Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Did You Hear About the Time When...?

Copyright (c) 1992 Aimee Yermish
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

The esteemed Editor of this publication has a strict policy: no war stories. They're usually incomprehensible to people who didn't play that particular game. They often contain spoilers which prevent people from playing that game in the future. And face it, most people who write down their war stories do so out of a desire to make sure everyone else hears how terrific they are. Ego-feeding has its place, but not here.

But there are other kinds of war stories, things I wish I had heard when I started playing, things that still bring a chuckle years later. Stories with morals, to instruct the new and dumbfound the experienced. Stories the Editor will print. Names have been changed to protect the silly. Game names have been omitted, and as little context as possible has been given, to protect the games and not bore you with inconsequential details. I've put in morals, where appropriate, but feel free to draw your own. So pull up a chair...

It was 2pm on Saturday, and Greg, member of a large and fairly powerful good-guy team, came bouncing up to a GM. "I think I know who the head of the bad guys is!" "Great," said the GM, "Who?" Greg named his suspect, and, lo and behold, he was right. The GM, without letting on, asked him what he intended to do about it. Well, Greg did one right thing: he told his commander. They were in an excellent position to interfere with their suspect's plans, to have the suspect arrested, or any of a host of other things. What did they do? Not much. Mostly, they stood around, or ran in circles, chasing after red herrings, while the bad guys took over the game.

Moral: Don't just stand there, do something! Think of a plan of action and go after it. If you're wrong, at least you'll find that out. If you're right, it could pay off nicely.

Moral #2: Sometimes those funny little feelings you get are worth checking out.

There was this large group of people, seven in fact, who wanted to interrogate two others. They would have done the two separately, but the opportunity came up to catch them both at once, so they did so. They shot them with tranquilizer darts, searched them, and tied them to chairs. Now, anyone who has worked on a committee knows how tough it is to get anything done. They were still hashing through Andy's interrogation fifteen minutes later, when Ben's tranquilizer wore off. Ben was no fool -- he played possum, and asked the GM if he could escape his bonds. The GM told him it would take a very long time (forty-five minutes), and if any of the other people paid even the slightest attention to him, they would notice what he was doing. Well, forty-five minutes later, they still hadn't even glanced his way.

Interim Moral: Don't get caught napping.

One of the items taken from Ben had been a real small glass ampoule -- a gas grenade. They had carelessly placed it on a desk about five feet away from him. Out of reach, right? No, Ben's a tall guy. On the first step out of the chair, he snatched up the ampoule. The second and third steps brought him around the group of people to block the door, holding the ampoule over his head. "Nobody move!" and then, once more, quiet and even, "Nobody... move."

Nobody moved. Nobody reached for a gun, although they could have gotten him if they tried. Nobody attempted unarmed combat, although they could have at the very least forced him to run away. Nobody did anything, just sat there as if ensorcelled. Some of them pleaded or offered him the moon, but he knew a setup when he heard one. He got a gun, and slowly, one by one, shot every one of them.

Interim Moral #2: Don't let yourself be intimidated. When you're about to be killed, you've got nothing left to lose.

The punchline: Ben later confessed that he had taken the ampoule outside onto some cement and dashed it at the ground as hard as he could, a few times, and just could not get that thing to break. He pulled that entire stunt knowing full well the gas bomb was utterly useless.

Moral #3: A little bluff goes a long way.

Jason and Ted were friends in real life, and had asked to work together in the game. Of course, we all know, as did they, that no sane GM guarantees requests. Well, Ted was cast as the head of a good-guy agency, and Jason was cast as a SWORD agent. That's Secret World Organization for Retribution and Destruction. So, what happens? Right at the beginning of the game, Jason bounces into Ted's room and says, "So, did you get put on SWORD too?" Ted, thinking fast, says, "Yes!" It went downhill from there. The information Jason gave Ted over the course of the game was directly responsible for SWORD's downfall.

Moral: Trusting people without reason is usually not very bright.

Moral #2: Make sure your brain is involved in everything your mouth says.

Moral #3: If someone does let something slip around you, milk it for all it's worth.

Tim was hungry, so he went to a local coffeehouse, where Bob was working at the time. The two of them chatted a bit about the game. Bob asked Tim, "Can I get you a cup of coffee?" Hey, he was working in a coffeehouse, it seemed a reasonable question. But something about the way he said it triggered Tim's suspicions. He was sure that Bob was a SWORD agent and had just given him the first half of the contact phrase. Tim, of course, had no idea what the second half might be, but figured it was worth a guess. "Yes, please, with cream and sugar." Hey, it seemed a reasonable answer. But something about the way he said it triggered Bob's suspicions. He realized that he must have accidentally given the first half of the SWORD contact phrase, and Tim must be a SWORD agent. So, for those of you keeping score, each of them had tricked the other into believing that he was a fellow SWORD agent. The two of them spent quite a while pumping each other for information, and were greatly embarrassed the next day when they realized their mistake.

Moral: Too much suspicion can be a dangerous thing.

A group of GMs came up with a bright idea, to play a joke on the players. They gave each player a psychic defense, but didn't put any psychic attacks in the game. The idea was just to make the players paranoid. This was a trifle obnoxious, but probably wouldn't have been too destructive by itself.

However, they also came up with another bright idea. One of the characters in the game was actually Blofeld, of SPECTRE (James Bond) fame. He was in disguise, of course, but they wanted to give the other players a way to spot him. What else but that white Persian cat? They wrote a few characters as having lost cats recently, including him. They padded the deck of index cards with a few strays, just to liven things up a bit, and set up a few rules for how cats acted. They would recognize their owners, stay with anyone who fed them, and basically act like cats. Seems reasonable.

However, the two innocuous-looking tricks had a dreadful synergy. People are only too eager to believe that cats are psychic in real life, after all. Before the first day was out, a bunch of players had convinced themselves that the cats were actually hyperintelligent beings from another planet.

Phil was one of those players, and he was particularly ingenious in his methods. First, he tried looking deeply into a cat's eyes and thinking very hard at it, "Hello." Obviously, the cat looked at him, and then looked away. Cats don't like to be stared at.

Then he tried putting Rhine cards, used in tests for ESP, in front of the beast. Well, once the cat ascertained that they weren't good to eat, it pointedly ignored them.

Next, he held out a Lego (these were bits of alien technology in this game). The cat sniffed at it, determined it wasn't food, and then batted at it gently with a paw. Phil was startled and dropped the Lego, which clattered on the floor. The cat promptly pounced on the small and now interesting object and played with it briefly. "Success!" he cried. "The cats are knowledgeable about high technology!"

With much embarrassment, he asked the GMs if he could do a, er, well, a CAT scan on the thing. Yes, he could. No, there was nothing unusual, just a very small brain in a very small furry skull.

Finally, he figured a way to force the cat to reveal its true nature. He locked it in a room with a simple bomb. Any hyperintelligent being from outer space woulld have no trouble disarming it, he reasoned. Well, you can guess the results. And what did our latter-day Sherlock Holmes deduce? The cats must be so intelligent that this one nobly sacrificed itself to protect its fellows. It was at this point that the GMs threw up their hands in disgust and told him to get off this wrong track before he attracted the attention of the SPCA.

Moral #1, to GMs: Look for dangerous synergies, both in your mechanics and in the plots and trappings of your game.

Moral #2, to players: Think. Use a little logic. Don't prejudge and try to prove yourself right. Instead, gather information and evaluate it. And be willing to challenge your original hypotheses!

Mark was commanding a medium-sized moderately bad-guy team (we'll call them team A), and had a strong in-character grudge against a large moderately good-guy team (team B). Basically, team B was taking all sorts of glory for things he wished he had done. Totally in character, totally reasonable hatred. One of the agents from team B (Simon) was publicly known to be an agent, and the team was making all sorts of political capital with him. So Mark decided to get rid of him. He contacted the agent he had appointed his second-in-command (Dan) and a police officer whom he had bribed to work for him (Fred). The three of them found Simon, and fed him some story about how the four of them could go hunt a fifth character (Joe) whom everybody who was anybody wanted dead. Perfectly good story, good way to get Simon alone and off his guard, and it included a reason for them to be armed. Great. Terrific. Three of us and one of him, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Dan was a double agent, totally loyal to team B, and wasn't about to let Simon get killed. Additionally, when he found that Mark had bribed Fred, he had paid Fred twice as much to work for him instead. So, it was three of us and one of him. After much fruitless faked hunting for Joe, Mark tossed off some offhand comment about how he hadn't seen a good firefight in ages, intending to signal Dan to shoot. Dan, ever obedient, promptly obliged him. Dan thus became commander of team A, making it a wholly-owned subsidiary of team B.

Moral: Make sure of your allies, and be careful that the trap you set isn't for yourself.

There are umpteen examples of the previous; that one happens to be my favorite. There are also umpteen examples of people or groups that didn't trust anyone, hiding in closets and trying to do everything with only their own puny resources. Those stories are rarely funny, just sad, as the people in question rarely manage anything memorable. Sometimes you've got to lay yourself open to a little backstabbing if you want to get anything done. Just make sure you don't get beaten to the punch.

The next story happened in a game run on a college campus. Sandra wanted to interrogate Larry. She needed a way to get into his room without alerting his suspicions, so she called him up. "I've baked some cookies, would you like me to bring some down?" This wasn't all that unusual for her, so he said, "Sure." Unfortunately, there was someone else in the room with him. If it was a non-player, she wouldn't be able to shoot Larry until after the non-player had left. And if she didn't show up at all, Larry would smell a rat. The problem was that she had planned to shoot Larry as soon as he opened the door, and therefore hadn't actually baked any cookies. She did the only thing she could do: with speed and dexterity unrivaled outside of Bugs Bunny, she heated up her toaster oven and baked a batch of cookies.

Oh, and yes, she was successful.

Moral: If you're going to feed someone a line, it's a good idea to have something to back it up.

There are many examples of the following two stories, but these are at least moderately clever.

Anna was a Mafia princess. Ron was the commander of a team, out to (among other things) destroy the Mafia. But at the beginning of the game, Ron (following Jason's example above) had told all to Anna, not realizing her identity. Anna, naturally, had agreed with everything he said. It was the best way to protect the family, and did pay off very well. But things like that don't always last. The two of them were walking around and spotted Nameless Bill, a known Mafia hitman and all-around nasty and dangerous person. Anna and Ron went the Other Way, hoping to avoid him. Bill had been told to fetch Anna for a family conference, so he called to her, "Your father wants to talk to you." Anna's blood chilled, and, hoping that Bill would realize his mistake and that Ron hadn't heard anything, called back, "I can't hear you." Here's where Bill dropped the ball. He repeated himself, louder. Ron heard. It was a bad scene all around.

Peter was was a team commander, and Matthew was one of his agents. Peter had kept his identity secret from his agents, setting up a system of dead-letter drops to pass messages. He instructed the agents to leave a penny in the drop when they took a letter out of it, so he would know it hadn't fallen into the wrong hands. That's the setup. Now, a bunch of people were talking, including both Peter and Matthew. Something was said that made Peter want an immediate conference with Matthew. He couldn't seem to work Matthew's password into the conversation, so instead he took a penny out of his pocket and began playing with it. After a while, he flipped it, apparently by mistake, at Matthew. Here's where Matthew caught the ball (and the penny). Over the next few minutes, each of them (separately, so as not to arouse suspicion) found some reason to leave the conversation, and they both went to Matthew's dead-letter drop for a talk.

Moral: Keep your eyes and ears open for subtle communication from your friends. It may be all that's available in a crisis.

Elaine was in trouble. She was suspected of being a powerful evil person (which she wasn't), committing a murder (which she hadn't), attempting insurance fraud (which she had), and a long list of lesser ills. She had quite a bit of information she had tracked down before her life fell apart, but at this point, she hadn't a friend in the world. So James decided that he would make himself her friend. He talked to her, secretly taping the conversations. Back in the comfort of his headquarters, he spliced the tape together to produce a single conversation, in which Elaine confessed to everything she was suspected of. Turning that over to his superiors at the FBI, it was no big trick to get her arrested and thrown in jail. But James hadn't milked her dry yet. Being the kind sympathetic friend he was, he went to visit her in jail, and talked to her some more. She was distraught, of course, and glad for the compassionate ear. Finally, after she told James everything she knew, she had a question herself. "Why is everyone trying to kill me?" "Well, actually," came his response, "it's because you're trying to escape." Bang.

Moral: Creating crises has its advantages. People tend to act without thinking, and are often extremely well-disposed towards those who help them out.

Moral #2: Conversely, try not to lose your own head when the world starts falling down around you.

This next is also far from a unique occurrence, and I must admit to having fallen for it myself. The Lady Mondegrean, an airheaded British noblewoman, had been targeted for interrogation. No one, they figured, could really be that dumb -- she must be up to something. So Doug was sent to interrogate her. Well, he got as far as her room. She let him in, but explained that she was too busy trying on hats to talk to him just then, and would he be so polite as to wait, and how uncouth it was that he was holding a gun, and... She kept going for fifteen minutes straight, all the while facing a mirror (hats, remember, she was trying on hats) with her back to him. He just stood there in a daze, forgetting his mission entirely. He eventally left, bewildered.

Moral: Role-playing for its own sake, besides being fun, has a way of paying off.

And finally, one of my favorites. I'm not really sure what it illustrates, but I think it also deals with the value of playing one's character.

Zeke was from the Hatfield clan, while Jake was from the McCoys. As you might guess, there was a long-standing feud between the two families, each one trying to make the other look as much like fools as possible. Well, Zeke was walking back to his room, when he spotted Chris and Nick following him, about ten yards back. He quickened his pace; so did they. Something about their manner convinced him that they were planning to hunt him down. So he fled to a public place, called the cops, and had them arrested. He couldn't convince the judge to accept a charge of attempted murder, but he did manage to bring them to trial for assault (note that the legal system within a game usually bears only passing resemblance to any in real life). Chris and Nick, of course, countered with charges of harrassment and false arrest. Here's where Jake made his move. "We hillbillies ought to stick together, even if our families do have this feud. I'll be your lawyer, if you'll have me." Zeke was only too glad for the help. Well, in the assault trial, it was easily established that Chris and Nick had never come within twenty feet of Zeke, had never brandished a weapon or made any threatening remarks, or anything of the kind. Jake then told Zeke he could get him off on the false arrest charges, and Zeke was ecstatic. Jake explained to the court how his poor client was obviously suffering from paranoid delusions, and therefore would enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Zeke only realized what had happened to him a few minutes later. Now that's revenge.

As you see, there are plenty of ways to make a fool of yourself. Experience is the best teacher, but I find it just as helpful to learn -- and to teach -- from other people's experience as my own. If you've got any fun or educational stories to share, write me at 808 Coleman Ave. #10, Menlo Park, CA, 94025. And until next time, have fun, and don't take any wooden nickels.

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