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Author Topic: Roll the Videotape; by Request, an Early Play Example  (Read 3301 times)
Le Joueur
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« on: February 07, 2002, 08:20:34 AM »

Okay, example of play; roll tape.

This details a recent short-run game we played with Scattershot.  It ran probably for about 10-12 sessions and involved only one player.  (I chose this one for simplicity's sake.)

Prior to play, the player (who is an avid Pokemon player amongst the 'spiking' demographic of 25-35 year-old women now taking to the Gameboy) and I had conceived of a sub-genre of Superheroes based on the creatures in Pokemon.  The Background¹ (setting and history) for the game is lifted directly from a variety of Pokemon sources including all versions of the Gameboy and N64 cartridges, the attendant manga (short-installment comic books from Japan, translated into English and collected into digests), and some of the Saturday morning cartoons.  This provides both an asset and a headache for me since the player is much more versed in the source material than I (less work to create, more difficult having to ask for data frequently).

To this Background¹, I have added a subculture of superhumans with the 'mostly hidden' option (and I say mostly hidden because in a couple of episodes of the cartoon, people have used their little battle creatures to set themselves up as traditional spandex-clad superheroes/villains).  Mechanical¹ fusion occurs between the source material and the superheroic because all superhuman characters must 1) have powers derived from and limited by what is possible for individual 'Pocket Monsters,' (which we had created in advance, more on that later) and 2) Each must have a 'difficult to conceal' feature reminiscent of the 'Monster' they are powered like (some concepts have included magic items, transformations, or simply a tail).  This is not terribly hard because of Scattershot's Generalist-system nature (although the cartridge games are so imbalanced efficacy-wise, it'd make any point-balance system go crazy).

For imported Chara¹, we use a number of notables from both the cartridge game and the cartoon, mostly the 'gym leaders' (an interesting translation of the traditional concept of dojo masters, especially how they have been 'updated').  There are also a small number of 'memorable' characters from previous games.  A number of which are based on some Pokemon called 'Legendary' in the American translation.  (Irregularly, I invoke the idea that these creatures have occasionally 'evolved' – a metamorphic process occurring only in the source material – into human form.  I use it sparingly so that it remains a mystery whether a Chara¹ behaves amorally because of a lack of humanity, or because of their ethics.)

We call these Pokemen games (note the 'mon' is replaced by 'men').

For Genre Expectations¹, I generally use (we actually get a lot of mileage out of this sub-genre) either of two infrastructures; either the 'hidden world' of Pokemen superheroing, or I introduce a second subculture of including a wicked, ultra-wealthy class 'court' who, because of temporal power, have 'collected' Pokemen abilities (and all the potential for 'power corrupts' themes).  Either way a mystery proceeds from Chara¹ of ulterior and hidden motives making some play for power out of 'evil' intentions (this is a superhero game after all).  Player characters run afoul of the machinations and all heck breaks loose.  (Court intrigues are a pet favorite of mine, but are not always to the player's taste.)

One occasional set of Props¹ we bring into Pokemen games from time to time involved something called 'badges.'  In the cartridge, they are a game-theory driven mechanism for controlling 'level' and access to certain parts of the map.  I turn them into totems based on a set of relics (which occasionally go missing, or are found after centuries).  These relics have greater than superhuman power and have become somewhat standardized in our usage.  In this game however they were not used (but as a known part of the common Background¹, the player could decide to 'go get them.')

Through practice, I have become familiar with the implied Relationships¹ between the Chara¹ of the game (as imported from the cartridge game) and use those in my Dynamic Status Quo³ structure.

Anyway, that's the game the player approached me with by saying, "Can you run a Pokeman game?"  She had already sketched out a player character idea before bringing gaming up with me, so we began with shared game creation.

First, I asked her about her character's Sine Qua Non² (more specifically the three first things that come to mind for her character and the last three things she'd want me to forget about it).  Top of her list was how her character had found a legendary Pokeman (without specifying which), in a Pokeball washed up on the beach.  (This is highly unusual, because, prior to that, we had an unspoken agreement that none of the Pokemen would be 'caught' in a Pokeball – the item that characters in the cartridge game carry their 'pocket monsters' around in, hence 'pocket.')  Second, what Pokemon her character was 'based on,' that its history was non-human, and how they appeared. And Third she wanted it to involve Brundlewood (A name I took from Jeff Goldblum's character in The Fly - don't tell my player - for the gated community in which our last incarnation of the 'wicked court' took place in).

Her 'last three things' were a little harder to come up with (they usually are), and mostly consisted of Theme Engine³ issues and Genre and Narrative Expectations³; 1) her character would fall in love with somebody, 2) who controls whom issues that would drive the Theme Engine³, and 3) the 'found character' would be 'in bad shape' when she found him (setting up some kind of 'nursing them back to health' scheme).

The character sheet went together pretty quickly (we have most of the Pokemon 'attacks' mapped into Scattershot already, see below), largely because she had little interest in being exceptional on the human side of the equation (as if having not been 'borne of man' weren't enough).  She had a little trouble with the line marked (quite erroneously, and in deep need of revision) 'goal.'  This is not a character-level goal, but more of a statement on how the player wants the character's play to go.  Some examples might be 'will eventually realize a need to sacrifice all to save others,' or 'never gets an even break.'  It is mostly a playtest technique for adding player concepts to the game's incarnation of Genre Expectations² (it still needs work).  I pointed out that 'falling in love' was probably her goal and she went with that.  For her character's 'role in the narrative,' I pointed out that her particular choice of powers/basis as a non-human Legendary Pokemon clearly suggested the 'Maltese Falcon' of the piece (a highly sought-after priceless element that 'bounces around').

With this, I went to work.

First of all, I noticed that the Brundlewood Dynamic Status Quo suggested a lot of back stabbing so that connected easily to the hero's condition (in 'storage,' lost, and wounded) and suggested a vengeance motivation and a potential narrative direction.  Next, her status as a non-human Legendary Pokeman and 'Falcon' status gave me the idea that in order to 'stick' her to the hero (whose presence is somewhat required by her Sine Qua Non), I would make him her pokemon counterpart (for those who know the source material, she is Mew and he becomes Mewtwo).  The romance potential was a little too obvious, so I decided to have him obsessed elsewhere (like on vengeance).  Her 'Falcon' Status tied in with the 'collecting' goals of the Brundlewood types, so I had no difficulty working her driver into the Dynamic Status Quo (how the Status Quo will react and treat her character).

Things became complicated when I began deliberating what to run with the Theme Engine.  She had said she wanted control issues involved, and I saw great potential to play with 'humanness' issues (her character not originally being one, and the Brundlewood types having abandoned theirs for power).  I decided, considering the betrayal, that humane treatment of subjects of control would be the foundation of the theme and I'd see 'what grew out of that.'  (The Theme Engine works somewhat like Ron's Premises except conceptually the Theme Engine is given simply a thematic metaphorical basis that play benefits from by connection; questions and answers are not preordained.)

The Theme Engine was something I came up with a long time ago when I noticed that even when games aren't supposed address thematic issues, they had a tendency to meander and have little lasting impact.  I secretly began attaching everything I was running (all the Chara, Background, Circumstance, Genre Expectations, Props, and Relationships, that I provide) to a central thematic issue without letting the players 'in on it.'  I have found this much more satisfying for all parties involved, and I formalized the ideas into the Theme Engine technique (at first for our console arcade game, but later for Scattershot).

This gave me a principle who was reserved (out of his element and wounded, expecting further betrayal) subject to her character's complete (and unwitting) control (I decided from observation, that the 'containment unit' Pokeballs would function like an 'enslavement unit' on sentient beings).  He wound up being an 'observer' until opportunity to strike and his ulterior motives might drive them towards Brundlewood.

I began the game on a nearby coast, and speed-paced through the early parts of the recovery (both of the containment unit and of principle's Hit Points), mostly stressing the enigma my principle represented.  This player prefers a great deal of bantering so play functions mostly on that level (and I have to admit without the Theme Engine driving the narrative, I tend to get lost in the day-to-day minutiae that can grow out of this kind of play).  The Theme Engine provided exactly what kind of parameters I needed to generate expository scenes and the Genre Expectations provided the criteria needed to up or down-pace things on the tension spiral.

I revealed different aspects of the enigma through clever twists of behavior based on clues not necessarily obvious to the player (standard practice), and I was gearing up for a kidnapping scene – the most obvious move on the 'Falcon' (the principle was well on his way to 'falling' for her) - when the player turned a minor confrontation with a Brundlewood wannabe into a full-fledged action scene and forced a partial confession out of the principle (I never know what to expect from either the player characters or the non-player characters).  All of which precipitated the infiltration by and apprehension of the two central characters, culminating in the face-off between those who betrayed the betrayer (a lot happens when you 'go missing') and the central characters.  Ultimately, all the side elements pooled to reveal a third-party manipulator who even the wicked turned upon.  (I am collapsing the bulk of the rest of the run of the game because most of it was the consequence of the setup as directed by the Theme Engine.)

Now, ultimately the question was about how the point costs counted in character creation.  It may not appear so, but they did quite a bit.  It occurred long before the above game was proposed.  When we first began working with the Pokeman concept, we tripped right over the point imbalance problem.  I mean even a low level 'psychic' Pokemon has wide-reaching efficacy and tons of implied abilities (outside of the 'attacks,' the only way we were able to justify things like telepathy – that occurred in examples outside of the cartridge game – was to include in as an 'implied power' of 'psychic' or 'psybeam').  Part of what 'balances' the cartridge game has to do with a complicated chart of immunities (very Jan-Kem-Po).  While this carried into the role-playing work somewhat, it really went nowhere in terms of efficacy 'balance.'

This could have either made some chara game-breakers, or it could have required we avoid 'using points' as one of the bases of play.  What eventually came out, changed things seriously.  First of all, in all the material, death is virtually unknown amongst the little beasties.  I originally proposed they (and the Pokemen made from them) were immortal; this is a significant 'power' by any means and went a long way towards 'leveling the playing field' point-wise.

Another was the fact that, in the cartridge, Pokemon are limited to only 4 attacks each (it's a complicated game theory exercise having 6 Pokemon, each with 4 'attacks,' that you have groomed them to have as they rise in level – or by 'installing' some of them).  In terms of role-playing balance, coupled with the 'immunities,' Pokemen were expected to be very good at 'choosing their fights.'  Ultimately, in play, this resulted in much point reference after chara creation.  You see, since we were playing 'by the points' whenever a battle came up, relative point totals were compared (factoring in 'immunities') so that the players, who could not 'really be there' could emulate their characters, who know what they're doing, 'choosing their battles' based on apparent character experience.

Not being interested in point challenges, my player struggles with every point spent, not wanting to give the impression of 'asking for too much.'  (As a matter of fact, out of habit, I usually team her with more powerful characters who have reasons for subservience.)  Likewise between the point levels of the pair of central characters, I had a much easier time choosing the abilities of the opposition (as I implied, I'm lousy at Pokemon) basing it on the points of the principle non-player character (the 'most powerful' were his peers at one time, after all).

The next question was how this relates to 'point crunchers.'  In many of the games I have run, most include at least one participant who does not want to partake of the point-challenge technique, so it has never been a part of any of my games.  (I am looking for a group of playtesters interested in both giving it a whirl and proposing a number of other point-based 'options.')

What this means in practical terms is that when 'point crunchers' get into my games, they have a hard time.  I have seen some struggle mightily (after failing to elicit some kind of group-limiting cut-off out of me), apparently to find some way to 'get more for less.'  I remain convinced that what 'point crunchers' really attempt to do is have a 'better' character within the limitations of the point cut-offs.  Since there are none as I have played, the skill at character creation within these limits becomes a non-issue.  I don't think you can 'beat' someone at character generation (one of the reasons I see it as Solo Play) unless there is some kind of limitation.

(One fairly dysfunctional player went on, after failing to 'beat the system,' to try to be the ultimate scene-stealer.  This revealed a lot about the problems people had had with this player over the years.  We still refer to his play in that game as 'the nine-headed hydra.'  No matter what, he tried to inject his character into every scene, to deprotagonize whomever was central, even when his character was asleep!  He doesn't game with us anymore.)

I hope this illustrates how the limitless point-based system can be used as a potential tool for a few different types of games, or at least how it has worked for me.  Frankly, I am excited about the prospect of getting playtesters who are not well known to me, and who do not have constant access.  I feel like the design has gone about as far as it can in this 'pressure cooker' and needs some 'fresh air' if it's going to grow into what I hope it can be.

Fang Langford

¹ Chara, Background, Circumstance, Genre Expectations, Mechanics, Props, and Relationships are the 'elements' of a game in Scattershot's techniques.  I personally use them as a checklist when creating a game.  They will be treated soon as a separate article; first though, Sine Qua Non!

² Sine Qua Non is a technique I will describe in detail in a different thread.  As far as is needed at this point can be seen on the second page of the Points thread

³ These are also techniques I will explore later, for now Look for Dynamic Status Quo material here, Sine Qua Non here, and we'll all have to wait on my schedule for the 'elements' article.
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Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!
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