Ten Favorite Game Mechanics – #9 – Initiative from FVLMINATA

This, of course, is one of my own creations. FVLMINATA as a whole is almost entirely Jason Roberts’, but this little bit was mine. Humility be damned, but I still think it’s one of the coolest mechanics around.

#9 – Initiative from FVLMINATA

If you’ve never played in one of my FVLMINATA convention games, you must simply imagine the devilish grin plastered on my face when the group first gets into a combat situation. My eyes twinkle as I say “Let me explain the initiative system of this game: Senators go first!” Players react in one of two ways: Stunned incomprehension, or immediate laughter.

In 2000-2001, it was almost a truism to say that game mechanics were the physics of the game world and the more “realistic” a game was, the better. Not that everyone believed that to be the case, but it was the common, accepted wisdom for a big chunk of the hobby. And more than the funny dice, or the Latin humors on the character sheet, or even the social interaction mechanics, the initiative system set FVLMINATA apart.

More than just being different than the norm, the initiative system focused on what the game was about: Rome as a living, breathing society. You may be fast, you may be strong, but if you’re merely a slave, how important can you be? FVLMINATA was anything but dungeon crawls in togas. How your character fit into the social fabric was more important than anything else. It was a game about who you were, more than what you could do.

And who knows? It might be that game again…

Up next: You want something that can crush a car and make you rich and famous? Not a problem.

Southern Exposure 2005

I went to Southern Exposure in Cherry Hill, NJ this weekend. The con went much better than expected. Fall cons have, with a few exceptions, been a bit cursed with me. Plus I woke up Friday morning with a sore throat, so I figured the weekend was gonna suck.

Glad I was wrong.

Friday we fought Philly Friday morning rush hour traffic to get there on time, and Kat’s With Great Power… game had four players. Feeling kinda grumpy, I was gonna sit out and watch. But once she had gone through the rules, I couldn’t help myself. No one chose The Stalwart. I had a chance to play my own game, while playing my own character! I jumped right in! It was a great deal of fun, even though I graciously backed out of the conflict scene to help keep things moving.

After the game we checked in to the hotel, grabbed some lunch @ the staff suite and set up for 2nd session. Kat was scheduled to run a Discernment double-shot, but that folded. I ran a session of PTA for 5 people who had never played before. Michele showed up and she and Kat went restaurant hunting.

Shamefaced confession: PTA is the simplest game that I can’t run right. Series and character creation is so collaborative and so fun, that when we start playing, we just keep on collaborating, often forgetting to write in conflict.

With Great Power… ran like that up to and including Dreamation, so it’s probably something in me. I think as Producer I haven’t been throwing enough adversity at the players. Part of that is certainly the gear-switching from total consensus (pregame) to adversarial friction (game). The other part is the friggin’ Stakes rules Matt has written. “The Producer’s Stake is always ‘no.'” So I’m supposed to bring on the big, fat, juicy adversity in all kinds of nonmechanical ways, an once the mechanics show up, I’m supposed to sit there and say, “Okay guys, *you* tell me what the conflict’s about.” It ain’t workin’ for me so far.

Anyway, the PTA game on Friday was pretty fun despite all that. They created a series called “Purgatory 9-to-5” It was an office comedy where the characters worked for a branch of hell, trying to bring in the numbers–damned souls. Sloth was the branch manager. Wrath was the receptionist. Pride was the suck-up assistant manager. Lust was the tech. support guy. Gluttony was the buyer. The NPCs were Greed as the accountant and Envy as the cool guy who used to work there, that everyone was always reminiscing about. I had a faith-based charity move in next store, which got them in hot water with the District Manager.

After a quick dinner at a nearby pizza joint, Friday night I was scheduled to run PTA again. Nobody showed. Scott Lescher’s game also folded. But it was the best folded game ever, ’cause Scott & Kat & Michele & I went to see Serenity.

About Serenity: WOW. I can’t even analyze it. It seized me by the throat and swept me away completely. It’s been a long time since I got so very, very enthralled by a movie. Probably since I went to see The Matrix, not knowing a thing of what it was about except that Kat wanted to see it.

Saturday morning was my WGP game. Again, we had 5 players at the table. Six, actually, since Kat wanted to play but gave up her seat. I ran “A League of Their Own” and it went very well. Surprisingly well, actually.

Y’see, as I said, I was battling chronic grumpiness up until now. I was even half-hoping the game would fold. But it didn’t, so I ran it. I’ve run WGP at conventions so often that I don’t really need my heart in the game to pull it off. My mouth knows what to say, when to say it, what emphasis to put where. This is a helpful skill in a sleep-deprived convention environment, but it’s gotten me into trouble before.

At one of those “cursed” fall conventions several years ago, I was running FVLMINATA. I could also run that with my eyes closed, and still pronounce Flegmaticus and Melancholicus properly. But, as I’ve said, FVLMINATA is a game I wrote, and want to love, but don’t. So, at this convention, I’m running the game, talking the talking, and my heart is *really* not in it. So far “not in it” that I enter this strange state of consciousness like I’m outside myself watching myself go through the motions of running the game. Seeing myself do something that I *really* did not want to do. It was deeply disturbing and I very nearly quit gaming entirely after that convention.

Back to Saturday morning, I’m in the same situation: A fall con in NJ, running a game I wrote, and running it on autopilot because my heart isn’t in it. I’m kinda afraid what might happen. Will I do the split-consciousness thing again?

But what happens is that as the time ticks by, and my mouth keeps talking and my arms keep holding up that ever-lovin’ Thought Balloon, my heart warms up to the game. I remember why I love With Great Power… The melodrama! The tragedy! It was a fun, fun game.

Okay, I’m only through Saturday morning, with a couple of detours, but I’ve gotta post this and get to work. More later.

Just got off the phone with Jason Roberts. I think it’s been over a year since I spoke with him. We’re both family men now with kids to provide for. But we weren’t always….

Jason is my cousin and was my first Dungeon Master. We’d see each other on Easter and Thanksgiving and I’d pull out my beat-up character sheet (a gnome named Figtoe–don’t ask) and he’d run me through Queen of the DemonWeb pits or a dungeon he scribbled on the back of a napkin. I didn’t know which dice to use when, or what “Save v. P/P/D” meant. Even so, whenever my character sheet got too worn out, I’d painstakingly copy over every saving throw and weapon stat, waiting for the next holiday.

Jason is four years older than me and when he went off to college he left me a massive box of his old modules, a Monster Manual, and notes (and notes and notes) about his high school D&D campaign. I looked through every module and at every piece of paper. I pulled out a thing or two and put the rest back in its box. It’s sitting in my closet right now. Even at the dawn of my gaming life, the act of creation was paramount. I never ran a module.

Ten years later, Jason and I were both out of college. Both married. I was still gaming as often as often as I could. He was a self-confessed “bookshelf gamer.”–buying games and reading them, but not playing. We’d get to talking at the family reunions. About this and that and scifi and gaming. He had this idea for a game about Rome (Jason majored in Classical Archeology). But not just Rome. Rome with Guns.

FVLMINATA was born. It took more than a year and a ton of work (most of it Jason’s) to make it happen. But it was published in August 2000.

A month later Jason became a dad. Five months later, so did I. Life expanded.

We put together FVLMINATA 2nd Edition. It was wildly successful for a total crash-and-burn disaster. He got a new, extremely demanding job and moved to New England. I got involved with the Forge. Time has passed.

I sent him a copy of With Great Power… and he called to say “Thanks.” We talked for nearly an hour. It was good to hear him get that excited catch in his voice when he’s talking about the cool stuff he’s working on with Jared. It was a little awkward to have no project in common.

It’s awkward to have no project at all.

“So what are you working on, now that With Great Power… is done?” he asked.

“Recuperating,” I said. Which is another way of saying “I don’t know.” Or “Nothing.” Or “I’m wasting my precious time here on Earth.”

We’ve got a lot of history, Jason and I. He spoke of feeling his way back into the gaming world. He got burned, badly, and it’s brave of him to come back. I look forward to seeing him at GenCon next year, maybe.

*****

If I were a good writer, I’d wrap this up with some kind of conclusion. It would draw on the tidbits I’d mention before. It would have a smooth, satisfying, somewhat bittersweet ending with a hint of finality. But I’m not that guy. My conclusions are simple, obvious, and crudely phrased:

It was good to talk to Jason. I’ve missed him. I’m not the dabbler I once was. I need a project.