A Bitter Aftertaste

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Tabletop Tuesdays: Love Sucks

Tabletop (Free)
J. Tuomas Harviainen

I am now officially tired of the "why can't we have games that do ______?" conversation. Like, you know "games can't do conversations, games can't do tragedy, games can't do X, Y, and Z", so we're stuck with nothing but Gears of War until the end of time.

The basic problem with this idea is, of course, the insistence that a "game" is a 3D high-poly-count app created for tens of millions of dollars by wageslaves in an EA/Activision/Ubisoft sweatshop.

A Bitter Aftertaste is a jeepform roleplaying game for four players that premiered at Ropecon, the Finnish national roleplaying games convention, in 2007. It is about two lovers who have just had the best sex of their lives, sitting on a balcony overlooking their city, and talking. Something games supposedly can't do, to be sure.

Why does a game about two people talking require four players? Because, of course, the game is a jeepform, and uses several of the techniques common to this game style: inner monologues, "insides & outsides," and imaginary scenes.

Harviainen imposes a narrative arc: by the end of the game, the insecurities of both members of the couple will lead to the loss of their love. Many narrativist "indie" RPGs also impose a narrative arc, but unlike those games, jeepforms have no die-rolls or other external mechanics for either action or scene resolution. They are pure roleplaying -- with a set of rules that allow players to seize and usurp the nature of the roleplaying, complicating the situation. Jeepforms have rules and mechanics, but they are rules and mechanics that control who roleplays what, and when and how. They are, in many ways, closer to "acting games" than traditional tabletop RPGs -- and yet, derive ultimately from the tabletop roleplaying tradition.

At game start, the lovers are chatting on their balcony. Two players represent them, and roleplay freely. At any moment, any of the players -- the lovers, or other two -- may interrupt, and act out an imaginary scene: A scene depicting what is going through the head of one of the lovers. For the purposes of this scene, any of the players may be chosen to represent either the lovers or other characters. As an example, let us say that one of the lovers is Robert, and the other is Sara (A Bitter Aftertaste is gender-neutral, and the game provides for both same sex and heterosexual couples). Something Robert said may have suddenly triggered, for Sara, the fantasy that he might betray her by having an affair with a co-worker. The player theoretically playing Sara on the balcony may not be aware of this fact, until another player seizes the action and grabs other players to act out the scene, one of the players (not necessarily the "balcony Robert") representing Robert, and another the coworker.

One rule of the game is that all such scenes must create doubt. None are permitted to end in happy resolution. And any return to the scenario in a later scene must escalate -- a greater fear, a greater consequence. During such a scene, the "dreamer" -- the person proposing that this scenario is running through one of the lover's head -- may request a monolog. S/he speaks this, facing away from the other players; the other characters do not hear it, but the players do.

Another rule is that imaginary scenes may not establish facts -- only doubts. And a third is that the game must end in a break up.

Like other jeepforms, A Bitter Aftertaste blurs the boundaries between theatrical improv and tabletop roleplaying; indeed, you could see it being performed before a theater audience, and perhaps one day games of this type shall be.


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Role-playing and improv

I think there's a fair deal of crossover between the two. It's interesting to assert that this game derived from table-top roleplaying rather than improvisational theatre. I wonder whether it's as clear-cut as that (though I haven't read the rules yet, maybe it's obvious). Just as a personal example, I got a friend hooked on D&D, who later introduced me to this site. He was a theatre buff first. So there's clearly some potential for crossover of ideas and creative minds, blurring "lines of descent."

On the other hand, sometimes the division is very stark. I remember trying to introduce the concept of a role-playing game to another theatre friend of mine. He was with me for most of the way, though he raised his eyebrows at using dice (what for?). The thing that really shocked him was that there was no audience.

"Then what do you do it for?!"

"For ourselves!"

This was not an acceptable answer. I agree, though, costik. Let's keep on blurring.

Okay, I've read it now

Two things to add to my previous comments.

1. Without disallowing cross-fertilisation, I can see the gamey heritage you're talking about.

2. I'm now thoroughly depressed.

In the RPG 3:16, at some

In the RPG 3:16, at some point it mandates that a PC gets 'hate for home', but it doesn't really define what that is. So there's this sort of space, like the space between the flags at the beach where you can swim safely, and you fill that space in as your character feels his hate.

But here it just says you lose your love? There's no wriggle room there?

It just seems prima donna-ish of the game author to me. "Yeah, fick about for awhile, but then it ends up how I have decided anyway". If your going to decide everything but the actual big important thing, why not just read a book?

Philosopher Gamer Blog


You know, your reviews are a lot better when they don't involve your immature rantings against "the establishment"...

Callan writes "If your going

Callan writes "If your going to decide everything but the actual big important thing, why not just read a book?"

This seems odd to me, because love can end in many different ways. Do the lovers end up hating each other? Do they end up friends? There seems like a lot of space. Of course, it's not as open-ended as a traditional tabletop RPG - but it seems no more objectionable than any other determinate-arc game.

RE: Fuck The Establishment, Maaan

Actually Greg is making a valid point here. Instead of having an impersonal cash-cow product, you could have games of this ilk. Current-gen console titles are all data-intensive -- pretty graphics go boom -- but lack gameplay depth. Games like this provide a deeper set of rules and multiplayer more nuanced than shooting the other person; I don't see any foul in bringing up this distinction.

The short answer is that we (the PTT crew) are a bunch of punks with 'tude, and it goes with the territory.

Re: 'tude


Dramatic arc

I think it's perfectly fair to have the affair end in failure. It makes the game a study in how love fails. You could make a game about how love conquers all, but we all know that story backwards and forwards so perhaps there's less of a need for it.

Of course, the game makes a weird presumption: love COULD conquer all, if only we would believe in it, but we don't (or maybe it doesn't). It's an interesting idea about relationships.

There's still a lot of scope for "play" in this game. What are the doubts? Do the lovers attempt to resolve them? Do they communicate them? Are their doubts seperate, or do they build on each other through a process of communication? Is the break-up mutual, or is one person more inclined towards it? These are all interesting questions to explore, and I can see a lot of replay value, though I would be tempted to shuffle roles around.

Sure there are limitations, so this game benefits from being non-commercial. I wonder whether there is a paying market for this kind of thing. (Well, with proper advertising, there's a paying market for anything). I think it's commendable to have a tight focus and for a game to do one thing well rather than doing many things poorly.