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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 170 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: [The People's Hero] Glasnost role-playing  (Read 4330 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: January 18, 2007, 08:35:03 PM »

Hello,

All the way back in November 2005, when I posted the terms for the third round of the Ronnies, a notion for a game entered my head with them. The same thing had happened with the first round, and I'd actually written it as a 24-Hour game of my own. That game, It Was a Mutual Decision, underwent playtesting and eventual production. I toyed with the notion of doing another 24-Hour one for the new idea, but it didn't click, and I ended up with a few pages of notes to begin the far slower, more grind-y process of percolation.

By GenCon last year, I had a few pages of notes for what seemed like a playable idea, called "The People's Hero." I'd looted a few ideas from my Doctor Chaos idea, which upon reflection didn't grab me through its Color enough to whip through the later stages of playtesting. It's sort of a shame, because I really liked the card mechanics from that game and the notion of a collectively-played central character. But in the absence of any real enthusiasm on my part for supervillains - it was all remembered enthusiasm, you see, and thus triply hard to instill in others if they don't share it - the best thing to do was shelve it and mine it.

Which was good, because the collectivist notion turned out to be perfect for what I wanted to do with the terms soviet and dragon. The term "dragon" was applied to the U.S.S.R. on more than one occasion during the Cold War, but it was also used as an epithet in the other direction, as "dragons of capitalism." No one in the contest had used the term that way, and I wanted somehow to concern myself with larger-than-life, iconic heroes who did not wear costumes, and yet did not get all wrapped up in soap operas either. On a wider scale, I was also mildly disappointed to see less glasnost in the Ronnies entry than I thought I might, and when I get that kind of reaction, I realize it's about what I want to do, not about what others should have done.

One curse I face in playtesting is forgetting my notes. That happened once during the Mutual Decision playtesting, and wouldn't you know it, on my way to the Embassy Suites to try out The People's Hero in its notes-about-maybe-alpha form, I couldn't find the fucking pages in my luggage. I put them in my bag for just that reason. In the hotel room, I hunted up and down through a million receipts and notes for other stuff, and went off to the evening of gaming empty-handed. And then, of course, I found them easily the next morning. The result? In both cases, a botched playtest because I found myself confused between various versions of a given rule that I'd considered without being able to figure out which one had been provisionally finalized in the notes themselves. Gahh.

Anyway, regardless, I sat down with Tony Lower-Basch, Jasper Anderton, and James Brown. Given the poor context for play (my memory), there's not much point in talking about the rules and what was made of them. Only a few things emerged from that session - mainly that the collectivist-player-character idea definitely had legs, and that the trade-off between winning all the money vs. sharing all the money on something tangible provided a great context, as I'd hoped.

Money, you ask? Yes. In this game, as with Standoff! and Mexican Standoff, every person puts some money into a pile (in this case, $5 each). Play ends if either (a) the Hero defeats all the capitalist Dragons, in which case the money is spent on something nice for everyone; or (b) any single Dragon achieves all of its nefarious goals, in which case that player gets all of it. After playing and enjoying City of Brass, I used what I learned from that game's physical material (the sheet) in constructing the Dragon sheets. The really interesting thing, I think, is that ownership of the Hero bounces around from player to player.

So each turn, someone is playing their Dragon (called the Adversary at that point), and someone else is opposing them with the Hero. At the end of the turn, the Dragon has either gained some mileage toward a goal, or lost some. Which Dragon goes next, as well as ownership of the Hero, jump around the table in a partly-random, partly-socially-determined way.

There are other rules too. I really like the ones about the Hero inadvertently destroying State property and then having to evade the MVD (cops), or diverting damage onto the People in some cases and hence attracting the attention of the 2nd Directorate (KGB). Incidentally, the Hero can die, or go to the Gulag, or go to the Lubyanka, in all cases removing that Hero ... but of course, another one shall arise when needed. So there's a stack of Hero cards, and when a Hero meets a permanent fate, you just flip over a new one.

The whole thing is a little cartoony and parodic, but whether the genuine satiric content is aimed more toward Soviet stuff or more toward capitalist profiteering and warmongering is hard to say. To some extent, each group determines that answer on their own simply by how the game ends up with each instance of play. Oh yeah, and it uses Fudge dice, although they aren't read in the usual Fudge fashion - minuses and plusses are separately totaled and do not cancel out, instead serving independent functions.

So after a very busy post-GenCon season and a few hassles to cope with here and there, I got back to the manuscript a few months ago, and really tarted it up into playable shape. Then it sat a little while longer, partly because I'd entered into some long-term play with both groups (with enough interruptions that sticking with our current games was preferred over playtesting), and it wasn't until last month that I reformatted it and decided to buckle down and try it out. So Tim A, Tim K, Chris, and I broke out some beer and dropped some money on the table, with the proviso that if the game proved itself unbaked, we'd all get it back. I cut out the heroes (at least one from each Republic) and stacked them up, passed around the profiteers and warmongers for people to choose among, and piled up the Factory, which is to say, the Fudge dice that will be drawn upon during play.

How did it go? Really well, for the first real playtest. Here are the things that worked well:

1. The players all bought into the Hero as character(s). The one who lived longest, from Georgia, even got his own theme song and came to look and act suspiciously like Marv from Sin City; he left a trail of property destruction a mile wide and evaded the MVD for an insanely long time. I was interested to see that on two occasions, players (one was me) failed to take the tactical approach by killing the Hero and instead racked up more danger from the Second Directorate, because they were sentimentally distracted from tactics for a moment.

2. The scene-creating, situation-creating routine did a very good job of establishing a problem, getting the People into danger, and butting the Hero straight into there right up against the Dragon. It's especially fun because everyone is always involved, but you don't have to keep doing the same thing over and over.

3. The People stayed pretty sketchy, but they were nonetheless rather poignant. Poor little Katrina, who was poisoned by the depraved drug lord! But on the other hand, the guy who worked at the nuclear reactor managed to escape awful death in two separate scenes.

4. The dice themselves worked perfectly. Victory/loss in the confrontation, damage to the Hero, and damage to the State were all easily determined, and the way they interact was enjoyable and made sense.

5. There is, as far as we can tell from this one test, no optimal strategy that can be identified early and then stuck to in order to fix on a win. Since dice change, the Hero changes (both in terms of powers and in terms of individuals), and player-alliances can form and dissolve in minutes, one still has to assess the situation and decide on one's approach at any point in the game. Plus, no decision is 100% reliable - it's always a calculated risk.

6. One can tactically act upon the current situation as well, in a couple of ways. Dice donation is one small way, and a much bigger way is choosing who gets the Hero next or which Dragon you're going to confront.

Here are the things I've fixed, or almost fixed:

1. The Hero was, collectively (heh), way tougher than I or any of us anticipated. The four Dragons barely got half of their pips filled in, and by the end, the Hero was pretty reliably whittling them all down. This wasn't a "lock" so much as a tendency for all the other players to throw in with the Hero, as well as a couple of astounding rolls that happened to favor the Hero on that particular night. I decided that the Dragons need a powers list too, although they will function on a level of play differently from the Hero's powers.

2. A lock did show up at the end, though, when a player (me) got hold of the Hero and chose to keep him. Now, the way the rules are supposed to work, if the Hero is going to beat all the Dragons, then more than one person is necessarily going to have to buy into that outcome for it to happen. But this was a one-person thing, and I figured out why - there's no disincentive to give up the Hero if you have a ton of dice, and winning means you get more dice. So I decided that instead of gaining a die, a person who decides to keep the Hero has to give away a die to the person who was just defeated. That means the Hero gets weaker unless he is played collectively. It also means, however, that you shouldn't hold onto the Hero to make him weak either, because dice belong to the player, not the character (i.e. by deliberately weakening the Hero by keeping him, you really weaken yourself as Dragon).

3. A certain difficulty with ordering showed up, because every turn, (a) a Dragon's goal is either advanced or set back, (b) the Hero might live or die, (c) the Hero (if he lives) might be dragged off to the Lubyanka or the Gulag, (d) the People's fate in the scene depends on some choice-making, (e) the Hero might move to another player, and (f) the Adversary will definitely change. So we figured out very quickly what order it should be done in, always, and our solution entered the rules.

Overall, the whole thing boosted my enthusiasm for the eventual product from privately optimistic to socially validated. The session generated a wave of enthusiastic descriptions, singing, table-thumping, cries of grief (Chris has not forgiven Tim K for Katrina), and sound effects. Plus a certain amount of education about history, some of which was utterly unknown to a participant or two. I've already fixed up and expanded the presentation of the rules, with only a few more sections to tart up a bit. When it's ready, I think I'll make it available for general playtesting, which is not something I typically do with my games. Partly because it's a more competitive-dicey type of play than I'm comfortable with assessing by myself, and partly because I sort of, you know, just want to share.

Best, Ron
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2007, 08:12:10 AM »

Ron,

I think your idea about forcing the players to spread out the hero if they want him so succeed is a good one. As I said at the table, something I enjoyed most about People's Hero is that it consistently introduces the split between communal victory and individual victory (socialism vs capitalism) into actual play. Everything from splitting the money if the hero wins vs keeping all of it for yourself if your dragon wins to keeping dice for yourself vs dishing them out as gift dice reinforces the basic conflict of the game. On the other hand, I didn't realize how invested I (or any other player) became in the hero when the hero was under my personal control. In other words, our sense of ownership over the hero had a lot to do with the choices we made concerning the hero. By diffusing some of that sense of ownership and putting it back on everyone's personal dragon, I think you'll see a definite shift in the way the game is played.

Of course the other elegant advantage to your new rule is the movement of dice -- and those dice will move rather evenhandedly because you can't choose the same dragon twice in a row. This solves another one of our concerns insofar as by the end of the night the incentive was to horde dice rather than give any away (which I'm still not sure was the optimal strategy, especially if you're going for a communal victory over an individual one).

As a note on strategy, I also wanted to mention competitive vs cooperative play more generally. From the point of view of one player, there are three possible outcomes: (1) your dragon wins and you get all of the money, (2) the hero defeats a dragon and everyone shares the money, and (3) someone else's dragon wins and you get nothing. When we played I think that everyone was largely concentrating on either #1 or #3. Although we all seemed to be rooting for the hero, we still wanted to optimize our strategies for an individual victory. So now I'm wondering just how possible it is to force a communal victory even without the collective support of all of the other players. And how committed do you need to be to one form of victory over the other in order to play optimally? Can you simply play not to lose (#1 or #2), or do you really need to commit to either #1 or #2 upfront to make it work?

These are really musings I suppose. I don't expect you to have answers. It's just something I'll be paying attention to next time we play.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2007, 10:05:00 AM »

Hi Tim,

Your final question really is the hinge upon which the game will or will not work. My hope is that if the game were to be played completely competitively, such that the Hero were only a mechanism to set back one's opponents, it would still be fun. My other hope is that if even the slight majority of players, for the slight majority of the time, favor the Hero-success outcome, that it has a reasonable shot of success instead (and also be fun). Ideally, the dynamic tension between these two, or rather [(1A) I win, (1B) I lose, (2) we win], should apply throughout play, with "rising action" and potential changes in decision-making being available throughout. I'd really like each and every player to be confronted at some point with choosing between (1) and (2), in a critical tactical way as well as an underlying thing. I'd prefer it if one could not merely play both ends against the middle throughout the game (fie upon the liberals, Comrade!).

So far, the signs are good, especially since the Hero and the People have turned out to be as sympathetic as I'd hoped. My largest concern is whether the deadlock between (1) and (2) is such that no Dragon gets close to winning, and yet the Hero cannot quite manage to knock them all out (or rather any given three depending on who has him at the last). In a way, I'm trying to clean out simple-minded optimal strategies at this point of playtesting such that this deadlock does get established, and then move on to such concerns as Dragon powers and Hero powers in order to make sure minor , situational, temporary optimal strategies are available, especially as relevant to the (1) vs. (2) issue.

Best, Ron
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #3 on: January 21, 2007, 11:05:34 AM »

I'd really like each and every player to be confronted at some point with choosing between (1) and (2), in a critical tactical way as well as an underlying thing. I'd prefer it if one could not merely play both ends against the middle throughout the game (fie upon the liberals, Comrade!).

Yes, I think that your statement above pretty well sums up the fear I was having and attempting to tease out in my original comment. With your modifications to the Hero mechanics, I think we'll see some different strategies emerge. Combine those new strategies with an awareness of our different options that was somewhat cloaked due to the novelty of the game first time around, and I'm betting that if any one player becomes too powerful that the others will have a serious discussion about maneuvering for a communal victory.

As with other games we've played recently (Space Rat, etc.), I love the fact that People's Hero encourages the players to not only pay attention to each other's narrations, but also to each other's resources. The latter in fact breeds more of the former as the game progresses. Therefore, the more interesting the resource management, the more involved everyone will be in the entire game. It sounds to me like things are moving in the right direction.
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contracycle
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« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2007, 03:13:38 AM »

A brief question on the last paragraph is I may.  How are the resources of other players visible?  Just wondering on the particular device in use there; are these the dragon sheets?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2007, 05:24:30 AM »

Hi Gareth,

Here are all the physical parts of play:

1. Each player has a Dragon sheet, and its goals and pips-per-goal are all visible to everybody.

2. Each player has one or more Fudge dice; the number varies quite a bit during play, although if you go to zero dice, you get a new one automatically. The dice are all visible to everybody.

3. The current Hero is face-up for everyone to see, including which powers are activated, how much damage he's taken, and how many points have accumulated for both the MVD and the Second Directorate. The rest of the Heroes are either out of play (having met their end in some way) or remain in the face-down stack of the Hero deck.

4. The money, of course. This just sits there until the game is over, when it gets distributed in one of the two ways.

I guess the take-home is that there are no secret parts of play, such as cards one holds or hidden tokens or anything like that.

Best, Ron
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