Monday, August 29, 2011

Incident At Owl Lake with Andre Kruppa

I attended the Open Gaming Convention, OGC, up in Nashua, New Hampshire this weekend. I learned a lot from the experience, trying out different games, seeing players with a variety of styles, and getting to play with skilled, experienced GMs. I played two games with variants of the Fudge system, and enjoyed both of them, and I'll definitely be checking Fudge out in the future.

As I said, there's a lot to think about, but the main thing I want to get down right away is a little bit about the last game that I played at OGC, "Incident At Owl Lake," run by one Andre Kruppa (check out his website at This was a horror game using Fudge. It had many virtues; one of them was - I don't want to use the loaded term 'immersion', so instead I'll say - engagement. The game was extremely engaging from start to finish. It created an atmosphere like no game I've ever seen. Andre used any number of tricks to achieve that effect, but I want to mention the two big ones: presentation and... let's say refrain.

  • Presentaion
    This game had more technical effects than some plays I've been in.  Unlike every other game at OGC, we played in a smaller private room instead of the hotel's ballroom. There were no other games going on, no random bystanders strolling by and looking over our shoulders, no random chatter floating through the room. In fact, the lights in the room were off; we saw by the theatrical lighting Andre had installed, or, when that was off in dark scenes, by the flashlights he'd laid out on the table.Yes, the lights would go out when our characters were in the dark; they'd take on a reddish glow when we were by the campfire; at other times, they'd turn a bright white or a cool green, as appropriate to our increasingly freaky situation. One of the simplest and coolest things Andre did with the lights was a quick bright flash whenever a gun was fired.

    There was also sound, beginning with some period music as Andre explained the rules and we chose characters. The whole game was punctuated by great ambient music cued up by Andre on the fly as appropriate to the scene. I swear, some sequences he must have timed out, because he would get to the big climax of a piece of description just at the moment the music swelled...

    The theatrical lighting and the elaborate, well-chosen sound were the biggest items under presentation, but there were other factors as well; every player was equipped with a number of play aids including writing paper, setting information and laminated cards for tracking health and to help adjudicate rolls. There was water and candy available on the table. Even the use of the quick, intuitive Fudge system enhanced the presentation; from the system on up, everything was laid out for us so that we could focus on the game and Andre's great effects, instead of worrying about taking notes or going foraging for water.

    Andre himself completed the presentation, in a lot of little ways. He was always serious and attentive and always, always kept the game moving. There were a lot of little touches that added to the feeling in the air, but perhaps the most important was his request at the beginning that we stay in character and refrain from asides. That little request was unique at OGC for me and it made all the difference.
  • RepetitionThis game made use of long blocks of prepared text. This made me wary at first; when it became clear that certain blocks were going to be repeated over and over again - they related to characters' internal experience upon seeing something unnatural for the first time - I got warier. I guess I've come to associate prepared text with laziness, with wooden readings of bland committee-written description. I didn't need to worry in this case; the writing was evocative, the reading smooth and spirited. The repetition - even of quite lengthy bits of text - far from getting boring actually became one of my favorite bits, a defining aspect of the game. Part of the point was the eerie similarity between each characters' experience and memory. By chance, my character was the last one to experience anything that triggered one of these blocks of text, and when the time came I was excited for it, even thought I'd heard the same long description read out twice before. It felt like an initiation, and I wanted badly to become an initiate. Andre read the text for my character with the same energy as he'd read it before - he even threw in a quick modification that applied specifically to my character.

    The repetition, combined with the excellent presentation, gave the whole game a solemn, significant, ritual feel that I found engrossing.
I don't know quite how to describe the effect of the presentation and repetition on me and on the play experience. I'm tempted to use words like "transported" or "ecstatic" to signify being brought outside myself, but that's not quite right. It was still decidedly a problem-solving exercise, which meant I was thinking about the game and studying my character sheet the entire time. Other people even moreso; I'd say to majority of the players spent most of their time in "pawn stance," role-playing a few quick asides or one-liners while mostly staying laser-focused on getting through our objectives. I was personally moving back and forth between pawn, author and actor throughout the session. Melissa, the one person I knew at the table, is an actor stance kind of gal and the two of us had a number of what felt like dramatic asides in the middle of the action-adventure-horror plotline.

"Focused" is a word you could apply to the whole game, which was another part of why it was so successful. I'm a huge fan of in-character cross-talk: while the gamemaster is running a scene with Cyrus Vance interrogating a prisoner, Naomi and Kale's players are quietly role-playing a scene together - the conversation Naomi and Kale are having outside the interrogation room, say. It's a way to stay engaged while your character isn't acting and too explore the characters more, always a priority in my group. In "Incident," that didn't happen. I tried once, and the player I was trying to engage politely shushed me with a nod to Andre. He was quite right; this game followed the GM's attention like a film camera. Whatever Andre was paying attention to was what took over our shared imaginative space, completely. That meant there were long stretches where I had nothing to do, which is never ideal for me as a player, but on the whole I didn't mind, because what was going on elsewhere was always fascinating. I'm not sure exactly why it worked so well. I guess it was probably part of maintaining the "ritual" feel; community is part of ritual, I suppose, so being creatively together at all times may be important. It also kept Andre in tight control of the game world, which was a necessary aspect of the experience, for sure.

 One bit of oddness was that there were a few in-character reasons to keep the party split up, but no reward for doing so. Nothing very interesting ever happened to people who stayed behind. The most problematic section of the game for me came when we (foolishly, of course) split the party in the second half. Three of us invaded a mysterious, dangerous place while the rest of us waited outside. The male characters were trying to protect the female characters, from the horrors of this place (very in character, as the game took place in the 50s), and my doctor wanted to stay with an afflicted patient. This left those of us left behind with nothing to do while a lengthy combat ensued - made especially painful because it quickly became clear we should never have split the party, and the lads were being taken apart, but we had no in-character knowledge of it. Admittedly, though, "don't split the party" is such a basic notion I guess that we have nobody to blame but ourselves.


  1. Thanks for the great writeup! I very much appreciate the kind words and the feedback! It was great gaming with you!

  2. I also want to add that I appreciate you feedback regarding the color narration in that scenario. The color text is an going experimental process for me and many games don;t require that it is repeated, but I am still learning about the appropriate balance of color narration and description.

    I also appreciate the comments about splitting the group. Some of my scenarios focus upon situations that are often aided by simultaneous efforts by split groups and balancing those scenes can be delicate. I always appreciate well thought out criticism and I am constantly seeking to improve my process and presentation!