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.