The Living Card Game as Formulaic Epic, part 3: Scenario Advancement

(Earlier posts in this series: part 1, part 2.)

In the previous post of this series I described the basic function of what I call the scenario deck(s) in the three Living Card Games (LCGs) I’m analyzing: The Lord of the Rings: the Card Game (LOTR), Arkham Horror: The Card Game (AH), and Marvel Champions: the Card Game (MC). I theorized among other things that, like the homeric bard’s choice of an epic thread (Greek oimē, which literally means “thread” — the word the homeric bards themselves used) as a performance-passage such as “the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon,” the scenario of a play-session of an LCG, as embodied in the scenario deck(s) presents the performer with choices that constitute a thread of an immense storyworld, simultaneously evoking the whole of that much longer narrative (e.g. the stories that eventually became the Iliad as it has come down to us) and providing an immediacy of immersion into the individual narrative moment defined by that thread.

The bard, according to the good narrative practice recognized from at least the time of Aristotle to at least the time of Syd Field, utilized the storytelling technique we know these days as the plot point. (Aristotle, among other such evocative terminology, wrote of a peripeteia in good tragedy — a “falling out” or perhaps even a “collapse.”) The scenario deck(s) of the LCGs advance via plot points, each plot point represented by a transition from one card to another. 

In LOTR, the scenario deck is called the quest deck. In AH, the two scenario decks are the agenda deck, which represents the advancement of the forces opposed to the player-characters’ efforts, and the act deck, which represents the player-characters’ progress. In MC the scenario deck is called the main scheme

The mechanics of scenario advancement differ among the three LCGs in fascinating ways. The quest deck of LOTR moves forward, generally, as the players make progress in the quest phase of the round, using their characters’ willpower to overcome the threat of enemies, locations, and other dangers that have come into play. The specific constraints of each scenario may change the advancement mechanism, for example turning the episode into a siege in which characters must use their attack strength rather than their willpower, or — more emphatically — making advancement happen not (or not only) according to the players’ progress.

In AH, advancement occurs on the agenda deck through the placement of doom tokens, one per round — plus additional doom depending on the narrative. 

The 5 in the bottom middle indicates that after five doom tokens have appeared on the board — whether on this card or on others that can, distressingly for the player, receive them — the agenda will advance.

Conversely (for each doom token has a clue token on its other side), the act deck progresses in general with the spending of clues that the players — each one performing in the narrative as an investigator — have gathered.

As in LOTR, though, frequently other advancement mechanisms come into play, e.g.:

In MC, the main scheme moves forward via threat tokens placed on it in a manner similar to AH’s doom. Crucially, though, the heroes as whom MC players perform are able to thwart the main scheme (and the side schemes that may arise) and remove threat from it.

The 3 with the meeple icon in the upper left indicates that when three threat tokens per player are put on the card, the scheme advances. The 1 per player icon in the lower middle indicates that each turn at the beginning of the villain phase, one threat token per player is placed on the card. The villain can also frequently “scheme” under other circumstances, raising the threat unpredictably

I’ll discuss the implications of the differences among the advancement mechanisms in a moment, but I want to bend this analysis back to homeric epic first. At first sight, there may be no parallel to such variety in narrative advancement in a kind of tale we can’t help thinking linear — a narrative like the Iliad‘s and the Odyssey’s. In reality, though, the analogy between the two epic platforms in this regard has a cogency that seems to me rather stunning: in the difference between the “progression mechanics” of the Iliad and the “progression mechanics” of the Odyssey we see it most starkly, but the parallel exists also among individual books of the two epics.

Simply put, the way Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon move forward and the way Odysseus and Telemachus and Penelope move forward share the basic mechanics of formulaic re-composition in dactylic hexameter, but the building-blocks shaped by those mechanics differ radically. We can find a striking emblem for that difference in the second word of the Iliad and the third word of the Odyssey: aeide ‘sing’ and ennepe ‘tell’.

Both these imperatives, addressed respectively to a goddess and to a muse, define the basic hexameter mechanics of oral re-composition as a metaphor about to unfold: the bard’s singing will be like the singing of a goddess in the Iliad, but like the recitation of a story-teller in the Odyssey. Famously, the epics bear out this understanding at both the macro level of narrative sequence — the Iliad proceeds in linear fashion while the Odyssey leaps nimbly back and forth in place and time — and the micro level of content — the role of cunning, for example, as opposed to that of force.

The analogy is imperfect, but if we compare that difference in progression style between the epics to the different kinds of scenario deck(s) in the LCGs, and the difference among books (really, more properly, oimai [‘threads’]) within the epics to the different mechanics in each game among differing scenarios, the broad shape of a comparison begins to appear. 

The basic advancement mechanics of MC resemble the basic narrative mechanics of the Iliad: threat goes on, threat comes off, and victory is determined by defeating the villain. For the Achaeans of the Iliad, threat grows from the Trojans with Achilles’ withdrawal, and is thwarted first by Patroclus and then by Achilles himself. 

The basic advancement mechanics of LOTR present a comparison more readily to the Odyssey, and those of AH, in their convolutions, an even stronger analogy. In LOTR, in each round, the players must decide how many characters to commit to the quest, and those characters are subject to various dangers that can emerge from the encounter deck. generally, characters committed to a quest are no longer available to fight off enemies later in the round. The decisions in MC as to whether to fight or to thwart can be just as agonizing, but the complexity of LOTR’s advancement is greater, as the narrative mechanics of the Odyssey proceed in a less linear fashion than those of the Iliad.

The two scenario decks of AH take this complexity even further: the game provides the unique feeling of a dual motion, and a tension between the two sides of the story. The dynamic of the second half of the Odyssey seems an interesting analogue: as Odysseus tries to accomplish his return with the help of Telemachus, Penelope continues “weaving her wiles” — always leaving it unclear whether she has recognized Odysseus. My very favorite moment in the Odyssey represents perhaps the height of that tension. Penelope speaks to the disguised Odysseus, and even the astute listener in archaic Greece would I think have vacillated in their mind, as to whether she knows it’s her husband she addresses:

“Come, respond to my dream,” [Penelope said,] “and hear my telling of it and interpret it for me if you can. I have twenty geese about the house that eat mash out of a trough, and of which I am exceedingly fond. I dreamed that a great eagle came swooping down from a mountain, and dug his curved beak into the neck of each of them till he had killed them all. Presently he soared off into the sky, and left them lying dead about the yard; whereon I wept in my room till all my fair-haired maids gathered round me, so piteously was I grieving because the eagle had killed my geese. Then he came back again, and perching on a projecting rafter spoke to me with human voice, and told me to leave off crying. ‘Be of good courage,’ he said, ‘daughter of far-famed Ikarios; this is no dream, but a vision of good omen that shall surely come to pass. The geese are the suitors, and I am no longer an eagle, but your own husband, who am come back to you, and who will bring these suitors to a disgraceful end.’ Then I woke, and when I looked out I saw my geese at the trough eating their mash as usual.”

“This dream, my Lady,” replied resourceful Odysseus, “can admit but of one interpretation, for had not Odysseus himself told you how it shall be fulfilled? The death of the suitors is portended, and not one single one of them will escape.”

And circumspect Penelope answered, “Stranger, dreams are very curious and unaccountable things, and they do not by any means invariably come true. There are two gates through which these unsubstantial fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them. I do not think, however, that my own dream came through the gate of horn, though I and my son should be most thankful if it proves to have done so. Furthermore I say—and lay my saying to your heart—the coming dawn will usher in the ill-omened day that is to sever me from the house of Odysseus, for I am about to hold a tournament of axes. My husband used to set up twelve axes in the court, one in front of the other, like the stays upon which a ship is built; he would then go back from them and shoot an arrow through the whole twelve. I shall make the suitors try to perform the same feat, and whichever of them can string the bow most easily, and send his arrow through all the twelve axes, him will I follow, and quit this house of my lawful husband, so goodly and so abounding in wealth. But even so, I doubt not that I shall remember it in my dreams” (Odyssey 19).

The act deck of Odysseus’ homecoming here goes up against the agenda deck of Penelope’s coming remarriage. Carnage will result!

In my next post, I’ll begin to describe the encounter deck — whose fundamental, inexorable operation interacts with the scenario’s mechanics to create the possibility-space of the games’ emergent narratives — in more detail.

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