I pretty much knew what to expect when I picked up The Gaean Reach. Unfamiliar as I was with Jack Vance’s work, I was extremely familiar with the Gumshoe system, having played in two Trail of Cthulhu campaigns and run games for Mutant City Blues and Night’s Black Agents. I was looking forward to watching that rhythm of clue-finding and interpretation play out in a spacebound setting, and was neither surprised nor disappointed when The Gaean Reach’s contents were essentially the same-old Gumshoe with Vancian sci-fi thrown in for flavour.
But there is one feature of The Gaean Reach’s mechanics that distinguish it from all other Gumshoe products (except for The Dying Earth, which I haven’t played), and that is the tagline system. At the start of each game, players are fed three lines of appropriately Vancian dialogue, usually witty and/or sarcastic. The book comes with a large sample for GMs to use. If a player manages to successfully use the lines they’ve been given during in-character dialogue, they are rewarded with tokens (proportionate to how well it was used) and a replacement tagline. These tokens can be used for a variety of effects – the most common are mid-session refreshes of exhausted ability pools, and increasing your maximum ability ratings as you “level up” permanently.
I can understand the rationale behind this mechanic. Not everyone playing in The Gaean Reach is likely to be familiar with Vance’s source material. Immersing players in the universe around them, and the way its inhabitants behave, is far better achieved with in-game prompts than with a solid block of exposition. Moreover, the quality of Vance’s dialogue is arguably the most defining feature of his fiction. It makes sense that if anything from the source material was to make it into the mechanics of the game, it would relate to imitating the style of how characters talk to one another.
Unfortunately, we weren’t far into my Gaean Reach campaign when the problems with taglines began to appear.
The first problem was that some players were engaging with the tagline system far, far better than others. Fair enough, different players adopt different styles when roleplaying, but it seemed a bit harsh that some were being directly penalised for not playing in the “correct” way. Remember that using taglines is the only way to level up in Gaean Reach – some people object on principle to games in which PCs advance at different speeds, but even games with the most divergent XP rates hardly compared to the disparity which developed between characters in our campaign.
I think it’s entirely legitimate for a game to be designed with a specific playstyle in mind, and to invite those who dislike that playstyle to play something else. But I fear that Gaean Reach might be limiting its audience to an unnecessary degree. The loquaciousness of Vance’s writing and obscurity of its vocabulary more than once resulted in players receiving taglines that they didn’t understand the meaning of. I’m not ashamed to admit that on some occasions I was equally in the dark – obviously a problem when, as GM, I was supposed to be marking players on how appropriate the use of the tagline had been. And one of the players in our game was speaking English as a second-language; perhaps not coincidentally, a player who was earning less tokens than anyone else. There’s a difference between satisfying a niche, and making a game that’s inaccessible to half of the roleplaying community.
As our campaign extended into its third and fourth session, my players raised another complaint: in spite of their wildly different character concepts, all PCs were starting to sound the same. This makes sense, as all players were drawing from the same pool of taglines (the book doesn’t give any guidance about what players should do if they get something they don’t understand or is wildly inappropriate for their character, but I allowed players to trade them in). Some players were even starting to resent being instructed on how their own characters should sound. They understood the need to evoke the setting, but wanted to do so in their own words, rather than parrot the lines they’d been given or miss out on treats.
I actually spoke to Robin D Laws, the game’s designer, about this difficulty at Dragonmeet last year. His response, with a wry smile, was that “A game in which every character sounds the same is replicating the style of Jack Vance’s source material perfectly.” There’s nothing inherently destructive about a book or series where the participants all sound alike – obviously distinctive character voices are good, but distinctive styles of writing are equally enjoyable, and many of my favourite writers could have the same accusation levelled against them. I, for example, am a Joss Whedon fanboy, but I’d be the first to admit that 90% of his characters are either (1) hot, twenty-something, witty, pop-culture-literate badasses or (2) British. Similarly, it’s evident that despite his tongue-in-cheek criticism, Laws is a huge fan of Vance’s. He’d have hardly written a roleplaying game (or two) adapted from his work otherwise.
And it’s possible that my group’s unfamiliarity with the source material might explain why we’re having such difficulty. If we were all Vance fanboys, accepting or even embracing the very same features of his writing that erode distinctive character voices, then the prospect of losing individuality presumably wouldn’t bother us. I would hardly criticise a Star Wars RPG for including insufficient content for non-Star Wars fans – arguably The Gaean Reach is just doing the same, but for comparatively more obscure source material.
But unless The Gaean Reach’s agenda is to be for Vance fans only, I do think this is a problem. The tagline system permeates all levels of play. This is a game where being struck by a gunshot is instantly fatal… unless a player can spend tokens to purchase a “fortunate avoidance” from such a fate. Failing to master the tagline system can literally get your character killed.
As my campaign trundles past the halfway point, I’ve been contemplating possible fixes. I definitely don’t want to protect character individuality by feeding specific characters their own lines – that feels too much like instructing the player on how their own character should be talking. But tailoring it somehow would seem to help, both in identifying each character’s distinctive features, and making it easier for struggling players to use the taglines they’re given. My solution is to categorise taglines by “archetype” – splitting them up not my character, but by the kinds of characters that occupy the Gaean Reach, and letting players pick and choose their three taglines from whichever categories they wish. So far the three archetypes I’ve presented are “Eccentric Whimsy”, “Ironic Cynicism” and “Aphoristic Counsel”.
I’ve already had one session using this system with my own pre-prepared taglines. I suppose it’s a good sign that I’m already in need of new taglines, because of how quickly players powered through the ones they were given. At some point I’ll post up all the taglines I wrote, in case they’re useful for other GMs. I’d be very interested to hear about other Vancian archetypes that might be appropriate, if anyone more knowledgeable on the subject has ideas.