I played Tenra Bansho Zero and had thoughts about it!

edited February 2013 in Story Games
I was talking about my experiences on Google+ playing Tenra Bansho Zero last night. Some people over there suggested that I should post a thought I had over here as well.

It's a thought about every roleplayer's favorite topic, RAILROADING.

I just started playing Albert Hwang's awesome scenario "Lotus Blossom's Bridal Path" which contains a scene where the players are aboard an airship, defending it from flying cyborg ninjas, that gets shot down.

I've heard some people express curiosity and concern over this scene, wondering how players would or did react, and I think they're right to do so.

Even if you're lucky enough never to have run into it in an RPG, you've probably experienced "forced failure" in a video game before. You know, that moment when you go through the level, do everything right, beat the boss, and then there's a cutscene where your character gets knocked out and screwed over? No one likes that!

So, I was pretty interested to note that I haven't heard of anyone actually having a problem with this scene, The group I was playing with certainly didn't, and I think there are some interesting elements to Tenra and the scenario itself that explain why that is.

The first element is the Intermission Phase. Tenra sessions are divided into Acts that are separated by Intermissions, and during each intermission the GM gives a preview of the next Act. In the section about the Act 1 Intermission, the scenario makes it clear that the airship is GOING DOWN in Act 2, and that information is intended to be passed to the players.

The scenario also cleverly mitigates the sting of failure by setting it up so that saving the airship isn't the goal. The players are protecting Lotus Blossom, who is travelling on the airship, not protecting the airship itself. This means that players can anticipate the airship crash, accept that setback, and focus on their goal.

The second element is much more interesting to me. The second element is how the Karma mechanics direct player goals.

This might just be me, but the interesting part of the game isn't how characters achieve their goals, it's how the character is changed by their journey.

I've found that my job as a player is less about how to achieve my characters goals and more about how to portray my characters internal state (represented by their fates) to the audience (the other players).

I've always advocated for playing my characters in an "author stance" as a participant in telling the story of that character. However, Tenra's setup seemd to encourage me to play in an "actor stance" and leave the authorship to the GM, and it does so in a way that makes my job as an actor seem meaningful and fulfilling in a way that other games haven't. (For me, of course.)

I think this also manifests in how successful I found the "ROLEPLAY HAPPENS HERE" scenes in the scenario. Normally, I'd think that planning a scene in a game around the idea that two players are just going to chat in character for a bit is a guaranteed way to have an awkward scene that falls flat and (perhaps more importantly) doesn't go anywhere.

Lotus Blossom's Bridal Path has a bunch of those scenes, but they TOTALLY WORKED for me. Even more than the action scenes when we actually had a goal to accomplish.

I think this is because I wasn't as interested in accomplishing my characters goals as I was in portraying my character's feelings. I'm used to those sort of interpersonal scenes becoming something tactical like, "How do I convince Lotus Blossom to help me accomplish a goal?" so it was an awesome shift to go in there thinking "How do I show the audience how much I hate Lotus Blossom?"

All of a sudden, those scenes weren't wastes of time that went nowhere. I was totally getting somewhere and accomplishing my goals as a player by being pointlessly mean to Lotus Blossom and then feeling bad about it afterwords.

For me, this also makes Tenra the perfect game for emulating anime. I've seen a lot of anime inspired games that focus on over the top action and ninja powers, and Tenra has those, but misses the fact that a lot of anime is actually focused on the melodrama between the characters and just uses the action as a vehicle to express that.

Tenra gets that melodrama across in a way that really works for me.


  • Neat!

    One thing you can do, if the scenario mandates that the airship go down, is to say something like, "This isn't about rescuing the airship." Just signal as directly as possible that the airship isn't what the players should get attached to. That way they're anticipating it going down in flames, and so when it does, they are primed to celebrate just how badass that moment is, rather than lamenting a loss.
  • Yeah! I think that's the idea behind throwing it in the intermission, although it does require some understanding on the players part. I could see someone misunderstanding that and thinking that their job was to save the airship now, which would be totally unsatisfying when the GM says "OK! And the airship blows up and the scene is over now!"

    Anticipating the explosion changes your job as a player from saving the airship to demonstrating/appreciating how awesome it is that the airship was blown up.
  • Yeah, that's how we did it when we got to that scene: Just lay it out as the preview scene, and the players won't get weird about it at all.

    The overall cinematic framing of the game I think is a nice way to gently railroad the players from one scene/set piece/mark to another.

    Doesn't Marvel have something similar? Basically set pieces that you're definitely going to play through, because the game isn't really "about" agency?
  • edited February 2013
    Interesting that you should mention Marvel. I had a very similar situation when playing Breakout, but I don't feel that the game did anything to help us address that. Not to be arrogant about it, but we got through without difficulty because of my generousness as a player.

    The scenario assumes that Electro will escape, but doesn't telegraph that to the players (unless they're like me and have read the comics and/or scenario before) and doesn't really provide any incentive NOT to pursue him. The game is very much about your ability to thwart villains, and there's a villain there that you're supposed to NOT THWART.... yet.

    Like I said, we avoided the situation because I knew the villain was supposed to escape and sabotaged my own pursuit attempt, but it felt like I was cooperating with the GMs secret plans, not like I was doing my job as a player.

    I think the difference was in my perceived role in the game. The mechanics I was engaged with in Marvel seemed very authorial (I was making decisions about what happened to Iron Man, not what he did/thought/felt.) and the mechanics I was engaged in with Tenra were very actorial(? Actorly? Actorish?).
  • This might just be me, but the interesting part of the game isn't how characters achieve their goals, it's how the character is changed by their journey.
    Yeah, that's basically what I get out of this game, each and every time. Does anyone at the table *really* think there's a question of whether or not they're going to succeed at "beating the evil champion" or whatever at the end of the scenario? The answer is a calculated "likely not". The skills, combat system etc is pretty much to leverage the fact that you'll start burning yourself out - slowly or quickly - and require to change the nature of your character.

    I've run variations of the same scenario (including same/similar character builds) at dozens of cons, and it's always, Always so very different based on how the players bring their characters to life, and the direction they act and change them (including death or Asura!).

    Then again, a lot of the games I play I realize are like this (With Great Power, etc). And yet, I also love "by the skin of my teeth" dungeon survival OSR games, too. Huh.

    As for railroady, yeah that piece is fairly interesting: It actually reminds me a lot of CONSOLE games like the old SNES Final Fantasy style games and such: The characters have no control over the fact that their airship gets captured/wrecked/etc, it's all about the little bits of story that happen as it does.

    Here's an interesting tidbit: In one of the original TBZ supplements, there's a really structured (even moreso than Albert's Bridal Path scenario) scenario involving basically rescuing this girl from a flying fortress, and the girl turns out to become Empress Daigo (the game is set shortly before the Fall of Jinrai). But at the time, it's like, (on a mission to bring down this flying ship, That's All) "You are in disguise. You pass by the jail where there's a girl being held capture. Of course, one of the PCs will attempt to free her. When that happens, the next..."

    And I'm reading this going, "Woah woah woah there. Wait, what? They just happen to pass by a jail cell and it's expected that one of them is naturally going to spring this girl -- who they never met before and is totally not an element of their "mission"? Really?"

    It was a weird railroad. It wasn't like the GM is supposed to tell them to free her, the text was just written such that basically the GM was to expect one or more of the PCs to suddenly break their disguise and free this person they never met before for no real apparent reason.

    Ultimately, I chocked that one up to just a writing/expectations fluke. I don't mind that the PCs basically HAVE to do something, but I had a problem with the expectation that it was just a totally naturally expected thing to happen from the PC side. There was a connection between A and C but missing the B, basically. I simply determined that if I were to write scenarios with Must-Happen events, that they're clearly telegraphed as such, either by having things happen beyond PC control, or by simply breaking the veil as Joe says above and saying, "Okay, so there's no way you're going to save the ship, so do what you can from there. Go!"

  • The "don't erase your Fate, draw a line through it" trick is very nice.
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