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Author Topic: [Heist] Stake-setting and sharing narration  (Read 2207 times)
Graham W
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Posts: 437


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« on: February 16, 2006, 05:15:02 AM »

For a long time, I've wanted to design a roleplaying game that was playable in a pub. Ideally,  you'd just get out a pack of cards and begin playing.

So I've gradually put together a game called "Heist". It's a game about a robbery, asking the question: "Is the perfect crime worth the price you pay?". It's designed for pub play: there's no prior adventure preparation; no dice, only cards; and character sheets are scribbled on beermats.

(Note that Nate Petersen mooted a game called "Heist" in 2004. More embarrassingly, Michael O'Sullivan's "Criminal Element" is also a crime game and also uses a blackjack mechanic. But this game plays rather differently to both.)

Last night, I got a chance to play Heist through with my non-gamer friend Simon.

We started with what you might call adventure design: designing the game that we'll play that night. I drew an outline of a building on a napkin and said "Here's the target: This is the Excelsior Casino". Simon caught on quickly: "In the gaming area, there's a huge emerald, the most valuable in the world".

And so we took turns, adding features to the casino, drawing them on the napkin. Simon told me later that he enjoyed this a lot: "The emerald's protected by rocket-proof glass", "Two guards watch the emerald at all times" and more mundane things like "Here's a really beautiful croupier" and "Let's have some slot machines". We ended up with a hugely detailed casino.

Then on to character creation, scribbled on napkins. Simon liked this bit too. He played the Robber:

Name: Ryan Miller
Relationships: Wants the emerald, Loves the working class, Fears the dark, Still loves his ex-wife Jenny
Skills: Bluff / social engineering, Martial arts, Electronics


and I played the Owner (a sort of GM figure):
 
Name: The Conglomerate
Skills: Guards everywhere, Good computer system, Good shot


And then the robbery started.

Now, my idea was that we'd play this like a standard RPG, with Simon narrating what his character did and me narrating NPCs and the environment. It didn't work like that. Simon did most of the talking, describing a fiendish plan in lavish detail. He told me later he enjoyed this a lot.

This went on for a while - and was hugely enjoyable for me - until we got to a conflict.

The conflicts, in this game, are always related to a security feature. So, in terms of stake setting, the Robber's stakes are always "I want to destroy / disable the security feature". And the Robber always disables the security feature, since otherwise the robbery would be rather dull.

The Owner's stakes are the Price the Robber pays if he loses the conflict. For example: "If you lose, the emerald cracks"; "If you lose, your ex-wife Jenny gets captured"; "If you lose, you get sent to prison later in the game". The Price is always related to one of the Robber's Relationships. If the Robber loses the conflict, he pays the Price later in the game; if he wins, he gets off scot-free.

Simon understood stake-setting well, but it became clear we had problems with the Price. Simon was trying to break the rocket-proof glass and I set the Price as "If you lose, your ex-wife Jenny dies".

Simon wasn't happy with this, because it seemed arbitary. Fair enough. I tried expanding it: "If you lose, the computer system locks down the building. Jenny's trapped and suffocates."

He still wasn't happy and, honestly, neither was I. He told me what he wanted to happen: if he lost, he wanted Jenny to fall into the hands of the Conglomerate, so that, at the end of the game, he had to choose between the Emerald and Jenny.

This was great, obviously, and so that's what we did. And it became clear, later, that this provided a fantastic end to the game.

So here’s my major worries. Firstly, this seems to be a game where the Robber describes his plan, while the Owner listens until there’s a conflict. This seemed to work well last night – we both enjoyed it – but are there potential problems here? Is there a way to distribute the narration in this game more evenly?

Secondly, stake-setting. I’m missing something and I’m not sure what. What I really need to do is formalise the discussion me and Simon had above in talking about “Jenny”.  Clearly, the Price needs to be related to the security feature disabled in some way. But it’s not just that. Any suggestions?

Thanks in advance for any advice and help.

Graham
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Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #1 on: February 16, 2006, 08:50:24 AM »

For a long time, I've wanted to design a roleplaying game that was playable in a pub. Ideally,  you'd just get out a pack of cards and begin playing.

Sounds like an interesting game you have here. Let me riff on what you have here.

Quote
So here’s my major worries. Firstly, this seems to be a game where the Robber describes his plan, while the Owner listens until there’s a conflict. This seemed to work well last night – we both enjoyed it – but are there potential problems here? Is there a way to distribute the narration in this game more evenly?

Make the original scene-setting more of a matter of good-natured competition, with the Owner having authority and intent over the scene. Make it his job to have a challenging and dangerous site for the heist. Motivate him to plan genuinely problematic conditions for the heist. At the same time, direct the Robber more towards describing the preparations he's making to overcome the difficulties detailed by the Owner, rather than a co-inventor of the difficulties. Make it a competitive back-and-forth between the two, rather than a cooperation. Make it clear that the Robber is not the one who creates the target. My feel is that a part of the problem might be that the Robber is both the co-creator of the target and the robber of it, which diminishes the excitement. You'll perhaps get better dynamics if it's psychologically clear that the Robber is entering enemy territory during the actual play.

You experienced the Robber doing most of the narrating during play. This is natural for a storytelling game as opposed to roleplaying, because in storytelling the impetus is on the active, acting party. The Robber is very much that in this set-up, because the target literally does nothing as long as the Heist goes as planned - nobody knows that anything is wrong, so what's there for the Owner to do, actually? So what you perhaps should consider is formalizing the shifting narration rights; the Robber is the narrator until he fails and causes an alarm, at which point he's no longer the predator of the set, but the prey, trying to avoid the security measures. This shift in the active-passive dynamics is well mirrored by changing the narrator. Then, when the Robber suckers the security with a cunning disguise or whatever, perhaps he can regain the narration?

Of course, having a set narrator doesn't mean there's nothing for the other player to do. If you feel that you have to sit passively too long, ensure that there's interesting choices for the owner, as well. Now it seems that his job is just to remind the Robber about a trap they made together earlier, but this isn't how a heist story works: who's playing all those secondary characters who are bribed, conned or blackmailed to help the Heist? Who's playing all those who's human failures the Robber has studied beforehand, so he knows when to sneak past the guardpoint? Who's playing those character's whose idiosyncrotic quirks and heroism ruin or complicate the heist? What's more important: you have a system wherein the Robber has to make choices and take risks over the heist. Why not let the Owner make such as well for the secondary characters, so he has something to do while the heist is running?

What I'd suggest is clarifying and formalizing all of the above into a clear duality of roles, so that the players know who's job is to do what. I think that while you had fun this time with a passive Owner, that's not solid as a general case - other groups have different dynamics and most people would probably resent such lopsided roles.

As a start, consider the following rules and concepts: the active player always narrates, but the passive player always controls the NPCs. Whenever the Robber fails against security measures, the Owner becomes the active player, and whenever the Robber gets out of a pickle and chooses to continue the heist, he regains the initiative. Thus play becomes a series of "turns", ending when the Robber is caught, succeeds or pulls out.

Quote
Secondly, stake-setting. I’m missing something and I’m not sure what. What I really need to do is formalise the discussion me and Simon had above in talking about “Jenny”.  Clearly, the Price needs to be related to the security feature disabled in some way. But it’s not just that. Any suggestions?

The disconnected setting of future events based on success/failure is interesting, but I don't know if it works so well in practice. In stories cause and effect are very important, because that's what stories are: strings of cause and effect, showing us the consequences of action. While the death of a NPC might be caused by the Robber's failure mechanically, the impact is lessened if we can't see a story-reason for the same. The Robber's character needs to be responsible, not the player himself.

Note that there's a wide range of results between getting caught and succeeding against a security measure. Usually heist stories start with a string of successes, but sooner or later go into a spiral of less perfect results, which necessitate improvisation and lure the robbers deeper into the heist with their partial success. The story only ends after a series of continually worse and more chaotic failures, interspeded by successes and culminating in a complete, but hairsbreadth failure. So you could say that most of the time it's quite OK to let the Robber fail, as long as that failure causes intensification of the situation instead of the heist stopping. You'll note that movie cons never pull out of the heist when something goes wrong; the wrong-going is always such a liminal case that they think that they can still pull it off. Also, most heists are characterized by simplicity in theory, spiralling into wild improvisation and complications in execution.

So my advice would be to stick to traditional cause-and-effect stakes, because there's plenty to work with there; for instance, you could say that failure always entails a change in NPC motivations: a guard notices that something's wrong, an accomplice loses his nerve and bolts, an innocent gets hurt or something similar. Thus every failure has the potential to cause the heist to go off the rails.

Just some thoughts.
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Matthew Glover
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« Reply #2 on: February 16, 2006, 02:23:20 PM »

I love love love this whole idea.  Heist films are a favorite of mine and a game that's designed to reproduce that sort of story is something I'd give at least one, maybe two appendages for.

You said that Simon really enjoyed doing the "adventure prep" stage and then enjoyed the "plan devising" stage.  This seems to mirror a lot of movies and shows where you see the Robber casing the joint, then preparing his plan, then enacting it.  I hesitate to recommend abandoning something that got such good feedback, but you might get a better back-and-forth action between players with a different approach.

I'm especially fond of an "intercutting" technique that some movies and television shows use where you switch back and forth between shots of the thieves/spies/etc planning the mission and shots of them actually enacting the plan.  You see a shot of the Robber in the Hideout describing the challenge, then a shot of the Robber facing the challenge itself.  You get this on the tv show Alias all the time. The tech guy starts explaining a fancy gadget and while his explanation continues in voice-over, it cuts to the spy using the gadget on the mission.  The end result is that instead of building your casino and then making your plan for how to get through it, you're doing both at the same time.

I like Eero's suggestion of formalized turns, and intercutting this way might dovetail nicely with that.
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Graham W
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« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2006, 05:46:57 AM »

Matthew, thank you, that's helpful stuff.

I agree, intercutting could add a lot. There's different ways you could use it, too.

You could intercut between the Robber doing the job and, in flashback, laying the groundwork. For example, a player could say "Flashback to me studying the architechural blueprints in City Hall" or "Flashback to me playing in the casino the day before, studying the guards' movements". And that adds a lot.

In a game with more players, you could intercut between different Robbers working in different places. So one Robber player describes sitting in the casino, charming the croupier...and the other interrupts with "Cut to my guy on the roof...". And that'll add a lot to the pace, I think.

What you're suggesting specifically is cutting between describing the security features and the description of the casino. So, perhaps someone says "On the floor, there's a web of infrared beams, invisible to the naked eye" and then the Robber player explains how he's going to get past that.

And I'm not sure about this. It might make the shape of the game like this:

Owner describes security feature
Robber describes how he gets round it
Owner describes security feature
Robber describes how he gets round it


Whereas I rather prefer Eero's suggestion, which makes the game into a challenge:

Owners describe fifty bazillion security features surrounding the emerald
Robbers come and systematically disable them all, then steal the emerald


So I'm not sure about the specific use of intercutting between designing the casino and robbing the casino. But intercutting, yes, very powerful. I'll definitely use it. Thanks.

Eero, thanks for that superbly detailed response. I'm still thinking about it.

Graham
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Graham W
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Posts: 437


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« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2006, 05:56:56 AM »

What you're suggesting specifically is cutting between describing the security features and the description of the casino.

Er...whoops. What I meant to type was: "What you're suggesting is cutting between describing the security features and the robber disabling them."

Graham
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Matthew Glover
Member

Posts: 160


« Reply #5 on: February 17, 2006, 07:43:05 AM »

I love the flashbacks idea.  Maybe you could get some sort of bonus for conflict resolution for throwing in a Prep flashback?

The sort of flow you describe isn't necessarily contrary to the opposition that Eero suggested.  The way he lays it out seems to be:

the Owner suggests a security feature
the Robber suggests preparation to overcome it
repeat

But it's the shifting narration that Eero suggests that makes it interesting.  I think that's an important element.

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