Thursday, October 27, 2016

World of Thrones: Opening the Skunkworks

Back in September I started sketching this game hack, but I haven't come back at it for a few weeks. I'm posting what I have, in hopes of jumpstarting my thinking. I wholesale steal the "game design skunkworks" phrase from Nathan D. Paoletta and his excellent Patreon project.  

This game offers a way to run parallel families in a kingdom using PbtA. It could also cover other institutions (magic schools, corporations, colonies). I have a big idea and I need to figure out if it works. Each family has access to basic moves as you'd expect. They also have their non-basic moves from a playbook; we'll call these family moves. You pick these to tailor your family. Each family move is also a character, with a name and some details. These characters can carry out basic moves or their own family move. If that character becomes wounded or killed, you lose access to that move until you fix things.

Wounding in this case isn't necessarily physical harm. It can be emotional distress, curses, loss of reputation, exile, etc. Each family also has a head of house and a second. These characters can carry out basic moves. Below you'll see further discussion, some filler moves built from other games, general ideas, and junk. It's not complete, but it has a shape right now. I need to figure out how to make it playable and then decide if its worth playing. I've patched the basics from Legacy, Urban Shadows, Green Law and others. 

There's a lot to figure out but here are the design tasks & questions in my head:
  1. Too many basic moves? Can I cut down that list, maybe collapse some together? Should some instead be family moves? Does it make or more or less complex to make some of these sub-variants of others? Do these basic moves cover all the bases?
  2. What do the family playbooks look like? I've sketched out what they contain, but now I need to develop a couple of them and figure out their moves. That seems like the hardest part right now. 
  3. I have several tracked resources. Are they all necessary? Can I collapse some together? I think they all do different and important things, but is that enough? I don't like tracking more than a few things in play.
  4. Does the idea of contending make sense? I want to make sure that doesn't cause a series of moves to trigger.  
  5. Are there other, structural systems which could make shifting play smooth? Ideally I want interaction between characters from different families within scenes to be fun, evocative, incentivized, and not a mechanical slog. 
OVERVIEW
So the main idea is to create a PbtA-based game where players control whole families. Characters within those families act as traits and moves, rather than having an individual character sheet. You can build head-canon, use the characters to play out interactions, and even advance these persons, but they’re tools for your family’s stories. Play takes place on the higher, more sweeping level, with time and space being even fuzzier than in other games.

So what are you doing in this: playing out the stories of rival families in a kingdom (developed in the cc process). PvP ala Urban Shadows. Families have agendas and motivations, as well as some concrete goals. They work to complete those and deal with the various threats facing the land as a whole

Ideally: build a rough, rough version quickly to see if this actually works. Cut from other sources to build patchwork game.

Play Objectives: As we established when playing Legacy players enjoyed scenes with other players: the chance to riff and play off of them. Legacy has the problem of pulling in a two directions based on the playbooks. Individual scenes with NPCs can be fun, but less so online. They work better f2f (the isolation problem).

So the system has to permit/support scenes with multiple players. But more than that, it has to incentivize them. Below I talk about scene interactions with other PCs as the only way to get XP. But I think even more, you can’t really move the ball forward unless you have another player contending or allied.

Threats
Start each session establishing a serious threat everyone has to deal with.
Another Powerful Faction Summons Evil
Exiles Return
Refugees
Mad Mages
Monsters
Dragon
Natural Disaster
Death of a King

Kinds of Families
Honor-Bound
Stylish
Esoteric
Faithful
Warrior
Sacrifice
Community/Knowledge

Kinds of Threats
Ancient Cults
Monsters
Foreign Raids
Political Movements
Mystical rebellion
Death of a God
Natural Disaster

FRAMES
A Game of Thrones: Classic Political Power
Rokugan from Legend of the Five Rings: Seven factions- clear goals and events. Codes of honor.
Alpha Centauri: Colony world with tech tree development.

Play Sequence
World books/frame book. Sets basic details and adds questions to answer. Shouldn’t take that long. Something like a city book. Collaborative Development.
  1. Players pick Family Playbooks.
  2. Set stats
  3. Start with three family moves
  4. Name Head of Household and Second
  5. Name characters for each of the three family moves
  6. Answer Thematic Questions (lands, places, beliefs, etc)
  7. Establish Debts
  8. Pick Assets
  9. Establish Needs & Agenda: This should set things up for play: enough established to act.
  10. GM sets out the Threat for the session. Collectively the players have to deal with the threat facing the kingdom while carrying out their agenda. Players mark experience for fulfilling agenda. Dealing with the threat just keeps the kingdom from being destroyed.
Building Your Family
Each family has a playbook. These offer broad archetypes. Each player should choose a different family playbook.
Families have four basic stats (subject to change):
  • Honor: Represents face, perception of integrity, and family bond. A high honor isn’t a necessarily a positive thing. They may be awful people but stick solidly together. Others accept that the family follows its strictures.
  • Influence: Pull, reach, networks of association. Influence means wealth, it means contacts, it means the ability to call on others to aid you.
  • Force: Military strength and presence. You may be able to seize control through arms or simply via intimidation.
  • Subterfuge: Intrigue, blackmail, spy rings, networks of thieves and beyond. Not necessarily underworld. Your family may be above board but have access to secret ways and means. 
Players assign a +2, +1, 0, and -1 to these.

Each playbook has a set of unique family moves. Players choose three of these at the start.

Each family has a Head of Household and a Second. Name each of these and pick from the list of relevant characteristics. These two can be used as the actor for any of the basic moves.

Each unique family move is a character. Assign a name and write a descriptive sentence about each one. These characters give a bonus, add an ability, or allow for a new move. If they add to a move or roll their own move, then that character must carry out that particular move. For example, if you have a move like “Gain +1 when you Move a Pawn” or “Deal +1 Harm when you Go to War” you have to use those characters. Other family members may not make these rolls or gain these benefits. Straight stat bonuses, on the other hand, apply globally. Family Move Characters can also carry out Basic Moves.

Why is this important? Because when a family suffers harm, a character is Wounded for each point of harm. This means you lose any benefit associated with them and they may not carry out moves. Characters may die, meaning that you lose the move until another notable rises up from among the ranks of your family. That requires the Threat to be dealt with or a special move (Play the Game or Invoke Ancient Lore).

Each family begins with some Assets- things they’re known for, surpluses, treasures, lands, etc. These can be traded in the fiction to gain favors or win deals between players. Mechanically they may be a cost for certain moves. Players may also burn a surplus for +1 to a roll. These surpluses are simple: Justice, Magic Sword, Loyalty, Grain, Arms, Smithies, Great Forests, a Steadfast Bastion.

Families also begin with Need. In the fiction, you want to get these taken care of. After a Threat has been dealt with you can mark experience for each Need you fulfilled. You’ll add new needs between threats. If a family has three more Needs than surpluses, then they take a hit and must make a Suffer Adversity move.  

Each playbook has a set of definitional questions. If also has a list of possible agendas; players pick two agendas at the start. You mark experience for fulfilling your agenda.

Finally each playbook has a set of “Debt” questions. These show us the web of obligations among the kingdom. You may gain debt on other PC families or NPC factions. This means they owe you something. You may also be in debt to someone, meaning they can call in favors. Only the person who can call in the debt needs to write this down.

Families’ may also gain Enmity with another family or group. That means a grudge with someone. Having Enmity with a group means you can’t work with them, but you can also spend your Enmity to gain a bonus when you act against that family.

BASIC MOVE LIST
LAY CLAIM ©
ACCESS ©
COLLECT INFORMATION
DISCERN STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
MANIPULATE ©
MOVE A PAWN
GO TO WAR ©
OFFER AID/INTERFERE
INVOKE ANCIENT POWERS

SITUATIONAL BASIC MOVES
SUFFER ADVERSITY
BUILD ALLIANCE
PLAY THE GAME
CASH IN A DEBT
REFUSE TO HONOR A DEBT

Working Stats:
Honor
Influence
Force
Subterfuge

BASIC MOVES
LAY CLAIM ©
When you act to claim something as yours, say what it is you want. Then choose an approach:
If you speak of your rights, stewardship, or sincerity, roll +Honor
If you call in allies, bargain, and negotiate, roll +Influence
If you trick, blackmail, or use shady tactics, roll +Subterfuge
If you threaten and intimidate, roll +Force

If the opposition is an NPC…
On a hit you succeed in taking it. On a 10+ you do so maneuver such that no one can dispute you.
On a 7-9 there’s a cost to your action. Pick one:
Your hold on it is tenuous, and more effort will be needed to secure it.
Someone important comes away marked. Wound one of your characters.
You make enemies; gain an Enmity with a NPC group of the GM’s choosing.
It costs you, spend a Debt or Surplus to finalize control.  

IF CONTENDED: If what you’re claiming is currently under control of a PC, they will always be the one in contention with you. If you declare you’re using +Force, they may opt to GO TO WAR. The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may choose to take a debt with you or an involved faction, mark an enmity with you, or gain what you spent. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

ACCESS ©
When you seek access to a person, place, or thing you do not control roll +Honor. On a
10+ you get what you want – an audience, an expert, a toy to play with. If relevant you gain a +1 Forward on applicable uses. On a 7-9, you had to back that up with a reward. Erase a Surplus, Debt, Enmity, or Treasure. Alternately gain a Need.

IF CONTENDED: The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may also choose to gain what you spent, take a debt with you, or take an enmity with you. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

COLLECT INFORMATION
When you open your ears and pocketbooks to collect information, roll +Influence. On a hit, gain two Hold. You may spend one Hold to to ask a question from the list below. Take +1 Forward when acting on the answers.  On a 10+, you may ask a follow-up question.
  • What moves is __________ making?
  • What opportunities can we find in ____________?
  • What should we be on the lookout for?
  • Who could offer us ______________?
  • What ancient secrets are hidden here?

DISCERN STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
When you use spies, agents, and open ears to discern the strengths and weaknesses of someone, roll +Subterfuge. On a hit, gain two Hold. You may spend one Hold to ask a question from the list below. Take +1 Forward  when acting on the answers.  On a 10+, you may ask a follow-up question.
  • Where are they vulnerable?
  • How could we best shore up our position against them?
  • What is their greatest strength?
  • What valuable resources do they have?
  • How could we get them to ________?
On a miss, your spies give away more information than they bring in, and your target learn something dangerous about you.

MANIPULATE ©
When you try to mitigate or exacerbate a dangerous situation, choose an approach
Call to history, morality, or the law, roll +Honor
Network, use flattery, or bring allies in, roll +Influence
Muddy the waters, misdirect, or deceive, roll +Subterfuge

If you’re trying to sustain something, On a 10+ the situation is safe unless dramatically disrupted. On a 7-9, you’ve succeeded, but choose one:
Your agent suffers backlash on the measure. Mark a character as wounded.
It’s only a temporary measure, and manipulation will unravel in time.
The effort costs you and you must spend something to finish things (erase a debt or surplus).

If you’re trying to break something apart, on a 10+ the situation is shattered and cannot be fixed without time and effort. On a 7-9, you’ve succeeded, but choose one from above.

IF CONTENDED: The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may also choose to gain what you spent, take a debt with you, or take an enmity with yo. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

MOVE A PAWN
When you want to operate behind the scenes, spend a Debt with a NPC or erase an NPC’s enmity with the PC faction they’re moving against. Roll +Subterfuge. On a 10+ they succeed. On a 7-9 they partially succeed and your intervention is discovered. You may not use this move on an NPC you have enmity with.

GO TO WAR ©
When politics fails and you want something, you may move your forces to engage. Roll +Force. On a 10+ you gain what you want and you may choose three from the list below.
  • Your success does not raise other’s ire
  • You do not suffer harm
  • You deal harm
  • You destroy a faction
  • You deal a setback to a threat
  • You mark experience
On a 7-9 you succeed, but want you want is imperfectly done or held. Choose to finish the job or choose one from the list above.

IF CONTENDED: Before you roll, your opponent may choose to yield the field. If so they mark experience and take no harm. You roll as above. If they hold the field, on a 10+ you gain what you want and may choose three from the list. Your opponent marks experience and suffers harm. On a 7-9 you both suffer harm and each may choose one from the list. On a 6-, you mark experience and suffer harm. The Contender has control of what you want.

IF THE THREAT: As above, but on a 7-9 the GM throws a soft Threat Move against you. On a 6- they throw a hard Threat Move.

OFFER AID/INTERFERE
When you act to aid a fellow family, roll +Influence. On a 10+ they gain +1 Forward to their roll. On a 7-9, they gain +1 Forward, but you make your family vulnerable to the same consequences should they fail. You may not aid a family you have Enmity with. When you act to obstruct a fellow family you’re not contending with, roll +Influence. On a 10+ they suffer -2 Forward to their roll. On a 7-9, they suffer -2 Forward, but gain an enmity with you.

INVOKE ANCIENT POWERS
When you try to perform a powerful magics, call on ancient pacts, or summon forces from the beyond, you must first gather the necessary components; the GM will tell you what is needed. Then roll. No one can assist you with this check and you only have two options for raising the roll. For each asset you burn or character you wound, you gain +1 to the roll. On a 10+, it works and all hell breaks lose. On a 7-9, it works, but you must either burn more assets, mark off debts, or wound more characters. Alternately the ritual goes wrong in an unexpected way. On a miss, the ritual goes terribly awry, and has effects you never could have predicted.

Situational Basic Moves
SUFFER ADVERSITY
When your family suffers a major assault, stands in the face of corruption, or deals with a setback, roll +Harm. On a 12+ your family loses something of moderate value. As well, one of your wounded characters dies. Mark Experience. Another member will have to step up to take their place. On a 9-11, your family loses something of moderate value. On a 8- you survive and regroup.  

BUILD ALLIANCE
When you do someone a favor, they owe you a Debt. They must know about the action. If this is someone who has enmity with you, immediately spend the Debt to remove one Enmity from them.

PLAY THE GAME
When you wish to heal a wounded character or raise a new character up to replace a dead one, you must engage in the great game. Frame a scene between one of your characters (you may choose and name the new one) and a character from a rival family. Roll +Honor.
  • On a 10+, describe the back and forth between you two. Each of you must reveal one important detail about your characters. You may heal a wounded character or assign a new one to an empty move. 
  • On a 7-9, you must answer a question about your family or intentions. Then you may heal a wounded character or assign a new one to an empty move. 
  • On a 6-, you give the player a debt and must answer a question about your family or intentions. Any wounded character nominated dies. You may assign a new character to an empty move, but not with the same name. That person has done badly. Mark experience.
CASH IN A DEBT
When you cash in a debt, remind your debtor why they owe you in order to…
…make a PC:
  • Do you a favor at moderate cost
  • Lend a hand to your efforts
  • Get in the way of someone else
  • Answer a question honestly
  • Erase a Debt they hold on someone
  •  Give you a Debt they hold on someone else
  • Give you an Asset
…make an NPC:
  • Answer a question honestly about their Faction
  • Introduce you to a powerful member of their Faction
  • Give you a worthy and useful gift without cost
  • Erase a Debt they hold on someone
  • Erase an Enmity they hold on someone
  • Give you a Debt they have on someone else
  • Give you an Asset
  • Give you +3 to Move Them as a Pawn (choose before rolling)
REFUSE TO HONOR A DEBT
When you refuse to honor a debt, roll with +Honor. On a hit, you weasel out of the current deal, but still owe the Debt. On a 7-9, you choose 1:
  • You owe them an additional Debt
  • You lose face with their faction. Reduce your Honor by 1 untl this Threat has been dealt with. They gain an Enmity with you
  • You wound a character
On a miss, you can’t avoid the noose. You either honor your Debt or face the consequences: they pick two from the list above or force you to lose all the Debts owed to you. Mark experience.

OTHER NOTES & BRAINSTORMING
On a recent Gauntlet episode, Rich mentioned his affection for the Cramped Quarters move from Uncharted Worlds. It’s a kind of enforced socialization move. Here’s the text of it:

CRAMPED QUARTERS
When you’ve been trapped in cramped quarters with the same people for a significant amount of time (a leg of an interstellar journey, etc), choose a character trapped here with you and Roll 2d6.
On a 10+, describe how the two of you bonded over the past few days.
On a 7-9, reveal/discover the answer to their question about an aspect of yourself or your past.
On a 6-, describe what caused the newest hurt feelings or bad blood between you.

That’s gave me an idea for another way to incentivize interaction. Adding exp and stakes to contending moves is one way. But we can make an interaction move, like “Crossing Paths” or “The Great Game” representing all of those character interaction moments with less stakes. In order to “Heal” a player needs to make a “Great Game” move, representing time, the gathering of general information, and/or building up of resentment and ambition against other houses. The damaged player chooses another house. Each player puts forward a character and plays out a scene. There’s a roll to see what happens, both sides gain in this. Healing damage is one option from this.

Note from Rich’s Comments: Preference for moves with picks. Tough choices- you want everything but you can’t have it.

PbtA Choice Forms:
Pick but you want everything; bad options implied by what you leave on the table.
Pick and then the GM picks from a list
Pick from good and bad
Get what you want and then pick bad options, complications, or cost
Other versions?
Kinds of choices as a measure of autonomy. Designing for bad players? Boring choices.

HEAT MECHANISM? TOO MUCH STUFF?? Is the Enmity idea enough?

Spendables, Resources, and Economies
We don’t want to track too much. But there needs to be an economy and method of handling resources. Here’s my first through. Some of these may not be necessary or it may be possible to collapse two or more of them together.
  • Reputation/Stability: The HP for the family. I’m not sure yet what to call it. There’s losing face for failing to live up to one’s obligations, which suggests rep, but we’ll be handling some of that with the debt/enmity mechanics. So Stability may be a better way to think of it: the pressures from outside, internal dissension, the tightening of resources.
  • Assets: Tags representing surpluses, resources, and wealth. Per se we’re not going to have a wealth/coin tracking system (ala Green Law or Blades in the Dark). Everyone has the finances they require, though a family might have an asset: Wealth. In general I’m imagining you can generate assets as an effect pick of some moves. They might be a cost for other moves. They can be spent to add a bonus to some moves. I’m imagining if they’re fictionally appropriate, they’d give a +1. So they’re a concrete representation of Hold or +1 Forward.
  • Needs: What your family needs, as represented by assets at the start of the game. Having more needs can impact your Stability. Perhaps when you make a Hold Together check, you roll +Needs. Alternately it acts as a cap or check. You can take additional needs as a requirement or consequence of certain moves. Players should know each family’s needs so they can other surpluses to assist. If we don’t what a full mechanical effect, then needs might just be a fictional trigger for GM moves.
  • Debts: I’m using this term to represent both payback for assistance, the web of networks, and formal alliances. Perhaps there’s a better term that encompasses all of that. Debts function as they do in Urban Shadows. There’s a move to call in and avoid the calling in of debts. Avoiding debts has a cost much like in US. Here it also gains you Enmity.
  • Enmity: When you cross a family or faction, they may gain enmity on you. This is bad blood or hatred. In the case of NPCs, enmity makes it harder to deal with or even work against that group in the future. Until you find a way to clear it, you would have a -1 to those interactions. PC families which have enmity can spend that for a benefit when they act against that family.
  • Treasure: A special kind of asset. A great work, an item quested for, or something with significant fictional weight. Necessary?
Original General Thoughts
  • Calling on Debts like Urban Shadows
  • Head of Household
  • Moves can be injured or even lost
  • Have to handle flow in some way
  • Is a Move a conclusion to a scene- what’s the back and forth.
  • New rolled moves and bonuses are characters.
  • If a character has a rolled move that’s what they’re trained to do.
  • You can also assign them to do any of the basic moves.
  • You can also send a Faceless: great success advances that character and makes them a new person.
  • Keep Basic Moves tight: Rich’s comments on “too many moves.”
  • OOH the meta-level we’re considering here probably won’t appeal to some folks. Possible to keep flow to these stories?
  • Factions and groups created like NPCs
  • Wizards?
  • Drafting agendas and desires?
  • Trade is less important here. Scarcity as a threat?
  • We assume each house is wealthy, unless they take that as a need. Assets abstractly represent this.
  • I like the idea that sometimes characters get cut off from their family. They essentially become free agents which other families can recruit. Do they offer the move they originally had, a bonus against their original house, or both?
Advancement: When players make some moves, they can nominate and/or other players can request to have their family as the opposition. If the Active Player does well, the Responding player might have to pay a modest price, but gains XP. If the Active Player does less well, the Responding Player gains something, but the Active Player gains XP. You don’t gain XP (or gain less XP) for contending with NPC families or factions.

Other Moves
Moves to pick from when creating house
Suppress/Bring Order
Influence
Assassinate
Recover Lore
Discover Weakness/Secrets
Quest
Create Art
Recruit
Blackmail
Invoke Ancient Powers (maybe a Basic Move ala Big Magic)
Infiltrate
Gossip
Train
Explore
Build
Turncoat
Use Faith/Speak to the Gods
Incite Rebellion
Sabotage
The Enemy of My Enemy
Scheme
Ease Tensions (specific defuse): perhaps something more like “Offer Services” as a defuse where the family gains something from their action.

I know there are some other PbtA games which have approached this (Legacy obviously). I've got that need-to-do list at the top. Does this seem workable? worth following up on?