A Shocking Tale

I recently played a game of Shock: Social Science Fiction by Joshua A.C. Newman, with my wife and a couple of friends. It lasted something like 4-6 sessions, was fun and rewarding for us, and produced a satisfying story. Not only was it a work of art to be proud of, but it retained tension and life for us as players the whole time we were playing. Looking back, I can see several solid reasons why.

In Shock: you pick a future shock, some fantastic sci-fi development that irrevocably changes the world, then brainstorm relevant social issues that the Shock would exacerbate. You then each play a Protagonist in this alternate world who wrestles with one of the Issues. In our game the Issues were War, Class, Man vs. Wild (actually more like Civilization vs. Primitivism), and Living in Denial. The Shock was dependence on fossil fuels being replaced by dependence on alien technology in the control of a scientist elite.  Utopian city-domes rise up across North America, while outsiders in the wasteland are left to their own devices, and exterminated when they cause trouble. After we concluded our final session, I reflected on play and noticed that several key aspects of the rules and procedures kept play fresh, engaging and satisfying. I’m going to break down the lessons I learned as I describe the path of our story.

1. Front-load situation. After building our sci-fi premise via Shock and Issues, we each created a Protagonist set to confront a different issue, and with a Story Goal that would either be achieved or not in the course of the game. Our Protags were Dr. Norman Okamoto, a passionate sociologist out to prove his discipline is just as valid as the Physicists’ by making peaceful contact with the wasteland savages, Rose, a pampered young woman with a controlling father trying to escape her gilded cage to a life more connected with nature, Hector Perez, a warlord of the wasteland, assembling a force to assault the Pittsburgh city-dome, and Twig, a feral child semi-adopted by a kindly patrol sergeant. With clear goals and intersecting paths, these characters were poised for drama. Furthermore, by setting Praxis–how things get done in our particular story–we calibrate the general tone and direction of the events in the game. Our Praxis scales were Instinct vs. Reason and Conflict vs. Collaboration.

This prompted us in an unobtrusive way to consider the thematic dimensions of every situation as we played: is this character acting more instinctively than usual right now? What does acting from “reason” look like? What forms does “conflict” take in this society? Particularly, David delighted in using “collaboration” in a sinister sense as the forces of bureaucracy entwined their coils around my rogue scientist.

2. Don’t plan the outcome. Though all Protagonists have a Story Goal, this is explicitly an event that may or may not come to pass in the course of play. Furthermore, a Story Goal cannot resolve in the first conflict of the game. This set us up as players to have a direction in mind without becoming invested in a particular ending or plot development. Each scene simply followed on from the events of the previous scene, natural and uncontrived, with Story Goals as general trajectories for those scene-chains to follow. For instance, Dr. Okamoto did everything in his power to get out of the city and contact wastelanders, but as a player I didn’t have to force the issue; each scene I simply took the circumstances the Doctor found himself in and pursued my goals from there.

Early on the Doctor’s academic superiors reassigned him as headmaster of an automated cyberlearning “school” to quash his expedition and keep him out of trouble. Okomoto hacked and subverted the curriculum to question the social ramifications of the sciences, and when spooks from the Physics Division showed up to silence him, he found himself a fugitive! I was back on track toward fleeing the city, and all without me planning even one “move” ahead.

3.  Allow room for surprise. So, as we played progressing toward our Story Goals, our characters took pretty definite trajectories. With a definite objective in mind, and with a single conflict in each scene that progresses that goal, one might think the story would become pretty predictable. But there are a couple of nuances in Shock: that prevent that. First, when there’s a conflict, both the Protagonist and Antagonist players choose Intents, which can’t be mutually exclusive. So you end up with a matrix of outcomes where your hero could achieve hir ends with ease, get what zie wants but suffer misfortune, fail in hir task and suffer, and so forth. There’s a lot of variety and weighing of priorities in each outcome. And second, when a roll is tied with its target number, it’s a deadlock, and the conflict has to escalate. This means a new Intent with higher, more intense stakes than the original–a stealthy caper becomes a running battle, a family squabble leads to legal action, or a romantic rivalry provokes attempted murder. This means no conflict is safe–you may think you know what you’re getting into, but the consequences of your actions could explode into a big mess, expanding the scope of your character’s circumstances and radically altering hir options and motivation. Escalations in our game were a consistent source of exciting, unexpected twists in our tale.

For instance, when Jim’s warlord was entreating a wasteland settlement to join forces in attacking the city, I as his Antagonist had a dissident faction of his warband, previously exiled, choose their moment to attack. Now Hector was fighting a battle on two fronts–will he gain the townsfolk as an ally, and will his traitorous Lieutenant devastate his forces? I won my intent, and so the ranks were decimated, with the crazed leader of the traitor faction getting ahold of the band’s captured hovertank, and blasting away with its railgun on friend and foe alike.  But Jim’s intent was deadlocked and escalated: now he was trying to unite the townspeople and the rebels against a common threat. He succeeded, with one of the traitor’s own lieutenants killing the madman. So Hector Perez was in command of a threefold army, but an undisciplined rabble with his most trusted men slain.

4. Seize opportunities to tie it together. Shock: has the potential to be a game of separate narratives. Players take turns playing scenes with their Protagonists, and Protags are not required to meet. However, the events set in motion by Story Goals and propelled by conflicts have a way of producing great opportunities for intersecting paths. Our four Protagonists were never all in one place, but one by one we forged connections through interlocking circumstances that had meaningful impact on each others’ storylines, and created the sense that yes, we are all part of the same world, in a way that matters. In particular, the way we resolved Story goals, one by one, had a nice emotional resonance because of the ramifications that one resolution had for the next one, and so on. Events all ended up concluding in a very fitting order, and in a satisfying way.

First Twig and his Sergeant friend were captured by Perez’ warband, and defected to their side to aid the coming invasion. David found Twig’s moment of self-sacrifice when he gave his life to allow the Sgt. to disable Pittsburgh’s forcefield grid. Then Dr. Okamoto stumbled into the warlord’s camp, delighted to make contact with savages, until it became clear he’d led a squad of Physics Division troops and technicians to the camp, intent on using the troops for fodder in a fiendish experiment. Norman confronted the Department Head, and in their furious struggle ended up shunted to the alien dimension, source of the cities’ tech. It turned out to be a utopia of pure thought, and Norman achieved his goal to be “accepted by outsiders” in spite of it all. Meanwhile, the Mighty Warlord Hector Perez marched on Pittsburgh and overthrew the scientist elite, seizing control of the city-dome. The victory turned to ashes as his uncontrollable horde ran rampant in petty debauchery, and he sat on a throne of cruelty and ruin.

It’s important to know when not to tie things together, though. When we reached our final round of scenes, Annie’s Protagonist Rose had simply not ever spent meaningful time with the other characters. Shoehorning her into the story’s climax would have been awkward, so Annie elected to keep her apart, and even to forgo a full scene. Instead, she narrated a brief epilogue about her character’s fate–fleeing the decadence of the Warlord-ruled city to found a nature cult in the wild–which served, from the viewpoint of an outsider character aloof from the others’ struggles, to provide the perfect accent to close the tale.

*                    *                    *

This to me is the purpose of rules in storygaming. To provide constraints to push play in provocative directions while bolstering the players in engaging with the story on an emotional and visceral level. Not necessarily a contract to adjudicate “fairness” or a clockwork to simulate a reality, but an instigator to expose raw story truths players might otherwise miss. The rules can be simple or they can be complex, but they should always be provocative.



4 Responses to “A Shocking Tale”

  1. 1 oberonthefool
    May 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    How did you manage multiple sessions? Were your individual scenes quite long? Or did you go multiple cycles? The rules as I understand them (at least in the second edition) only allow for exactly 3 or exactly 4 scenes per *tagonist pair, based on the antagonist’s dice budget. Am I misunderstanding that mechanic?

  2. 2 Joel
    May 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Well, the Antag has a budget of so many credits, which works out to 3-4 scenes depending on how they spent it. We took multiple sessions because we took it slow and played just a little bit at a time, usually just one scene per player per evening. It was a comfortable pace for us, and allowed for a lot of social time before and after.

    Whenever I’ve tried to play Shock as a one-shot it’s felt rushed or been incomplete. I knew going in not to expect a complete story arc for everyone in one evening, so we took it easy and enjoyed ourselves.

    I’ve often played in games where it seemed like play was glacially snow, with nothing much happening each night and taking forever to resolve the story. This game wasn’t one of them. It helps that each scene is a significant chunk of story with significant dramatic developments.


  3. 3 oberonthefool
    May 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Okay, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t wrong about the strict 3-4 scene budget.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: