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Author Topic: [Secret Identities] - Players against system, GM, themselves or each other  (Read 1889 times)
HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« on: October 07, 2009, 11:38:40 AM »

To the Forge's brainstorming crew (ie: any regular reader of the "First Thoughts" section)

Normally, when I start a design, I know exactly what kind of game-play I want to create. This time, though, I was given the sense of what I want players to experience (a subtle difference you'll see.)

So, this game I'm in the middle of designing is absolutely missing one of its core mechanics. The solution is hinted at in the subject head: Should the design pit the players against the system? the GM? Each other? or just themselves?

I'll give you some more context before digging into the design question.
"While holding and wielding the superpowers is a staple experience for every superhero game, few 'superhero games' actually deal with something every superhero has at least thought about: a secret identity.
In Secret Identities, you and the other players define your hero and the people he knows and other elements that make up his normal life. You'll have to learn to strike that careful balance between making your costumed patrols and not forgetting birthdays, hospital dates and school. Be careful, though. The more that your father, your best friend, and your girlfriend know about your alter ego, the more danger they're in. Your own rogue's gallery is actively looking for who you really are, too. Keep the secret; it's your life."

That's a rough draft of the flavor of the game. Essentially, each player defines their superhero's powers -- and for every power (strictly defined), the player has to draw up a new member of his normal life, who has a suspicion of "our hero's" secret. That suspicion is gauged in a Hang-man-like game: Aunt May, as represented on an index card, will have blank letters for the word "Nephew." Lois Lane would have blank letters for the word "co-worker." As the relationship changes, so does the word. Each person has a time and location they would be at where they'd normally meet "our hero." Aunt May has "home" at night. Lois has "morning" at work.
A deck of playing cards dictates what's happening in the city that "our hero" picks up on: 2 of clubs is a minor mugging; King of Hearts is a super-villain jailbreak. I'm defining how players interact with the schedule, but you can figure that you'll fill in Lois's and Aunt May's suspicion by not showing up to work or home.
So far, it's single-player -- except that players are encouraged (via power gains) to "share" people and locations. It's a small village of superheroes.

I'm inclined to write a design that pits players against the system. "Being a hero is hard work, and sometimes fate will throw you a curveball, no matter what you manage to do."
However, the GM/other players may work well to bring adversity. "Don't lose your secret identity before anyone else does. The GM/other players will be the NPCs that you have to actively keep the secret from or coax them into your secret."
I'm not sure how, but there's room to have players set their own challenges. "The more close calls you have with your normal life, the better off your superpowers are. Just don't go too far: your normal life will figure it out and dump you."

Now you see a little bit more about the gameplay issue. I'm not sure what I want players to have to deal with. I'm thinking of questions like: "Should they work together against a common enemy? Should they be set against each other, but still with a common enemy?"

The real question that I'm looking for an answer for: "What is a good fiction-setting dynamic that fits well with what has already been established in the character creation?"
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Callan S.
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« Reply #1 on: October 07, 2009, 03:36:53 PM »

I think your shooting for some sort of story coming together around this, but I think what you'll find is that players will quickly start using whatever works in terms of winning. That only makes story in a sort of secondary way, like sports reporters make a story out of a sports match.

I mean, your aware of moral challenge, right? Like perhaps my uncle is starting to suspect I'm a super hero and that's putting him in danger...the challenge being not how to micro manage resources to counter that, but instead the moral question as to whether you give up super hero-ing for good or keep being a 'good' super hero, when you know deciding to do so is putting your own uncles life in danger.

I'm wondering if your trying to shoot for that sort of issue but got sidelined onto playing to win gaming?
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Philosopher Gamer
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zone24
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« Reply #2 on: October 07, 2009, 07:59:27 PM »

I think it's a good idea.... Go for it
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #3 on: October 12, 2009, 02:55:58 PM »

I think you're onto something with that point about being sidelined into a play-to-win scenario. I've gotten down quite a few notes since posting this, which changes some of the dynamics - but doesn't set the central system.
What I am aiming for is the moral challenge. You're right, Callan. So far, the only things set down in the notebook are describing the effect of/consequence of/how to/where to/when to make that moral
decision.
I've got incentives for players to make either decision: building up their normal life adds effectiveness to their superpowers; fighting crime reduces future difficulties in challenges and reduces the likelihood that your normal life gets interrupted. (Sharing the secret causes a chance between losing the normal life person or keeping them and having little effectiveness.)

However, who interprets that card's event? The player or someone else?
I have set a mechanic where X cards are drawn (X = no. of players + 1) and players (in an undefined turn) may organize the order of the cards, one at a time.
If players narrate from the pool of cards, then they have control over defining the challenge. If they narrate for the guy on their left, then they're defining a challenge that may come back to bite them (not a bad thing -- if it works as predicted.)

What I am missing, though, is the thing that the players do to express the game's play. Narrate for the other guy; a GM narrates for you; fate decides an absolute-control narrator -- all valid options that could turn the game one way or another.
I may call a new brainstorming session to just get out the best parts of the possibilities.
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Mike Sugarbaker
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Posts: 108

|>


« Reply #4 on: October 13, 2009, 01:00:51 PM »

It might be totally fine to have a play-to-win scenario emerge, if the things you have to do to win end up making the players experience what you want.

A random thought I'm having: suppose the hero's resource is not generalized innocence, but the lies used to cover the secrets up. Those constitute your "defensive line:"

= = = = =
* * * * *


where the = signs are lie cards (index cards face up, with the details of the lie written on) and the * signs are things the hero holds dear (written on face-down cards). Stuff that happens when the hero is out in the world as their plain ol' secret-identity self can threaten these lies, and a strong enough attack (or bad luck) can destroy them; if that happens, there's the option for the player to make new lies, intended to patch up the old one, on a second rank:

  =
  |
= = = = =
* * * * *


But the total number of lies on the table only went up. That doesn't sound like it's gonna end well, does it? And the second-order lies should naturally be easier to attack. Then there's stuff that happens when the hero is in costume; it can threaten those precious asterisk-y things directly as well as threatening lies on the side.

This is highly sketchy and has obvious flaws but I thought I'd put it out there. You can see how it'd put even the "gamiest" players in a spot that feels very much like that of the hero's. It could be stronger in terms of keeping the story attached to game decisions, so that the game doesn't slide toward abstraction. I dunno.
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #5 on: October 14, 2009, 02:35:34 PM »

Mike, that's a brilliant addition - and it brings me one step closer to the central play mechanic. (I agree with your line about the bottom line being "the experience you want." Originally, this game was set as a videogame, using made-up intellectual property. The experience is more important than its mode/CA/etc.)
I'm going to have to do some tweaking to integrate it, though it may lead me to the next step if I mull over it long enough.

The asterisks would be their "normal life" contacts, and the rules to reduce suspicions would limit how many lies would be on the table before someone figures the secret out.

What I'm missing now is the mechanic that generates the threats to those asterisks and lies.
{the following is my sounding-board moment. I'm not necessarily asking everyone each question.}
I mean, you have some written out powers, you have your contact stuff written out, you have a schedule that you're supposed to be following... and the GM sets the time to Morning.
Then what? (It's someone's turn, I guess.)
If it's my turn, what do I do? (I guess I say what I'm doing where I am in the morning. Seems like everyone would do that.)
Then what? (Well, the GM turns over a number of playing cards, visible for everyone.)
Yeah? (... and then, the GM chooses one and narrates what it means in the city.)
Then what? (Uhm... then players decide whether they move to the city from their location. If they break schedule, they add a lie to the normal life contact.)
Uh-huh. What then? (... then... then, the players that decide to go to the city... uh…, fight crime?)

That’s where I slide into abstraction. In my design doc, A = punch, B = kick.
Now, I need to figure out a way to attune the heroes’ powers to the playing cards. Then, as each card enters play, the situation in the fiction may change, but players know how their characters interact with the world – and what to expect from it.
Rudimentarily, I was thinking of using the number cards as dictating the number of total power chips total to “win the fight” (or prevent the fight from causing problems for the asterisk people.) How, then, do face-cards work? Aces? Etc.

I think everyone is now in the same mental place I am.

(excellent help, though, Mike. That totally jives with what I wanted the "growing suspicion that my son is a superhero" dynamic to be.)
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Mike Sugarbaker
Member

Posts: 108

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« Reply #6 on: October 14, 2009, 05:02:43 PM »

I didn't really have any ties to the specifics of your other system stuff when I dreamt this up... not saying it can't be tied in, just saying, no warranty.

Are you thinking of modeling the experience of the parents? If so I went off down the wrong track. Modeling growing suspicions is a totally different problem. (Although: a game with both hero and loved-one PCs, and an asymmetric system? Hawwwwwt. Netrunner Lives!)
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #7 on: October 15, 2009, 02:42:42 PM »

I can live with "no warranty." {insert your favorite engineering metaphor/anecdote}

I'm not sure I understand what "modeling the experience of the parents" means. Unless you're saying, "Using game mechanics to dictate the behavior of the NPCs," help me out.

(Now I'm also looking up "Netrunner" and "asymmetric systems.")
Mike, your biggest addition was the lie management, which adds to the no-hero-is-an-island game I'm exploring.
{Recap to include what I've added to the system: The PCs are superheroes, and the number of powers they have is equal to the number of "normal life contacts" they have. Each contact has a schedule. If PCs spend time at home, they'll gain power chips -- but the city (representing generalized danger) also receives a number of power chips. If PCs do their superhero thing when they're supposed to be home, they have to make a lie, which represents the growing suspicion of any given contact.}
Further, those contacts have a number 1-10. Players know that the number represents how many chips they get for spending a scene with that person -- and also, if that number is drawn, that contact is somehow involved in an event in the city.
(Example: Aunt May gives Peter Parker 8 power chips, but if an 8 of clubs is drawn, she'll also appear in that scene.)
The accumulated lies also receive a number. In normal life, those scenes are where a lie gets challenged in some way. Those challenges happen more often with more lies.

After reading the "system does matter" essay, I came across the Karma system, which sorts out the superheroy interactions. If a player chooses an 2 of Diamonds for a scene, and she has 8 power chips, then the player herself would narrate something according to what elements have to be there. (Watch the number of verbs per subject.) "A small-time crook broke open an ATM machine and is robbing it. Terrifica stops him and drops him off at the police station." The player can pay one more chip to narrate: "Terrifica also takes a short-cut to her school."
Having fewer chips in hand than the available cards means a volunteer (I need another rule to handle this.) narrates a less favorable scene, using all the elements (Terrifica, a 2, Diamonds, in the city.) (Watch the verbs per subject again.) "A mugger has nabbed a purse, but Terrifica swooped in and tried to stop him. Using pepper spray from the purse, the mugger stuns Terrifica."
At present, the only mechanical evidence of a failed event is that the character can't move to a new location before the next card -- and sometimes players won't move even in a successful event.

I think, with some of those additions, I might have a better handle on the center of play.
Central Pattern of Play
The GM sets the time (Morning), and X cards are drawn (X = no. of players + 1). (If it's the first turn, before cards are drawn, PCs decide where they are at that time, and tell a short bit about what they're doing.) Drawn cards are laid out, and players (I still have to determine who goes first) choose one-by-one the cards they narrate, giving a short scene per player per card.
Thus, if we have 2 players, there'll be three "scenes" (like the Terrifica bit above) per time of day (morning, afternoon, night).

I'm debating the use of a "finale" event, leading up to a denouement for each character.
(In the videogame, there was no denouement: the sandbox stayed open and after graduating college, you still patrolled the city. The only conditions that ended the game were if you were thrown in supervillain jail and couldn't figure out how to escape.)
The value of the "finale": creates a closing where all suspicions get confronted, the "where are they now" gets named, and so on. A good "wrap" party seems fitting but...
The finale's problem: I wanted some NPCs to figure out the secret during the game. That doesn't preclude the use of the finale, but I just need to read a little bit more about the use of closing scenes.

As we get to the bottom of our first page, any thoughts about using a "closing scene" or "finale"?
Any valued contributions about the Central Pattern of Play, as hammered out above?

(As always, I value any reading you guys can point me toward for either question.)
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #8 on: October 19, 2009, 08:42:35 PM »

Dear readers,

I (sort of) solved the "ending" thing by an interesting combination. Check this:
I instructed the players to "define" their method of calling the end of the game, which then initiates a "sum-up" scene and "Where are they now" telling.

In the set-up of the game, there's a little bit of artwork, paper-cutting, and so on that needs to go on. I instruct them to have that conversation while doing "Craft Time." Inasmuch as the players want a wrap-up, they decide ahead of time. Cool, eh?

(Some of the reading on Creative Agenda I've been doing has reiterated how vital it is to choose a coherent design and stick with it. I can't say I've done that. I've got the first 1/3rd written. When it's done, I'll share it. Anyone have some hosting space available? Or is the next step e-mailing a doc to playtesters while I playtest here?)

One last thing before I close the thread: Do I post too often for replies?

Cheers,
-Youssef
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #9 on: October 24, 2009, 03:46:54 PM »

...I think what you'll find is that players will quickly start using whatever works in terms of winning. That only makes story in a sort of secondary way, like sports reporters make a story out of a sports match.

I mean, your aware of moral challenge, right? Like perhaps my uncle is starting to suspect I'm a super hero and that's putting him in danger...the challenge being not how to micro manage resources to counter that, but instead the moral question as to whether you give up super hero-ing for good or keep being a 'good' super hero, when you know deciding to do so is putting your own uncles life in danger.
emphasis mine

To Callan: I'm about to begin some direct replying to what you've written. It's not about you. Instead, the words you've said could have been said by any number of people (and in real life, I have had people tell me a similar, more poorly stated sentiment.) Take the following for whatever its intellectual value, and pretend someone else wrote the quote.

I think I've got a "Why I'm doing it this way" epiphany. Each of us instinctively design, write, and draw -- but we develop these abilities in real life by having "Why I'm doing it this way" epiphanies. (A step further, we learn from more about our own abilities by hearing such epiphanies that others have had. That is, personally, how I read The Forge.)

My epiphany: I have been tuning the micro-managing of resources to make players constantly go through moral question of deciding to superhero.
Said differently, the two concepts I've emphasized in Callan's post are not exclusive.
Instead, (per the system definition at the Forge, recently brought up with a chat about color and split into this thread), I realized that I'm trying to focus all of the rules and dynamics around specifically how those players make that decision at every single moment and its effects over time -- and diminish the rules that focus on anything else.
What struck me about the Step on Up, Story Now, and Right to Dream essays was how often, in dysfunctional games, the perceived goals of play were held off until the climax or the right moment. In an ideal game, the game's entire design supports (ie: has rules to govern and guide) the main goal of play.
While I've not developed a creative agenda for my game yet (a mistake I plan to rectify in playtesting), I can state that my design goal was that moral question from the beginning of design.
Instead of building a Capes, Marvel Heroes, or WGP... game substrata to lay my Secret Identities on top of, I've consciously tried to build Secret Identities as the foundation.
(Did I just write substrata? Can anyone else confirm I used it properly, if metaphorically?)

So, in Secret Identities, each player makes the moral decision with each hand of cards drawn.
In fact, I'm in the middle of hashing out what happens if a player splits their morning, afternoon or night between being in their normal life and being in their costume. Such a player is trying to straddle the micro-management -- in order to mitigate the moral decision's consequences later (and in the moment.)
If I was building this off of an existing superhero combat system, the moral question might have had to wait. It would certainly wait if I was trying to get this type of design goal out of a game not specifically meant to cater to it.
(Notice, though, how it's not impossible to get the "secret identity vs. superheroing" out of any of the existing superhero games. It is possible. There's just a lot of other work to do before you get right into the goal.)

There's the epiphany.
-Youssef
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Vulpinoid
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« Reply #10 on: October 25, 2009, 01:24:40 AM »

I looked at the idea of micromanaging a character's life in an earlier incarnation of my Quincunx rules.

Personally I abandoned it because I felt that players had enough trouble organizing their own time schedules, let alone the schedules of imaginary characters.

I was really interested in the idea of struggling to balance powers and a mundane life, whether they might be the powers of a wizard in a medieval or fantasy setting, or super powers in a modern setting. But I had to really consider what my game was about, did I want to focus on the minutiae of a heroes life or did I want to get on with telling the grander story.

I chose the latter and it sounds like you're choosing the former. Good work, I'd love to see how you handle it.

Sounds like you've got a decent grasp on what your trying to achieve.
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HeTeleports
Member

Posts: 66

The name's Youssef.


« Reply #11 on: October 28, 2009, 12:27:41 PM »

...I had to really consider what my game was about, did I want to focus on the minutiae of a heroes life or did I want to get on with telling the grander story.
I chose the latter and it sounds like you're choosing the former. Good work, I'd love to see how you handle it.

As a side-note, I'm discovering a simulationist's agenda in the rules as I continue.
Like you mention, Michael, I do have a pretty solid vision of the end-result (ie: my target play experience) but it remained un-aligned to any agenda until most recently.
It's interesting, though, given the two different routes our design went when we met that fork in the road: minutiae or grand. The minutiae led me to force players to make 'junior superheroes' while your players are making larger than life TV super stars.
The fork also represents a substantial step toward one agenda or another, I think.
Of course, any time we narrow our focus of "what the game is going to be about," we're defining that creative agenda -- bringing some types of play into better focus and leaving others in the background.
(If I'm using creative agenda the wrong way, please throw the smart ball at me.)
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He's supposed to be finishing the art and text for his new game "Secret Identities." If you see him posting with this message, tell him to "stop playing on the Internet and get to work."

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