Sunday, March 09, 2008

I Played The Shadow of Yesterday.

I got to play TSoY today. Actually I ran a game of it. I was over at Joe's for the day, and we'd been talking about playing it for a few weeks. He'd made a character named Ruzalia, who's a treasure hunter and adventuress with a little knowledge of three-corner magic.

There were a couple of "will this work? How will this work?" issues. First off we wanted to try out TSoY, which we never had before, and get used to the rules. Second off, well, I'd bought Play Unsafe a month or so ago, and I wanted to try improv-ing the GMing, consciously using the techniques he suggested. If I could do that, if I could make a good game of it, I thought, I could start doing a lot more GMing, and worrying about it a lot less.

It was a smashing success, from my point of view.

Here's the story, a bit of an overview:

Ruzalia had bought a map to a ruined tower from back before the Skyfire, in Old Maldor. Odd, because as far as she could tell nobody knew of such a thing and it's not the sort of thing one would miss. Perhaps it'd been destroyed. She took a roundabout way to get there to avoid the skirmishing bands of ratkin and the local baron's roving bands of warriors, fighting the ratkin and goblins of the area and raiding villages in the other baronies...

She found out quickly why the tower was unknown. In the time of the Skyfire the earth had cracked open and a chunk of it settled deep down, making a canyon, taking the tower with it. Now the top of the tall tower was below the level of the land around it, in a deep rift.

The minaret glowed strangely in the moonlight as she made her way down to it... she broke into it and found that it had a central open shaft under the minaret, with rooms all around it and stairways leading up... she went from room to room, lifting valuables as she went, and realize on the way up this was a wizard's tower. The very top level, under the glowing dome, was one huge laboratory surrounding the central open shaft, with a catwalk leading to a circular platform in the center of the shaft, like something out of Star Wars. But with a magic circle inscribed on the platform. A wizard's tower, untouched for 300 years, since the skyfire!

She started investigating the lab, and amongst the many wizardly accoutrements, she found... an orrery. Then she noticed something strange... if this orrery were made before the skyfire, before the creation of the moon, and untouched since then in a deserted tower.... Why did it have a globe to represent the moon? ... a globe which looked like it was newer than the rest of the mechanism?

She gazed at the central globe, a complete map of the world of Near -- knowledge that had perished, or at least become obsolete, since the time of darkness... She was seeing something the knowledge of which was beyond the greatest scholars of this age. She looked at the far side, away from Maldor... and it had been defaced, a great hole beaten or burned into the metal globe.

OK, it's going to take forever telling the tale at this pace. Soon she heard someone coming, she hid, that someone was a wizard-robed fellow who went and started meditating in the central platform, contemplating the glowing dome... She cast Know Capabilities to find out his greatest skill/ability... and it was... dah dah DUN.... PAST LIVES. Yep. He was an elf. Oh shit. (Elves in TSOY can be rat bastards. Even at their best they're kind of like Vulcans but less huggable, if you get my drift.)

Soon she met Tantalus, who lived or at least worked here, and who was apparently quite mad. It emerged that he had converted the dome of the tower almost completely to opal, through the power of meditating on it, and he believed that once it was complete, cosmic, world-spanning power would be his. (Nonsense, right?) He was at first peremptory, and then when he learned she was a magician, well, he tried to be charming, with limited success. It was clear he valued his privacy utterly, and wanted to make sure nobody else would disturb him. When he took her hand she divined his mind, and found that -- unsurprisingly to her -- since he had established that she alone knew the location of the tower, he was going to kill her.

And so began the fight. She used Scrapping, and he used an ancient Elven martial art involving joint locking and takedowns, an Elven Jiu-Jitsu or Aikido, if you will. Here we went nuts with the game system, Bringing Down The Pain, and both he and Ruzalia got torn the hell up with Harm. Joe spent Ruzalia's Vigor pool much too quickly and was left with no resources, and honestly because I didn't have much perspective on it I set Tantalus's stats way too high to give her a reasonable chance at him.

He got her to the central platform and tied hand and foot, and made ready to sacrifice her under the glowing opal dome, at the moment the moon was perfectly overhead (as indicated by the orrery). She started at him again, fighting bound hand and foot, trying to kick him off the platform (which would have been awesome if she'd pulled it off wouldn't it?). Another hard fight (Bringing Down the Pain) ensued, with both of them getting harmed even worse, but he prevailed, knocking her head against the stone platform and knocking her out... just as the orrery ticked past the critical moment at which he had wanted to kill her. Drat!

She awoke naked, suspended from the ceiling, in a cage in the laboratory, with Tantalus off meditating again in the center, doing his thing. Presumably until it was another propitious moment for sacrifice.

Her escaped involved some wit and some luck. There were an unusual number of rats about just now... there had been rats before, it had come up before in the game, but there were a lot of them. She befriended a couple by sharing with them the crusts of bread that she had been left in the cage.

Not long after that... the rats brought friends. Ratkin! Ratkin had entered the tower! And it was their rat friends she'd befriended! On the strength of that she got them to open the cage, all the while signaling them to be quiet. She whispered to them about the terrible danger posed by the elf who was currently an inert, meditating form lying under the dome... and snatched back her clothes and boots and knives from the ratkin who had grabbed them and were about to try them on...

More and more ratkin were showing up through the door, and none were heeding her advice to GET THE HELL OUT before the elf snapped out of his trance... they were far too interested in the many, many shiny things the laboratory held! So she ran down the stairs herself...

Passing ratkin after ratkin heading up the stairs. It turned out one of the ratkin skirmishing bands had followed her here, by tracking and by scent -- remember those ratkin bands? -- and had decided to despoil the tower themselves... dozens.... a hundred perhaps? She shoved past them all as she heard a fight break out up in the lab, ratkin squealing, Tantalus cursing....

She got out of the tower and headed for the hills as the dome on the tower glowed bright, flickered, and cracked... pieces collapsing into the tower... ruined... taking the top floors of the tower with it.

She high tailed it to the city she'd last stayed in, Ardova, hoping to cash in on what she had managed to loot from the tower before things had gone so far south... As the rest of the treasures of the tower were distributed amongst all the Ratkin in this corner of Maldor, little by little, in a thousand little skirmishes...

And Tantalus? What of Tantalus? Well.... Perhaps he's still about. You can't kill a named NPC in TSoY outside of a Bringing Down the Pain contest, and Ruzalia definitely did not kill him in any such contest....

So I'm going to be writing up a proper character (NPC) sheet for Tantalus soon.

Not a bad little game for improv, I thought.

You know how much of that I'd made up beforehand?

I had the idea of a ruin sunk deep in a chasm in the ground, from the time of the Sky Fire.

That's it. The rest was developed in play.

Probably the biggest moment where things started to really fill in for me as a GM was when I described the Orrery (it seemed a natural thing to find in a wizard's lab) and had the idea that it had been modified to include the moon. It was only then that I decided the tower must still be inhabited, and only shortly thereafter that I decided its inhabitant was an elf.

The whole thing with the dome came from my describing the tower for the first time, thinking of it as something Roger Dean might paint... that blue glow became important to the story only later on when I brought Tantalus into it.

I played Tantalus following some of the suggestions on "status" in the Play Unsafe book.

I also took care to reincorporate as much as possible; bring things back in that had come in before, especially to provide answers to mysteries or problems.

Why is the elf here? Well, because of the blue glowing minaret I'd described before.

Why didn't he kill her when he got the chance? Because of the aforementioned orrery -- he wanted to time her death precisely for ritual purposes.

How could she escape from the cage? Well, the rats I'd mentioned before as being in the tower were some help, and the ratkin I'd mentioned as being in the area, at the very beginning of the game, became a huge part of it, which bookended the story perfectly; ratkin on the way in, ratkin on the way out.

All together it made a good, reasonably coherent story out of the whole thing.

That's enough for now. I'm up too late writing this. That wasn't every single thing that happened in the story but it's a good overview, especially from the point of view of the improvisational process.

My verdict: The Shadow of Yesterday is fun and playable. The World of Near is pretty interesting. And Graham's ideas in Play Unsafe are really helpful for straight up improv-ing a good game from next to nothing.

I'd feel confident improv-ing games in the future. Because honestly, this was a much better story than I could have come up with by planning it. Everything fit perfectly in a way that I don't think it would have if I'd sat there plotting it all out beforehand. There's great power in improvisational GMing, and I want to do more of it.

And Ruzalia's a pretty cool character, and I did a couple drawings of her to Joe's description after the game.

Rock on.

Time to sleep now.


John Harper said...

Woo! TSOY!

Nice AP. I'm so glad you're playing in Near. Seems like everyone else hacks it for another setting (including me). Near is great.

Joe said...

Near is just too cool of a setting not to use.

Our game certainly had a Leiber-esque vibe to it. I've been reading Swords and Ice Magic, so I've had that on my mind. I made Ruzalia to be sort of Mouser-like.