Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Episode One - "The Drop Off"

We sat down for the pilot episode of this haunted house campaign last week, and it feels like we hit the ground running. The supernatural manifestations haven't shown up yet, but Bill kept a sheet where he conspicuously marked down at the end of every scene how close each character was to unleashing the supernatural on a PbtA-style countdown clock. Two of us filled up our clocks by the end of the evening, and the third was only one pie-piece away from joining us.

Because it was the first episode, it felt like a lot of the evening was setting up how the characters interacted, and feeling out relationships. Even more than that, and a little surprising-but-gratifyingly, we started pushing on the secrets and deep divisions right away. To be precise, some of the major underlying secrets came out, but each of our characters held on tightly to their personal secrets. There were hints, but there's plenty of stuff to be revealed. And then, of course, tasty, tasty aftermath. And ghosts. And probably death.

It wasn't plot-heavy, so I'm not sure I can tell you what happened chronologically in the session, but if I take it by two-character interactions, I can probably remember most of it.

Oh, and Bill has decided that the name for each episode will be the title of a Tragically Hip song.

The Characters:

Michael, the "good son," head of the family whiskey company (with roots back in Prohibition, when it was legal to make alcohol but not sell it), and the only one who really knows that the family is in deep financial shit. The company's on the verge of going broke, and he's committed fraud to try to hide that for long enough to sell the company and make amends. His brother and sister don't know this, and have continued to go through money like water. More notably, his wife doesn't know this. He has a lot invested in being the good man in the family, and might go to some bad lengths to maintain that image.

Jo, (Me!) Michael's wife, is up to her neck in stress, and isn't really good at recognizing that or taking constructive steps to deal with it. She's a very good surgeon, mother to two teenage kids, and has been helping take care of Michael's mother, who is very ill and living with them (I think living with them?), nursing her through failing health. Jo's driven, not very good at recognizing her emotions, can be aggressive, and while her marriage used to be good, it's gotten very strained. She slept with a colleague recently, and I think that she feels guilty about it, but also that it was such a break from the usual stress in her life that there's a huge temptation to burn everything down and walk away. More about her later, when I get to character thoughts.

Lisette, the unacknowledged granddaughter of Miss Maudie, the recently deceased matriarch of the family. She is the child of Miss Maudie's son-out-of-wedlock, and the woman who became the groundskeeper on the island. As a teenager, she and Michael had a fling, not realizing they were half-cousins. Urged on by Miss Maudie, Jo framed Lisette for stealing, and that was used as an excuse to send Lisette away. Later on, Miss Maudie sent Lisette money regularly, and has written her into a large chunk of the will. In the intervening years, Lisette battled drug addiction, but has been clean for the last few years. She's been working on her career as a singer-songwriter.

"The Drop Off":

We opened with a tense ride across the water to the island, with Michael, Jo, and their kids, Madeline and Tyler, at the stern, and Lisette alone at the bow. As they neared the shore, the kids started whining about the lack of reception out here, and their mother encouraged them to think positive about their time on the island. She brushed past Lisette to get on shore, and Lisette asked Michael caustically if Jo remembered this was a funeral, right? Jo's face was visibly softened by the sight of the island.

Michael and Lisette

Michael and Lisette had a couple of scenes together, both around the reading of the will, and when he sought her out in the gardener's shed before the service scattering Miss Maudie's ashes. Michael was obviously probing to find out why Miss Maudie had written Lisette into the will on an equal footing with his own mother and aunt (she's actually the only child of Miss Maudie's deceased illegitimate son), even though it was the kind of family secret where there were enough hints that he'd more or less pieced it together.

Lisette, for her part, wanted to know how much Michael knew about her disgraced exile from the island back when they were teenagers. He knew that she'd been sent away, even that it was for stealing, but didn't know Jo's part in the whole affair. There was a lovely moment when Michael was asking if Lisette might prefer just being bought out rather than going through a court battle when his siblings challenged the will, and she accused him of going right for the money, not even asking how she was. With perfect timing, he asked "How are you?"

The scene almost ended there, but I wanted to see what happened next, so I used our table shorthand and pleaded that was only the "first pause" and the scene continued and it was so great! It was tense, with obviously some feelings underlying the interaction, even with the new knowledge that they were half-cousins. Lisette pushed Michael hard on whether or not he was really happy in his life, with Jo, with the business, and he couldn't say yes.

Lots wasn't said in these scenes, and much implied! (Also, for the first pause/second pause thing, I can't remember quite where we got that from - possibly Graham Walmsley's wonderful Play Unsafe. The idea is that often, the first pause in a scene is not where the scene should end. A lot of the time, that pause happens because the weight of what really needs to happen in that scene is looming, and people need a second to gird their loins before going after it. It's after the second pause you can break, because then probably what needs to have happened has happened. It's not set in stone, but it's good shorthand for keep pushing/we're done.)

Lisette and Jo

I found the interactions between Lisette and Jo very interesting! They used to be friends, you know, before Jo set Lisette up as a thief when they were teenagers. When we were writing down character goals for the episode, Lisette's player wrote down that she wanted to hear that Jo felt remorse for what she'd done. I wrote down that Jo wanted to provoke Lisette to lose her temper in front of Michael. Neither of us succeeded. (But there's always next session!)

Every time Lisette pushed Jo on the guilt front, Jo pushed back hard, claiming it was something she barely remembered. When Lisette tried to explain what it had done to her life, Jo said she must be lucky if the worst thing to ever happen in her life was being sent away from the island when she was a teenager. (Yeah, I'm not playing a character who is great at being vulnerable or open.)

But even more interesting was that as soon as Michael's siblings arrived on the island, Lisette, who desperately wants to be acknowledged as part of the family, got to see that even though Jo has been married in for 20 years, she isn't treated as part of the family either. Weirdly, this got the two of them relating to each other in friendlier terms, like the patterns of conversation set down when they were teenagers were coming back unconsciously.

In fact, by the end of the evening, they were almost warming to each other - and then something happened with Michael that will have Jo being even frostier to Lisette the next morning.

Jo and Michael

Even though Jo isn't the nicest person in the world (particularly when she feels guilty - not a great trait!), I had to start her off softer than usual, because coming back to the island strikes such a chord with her. And since Michael wants to sell the island and house, and she wants to keep it, I felt like I had to have how intense her attachment to it is, right away. So the first interaction between Jo and Michael had her being much sweeter than usual - reminiscing about the island, the summer they fell in love, and trying to get him to join her in swimming or just enjoying the island like they used to. Without realizing it, she was asking him to rekindle their relationship. He sort of uneasily agreed, and it felt like she got to him a bit. 

In retrospect, that's probably good. The other part of that first scene between these two was Michael pressing Jo to go to her father to invest in his family business. Her father hates his family, and she argued that even her being married to Michael hadn't changed that. She reluctantly agreed to talk to him, but I also feel like she won't try very hard to convince her father.

 Then, of course, she felt excluded around his family, and we closed the evening with the two of them before bed, and what had been a little bit sweet before turned ugly, fast. When talking about Lisette, Jo dodged talking about her involvement in the long ago scandal, but she was more than willing to talk about Lisette being Michael's cousin - she found Lisette's inclusion in the will more amusing than anything else.

There were two phrases I kept using, knowing they would be upsetting for Michael - the first, whenever money came up, was to have Jo keep telling him that she trusted him to handle the money stuff - after all, they're very comfortable. She makes quite a lot of money, and he runs a large distillery business.  (Of course, he hasn't told her the company is in huge financial trouble, so emphasizing the trust was twisting the knife just a little bit.)

The second was, once the details of the will came out, and she figured out that Lisette was related to Michael, was that Jo kept calling Lisette his cousin, and every time, he countered with "half-cousin" - it's important because to her, it's vindication that Michael and Lisette should never have been together. And for Michael, the "half" is important because that way he can hold on to the fantasy of a life as it wasn't.

And then, at the end, talking about Lisette revealed that Michael had been keeping track of her all these years, googling her to see what she'd been up to - he knew about her music career. Jo took that like a blow and got angry that he was googling old girlfriends, which led Michael to counter something that insinuated he knew about the affair she's been having, or at least suspected. She didn't quite twig to that, and they went to bed angry.

So...yeah. The next morning, Jo's going to be frosty beyond belief to Lisette, and Lisette will have no idea why.


Broadly speaking, we're using DramaSystem for interpersonal conflicts, and in theory, a knockoff of PbtA for anything procedural, but nothing procedural happened in the first episode. We had scenes where tokens were slid across the table during play, and some where after the scene was over, Bill identified where he thought the asks were, and tokens exchanged accordingly. Both ways seemed to work.

Bill also asked each of us to write down a goal for the episode - I think most of us wrote one down for each of the other two players. After the session was done, we shared our goals to see how they'd played out. If we'd gone after them, whether or not we succeeded, we got a drama point to go towards seeing who got the benny to keep for next time (and naming rights for the next episode!)

In another homage to some PbtA games, we each had a countdown clock to the first manifestations of the supernatural. Bill told us one of the triggers, but kept others secret, and at the end of every scene, we could see them filling up! At the end of the evening, Jo and Michael's clocks were full, and Lisette's was one-pie-piece from completion. So two of us got handed a small deck of index cards, each with a different manifestation written on them, and Lisette will get to pick hers probably at the start of the next game. I picked "The Mirror" and Michael's player "The Door." Eep!

Character Thoughts 

Jo is not one of my nicer characters. There are ways in which she's not terrible - she cares for her mother-in-law, she's dedicated to her job, she and her husband used to have a good marriage. Strangely, it's becoming apparent to me that the harder she pursues "being a good person," the worse she is. She needs that part of her identity so badly, she pushes back hard when people call her on bad things she's done - how can she have done bad things if she's a good person? It's interesting to play someone who is more interested in the self-identity than the actual acts she commits.

In a way, that makes her an interesting foil to Millie, my TimeWatch character. Millie is a genuinely good person who is doing bad things because she's been entirely taken in by someone who is manipulating her when she's emotionally vulnerable after the suicide of her brother/lover.  Jo, on the other hand, does dicey things because she wants so badly to preserve the image of herself as a good person. To protect that image, rather than the reality, she's capable of being fairly nasty - in a way, not unlike her husband.

Jo and Michael both want to retain their self-images, and because of that, they've hidden so much of themselves from each other, which has taken a huge toll on their marriage. Too great a toll? Things aren't looking great at the moment, but I don't think we know yet. The answer is very possibly yes, but not inevitably so. Of course, now the haunting is coming for us all, and some of that may be moot! Or not. We shall see.

1 comment:

  1. One thing that stood out to me playing Lisette was during our heart to heart on the swings when I said, voice cracking a little bit, "I thought you hated me.." She thought that, but didn't want to believe it and really will believe otherwise if only Jo would show that she cares, that how she hurt Lisette matters to her and isn't just something to forget. To show remorse... and thereby, perhaps, gain forgiveness. Lisette hasn't hardened herself against her once-best friend, despite years of anger and resentment. It is very possible for her to open up a little more and get irrevocably hurt, again and lasting, by Jo.