Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: Shooting the Moon

Once my roleplaying group and I evolved past the "hack-and-slash, let's roll dice and marvel at our awesome damage and see what loot we got" phase of playing D&D, stories and character development started to appear. It was little things at first, and some of it was just attempts at adolescent humor, but it fostered and grew. Gradually our stories weren't just about epic quests to become kings and queens of our own countries with vast fortunes of gold, but they became much more subdued and much more personal.

I've seen my style of DMing and GMing change over the years. Epic tales and stories are still told, but I can't tell a good story without good characters. And characters are not good unless they grow and develop.

Nowadays, the moments of roleplaying that fade from my mind are the critical hits against the giants and the great tactical maneuvers to flank the bugbears to maximize damage potential. The moments that stick with me are the character's stories.

I remember the time when it suddenly hit our fighter while carousing in the tavern and talking with the rest of the party that he had "daddy issues" that led him down that path. I remember the time our carefree bard was killed in combat and then raised from the dead by a cleric of the god of war, and the bard felt obliged to convert her religion to that of the god of war. I remember the time a 250 lb. long-haired biker playing his battle-scarred Get of Fenris roleplayed out a tender scene with a clean-shaved well-dressed preppie playing his Black fury that lead to the romance of their characters. Granted, part of it is etched into my memory because of the physical sight of it, but it resonates because it was a genuinely tender and character developing scene.

So, on the stage there may be dragons and orcs and gold and treasure, but a good GM knows that they are backdrops. They are important, but they are essentially the cardboard props painted by the high school art department. The real story and action is told by the characters and actors.
That is what Shooting the Moon, an independent RPG by Emily Care Boss, realizes. It is a roleplaying game about developing the characters and advancing a rather personal story. It is a roleplaying game about romance. And, to make it more compelling and interesting, it is about love triangles. 

The main characters of the story consist of two Suitors, who are the main protagonists of the story. They are both strong and flawed characters. They are each vying for the same Beloved, who represents something desirable in this world. The Beloved's traits determine the Suitor's traits in an ingenious interlocking fashion, tying all of the characters' essences together in a wonderful fashion. In a three player game, each Suitor and the Beloved are played by one payer. In a two player game, each player controls one Suitor and the Beloved is still there, but becomes more of a story element controlled by either player when narrating the scene.

Every great story requires great characters and Shooting the Moon has one of the best and most engaging character creation processes I've ever seen (with the possible exception of Traveler, where I've had characters die in the character creation process). Characters, however, are a reflection of the Setting, which is determined first by the group.

The Setting can be anything. You could have your game take place in a war-torn fantasy setting, or as spies during the Cold War, or a pirates in a pirate fleet, or survivors aboard a doomed space vessel leaking heavy radiation. By the game isn't limited to fantastic or adventure settings. Your Setting could just as easily be high school, a cruise to the Bahamas, the local PTA, at your workplace, or--for really challenging storytelling--have the entire Setting take place during a shared cab ride.

Once the group has agreed on a setting--as fantastic or as banal as they desire--the characters are created to tell the story. Unlike most roleplaying games, however, the characters are created as a collaboration. This isn't to say that one player chooses a cleric, so you know that heals are covered, so you take something else. Instead, each player creates and applies aspects of each character.

I am going to go into some detail here for character creation since it is so wonderful. I'll also illustrate the concepts with descriptions of our first characters throughout, because who doesn't love talking about their characters?

First, the Beloved is created. Characters are not a set of stats  and numbers or filling in the circles like it is some standardized test. Instead, characters are a collection of Attributes. The players each choose Attributes for the Beloved. In a two-player game, each player chooses three. In a three-player game, each player chooses two. These attributes are simple words or phrases that are desirable in the world that they live in. They could be physical traits, personality traits, resources or character aspects.

Our first game was set in a war-torn fantasy world. We decided that we were in a keep under desperate siege as the enemy was trying to starve us out over the lean winter. The six attributes that we chose to define our Beloved were:
1. Expert Swordsman
2. Tactical
3. Quick-Footed
4. Owning a Magical Sword
5. Brave
6. Honor-Bound

After the Beloved's attributes are set, the players choose some of these attributes to choose synonyms and anonyms for. In a two-player game, each player chooses two attributes to do this for. In a three-player game, each player chooses one. When a synonym and antonym are chosen, they are immediately assigned to one of the Suitors. One of the Suitors gets the synonym as an Attribute and the other Suitor gets the antonym as an Attribute.

For our game, Tactical was assigned Calculating and Free-Wheeling. Honor-Bound was assigned Loyal and Out For Themselves. Quick-Footed was assigned Clumsy and Fast. And Expert Swordsman was assigned Veteran and Green.

The Suitors, however, are not completed with their Attributes. The players then take turns modifying attributes with a "but". You can modify one of your own character's attributes or you can modify the other Suitor's attributes. The modifier may strengthen or weaken the Attribute or it may simply better define it.

So, at the end of this process we had modified our Suitors. We had modified our own worst Attributes to try to redeem them a bit, while trying to weaken the other Suitor's strongest ones. Really there was no need for this competition, but it was incredibly fun to spoil the other player's traits.

With modifiers, my character was:
Free-wheeling, but Arrogant
Out for Myself, but Has a Soft Spot for Children
Fast, but Not Thorough
Green, but Lucky

My wife's Suitor was:
Calculating, but Optimistic
Loyal, but To a Fault
Clumsy, but Resourceful
Veteran, but With Old Wounds

From here, the final details are laid out. The players determine the Opportunity (why the Beloved it available), Obstacle (what the major challenge of the Beloved is facing) and Dream (What the Beloved's goal or ambition is) for the Beloved. A Person, a Place and a Thing as final Traits for their character. These are essentially minor props, minor characters or locations that can come into play to enhance the story. Finally, each Suitor then comes up with a Conflict which may or may not create difficulties or complications for the Suitor's pursuit of the Beloved.

At this point, we had fleshed out that our Beloved was a female General named Rhenna. Her Opportunity was that she was the sole survivor of her family and thus began to feel very alone. The Obstacle was that there was a war going on, so she needed to be focused on it. In a two-player game, the Beloved has no Dream.

My Suitor's Person was his Mother who didn't like the Beloved, my Place was a secret, hidden basement and my Thing was a lucky coin. My Conflict was that I had once betrayed some of the Keep's soldiers to the enemy in order to save myself.

My wife's Suitor's Person was a young Squire that was in love with her, her Place was the Keep's armory, and her Thing was a blessed shield. Her Suitor's conflict was that she was in the closet about her sexuality and feelings toward other women.

Our Prize, which would be the climax of the story once one Suitor achieved it was a Declaration of Affection from the Beloved.

I wanted to go into detail about character creation to point out it's genius. Characters are created by the group, so you never get to play your ideal character. Strong traits can be hobbled with a single modifier and weaknesses can have shining diamonds among them in certain situations.

But moreover and more important, the Suitors end up being opposites of one another. Because of the synonym and antonym style of creation, if one is brave, the other is likely cowardly. This creates an incredible dynamic when it comes to romance because the characters will not be able to woo the Beloved in the same manner. And this is where the best love stories work. They are not tales of a beautiful woman deciding between a linebacker from the football team or another linebacker from the football team. No. Instead, compelling love stories have choices of different suitors, each with their own benefit and each with their own failings. The Beloved's choice of a Suitor is the goal of the game, so therefore it should result in the story ending with a bold new path being taken by those characters than if the other Suitor was chosen. It should not end with the Beloved's choice being meaningless since both paths are essentially the same. Moreover, it creates a natural tension between the Suitors. This isn't just because they are vying for the same goal (the Beloved), but because they are such different people. It creates natural frustration when one character can woo the Beloved in a way that you simply cannot.

This is the perfect setting to create perfect characters for a perfect story in... well... a slightly imperfect game.

The game takes place from this point as a sort of free-style narrative, broken down over turns. Suitor 1 has their turn, followed by Suitor 2. If there is a Beloved player, they then take their turn. This is repeated three times.

The Suitors' turns begin with Free Play, in which they create a narrative that focuses on their character's interactions with the Beloved. The Suitor describes what is said and done. For those used to roleplaying with more structure, this can be a little jarring at first. However, for the amateur storytellers and DMs always willing to come up with a scene on the fly, it is a little bit easier. If there is a Beloved player, the scene and interaction builds more naturally as the characters talk to one another and it becomes a more cooperative narrative.

During this time, the other Suitor is the Opponent and awaits to wreck influence upon their scene. The Opponent will wait for an opportunity to introduce a Hurdle which may involve some of the story elements and break into the scene to potentially waylay the romance and burden the other Suitor (or Beloved) with new Traits. The Opponent waits for the opportunity and then breaks in by saying "As luck would have it..." and then describe the hurdle.

For example, my wife's Suitor was sharing a tender moment with the General on the keep's battlements. The General began to open up to her Suitor and let her know how she felt alone and my wife's Suitor was starting to feel comfortable around her... closer to her. So, I broke in with "As luck would have it, the enemy laying outside of the gates have decided to start another volley of catapult fire to weaken morale and a volley crashes into the battlement where you stand, collapsing it beneath you."

These narrative moments are beautiful storywise, but are ultimately and awkwardly resolved with dice rolling. A Narrative competition rallies back and forth a bit as the player can use more dice to roll against the Hurdle by creating more responses that involve Traits on the characters present.

Ultimately, the dice feel a little awkward in the narrative setting, but I understand their purpose. If it were completely narrative driven, there would be no need for any rulesets whatsoever. But if the Suitor wins, they narrate how the Hurdle is overcome and get points to their Goal and get to add a new Trait of their choosing (in the example I described, despite her Clumsiness, my wife's character succeeded and gained the trait of "Casual Comfort with Rhenna", so she was no longer awkward or rigid around her).  However, if the Opponent wins, they narrate how the Hurdle foils the moment and get to choose a negative trait to add to the Suitor. There is still one last chance for the Suitor to escape the worst of it with another die roll, however.

The second Suitor then gets to narrate his scene with the first Suitor now playing the Opponent waiting for his opportunity to break the scene.

If there is a Beloved character, then they get to create a situation that faces both Suitors together. These are larger, more meta challenges, but can do well to create an ongoing narrative and in each successive Beloved's turn, the threats rise in scope.

After the three turns, the players tie up their loose ends with a last narrative and then each player rolls one die for each Goal point they have obtained over the last three turns. Each player rolls for their goals.

If a Suitor wins, they get to narrate how they obtained their prize and wraps up the storyline with the Beloved, ending it with what lies in store for them. With a tie, each Suitor describes how the other suitor failed to win their goal and neither player wins. If the Beloved wins, the Beloved narrates how they achieved their Dream, either with one (or both) of the Suitors or neither of them.

So, in the end, Lady Luck and Lady Love are the same mistress as the grand romance of a story is resolved with the roll of dice.

While the mechanics feel a little awkward at times, they are there for a necessary purpose and a skilled roleplayer or storyteller can roll with the punches and fluidly move wherever the story happens to go.

Ultimately, there are some hurdles for really appreciating the gameplay. Without a third player for the Beloved, it can be unsettling to suddenly have to narrate a story without any real input from other players. Most roleplayers are not used to this scenario. We are used to talking to others and it is the other player or the DM who gets to decide if our target falls for our cheesy pick up line or not. 

Rigid mechanics and interaction like that is a necessary crutch when we begin roleplaying. We've all been there in the beginning when you don't know what to say in character so you just make a Charisma check. These are useful crutches in the beginning of our roleplaying experiences. However, players who have relied so heavily on those crutches over the course of their gaming will find that they now need them all the time because their legs have atrophied. It is not every roleplayer who has cast aside the crutches over the years and can easily adapt to what this game asks for.

That said, this is a wonderful game that is not for everyone. The actual mechanics of it are a little awkward when responding to challenges for more dice, but in the end, it doesn't matter. Instead of stretching to figure out how to maximize your dice with your responses, just go with the flow. Even with a sad ending for your character, you will tell a compelling love story with Shoot the Moon than you will by making a Charisma check against that elf in the tavern. And if nothing else, you will revel at the character creation process which already begins to tell and formulate the story--sometimes even better than the game itself.

In our game, the dice were unforgiving to me. That isn't the reason why I think the mechanic is awkward though. My character was charming and comforting. He was open and friendly when Rhenna needed someone and he was a shoulder for her lean on. However, a few bad rolls and the scenes went ugly for me. It didn't matter that I was charming or said the right thing. Things out of my control--happenstance and miserable luck--altered what was meant to be a great romance. In the end, I had no chance with her. I can't blame myself, just plain luck to a handful of opportunities to shine that were lost in fumbles while someone else was able to take better advantage of similar situations. But then again, I suppose that's love.

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