Today I had an adventure in close-reading, and I think I've learned some important things in the past couple of days about how games work.
I used to flip straight to the "standard task resolution" rules in a new game book, trying to get a sense of the very core of a system right away. For some reason, my high school and college days were a time when knowing this solitary thing, and nothing else, was quite important.
Of course, there are lots of games out there that would be much poorer for it if they were stripped down to only the basic "mechanic" - imagine Polaris without Zeal and Weariness, for instance, using only the Key Phrases all the time without any kind of superstructure "around" them to elaborate them and provide the downward arc for Heart characters. Kind of sucks away half the game and forces the players to just kind of grope in the direction of that sort of play, doesn't it?
Segueing... playing Chronica Feudalis tonight with Chad, a college friend, was good and surprising. I prepped about as much as I needed to, with a little cheat sheet and a good online dice rolling program. I could definitely use a physical copy of the book, but not so much so that I'd buy one just yet; I'd hold out for a campaign or something, or just beg someone to print out the .pdf. Yes, perhaps that makes me a terrible person, but... okay, I have no justification other than poverty, and when my promotion goes through in January, I'll no longer have that excuse.
Anyway, that stuff about Polaris above connects strongly to my initial bafflement at Chronica - the basic resolution seems really, really straightforward and flat until you start learning more about Aspects - freeform traits with mechanical weight that you can switch on and off. Aspects make all sorts of things about *every* character come to life - tonight's best one was definitely "My son is a sodomite", which my lone player inflicted on an archbishop's assistant to blackmail him. Very nice.
Another thing that's changed about how I read is how I sense things like GM/player agency, and how a very close reading of procedural text is key to minimizing unintentional hand-wavey play. This edition of the game (the first edition, I reckon) is a little vague in places, but it's pretty awesome how it throws Aspects all over the place, giving and demanding Ardor (metagame points that manipulate Aspects). If you let the GM tell you one thing that one of your Aspects makes you do, and you do it, you get Ardor. If some equipment you're carrying interferes with a task, you get Ardor. Basically, if you surrender a little authority, or make your life a little harder, you get more narrative pull.
It's interesting, though - the exact procedural text falls on one side of causality: certain things that make sense in the fiction are going to trigger an Aspect being Endured, but the player decides whether or not to have an Aspect Compelled (eliciting a particular, unwanted behavior).
You can spend Ardor to introduce Aspects on other characters, temporarily turn off one of your negative Aspects, or resist the causality of your equipment thwarting your efforts - your heavy armor will surely count against you when diving in to save the duchess, unless you spend some Ardor to ignore its weight.
Our session tonight was one scene: Chad's priest, a bastard son of the duke, forced into the cloth to keep him out of the line of succession, learns that the King of France will be coming through the city (Troyes at Champagne, in France) and supping with the duke and the archbishop. The priest espies the archbishop's assistant at midday Mass, and confronts him afterward with (true) rumors that the man's son is a sodomite.
We used the social conflict rules - the "Parley" - and Father Luc threatened to release his list of suspected sexual degenerates to the wider Church - risking a general inquiry in northern France - unless the assistant could promise that he'd
get the archbishop to look into a supposed (fictitious) heresy brewing in the nearby countryside. Details were fuzzy, of course, but the assistant agreed, belatedly remembering that the imminent Royal Feast would then divide His Grace the Archbishop's attentions. [I made the assistant an Agent, a level two (of three) opponent, only to realize how much tougher this made him as an adversary than a Simple, or level one foe. A level one opponent might have broken too easily, though, and we were constrained by time, so I simply had the assistant back down more readily than he really had to, which fit the severity of the threat against him.]
Father Luc, naturally, offered to represent the Archbishop at the feast. If the offer were rejected, he'd be forced to sit at a lower table, away from the duke and Luc's noble half-brothers, and stew in the shame of his low birth. But if the Archbishop goes for it, and agrees to have the bastard priest sit at the high table in his stead, then Luc could rub it in his father's face!
Of course, there are a few pieces to this plot, and only the first has been laid, thus far. I'm pretty excited about where this will go, and I'm going to read up on some rpg.net actual play reports that suddenly got a lot more interesting to me ^_^
Last thing: we used gchat, wikipedia, random.org's dice roller, and .pdf's of the game. Hurrah for 21st century gaming! Incidentally, I rolled actual, meatspace dice, out of an old, repurposed bag of Royal Salute whiskey. Good times.