Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Design Journal: CYBERSOUL (Part Two)

Okay, let's talk about the mechanical part of this game idea.

I started thinking about CYBERSOUL as an Apocalypse World hack early on, likely because I've been reading a lot of AW hacks. The World of Our Desires is an Unknown Armies hack that I have a lot of love for, and I've been thinking of it as one of the next games I run. (I'll tell you more about that soon enough.) TWOOD was on my mind, as was a recent session of Dungeon World where the die-rolling mechanic spiralled the story in very unexpected directions -- that was definitely something I wanted for my own game. A way to make choices lead to meaty consequences that the GM would not have direct control over.

I've also been re-reading John Wick's excellent Houses of the Blooded, and his introductory section where he answers Jared Sorenson's "three questions" of game design struck me at a useful moment. I started to consider how I would answer the questions for my game.

'What is your game about?' I decided, after ruminating over this question for a while, that the key issue that the game would focus on was poverty. Race was also an important thing, but maybe not the main thing. This was going to be a game about how fragile the lives of the poor are, and how much of a struggle it is to escape.

'How is your game about that?' This was a little trickier, but I eventually came around to the idea that the playbooks for the characters would each represent an "issue" associated with poverty. This is kind of a weird inversion of the way some AW playbooks work, but I think it's consistent with stuff like TWOOD and Monsterhearts. Yes, playbooks in those games feature skills and Kewl Powerz, but they also talk about an issue -- they're more "What's your deal?" than "How are you awesome?" As I said, I'm not a fan of the "competence porn" version of cyberpunk where the players are rockstars with guns shooting their way through corporate strongholds, so an approach that concentrated on vulnerability suits me right down to the ground.

The playbooks will be about characters who are struggling with things like mental illness, having family dependants, being a war veteran, having limited education, stuff like that.

Another important theme in the game, perhaps important enough to serve as another necessary answer to the first two questions, is Community. (And this is where race comes into the game as a significant issue.) Part of game creation in CYBERSOUL will be collectively creating a small community where the player characters live their lives of high tech desperation. It might be an old warehouse in an industrial zone reclaimed by squatters, or a flotilla of barges and rafts tied up at an abandoned pier, or a stack of cargo containers welded together, connected by ladders and walkways, or an underground warren beneath the city streets. Like a hold in AW, the Community forms the center of the characters' world. It gives them friends and allies, rivals, neighbours, people and places they can care about and want to protect.

The Community will be developed as a cultural place, whether it is representative of a single culture or a vast crazy quilt of different backgrounds. What clothes do people wear in the Community? What music do they listen to? What does the food smell like? All these sensory details bring the place to life and make it specific and vivid.

The Community, like an AW hold, will have resources and things (maybe a lot of things) that are scarce. And of course, there will always be people willing to take away the few things that the Community has. Some of them will be street gangs in the typical Cyberpunk RPG style, and some of them will be other Communities of desperate people. Of course, it would all be a lot easier if you signed your life away to the corporate zaibatsu and lived a life of plenty in the arcologies, wouldn't it? Sure it would. But forget about it. You'll never live the soft life inside one of those fortified tower blocks/shopping plazas. They already got robots to clean their floors.

Another gameplay element I want very much to include is a way to model a classic Cyberpunk "mission" in a way that isn't about cash. Each of the playbooks will have a list of things that are precious to them, as a required choice at character creation. It will be an implicit part of taking on a mission -- committing a crime -- that player characters will need to risk one of the things that they hold most precious in the world. Like that DW session I mentioned, a bad roll could have some serious consequences for the player characters in CYBERSOUL.

A game about poverty? Where the things you love are constantly in danger? Will anyone really want to play this game? I keep asking myself that question.

But I want to play it. And that's probably where every game designer starts.

Footnote: Jared's third question - 'What player behaviours does your game reward or punish?' - is one I'm still answering, although some of the answers are implicit in the above text. Clearly, I want to make crime and violence risky business, and encourage the community building aspects of gameplay. Since there is still an aspect of "punk" here, I think if I can encourage the arc of gameplay to lead players toward the fact that, despite the risks, power (either the corporations or the Police, who will loom large as a threat) must be opposed, I will have done things right.

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