Storium Theory: Postmortem: Changing Days

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 16th, 2017…and I once again forgot to post it over here. Sorry!

It’s been a little while since it finished, but today, it’s time to talk about Changing Days. I let this go a bit longer than I meant to again–didn’t really have time to think this through and give the game a look over until now.

Changing Days ran from February 28th, 2016 until February 21st, 2017, a little shy of one year.

As a reminder, I write these articles as a review largely of my own role in the game as a narrator, trying to draw on my experiences and figure out what went well and what went poorly due to my actions. I may mention player input at times, but that isn’t the primary purpose of these reviews. I’m trying to improve my narration style, and hoping that by doing it in the open, I might be able to help someone else as well.

Description

Changing Days is the story of a group of friends – teenagers who are preparing to enter college or the working world. They’ve been close for years, so before life takes them on their different paths, they decide to take one last trip together. Some are wrestling with what they plan on doing with their lives, others have other problems to work out. In the midst of all of it, they encounter a dangerous and evil spirit that starts to change them, and must work together to save each other – and perhaps the rest of the world as well.

Players:

Positives

This game ended up being a lot of fun to run. It was an interesting set of concepts, I think…a camping trip, a group of friends soon parting from each other, a drastic change, the possibility of disappearance…all those things worked together pretty well. This is another idea of mine that I think could have ended up patently ridiculous if played that way, but it really helped having this group of players – they did a good job making the emotion of the characters’ situation really stand out, so even if there were comedic moments in the tale, I don’t think we ever lost sight of the stakes.

And there were comedic moments. This was definitely one of the funnier games that I’ve run. I think the overall concept just kind of worked that way. While the situation itself is something that would be quite frightening, the fact that it was set up with a group of characters who were all good friends and could keep each other’s spirits up and have some good camaraderie provided a lot of opportunities to laugh. There were good opportunities for some physical comedy as well, and some good chances to use the overall absurdity of what was happening for some laughs without losing the overall tone of the story. I assign most of the good spirits of the story to the players, but I’ll credit myself with at least helping to maintain it! Overall, things came off reasonably light-hearted, I think – the tone of danger seems to be maintained throughout the story, but without it becoming depressing or monotonous.

I used my “group history” method again with this game, though I tried doing it before the game started instead of as part of the first scene. I still found the method worked well, but don’t use it before the game. Things take too long to get going and you lose some momentum starting out. I still saw the benefits of having players establish some facts about their characters from the get-go through the use of some easy questions – it helped players really identify bonds between their characters and have things to reference or build on throughout the game – but it’s a method I definitely find works best as a first scene thing rather than a before the game thing. Overall, though, I think that using the method contributed to the players really being able to hit the ground running with the feel of a group of close friends who knew each other quite well.

I used a bit of a slow build to the characters’ first change – using a few challenges before they encountered the spirit, set around them exploring the woods, finding their way through a cave, and exploring an ancient shrine of some kind. That, I think, gave the players more time to explore their characters in roughly “normal” state – with some tension starting to rise and hints at what was to come, but still fully themselves. I think it was a very, very good way to start a game like this. With the characters going through changes later on, the players needed a good bit of time to really establish who they were – for themselves, for the other players, for me, and for anyone who might be reading. I was a little worried starting out about taking a few scenes to really “get to the good part,” as it were, but it worked out well.

Furthermore, I laid out quite a few cases in the early going where the players got to create items or facts that would matter latter on, or at least take actions that become important to the tale later. Several factors of these early scenes are directly referenced later in the tale as pretty major story elements – the lamp, the broken basin, the secret entrance, the ritual depiction – much of this was created by the players in response to these early cues, and I made sure to make note of these factors and work them into the later parts of the tale. In many ways, in these early scenes I had the players lay out almost everything that would end up mattering to the final few scenes, and I think it let the game feel pretty player-driven while still being able to have a good, solid, concrete goal. I think it felt like even these early challenges mattered – even before the story’s true danger was present, what the players did or created mattered strongly.

I think I did a good job in this one of using player input in general – whether simply a matter of what results the players got a challenge, or the actual facts they created in response to challenge prompts. I continued asking questions in various forms periodically with my challenges from the start all the way through to the end of the game, and used the players’ input to guide what ended up being important to the plot. Aside from the early game facts, quite a number of the things the player characters ended up seeking out were based heavily on things the players themselves had made up – the Kevin Reynolds story, for instance, occupies a large part of the game and plays into the characters’ search for a cure, and that was all player input. I don’t normally go quite as open with the tale as I did in this one – normally there’s some places where the players can impact what’s really going on, or elements of the history, but not quite as many as I used here. I think I’m going to lean more in this direction in the future – the players seemed to have a lot of fun with it.

I did have some players retire from this one, though – one told me early on he couldn’t dedicate the time he thought he could, and two others unfortunately disappeared (here’s hoping all is well). I didn’t get the feeling it was from anything that happened in the game, or anything like that, though it’s never fun when that happens anyway. I varied up my strategy for dealing with it this time, though. For the early retirement, I took control of the character and used him as a major NPC for the game – much of the entire rest of the game, in fact, focuses on searching for him and on what he’d been doing while he was missing. I’d seen another narrator, mforrester, do something like that in “One Night in Hooverville,” and was struck by how well it worked. There was a natural point to separate the character from the group and start leaving a trail for the others to follow, so I went with it. I thought it would just be a side plot, but it ended up being a major driver for the rest of the tale. Sometimes you don’t know just how something’s going to go.

For the others – one I used for my usual asset card approach, which worked fine, as usual. I think that method really combines quite well with my opening group history questions – the players get a pretty good understanding of the other player characters through that approach and a little further play, so it they manage to keep the character going and make it a valuable part of the story even if the player leaves. Works pretty well. The other I recruited someone I knew to play. Kudos to docwho2100 for coming in to play an existing character on pretty short notice and with about half the game done, but very quickly coming to grips with the character and being able to slot herself into the player group very well. Very much appreciated.

I started focusing on a method of breaking down larger “tasks” into smaller, focused ones with this story – a method I had used in small parts earlier, but really decided to push for in this one. Research challenges, searches for information, trips through caves, and other tasks were all split up into smaller elements, whether that be the individual dangers the characters encountered in a larger trip, the specific topics they were searching for, or other smaller elements. This helped a lot – compared to some of the massive challenges in earlier games (like the break-in scene in An End in Fire), these were easier for the players to manage and kept the scene tightly focused on what mattered. I never felt like people were getting lost or had trouble figuring out what the challenge was supposed to be about or what sorts of trouble might arise. I ended up getting an article out of that, and it’s a method I’ll be sure to keep using in the future. It’s much easier for players to play out short challenges focused on, say, looking for past reports of the curse’s events and looking for important local legends than to just slap a general large research challenge down and tell ’em to get to it, and much easier for them to write about how they get past an underground waterway and some dark caverns and discover something than to write a general challenge on an entire nonspecific journey through the caves. Easier…and more fun, I think.

I think overall there was a good feeling of the progression of the characters’ situation. The periodic increased changes were a good method to use for the tale – showing that things were definitely getting worse as time went on, and adding some urgency to the characters’ quest. There’s never a point where it feels like they can totally rest. The timeline keeps moving forward. The characters are moving someplace constantly. If not, they’re talking with someone important, or researching things in a limited time period with the clock always ticking. Once the danger starts, I don’t think the story ever loses a sense of momentum. There’s no side jaunts here – no points where the story feels like it goes somewhere else for a while.

It also helps that while I again didn’t truly have a villain, I did have a group that could work as antagonists in some ways. There was someone out there that was actively working to find the player characters, and they didn’t want to be found. That conflict didn’t feel immediately life-threatening or anything, but it certainly helped to add some tension to the tale that some of my others have lacked.

Negatives

While I think Changing Days went well, there are still some flubs on my part I need to address.

First off…there’s still not really a sense of menace from anything much in this game. There’s urgency, and there’s opposition, but I don’t really have something that makes you feel like the player characters are in honest, palpable danger aside from their changes over the course of the story. I’m…not sure that hurts this story as much as others I’ve made the same comment about. In some ways, it helps maintain the lighter tone and let the story have its comedy moments. At the same time, there are points where I feel like the tension just isn’t high enough.

A villain maybe wasn’t the answer for this one, though. I think what might have been the answer was having the town react more solidly to the player characters and their changes. There’s almost no sign at all of what the people of Diggory’s Grove are thinking here – almost no sign at all of any reaction from ordinary townsfolk. I held back on that as I kind of thought having challenges in there about moving around town without being seen, or getting around mobs thinking they were hunting monsters, would be likely to slow the game down. In retrospect, though…doing something like that with my Component Challenges method at least would have added more of a feeling of reality. These teens walk all over the city. The first part of the tale isn’t too hard to believe – their changes haven’t progressed far yet. But after their second changes? They’re visibly heavily altered, so they should absolutely be drawing more attention than I ever really show.

Far from the challenge being about getting the lamp back from the library or escaping from the Knights of the Grove at the Little Taphouse, it shouldn’t have been that easy to get to the library or get to the Little Taphouse. That’s a major factor in the middle of the story feeling fairly weak. There’s a strong sense of approaching danger in the opening, some nice mystery shortly after, and the ending feels pretty tight with desperate attempts to convince people, some research, and a final struggle for the characters to regain their proper lives, but…that middle section? There’s a couple scenes where it doesn’t feel like enough can potentially go wrong, or that there’s enough consequence for what has. The characters visibly transform in the streets, and then are still able to sneak around with relative ease, glossed over in narration. Yeah…in retrospect, that was pretty dumb of me.

Ah, well.

Another bit I’m not as keen on in retrospect: the confrontation with Roger in Act II, Scene 6. I actually like how it went, but I feel like I put the characters through two separate challenges that were both basically the same thing. The second challenge of that scene, “Reprogramming,” isn’t all that different from the first challenge…so it feels like the players get a Strong outcome in the first one, and then I just ask them to rehash it. It just feels a bit awkward, and I probably could have focused the second challenge on something else or just skipped it and had its effects just be part of the first one’s outcomes. I kind of broke my rule that challenge outcomes have to matter, there.

I’m also not entirely sure I’m keen on the final challenge, the one in Act III, Scene 3. I thought it would be fun to have one last challenge, separate from the actively supernatural finale, with the characters dealing with suspicions about if they were really cured. And it was…but it also felt like it was kind of tacked on. I think a confrontation with this character was entirely appropriate (and definitely built towards), but it probably should have come earlier. Maybe he could have followed our heroes into the Twisted Grove, or confronted them before they went in. As it is, it feels like we were ready for the story to be over, and then it wasn’t, and then it was. I also made the players suddenly develop a side character and add more to his story right at the end of the tale, which made it harder for them to write this than to write on any other challenge in the story, I think. Things don’t always feel like you think they will, I guess. Need to recognize where my ending is, and just let it be.

Didn’t help that I didn’t really include that NPC’s tale in the ending (or the Kevin Reynolds things for that matter), so it feels like while it was a major part of things during the tale, it kind of drops and is never fully resolved.

One other little bit? How did I manage to name both the town and the place the spirit was sealed some variant of “Grove?” Calling things “the Grove” in a story with two Groves could get pretty darn confusing! It’s a small thing, but definitely something I’d go back and fix if I were doing a second draft.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Changing Days. It was a fun concept that led to a lighter-hearted tale than some of the other games that I’ve run, while still maintaining a decent sense of danger and urgency throughout. Setting it up with a group of close friends, ordinary teenagers, really helped give the players a means to just…show their characters getting along with each other or being friends. I just plain liked all of the player characters in this, and while I’ll assign most of that to their players, I think the setting idea and general story concept helped make that happen. It set up a situation where the characters could just naturally be sympathetic.

I’ve always enjoyed stories of the ordinary person in the midst of events beyond themselves, and it’s become kind of a theme of mine on Storium. For me, Changing Days made that theme actively fun rather than just interesting. The tale was small, and the consequences were mostly personal (though there were hints of something wider). Unlike the Twishted games, the Changing Days characters were trying to stop something from happening, rather than undo something that had already happened. It let the tale still be lighter as a result. Bad things were in the process of happening, rather than having already happened. The characters could still be themselves – they didn’t have to be showing the results of massive traumatic shifts in their lives. They were themselves, fighting to make sure those changes didn’t happen.

There’s a difference there, and an important one. That difference – that the bad things were in the future, not the past, and could still be stopped, not reversed – that made it possible for the story to have a stronger feeling of hope. Hope, I felt, permeated the tale. It was always present, even when troubles arose.

I don’t know that I’d say that was a superior tone to other games I’ve run, where the bad things are being undone rather than prevented. But it’s a tone that I think might agree with me more, so maybe it’s one I ought to try to stick with. I’m more of a hope kind of guy, and maybe that made the game easier on me to run and easier on my players to play. Maybe I should go with that some more.

(…he says, as he currently runs a game with more of a disaster movie feel…)

In any case, Changing Days was fun and a good memory for me. I’d like to really thank the players for playing it with me, and for giving me a lot to laugh at and enjoy over the course of the tale. You were great and I always enjoyed coming in to see what you’d write next.

For those of you reading…I hope that this little retrospective has given you some things to think about in your gaming as well. These articles, I’ll admit, are more my own way of working through my thoughts on how my games went, but hopefully they can help anyone else who might be struggling with their own games, or give ideas for how to get one going or take it through to a conclusion.