How to break a plot, or: Why I never prepare Itras By adventures in detail
As it turns out, I do not only like to play Itras By at the Tanelorn meetings. I also ran a session at this year’s Drachenzwinge Convention, and as chance (or fate, or probably simply their interest) would have it, almost all participants either were players or game masters in the surrealist LIRP that took place on Sunday evening. It would have been all of them, but poor Narrenspiel fell ill unexpectedly, so another player, who did not participate in the LIRP, took her place.
Since one of the players already knew „Number 13“, which is the introductory adventure in the English and German versions of the book (and since I had ran it again only a short time before and wanted some variety), I had – as I usually do when running an Itras By adventure of my own design – asked my players beforehand what kind of scenario they wanted. They had agreed they wanted to play a news team which created the weekly newsreels that are shown in cinemas before the actual feature film, and they wanted that news team to then be involved in an investigative adventure.
For characters, we had the charismatic anchorman of the newsreels, the cameraman always in search of the perfect shot, the shy assistant editor, the no-nonsense editor as well as a professor of astro-meteorology. The characters, and their dramatic qualities, were not thought up by myself but by my players, by the way, and they were great.
At the beginning of the session, the characters are just reviewing the completed newsreel that is supposed to be shown in cinemas from tomorrow onwards, when they realize that part of the film definitely is not any material that they have shot. Instead of their own images, they see images from somebody’s first person perspective – that someone destroys a statue of a judge near the courthouse and paints the slogan „Down with Nindra!“ (Nindra is the city’s authoritarian ruler) on a wall. Of course the group begins investigating and finds out that something is wrong with a bottle of developer. When they use the fluid to develop more material, they realize that this section of film also shows different things than the ones they had expected. Obviously, these are the memories of a person seen through that person’s eyes, and one of the things that person sees is a middle-aged man. And of course the players ask whether that man seems familiar.
Originally I had come up with the following very broad strokes of a plot idea: A mad scientist has invented a machine which he wants to use in beauty cosmetics. This machine tightens the skin and removes wrinkles by drawing off unpleasant thoughts and memories. The memories thus siphoned off condense out of the machine as a liquid that can either simply evaporate or be collected.
The professor has a daughter of about 19 or 20 years of age, who currently is working as an intern for the newsreel team. She has fallen in love with a young man who is active in the anti-Nindra resistance movement, and in order to serve the cause (and in order to impress her beloved) she has blown up the statue and put the writing on the wall. Afterwards, she used daddy’s machine to delete the memory, then captured it on the newsreel film.
From there on out, the characters could have continued their investigation, and they would have found out about the girl, and everything else would have come out of the situation – they might have joined the resistance or given up the girl to Nindra or whatever. I was entirely open to what the group would have done.
I am just about to tell the player of the astro-meteorologist: ‚You know this man from the university; he is a professor of enzephalocosmetology‘ when someone says: „I want to draw my chance card!“ These chance cards are cards that are used to underscore the setting’s surrealist feel. Every player may draw such a card once per session. (A little more information about the system and about the setting may be found here; it’s in German, though). And funnily (or strangely, interestingly or unfortunately) enough, the chance card that was drawn was exactly the one that had the biggest possible impact on the further course of the story. Most chance cards have rather small effects, such as „play the rest of the scene as a silent movie“ or „the power of love influences the scene in some way“, but this card was called „Rumour Mill“. In other words, the player that has drawn the card starts spreading a rumour around. With every player, the rumour gets changed and exaggerated. Once it has come full circle, the end result is integrated into the story as a fact.
As I said: Originally I had wanted to identify the man in the film as a scientist, namely the girl’s father and inventor of the device. I hadn’t yet, though, and I wasn’t able to, either, because the rumour went as follows:
- The man in the film is the son of the Chief of Police
- The man in the film is the Chief of Police himself
- The man in the film has very cleverly disguised himself as the Chief of Police
- … and he is planning the assassination of Nindra
- … and the assassination attempt is to take place tonight!
And bam. There went my plot.
As the game progressed further, another chance card turned out to be crucial for the story, which of course now centered on the planned assassination of Nindra and not on the youthful resistance fighters any longer. That card, drawn by Flashman, let his character have a conversation with his own shadow, and Flashy selected Odonel to portray the shadow. Odonel gave his very own twist to the conversation by turning Flashy’s cameraman into a psychopathic serial killer with just a few words („We should have killed the intern, just like we killed all the others!“), a twist that was enthusiastically accepted by Flashman.
For one of our players, the session definitely held too much surrealism for his taste. That was the reason why he, unlike the others, did not want to draw a chance card of his own so as to not increase the chaos even further. I myself also felt it to be a little much, even though I did have lots of fun during the session. The fact that Flashman and Odonel stepped on the gas so much was due to the fact that they were in full-blown surrealist mode due to their preparing the LIRP (both were to be GMs at the LIRP) and therefore were so easily carried away, they said afterwards. And I had begun the session by letting the news team describe a few things that they had filmed for their newsreel during the week, which had resulted in some very weird ideas. I loved these ideas because they were so weird and cool and seemed to fit the city’s look and feel so well, but being so wild, they probably paved the way for the tone that the session took once it got under way. Out of five elements that were filmed for the newsreel, it probably would have been better to have three rather normal and only one or perhaps two surreal elements.
I’ve learned one lesson from the whole thing. Before beginning play, agree on the desired level of weirdness a bit more closely so that the discrepancy doesn’t turn out to be too big during the session itself.