Rhys’ Breakdown – Fiction and Mechanics
John Harper asked on Google+
So, +Paul Riddle, question: Was Rhys’s breakdown a result of the revised push yourself move? Can you talk about how you handled that? Sounds like there was a stress cost.
When I followed up with John, he said he wanted to know about Rhys’ slide into a coldblooded killer and how the mechanics, the new move Push Yourself in particular, factored into play at guiding the fiction. Since this ties in with my other blog posts, I thought I’d write about it here.
Here’s the text of the move at the time it was used in play:
When you push yourself through physical hardship, emotional trauma, or enemy fire, roll+guts. On a 10+, you keep calm and carry on. On a 7-9, you push through it; but, you take it slow, keep your head down, or cover your ass. Say how and why you avoid a direct confrontation with the problem at hand. GM says what it costs you: time, trouble, respect, etc.
A Toe in the Waters of Madness
The first step toward the slide happened when Rhys left the old woman and her husband in their flat to their fate while all of the other civilians were evacuated from the apartment building that would serve as 2nd Platoon’s jump off point. I didn’t ask Rhys to make a move and he didn’t ask to make one either. At this point, nothing was really at stake. Yes, the Germans might bring the fight here; but, there’s nothing concrete now – just the possible, future threat – and who’s to say that where everyone’s evacuating to is any safer? So that’s my view of the mechanics of the situation. To Rhys, it was a significant turning point; though, none of the rest of us at the table knew it yet. To see what Rhys’ player had to say, see Session 6 AP.
The real jolt came when Rhys gunned down the (first group of) unarmed Germans when they rushed through the doorway in their assault across open ground. It started off as a Fight the Enemy move to win entry into the building. That was a hit. They dispatched the armed Germans no problem, so I threw the first of several moral compass challenges at the group – some unarmed Germans – what would Rhys do?
At this point, I wasn’t expecting murder; that came as a bit of a surprise. Not a shock, exactly; but, not wholly anticipated either. So I definitely demanded that Rhys Push Himself. This kind of thing was not something that we’d seen any indication of in Rhys’ character previously. Rhys made the roll and got the 7-9 result.
For the move’s 7-9 “penalty” (I’m using that in quotes because you AW’ers know what I mean – success with complications) – I chose to have Rickman and Walsh, his two subordinates who were in the room with him and saw what he did, lose respect for him. I reset their bond with him to -1 (generic NPC’s start at 0 by default). I told Rhys that Rickman and Walsh look absolutely stunned and then they spread out to secure the other ways in and out of their immediate area (the stairs and the other end of the hallway) without making eye contact or saying a word.
I asked Rhys how he felt about what he just did and how he felt about Rickman and Walsh’s reaction. Rhys told me that he felt deeply ashamed and that he couldn’t look either of them in the eye. He said he did it because he knew that even unarmed Germans, had they taken them prisoner, would have been a tremendous burden and risk. That question and Rhys’ answer established his mental state (this was an intended part of the move Push Yourself, that wasn’t well-written at the time; I think our recent revisions to the move have improved it significantly). OK, so Rhys is troubled and remorseful – take 1-stress. I threw the stress at him because, in the fiction, Rhys was torn inside. He exhibited the characteristics of the mechanical thing called “stress,” so as GM, I told him to mark the thing on his sheet that he just established in the fiction. I should have given him more stress; but, he was one shy of critical and I just wanted to push him to the line, not over it. In hindsight, that was the right call, for reasons that will become apparent shortly.
When rifle squad charges over to reinforce assault squad, L/Cpl. Johnson and Pvt. Thornburg arrive and report to Rhys for duty. Rickman and Walsh are elsewhere and Rhys wants to get away from them, so he takes his new rifle squad charges upstairs with him in search of the enemy. They follow without question, having no idea what Rhys just did and no expectation that he would do it again.
Rhys sneaks up on a German position on the second floor, taking the lead. He can hear them firing and he sneaks in on them, making a successful Maneuver move. He signals Johnson and Thornburg to hold back and then pushes the door open. Rhys opens fire on the armed Germans and then turns the rifle on the unarmed ones.
Again, I call for a Push Yourself, roll. He makes it with the 7-9 result. Mechanically, I choose the same 7-9 consequence, because Johnson and Thornburg are just as stunned and abhorrent as Rickman and Walsh were. A pattern is starting to emerge. I ask Rhys what the fuck is going on inside his head and Rhys’ player spills the beans: Rhys is having a mental breakdown. I tell him to mark 2-stress and Rhys goes critical. Session 6 AP discusses this in detail.
System vs. Fiction: Rhys’ player decided that he wanted Rhys to slide into madness. That wasn’t determined by the moves; but, the moves did reinforce Rhys’ choices along the way. I used Push Yourself to call bullshit on some clearly abnormal behavior that Rhys’ player decided he wanted Rhys to do. We acted on what the move told us to do and, because the move said Rhys did it, we moved forward with Rhys’ descent into madness. Once we established that Rhys was on a killing spree, there was no conflict to be resolved, so I handed Rhys’ player the reins and left him to gun down hapless Germans as though he were lighting a cigarette. Then afterwards, I gave him consequences.
In Way Over His Head…
After alienating Johnson and Thornburg, Rhys set out on his own in a totally mentally dethatched way. This was the player’s call in establishing his character’s mental state. So I reacted. Cool, you set off down the hallway, alone. That’s when I decided that the missing Sgt. Powell would make his reappearance in the story. Another moral dilemma: I wanted to see if Rhys even cared about his own people.
I tell Rhys that he hears Germans interrogating a prisoner and that, hearing the prisoner speak, Rhys recognizes him as Sgt. Powell, his missing squad leader. Rhys kicks down the door and encounters three German soldiers. Session 7 AP describes this.
At this point, I felt that Rhys was totally acting in character, as established, so I didn’t have him roll Push Yourself. Rhys was hell-bent on self-destruction, so when he followed through on that impulse, I just smiled and nodded. These Germans were all armed and Rhys killed them all. I had him roll Push Yourself to power through the physical trauma; but, not to determine if he could will himself through the ordeal.
As awesome as it is to play through Rhys’ madness, the Rhys-Wickersham redemption thing is really the best stuff. That wouldn’t be possible without the evil that both Rhys and Wickersham have perpetrated. So far, Rhys has rejected every hand held out to him. Rhys’ actions are about to catch up with him in a big way. We’ll see if he has a reckoning.