Archive for the 'Ghost Opera' Category

Random Thoughts: Geiger Counter, Ghost Opera

2011 Jun 7

Geiger Counter

The new version of Geiger Counter that I’ve been tinkering with, which may or may not be called Jet Black Aurora, might have short tables for generating the premise and characters, tables halfway between Fiasco playsets and what I’m doing for Super Suit. Unlike Fiasco, though, I think there’s only one set of tables for the entire game, though obviously I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t done it.

The tables would cover things like whether your facility is in space, underwater, underground, in the arctic, on a barren planet, and/or on an island. Perhaps it’s both underground AND in the arctic, as in Alien vs. Predator. Perhaps it’s on a barren planet AND in the dark, as in Pitch Black. I think this may be called the “Isolation Table.” Then there’s another table that’s about determining what particular brand of human hubris is about to send all the characters to their deaths.

Plus, to steal another recent idea from Super Suit, I think you create the trailer, but it’s like the daydreaming in Apocalypse World, it’s vital to get a feel for things (as a group rather than as the MC), but it’s not real until someone enacts it in play. If it’s not memorable to stick in players’ minds, or the events of the game don’t lead that direction, it’s cool. That’s kinda how folks have been playing it anyway, but it’s good to have a solid idea of why it’s that way.

Ghost Opera

Martin Luther King Jr. famously paraphrased Theodore Parker when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Ghost Opera is exactly such a universe, but one built upon my understanding of early Chinese cosmological thinking about fate, justice, and the way of heaven (tiandao). You know the grotesque threat moves in Apocalypse World where you “display the contents of its heart” or “display the nature of the world it inhabits”? Those might essentially be the only moves that the GM of Ghost Opera makes, though of course I’ll phrase them and break them up differently.

Essentially, the GM is playing heaven. And heaven wants the bullshit in the world to be fixed. But the way it gets these things fixed is to put them on display, right out in front of people, and show human beings — again and again if necessary — the consequences of letting that kind of bullshit go on. Then it counts on people eventually doing the right thing and stopping the bullshit. And they eventually will, no doubt. But, in the meanwhile, heaven keeps escalating, shoving their faces in it and causing lots and lots of suffering. Like Laozi says, “Heaven and earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs.” Heaven bends towards justice, yes, definitely. But it is also infinitely patient and the arc can indeed be very long. Plus, people have to stand up and actually change things.

The bullshit that heaven is concerned about mostly revolves around people not treating each other properly. People are often bad parents, or bad friends, or bad children, or bad kings, or bad neighbors, or bad shamans, or bad hosts. Heaven doesn’t care about some cultural bullshit that you choose not to follow. Run off and marry whoever you want, that’s not heaven’s problem. But if you do so and, in the process, violate the relationship you have with your father, then you’re fucking things up, or maybe your father’s fucking things up by being a jerk about it. Heaven doesn’t really take sides, but it definitely knows that the situation is bullshit and needs to be fixed. So maybe it will send your ancestors to haunt you or have someone in your family contract a horrible disease or die in war. Or, more often, heaven just lets humans do its dirty work, like having your father straight-up murder the dude you ran off to marry.

Dogs in the Vineyard calls the bullshit that causes problems “pride,” but ancient China made allowances for people being ignorant as well as arrogant and, occasionally, just straight-up wicked. The only people who naturally understand how people are supposed to behave are children, the elderly (remember, most people didn’t live to be elderly), and sages. Everyone else, we’re bound to fuck it up fairly often, even if we’re striving to be good. But luckily we’ve got heaven there to clearly lay down the rules for us by showing us the negative consequences of our behaviors. Unfortunately, often people have a hard time understanding how the bad things that are happening are connected to violations of proper relationships. But that’s okay, heaven’s very patient and, eventually, someone will figure it out. Maybe. In the next dynasty. After this one’s been completely destroyed.

Tracking the Flood

2010 Oct 20

This seed an idea grew more developed after talking with John yesterday.

To map out the game you draw a highly abstracted diagram of your setting. You draw a small circle for each family in your village and draw a ring around that to show that they are one village. You draw other circles for neighboring villages and the major spirits that constitute the land and waters. Then you draw a circle around all of that to represent your region and the lord who rules over it. And you spread out to make neighboring regions and so forth, but only diagramming (initially) the areas that your characters have actually been to.

When someone breaks the Great Chain, the GM places a token on the circle within which the violation occurred — family level, village level, with local spirits, etc. — and can spend those tokens 1-for-1 to make GM or Threat moves in that area OR the GM can let the violation fester, producing additional tokens in subsequent sessions. The game begins, like Dogs in the Vineyard, with some ancient and recent violations and their tokens already in play for the GM to spend or fester.

If there are 3 or more tokens in a single circle, the GM can cause the violation to flood over into neighboring circles, going up or down levels of scale as needed, pushing at least one of the original tokens into a different area. So enough violations at the family level can reach the village or the spirits or what have you. Cause enough trouble and one of the Ten Suns will plummet from the sky.

Players can attempt to have tokens removed from the board by resolving or making restitution for past violations — either by themselves or others. Sometimes you have to kill a wicked lord or appease the angry spirits. But they also violate the Great Chain by intervening in matters that are outside or beyond them.

Culturally Specific GMing

2010 Oct 19

So I’m walking home from work, thinking about the MC guidelines for Ghost Opera. And it strikes me that I know exactly what principle #1 for the MC is going to be, because the MC represents Heaven & Earth, and Lao Zi says:


heaven & earth are not sentimental;
(they) regard everything as straw dogs (i.e. disposable)

How’s that for a culturally specific version of “look through crosshairs”?

Spirit World Moves

2010 Oct 18

The basic spirit world move is: when you consult the oracles and sages the GM gives you an impression about what’s wrong with the world and how you can fix it.

Underneath this move are a number of options regarding who you consult when you use this move, some of which are situational and some of which must be bought with advances.

For example, if you consult with someone beholden to you in the great chain — a personal ancestor, your village shaman, someone who owes you a favor — you get more than an impression; you get their honest opinion (unless they are a PC). This is situational.

But you could also don the ritual garments of the Huai River Dragon and speak to greater spirits as an equal, giving you +1 forward on following their advice. This is a special move bought with an advance, typically, though you could also gain this ability situationally, by stealing the robes and usurping the role.

What Should You Fear?

2010 Oct 18

Characters in Ghost Opera, if they don’t fear the wrath of heaven or earth and declare themselves superior to the ten thousand things, can be hard to create narrative around. In such an event, it is the GM’s duty to politely ask:

O Greatest One, what should you fear, thou you be high and mighty above other men?

Keeping Records

2010 Sep 23

This came to me in the shower this morning.

When you GM Ghost Opera, your role is primarily that of a record keeper. You consult the fiction and tell the players what is happening, beyond what their characters do. As in AW, you do this by doing what your prep and the fiction demands, but also by being true to the records kept — both descriptive and karmic — from previous play.

However, you keep and recite records in Ghost Opera at several different levels. The GM’s role is not singular but plural, acting as several different record keepers with different priorities.

The primary and starting GM role is that of the immediate Ancestors of the family, who track all the internal squabbles and issues between kinfolk. If you do not listen to your mother or try to bully your older sibling, the Ancestors are the ones who track such things and recite the troubles that inevitably result.

All problem are local and, consequently, the second level at which record keeping occurs is that of the Shaman, the locus of political and spiritual power at the village or town level. If you are digging a copper mine and angering local spirits or if you attempt to marry someone from the same village, the Shaman tracks the karmic processes that result in eventually restoring balance.

The next level up is that of the Official (need better term), who in Shang times is really a military governor and also a shaman in their own right. Fu Hao is really my model of a shaman-warrior-official, though she’s clear a standout badass. Officials oversee a number of villages and towns and if your group of bandits is terrorizing the countryside or if a local problem gets bumped up to a higher level, they are the ones who record the events and make the appropriate response.

Higher than all the officials is, of course, the Royal Court, including the Shaman-King of the Shang as well as his family and the entire entourage of royal diviners. They record anything that happens that rises to the attention of those in the capital and note the resulting actions that occur.

And above the Royal Court are the Royal Ancestors, including the Ten Suns and, ultimately, the Lord On High, who tracks everything in the mortal world that rises to his attention, which — considering he has the earthly bureaucracy to deal with most things, isn’t actually all that much. But if things are rotten in the court or the king is incapable of making the lower levels of the bureaucracy function properly, the Royal Ancestors made due note of that and record, as well, the karmic retribution that results.

Generally, when GMing, you start at the lowest level possible when recording events. However, if a problem bumps up from one level to the next, at the end of the scene, you switch hats and record events at the next level up. So if you have a scene with a local bandit raid while recording at the village (Shaman) level, after that you should have a scene at the regional (Official) level, showing the ramifications of banditry throughout the region. The players can have multiple characters that operate on different levels or, more likely, a character that crosses levels, since every person is a member of a family, from a village, dwells in a region, the subject of the king, and lives and dies under the Ten Suns.

Deterministic Resolution Example

2010 Sep 22

Had to get this down before I forget.

Jonathan and John are playing Ghost Opera. Jonathan is the GM. John’s character has just discovered that the local village shaman — his uncle and the man who has taught him the ways of the spirits — has been fucking with the spirit world in horrible ways.

Jonathan: So you come across the shaman amidst the half-flooded temple. He’s dressed head-to-toe in these ritual robes made from bamboo and river rushes, acting as the Huai River Dragon. He’s holding a ritual knife and stabbing a rabbit on an alter while chanting into the burning incense.

John: I come up behind him, wrest the knife from him, and stab him to death.

Jonathan: Awesome! There are a few obstacles in your way, which you have to overcome to accomplish that. First, the shaman is crafty and paranoid. He might be able to hear you coming up on him.

John: No, he totally doesn’t. I’m a master hunter and silent as death. [John’s invoking the “I’m just better at this” clause, one of several ways to overcome an obstacle].

Jonathan: Cool. Can you write down “Silent as Death” on your sheet, as one of your new descriptors? I’m going to mark down that you were quiet enough to sneak up on paranoid old men.

John: Done. What are the other obstacles?

Jonathan: Well, since he’s your shaman, your uncle, and your teacher, I think he’s going to triple-invoke hierarchy on you.

John: That’s cool, but he has to actually do that, right? It’s not just some passive defense.

Jonathan: Sure, well, let’s let it play out and we’ll see if he’s able to do that. So how do you wrest the dagger from him, now that you’ve snuck up on him, silent as death?

John: Hmm, yeah. I think I leave his hand on the dagger and just twist his wrist around — probably breaking it in the process, since he’s an old man — and plunge it into his chest while holding tight onto his shoulder so he can’t turn around.

Jonathan: He screams in pain at his broken wrist and you hear this sucking sound as the dagger sinks between his ribs into a lung. Blood and spit burst from his lips as he gasps, “You piece of shit! I taught you everything you know! This is how you repay me!” He’s invoking his role as your master.

John: Yeah, nothing doing. I pull the dagger out and stab him again.

Jonathan: Okay, that’s one mark of breaking the Great Chain of Being. He moans and then starts speaking to you softly under his breath. Calling you by the childhood names that only close members of your family know.

John: Okay, that makes me pause for a moment, but then I viciously stab him a few more times, to try to make him be quiet.

Jonathan: And that’s another mark of violation. Finally, when he’s lying at your feet, all the blood draining out of him and billowing out in the six inches of water, he invokes the wrath of the spirits on you, for killing the shaman charged with protecting these lands.

John: He should have thought of that before he abandoned his responsibilities and screwed the spirits over. I kick his dying body down the steps of the temple and into the boggy marsh around it.

Jonathan: And that’s the third mark. The shaman’s body bobs and drifts away for a moment before sinking beneath the waters with a final gurgle.

John: Cool. Seems like end of scene, yeah?

Fetters of the Great Chain

2010 May 22

The Great Chain of Being connects everything that exists in a just hierarchy of responsibilities. However, in practical day to day life, you don’t really need to invoke the Great Chain itself. That’s overkill.

The Great Chain has a number of subsidiary incarnations, lesser reflections of Heaven’s will that govern most encounters. For example, filial piety governs the relationship between children and their parents. Loyalty governs the relationship between vassals and their lord. Respect governs the relationship between teacher and student.

Even more specifically, local fetters of the Great Chain bind people and spirits together in a much more personal or individual fashion. This woman is not just a parent but YOUR MOTHER. This spirit is not merely a local god but TIGER TIGER, the embodiment of the land your home village is dependent on for survival.

So, while the Great Chain connects everything, some connections are much closer than others and offer much more immediate leverage. If you invoke the Great Chain of Being, Heaven will get around to resolving the problem eventually, but it may take several hundred years and could involve wiping everyone out so there’s no longer any problem or record of the problem.

However, if you invoke a more specific fetter, either a general relationship (a shaman’s duty to intervene between people and spirits) or a very specific one (this shaman is YOUR SHAMAN, with a personal duty to you), the results will be much quicker and coming, either in providing you leverage to demand that someone else do (or not do) something, or in creating negative consequences for them spurning your just demand.

On the GMs side, then, the Great Chain and its fetters serve as guidelines for determining what happens next. You know how, in Dogs in the Vineyard, town creation is a process of following the pride or sin and seeing how it develops through the world? That’s what GMing a game of Ghost Opera is like. When characters and NPCs do things, you simply follow how these actions affects the Great Chain and its more specific fetters, which is easy to do since you and the players are going to be invoking the Chain all the damn time. And then you generate new situations based on the ripples created in the Chain.

For example, if a character demands that their village shaman intervene in the spirit world… and the shaman refuses, that creates unresolved tension — injustice, from the perspective of the Great Chain — between the shaman and their village. There’s also spillover affects, since injustice in inter-village relations (or any other relations) invokes responses from the natural and spirit worlds. And the rules will then provide the GM an opportunity to have more bad things happen to both the shaman specifically and the village as a whole.

Sure, the shaman can keep defying the Great Chain and its fetters… but not indefinitely. Eventually the social, natural, and spirit worlds will build up such a huge array of forces against him that the shaman will surely be crushed, either killed outright or violently diminished. However, the Great Chain is both patient and inexact in handing out justice. The personal problems of the world are “like straw dogs,” totally immaterial. If it takes several years and involves massive amounts of suffering by people and spirits, Heaven doesn’t really care. Heaven is not compassionate; it simply dispenses justice on a macro scale. The fallout comes down all around, punishing both the shaman and the people and spirits that allowed his folly and arrogance to continue unchecked.

It is generally in the interests of people and spirits, then, to resolve injustice before Heaven does. The Great Chain exists not simply to punish or restrict them, but to guide them towards righteous behavior and make it perfectly clear where injustice is. The Great Chain is very noisy. When you push against it, it makes a loud metal jangling, which eventually carries up the Chain to greater powers: lords, local spirits, and, eventually, the ancestors, the dragons, the king himself, the high god Di, and Heaven itself. In fact, now that I think about it, Heaven doesn’t really even need to intervene itself. Before that, storm spirits, wild animals, soldiers, monsters, dragons, and the like will have solved the issue for it.

Half a Character Sheet, Revised Rules

2010 May 2

Okay, Enough Layout for Now

2010 May 2

Time to actually write this thing.