Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Boss-fight!

Last Wednesday, the operatives' Athenian hosts were led by their new acquaintance Aristides into a section of the city they had never seen. Here, it appeared, lived many metics, the resident foreigners who were an essential part of Athens' economic prosperity. For the first time in their young lives, I told them, they also saw prostitutes.

(Would Aspasia—whose house the students were quickly approaching—have lived in this kind of neighborhood? We'll never know, though I actually think not. On the other hand, I decided to put her there because it introduced the students to several important concepts that may help us understand Pericles and the Athens out of which Herodotus and Thucydides come: the metic population, its relationship to Athens' status as a sea-city, Pericles' relationship to both of those things.)

Outside the courtyard of the house of Aspasia lingered four burly sailors. They asked Aristides where he was taking these kids. He replied "The chief wants to see them." The sailors let them pass.

In the courtyard, they saw an old man talking to a beautiful middle-aged woman. They kissed, and parted. The old man said, "I'll see you later, Aspasia."

(In the classroom, furious typing on at least two lap-tops.)

(Wednesday's class ended there.)

Friday's class-session was entirely devoted to the boss-fight with Pericles. In the interim, to my nearly-shameful joy, I had received the tuchic determination devices I had ordered, and I distributed one d6 and one d10 to each class-team.Pericles opened the encounter by leading them into the andron of Aspasia's house, where they could see the remnants of last night's symposium, not yet cleaned up, and saying, "Aristides tells me you may be trustworthy. I have a job for you, because you've been asking around town about that Ionian storyteller. But I can't tell you what it is, because Pericles cannot have been heard to ask for help of this kind. You must figure it out for yourself."

Again, writing can't convey either the tautness of the educational atmosphere, or its confusion as the operatives and I struggled to come up with a balance between flow and pedagogy. Pericles never hit them, so their secrets didn't come into play, but that was principally because Class 4 had studied their skill-sheet carefully, and deployed their skill "Confusion," which on a miss (which is what happened) at least stuns the opponent so that he can't attack.

One mechanic that I hadn't fully appreciated was in fact the miss, which can lead, I realized, to dynamics that are really much more interesting than simply passing the turn to the next character in line. When the framework is this logagonistic one I'm developing with reference to Corvus Elrod's HoneyComb Engine, a question that Pericles refuses to answer can be interesting and revealing because of the specific way Pericles refuses to answer it.

So as I called on one student from each class-team in turn, he or she would roll the d10 (I meant to have them roll the d6 to hit, then the d10 for damage, but I have to admit I had too much to manage in this first boss-fight, and in the end it was only the d10's that got rolled). One of the brilliant advances of the HoneyComb Engine is the way it allows players (whom Corvus calls storytellers or 'tellers) to improvise the outcome of an action according to a die-roll. I'm hoping I can get my students to do that eventually, but on Friday I took my inspiration from the Engine and used the number each student rolled to do my own improvisation about what happened. For example, Class 5 deployed their skill Divine Melody, to attempt to make Pericles think he was in the presence of a deity. They rolled a 1, and I told them that they had sung a terrible bit of doggerel about the gods, on hearing which Pericles had looked puzzled for a moment and then said, "Yes, well, that's true," and turned away.

From an educational perspective, the most important breakthrough I think we made in this boss-fight was at the several moments during the encounter when as a team discussed what they wanted to do on their turn, I intervened as the Demiurge to lead them through a passage of Herodotus that was related to what was going on in battle of wits with Pericles. Above all, I called their attention to the passages that had to do with the two more-or-less ruling families of Athens, the Alcmaeonidae (of whom Pericles was descended) and the Philaidai (of whom Cimon, and Miltiades, and Thucydides son of Melesias, and almost certainly Thucydides the historian, were all descended).

In the end, it turned out that Pericles wanted the operatives' Athenians to go to the house of Thucydides son of Melesias and find something he could use to discredit the things the Ionian storyteller seemed to be saying about him. Pericles said that he really couldn't figure out what the man from Halicarnassus was up to, but that it seemed very dangerous indeed not to be taking action, when the Spartan ambassadors were on their way, and the moment of decision was at hand.