Actual Play Report after Four Sessions:
Lacuna Part I (second attempt). The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City by Jared Sorenson is a roleplaying game which lives up to its name. From the outset, the rules revel in the fact that there are gaps and absences. Sorenson uses a deliberately enigmatic approach both to add to the atmosphere of the game and to spark the creativity of the players and GM (called Control).
I had the opportunity to run four 3-hour sessions of Lacuna for The Gauntlet, an online gaming community.
Here are links to our sessions. Note that there is a lacuna: Due to my absentminded nature, I neglected to hit record when we played session 2.
For real pyrotechnics, see 1:35:30 of session 4 for the final appearance of “The Girl for Blue City” who has found her way into the real world.
I had neither played nor run the game before, and all the players were new to the game. The mechanics of the game, however, made it quite easy to manage. As per the guidelines of The Gauntlet, I ran an open table, which meant that players were free to sign up and to drop out over the course of the month. This created a dynamic situation, requiring flexibility from week to week. But the game is quite accommodating to the situation: Creating a Mystery Agent is quite quick, and explaining the rules is similarly breezy affair. Players only have a few attributes (Force, Intuition, and Access) to monitor, and they have to keep track of their characters’ heart rate. When faced with a challenge or a risky task, players roll a pool of 6-sided dice (impacted by attribute scores and a couple other factors) hoping to get an 11 or higher. Most roll results are added to a character’s heart rate. When climbing into a target heart range, characters become almost invincible, but this leads inevitably to a crash, as the characters move beyond their target heart range and into dangerous “maximum heart rate” territory.
What follows here is not a review but a list of some observations that emerge out of actual play.
Outside Blue City:
Blue City is the name of the dreamscape where the characters are sent to do missions. The idea offered in the rulebook is that characters are being sent to hunt down Hostile Personalities which are actually criminal aspects of a violent or otherwise dangerous individual. While these missions are being conducted, the characters’ body and vital signs are being monitored on a “slab,” and when the agents are extracted from Blue City at the end of a mission, they are returned to their sleeping bodies and woken up. The rules, however, are silent about the agents in the real world outside of Blue City.
In my game, two agents became convinced that Control was not a benign or competent entity, and they decided to rebel. In fact, they discovered that there was an entire revolutionary faction existing of former Mystery Agents. [Note: The rulebook itself suggest that something along these lines is going on. There is a Special Agent named Miner who went MIA, and who has been tried by the spy organization in absentia.] This operation required us to imagine that the revolution was being carried out both in Blue City and in the “real world,” but there are no rules and scarcely any guidance for how to conduct operations in reality. This didn’t stop us, but it did require us to be vague and to rely on some hand waving to move the plot along.
No Back Story:
The “default setting” of the game is for the Mystery Agents to adopt pseudonyms and to “forget” anything about their lives prior to becoming operatives for Control. One of the players who came aboard during session two had problems with the fact that the characters had no back story. The game seems to want the players to give their characters personalities, and other players in my game had little problem diving into the spirit of the game without an anchoring history or autobiography.
But following upon our session 2 debrief, I made this lack of memory a theme. I suggested in session 3 that the Mystery Agents should perhaps find it odd that they had no knowledge of their past lives, and that perhaps Control was responsible for some type of memory wipe. I introduced them to an NPC Mystery Agent who DID recall their past life, and who was surprised the the PC Mystery Agents did not have this type of knowledge. This immediately raised alarms. Why wouldn’t Control want some Mystery Agents to know who they were? Did they have a relationship to one or more Hostile Personalities? Were they possibly part of the insurgency against control?
GM Roleplaying and Static :
Lacuna leads the GM into a rather unique and exhilarating roleplaying situation. During the game, the GM plays Control, who is an entity in charge of monitoring the agents and assisting them in carrying out their missions. Control’s role often overlaps with the GM’s role in a typical roleplaying game, so it becomes quite natural for the GM of Lacuna to slip in and out of that Control role in ways that are often subtle and ambiguous. That is, there are moments when it became somewhat unclear whether I was speaking as a GM or speaking as Control.
Adding to the spiciness of this situation, Lacuna involves a mechanic called Static. During a mission, various events can lead to the increase of Static which the GM monitors. These triggering events are determined in advance by the GM, and they can involve anything from “arguing with Control” to “ignoring a designated PC.” In my game, which was played online, I included “experiencing a technological glitch” as something that would increase Static!
The impact of increased Static is also GM determined, but the game suggests that sometimes this Static should result in erratic, strange, or oppositional behavior on the part of Control. This creates great drama during the game, as the players look to the GM to provide clarity at certain points only to discover that a “Static-charged Control” is now throwing other monkey wrenches and delirium into the mission.
Spiraling Story Arcs and the Mystery Girl:
The default setting of Lacuna leads to an episodic framework. A game session will typically involve a small group of Mystery Agents being sent into Blue City to stick a “Lacuna Device” onto a Hostile Personality, essentially eliminating them. Afterwards, the agents get extracted, promotions might be in order (leading to increased talents and/or techniques), and the process then repeats.
But the game also leaves open the possibility of a wider story arc which might involve an insurgency within the agency supposedly running the operation. This happened in my game, and in a major way. Not only did the agents discover the existence of rebel Mystery Agents, but they also discovered that some of the indigenous denizens of Blue City (who normally act like automatons) were becoming “woke.” That is, there were some entities in Blue City who were NOT from reality, but who were becoming self-conscious. They were also becoming alert to the fact that their world was being invaded by conscious minds from beyond Blue City (i.e. from reality).
I picked up Sorenson’s idea of the “Girl from Blue City” as a pivotal figure in this developing narrative. Control regularly expressed concerns about this strange young lady with light brown hair and hexagonal glasses. She occasionally made an appearance in the adventures. During the inaugural mission, for example, the agents were instructed to plant bugs at certain banks around the city. They discovered mid-way through the mission that they were being trailed by a number of individuals wearing black jeans and t-shirts. During a climactic attempt to find an extraction point, the girl appeared and for some reason intervened in a chase which allowed the player characters to exit from Blue City.
In an even more momentous development, it became clear that the “Girl from Blue City” was making incursions into the real world. It turned out that the movement to Blue City might be a two-way street and that entities from the dreamscape might be able to make their way into our reality. In fact, the “Girl from Blue City” occasionally appeared on the video screen behind Control (i.e. me). My daughter just so happens to wear hexagonal glasses and have light brown hair, and I set her up to walk behind me at some key moments during our session. For he final star performance, start watching around 1:35:30 of session 4.
Genres and Play Styles :
Given their intentionally fragmented nature, the rules of Lacuna can lead to a number of different types of genres and play styles. Gritty spy narratives, Lynchian surrealism, Matrix-inspired tales, straight mission-oriented sessions—these are all possibilities for Sorenson’s game. It is a remarkably flexible system. I could imagine someone writing out a traditional “city-crawl” scenario for a more traditional group. That’s not the way we went, but I appreciate the fact that Lacuna is so accommodating if the GM and players are willing to put their creativity into the effort.
In the case of our sessions, we were freely borrowing from a number of genres, but effectively weaving them into something fresh, new, and unplanned. Our last session pitted one rebellious Mystery Agent against two others who were willing to go along with the desires of Control. I hadn’t fully planned for a player vs. player scenario, but the game accommodated the development. Again, we had to fill in some gaps in the rules, but when Lacuna is the name of the game, we had a sense that we were squarely in the spirit what this wonderful oddity is all about.
The close of our final session involved a rather intense and moving scene as the rebel tried to persuade the others to join the revolution. The lead agent was wavering over the momentous decision, but then—in poignantly noiresque fashion—he opted to remain true to Control and placed a Lacuna Device on the other player.
I loved the melancholic ending, and there were some heady philosophical and dramatic vistas opening before our eyes. Embedding the notion that the line between Blue City and reality was dissolving within a story exposing the rather dysfunctional nature of Control made for some wickedly delicious fun.