Friendly warning (mature content): the few of you who read my blog will probably not be troubled by such things, but the session report below describes events that play out in the overheated world of the 1970s disco scene. So, if not-particularly-graphic depictions of gay sex, irresponsible drug use, etc., are not for you, please move on to one of my many other posts.
Shortly after my group’s lively first exposure to Nathan Paoletta’s excellent fiction game, Death of the Gilded Age, it occurred to me that its simple engine could be repurposed to other eras with different flavors. (It’s a neat little game. If you’re at all interested head over to ndpdesign.com and check it out.)
That idea went quickly into the “maybe someday” pile of projects, the one that rarely sees the light of day. Recently, though, Gilded Age has been back on my radar. My wife, a professor, has decided to put together a narrative/story games course for next winter. We both agree that the simple mechanics of Gilded Age make it very teachable, and so it was one of the first things she put on the syllabus.
Dusting it off also inspired me to contact Nathan about doing a reskin of Gilded Age called Last Days of Disco. Nathan is very generously allowing us to play with his toys.
A couple of nights ago I sat down with my ideas and whipped up a no-art “alpha” document heavily influenced by the mythology and history of the now infamous Studio 54. And last night my wife, my buddy Joe, and I put Last Days through its paces with a disco mix thumping away cheerfully in the background.
Last Days of Disco, like Gilded Age, will use a series of playmats that show all the rules and help the players to track the progress of the story. The first step is to randomize (within a fairly narrow set of constraints) the basic details of the party and the broad outlines of the host’s personality
Here’s what we ended up with after this step…
When: Halloween (after all Studio 54 had notorious Halloween bashes.)
Where: Torchsong Island (Fire Island with the serial numbers filed off.)
Who: A Wolf of Wall Street, cunning and callous
Reputation of the Host: Hopelessly Romantic
After knocking the ideas around for awhile we named our protagonist Julian Faulkner. We decided he was a brutal Wall Street wheeler dealer, who got his start bilking old ladies out of their savings. Eventually Julian, a poor hustler from the streets, made it to a kind of legitimacy by taking control of a Wall Street investment house. But he had a secret… he was gay in a time when that was a tough sell in the macho world of The Street. And he really, really liked to party.
His wife, Julia Sharpe, was happy to play along with the fiction that her husband was what he appeared to be, a conservative member of New York’s elite. He had his swinging lifestyle, and she had her long string of affairs with younger men. She, after all, was from money, and she understood that power couples (like Julia and Julian) ended up striking side deals so that they could have their cake and eat it to.
As befits a Halloween party among New York’s elite, we decided it would be a fancy bal masqué, filled with classical allusions. That way people could get their freak on while maintaining some hope (or at least pretense) of anonymity. Julia knew to stay well away from such an event, especially if Julian was going to be there. For his part, Julian was attending the party as Pluto, lord of the underworld. His costume consisted of a silver full face mask, made of actual silver, below a laurel wreath wrapped around his temples, his loose flowing robes leaving little to the imagination.
We also worked out the the geography of the mansion and its surroundings; our set, if you will. The mansion, an old and sprawling wooden lodge from the ‘30s, was straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The large deck featured a jacuzzi, a nod to the times, and a view of the rocky beach below.
We were ready to begin…
We turned over our first Wrench card to discover that it was the King of Hearts. (Wrench cards represent problems/challenges the Host has to deal with. They also divide the story into a three act structure, and propel the action into each act.) Riffing on the idea that Hearts represent the theme of “sex” in Last Days, we decided that one of Julian’s old lovers, perhaps the love of his life, had appeared at the party. We knocked around ideas for a few minutes, played with a name generator on Joe’s phone, and came up with the stunningly handsome Elvezio Gaurini, “the one that got away.”
Elvezio, we decided, was the kind of person that just exuded sexuality every waking moment. Men and women were constantly throwing themselves at him… and for the brief time that they were together, they were the complete focus of his passion. It’s not that Elvezio was a bad guy, or even a slut, he just embodied the idea of living in the moment.
His arrival at the party electrifies the crowd and throws them into a frenzy. A provocative presence even at the most sedate of occasions, Elvezio is dressed to entice. He calls himself the Satyr of Capri and looks the part: bare chest, furry gold chaps, and a half-mask with horns. My wife came up with the best detail, though, custom-cobbled high-heeled shoes that made Elvezio look like he had little hooves.
Unable to contain themselves, the people in the crowd start pawing at him and ripping off his costume. Mab, the party’s organizer, manages to whisk him off to a private room. But, as we discover, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire for Elvezio.
When the lights come on he realizes he’s trapped in an expensive mock-up of a jail cell with Julian. Julian comes on to him still in costume as Pluto and plies him with pomegranate seeds. Elvezio, knowing full well it’s Julian, gets a kick out of the trouble his “host” has gone to and they have sex. Afterwards, Julian refuses to drop the Pluto bit claiming that Elvezio now “belongs” to him. Elvezio starts to get irritated, but then Julian plays his ace. He offers Elvezio, who is also an investment banker, a seat on the board at his company… but only if he’ll agree to an exclusive relationship with Julian.
Elvezio ponders his indecent proposal, and then agrees. Later they entertain the party goers with a mock-wedding between Pluto and the Satyr of Capri complete with a bit of ribbon tied between their hands to seal the deal.
With the stakes now appropriately raised, it was time for another Wrench. This time a Spade was revealed. One of the options under that suit is “contracts (broken or honored).” We decided that Elvezio wouldn’t be able to last an hour keeping up his end of the bargain.
At this point Brad Knight, Julian’s assistant, has seen enough. Unfortunately Julian doesn’t realized that Brad is Julia’s latest conquest and that he’s reporting back to her.
Brad creeps away and calls Julia, letting her know that things are starting to get out of hand and that Elvezio is involved. Julia tells him “to make sure Elvezio hooks up with someone else as soon as possible.”
When Julian comes to Brad for some uppers, he slips him a few Quaaludes instead. With Julian wandering the halls in a daze, Brad contrives to have Elvezio meet Tawny, a beautiful black transwoman dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. The two have some very public sex on Pluto’s Throne, which sits at the edge of the dance floor, as the crowd eggs them on and showers them with glitter. Mab finds Julian almost passed out in one of the bathrooms. She takes pity on him and dabs his face and forehead with a cool washcloth. She tells him that he should stay away from Elvezio, that he’s only going to get his heart broken. From what she’s saying he can tell that something’s happened. He stumbles back toward the party with his mask off, and some of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd start asking him for investment tips. Realizing he’s exposed, he puts his mask back on.
As he makes it back to the dance floor someone yells, “Your new bride’s been cheating on you!” Humiliated, Julian stalks through the throbbing crowd. He follows the trail of glitter down to the rocks on the beach where he sees Elvezio and Tawny strolling in the moonlight.
At this point we could sense that this was the big final confrontation of our story, so we turned over our final Wrench card… revealing a Club. One of the narrative choices for that suit is “arrests” so we decided our story was going to have a dark final act.
Julian starts arguing with Elvezio. Tawny isn’t up for the drama so she tells the boys to work it out as she walks away. Elvezio tries to explain to Julian that it just isn’t in his nature to be tied down. With nothing left to say Elvezio turns to leave, but Julian is enraged. He picks up a beach rock and smashes Elvezio in the head. Elvezio collapses on to the rocks with Julian standing over him.
It only takes a few seconds for Julian’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. He hurls the rock into the ocean and runs back to the party, yelling that Elvezio has fallen and hit his head. This kills the vibe pretty quickly. An air ambulance comes for Elvezio, but he’s already slipped into a coma. By the time the cops from the Torchsong PD get there, the party has emptied out. Elvezio passes away a couple of days later, and the Torchsong cops end up begging the NYPD to take over, which they do. The NYPD do their best to untangle things now that the case is a homicide…
It was time to look at the final Fate of our host. As a result of the cards played we were left with this result for our protagonist: “Surprising everyone, they turn on the party people. How do the become a voice for the Moral Majority?”
So Julian gets away with it, but there’s a price to pay.
Julia uses the incident to force Julian to sign over the family assets to her. She also forces him to go out in public and repudiate his former life. He pretends to listen at his “deprogramming” sessions. In a high profile visit to the Phil Donahue Show he talks about the immoral and deplorable life he used to lead. The housewives of America soak up every salacious detail.
Eventually, the “reformed” Julian finds himself at Reagan rallies, where he makes out with other closeted Republicans when he can.
In the end I was tremendously pleased with how this re-theming played. I would never in a million years have ended up in the fictive territory suggested by Last Days, but the prompts led us down a really interesting, and frankly new, path. That fact by itself suggests that my take on the rules has merit. Also, the ending seemed beautifully fitting for a game called Last Days of Disco.
I’ve sent the text document off to Nathan, and I’ll send him a link to this play report as well. I’m very intrigued to hear what he has to say. Also, my friend Joe is starting to research various sources of disco imagery for the design of the Last Days playmats.
I can’t wait to see where this leads.