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Author Topic: [OCHH] Third playtest – Noir with switching moral values  (Read 3512 times)
Jonas Ferry
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« on: March 03, 2006, 02:30:41 PM »

This Monday I ran the third playtest of my September Ronnies award winning (yay!) noir game One Can Have Her. I've talked about it once or twice before in Indie Design.

Just to get you updated, here's my current answers to The Big Three.

1. What is your game about?
The game's about telling stories about men trapped in seemingly impossible situations, from the kicker in the first scene to the final scene's decision on whether the character comes out on top or is destroyed. The game takes place in a noir city, real or invented, and tries to bring as much inspiration as possible from film noir.

2. What do the characters do?
The characters are all male, noir archetypical guys like private detectives, insurance agents, company office clerks and such. They're either part of, or get dragged into, the underworld of crime and immorality through a planned or unfortunate event and has to fight to get out alive. In the process they will be actively seduced by a femme fatale shared by all characters, and has to sell the other's to the police to get her.

3. What do the players do?
The players use their characters to collaboratively tell noir stories that end happily or, more likely, in tragedy. In each scene there should be at least one conflict for each character, which will make moral values attached to the character ("Love", "Happiness", "Physical Health" and such) switch from good to bad or the other way around. It's good or bad for the character, but the character doesn't have to agree with the player's decision. The player has to tell the others what it means that the current conflict shifted Happiness from good to bad, and has to do that in each scene. In scene 4 to 7 the players get to play out the prisoner's dilemma with their characters to see who gets away and who gets killed or put in prison.

I'd be glad to answer any questions on the above, as I bet there's stuff I say that's more than a little unclear. "Good" and "bad" are a result of this playtest, they were called "high" and "low" before, and it wasn't very clear what that meant.

In each previous playtest I've scrapped the resolution system completely and tried something new. The same thing happened this time, and the new stuff is mainly the switching moral values and a Sorcerer inspired mechanic. I'm happy to say that I think all the participants, me included, had a fun time during the playtest. One player said that the game have been more fun and have worked better for each test, and that's good.

I had three players, two of them have been in the previous tests and the third one was new. None of the players are really familiar with the original film noirs, but as most people they've seen parodies and tributes enough to know what the genre's about. I cut the basic setting information kind of short, and I don't think the game suffered from it.

Character creation went very well, and was basically the same as in the last test. You start with brainstorming ideas like in Breaking the Ice by passing around a character map at a time with people adding stuff. From the map the players chose three moral values and at least one aspect connected to each value. Aspects are invoked in conflicts to get extra dice, but more on that. The players decided to create characters that were involved in the same problem, but without knowing about each other from the start. It would all revolve around a bag with photographs of a senator candidate who did bad things to a young girl, which one character had and the other two wanted.

Here are the characters we ended up with:

1. Drake Johnson, a sensationalist journalist who had taken the photos in the first place and sold them to a newspaper. The newspaper contact was unfortunately murdered, and now Drake wants his photos back so he can sell them again. In the bag is also a check for him as payment, which he won't get unless he gets the bag.

Value: Truth
Aspect: Camera

Value: Alcoholism
Aspect: Bourbon

Value: Guilt feelings
Aspect: The daughter Jenny

Dream future: To be a respected journalist again.
Drive: To find the pictures and publish them.
Kicker: He hears on his police radio that his newspaper contact has been killed and go there to see if the photos are left.

2. Gordon White, a ruthless official who's sent by the candidate to get the pictures at any cost. He kills the newspaper guy, but forgets the bag in a cab.

Value: Loyalty
Aspect: Senator candidate William Jackson

Value: Isolation
Aspect: Skin disease

Value: Single-mindedness
Aspect: The daughter Jenny

Dream future: To be a respected and loved citizen.
Drive: To find the bag.
Kicker: Gordon realizes that the bag is gone and starts looking for the cabbie.

3. Stavros Philiposis, a street-smart Greek cab driver who finds the bag in his car. He wants money for the bag to pay for returning his family to the home country.

Value: Sanctity of women
Aspect: Daughters, wife and mother

Value: Pride
Aspect: Nationalist

Value: Homesickness
Aspect: Photo of fishing village

Dream future: A sunset over the Mediterranean Sea.
Drive: Get money for the bag / Find his daughters
Kicker: Stavros comes home to find his wife killed by the mafia, who want the photos. They have kidnapped his daughters.

The kicker isn't anything that's written down on the character sheet at the moment, it's just something that the GM and player agree on has to happen to get the drive going. The drive is what keeps the character going, the jam he can't get out of. The dream future is something he might get, if he rats on the others.

The starting values can be good, mediocre or bad. When a mediocre value switches the player can chose if it goes to good or bad, but after that it's always switching between the extremes. All values start at mediocre, and if you take one good you have to set the other at bad and vice versa. No player chose to leave them all at mediocre, they all wanted a bit of variation. I suspect that will be very common, but I don't know if the way it is now is the best.

Actually, it just hit me that it's really unnecessary to limit the starting values in any way. They will switch many times during the game, and it's not like it's better to have good values in any mechanical sense. If a player wants to portray a guy who has it all, but in the first scene loses something, that should also be possible. In the next playtest I'll let the players set the starting values any way they want.

To illustrate the conflict resolution system and the shifting values I can tell you about the first scene for the journalist Drake. Basically you roll 1d10 for each activated aspect, the side with the highest die at the end of the conflict reaches his goal for the conflict. If the highest dice are the same, look for the second highest and so on. Extra successes (dice higher than the opponents highest) give bonus dice on later related conflicts.

The player started by doing a noir monologue in order to have me as GM create scene aspects based what he said. The player talked in first-person how he had been drinking all night, waiting for his contact with the money when he heard that he had been shot at his office close to the bar. He went there to get there before the police and the player described a hysterical secretary on his character's way to the office. I jotted down "hysterical secretary." He described the corpse and I wrote "dead guy" on a note and placed them both between us with a d10 on each. When the monologue was over I said "What are you doing here", and introduced a rival journalist who worked at the newspaper.

Someone suggested that the killer had dropped some political pamphlets by mistake, and Drake wanted them. The conflict would be whether he got the pamphlets without the other journalist noticing. Drake's goal was "Get the pamphlets without getting noticed" and the journalist's was "Get dirt on Drake". The player started by rolling 1d10 for the aspect "Bourbon" and narrated how Drake played more drunk than he was, then puked on the floor to distract the guy while he got the papers. I activated the journalist's aspect "Hawkeye" to see if he noticed anything, and rolled a d10 of my own. I also snatched the d10 for the hysterical secretary, who ran in and bumped into Drake and got him off-balance. He used his camera aspect to blind the other journalist with a photo of him and the corpse and I gave. Drake succeeded and we looked at what aspects he had used.

During the playtest, the two states for values were high and low, not good and bad as they are now. "Bourbon" was an aspect of the value Alcoholism, and the player had set it at "low" before the start. The switch to high was quite easy for the player to explain: Drake had exposed his consumption to others in a rather disgusting way, and the alcoholism had been very visible in the story. That worked, but they way the system works now the switch would instead have been from bad to good. The same stuff leading up to the switch would happen, but in the new system it would get another meaning.

I think they new way is easier, but that's still a question I have. Is it possible to see how alcoholism could go from bad to good for the character in the scene described, or should I tamper even more with the names and requirements for the two states?

I also want to show you a scan of one of the playtest character sheets, of character Drake Johnson. It's filled out in Swedish, but you can at least see the values (from the top: "Sanning"=Truth, "Alkoholiserad"=Alcoholic and "Skuldkänslor"=Guilt feelings) and how they changed in each scene 1-5. The reason lines are flat for scene 2 and 3 is because I speeded past them to get to the ratting. You can see the scene described earlier, scene 1, how Truth and Alcoholism switched. I think it's pretty neat to be able to see what happened in the scenes afterwards, it makes it a lot easier to remember the action.

Please give me feedback or come with questions. I want to focus on the values, the resolution system and how the ratting affects them, and not so much everything else (the femme fatale, the production code that's like Capes' comics code or playing in black-and-white).

If anyone's interested in helping me out with a playtest of your own, that would be really cool. PM me or send an email.
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One Can Have Her, film noir roleplaying in black and white.

Check out the indie RPG category at Wikipedia.
JMendes
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2006, 11:00:17 AM »

Hey, Jonas, :)

First off, yeah, sure, why not? ;)

Anyway, right off the bat, I couldn't deduce from your post who ratted when and how long (how many rounds) the game took, which is something I'd find cool to see.

Second thing I'd like to ask is, since your main goal is to produce noir, did that materialize at the table or not? In other words, did you, as GM, feel like you were watching a noir film, and did the players feel like they were in one. For your part, just straight yay or nay. For the other players, not only whether, but also, and just as important, how can you tell.

Yes, testing the mechanics is important, but testing your main design goals is more, I'd think.

Lastly, you mention this was your third playtest, but I don't know if you posted the other two or not. Assuming not, any differential highlights between or two playtests?

Cheers,
J.
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Jonas Ferry
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« Reply #2 on: March 06, 2006, 01:56:01 PM »

Thanks for the questions!

The ratting is a main part of the game, and I sped past some scenes to get to it in the playtest. Not so much because it needed testing, but because it's fun.

Ok, one thing was different from previous tests. Before, each player has written four "Rat" and four "Don't rat" notes before the game. Before the ratting scenes they have handed a note to me and I have decided the order of the final scene based on who are ratting and who are not. This time I added boxes on the character sheet instead, with the players secretly filling it out and then revealing it at the same time. Having the GM decide the order of the scenes can produce some suspense, as the players aren't sure if they're getting away or not. On the other hand, if they all now how it will end they can set up a nice final showdown scene and know that it will be their last. I'm leaning towards the latter way to do it at the moment.

I originally thought that it would be a one-session game, but I've realized that's not possible. It will need one character creation session and then two or three sessions of play. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder if the ratting and the epilogues will feel strange when you play regular sessions first and then suddenly it can all end. The day after tomorrow I'm going to start a three-to-four session playtest and take things nice and slow, to see what that'll feel like.

Who ratted, you ask. Well, in the first ratting scene, scene 4, only one of the characters ratted and the other two didn't. It was the journalist that did, and we decided that he would lure the cab driver to a bar and get the police over there while he talked the cab driver into handing over the photos. We didn't spend any time on the third guy's trouble with the police, but instead skipped to scene 5. That time both the journalist and the cab driver ratted, and it happened to be the last scene, so we had a showdown in front of the office of the magazine where the photos had been sold in the first place. The cab driver attacked the journalist with a knife, killing him, and was gunned down by the police. The official, who was wanted for murder, was caught by the police and put in jail. All of these things were decided by the players themselves, I didn't push a certain ending on them. Interesting to note is that the player of the journalist ratted twice, and he has ratted every time in the previous tests as well. He has said out-of-game that he thinks it's a superior tactic, and it makes me wonder how it affects the game to have such a certain player involved.

Was it noir? I would say "yes", definitely. I asked before the test how familiar the new tester was of genre, and he said half-jokingly that he had seen Sin City. Close enough. Really, the genre isn't that hard to get into, but I will of course have to add help in the game to get it right.

The first thing you do is choose a noir archetype for your character, so that's the first chances to see if you're all on the same wavelength. Then you do the character map, a mind-map thing where you associate words to words already written. Based on the map the player chooses values and aspects. This is the second chance you have to see if someone is adding "fluffy puppy" and "horse with butterfly wings and a rainbow for mane", as the player doesn't have to use every term added. People can then discuss if any of the terms seem totally out there. They probably won't, the worst that can happen is that they don't feel right for some reason, and then the player can just ignore it or the person who wrote it can explain what they meant by it.

The third thing you do is choose a dream future for your character, and then the drive. All of these can be discussed until they fit the genre enough for the most picky, to borrow from Dogs in the Vineyard, of the group.

Because of you're question I asked one of the players what he thought. He said that he hasn't seen enough films noir to say that it wasn't noir, and that it felt noir enough for him. Many of the things you associate with the genre (desperate protagonists, a femme fatale, voice-over narration) are built into the game.

Yeah, this was the third test, and I don't think I've written that much about the earlier two. I talk a bit about the second playtest in a post on my blog called One Can Have Her playtest. The first test was of the original game, and I had a hard time explaining the card mechanic to the players. I also had Ron's comment about how underutilized a deck of cards where you only look for red or black is, so when it didn't work I tossed it.

The second playtest used a neat dice mechanic borrowed from some really old dice game. You rolled four dice looking for one or two pairs. If you spent resource points you could scale the die size up and down, to increase or decrease the chances of pairs. The problem we ran in to was that we too often ended up with the same amount of pairs on both sides (usually zero or one), and had to use the rules for draws that weren't too developed.

For this third test I decided to base the dice you roll on how many values you have activated. But it felt strange to activate "truth" directly, hence the aspects. Also, the aspects make the values a lot more graspable, which is good.

A last note, one of my testers made me aware that I made a mistake in the character write-ups above. The aspect for Gordon's single-mindedness should be "Sadist", not "Jenny". I made a copy-and-paste error.

Oh, one more thing. I want to emphasize something in relation to my answers to the three questions on what the game's about. You're not supposed to tell stories in the sense that the GM or the players tell it to the others. Instead the players should try to get their character out of their jam, with the resulting conflicts acting as points where the story might turn in different directions. The story's not done until the game's over, and it's produced by using the system and playing your character hard. That's probably my main design goal: that using the system should result in interesting situations, interesting characters and an interesting story.
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One Can Have Her, film noir roleplaying in black and white.

Check out the indie RPG category at Wikipedia.
Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: March 06, 2006, 02:36:27 PM »

Quote
A last note, one of my testers made me aware that I made a mistake in the character write-ups above. The aspect for Gordon's single-mindedness should be "Sadist", not "Jenny". I made a copy-and-paste error.

Too bad.  It sounds much more interesting the other way...
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JMendes
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« Reply #4 on: March 06, 2006, 05:20:46 PM »

Hey, :)

You're not supposed to tell stories in the sense that the GM or the players tell it to the others. Instead the players should try to get their character out of their jam, with the resulting conflicts acting as points where the story might turn in different directions. The story's not done until the game's over, and it's produced by using the system and playing your character hard. That's probably my main design goal: that using the system should result in interesting situations, interesting characters and an interesting story.
I gathered as much, both from the rules and from the playtest writeup. I think you're in the clear on this one. Good job. :)

Interesting to note is that the player of the journalist ratted twice, and he has ratted every time in the previous tests as well. He has said out-of-game that he thinks it's a superior tactic
And so do I, which is why I asked. The rules as written favor aiming for an endgame in scene four, which means going for an early rat is a good payoff. One thing you might immediately do is work the odds so that the endgame is more evenly distributed between scenes 4, 5, 6 and 7, but that's not easy to do with a d6, as it requires your odds to be 1/4 in turn 4, 1/3 in turn 5 and 1/2 in turn 6.

The biggest problem, however, that you don't actually have prisoner's dilemma here, because the penalty for being ratted on is really no different for the player, whether you rat or not, so that ratting effectively costs you nothing. (Unless I'm misreading something...) You may need to enforce a steep penalty onto a player that both rats and is ratted on in non-endgame turns, in order to provide an incentive not to rat. Perhaps something as simple as "such a player cannot rat the next turn" might work, but then again, this might completely screw over your dynamics.

Anyway, this is definitely something to think about.

Cheers,
J.
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