- my primary goal here was to give them a chance to creatively use their abilities.

10. Winter Court members leave House: Procedural (Down)
Three of the Winter Court members leave and the group attempts to follow. The immediate threat here again is being spotted. But the other new question concerns their purposes. The players had to decide to follow as a group or split and leave some to keep watching. This creates an overall fear beat despite the success of their tailing.

11. Follow to Financial Offices: Procedural (Up)
The group follows the three Winter Court Changelings to a local financial management office. After some back and forth, Leo and Sarah get into position to overhear the meeting. I should note we had one of those moments where one of the players asked “Is the building laid out like X...?” I asked him to repeat that and he realized and reframed his statement “So the building's laid out thusly and we can therefore gt around and blah.” I'm trying to be better about making sure players remember they have that power and reacting positively to it.

12. Listening in on the Winter Court: Procedural (Down)
The group gathers information about how the WC has managed to get money, and the threat is introduced that they're working to get access to more.

13. Sabotaging the Car: Procedural (Up)
Again collapsing a series of beats, the two characters not spying on the meeting opt to carry out a secondary plan. Black Annie sabotages the tire on the car, hoping for them to get a distance before they have a flat. Nick plants a magical object in the car so that later he can communicate with it. The threat is discovery but both manage to succeed. The latter plot doesn't end up coming into play (yet) but does count as a success, and contributing to the Hope beat.

14. Winter Court Members Stranded: Procedural (Up)
That work pays off and the WC members find themselves pulling over into a strip-mall parking lot. The PCs follow-- successfully concealing themselves to observe. I test and the Ogre driving the car overreacts, flinging a flat spare tire through the front window of a nearby business. They all break in different directions. The PCs take advantage of the moment to call the police on them, creating an obstacle for the bad guys who want to remain under the radar.

15. Contact Windom Wales: Procedural (Up)
The group contacts another NPC, Windom Wales, an Ogre of the Freehold who had been a financier/banker in his past life. We'd established that he handles the Court of Garden's money. The PCs provide him with information about the Winter Court and ask about the financial group they met with. Windom connects a number of dots for them and provides some other leads. There's some banter back and forth at some of the PCs expense-- Wales tends to be a little cutting in his comments, but that potential Down beat gets overwritten by the connected success of their investigation.

16. Wales Gives Warning: Procedural (Down)
Windom suggests that if the PCs pass on the information to certain people within the Freehold, those Changelings would likely kill those mortal financial people. Some Changelings see the battle with the Winter Court in absolute terms-- and would eliminate anyone allied with them. This places an obligation on the players and brings up new potential consequences.

17. Nick Investigates: Procedural (Up)
After some discussion, Nick decides to return to the offices to get a business card from the senior people. Sarah plans to use that as a magic link. Nick does so successfully, passing himself off as a business student looking for an internship. He hints at a great deal of wealth and eventually wheedles the offer of an internship out of them. Nick's player seems a little hesitant about the potential obligations there, but overall it reads as a victory.

18. Team Builds Cover Story: Procedural (Up)
The group works quickly to pull together the proper paperwork and letters of recommendation Nick needs to support his cover story. Again, several different tests and details get lumped together here (stealing the right letterhead, talking with a forger NPC, confirming details) but the process comes off successfully.

19. Plans Put into Motion: Procedural (Up)
That plan is set into motion-- we confirm that Nick will be able to return next week and possibly have access to more of the files and details of the Winter Court's finances from the inside. Sarah puts into motion a subtle long-term dream-crafting to make the senior manager of the firm suspicious of the Winter Court people with an eye to eventually getting him to cut them off. Both of these are longer-term moments that we take out of chronological order (i.e. they'll occur in the future or take several days). We confirm their starting success, but we'll return to check on those plots next session. I wonder if this would be a montage in a movie?

20. Leo Gets a Car: Dramatic (Up)
Until now the group had been working together pretty strongly on a single procedural/plot track. I'd say that most sessions actually tend to more dramatic beats, so it is good to see things moving forward. To close out the session I moved to doing a “once-around”-- giving each player individual scene(s) which they could set or I could throw something at them.

I started with Leo to give him some payoff for a thread he's started a couple of sessions ago. He's assumed a new role which requires more city travel, so the question of transport arose. He'd petitioned his prince, Brambleteeth, regarding this. I had the previously established Changeling used-car salesman contact him, saying he had one ready for him. I wanted to make sure I paid off the thread he'd started-- without the player having to remind me. Mind you the car had been involved in a murder and had been cleaned, but overall this was a dramatic victory for the player as it gave him some character interaction one-on-one with an NPC and expanded his resources.

21. Nick Called in By the Prince: Dramatic (Down)
Nick's awoken at 2am by the prince of his court, Sybold Futures. In a previous session, Nick had accidentally woken the Prince, so he assumed this was payback. Instead the Prince calls him for a task. Nick meets up and is told to drive Sybold-- he'll give directions as they go. This ends up being a couple of dramatic beats-- putting Nick on his own, exploring his character and the character of the Prince and developing that relationship. There's a looming threat and more questions created than answered through this sequence, creating some Fear beats.

22. The Break-In: Dramatic (Down)
Sybold tells Nick not to tell anyone about what they're about to do (a big Down beat). They break into an apartment and Sybold has Nick pull the covers off a bed while he stands by. A shocked Hopscotch (an allied NPC to the PCs and the one they consulted earlier) wakes up. The beat hangs for a moment and some of the players are pretty sure Sybold's going to snuff Hopscotch. Instead the Prince demands some items he says that Hopscotch has and tells him he has 24 hours to return them. They leave and Sybold has Nick drop him off. There's a light Up exchange in there where Nick hints that he'd really like a car, but again this sequence appears to be a series of Fear beats. There's some Pipe being set down here as well-- the items Sybold wants references to a plot point a PC opted not to investigate months ago. As well there's some off-hand comments and references that provide some character deepening and hints about both of these NPCs.

I should note that there's something interesting happening here as well. In defining the Hope and Fear beats we consider the character as the subject, but with the player as the audience. Here in this sequence we have threats, unanswered questions and such-- but at the same time the player gets some great individual table time. Nick's player seemed to enjoy the sequence-- and seemed energized by the scene-- and the other paths/interaction possibilities it opened up. I think that suggests we need to consider the table situation-- how it might affect if a player really reads a moment as Hope or Fear. I've seen sessions where players read Hope beats as Fear beats, but that's something for another post.

23. Black Annie Gathers Flowers: Dramatic (Up/Mixed)
Black Annie gets a phone call from the NPC Songbird Rex. This beat is a payoff from an earlier session in which Annie tried to build some ties with this character. She'd asked about some agricultural stuff and so Rex calls to offer her first shot at some greenhouse flowers being thrown out. The beat ended up a little mixed-- with some dramatic character interaction between the two. Annie gathered the flowers for a particular purpose and so was able to illustrate and act on her character's interests. On the other hand, there were some down notes since the flowers were being destroyed because of heavier winter (a result of the Winter Court's return) and Songbird Rex remained his taciturn self (which has been a constant and lingering issue). In the past Annie's worked on trying to communicate and push Rex a little, but her player here focused (legitimately) on other goals for the scene.

24. Sarah's Encounter with Valkrym: Dramatic (Up)
Another individual PC beat which completed an earlier plot thread. Sarah had put effort into making contact with a mysterious non-Changeling supernatural with knowledge of Wayward. Valkrym showed up again and we began with some character interaction beats. It also represented the outcome of previous work so I'd consider that an Up beat.

25. Sarah Presses Valkrym: Procedural (Mixed)
The conversation continues with Sarah specifically referencing some details they'd uncovered-- rather than moving more slowly with the interaction. There are a couple of sub-beat exchanges here moving a plot forward. On the one hand, it serves as an Up beat as Sarah confirms Valkrym as a source of information and she builds a bridge. On the other hand, it also moves towards the Fear side as the NPC puts off more discussion and leaves scryptic hints about what he knows.

26. Leo Continues Training: Dramatic (Down)
Leo's been given the role of the Herald of the Court of Gardens which means he has to learn the who and where of all the Changelings in the Freehold. I've been using that as an opportunity to have him interact with a number of different kinds of Changelings. Here he meets Semolina Pilchard, a Wizened Brewer. She manages to entangle him in some obligation and bring up memories of his past. Once again we have a moment which is a contradiction-- the player enjoys and revels in the chance at some individual time and establishment of future plots, but the overall beat of this interaction is towards Fear.

27. Leo Gets Story from Selianna: Dramatic (Down)
Leo questions the former Herald, Selianna, about something Pilchard said. There's some character interaction as she avoids answering his questions. Instead she reveals some personal, private information. He learns that she's a magnet for doom and she hints at some awfulness she's seen. That's a Fear beat and also confirms some earlier observations by the group.

OVERALL
We probably actually got started really playing at about 8:30 (Beat 3) and finished up at about 11:45. That's a slightly longer session than usual. We had quite a bit of procedural work in this session. My perception is that we do more dramatic beats in sessions than we did here-- but I want to map some more to see if I'm wrong or right about that. I do try to give players individual dramatic time-- and I have to think about what that balance is.

It is probably clear from the structure that I don't usually plot sessions in Changeling, except for special sessions or events. Generally I like to follow where the players lead and present incidents for them to react to. For things like the “once-arounds” I check in with the players to see what they have that they want to follow up on and if they don't have anything immediate I throw them something from my grab bag or (as in this session) try to confirm/close out a previous thread.

I liked doing this map and it did give me some ideas. It made me look at a couple of scenes which had mixed directions. I also noticed that I need to probably give Nick some Up beat opportunities next session, as he had a higher number of isolated Down beats.

So worthwhile as an exercise: yes. And I suspect one which, done infrequently, can reinforce thinking about these issues while running. It is a good deal of work and I suspect I've probably misread a few things here. I look forward to discussing this with the players.