Monday, February 17, 2014

Becoming, by Brian Engard

Becoming is one of the most fascinating games I've played in a while. When I picked it up with the Indie Cornucopia Bundle of Holding in November, the red and black art caught my eye and the idea of the hero journey and sacrifice built into the game intrigued me. The light 121 pages rulebook sealed the deal--it was a game I could read quickly and explain easily.

How to Play

- In Becoming, there is one PC and three DMs.
- The DMs take turns running the game. The DMs are the Fates.
- The game is 9 scenes long, and each Fate alternates scenes, so each runs 3 scenes total.
- When a Fate isn't running the scene, the Fate embodies/inhabits an NPC in the scene.  
- Each Fate has an agenda and pushes that agenda in the scene, whether narrating or playing an NPC.
- When the Fate running the scene introduces the main conflict of the scene, the hero negotiates with the other 2 Fates. Those Fates offer the hero support against the conflict... for a price. The hero must sacrifice his or her strengths, virtues, or allies. If the hero refuses, those Fates lend their dice against the hero. Dice are rolled, and the winner (the hero or the narrating Fate) decides what happens.
- The game goes on and the hero sacrifices much of what he or she once held dear.
- The Fates gain points for the hero's sacrifices, and the hero gains points for succeeding in conflicts.
- At the end of the game, the player with the most points narrates what happens. The Fates bend the ending toward their particular agendas.

Initial Skepticism

I was at first as skeptical as I was excited about Becoming. I like not knowing what happens in an RPG and allowing for lots of flexibility and player freedom, so I initially had a tough time embracing Becoming's predetermined scene structure--even if the rules do offer a brief word of encouragement to go off book if need be. We've all had the misfortune to play RPGs in which the structure of the game is so constrained that the game is tedious from the get-go. Same problem when the structure's too loose.

That said, the scenes in Becoming's scenarios are typical of their genres, so they're the kinds of scenes that naturally tend to appear in the story whether you planned them or not. We're talking archetypal stuff here--the threads that have woven the tapestries of our own legends for time out of mind. In actual play I've found that Becoming's scene structure works perfectly well and have had no problem following the general outlines of the scenes just as they appear. The scenes as written are like the kinds of notes I might write myself in preparation for a D&D adventure--a few elements and possibilities for things that may happen. They're focused in the way a Fiasco playset is focused. After playing the first session of the game, I stopped worrying.

Why This Game is Great

In Becoming, the structure of play is very defined. The hero has a goal and the Fates embody their own goals; they embody their goals in the people the hero meets, in the voices of the hero's enemies as well as his or her allies. They embody their goals in the setting and atmosphere as each Fate takes a turn at narration.

Because the structure is so defined, your goals as a role-player are focused. While the overall goal is to tell a good story, the "win conditions" drive the Fates to compete to create clever conflicts for the hero, and to strike bargains with the hero that are too sweet to decline. It's not always easy to figure out how your Fate plays a role in the present scene, but part of the fun is discovering that brilliant connection, or developing an NPC so that he or she reflects the perspective of your Fate.

Each of the scenarios in the Becoming book is a completely different genre (or one genre, if Joseph Campbell's hero journey is that genre). There's a medieval setting, a galactic voyage, a horror scenario, a zombie apocalypse, and even a werewolf scenario and a star-crossed lovers variant. We're playing Exodus, the galactic voyage in which the hero is humanity's last hope for finding a habitable world.

In Exodus, I'm playing a Fate: Duty. Our hero is an idealist guided by her faith in God, and she treats her crew as family. It's my job to present her with challenges that put her in positions where her faith gets in the way of her job, or where her job gets in the way of her family, or where her job gets in the way of her faith. At the beginning of the game, the group creates the hero by selecting the hero's qualities from a list; the hero's player gets to pick 3 qualities, while the Fates choose 2 apiece. This way, the hero is the creation of the group, and the Fates choose aspects they hope to exploit. For instance, I chose Abel, the career soldier, from the list because I felt that a career soldier would be a good way to remind the hero of her duty (and boy has it ever been).

Even in playing NPCs, the Fates are finding characters we love, and we're finding complexity within these characters. Abel the career soldier, for instance, doesn't believe anything the captain believes, and at this point in the game he doesn't even respect her views. BUT Abel is the embodiment of duty, and so while I (the Fate) am trying to subvert the hero and eventually have my way with the story, Abel sticks by the captain's side, her staunchest ally. While playing Abel as an NPC, I've used him to remind the captain of her duty and frittered away little pieces of her soul as Abel does the dirty work--even killing and torture--to keep a mutinous ship under command. So while he doesn't believe in her, he's on her side all the way, and it's costing her soul. Our game is full of these nuanced characters, played by the other Fates.

How We Are Playing

In our game the captain's player, Megan, hasn't read the scenario. Thus, this is very much like a traditional D&D adventure where the DM has notes on possible scenes and the player is reacting to them. Every scene is a surprise for her. It's surprising for us to see how well it works.

Since Duty is assigned the first scene in Exodus, I began it like I'd begin any game I was DMing. I went for a slow build, describing the blinking lights in the cockpit, the slow, quiet approach to the Vertigo--the last space station at the edge of unknown space. I tried to set the scene with details and just let scenes play out. Sometimes several things happened before we got to the threat--and that was great too.

All the scenes have followed suit, and what I had thought was meant to be a one-shot RPG has become a measured, intense role-playing experience built on a solid structure that frees us to improvise toward concrete objectives. Every week we've had about enough time to play 3 scenes. This makes for a very natural three-act structure, a very natural beginning, middle, and end. In the last session of the first night, the captain failed miserably and lost command of the crew--the first major problem she'd encountered. At the end of the second session the captain ended a mutiny with blood on her hands. The crew are no longer family; God is no longer on her side; the crew are employees at best, and the captain has been forced to compromise her principles repeatedly to keep control.

We'll finish up this week, but I've found myself thinking about the game all week when I'm not playing it, wondering how it will end up, what will become of the characters. That's the best kind of experience, I think.

Becoming is a game about the hard choices and sacrifices we choose to make on our hero's journey. There's a lot to think about within the context of the game. It's not a game that lets you off easy-- without making you think about what you've done, what you might have done, what you should have done, what you need to do. Stories tell us what our lives are about, and Becoming gives us the tools to tell some compelling stories.

This game delivers the goods. Can't wait to see how it ends.


Robert Ryder
Greg Inda
Paris Green
Steve Townshend (hey, that's me)

1 comment:

stromian said...

This was a fun, 3-session game. I agree with Megan about the "end" scene, though: it's hard not to feel like it's somewhat heavy-handed. From her perspective, she already knew what the end-scene was going to be when the "blue planet" was suddenly detected. "Ah, okay, so we're going to crash land then," she must have thought. As the Fate who got scenes 3,6, and 9 - the last scene - I found it difficult to tie everything together and still be "true" to the scene's description. Not to mention the fact that major elements to the scene - a "jittery crew" and "the beacon" - were all but destroyed in the penultimate scene by the two other Fates! Thanks dudes. Perhaps I was also pretty tired, but that's why I came up with a "beacon" in the lone surviving crew member, Nick Harker "who knows the stars." I wanted the scene to at least have the illusion that there was still a chance to contact the rest of humanity. That said, I was playing the Fate Paranoia, and Nick had already been tortured and left in solitary confinement for much of the journey. Also, there was the fact that Nick recalibrated the nav system, so he must have known where he wanted to go. I agree with you that I also didn't want the whole journey to have been a trick, though, i.e. that Nick was the real captain and had the real beacon embedded in his body. But as Paranoia, I'm pretty sure Nick was coming up with a lot of delusions in his cell. The beacon was really only a new (perhaps mechanical!) heart or other organ - likely damaged from the bullet he took for the captain, which is why he never recovered. And in the end, he was so bent on revenge he wanted eventually to train the alien critters to hunt the Hero down, giving her a chance to experience a living hell for a time. Nick was my Colonel Kurtz.

Since you were the Fate who had the most points, you got to narrate the epilog, which was awesome! I liked how you focused on her doing right with the indigenous creatures, recognizing her isolation from and the uselessness of God, and how she spent her remaining days on an alien planet. The mission was a failure, but she grew as a person. All was not lost.

My question to you is: why did you decide to subvert your favorite character, Abel, the way and when you did? It couldn't have been just for points. If that was the case, you could have subverted him in the last scene. Also, why would he have sabotaged the beacon? Wasn't that the mission, his DUTY? Explain yourself!

Overall, it's a great game that's perfect for a gamer's convention. We stretched our scenes out, but I think I would prefer that over rushing through them. As I said, I really like how much breathing space the scenes and mechanics give for role play, though a few more chances for rolling dice would be nice. I'd definitely want to do the Blair Witch setting, but can also imagine that it'd be quite easy - and fun! - to come up with 9 scenes for any story 3 GMs would like to run together. What a great collaborative RPG. It's my new favorite GM-ful indie game to date.