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Posts Tagged ‘eight games’

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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It seems that John’s quest-giving game is reaching a point where we can solidify it as a fairly simple game from beginning to end. Let’s boil it down to a series of steps of play to get an idea of where we might turn our attentions next. Note that this is skipping over a few basic things applicable to every game ever, like preparing materials and play space: this is just the unique procedural framework for this game.

Introductions: each player describes his or her adventurer character to the group.

Draw Tokens: each player draws the agreed upon number of tokens for their level.

Substitution: players have the option to trade in one or more renown tokens for infamy tokens before passing the bag.

Quest-Giving Phase: the player with the highest renown is the first quest-giver. He or she chooses another adventurer and describes that adventurer’s tasks (wagering a renown for each) and obstacles (wagering an infamy for each). Each player gets to be quest-giver in order of their renown, and can only give a quest to an adventurer that does not already have one.

Adventure Phase: adventurers narrate their quests in the same order as they were given. A player cannot use more than one sentence per level.

Intervention/Interference: during a player’s adventure, the other players may use their remaining tokens to interject in that narration. A renown token allows an intervention, which helps the adventurer overcome difficulty, while an infamy token allows an interference, forcing the player to either accept the new details or wager their own token to disavow it. Players may continue to escalate with tokens until one side capitulates, conceding the narration but taking the tokens.

Spoils: a player gets the renown wagered by their quest-giver for successful narration. Any infamy wagered may also be gained by specifically including infamous deeds in the narration.

[Here’s where we hit a timing question that had not yet been addressed: does the adventurer get the spoils immediately upon the conclusion of the quest, or do the spoils wait in escrow until all the quests are done? Immediate gain is pretty powerful, because it means going early in the adventure phase comes with a lot more ‘ammunition’ to get involved in subsequent quests. This is balanced by the potential of losing those tokens on a failed interference, though: you only get to count the level tokens that make it to the end of the game, after all. For now, we’ll say the gain is immediate.]

The round ends once all tales are told. Multiple rounds may be played. Everyone draws one additional token at the start of a new round. [This is an impromptu insertion to keep the economy from being static, and to represent time passing between gatherings.] Whoever has the most level tokens at the end of the last round is the winner.

Seems like the core’s done. Details will be fine-tuned during playtesting (at Metatopia, if nothing else). One game down!

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When a quest-giver sends one of their peers out on an adventure, the tokens used to create the quest are part of the prize, but they come with an implicit cost of sorts: facing down a difficult quest (made more difficult by infamy tokens, if you remember) ends up rewarding the successful adventurer with additional infamy. How does that follow? This dissonance between the fiction and the mechanics is not negligible, so we have to figure out either a reconciliation or an alternate approach.

It should be possible for an adventurer to choose infamy, or else one would never become an infamous adventurer in the first place, right? One of the ways to approach this is a reconsideration of Munchausen‘s interference mechanic: conceptually, the fictive purpose of that system (as opposed to its mechanical purpose, which is to provide a currency exchange between narration and the coins ultimately used to win the game) is to say, “I know you want to make your story about how awesome you are, but I’m going to tempt you into diminishing yourself in the story by offering you a point towards the actual game victory”. We can just tweak this concept slightly and say, “You are trying to spread your renown through tales of your deeds, but you can become slightly more powerful by doing infamous things”. Shades of the moral dilemma of The Force in the Star Wars films, I can’t help but notice – and then I remember the implementation in West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, with the possibility of being offered Dark Side Points for choosing to do non-heroic things.

The approach we can derive from that is to make the infamy tokens an additional reward that you can take, if you’re willing to tarnish your own reputation to get it. Let’s rewind to the example from the earlier post: Lord Crestmore’s quest, offered by Ziyi, was two renown tokens and one infamy token. Lord Crestmore can just narrate a heroic outcome to the quest and get the two renown – but the infamy token is an obstacle that has to be overcome without reward, if that’s the choice David makes. With this new approach, however, David can add in an infamous deed and scoop up that infamy token as well: he’s not quite as heroic, but he gets to go up three levels instead of two levels.

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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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Okay, so I took a couple of days off to defend my doctoral dissertation and finish my Ph.D. Sue me. ­čÖé

Working on Tore’s alternate-reality prompt highlights just how Manichean the standard trope of mirror worlds is: I even fall into the assumed duality in House of Cards, although I posited the Beyond as natural and not intrinsically malignant, the inscrutable motives of the denizens and alienness of the mirror-ways to waking logic make it seem hostile.

Looking for alternate inspiration, I recall a scam I recently heard about, one of those bogus pseudo-mystical courses you purchase as an audio program. This particular specimen, called “quantum jumping,” promises to teach you to tap into the expertise of the other versions of yourself in other parallel universes. Somewhere out there, according to the creator of the program, there is an iteration of you that has dealt with whatever problem you face, and if you can find them and reach across the many worlds to consult with them, you can use their advice to fix things in your own life.

Dubious personal philosophy, but there’s rich gaming material there. There of course has to be a catch, or else this premise would quickly become a multiversal utopia with nothing of interest happening. I’ll skip the obvious cue from the Jet Li flick The One – you don’t have to defeat your doppelgangers to get their power. Instead, there has to be a trade: something of value to you changes, as your universe begins to conform to that of the twin from whom you borrowed information. Thus, to get something you want, you not only get something you once wanted (to use Neil Gaiman’s phrase), but you have a ripple effect outward that may cause changes you didn’t foresee.

This might make it seem like tapping into the many-worlds versions of yourself for guidance would be more trouble than it’s worth, but people can adapt pretty well. If the changes are something you can live comfortably with, then there’s no real downside. It’s all in what you’re happy with. Douglas Adams posited that, if presented with an alternate reality in which only one minuscule difference existed that you couldn’t even reasonably know about, you’d still be able somehow to feel the divergence, and it would eventually madden you; I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, and would be counterproductive as a game-world element. Thus, Tore’s stipulation that ‘both realities are palatable choices’ is satisfied, so long as you can make peace with the dominoes that fall in response to your actions.

I realize I’m not getting too deeply into mechanics on some of these ideas yet, but I plan to come back and revisit them. I just want to make sure I have a solid start to each of them and then rotate through them with further elaboration. With that in mind, I’ll be going back to the questing game shortly, with some more pondering about matching up the moral qualities of the tokens and the narration of actions in the fiction.

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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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That’s the premise as it stands, anyway. Although it doesn’t have to be tea in the cups. ­čÖé

I like to walk through a thought experiment version of play to see if the current design elements work before moving on. We’ll see if there are any unforeseen gaps or flaws in play on a basic level. Here’s the set-up: four great adventurers gather for their yearly conclave, as is the custom across the known world, to share their exploits and thereby maintain their status. All of the adventurers are “seventh level” and so will draw seven random tokens from the bag to determine their infamy and renown. I think it’s fun to have players introduce their characters, and then draw tokens afterward, to more sharply delineate self-perception from the reality represented by the tokens, so that’ll be the order they happen in.

Ahmad tells us of Lady Crestmore, who earned her fortune as a cutlass-wielding harpy of the high seas! He draws seven status tokens, and gets 2 renown (white) and 5 infamy (black).

Bego├▒a is playing Ziyi, a wandering seeker of magical lore from beyond the eastern mountains. She draws a phenomenal 7 renown!

Cheryl introduces Fra Ambrosio, a mendicant and hospitalier, who turns out to have 3 renown and 4 infamy. Interesting to see how she spins that….

David decides to have a little fun and announces Lord Crestmore, the ne’er-do-well fourth son of a minor noble, strongarmed into a marriage by the now-Lady Crestmore because she was richer than he is! His draw is 5 renown and 2 infamy.

We need a way to establish the order of play, so let’s say that the first quest-giver is the person with the highest renown (meaning Ziyi/Bego├▒a). Each quest-giver can choose any other player to bestow a quest, as long as the recipient has not already been given a quest.┬áBego├▒a chooses Lord Crestmore and extemporaneously makes up a quest to be undertaken. This is the point at which stakes are set: we’ll borrow a cue from Munchausen and make it a wagering arrangement, where the quest-giver’s own tokens can be used to set aspects of the quest (thus fulfilling one major part of John’s prompt inspiring this game). Infamy can be used to set the hazards and difficulties of the quest, while renown can be used to dictate the heroic feats required to adequately complete the adventure. That means Bego├▒a┬áis capable of wagering one or more of Ziyi’s renown, and for each one, there’s a step in the quest that requires some act of bravery and skill, but since Ziyi has no infamy, she can’t make the quest harder by stipulating how the quest is more treacherous.

Unless… it’s often said that it’s easier to be feared than loved, and that the dark side is easier and more seductive than the light. Let me introduce one twist to the token drawing element during character introduction: a character can always trade in a renown token for an infamy token, though not vice versa. In this case, then,┬áBego├▒a could (prior to being the quest-giver) traded in one or more of her renown for infamy. That sacrifices the surety of going first as quest-giver for the ability to amp up quest hazards. I like it. So let’s rewind and say that┬áBego├▒a opted to trade one of those renown for infamy, which still lets her be the first quest-giver but also to throw a curveball at Lord Crestmore. She puts up that infamy as well as two renown to require Lord Crestmore to find the invisible nomad tribe who wander the southern deserts, and then obtain from them the password to enter the Doorless Keep where the Chalice of Life is kept. Those are the two epic feats bought by the renown; the complication arising from the infamy is that the southern deserts have a phenomenally hot climate and Lord Crestmore must go on this quest with no armor to protect his delicate person! (Bego├▒a is riffing off of David’s description of Lord Crestmore as a cowardly dilettante afraid of being harmed. The complications in particular should challenge the recipient’s strengths or preferences. Otherwise, they’re not complications!)

Now, we’re going to deviate from Munchausen here in a significant way: David does not relate Lord Crestmore’s adventures yet. Each player gets to be the quest-giver in turn first, and then each adventurer gets to narrate their quest. Why? A couple of reasons. First, while there’s nothing wrong with Munchausen‘s emphasis on the ability to think on one’s feet, my experience with the game is that a player who’s distracted, sidetracked too much, or even just not as strong an extemporaneous storyteller as the others can dampen the momentum of the whole game with one stumble, so I want to give each player a little breathing room to deal with quests. This is more important given that the stakes for the quest-givers are higher than in Munchausen: several tokens are wagered up front at once, as opposed to one at a time in an escalating bidding war. It’s also important because, as one might have inferred, one does not have the wagered tokens put up as quest-giver to use during the quest phase itself: players face a delicate balancing act between really piling on the complications and feats to another player’s quest while still being able to have tokens to use for the previously discussed interference/assistance functions.

Fast forward: all the players have similarly wagered tokens as quest-giver to assign adventures to their fellow players. We now let each player start describing their adventures in the order they were given. A brainstorm occurs to add a little challenge to the mix: let’s harden up Munchausen‘s loose rule on keeping stories to a manageable length (no more than five minutes or the length of time needed to drink a full glass). Instead, let’s say that players must accomplish their quests in no more sentences than their character’s level. Thus,┬áDavid can only describe Lord Crestmore’s travels in search of the Chalice of Life in seven or fewer sentences, being seventh level. If another player chooses to get involved, for good or for ill, the token they use to do so adds one sentence to the count to compensate. (The time to think between being given the quest and accomplishing it thus becomes even more important!) If David can do so, he gets the tokens wagered by the quest-giver. If he cannot, however,┬áBego├▒a gets those tokens back and gets to draw another token as a reward.

That seems to be a fundamental framework, although there already feel like some rough spots. I’ll let this percolate for a while and see if anything comes up.

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