Archive for ‘ January, 2012

Thief’s Luck – some system noodling

I’ve always wanted to do a Thief-style game, and a potential mechanic for it popped into my head while playing Mansions of Madness.

It’s based around a standard deck of playing cards. The four suits correspond to situations: Hearts are emotional/social, Clubs are violence/force, Spades are the environment, and Diamonds are intellect/puzzles. A character has four stats, ranging from 3 to 7, and a number of skills -things like Lockpicking, Archery, Hiding… or whatever the player comes up with (player-defined skills).

Here’s the gimmick: when you try to do something, the GM sets a difficulty number to beat. Say you’re trying to pick a lock – that’s a Spades challenge. Your running total starts equal to your matching stat. Each round, you flip the top card of the deck. If it’s a Spade, you add its value to your total.

Depending on the circumstances, the GM may nominate one, two or even three of the other suits as hazards*. If the card matches one of those suits, you’re hindered by some new problem, and the card’s value is subtracted from your total**. For example, flip a Club (violence), and a guard comes around the corner. Flip a Heart (emotion), and you might suddenly doubt your skills, or be distracted by greedily looting a nearby jewelled candlestick. Flip a Diamond, and you discover the lock’s trapped. If your total drops to 0 or less, you fail the challenge and bad stuff happens***.

If you’ve got a skill that fits the current challenge, then you can use it to add non-matching cards to your total, but doing so spends a point from the appropriate stat. Say you’re in the middle of a sword fight (so you need Clubs), and you flip a big Heart. Normally, that would be deducted from your running total – maybe your foe goes into a battle frenzy, maybe you panic, maybe you can’t bring yourself to murder someone, maybe you recognise your lover behind your foe’s mask – but if you’ve got the Swordfighting skill, you can reduce your Hearts skill by 1 to add that Heart to your total.

The nice thing about the mechanic is that it throws in lots of complications and unexpected twists. You don’t just miss an attack if you don’t draw a Club – a flock of startled pigeons flies in front of you, you sudden realise that your target’s a member of a rival crime family and you’ll be targeted for retribution if you kill him, he spots your sniper’s nest in the cathedral tower and ducks into cover.

It feels intuitively like a nice little system, assuming I can get the numbers right. I’m not normally a fan of playing cards as a mechanic, but it suits this setup. Your thoughts?

*: Flipped cards in a suit that’s neither hazardous nor beneficial still do something, I’m just not sure what. Probably hang around as a complication that doesn’t currently impede your task.

**: What about Ace/Jack/Queen/King? I’m tempted to tie them to factions and groups within the game. So, drawing a Jack means the Thieves’ Guild are involved. An Ace represents the city watch, and it’s high or low depending on whether or not they’re on alert or not. Queen and King…not sure yet.

***: Drawing from Hamlet’s Hit Points, I’m thinking of giving a bonus card to a character who loses a contest that can be used in the next struggle.

The Reality of Reality Optional

Writing fiction is exactly like running a game for the worst bunch of players imaginable.

Not only do you have to come up with the plot and the setting and so forth, but you’ve also got to motivate the characters. Without the GM prodding them to get up and do something, they just lie there, a panoply of apathy. On the rare occasions when the characters do act of their own accord, they run off in unexpected directions instead of following the plot you’d planned for them.

That’s why writing fiction was such a hurdle for me. To borrow from Woody Allen (edit: who borrowed from Groucho Marx, known Commie Mutant Traitor), I didn’t want to play any game that would have me as a player.

When Allen Varney approached me about writing a PARANOIA novel, I accepted in the hope that taking on a deadline would stimulate my guilt gland -

(You don’t have a guilt gland? I do. It’s hyperactive. I take medication for it.)

- and force me to write fiction.

The plan worked… eventually. The outline took longer to write than the book did. Writing a detailed outline for an rpg adventure is anathema – a good adventure leaves the major decisions up to the players, so at most you can have an outline full of conditionals, counterfactuals and loops (if the players choose x, then y. If they’ve already done y, then you can salvage the situation with z.)  In the past, I approached fiction in the same way, which doesn’t work.

So, this time, an outline was necessary.

(The passive voice is much safer.)

The first outline let to the second outline led to the third outline led to an endless death march. Allen & I would send each other mails starting off “I’ve got the homicidal thoughts under control now, so…” The book wandered in the desert for rather more than 40 nights.

My legal team & I are pleased to report that the endless death march did, in fact, pay off in the end and therefore there’s no need to smother anyone with a giant pile of old outlines. Once the final outline came together, the book flowed like The Computer’s own Bouncy Bubble Beverage. It was fun to write. That’s fun in a genuine way, not in an Alpha Complex reactor-shielding-is-fun way.

Some writers can write without an outline (Stephen King’s the best known example.) The big lesson from writing Reality Optional is that I’m not one of them. I need a map to keep me on course. That’s a very valuable insight to take away from the whole experience, and one that I’m going to build on this year.

The map’s not the territory, but it’s the first step to conquering it.