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Author Topic: Gangster/Crime Genre RPG Mechanics  (Read 12211 times)
Samarkand
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« on: November 19, 2005, 08:04:30 AM »

   I came across the Forge via mentions on RPG.net reviews mentioning GNS theory terms.  Must admit, much of the discussion goes way above my weight class at the moment; digesting the essays and the implications will take *much* thought.   But it did get me interested in a hobby I never had much chance to practise (being the stereotypical "lots of books, but not too many playing partners" gamer back in the day).

   Right.  Obligatory delurk done.  Now, on to the actual discussion.  The talk about System reinforcing play modes got me interested in how a theoretical RPG focused on gangsters would work.  Not in the sense of genres like pulp or noir--that seems like Colour or Setting.  Rather, the issues and tropes raised in the crime films like Scarface, Goodfellas, the Godfather films, and modern "thug life" dramas like New Jack City or Get Rich or Die Trying.  There seem to be certain central themes that are independent of Setting and Colour:

* The twisted Horatio Alger tale.  Poor boy makes good, only by direct and dishonest means.  Can either be glorifying this rise to power or....

* The Cautionary Tale That Crime In The End Doesn't Pay.  The two Scarfaces, Blow, and aspects of such tales as Boyz in the Hood use the "rise to power" tale in tragic form, to show that ultimately a criminal's sins will come back to destroy him.  Often taking the variant form of...

*The Good Man Dragged Down Into Darkness.  The Godfather movies are an excellent example of this, where Michael Corleone is trying to escape the family business...but that world eventually claims him due to matters of defending family and honour. 

*The Thug Lie.  A form of Cautionary Tale which shows that the reasons a criminal seeks the underworld life--finding honour, a place within a family/gang/mob, respect, a street reputation--are undermined by the reality of what crime really entails.  Goodfellas is an excellent example--"I always wanted to be a gangster", followed by the revelations that said gangster will kill and betray at the drop of a hat despite what their "code" says.  The Sopranos has elements of this as well.

     I think the central tension in any crime game should revolve around the Good Man and Thug Lie themes.  Vampire had this sort of thing in the struggle to retain Humanity, but the gangster story often pushes it in the direction of becoming a monster by pursuing the criminal life rather than constantly trying to deny its temptations.  Unknown Armies seems to be one of the best fits for this.  Really, stripped of the mystical aspects, the Obsession/Passions/Madness Meter structure would make a dandy Simulation of any number of gangster films. 

     Thoughts?

Samarkand
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timfire
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« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2005, 08:43:29 AM »

I'm not really familiar with the gangster games that are out there now, but you should take a look at my game, The Mountain Witch. It's technically about samurai, but in a Kurasawa-meets-Reservoir-Dogs sorta way. It's basically honor-among-thieves game.

The game's two driving forces are its "Trust" mechanics and character Fates. Players rate how much their character trusts the other members of the company, on based on that, the other characters can choose to either Aid or Betray. But characters always are given a dark Fate---such as Past Allegiance, Revenge, or Worst Fear. These Fates set up competing loyalties for the characters. Players must choose whether its better to side with party or whether its better to pursue their own agenda. And I can tell you they don't always choose the party.

If you follow the link in my sig (and a couple subsequent links), you can view the alpha version of the game. To my konwledge noone has played a gangster/noir version of the game yet, but it would be perfectly suited for it. Maybe at the next convention I attend...
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TonyLB
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« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2005, 08:17:25 PM »

I think the central tension in any crime game should revolve around the Good Man and Thug Lie themes.

I agree with that statement, perhaps for the reason you said it, perhaps not.  Here's my reason:  Playing a gangster story where the main focus of tension is the external "us against the cops" conflict is a tremendous challenge.  Criminals are not inherently attractive protagonists to law-abiding members of society.  They do things that hurt people, generally for very selfish reasons, and with priorities that non-criminals have a hard time understanding, much less sympathizing with.

To make such a protagonist more attractive, stories often focus on an internal conflict that has an immediate analogue to every person.  You don't need to be a mobster to sympathize with the ways Sonny and Michael Corleone both try to come to grips with their love of a daunting father.  You don't need to be a gangster to feel for Tony Soprano as he tries to hold his family together in the face of tensions from within and without.

The thing is, unlike super-powers, or magic swords, or cybernetic implants, the criminal stuff can't be separated from that equation.  Stepping outside the bounds of society changes people's view of themself and each other (Reservoir Dogs being my particular cinematic point of reference) and that in turn changes how they deal with all their internal conflicts.

That's why I think that many crime stories boil down to a conflict between the protagonist's internal desire and their criminal circumstances.  They want things from themselves and other people.  Lawful society is a good way of trying to get those things from themselves and other people, but they've forsaken that benefit ... so every difficulty they encounter on the road to success or failure will tend to spring (directly or indirectly) from that first choice to abandon the laws and mores that might have protected them from those difficulties.

Wow, that was wordy.  Was it helpful?
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joepub
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Joe Thomas McDonald


« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2005, 08:58:20 AM »

From what I've heard of Unknown Armies, it seems to be the thing to go with.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2005, 02:10:15 PM »

Unknown Armies would be good for a simulationism version of this. But for a more narrativism version, you'd want something more like "My Life With Master" which could do the Corleones, almost just by changing the setting elements. See also Humanity in Sorcerer (Vampire or Cyberpunk for sim play).

Basically do you want the game to have the players making the tough decisions, or the system forcing them to make the tough decisions the "right" way?

Mike
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iain
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« Reply #5 on: November 22, 2005, 03:53:34 PM »

Not to blow my own horn too much, but I am working on an RPG of precisely this type called 'Mob Justice' for CGS. I think I talked to Mike briefly about it at one of the seminars run by vincent and friends. Anyway, the issues of trust and loyalty are very much a fundamental part of the game, and the essential thing about the game is 'Can you trust your friends when you are all out for power'.

Trust is dealt with in a three fold way. Each player defines 'loyalties', 'tells'  and a 'code of honour' at the start of the game. Loyalties are exactly as they suggest, people you are loyal to in one form or another be it your boss or your wife. Tells are things that push your buttons, that cause you to sweat when they are threatened or could be used as leverage against you. Your code telss you how you react to certain situations and may be something like 'no women, no kids' ala leon or less noble like 'I always take advantage of every opportunity I get'.

Each loyalty and tell is ranked from ace - king, the game uses a poker mechanic for resolution. Every session the GM is encouraged to use one or more tells and loyalties in the group as part of the session, causing the players concerned to balance up issues like 'this may be good for me but what about my gang' or 'I can't give this info away but if I don't he is going to kill my little girl' or whatever else he feels like doing.

If a player chooses to ignore their loyalties, tells and code, or betray them through his own action or inaction, then he suffers a change in those things. If you betray a loyalty then you gain a tell relating to that betrayal and suffer a stature or reputation loss, the only two stats in the game. If you betray a tell then the tell gets worse rising in rank and you lose a point of reputation. If you betray a code you can wither raise or lower the rank of the code gaining a tell in the process, or remove the code all together gaining a tell and suffering a reputation loss again.

Through the playtesting so far I have found that this allows players to balance what is important to them, code and tells, and what is socially important for their survival, loyalties, without, making it hugely complicated. It also can model betrayal within a party, ala Reservoir dogs, if the party members have loyalty and tells to each other. I hope this makes some sense, I have certainly found it to work well in the sessions I have run.

Cheers

Iain
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Samarkand
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« Reply #6 on: November 22, 2005, 09:18:06 PM »

That's why I think that many crime stories boil down to a conflict between the protagonist's internal desire and their criminal circumstances.  They want things from themselves and other people.  Lawful society is a good way of trying to get those things from themselves and other people, but they've forsaken that benefit ... so every difficulty they encounter on the road to success or failure will tend to spring (directly or indirectly) from that first choice to abandon the laws and mores that might have protected them from those difficulties.

Wow, that was wordy.  Was it helpful?

   Absolutely.  I think you defined the central tension of a gangster or crime tale.  It applies to the obvious examples like "Godfather" to more light-hearted stuff like "The Thomas Crowne Affair" (where the tension is between the attraction to the lady or to the thrill of the heist).  I think the additional tension comes from the illusion of the choice to pursue a criminal path than a lawful one.  Lawful society's rules are seen as an impediment to the character's goals--vengence, keeping the family safe, getting some coin, excitement--only to have the charactert discover the choice of crime brings its own tragic or comic complications.

Andrew
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Samarkand
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« Reply #7 on: November 22, 2005, 09:24:33 PM »

If a player chooses to ignore their loyalties, tells and code, or betray them through his own action or inaction, then he suffers a change in those things. If you betray a loyalty then you gain a tell relating to that betrayal and suffer a stature or reputation loss, the only two stats in the game. If you betray a tell then the tell gets worse rising in rank and you lose a point of reputation. If you betray a code you can wither raise or lower the rank of the code gaining a tell in the process, or remove the code all together gaining a tell and suffering a reputation loss again.

    Very cool mechanic!  Do I assume that tells act like they do in poker--broadcasting weaknesses or emotions the character wants to keep hidden to one's rivals?  The tells seem to act like a version of fallout from Dogs in the Vineyard.

    As for me designing my own system--this is more theoretical exploration than anything concrete.  To create a game myself I'd have to know statistics as they deal randomizer generators, game theory, deep understanding of genre conventions, and elegant how-to writing.  Let's just say I recognize my limitations! 

Andrew
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iain
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« Reply #8 on: November 23, 2005, 01:07:14 AM »

    Very cool mechanic!  Do I assume that tells act like they do in poker--broadcasting weaknesses or emotions the character wants to keep hidden to one's rivals?  The tells seem to act like a version of fallout from Dogs in the Vineyard.

That is pretty much exactly what they do. However rather than acting as a solid 'you definetley give that pieve of information away' these are intended to act as 'narrative guides' for the players restricting, in certain situations, what they can and cannot do. The whole game revolves around this 'narrative guidance' principle but I don't think this is the place for it. If people would like to talk about it I will start a new thread in RPG theory about how I think narrativism can be handled, note not should.

As to writing your own game, an understanding of what makes a genre tick is a definite must, but a deep understanding of game theory and statistics I think is less so. I enjoy talking about theory and models with my friends and the couple of times I have contributed here, but I would suggest you just write something and see how it works out. After all, that is what playtesting is for. There are currently so many opinions on game design, not only on the forge but through the whole gaming community, that it is hard to say any one is correct though a basic understanding of who your game appeals to can be achieved by looking at it from the GNS perspective.

Mob Justice should be released next year and you can find info about from the CGS website. There should be some new stuff going up soon and there a couple of articles about it in the circular, our downloadable free ezine.
Cheers
Iain
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #9 on: November 23, 2005, 06:52:46 AM »

Hi Iain, glad to hear that you've followed through on you game. Sounds like you have come up with a very good model for play of this genre.

And good design advice. Theory can only aid one in the process overall, the actual process is the important part. Lots of designers make great games without knowing any of the theory using only the design-playtest-redesign cycle until the game works satisfactorily. Further, you can't satisfy everybody no matter what you do. So the best thing to shoot for is a game that's fun for at least yourself - it'll sell then based on the fact that there are bound to be some people enough like yourself out there that they see the fun it it that you do.

Mike
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iain
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« Reply #10 on: November 23, 2005, 03:43:18 PM »

Thanks Mike and I agree whole heartedly with your comments. Make a game you would enjoy playing, even if you do get a little tired playtesting it now and again:-), and design for the kind of play you enjoy. Of course be aware of the types of play your game doesn't include and be ready to defend it for those reasons, but in the end if you design a game you believe in and are enthusiatic about, other people will be to.
Cheers
Iain
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Arpie
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Posts: 83


« Reply #11 on: November 23, 2005, 08:51:57 PM »

Psychologically, I think you've hit on something here.
I like the tells idea, too.

But, sadly, the violence of a crime story makes up a big part of its attraction. Now, good crime writers make that violence very ugly and painful, but it still provides the visceral thrill that draws in the audience.

Obviously, the violence in an enjoyable crime story clings very closely to the plot and narrative themes, but would you be able to work that in with the tells/stature system? Just saying it's a narrative guideline doesn't always cut it with the players. If they're going to get their characters badly hurt or rubbed out, they want a good excuse why.

I do not advocate a numeric system in this case. Something more symbolic or verbal would be much more gritty and elegant. I wish I could suggest something, but I confess I'm stuck and I'd like to see if anyone else has a good idea.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: November 24, 2005, 09:38:20 AM »

Hi Arpie,

Whether it's numeric, symbolic, or verbal, you're absolutely right about that.

And fear not - people who like Dogs in the Vineyard, Trollbabe, and (a bit different) the Burning Wheel know all about getting visceral violence into the mechanics of play, specifically as a function of the current drama in action. There's a lot of foundational game design for others to modify, work with, or invent alternatives to, just for these purposes you're describing. Iain's got the stuff it takes.

Samarkand, has this discussion met your goals in starting this thread? Let's try not to turn it into socializing; if it's done what you needed, it can be left to stand as a thing of beauty.

Best,
Ron
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iain
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« Reply #13 on: November 24, 2005, 10:59:49 AM »

Just one final comment if you don't mind ron. Physical damage is dealt with as well as social, it being such a large part of the genre as you rightly point out Arpie. It is again handled in a narrative way, leading to alterations to character appearance, scars etc. as well as short term, and possibly long term, mechanical consequecnes. I will start a fresh thread on this soon as I would like to get feedback on it.
Cheers
Iain
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Check out my webstie for some free game downloads.
Samarkand
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Posts: 7


« Reply #14 on: November 24, 2005, 06:34:56 PM »

   I thinl it's opened my eyes to how handling such games are already being approached--a way of avoiding reinventing the wheel, or at least getting an idea of the number of Leibnizes to Newtons.

Andrew
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