Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Causing Trouble

Consistently, the playtests so far have revealed a dearth of situation. People complain that they don't know where to take their characters. I included a step in character creation where, after you introduce your character, we go around the table, and each person tells you something that you want from their character, that their character won't give you. I thought this might provide some good opening tension—even if it might wind up pointing play into a player-versus-player mode—but that just didn't happen.

So, I find myself going back to an older idea, and finding a better place for it now than it had when I first conceived of it.

Right now, you start with some amount of Debt, based on your age. This reflects what the Land and the People have provided to you over your life. Older characters have lots of Debt; younger characters, much less. You use your Debt to accomplish things, so young characters may need to get more Debt. Thematically, it seems to make perfect sense that you'd get more Debt by causing Trouble. So, you can take as many coins of Debt as you like, if you put an equal number of coins into Trouble. Older characters, with plenty of Debt already, could get rid of their Debt by settling Trouble. Which also happens to present precisely the dynamic I'd like to see: older characters cleaning up the messes that younger characters start.

When adding Trouble, you write down something that Troubles the People in a central area, perhaps a sheet of paper in the middle of the play area. You put at least one coin on it. You can put more coins on it, to make that Trouble more troublesome. In play, characters can confront that Trouble. They invoke their Names, which lets them throw coins from their Debt equal to the words in that Name. For each head, they can return that coin, and one coin from the Trouble, to the bowl. So, you can work off your Debt by solving Troubles.

Yet, you can only get more Debt by causing Trouble somewhere else. When you start the game, you get a starting Debt based on your age. I think you should probably introduce some starting Troubles, too, with coins equal to your starting Debt. Since zero Debt makes you ineffective and cut off from the world, you can't really ever solve all the Trouble in the world: you can only solve some Troubles, some of the time, and try to arrange your Troubles in a way you can live with. I think that in itself says something powerful, especially in a pseudo-utopian game.

This has the added benefit of letting players guide the game in a direction they want. Giuli and I have both noticed, with some irritation, that a disproportionate number of our playtests involve cannibals, for instance. It makes sense: they fit so well into the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction. They violate the positive vision of the future that the Fifth World drives towards, though, and that really gets at the heart of the design problem the game needs to solve. We don't want to lecture people about why the Fifth World won't involve short lifespans, raging cannibals, or high infant mortality, but how do you get people to move past those stereotypes otherwise? A Trouble mechanic allows us to define the problems we face. With it, I can introduce my missing brother, who went hunting and never returned, but instead became a wild man (see the part about "Bigfoot" in this blog entry from April). Or we can add the curse sent upon us by Deer, because someone killed a deer violently.

Conflicts between characters lead us into player-versus-player games. Conflicts left to emerge collaboratively may trend towards stereotypes. But letting people establish Troubles may mean that we can guide a game in a specific direction, with the kinds of conflicts that we at the table find interesting and meaningful.

It also has the added benefit that we can actually play a cooperative, GM-less game. Everyone at the table can work together to eliminate the Trouble.


Jason Godesky said...

Now it occurs to me, though, that some people might have trouble coming up with good trouble on the spot. Should I resurrect the oracle for various bits of trouble you might run into?

Or, should I shy away from bringing back a big list like that?

Willem said...

Sure. Just start with a very small list, then allow the players to expand it as needed.

Too many choices: bad.

Few, limited choices: good.

Jason Godesky said...

Well, with an oracle, I'd probably make one where you throw five coins, so it would have 2^5=32 options. If I broke them out by season, 2^5 × 4=128.

Bill White said...

Alternately, provide a typology or set of categories into which Troubles may fit, to prompt the imagination.

...within my family.
(a) between me and someone else.
(b) between two people I love.
...between my family and another.
(a) because of me.
(b) because of someone I love.
...between my family and the tribe.
...between my tribe and another.
...between my people and strangers.
...between my people and the spirits.

and so forth.

Jason Godesky said...

Oh, good idea! That even works without breaking the poem format: just prompt with different places that trouble might arise.