Gaming, Role-playing Games

Experimental Tabletop #1: Dirty Secrets

I’ve decided to start keeping reviews and notes of the bi-monthly experimental tabletop night that several friends and I hold. The concept is simple – we find one of the plethora of new indie tabletop roleplaying games available on the Internet, and try one out that night.

We’ve done several already, and it’s been great. Some games have failed, others have been brilliant, but all have taught us something about game design and roleplaying. I am not going to attempt to summarize the mechanics, but rather give a quick overview and review. Less is more, I say. So, here is my first installment. Last night we played a little game called Dirty Secrets.

Dirty Secrets is an homage to the hard-boiled detective stories of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, but set in your own hometown, one week ago. It is about an investigator scouring through collections of sleazy characters in an attempt to find the perpetrators of a small set of crimes. It is a GM-less game. It takes the interesting twist of having only one player portray a single character throughout the game – the Investigator.

The rest of the narrative control (a position known as the Authority) is passed around between the other players around the table, as the Investigator pursues more and more evidence.

The rules deliberately keep any player from actually declaring who committed a crime until a set of criteria are met, so it is a mystery to everyone until the reveal. Conflicts are resolved via a game of Liar’s Dice between the current Authority and the Investigator, and the Authority can pull in the various other players to improvise specific roles in the scene that the Investigator is in, as well as interrupt the Investigator’s activities with acts of violence.

What Works

The game manages to create an excellent collection of sleazeballs rather seamlessly, and our game moved at a good pace to begin with. Evidence was acquired, leads pursued, seemingly innocuous characters became more and more important.

There is an excellent mechanic for becoming unstuck called ‘Revelation Sequences’ where a relationship is randomly determined between two existing characters in order to break open the case – which was amusing in our case when the local Mexican mafia crime boss turned out to be having a homosexual tryst with a illegal immigrant caretaker we met in an earlier sequence.

But all and all, the game manages to parade out a good collection of twists and turns, where everyone is considered a suspect. The Investigator is drawn into a pit of paranoia and tangled webs are woven, all without anyone knowing the eventual outcome will be.

What Doesn’t Work

When I say ‘eventual outcome’, I do mean eventual. The pacing mechanic is where the game can hit the skids. It is slow, which can be very frustrating for players not particularly familiar with the onion layers style of the hard-boiled genre and more familiar with crime dramas like Lethal Weapon.

The Investigator cannot force the story along; the reveal cannot be accelerated by violent interrogations or stunning situations. It can only come when it comes.

Like many games trying to replicate a single genre, the players, especially the Investigator, have to be familiar with the base works and their tone. This game works best with people who already like detective mysteries and understand what the game is attempting to replicate, not with just your average gamer looking for a night’s entertainment. It best produces stories that are tense and shadowy, rather than full of action and showdowns.

While the game has its share of violence (it is not a Miss Marple story by any standard), the violence takes forms more like bullets fired from an darkened alleyway with tires squealing off shortly afterward.

Tips For Playing

If you want to play Dirty Secrets, I suggest the most experienced and rules savvy player be the Investigator. And that the Investigator player be the one most familiar with the genre.

If you are a fan of hard-boiled mysteries who wants to play this with less-inducted friends, you definitely need to take on the Investigator role. The Investigator is really a sort of reverse GM, pushing the story along and producing scenes which the others have to improvise and attempt to play out. The Investigator controls the tone more than anyone else at the table.

In our particular game, the Investigator’s player became frustrated because the increasingly violent path the Investigator was on could not produce the results he wanted within the rules. When confronting the character most likely to have committed the game’s central murder with a gun, there was no easy way to resolve this situation in a satisfactory manner.

No amount of escalation can force the plot to resolve quicker, and the player ran into that brick wall hard as he attempted to achieve his character’s primary goal. While this certainly reflects the pacing of the chosen genre, it was frustrating to a Investigator player who wasn’t used to it.

6/10: Promising and fun, but needs work.

Gamemastering, Gaming, Role-playing Games

Fortress of Solitude Syndrome (Adventures in Game Mastering #1)

Your plot is not recognized in Fort Kickass.
Your plot is not recognized in Fort Kickass.

What do you do when players make an in-character location that lets them avoid the game world?

You are running a game. Maybe it is a LARP, or an online game, or a tabletop. A player comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d like my character to set up a keep/club/house/ditch in the road that is “safe” and no one outside of the group knows about.”

This is a reasonable request, certainly. After all, every great hero has their home base, away from prying eyes. And like most things that go terribly wrong in game mastering, it starts with something that seems so reasonable.

Be warned. Your player may be showing the first signs of Fortress of Solitude Syndrome, and it is going to cause problems.

Why is this a bad thing?

Some players have a tendency to think defensively. They know the game world is dangerous, as are the inhabits that might be looking for them. They want to preserve their character against death, or just inconvenience, and want to be able take reasonable precautions to make sure their characters have a safe, often secluded, often heavily protected or at least secret place where they can do whatever they wish without worrying about the armies of darkness showing up at their doorstep. However reasonable this move, these ‘fortresses’ can be major problems with the game master if the players begin to overuse them.

Players invest time and effort into these locations, and expect them to be preserved. So, you cannot violate their Fortress of Solitude lightly. But, think back to your favorite television series or movie, where the heroes had some clubhouse or home base. How long did it take for the screen writers to violate that space? Batman didn’t go three movies without the villains tossing around explosives in the Bat Cave. Buffy’s living room, despite vampires being stopped at the front door, is practically a four lane highway for monsters and magic. Violating the character’s home and sanctuary is an easy way to investing and engaging the character against an enemy. But when dealing with a player that invested time and effort in creating their character’s entrenched position, they might find it hard to accept that effort (and often even points spent) being cast aside.

They lead to boring play if overused. For the reasons above, you cannot have the plot trounce into the fortress without creating a sense of betrayal. Also, it makes it very hard to threaten the player characters directly with force. The idea that Jimmy the Fish will be very disappointed if they don’t get him that wetware package before the deadline is hard to make threatening if your cyberpunk operatives can go to their Caribbean island base patrolled by attack drones and wait for the thing to blow over. And that sort of play, while ‘smart’ from a strategic perspective, makes the game crawl and lack tension, danger and conflict.

In larger games, exclusive locations can split the game up and break apart the social web of the game. Especially in large games such as LARPs, these fortresses will often also exclude other players, breaking the game into in groups or out groups. And the situation can quickly become Balkanized, and not in a good way.

Remember, a Fortress of Solitude is not just a location that the players have, but one they expect to be protected and safe.

Dealing with Fortresses of Solitude

1. If they haven’t already made their home base, be honest about what they are getting. If a player wants to set up their ninja mountain castle, just be honest and inform them that while their ninja castle will certainly be useful, it is not impenetrable. Indeed, the very existence of such a place is a call for their enemies to undermine and subvert it. Its servants can be infiltrated by rival clans. It can be besieged (with difficulty) by the Shogun. All sorts of things can happen, and while you are not saying no to having it, you should be upfront as a game master that all the planning in the world from the players will not make their location unassailable. The world is inhabited with foes just as clever as they are looking to get at them.

2. The solitude cuts both ways. Make staying turtled up have a cost. Isolating yourself from harm also means isolating yourself from critical information and resources. Make it clear through roleplay that staying bottled up is allowing the situation to get worse and keeping them from getting what they need. The ninja fortress does not get regular mail service, nor is it easy for even their allies to get to. Being in a place secluded enough to be safe is being in a place isolated enough that they cannot help their friends.

3. Give them concerns on the outside. Batman might have the Bat Cave, but he is not protecting just the Bat Cave. He has all of Gotham to protect. The reason the Bat Cave can exist is that Batman can easily be drawn out of it by Joker and Two-Face taking a few hostages. The ‘distress call’ only works with some types of characters – heroes such as Batman with a cause – but there are other ways. Have a huge castle? Give them a fief to go with it, one that can be harassed by bandits and monsters, villagers who count on their new lord to keep them safe.

4. Nothing is free, you know. Most Fortresses of Solitude need hard cash, or its equivalent, to keep running. Otherwise, the castle stores get emptied, the power gets turned off or the engineers keeping the nuclear plant running stop coming to work when their paychecks bounce. In one game I ran set in the Battletech Universe, the players were running a mercenary company where they had an extravagant defensible home base, but that Fortress never became a problem. Why? Because the contracts needed to keep the company afloat were out there, on other worlds. The home base was a place to regroup between missions and store their spare mechs – retreating back to it wasn’t an option most of the time, and wouldn’t get them the credits they needed if they did.

5. All else fails, have the big violation of the Fortress be a major turning point. If you feel up to it, and want to dispose of the Fortress completely, turn the anger and surprise to your advantage. Have the fact that someone got in after all this time and blew up Moon Base Alpha be the start or turning point of a major storyline. Taking away something that the players invested so much effort into can make it personal, and if you try, you can transfer that anger onto the in-character villain instead of you as the game master, so that the players will not miss their old toy as much as they enjoy the new plotline.

Board Games, Gaming, Geek, Role-playing Games

Top seven games that destroy friendships

Games are supposed to be fun, to increase the bonds between people. But there are exceptions to that rule, the vipers lurking in the grass of geeky entertainment. There is a special class of game out there which seem innocent enough, but playing them quickly shows their true intent. These are the games which try the souls of men, put you to the test and, if not approached cautiously, lay waste to love and friendship.

7. Magic the Gathering

The grand-daddy of all collectible card games, Magic the Gathering starts off innocently enough. You buy a few pre-made decks and play a few games with friends. Maybe you start playing regularly over lunch, or to break up the usual board game night. It’s fun, unpredictable and quick.

And then, someone gets good at it; someone starts to take it seriously.

They start buying booster packs, constructing better and better decks. They buy cards online to fulfill this combo or that combo. Perhaps they even reach back into the game’s horrendous back catalog of banned cards to construct decks that no one has any hope of winning against. They use a multitude of computer programs to run the probabilities on their combos and optimize their mana pool.

What used to be a friend is now a monster. You have to start consulting the rulebook, the real one that’s hundreds of pages long, to figure out whether he can actually do that or whether that card is even legal anymore. You have to confront this jerk who was once your friend, because the game isn’t fun anymore. Either that, or you have to join him in an arms race that will suck up both time and money, and probably not be very fun.

And the worst part is, this is exactly what the designers of Magic want to happen. This is their business model, selling as many cards as possible to as many people in the eternal quest to dominate the competition. Their business model is based around people being jerks. Continue reading “Top seven games that destroy friendships”