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[Verge] Story and Reward mechanics

Started by Adam Dray, January 13, 2006, 04:19:12 PM

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Adam Dray

"You have to hatch ideas -- and then hitch them." -- Ray D. Everson.

Verge has been gestating in the warm little incubator of my mind for about six months. Too long, I say, but the thing was not ready to hatch. Last night, the egg started to crack. I want to describe what the challenges of the shell looked like before last night and what thing crawled out of the egg. Maybe you can tell me how to feed and care for it.


First, some basics. I will publish and sell this game via PDF and POD channels. I have professionals lined up to do the editing and layout. I have talented amateurs lined up to do the art (in progress). I've playtested it four times now, all one-shots. You can read the first draft, read an online playtest transcript, and see art samples at the Verge website.

Verge is about cyberpunk on the edge. Cyberpunk is just Color, so you can do post-cyberpunk, transhumanism, generic SF, police drama, or a number of other things with it, but let's pretend it's a cyberpunk game. The "edge" stuff is all about pressure and risk. Shit is gonna go down and you have to take some risks. Taking risks is not only necessary, but it's Cool.

Players collaborate and toss together some elements for a setting and background story then make characters. Each player picks an essential Drive and ties it into the story, then writes down a bunch of traits, some of which tie back into their Drive. Some traits help a player: Strengths, Allies, Gear. Other traits hinder a player: Weaknesses, Enemies. The player sets up his own challenges in the form of those weaknesses and enemies. During play, a GM aggressively frames characters into scenes involving the stuff of the story and the stuff on the character sheets. The best scenes put a character's Drive at risk and forces the player to protect it. Players resolve conflicts through an opposed dice pool mechanic with rerolls. The player tells the GM how many dice he gets to roll ("Volume") and other players can each add a few dice to make it harder if the first player is being a pussy ("pump up the Volume"). Each "round" of rerolls, a player brings in an additional trait -- at a cost of reducing that trait by one -- and rerolls some dice Yahtzee style to match his "Signal." Whenever a player does this, the GM gets to do it, too, but he checks off a box from one of the character's Weaknesses or Enemies and narrates that into the conflict, then rerolls the GM "Noise" pool. The player can stop any time he wants or keep going but the GM always gets a roll in response. At the end of a conflict, if the character succeeded, he gets a reward roll. The GM and player swap dice pools and roll once and the player gets XP equal to the margin of success. Higher risk = Higher chance of rewards. Drive increases automatically as characters succeed by a certain margin, and that makes it harder to gain XP.

Characters get embroiled in stories about humanity and technology and conflicting loyalties. They must constantly choose between things that are important to them. Does the cop bring down the AI cult at the risk of alienating his son? Does the hacker risk the mission to grab some juicy data that will win him prestige? They find themselves risking more and more to stay in the game.


It doesn't work quite right as written.

Players aren't motivated to play at higher risk. They seem unconcerned about the XP and just want to play. I think I need to force players to spend XP to uncheck their trait boxes. If I do that, they'll have to earn XP to stay in the game. Without XP to uncheck boxes, they'll "dry up" and will get rolls in conflicts but no rerolls for improving things.

Player testers have been surprisingly motivated to Pump up the Volume. I have only occasionally had to needle a player to push the envelope and give me (GM) some more dice. Conflicts have been tense and fun. Still, I have this designer's intuition that I need to reward players when they Pump up the Volume.

The story creation elements feel toothless. I need to give them more mechanical bite. Right now they're just guidelines for players to use when writing their Drives and traits and fodder for scenes for the GM and players. There's no mechanical impact otherwise. I want the rules to constantly guide players back to grow the storyline seeds they planted before play started.

Drives are a bit fuzzy and ill-defined. In the first rules draft, a Drive was a single-word concept chosen from a list, like Knowledge, Sex, Family, Addiction. In the second draft, it became one of those plus a written explanation. I need to take this further and make it clear to the player what kind of explanation this should be.

The rules that govern use of Drive and penalties for ignoring Drive need to be front and central and right now they're bolted onto the resolution system as a sidecar.  I need to amplify Drive's role.

I also feel that Verge needs to give players a tool for measuring player buy-in for their SIS contributions, like PTA's fan mail. I currently have one of those, "if you don't like it, vote it out" rules and it sucks.


In the car on the way home from work last night, I had some design breakthroughs. I found a simple way to solve the toothless-story-element problem but it needs development. I also found a solution for Drive and the other things, combined into a fairly neat package.

Story first. Before character creation, players will go around the table and each will add an element to the story space. Each element gets written onto a blank sheet of paper. Each player can add a new  element or connect two existing elements. For example, Adam writes "Megacorp Software," Bob writes "Artificial Intelligence," Carolyn writes "Mind Control Device," Adam writes "Cable TV Box" and mentions to the table that the cable box could be the mind control device. Bob likes that, draws an arrow from Mind Control Device to Cable TV Box and writes "installed on it" on the line. Carolyn draws an arrow from Megacorp Software to Mind Control Device and writes "using it to control consumers" on it. Players do this till it feels "cooked." Then each player gets 10d6 to allocate, one die at a time, going around the table. The dice accumulate and at the end, you might end up with Megacorp Software 6d6, Artificial Intelligence 3d6, Mind Control Voice 13d6, and Cable TV Box 8d6. These numbers get used as minimum risk levels for setting difficulties later. I expect that a good story space would have some people on it, too ("Rosalyn Porter, Megacorp CEO 5d6," "Baxter Smith, inventor of mind control technology 9d6"). Maybe the dice should go on the relationships, not the things. Opinions?

Reward mechanics next. Whenever a player Pumps up the Volume (this is something you do to increase someone ELSE's risk), they give the GM 2d6 to add to his dice pool, and they give the player a Bribe. Bribes are points that players accumulate. A player can spend a Bribe at any time to give another player 1 XP in exchange for any favor that doesn't benefit the bribing player's character. That is, you're not bribing them for a personal favor, you're bribing them to do something Cool. For example, when it was Adam's scene, Carolyn pumped up the volume once and Adam earned a Bribe for that. During Bob's scene, Adam thinks it'd be cool if Bob's character directly confronted the Megacorp CEO in the board meeting, and tells Bob that he'll spend a Bribe point to give him 1 XP on condition that he takes that scene that way. I think this keeps everyone on the table focused on each scene, even if their characters aren't in it -- they still have a say in what happens and a mechanical way to "make" it happen.

Of course, players can just say, "Wow, that was cool. Have an XP" and cross off a Bribe, unconditionally.

To generate more Bribes though, they'll need to Pump up the Volume on each other. I'm a bit worried that players will game the system too much... give the GM fewer dice in collusion with another player who will pump it up +2d6 to net some Bribe points, which are used to reward the bribing player later, quid pro quo. I think the story dice set up during story space creation help here. These set a minimum risk for certain kinds of scenes. The GM isn't determining how risky it is. The players are -- or did -- during story creation. When Bob confronts the CEO in the board room, it's against Rosalyn Porter, Megacorp CEO 5d6 and that starts the GM's dice at 5d6.

Thoughts? I am eager to playtest these ideas but want to eliminate any glaring problems first.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Jason Morningstar

Hi Adam,

Dice allocation to establish minimum risk levels - my gut feeling is that they should be about relationships, because relationships are more interesting than objects.  But cyberpunk fetishizes objects, too, so maybe that's OK.  How do you control dilution or concentration of dice, or do you?  What if everybody wants the same two 20-die objects?

QuotePlayers aren't motivated to play at higher risk. They seem unconcerned about the XP and just want to play.
And this is a bad thing why?  XP needs to be amped up or purged.  I'd suggest weeding out options that lead to lackluster play, like your "drying up" possibility.  That shouldn't even be on the table.

QuoteI want the rules to constantly guide players back to grow the storyline seeds they planted before play started.
Sorta like Dogs traits in reverse?  Everybody is making statements about the world rather than themselves that other players have to pay attention to, right? 

If you worry about people gaming the system with bribes, your design goal should be to make gaming the system more fun. 

Drives - I like the idea of a single word that allows wide latitude for players to interpret; maybe playtest has shown you this sucks. 


Josh Roby

Hey, Adam!  Welcome to the get-this-game-out-of-my-head club!

Couple points:

If all you've played is one-shots, then yeah, players aren't going to care about scoring XP, and therefore won't increase risk.  Is it possible to turn XP into an in-the-moment reward (see: Dogs) rather than a between-sessions reward?

If players are already motivated to Pump Up the Volume, why do you want to encourage it further?  If it ain't broke...

Your "bump-set-spike" system of Bribes for Pumping the Volume, XP Rewards for "Cool", and XP Spending for Stats seems, at least on its face, to be more complex than it needs to be.  What's wrong with just awarding somebody XP if their volume gets pumped?

On Drives -- they sound a lot like how I'm using Thematic Batteries.  Are you sure that you really need a written description?  That seems to be pre-determining a lot of play.  Is the articulation of the Drive (and hence the character) not the product of play?

You haven't mentioned, but it sounds like Drives' mechanical impact on the system is in terms of credibility -- it makes actions more likely to work -- are you sure that this is what you want to drive your characters towards?
On Sale: Full Light, Full Steam and Sons of Liberty | Developing: Agora | My Blog


  Sounds like a cool game, I love CP themes!
  Increasing risk, Well, the way you described it, it does not sound like yo8u would get more XP for more risk. You said you can increase the number of dice for risk and when it was all said and done, you traded dice with the GM and got XPs off of a role-off. so it seems like your chance of getting XPs is marginal at best unless your chance of success was infintesimally small.
My 6d6 vs MegaCorps 6d6 - I got about a 50/50 chance to succeed
Increased risk
My 6d6 vs MegaCorps 8d6 - I get a chance at 1 or 2 XPs, but it is now hard for me to succeed (I might succeed 42 % of the time)
Crazy risk
My 6d6 vs MegaCorps 12d6 - Sure, I might be able yto get 6 XPs or so, but my chance to succeed is sorry indeed
  Or am I misunderstanding. Either way, it seems like just trading the dice you rolled is a counter intuitive mechanic.

  It sounds like you want to encourage people to ue as much creativity as possible during the story building phase. But the more elements there are in the story, the weaker those lements will be. Now admittedly, that could encourage people not to create simplistic stories, but it may incidentally encourage people to make simplistic opposition... Maybe base the number of dice off of the number of arrows on the page. the stronger that people relate their ideas to each other, the stronger the story is.

  I think the pump up the volume mechanic should match the theme of the game. If it is the traditional dog-eat-dog world, then increasing the risk for another play seems about right. If it is the group against the machine, then sacrificing something from your character to help another might be encouraged, etc.

  Regarding Drive, I think you need to ditch the list and instead of a description, maybe put two opposite terms or a Drive level that represents how important the Drive is to that character?

  It seems like you have a solid foundation for an awesome system.
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Adam Dray

Thanks, everyone, for the replies. I have been thinking over the advice while life has been busy. I will respond soon with my thoughts.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Adam Dray


I considered tying the risk levels to relationships. I think that might work better. Playtesting will see.

You're totally right about getting rid of anything that leads to "drying up." Dogs in the Vineyard went a different route than I did with trait use, and now I see why. I treat traits as a long term resource (many conflicts), where Dogs uses them as a short term resource (one conflict). I have to either make it work over the course of a game or change the mechanic. This is a big change.

QuoteSorta like Dogs traits in reverse?  Everybody is making statements about the world rather than themselves that other players have to pay attention to, right?

Not exactly. Why can't I have it all? Can't players make a statement about the world and themselves? During the story creation phase, I think players are making a statement about the world. During chargen, they're making a statement about themselves. During play, they're tying the two together.

Single-word Drives worked, but players just expanded them anyway. Right now, the list of Drives just seems like a set of tonsils on the game design.


I'm working to put together a 5-session playtest so I can put this baby to bed. XP as written are currently instant gratification for the most part. You get XP: 1) when the GM burns one of your Weaknesses or Enemies in a conflict, 2) when you roll well on the reward check at the end of each conflict, and 3) maybe a couple discretionary points from players and GM at the end of a game. Really #1 and #2 are the main sources of XP and #3 is a supplement that the game can live without.

Regarding things that seem to work in playtest that I'm still fiddling with, I'm just worried that I'm getting lucky with my groups. I want the system to support the good stuff explicitly.

"Bump-set-spike" is a great way to describe what I was trying to do. Why would I go indirect that way? Well, it rewards participation and it rewards players for "cool" behavior. The latter requires active participation -- you have to do cool stuff to earn XP. Otherwise, players just get a passive reward when someone does something to them (increases their risk). I want to reward the group for paying attention to one another's role-playing, especially since characters often start the game not knowing one another. It takes a certain amount of "crossing" to get the players in scenes together.


Because players choose when to stop, they have a slight advantage that isn't apparent if you just look at the dice statistics. Sure, 6d6 vs. 6d6 looks like a 50-50 shot, but the player will come out ahead more often than not (but at what cost?). Here's a typical roll (I use some code on a MUSH to test) with Lisa (a player) and Adam (the GM), 6d6 apiece:

VERGE: Lisa rolls 6 dice and gets: 6 5 3 2 2 2.
VERGE: Adam rolls 6 dice and gets: 6 6 4 3 2 1.

VERGE: Lisa chooses Signal 2 with Frequency 3.
VERGE: Adam chooses Signal 6 with Frequency 2.

VERGE: Lisa feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 6 5 3 --> 6 3 1 (+0)
  New dice pool: 6 3 2 2 2 1 (3)
VERGE: Adam feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 4 3 2 1 --> 6 6 3 1 (+2)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 3 1 (4)

VERGE: Lisa feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 6 3 1 --> 3 2 2 (+2)
  New dice pool: 3 2 2 2 2 2 (5)
VERGE: Adam feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 3 1 --> 3 1 (+0)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 3 1 (4)

After just two rerolls, Lisa is ahead 5-4 and will stop. Those two rerolls cost Lisa two boxes of traits from her sheet.

Yes, if the GM has 12d6 and the player has 6d6, it'll be hard for the player to win without more dice. There is a mechanic that lets a player (but not the GM) bring in more dice using Gear or Drive. Here's an example of that:

VERGE: Lisa rolls 6 dice and gets: 6 5 4 3 3 1.
VERGE: Adam rolls 12 dice and gets: 6 6 6 6 5 3 3 3 2 1 1 1.

VERGE: Lisa chooses Signal 3 with Frequency 2.
VERGE: Adam chooses Signal 6 with Frequency 4.

(Lisa checks off 3 boxes of one of her Gear.)
Lisa adds 3 dice to her dice pool: 6 6 5.

(Lisa changes Signal to 6.)
VERGE: Lisa chooses Signal 6 with Frequency 3.

VERGE: Lisa feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 5 5 4 3 3 1 --> 6 6 4 2 2 1 (+2)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 4 2 2 1 (5)
VERGE: Adam feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 5 3 3 3 2 1 1 1 --> 6 5 5 4 3 2 2 1 (+1)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 5 5 4 3 2 2 1 (5)

(Now would be a good time for Lisa to stop, and take her chances with the 50-50 rule.)

VERGE: Lisa feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 4 2 2 1 --> 5 5 4 3 (+0)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 5 5 4 3 (5)
VERGE: Adam feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 5 5 4 3 2 2 1 --> 5 3 2 2 2 1 1 (+0)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 5 3 2 2 2 1 1 (5)

VERGE: Lisa feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 5 5 4 3 --> 6 6 5 3 (+2)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 5 3 (7)
VERGE: Adam feeds the Noise back into the system.
  Reroll 5 3 2 2 2 1 1 --> 6 6 6 4 2 1 1 (+3)
  New dice pool: 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 4 2 1 1 (8)

Things aren't going well for Lisa. She probably won't win unless she converts those 2 Noise dice to Signal (6's) -- 1 in 36 chance -- AND the GM doesn't roll any 6's with those 4 Noise dice of his -- 99.92% chance. Pretty slim odds. Lisa could bring in more dice with Gear or Drive or lose the conflict.

Of course, Lisa could have stopped after her first reroll. She was tied 5-5 then and Verge's Tie rule says Lisa can stop there and roll a single die for a 50-50 shot at winning (quite a popular rule, surprisingly).

My point is that 6d6 player vs 12d6 GM isn't hopeless. Players can try to win, and if they find their luck slipping, add more dice and lower their reward chances. In the example, Lisa ends up with 9d6 vs. 12d6, so if she wins, she and the GM swap dice, and a single roll of each and the margin of success determines XP.

Onto other comments: Drive is rated, and it is a measure of how important that Drive is to the character (and the player, in a roundabout way). Players can't just increase the Drive score though, so it doesn't really represent their wishes. It's used somewhat like Humanity in Sorcerer, only every player determines what it means to them, rather than the group or GM determining what it means to everyone in the same way.

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I see Ron will be indirectly giving me the solid kick in the ass that I need to playtest more, with his restructuring of the forums to force slackers like me to stop ruminating and get real data from playtests. These changes came out of dissatisfaction with the gameplay after a number of playtests though, so I totally agree with the value proposition.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777