Thursday, 9 January 2014

Design Journal: LOST PINES (Part Three)

Today I'll talk a little bit about gameplay.

Starting a game of LOST PINES will probably begin with developing a sketchy outline of the fictional town your "soap opera" takes place in. The default is the Pacific Northwest, of course, but it should be equally easy to make the kind of "Main Street USA" type town you see in many TV shows -- all green lawns, picket fences, and flags snapping crisply in the breeze. This is something I'm still working on, but I think it may work a bit like the Skins in Monsterhearts -- just make a few choices and go.

Your group also gets to define, in extremely loose terms, what the Strange forces that buffet the town are like. Like Fires, this takes the form of a series of cards with evocative, subjective phrases on them like The Black Dog Runs At Night.

The standard "unit" of play will be a two-person scene, although there will likely be plenty of room for ensemble drama. As in Primetime Adventures and similar games, players take turns around the table calling for scenes with their character in the spotlight. These scenes will likely focus on the Fire between the spotlight character and one of her neighbors. Fires are designed to drive the characters toward the important conflicts quickly, and when players involved in a scene "stoke the Fire" (that is, increase the level of tension, drama, or complexity involved in the conflict) they are rewarded with a benny that can be used to help in task resolution. (I may call these "Coals", to proceed with the Fire metaphor.)

Although there is no GM in the game by default, when necessary a player on the opposite side of the table from the "spotlight" character can serve as a neutral arbitrator. The lack of a formal GM was a decision that was difficult to come to, and we'll see if it works out. My natural instinct was to rely on a GM as a facilitator, to help develop the world with some consistency and flavour, but I think these things can be served with a like-minded group. If the game's supposed to be about collective creation, why not go all in?

Scene resolution is done by drawing playing cards, with a five-card hand being standard (and extra cards drawn by paying a Coal). Although this is similar to the way that PTA does things, cards are used differently in LOST PINES. I developed an idea from a children's game I was working on which constrained the kinds of actions that were available based on the suit of the cards drawn. (In the earlier game, it was meant to dissuade children from choosing to kill things because the game had no developed combat system, and making friends or outwitting a monster was just as easy.)

Hearts are played when you're trying to get what you want in the scene through positive emotions -- friendship, love, kindness. Diamonds are played when you're trying to get what you want through deception, lies, and trickery. Spades are the suit of cleverness, uncovering truths, and outwitting the other guy. Clubs are, appropriately, the suit of getting what you want through physical violence or intimidation. Cards of like suit are added together, with face cards being worth 10 (but also indicating that the Strange takes a hand in the resolution of the scene).

Players are dealt cards at the beginning of the scene, importantly, because the cards constrain how a player character can achieve their goals. The PC might be in a scene that they were hoping would be about friendly persuasion, but the clubs in the player's hand say that if they push matters now it will get ugly. This is intended to add an element of unpredictability to the drama. Scenes can take unexpected turns. The cards should suggest the dramatic "tack" the player takes in the scene, with the cards being played near the end to show how it resolves, when the scene has reached a climax or decisive moment.

I am also tinkering with an idea for a "second beat" or "second move" in the scene. Basically, players can buy in with a Coal to push the scene forward another beat after the end of the main conflict, and play more cards toward getting something they want -- even if they "lost" the main conflict. So, you might have to agree that this sordid affair can't continue, at least for now, but you might also manage to sweet-talk your lover into doing you a solid as a parting gift. That's an angle I haven't seen elsewhere.

There is more, of course -- I'm still finding the edges of this game idea, and I suspect when we try it out at the table I'll see things that I haven't yet. I have more ideas about how genre can play an interesting part in all this, and sometimes I get inspiration at the most unexpected times.

I will keep you informed as work continues.

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