Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fortitude: Glass Maker's Dragon - Chapters 3-5

Part 1

Literally 5 minutes before I sat down to write this post, I noticed for the first time that the print version of the book forgoes the word "Fortitude" in its title. I was just reflexively working off my memory of the kickstarter when I added it to my list. I suppose I could change the post titles to be more accurate, but I'm just going to let the mistake stand. Call it a monument to my carelessness as a critic.

With that said, let's get into the meat of The Glass Maker's Dragon.

The trickiest part of the book, or at least the part that took me longest to understand, is that you're meant to reuse the quest cycles. Part of this came down to a failure to grasp the system jargon - that the third quest on an arc is something different than a character's third arc. But the bulk of it is simply that I started off thinking of quests as something much more specific than they turned out to be.

Like, take Chuubo's quest set:

Wishing for Ease/Power
Wicked Creatures
Asserting Your Existence
Wishing For Healing

I thought that was meant to cover Chuubo's whole story - going to Fortitude to investigate his strange dreams, finding the Dream Witch in person, reaching some kind of rapprochement with her, and going back to being an ordinary kid (or perhaps turning into a new tree of worlds, in some future story). Chapter 5, which described the various characters' arcs, confused the hell out of me.

What I failed to realize (and there's no real excuse for this but poor reading comprehension on my part - see: my other blog where I'm constantly flubbing my way through video game plots for further context) was that chapter 5 was telling me that Chuubo had four stories in the overall campaign - Investigating/managing his dreams, Being tempted to use his wishing power for evil, A mystical vision quest tied up with that whole tree of worlds thing, and, finally, Dealing with the shard of the glass dragon that started this whole thing in the first place.

And because of who Chuubo is, his role as a character, all four of his stories share the same basic structure - he begins by being haunted by some outside force, he then uses his powers in a kind of reckless or irresponsible way, then he makes friends with the original dark forces - and that may be the end of it, but if it's not, then maybe the end is where he temporarily loses himself to the corruption/confusion of those dark forces before finding himself in the end. And if that fails, he'll wind up wishing himself back to normalcy.

The pattern repeats, but you're supposed to vary the particulars. At the start, it's Miramie that's haunting Chuubo. But the second time around, it's probably the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy. Third time, the tree on the Island of King Death. Fourth, the abstract burden of his own growing power. Same structure, but different stories

But then, there's also this whole parallel track, where you could tell these same stories with Miramie as a viewpoint character. That would use her quest pattern. Beautiful and Far Away - Fascination - This is So Surreal (or Such a Bad Idea) - You've Lost Them - Something Heals. Same story, but different structure. Because of this different structure, you're probably going to explore the story from a different perspective, and have access to different information, but the basic plot is the same.

And that's just using the material as it's presented. You can also vary the order of a quest set, depending on the color of your character's arc. And by searching out alternative options for Chuubo's main colors, you could adapt him to any of the other character's stories. It's wild how versatile this system is.

Which leads me into the second really obvious thing that I didn't quite understand - most of this book (arguably all of it) is PC-facing. In my defense, this took a long time to realize because it's the exact opposite of the way most "campaign" books operate. Usually, as the GM, you're supposed to be the one who has all the information about the story, and then orchestrate events to slow-drip that information to the players, over the course of the game. 

Here, if you are playing Chuubo (to stick with the example), you're supposed to read the whole of the summary of "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and allow it to inform your play. Which just seems bonkers, from a traditional roleplaying perspective. You're essentially asking the players to spoil themselves on the whole story before it begins.

But that's a matter for the third thing I didn't quite understand about The Glass Maker's Dragon, and the one that I'm least embarrassed by, because it doesn't quite spell itself out in the text. From my description above, you might get the impression that these various moving parts lend themselves to a very deterministic game, where all the players know their stories in advance and are more or less just arm-wrestling each other for the screentime to establish the facts in play.

That's not how it is at all, though. Because the individual story descriptions don't provide enough detail to actually do that. It's something that frustrated me the first couple of times I read the book, back when it was an unformatted pdf. You start with the heading "Chuubo Makes a Terrible God-King" and that's clearly a story, but when you look at the text, it's all about how various example NPCs might fit into the structure of your quests. It doesn't go into any detail about what happens.

It's kind of awful to read, actually. But the thunderbolt that came to me on this, my 3rd or 4th read of the text, was that the details of "what happens" are what happens in play. Which, okay, now that I write it down, seems like another super-obvious thing I should have picked up on before, but listen, it's the Rosetta Stone for unlocking what Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine is as a game.

The thing with the quests and the arcs and with players understanding and taking responsibility for the structure of their own stores can sometimes seem like the characters' stories are written down on their character sheets, before the game actually begins. But this ties in to my first point about reusing the quests.

"Haunted," the quest, isn't "the story of how Chuubo dealt with Miramie invading his dreams." No, it's more like the text of the story is what happens at the table, and the bullet points on your quest card are your English teacher's questions about the text.

I.e. "Chuubo Makes for a Terrible God-King's first act had a recurring motif of characters talking about dreams and comparing them to reality. Name three times this happened."

Except you're the author of the story, so you can cheat by writing a scene that fits the answer (except for Major Goals, which require the cooperation of the GM and/or other players). The English test questions aren't the whole (or even the bulk) of the story, but you can't get new answers unless the story is moving forward.

This is the source of the overwrought analogy in my original CMWGE post - I feel like my rpg universe is crumbling around me and that I'm finally seeing its true scope for the first time. It's kind of frustrating, because even after all the times I've read this book, I still can't be sure that I fully understand it, but I'm excited for a day when I can get a group with the same enthusiasm I have. I'm expecting something magical.

UKSS Contribution - Okay, this is even more specific than CMWGE, and thus I feel even more unease in plagiarizing something, but tradition is tradition, so I'll just take the dream beetles, that spawn in people's dreams and burrow into the real world. They're probably going to be a lot more horrifying in my reality, though.


  1. This is the problem with Chuubo, and the problem with the people who claim to understand it: no one can articulate how to actually play this game, not even the author. Even you, who claim to "get it", only give us vague, breathless, scattered insights about hwo wer are supposed to play as an author would outline their novel. But that doesn't tell us anything about what would actually be said by the HG or the players at any given time. If it's so radically different than every other RPG, then show us how to do it because the most common topic on the internet about Chuubo is "I have no idea how to play this thing, please help." Then the answer comes: "the details of "what happens" are what happens in play!" Oh! Now I...no, no, this was of no help whatsoever.

    1. You're coming in a little hot here, but I get what you're saying. I wouldn't claim to understand it, and it is undeniable that its inaccessibility is a major flaw with Chuubo's, but I can try my best to explain it.

      At it's basic level, Chuubo's is "freeform with an agenda" and there's very little to actually explain. You say what your character does and then the GM explains what happens.

      P: I go for a walk.
      GM: It's a nice, sunny day. The friendly neighbor is out sweeping the porch. He waves hello.
      P: I wave back.


      However, you're not just trying to do whatever pops into your head, you're also trying to work your genre actions and quest conditions into the story. So if this was a pastoral game, the previous exchange might go:

      P: I go for a walk.
      GM: It's a nice, sunny day. The friendly neighbor is out sweeping the porch. He waves hello.
      P: I lock eyes with the neighbor as I wave back, emoting contentment with my smile. That's a shared action.
      GM: Okay, mark an xp on one of your quests.

      Or maybe you're working on a quest, like "Cleaning up an old house" and you want to earn a bonus xp for "proposing a theory about how something will help you with renovations." Then the exchange would go:

      P: I go for a walk.
      GM: It's a nice, sunny day. The friendly neighbor is out sweeping he porch. He waves hello.
      P: I wave back, but I'm focusing on his sweeping. He has incredible technique. Maybe if I did something similar, I could get some of that stubborn dust out of the attic. I'll take one xp for "Cleaning up an old House."
      GM: Okay.

      You can also combine the two.

      P: I go for a walk.
      GM: It's a nice, sunny day. The friendly neighbor is out sweeping he porch. He waves hello.
      P: It strikes me that I might benefit from his sweeping technique. I walk over and strike up a conversation, mentioning the stubborn dust in my attic. That counts as a shared action and a bonus xp for my "Cleaning up an old house" quest.
      GM: Okay. You spend a pleasant few minutes talking to the neighbor.

      You're generally in control of your character and what's on their sheet, but if the GM thinks you're full of shit (or just wants to editorialize on your choice), they can award points of Issues.

      P: I go for a walk.
      GM: It's a nice, sunny day. The friendly neighbor is out sweeping he porch. He waves hello.
      P: It strikes me that I might benefit from his sweeping technique. I walk over and strike up a conversation, mentioning the stubborn dust in my attic. That counts as a shared action and a bonus xp for my "Cleaning up an old house" quest.
      GM: Okay, but you are clearly into this subject way more than the neighbor. After a few minutes, he says he thinks he hears his phone ringing (despite the neighborhood not having phone service) and makes a hasty retreat inside. Gain a point in Isolation.

      In this case, the player would get the xp as normal, but also a little note saying "You are not alone. You’re not lost. You’re not messed up. Are you?" This doesn't have any direct effect on your character, but you'll probably want to let it inform your play, because the GM is supposed to take Issues into account when narrating stuff that happens to and around your character (like, maybe the next day, instead of waving hello, the neighbor quickly ducks inside) and the only way to get rid of an issue is to resolve it to the GM's satisfaction (by, say, talking to a friend and confessing how lonely you've been feeling lately).

      There are further nuances, especially around quest arcs, wounds, and the skill system, but that's the gist of it. You're supposed to just describe your character's actions as naturally as possible, the GM is supposed to tell you the outcome of those actions based on what they think is most likely, and every once in a while you try to work in one of your various agendas.

    2. Thank you for this! It's probably the clearest, most digestible description of this game that I've seen, and I've seen a lot. "Freeform with an agenda," summarizes the style perfectly, and your post should be elevated to the top of the search algorithm because it resolves in a minute or two what hours of reading answers to bewildered players' questions has not.

      That said, I don't think "freeform with an agenda" would be fun for me, so I'll probably skip the game, as it sounds like bonus salad plus railroading in complicated wrapping paper. It's not really freeform if the players need to ram the story into a few tight niches in order to gain XP, and it sounds more like players are encouraged to constantly stretch the bounds of narrative plausibility in order to gain those small bonuses. But, thank you for clearing this up for me, it was driving me crazy.

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