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Posts Tagged ‘agents of fate’

The message is the medium, Marshall McLuhan said, and for a game design, the format it comes in contributes to how it feels. The days of issuing everything in a boxed set of multiple 64-page booklets were superceded by the single-volume 8.5″x11″ hardback running hundreds of pages, and if you look at those games, there is an intriguing chicken-and-egg effect, in which the games themselves became more sprawling to fill that page space, while at the same time the content of the games had to escalate to match, leading to ever thicker core books. (Remember that the original D&D boxes didn’t individually cover everything you’d need: they progressed in stages, teaching you at first how to explore dungeons in Basic, then the wilderness in between dungeons in Expert, the cities you would eventually encounter in Companion, and so on.)

Now, we have a surfeit of options for publishing: games can be completely ephemeral, existing solely as data files that can be in whatever format we desire, but with the expectation of print-and-play, they still conform largely to one or more of the extant output options – but there are still dozens of those, from playing-card sized reference tools to the upper ends of the European A- or B-series sheets.

The way a game is formatted affects the way it feels and says something about what the game is like, or at least it does if the designer puts any thought into that (and indeed if he or she has any input into that end of things). I laid out Delve at half-letter pages so it could be printed conveniently on four sheets of paper, folded into a booklet, and stowed for quick play, because that’s the sort of game it is; House of Cards, meanwhile, is in digest format, not only because it’s the size in which one would most commonly find Victorian compilations of fairy tales or children’s stories, but because it’s also become associated with the indie story game movement, and the game attempts to convey those influences. (Grace Palmer‘s amazing page borders and Sara Otterstaeter’s woodcut chapter illustrations certainly don’t hurt, either. They’re still some of my favorite art ever.)

Now that the October games are approaching completion, I’m starting to consider the form they would take, in order to best fit the feel of each project. I like the idea of the “quantum jumping” RPG mimicking the spiral-bound presentation booklets one would get at a motivational seminar, written as if it actually were the introductory manual for a New Age self-help program. Meanwhile, the “agents of fate” game would be best packaged in a traditional RPG format, but with small page dimensions to easily pack it with the playing cards that would be necessary. (I considered whether actually making it the same size as playing cards would be a possibility, but I imagine the lists of powers for each office would inflate the size of the text to a degree that makes that untenable.)

My first instinct for the quest-giving game is to make it a digest-sized hardback like my copy of Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but that might be a little bit on the nose! It should be portable, of course, to facilitate play, and the rules are relatively short. (Note that, if one chops out the purely narrative portions of Baron Munchausen, it is likewise only several pages long. But the Baron loves to talk, as we all know!) I’m planning to prepare playmats for adventurers to set in front of them, as an organizational tool and quick reminder; one is tempted at first to perhaps print the rules on the back of the playmat, but with tokens arranged on top of them, you don’t want to be lifting the mats during a game. Depending on the size of the mat (which only needs three “compartments” – one for your level tokens, one for the tokens wagered for someone else’s quest, and one for the spoils of a successful quest) one could format the book at the same size, putting the playmat on one page of the centerfold spread next to a quick summary.

It is unlikely that any of these games will actually have a print run, being released electronically for players to print, or not, as they wish. But the impact of layout decisions on a game’s overall feel can’t really be ignored in that case either, because the possibility of players printing them remains on the table. (We have not yet achieved a fully electronic universal gaming environment, nor do I think we will at any point soon.)

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When fate gets snarled, who or what is to blame? The antagonists of the “agents of destiny” game are deliberately left undefined as to their actual identity, but they need a mechanical framework. There are three main approaches we can take here.

The first is that they are an utterly passive condition, like an environmental hazard. This is pretty much the idea that was first floated in earlier posts – that the primary obstacle of the game is to overcome the divergent fate and replace it with the one assigned to the agents. Under this rubric, the protagonist agents never really see their counterparts at all, only their handiwork.

The second approach is to give the enemy agents mechanically identical means of imposing their will. This establishes that there is one cosmological means of imposing a destiny on someone, whether the actual nature of the opposing force is like or unlike the PCs. The two factions simply become analogous to competing political entities.

The third approach is to give the antagonists their own unique approach to tangling fate, with the understanding that this suggests there is more than one paradigm for manipulating a target’s destiny. The most important implication of this is that it requires us to define whether one method is “preferred” or “natural” – that is, clarifying whether the antagonists’ interventions are anomalous, or perhaps even the agents are artificially repairing damage that is a natural consequence of some metaphysical condition.

And how exactly do agents work their destiny-spinning mojo anyway? A few brainstorming ideas to throw out: let’s posit that there’s a rock-paper-scissors mechanic in play with the four suits/offices. Installing a destiny on someone who doesn’t have one is fairly easy; it’s a matter of dealing “hits” to the destiny that stands in your way first to clear it away. Thus, you use your skill to redefine the target’s life to make the undesired destiny irrelevant. For the sake of discussion, we’ll just have the interactions go like this:

Love (Hearts) > Leadership (Clubs) > Prosperity (Diamonds) > Heroism (Love)

(with the circle looping around at the ends)

It’s not entirely satisfactory, but I doubt any permutation of the list would be in some respect. The idea is just to get a feel for how this could work mechanically. So, for instance, if you’re an agent of Prosperity, you’ve got an advantage against a destiny focused on Love, but your talents are weak against a case where the destiny to be removed is one of Leadership. Against your own office, or the one on the opposite side of the circle, you’ve got an even chance – no bonus or penalty.

From a simulationist perspective, one might respond to that last bit with, “But why not have the greatest advantage against your own office?” My retort to that would be, “Why would you want to tear that destiny down?” And then I have a very intriguing spin-off thought: it does make a certain sense that, instead of just getting random cases to fix, you’re tasked with installing the destiny of your specific office in as many cases as possible. The tricky part there is that you’ve just opened the gates to inter-party conflict, as the agents are now competing to instantiate new fates in cases to further their branch of the agency rather than trying to cohere for a specific goal.

These may be fruitful thoughts, so we’ll put a pin in them for revisiting later. Let’s finish up the mechanical thought experiment first, though. A target case is just a card, with its office affiliation and numerical value giving us the “damage type” and “hit points” in a sense. Our imaginary agent of Prosperity uses their skills like different weapons against different defenses, and perhaps has to occasionally pull out some tricks from other offices to dismantle an obstinate destiny: your usual techniques are derived from your office, but if you’re dealing with that difficult Leadership destiny, then you might need to use that Love-related magic you picked up and hope it’s strong enough. I’m not entirely sold on the fictional interrelationships yet, but it seems like a servicable mechanical skeleton for further development.

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An agent of fate gets his or her assignments in ways that seem like random chance to everyone else: today’s winning lottery numbers are the phone number to the anonymous dispatcher with your next case, or you stop in a used book store on vacation to find an envelope waiting in the front of the hardcover first edition of that novel you’ve been trying to find. Case generation at the meta-game level encourages the same sort of pareidolia: flip to a random page in a magazine, creatively interpret the fortune in your fortune cookie, and so on.

But what do you do when you’re actually on the case? The idea I had thrown out there before was that your abilities as a case worker for destiny are related to the four offices (heroism, love, prosperity, and fame), with a special emphasis on the office to which you work specifically. Character generation could be random or point-buy: there are any number of ways to approach this, including…

  • Draw four cards. If you get duplicates in a suit, add the values together.
  • Draw four cards. If you get duplicates in a suit, draw again until you have one for each.
  • Draw four cards. If you get duplicates in a suit, add +1 to the highest card for each duplicate.
  • Draw six cards, keep four.
  • Draw one card to determine your office. You get X points to distribute to the four suit/office/skills, with a 2:1 discount in your specialty.

…and so on.

We still need to nail down what these skills do, though. I’m thinking that it might be interesting to have tiered skills in two different ways: both on-specialty and off-specialty (agents who belong to an office get a different list of possible skill effects than other agents) and as skill rank increases (i.e., if you have a 2-5, you get one skill power, with another unlocked at 6-10, and a third skill power when you have a face card). Aces should do something neat: true to the name, I’m thinking that if you happen to get an Ace for an office, you’re a celebrity in that area, somewhat known to the greater population and able to reap the benefits thereof. While I don’t necessarily like relegating the Ace to a value of 1 numerically because it feels like a penalty, that might be a nice off-set: the agency isn’t going to spend as many resources on you in your own primary area of destiny because you came to the job with your own assets. To give a specific example, if you have an Ace of Hearts, you’re an international sex symbol with adoring fans; the agency of Love isn’t going to be allocating its fate-bending abilities to you, because you can do a lot with your own looks and clout.

I’d have to write up the specific agency/suit powers for playtesting, but it seems like a straightforward approach. I can see forming a sort of template: the lowest skill rank maybe allows you to recruit a number of mundane followers equal to your rank to do tasks for you, the second rank might give you material assets, and the third rank lets you do specific spell-like effects a la the Greater Powers in House of Cards. The key, I think, will be to balance how supernatural these powers become, particularly at the low levels: are they, to use the well-worn Mage terminology, “coincidental” or “vulgar”? I want to lean toward the former, but there should always be a bit of head-scratching involved, particularly when the agency itself becomes involved: they can do things that seem miraculous in nature, and not easily hand-waved away as not magical, even for agents who are in the know.

For the most part, I think solving a case is a matter of applying creative plans to the situation based on what resources you have at your disposal; knocking down an obstacle or alternate destiny is just a matter of ablating it with your storytelling abilities, then establishing the new story (the desired fate) in its place the same way. “Combat” as such doesn’t really occur – unless you cross paths with one of the aforementioned counter-agents.

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I haven’t given up! Over the weekend, I was a bit under the weather, and my current technology setup requires me to go out of the house to post, so I stayed in and brainstormed a bit instead. If I’m to meet the goal of 8 games in 31 days, I can’t really afford to stay on one idea too long, so while I tinker with the questing game off-stage, I’m going to move on to one of Tore’s suggestions: agents of destiny.

Like John’s suggestion for the questing game, this concept explicitly lends itself to an episodic format. Each person’s case is treated like a standalone encounter, just as they would be in a television serial (as befits the inspirations Tore mentioned in the prompt). There is, of course, room to have these cases intertwine with one another – those who meddle in fate tend to see the things we call “coincidences” on a regular basis due to their occupation – but that can be appended later. For now, let’s think about how to structure this game.

Because apparently I’m That Guy Who Makes Card-Based Mechanics, the first thing that came to mind was using playing cards to designate a target’s current fate and the intended fate that the agent is trying to accomplish. Each suit represents one of the four offices of destiny (an idea I’m shamelessly stealing from Exalted: Sidereals, because I liked it): I’m going to set the four offices as all positive things, because no agent wants to find out that they’re responsible for starting the next genocidal dictator on their path. (There’s probably some interesting pathos and drama to be had there, but I’d rather err on the side of caution in my choice of material, thanks.) Clubs stand for leadership, Diamonds for prosperity, Hearts for love, and Spades for heroism. There’s an implied notion that the agents themselves might be aligned with one of the four offices, which we’ll put a pin in for later; my gut reaction is to buck the normal trend of creating a “splat” for each office and instead making them skills that agents possess at varying ranks.

Thus, at the beginning of each case, word comes down to the agent from their mysterious overseers, telling them that a particular person is to be put on the path toward one of these four outcomes. The conflict comes about because they currently have a different fate, and the agent’s job is to remove the influences drawing the case in that other direction. The implication here, of course, is that there are other agents of destiny at work to further this alternate agenda, because it makes sense that the only forces that could contend with a person who has influence over fate would be other persons who have similar influence. (Again, shades of Sidereals, but also of Continuum.) Are these rogue agents from your own organization? Is there a shadow fate bureau out there acting as adversary to your own? Maybe there are “fate spirits” that have their own inscrutable plans? I think the most interesting approach to this question is to leave it unanswered: it is what you want it to be. What matters is that you have a two-pronged puzzle to solve: creating events to start your own desired domino chain in effect, and dismantling the obstacle of the current fate.

Now, we don’t need to go fully down the Sidereals road and have agents kung-fu a person’s destiny into them, but they should be able to do some cool things. And just like that, WHAM: it hits me that I’ve already got a framework that I could tweak, in the form of House of Cards. This could easily be a standalone but companion game in that same milieu, with fate agents’ powers comparable to the Archetypal powers that Bearers wield, but collected under the auspices of the four bureaus instead. As tempting as that thought is, I also realize it potentially breaks the rules for the challenge – that could be a much longer game than eight pages! But we’ll see if we can make a standalone version. Agents’ fate-manipulation powers will be necessarily generic for the time being: the simplest way to do this is to make each of the four suits an extraordinary ability to weave that kind of fate for oneself. An agent with a high speciality in Diamonds, then, can just wrap themselves in the trappings of prosperity when needed, while an agent with a great Spades skill radiates palpable courage to appear as whatever role model others find most inspiring.

There are one or two other loose ideas bouncing around in my head, but that’s a solid start. More fiddling to come!

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As I embark on this mad task of creating eight short games in a month, let me share with you the first three suggestions* I received. Tore Nielsen provided me with two ideas:

“A game that deals with the idea of an insidious/subtle reality taking over, and makes resisting it and going along with it equally interesting.”

“Hmmm, maybe a game inspired by TV shows like Reaper or Dead Like Me, only with the characters being handmaidens of fate and must try to get certain peoples’ lives to conform to Great Narratives (star-cross’d lovers, good man redeemed, etc.)”

John Lewis, meanwhile, gave me this prompt:

“A game where the characters have the ability to create quests for other characters and where levels are only really useful for the creating of quests to give to other characters. Something episodic and casual, the universe matters only slightly.”

I’m going to start with John’s suggestion, because he’s throwing me a rather heady mix of mechanical elements wrapped up in a deceptively innocuous pair of statements, and I like to dig into a new design on the mechanical end pretty quickly**. We already have a subversion: “level” is redefined away from individual might and toward having some kind of sway over another character’s adventures rather than your own. This suggests a social game. Further, my mental image of the giving of quests defaults to the standard fantasy trope of being summoned before a powerful lord or lady and charged with a quest.

However, from my work on Corona, I’m not sure I want or need to again explore having one player be directly more powerful than the others, but also sitting at home waiting for their hired minions to succeed at the quest, even if this position rotates. If one player is going to control a powerful noble in this game, then all of them are.

Hmmm… But if they’re all roughly equal in power, how do they give each other quests? It would have to be an agreement within the social power structure: the powerful adventurers only have “level” at the forbearance of their peers, making it a status consideration rather than one of personal prowess. Failing a quest, or just going on a boring one or even being boring about your dragonslaying, then becomes a faux pas that dings your standing within the coterie of other powerful adventurers.

But since you’re all off doing your adventuring, the only evidence of your deeds becomes your ability to recount them and recount them well. Sounds like The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen*** to me. That’ll be my starting framework, with some significant tweaks. There will have to be some kind of way to reflect the actual relative “level” of characters to meet John’s requirements, since in Munchausen the players’ alter egos are mechanically of equivalent social standing regardless of the puffery of their titles. Further, I have an inkling that this conclave of adventurers crosses alignment lines; the idea of Sir Hubert the Paladin having a yearly drinking and storytelling meeting with Ebonskull the Necromancer amuses me greatly. More on this after some fiddling.

*I actually received one or two other early suggestions that I have to leave out because they weren’t something I’m actually in a position to produce: one a licensed game, and one a board game. They were good ideas, but not ones I can do anything about!

**Plus, Tore’s a good friend and I want to brainstorm a little longer on his suggestions in order to do them justice.

***If you don’t know this game, you should. It’s fantastic. It is, like so many fantastic things, not in print, but copies may be currently obtained via Amazon.

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