Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple part 2: Pilgrims Get In Trouble!

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Even though I'm discussing the ways it didn't work for my group here, I still love the game and recommend you check it out!

So, like I said, I love Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, But, when my group tried it out the response from the other players - there's no GM in Do, so I can't say "my" players - was only so-so. They didn't dislike it, they seemed to have some fun, but I could tell they weren't 100% invested as we were playing, and at the end of the first letter when I hopefully asked if they wanted to do another there was an awkward silence, and then we watched a movie. So, beautiful game, I had fun... what went wrong here?

First is expectations. I spent some time describing this game to everyone before we played, but I don't think I got across quite what it is, and it's very different from what we've done in the past. One player later said to me that she thought the reason it wasn't a huge success was that everyone expected a role-playing game, and Do isn't a role-playing game. Now, I don't know what Daniel Solis would say about that. In the introduction, Do calls itself a "storytelling game," which I think is an answer to the question that means something in the context of GNS theory, but doesn't mean anything to me.  I'm inclined to think that it is a role-playing game, but didn't meet everyone's expectations for what playing a role-playing game is like.

In the past we've played Vampire and Lady Blackbird, games with very fluid procedures. Everyone at the table can speak at any time, or have their character attempt an action at any time. In practice there's a bottleneck in the form of a GM, so procedures are created on the fly: "Ok, so Little gets the better of the intruder in the club. Now, what is Cal doing outside?" is basically the same as saying "Little's turn is over, now it's Cal's turn," but it's a procedure created specially for the current situation and discarded as soon as, say, Cal joins Little in the club. In Vampire, things get more concrete during combat, but we're honestly fudging even that quite a bit by using one contested roll to model combat, etc. Do has very strict procedures - it's my turn now, and not yours, and because it's my turn I do specific things and you do other things.

This strict procedure does two things: it lets you play without having a GM to play traffic cop (about which more below) and it creates a certain kind of narrative output. When we played Lady Blackbird, narrative output for a scene was anything I said to the players and anything they said to me, and also the two in-character side conversation other players were having, and the one-liner a character threw in "in passing" as the player went to get another beer from the fridge. The output was a lot more dense than, say, a film, where one thing is happening at any given moment. In Do, narrative output is one, maybe two sentences per turn, and each sentence has one of two topics: how the pilgrims helps or how the pilgrim gets in trouble. Output is very spare, much less dense than film, like calligraphy or a Dr. Seuss book (I hope these analogies to other mediums are making some kind of sense). I think I see a lot of good reasons for the enforcement of that low output: besides being an interesting gameplay constraint on its own, it's thematically consistent with Do's inspirations (i.e. Buddhism, or children's literature). But I think my players, used to going crazy and fleshing out a world in a great many words, may have felt stifled.

The other big thing, of course, is the lack of a GM. I know for a fact that a hell of a lot of ink has been spilled on the role of a GM in play, and I don't necessarily want to get into that now. Right or wrong, though, I'm not necessarily a minimalist GM. "Lazy," or whatever, perhaps, but not minimalist. The way play has organically worked itself out in for my group could be termed as "player roles, GM describes." Naomi's player says she's trying to kill Lord Mandrake, Snargle's player says he's trying to stop her, they both roll and then I (the GM) say what happens based on who rolls better. I know that's considered strange in some circles, and I know in other circles it would beconsidered strange that there's an alternative to that, so whatever. My point is, I take a lot of responsibility for authorial control, for saying, "Here's what you should be imagining" at the table. Then, for Do, I turned around and said, "Do players are ruled by their play procedures, not their game masters! Be free and play!" And I've heard from at least one player that they didn't like that, that they wanted to be a persona in the world and definitely NOT take responsibility for the world at large.1

So, to wrap it up: Do is awesome. Maybe it's not for every group, and maybe it's not for my group, because maybe some groups (my group) need things like fluid play procedure and a strong GM. People are different from each other sometimes? Wow! Don't say you didn't learn anything today.

In any event, I haven't decided decisively that Do won't work for my group; nobody wanted to press on to a second letter the first night we played, but everyone was game for trying again with a better understanding of what they were getting into. If we do, I'll let you know.

1. I take this as vindication of my identification of my players as mostly simulationists. Except for th one narrativist. Any guesses who unexpectedly shot a major NPC in our Lady Blackbird game?


  1. I'd agree with your players that Do isn't really a role-playing game. That was one of those controversial design decisions I made a while back, but sticking to it made Do a unique experience.

    That does mean I have to explicitly explain what to expect in play, though. Unfortunately, WW has diluted the meaning of "storytelling game," so I was hesitant to use that term at first. But, heck, there's no other term that more accurately describes what you do while playing Do, y'know? Well, maybe "story-building game." How about "story-writing game?"

    Anyhoo, I'm glad you dug the game. It's definitely an odd duck in the marketplace, but I love it just the same. :)

  2. Daniel, thanks so much for your comment, and thanks for stopping by to read my navel-gazing!

    It's an interesting point about White Wolf; when I was younger I considered "Storytelling/Storyteller System" appropriate because the width and breadth of my gaming experience was Vampire, Mage and D&D. In light of the full spectrum of possibilities, it does seem like a waste of a useful term.

    Anyway, you have a lot to be proud of in Do; it seems like it has great buzz, and I hope it continues to succeed.