Getting my (independent) groove back

I just got back from playing a game of Bliss Stage with Ron Edwards at Chicagoland Games. It was amazing. D&D is great for what it is, but it doesn’t scratch every itch I have. This was the first time I’ve played something that wasn’t D&D in about five years. The game itself is bizarre on the premise but playing it really drove home some emotional content. If a role playing game is best described as an experience, Bliss Stage is undeniably a game.

The game starts off on rocky territory for your comfort level and quickly takes a dive right off a cliff. In our several hours of play tonight, I created a character who is a 17 year old veteran of this war with aliens who knows he will die soon – either by blissing out or finally killed by the horrible beings from beyond our dimension. The template sheet I grabbed at random was that of the Seasoned Veteran. Other players chose the Pleasure Seeking Hedonist, the Eager Young Pilot and the Sweetheart Pilot. Our one surviving adult was a quack of an archaeology professor who is convinced that Mayan ruins can save humanity. We established a few other characters – Christy, who is in charge of finding water for the group; Gus, three year-old boy and Amira, Gus’ mother and “anchor” for most of the players.

As a group we established some facts about the setting: it’s set at Loyola, we send people to get water from the lake, food is scarce so people are constantly scavenging and there are enormous flocks of countless feral seagulls that make the lakefront hazardous. From there we chose three hopes for our game: 1) we hope we defeat the aliens; 2) we hope to raise a new generation; 3) we hope to find out something about the sleeping sickness. Our second hope was personified by Gus, the three year-old boy. Bear in mind that the game takes place seven years after all of the adults fall into a sleep and never wake up. I was playing the seasoned veteran that was described as the oldest character so my thoughts immediately went to the idea that Gus is my son; I chose the oldest female character, Amira, as the mother even though my character did not trust her. This really set the tone for the game.

Apparently each game kicks off with an alien attack/combat mission. We took turns narrating the combats we were having, which was interesting because narrative control is handed around the table. For that reason, I think this game is best played with 2-3 players and a GM. Anyway, during my scene, Ron (the GM) described the monsters as talking about Gus, how they were coming for him, how he was next. This just pissed off my character. I succeeded in my mission and immediately fled to see if Gus was ok.

After all the combats, we had some of the interludes, which is where the real meat of the game happens. Combat really serves no purpose except to mess with relationships so that the interludes are interesting and can drive forward the story. During my interlude, Ron chose Gus as the other character and handed control of Gus over to another player. We role played out a scene where I went to the nursery area where he spends his days. I really tried to play it as a very natural, normal sort of father/son relationship which is incredibly disturbing in this game. 1) My character is 17. 2) It’s a post-apocalyptic warzone inhabited almost exclusively by children under 18. 3) We had established that I do not have a good relationship with Gus’ mother. All in all, I talked to Gus about building a castle with blocks and then walked with him over to the wall where the children have hung their drawings over the years. After helping him write his name on the drawing of me he had made, we posted it front and center and went to dinner.

It’s rare that fiction makes me emotional to the point where I have physical discomfort, but after that interlude with Gus I got a headache that only comes about because of strong emotion. Powerful stuff.

Couple of things about the game:
First, it’s not for everyone. There are teenagers, sex, and violence inherent in the game. Not everyone is mature enough to handle it and, even for those who are, it’s not the type of game that has a necessarily wide appeal. That said, the way the game deals with relationships is remarkably compelling and really drives forward the narrative. The biggest part of character creation is assigning attributes to relationships with other characters; my character was unique in that after we had done that, I immediately destroyed two relationships utterly.
Secondly, the dice mechanic is really, really great. It uses Fudge dice and you roll a handful each time in combat. You then have to apply each individual die result (-1, 0, +1) to various goals and relationships in the mission. A negative is usually bad, a blank is usually only mildly bad and a positive is usually status quo. How well you roll, what your character motivations are and what you are willing to sacrifice really shape the way the fiction plays out as you explore the characters.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

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