2008-11-24 : Salt River

John Harper says:

Hey Vincent,

Can you talk about your Otherkind-dice freeformy western town game thing,
for anyway? I bet you have things to say and I have things to hear.

Most especially: that (possibly slippery) place where you go to dice or
choose not to. Also, I think an example of what you put in the various boxes
for resolution would be interesting to see.

I'm right on the cusp of trying out something in this vein, and it would be
nice to see some words from the old hands.

Hm. I suppose I can.

Here are, roughly, the resolution rules we used: Otherkind Dice.

Topic 1: going to dice?

Slippery is the word. I suspect that we went to dice whenever one of, oh, four or six things happened. One was the same "oh no you don't" as in the Wicked Age. One was, I would go to dice when I personally didn't feel comfy just asserting something. There was this interesting provocative one, too, where J would say "I'm going to roll dice on this," and I would say "screw you! Those are MY dice to roll! I'M going to roll dice on it!"

Probably all of them fit into the general case the rules give, though: Use when somebody says "my character accomplishes this..." and somebody says "...but it's not a given." They can be the same person or different people.

I can't remember clearly enough to talk about when we didn't go to dice. Cases where somebody would say "my character accomplishes this, is it a given?" and everybody said "yeah, it is."

Topic 2: what did we resolve?

Oh just, y'know, things.

When we picked up dice we'd say what we were rolling for like this: "high die I get away, high die I kill him, high die he doesn't shoot me" or "high die I win cred in town, low die he shoots me (1 = to death, 2-3 = not to death), high die I shoot him (same deal, 6 = to death)."

They were always things specific to this very moment. We had a couple of categories of things we looked for: my character's main goal, his secondary goal or goals, dangers to him, dangers to his friends, ways he might lose control, long-term consequences of his actions - but when we said them, we always said the specific, local, immediate form they took.

We allowed a single bonus die to anyone who said and argued that they deserved one. "I want an extra die because I served under this guy in the war," I'd say, for instance.


By nature, those rules are no respecter of characters. They will tear your limbs off and cut out your guts. It happened to my poor guy.

But if you hobble them and play them safe instead, which you can easily do, they stumble and stagger and are awkward. It's very hard to reliably come up with three interesting safe things.

Salt River kind of piddled out. I was probably the only one of us whose character got an actual story, so I was probably the only one of us who both enjoyed it while it was on and then didn't mind it ending. Is this because I'm adept with the rules? I don't know. For sure I didn't win with them, they gutted and dismembered my poor guy, but maybe I was able to make them work for me better than the other players.

The games we're playing now, safe to say, are much more fun. (Maybe in part because we're in two smaller groups playing two different games? Yes, maybe so.)

Questions very welcome. Other players' thoughts very welcome.

1. On 2008-11-25, Christoph said:

This is an interesting discussion! Thanks for writing it up.

There's this not quite recent but still ongoing discussion Ralph and Ron are having across a number of threads on the Forge, which might or might not tie up with this, about pre-conflict-outcome negotiation.
This game seems to me that it does the pre-conflict-outcome negotiation.

I'd be interested on some thoughts for this game along those ideas, from Vincent, Ralph and Ron (or others). Especially, it is not quite clear to me if Salt River piddled out because of the pre-conflict-outcome negotiation. Perhaps it has nothing to do with it, perhaps it has but is just a question of tweaking, or whatever.



2. On 2008-11-25, Vincent said:

Oh no, it piddled out for perfectly normal personal reasons having to do with us working together as a group. I'm not going to go into them (they aren't even MY business, as it happens, let alone yours), but they aren't very interesting from an rpg design theory point of view.

I think that I know what Ron and Ralph mean when they talk about pre-negotiated outcomes, and if I do, then no, that wasn't part of this game.

In this game, there was sometimes a certain, limited negotiation about components of outcomes, but when you roll, you get your outcomes all in combination. Nobody ever negotiated about possible combinations of outcomes... Rrg. An example.

In Salt River: My guy, Michael Strong, has been on the run from this guy McInnis. McInnis was his lieutenant in the war, and is now a US Marshall; Michael deserted his company before Gettysburg. Now, years later, McInnis happened upon him and jailed him for desertion. Michael's broken out of jail and taken to the hills, with McInnis and the town's sheriff in pursuit.

So it happens that I set up a crappy ambush. They're coming up a draw and Michael's on the ledge over their heads, and he has a big rock.

"Okay, when they come under me, I smash McInnis' head in. I'm going to roll: on a high die I get away, on a high die I kill McInnis, on a high die nobody shoots me." The scale for all of these is 1-2, 3-4, 5-6: on a 3-4 I'm still at large but I haven't gotten away, on a 3-4 I injure McInnis with the rock but don't kill him, on a 3-4 somebody shoots me but not to death. (And anybody who didn't bother to read the linked rules, go do it now.)

At this moment, the final outcome is totally up in the air, and nobody's negotiating anything about it. We haven't narrowed it down to two or three possibilities with implications we can discuss and pre-plan. There are (quick math) 27 possible outcomes and all of them are at least a little bit complicated. Some of them will lead straight into a next roll, others will be final. We don't know what any of this is going to turn out to mean.

So when I pick up the dice, it's a moment of real suspense, and when I roll them, it's a moment of heightened suspense. Nobody has any say what the dice will roll, and nobody but me has any say how I'll assign them once they're down. Pre-negotiating outcomes under these circumstances is just really impractical.


3. On 2008-11-25, Weeks said:

This is something I've been meaning to ask about for ages but never got around to.  When you're actually playing, I get that anyone can suggest that dice are appropriate now.  But I'm curious about how you work who gets what say regarding the event that each die can be assigned to.  My recollection of the Otherkind rules (I can't find wherever you have it stashed just now) is that there is something specific about the role of the GM and the players and the setting regarding what the three dice determine.  But reading the stuff above (and through the link) there are a couple of places where it looks like when you're narrating, you just come up with the three consequences and then there are a couple of bits that suggest (but don't explicate) that you sort of negotiate ad hoc with the other players—taking cool suggestions and making everyone happy.

But I might be reading too much into it.  Do you play with anything formal in that regard?


4. On 2008-11-25, Ben Lehman said:

I'm struck, at least in my view, by the amount of effort that must go into pre-rolls: figuring out what three things you're rolling over can't be that simple.

If you could make a rough guess, what percentage of the game was devoted figuring out the three things to roll about?

Did the game contain free play (play w/o direct reference to the mechanical resolution)? (I'm guessing yes.) If so, how much of the time were you spending in free play? Were there pure free play scenes? Did conflicts (I speak here of the fiction) get concluded in free play, with die rolls, or both? Did some players favor free play over die rolls, in terms of their play, or in terms of the resolution to conflicts (again, speaking in terms of the fiction, rather than in a technical sense)?



5. On 2008-11-25, Vincent said:

Weeks: it's casual. Usually there are three obvious thing, like my getaway/braining the guy/not getting shot example; those required no thought to come up with. Occasionally all three won't be obvious to whoever happens to be talking, so someone else will say the third, and since it's obvious there's no negotiation required.

After the fact, it's always very difficult to say who suggested which outcomes. They were pretty much all implicit in the situation; whoever said it just put it to words. We all already saw it there.

In Otherkind proper, you roll dice always on the same three things, and there's formal narration-trading. This game's much more casual about that stuff.

As far as negotiating the consequences of outcomes goes, there's a strict rule worth mentioning: if you put a low die in something, you aren't allowed to argue to soften it. If you didn't want to get gut shot, you shouldn't've put a 2 in "on a high die, he doesn't gut shoot me."

Ben: Nah, it's pretty simple, and you're right, we did lots of free play (about which, more in a sec). I'd guess that we spent 5 minutes or less out of every hour figuring out what to roll for.

We had those general categories (my character's main goal, his secondary goal or goals, dangers to him, dangers to his friends, ways he might lose control, long-term consequences of his actions) to guide us, and they helped a lot.

There's a tidy feedback loop. We resolved conflicts with the dice when they came to concrete, consequential action. You can tell that a conflict's come to concrete, consequential action when you can say generally what the consequences might be. And when you can say generally what the consequences might be, you know what to roll dice for.

In other words, most of the time "what we're rolling for" triggered "now we're rolling."

There were a couple of times when we had to really think to come up with a third, but they were exceptions - and if they were occasionally demanding or frustrating, they were still never breakdowns in the procedure.

An example:

J: Okay. I'm going to roll. High die he goes along with what I'm telling him, high die he doesn't hit me, high die... uh help me out.

V: Well, um, nobody's threatening any real violence here, so no "high die my friends all live." Are you sure you need to roll?

J: I am.

V: Okay. Huh.

Em: High die you keep the girls' respect.

J, V: Perfect!

We never got really stuck.

Free play - Tons of free play, yep, including many scenes with no dice (half and half? three to two? two to one? somwhere in there).

I suppose that maybe we resolved some conflicts in free play, but only conflicts that could, would and did resolve without ever coming to consequential action. We used the dice to resolve some conversational arguments between a PC and an NPC, but never between two PCs (I don't believe in that kind of crap).

We let conflicts thorougly develop in free play, that was one of our agreements up front. Consequently, some things that might have gone to dice in a more "boo! conflict!" game, didn't, but sorted themselves out through plain character interaction instead.

So honestly I'd have it that they weren't really conflicts after all. They were just the characters positioning themselves for the real conflicts to come.

Just so it's clear, everybody: this wasn't a great highlight of my gaming life, but as far as I'm concerned it was a baseline successful game. We played a half dozen sessions, told the whole story of one of the characters, and then let it go.


6. On 2008-11-25, Emily said:

John, there was a lot of other stuff that made the game go. Ben's getting at it here, so I'll give it a crack, too.

The other rules were within the dramatic structure contained in the fiction, and the way we would poke, provoke and prod each other through character choice and action.  This lead up to occasional rolls. Most of the play was free. Initially in the game, we actually used the rolls to spice things up, intentionally. I remember calling for a roll in order to add complication, rather than choosing to say how a thing went.

When we played Salt River, we started knowing we'd play a western. We had a group discussion of what kind of western, and got a sense that it would be heavily influenced by Dead Wood. Civilization on the march, threatening what our characters cared about was the main theme, which I remember Joshua championing.  I think I suggested the mining town, maybe, and it was a good arena for those conflicts.

Then we each made characters who both took part in that central conflict and who had an important place in the town. Shreyas played the Deputy, Vincent the Sheriff. Joshua took the town Madam, who had an eye to running things. Elizabeth and I created a team: her half-indian miner and my Canook trapper worked together to protect the best claim in the joint. Rob joined later with a preacher, and Eppy played in one session with a comedic minor, part of the John Smith duo along with Joshua.

Shreyas started off with inter-character conflict. His Deputy was sleeping with the Sheriff. Vincent retaliated by having the Sheriff kill himself at the end of the first session. I'm joking about the retaliation part—it was perfectly in keeping with the action and the characters—but it put tremendous pressure on Shreyas's character for the rest of the game. It side-stepped the pressure that Shreyas had put on Vincent through the affair, and raised the stakes. At this point, Vincent's other character, the Pianist, became clearly his main character. That's the one who Vincent felt got good story, I believe.

We each played many, many characters in the game. Early on, I took to casting other people as secondary characters. I remember Elizabeth doing this to me, too. :) At least once, I said "There's something going on over at the mining camp, who's character is it and what's up?" That's where Eppy and Joshua found the two John Smiths, who rivalled eachother in a friendly to-the-death kind of way for the same claim that was in the name of John Smith.

There were several characters like them who were specifically there for the comedic qualities. Others were there specifically to put pressure on us all. Joshua played a Marshall who put his nose into everyone's business. He had history with Vincent's Pianist, and eventually got himself killed by Shreyas' Deputy.  Honestly I think the story was complete with that shot. There was plenty of material there for the next escalation that happened (a Pinkerton coming to town to investigate it) and the railroad coming through. But, that shot ended what we'd started nicely.

Salt River kind of piddled out. I was probably the only one of us whose character got an actual story, so I was probably the only one of us who both enjoyed it while it was on and then didn't mind it ending. Is this because I'm adept with the rules?

Yes, but not the rolling rules. You threw yourself in the way of the plot by giving yourself back-story with the Marshall, and then your character got resolution since your enemy was killed. The rolls, such as with Shreyas' final one with the Marshall helped foster that story that you wove yourself into.

My characters didn't get a strong storyline, but they did affect the main story strongly. I enjoyed it while it was happening, partly because I got so much say in the story by the other stuff we were doing. I enjoyed the hell out of playing lots of characters, poking people with sticks, and watching things unfold.


7. On 2008-11-25, Emily said:

I obviously cross-posted that with Vincent. :)


8. On 2008-11-25, Vincent said:

Oh yeah! That was a great rule, I thought, our character creation rule. Given that the town's in real danger (the next town over was a ghost town already):

Make up somebody who's depending on the town's survival.

We each went with our own different takes on what "the town's survival" meant. Michael, my character, was depending on the town's survival as a pre-statehood place outside of the eye of (for instance) US Marshalls who'd arrest him as a deserter. Sarah, J's character, was depending on the town's financial survival, and its survival as a place where men and Yankee politicians weren't completely in charge.


9. On 2008-11-25, Emily said:

I think it was even, the town's survival and continuing isolation.


10. On 2008-11-26, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Not just men and Yankee politicians, but Whites. She was the most powerful person in town, and she was a *black woman*. It's 1870. You can do the math.

There was a time or two that, upon reflection, it felt like I talked around throwing down because I was afraid of losing something major. I can't remember what it was, so maybe it was more a worry than an actual experience.

I think, though, that part of the deal was that everyone was playing a bunch of characters, so we'd push and push with the supporting characters. One thing I'd do is push with a supporting character, then pick up dice cuz it was time to bring the hurts. The rule was that main cast got the priority on rolling, so Elizabeth or whoever would jump at the opportunity to set the parameters of the conflict, rather than let me, with much less investment in the wellbeing of this character, throw dice at her.

Also, I gotta scan John Smith. It's one of my favorite illustrations ever, and I just got a scanner.


11. On 2008-11-26, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

No, no. The *other* John Smith.


12. On 2008-11-26, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

I had some of Vincent's sketches, too. They're mostly very funny, so I scanned them, as well.

This is Gerard, a cunning prospector played by Emily. He's the partner of Elizabeth's Blackfoot cynic. Together, they fight crime.

No, wait, they take bounties on dismembered dimwits.

... whom they have dismembered.

Here's Stumpy Pete, a sad and shapeless "man" for hire. He's never found gold, silver, sapphires, or even a lump of coal to speak of, so he gets by as a paid snitch for whoever's got a buck or a can of beans. His name is Robert. You can do the math on that.

And here's John Smith, one of two. We met them in a conflict over a deed for a particular gold claim. Each of the John Smiths was declaring that it was *his* X on the deed. They had the least competent gunfight ever witnessed over it, including being scalded with coffee, several reloads, and the other John Smith having to beg the sheriff to finally please arrest that guy, cuz he just shot me *again*! Right in front of you!

(He never takes old grounds out of his coffee pot so it's this moldy, slimy slurry. That's not a freeze-frame. It's his coffee *dangling*.)


13. On 2008-11-26, Valamir said:

wow...gerard especially is REALLY really good...


14. On 2008-11-26, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Yeah. I love that illustration. It's my favorite of the series. John Smith is my favorite that I've ever done, though. His hair still makes me laugh.


15. On 2008-11-26, Christoph said:

Ok, I think I get it, Vincent! Thanks


16. On 2008-11-27, John Harper said:

Wow. I ask a question and not only do I get good answers, I get good follow-up questions, more good answers, AND art.

Thanks, everyone!

Em, your scene-setting question reminds me of the Engle Matrix Dracula game, which has a set of these great questions that you use to stage scenes (and pace the game). Like, "What unspeakable thing happens in Lucy's room?" I was thinking that something like that would mesh well with the Otherkind/Salt River method, and I guess it did.

I'm considering the Salt River method for a group of friends who are very much on the same page, premise-wise, and are excited to play, but who have only the slightest interest in mechanics as a storytelling tool. They loved the Wicked Age, but are now asking for something with even less "business" (no character sheets would be nice). So this might fit the bill, I think.


17. On 2008-12-04, Robert Bohl said:

I need to revisit that shyster/preacher character again. Great unrealized potential.

I came in for the last session of this game and I quite enjoyed it despite finding the rules opaque. All I know is a lot of time was spent being people, and that was very nice.


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