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One of the central gears in the machine that is Corona is that the agents are (ostensibly) facing off against a threat that destabilizes their autarchy. The exact mechanism for dealing with that has continued to evolve throughout the playtesting and redesign process, but it’s one of the most ludic aspects of the experience, to the point that it defines agents’ actions – everything they do that is not strictly interpersonal (agent vs. agent) is in terms of how it affects the overshadowing threat, and it’s possible to win the game, either as a loyalist by dismantling that threat and any complications that spin off from it, or as a traitor by evading detection while escalating it until the state collapses.
So far, the systems I’ve implemented have all worked, but not satisfyingly so with regard to one of my design goals, which is offer at least a taste of really complicated diplomatic and political maneuvering. I want to give players the feeling that they are the upper echelons of governance of a solar-system-wide state perched at the twilight end of a millennium, with all the attendant stress of managing the fine line between peace and disaster.
The most recent incarnation placed three defined threat elements into an interconnected matrix, where actions taken to affect one element ripple out to raise or lower their others. It was an idea that literally happened overnight at Gen Con between two days of playtesting; it serviced, but inelegantly. Ideas for replacing it haven’t really been forthcoming, though, until a brainstorm today. There are four types of threat, corresponding to the four ministries to which agents belong, so perhaps a graph. A crisis point is established at the beginning of the game, and agent actions move this point around the plane in different directions, putting new spins on the situation as it evolves. What starts out as a relatively simple problem can turn into a more nuanced crisis in the wake of the repercussions of agents’ interference for good or ill. The axes (or quadrants, perhaps) correspond to those ministries and provide players with a narrative background against which to frame what’s happening.
To test it out, I ran a dry simulation of how it might work, starting with the simplest possible starting condition. One card was drawn from a deck of playing cards to determine the nature and severity of the crisis point: 10 of Clubs means a comparatively serious issue in the Church of the Autarch. I assumed four players, none of whom were acting overtly treasonous (yet), because I need to see how this plays when things are relatively quiet before worrying about the really heated plots that will come up later. Let’s say a 10 Hearts and 3 Spades are among the cards played: the net change vertically is 7 spaces up toward Hearts. Three other cards move the crisis horizontally: none of the hypothetical players have decided to tip their hands by increasing the crisis at this time, but they all play mid- to low-level Diamonds (2, 4, and 5) for a net shift of 11 points toward Diamonds.
Players would decide exactly what the narrative dimension of that problem is, which we’ll leave aside for now. Agents play their actions as cards from hand, and as I picture it now, those cards move the crisis point. The specific procedure may take a little bit of tinkering, but in the example span I tried out,
As you can see, the problem is already pretty migratory. A blatant traitor or very powerful individual actions in any direction can make the crisis pretty swingy. I want volatile crises, but not quite this much. What started as a Church affair is now a Bloodline crisis (Hearts) with a slight Economic component (Diamonds). Also, it occurs to me that without further elaboration, there’s only one way each card will send the crisis, and I’d like there to be an option for e.g. a loyalist to play Clubs to decrease the crisis. Agents are currently required to write down action reports that reveal their real activities for a span as distinct from what they say they’re doing, but streamlining that process seems desirable.
Ultimately, the process is still fiddly. Not all brainstorms yield immediate success: I think there’s still merit in some application of this procedure, but it doesn’t quite solve the problem either. Even though tracking a game state on a Cartesian graph may in some ways evoke the aesthetic of deep political analysis I want, it doesn’t do so in a way that feels like the players are engaging in super-competent high-stakes duels of wits on the fly. The best solution in my opinion is the one that gets players doing this kind of analysis (or feeling like they are) in their heads.
I’ve been kicking around an idea on G+ lately that I thought I would put down in somewhat more concrete form with some additional meat on the bones.
Take one of each of the usual polyhedral RPG dice (d4 through d20) and put them in the middle of the table. Everyone shares these. When you want to take an action, you can grab any of the dice from the pool on the table, roll it, and add the rating of one of your traits to the result to determine success/failure. Those who have dipped into the horror game playtest (and if you haven’t, why not? It’s free and available!) will recognize a familiar element to this idea.
If you succeed, the die goes back in the middle of the table, easy-peasy. If you fail, though, that die is removed from the pool.
What happens to it? I’m still playing around with ideas for that. Originally, I added the following two rules:
1) If you take an action to betray another player, you can return a die to the pool up to one denomination higher than the one you’re rolling.
2) If you take an action to help another player, you can return a die to the pool up to two denominations higher than the one you’re rolling.
I’m still weighing the ramifications of that. An alternate riff on that idea came to me yesterday. In it, he player who failed the roll gets stuck with that die: nobody else can use it, but that’s the only die they get to roll on subsequent rolls. It makes me think of obsessive fixation on a failure, reliving it over and over until it’s resolved. I was even thinking of the idea of making the die a burden, and applying the help/betray rules to the character burdened with a die, allowing them to work off the burden faster by interacting (positively or negatively) with the other characters.
Another idea that I’ve been pondering this morning, which actually hews a little closer to the horror game’s dynamic, is that the die that’s removed from the pool just goes away – and the pool of dice is your adventuring group’s collective hit points. Rather than individual adventurers living or dying, you’re playing the gestalt entity of “the party” and life/death becomes mission success/failure. (Shades of Hollowpoint, now that I think of it!) The help-betray rules make a bit more conceptual sense in that regard, then, and I can even see a vague outline of how one could have character death or retirement a possible price for restoring “health” to the party.
It’s not enough even to take to a table for playtest yet, but it’s a start, and it feels like a good one.
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I’ve been buckling down and doing a lot of writing, and in between juggling a lot of ideas (some old, some new), I hadn’t really popped in to discuss what’s going on. So here’s what’s going on!
- As I rewrite Corona, it occurs to me that I might want to not release it ahead of some of the other spin-off games I have in mind for it: rather, it might be served to put the weird hybrid-style game out after the IP has had a chance to get some traction in other forms. What those other forms are remains nebulous, but I think there may be a good game set among the nomads on the causeways, outside the reach of the autarchies and subject to their own interesting cultural dynamics. (Out there, there’s much less shell-hopping, so people are more attached to their bodies of origin, moreso when you consider that they’re subject to time dilation for so much of their existence that a nomad who looks young might be much older than they appear. Also, despite the perception by autarchy dwellers that nomads are bumpkins, they’re likely to be quite cosmopolitan, since they come into contact with so many distinct ‘bubble cultures’ in their travels.)
- I’m planning a rather significant Delve supplement in the mega-dungeon vein, while being aware that the underlying premise of the mega-dungeon kind of flies in the face of what Delve is about. :) My intention is to provide an example of what the Delve equivalent of a mega-dungeon would look like, as well as framework rules for how to devise your own.
- I think the mini-games I did in October will be released as pay-what-you-want when I have them cleaned up and suitable for showing.
- Ghosts of Atlantis hasn’t come out of its fallow period yet. I think I may cannibalize an idea or two from it for another idea that’s burgeoning – ironically, a revisit of the idea behind Daisho, from which I took a mechanical idea or two for Atlantis in the first place.
- The horror game is out for playtesting, and I’m waiting to hear back. (And, as the sages tell us, the waiting is the hardest part.)
So that’s what’s up, apart from one or two things that are so sketchy at this point that they’re not even worth blogging about yet. Stay tuned.
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I’ve compiled the basic elements of the horror game into a single document and made it available for download here. Playtesting is encouraged, and feedback is very welcome!
Check out the page for Will Design A Game For Art over on Google+, which begins in about a week. Artist Laura Hamilton will create original art, around which participants will create a game in a week, followed by feedback by other contestants (Game Chef style).
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