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.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Design Journal: LOST PINES (Part Two)

Today, let's talk about characters.

The prototype version of LOST PINES I'm working on has a lot of "bits and pieces". I've had to make mock-ups of a lot of different things that are designed to go on cards, rather than traditional RPG-style character sheets and tables.

The playbooks / "skins" in Monsterhearts inspired me to provide Archetypes for the game instead of making character generation a wide-open affair. Sure, once players get the idea of what a LP Archetype looks like, they could easily make up a new one -- but like MH, the point here is to give people a flavourful starting point.

Each Archetype has something that they're good at, something they're not so good at, and a special ability they can use once per session. That's pretty straightforward. The player gets to customize the character by deciding on two things: one I'll get to in a moment, and the other is a Secret.

Soap operas are all about the Secrets. Secrets are an easy way to create tension between characters and motivate them to take reckless action to protect themselves. Secrets go hand in hand with things like romance and crime, the other thematic components of the game. Oh, and weirdness, of course, though that's more of a symbolic part of things -- it hints at the netherworld of Not Small-town Cute lurking below the surface. So it's important for characters to have secrets, and have the player decide what one of them is.

As a HTHD practice, I champion the mantra of No Secrets Between Players At The Table. That does mean that sometimes player characters have to take action and avoid out-of-game knowledge, but it's a critical ingredient of this style. If you know someone's Secret, you can help increase the tension on that character and build interesting scenes in the same way a GM does in a traditional game. So Secrets are key.

The other customizable element I was talking about was Casting the character. I've made up a large number of cards that have faces on them, so that players can choose which "actor" plays their character on the fictional soap opera they're building. This, as Jonathan Tweet described in his classic game Over the Edge, gets players thinking about their characters in a different way, and makes the world of the game more concrete.

The side benefit of this game element is that Cast cards can also be used to fill out the supporting cast of the game, in much the same way that a relationship map works in games like Smallville. So your character's got an abusive boyfriend? Pick a Cast card for that character and put him on the table next to your character. Once everyone's got a few Cast cards on the table, it's easy to start making connections.

The other part of the "map" is the other player characters, of course. The element that connects the player characters, who I think of as the Main Cast, is a stack of cards I call Fires (which is, of course, a shout-out to David Lynch). Fires are provocative statements that are set down between two Main Cast characters to define their relationship. Stuff like "Only I know the truth" and "You know you can trust me." The idea is to present an open-ended idea that the players can shape into anything they like, but provide them with a starting point that has a real edge to it. This is definitely something with Fiasco DNA in it, but pared down further to create drama.

Next, I'll talk a little bit about how the game is meant to go down mechanically.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Design Journal: LOST PINES (Part One)

Let me start out the new year of HTHD by telling you about the project that's occupying a lot of my brainspace these days, LOST PINES.

I've been trying to find a game idea for some time that would act as a kind of didactic text for some of the "best practices" that we've discovered after several years of play in the HTHD style. Of the published games I've played, Monsterhearts probably comes closest to what I'd hoped for -- something that would encourage people to get right to the drama. It's a great game, and one that everyone with an eye toward HTHD play should definitely read and play. The material seems a little limited to me, though -- eventually, you're going to have had enough of high school hijinks. Unfortunately, the rest of the *World games don't really lend themselves to filling the gap, as far as I can tell.

Fiasco is also a game that was very instructive to me, providing a great toolkit for quick, no-prep games which could be dramatic -- but then again, I've never played in a Fiasco game that took itself seriously. Although more serious games are presented as a possibility, I've never seen it happen. Maybe with the right same-minded group.

There are many inspirational things about Dramasystem, but the game I'm thinking about is something less formal and structured -- it would provide players with a rough structure and inspirational material, like Fiasco and Monsterhearts, but require less front-loaded work for play.

As a setting / inspiration to frame my ideas, I went back to something that had been percolating on the back burner for a long time: a RPG that channeled the deeply weird soap opera that obsessed me (and many others) in the early 90s, Twin Peaks. This seemed to have promise as a framework for my ideas -- TP famously uses and abuses the format of a soap opera to tell its tale of small-town America through a dark and surreal lens. Although soap opera is a genre that seems all-but-dead now, it seems to lend itself very well to gaming. Some gamers might balk at a game that's overtly centered on romance (I remember the backlash aimed at the 'Romantic fantasy' game Blue Rose, a few years ago, which I loved quite a lot), which soap opera certainly is, but I'm thinking that the themes of small town crime, corruption, secrets, and deep weirdness are very game-able.

People put off by the idea of romance in games? I'm thinking they aren't really the audience I'm trying to reach anyway.

Next time, I'll tell you about the format of the prototype version of the game I've been working on.