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Author Topic: [Will the Emperor Fall] RPG card game in need of mechanics  (Read 8779 times)
matthijs
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« on: May 14, 2004, 06:16:25 AM »

Will the Emperor Fall (rules below) has been playtested a little bit: by myself and friends (with moderate success), at Arcon (where most players enjoyed themselves), and by a Swedish acquaintance's gaming club (they hated it).

The problem is this: It's a fun game, which tends to make good stories and get people involved, but there's no mechanics supporting the goal, and indeed the goal itself is a bit vague.

The point of the game is to make a good story. Now, how can I combine this with a way of winning? Perhaps some kind of bidding/voting system among the players? Or is it possible to make a more formal mechanism that actually rewards "correct" play?

The game consists of a stack of Character cards, a stack of Trait cards, five stacks (numbered 1-5) of Episode cards, a stack of Atmosphere cards, and a stack of Secondary Character cards. There's also a map, with generic fantasy names, but no description. No background is given; players are supposed to make it up as part of the session.

- Character cards just have a name and a title. Examples: “Innkeeper Paris”, “Countess Malion”.
- Trait cards are very generic attribute/stat/background/skill/whatever descriptions. Examples: “Wanted by the Empire”, “Skilled hunter”.
- Episode cards are broad descriptions of a part of the story, with an ending that players must reach. Example: "Duel! Two or more people meet to fight. Perhaps the characters are combatants, perhaps spectators. Ending: The characters are running away from the keepers of the law, towards the Emerald Mountains".
- Atmosphere cards affect how the episode is played. Example: "Death. All events have a macabre taint. Signs and portents of death are everywhere. Atmosphere player: Speak in a dark, monotonous voice. Use dark colors in your descriptions."
- Secondary character cards are two- to three-word descriptions, like "Flock of sheep", "Robbed peasant", "Army of ghosts".

-----------------------------------

Will the emperor fall?

* Setup

Each player draws a character card.

Each player draws three traits for his character.

Each player decides on a relationship between his character and that of an other player. No enmity is allowed. Examples: “Paris and Malion are having a secret affair”.

Each player now gives a short presentation of his character.

Randomly choose who starts the first episode.

* The game

There are five episodes. When all five are finished, the game is over. The aim is to make the story work, by integrating all events and characters into a it.

Each episode starts with one card from the Episode Stack, one from the Atmosphere Stack, and one from the Secondary Character Stack. All players can see all cards.

The player who starts the first episode - the Atmosphere Player - reads the Atmosphere card and relates how the episode starts. This should be short, four or five sentences. The important thing is creating the right atmosphere.

Play starts as described in the Player Laws below. Both Secondary Characters must be used. In addition players may use Secondary Characters from earlier episodes.

Once you’ve reached the ending described on the Episode Card, the episode is over, and a new one can begin. If you just finished episode five, the game is over!

* Player Laws

Any player can tell a bit of the story at any time. No player can control how other players tell their bit.

Players can not control other players’ characters, only his own, and the Secondary Characters.

It’s not allowed to change the personality of Secondary Characters without good in-game reason.

The episode must end in the way described on the Episode Card.

Anything stated by a player (according to the Player Laws) appears true to all characters.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #1 on: May 14, 2004, 12:04:47 PM »

First question, what happens when player A says, "Bob comes to a large pool of water."
And player B says, "Bob then leaps the pool to get to the other side."

And player A says, "But it's a *large* pool, Bob can't jump a large pool...or are you saying he's superpowered?"

B, "No, no, but by large pool, I thought you meant like someone had spilled a lot of water."

A, "No, what I meant was like a swimming pool."

B, "But you didn't say swimming pool."

A, "Because it's not a swimming pool. It's more like a pond."

B, "Well you should have said pond, then."

Etc, etc. These things happen all the time in games like this. In Universalis, this is precisely what the Challenge mechanism is for. Do you have some way to resolve problems like this?

As for "scoring" players could get points based on linking cards together in their descriptions. Kinda vague. I guess the problem that I'm having is that you haven't really said what the "correct" way to play is. If I had more idea, then I think mechanics would suggest themselves. What is it that you'd like to see?

Mike
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matthijs
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« Reply #2 on: May 14, 2004, 12:28:38 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
First question, what happens when player A says, "Bob comes to a large pool of water."
And player B says, "Bob then leaps the pool to get to the other side."


Well, by the rules, as soon as player B has said it, it must be true. If player A meant the pool was too large to jump over, he should have described it as such; now, he'll have to adjust his view of the pool to fit B's description, even though A was the one who introduced it.

This readjusting of reference frames happened a lot during playtest; people seemed to take it mostly in stride. There were some puzzled looks, but as far as I can remember, no actual discussions.

Quote
I guess the problem that I'm having is that you haven't really said what the "correct" way to play is. If I had more idea, then I think mechanics would suggest themselves. What is it that you'd like to see?


I'd like to see stuff like this happen:

Player A describes short encounter with interesting NPC.
Player B describes strange natural phenomenon.
Player C describes NPC's reaction to phenomenon, and his own character's short comment on it.
Player A decides to re-introduce an earlier NPC.
Player B runs with it, and finds a cool way to use a previously established event in the scene.

That last part is what I'm after, I guess. A reward system for picking up and integrating plot threads, or a system that results in players having to pick up such threads.

The greatest problem in playtest has been endgame. Players enjoy trying to run with the narrative as it unfolds, but towards the end, everyone's suddenly trying to force their own ending on the story. How to get players to lose their own preconceptions of what the story should be like, and just go with the flow instead?

An analogy is that game where everyone sits in a circle, the first player says a word, the next player another word, and without planning and strategy, players just listen to what comes out of their mouths and laugh at the weird and sometimes scary sentences they make.

[EDIT] Oh, and thanks for the reply & questions! This is one of those concepts that seems self-evidently clear when you think of it, but is extremely hard to... put into any kind of structure.[/EDIT]
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matthijs
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« Reply #3 on: May 15, 2004, 02:59:17 AM »

Okay, I'm going to try this again, the right way.

Presentation
   Short description: GM-less RPG using cards to define story structure.
   Premise: The Evil Empire is threatening the small country the characters come from. Any further premise is created by players in-game. There is no GM to define it.
   Setting: Hardly any is described, but much is hinted at, through place names on a generic map, two-word descriptions of NPC's etc. Generic fantasy, intentionally so; the skeleton is fleshed out by players in-game, and to make that process easy, fantasy clichés are used.
   Character generation: Random drawing of Character Cards and Trait Cards with word descriptions. No numbers.
   Basic resolution: Each player in turn makes a statement. This statement is true in the game as soon as it has been made. No randomization or numbers involved.
   Reward method: There is no mechanic for character advancement etc. Players are rewarded by the fulfillment of making an exciting story.
   Publication: PDF on the net. Print version also available, more expensive.

How I see a good session
Player A: Halderon runs towards the guards shouting: "Look out! The Dragon is going to attack!"
Player B: The guards are cowering, but lifting their spears. The shadow of the Dragon falls over them.
Player C: There's a rumbling from the mountains behind us. Paris Fowl whispers: "Shit. The Dragon shouldn't have left the crag..."
Player D: The Dragon flies towards the guards - and past them! It seems to be aiming for the spire on the Wizards' College!
Player A: It lands on the spire and sits there looking very satisfied. The guards are looking astounded.
Player B: Marion says to the others, "Now is probably a good time to run. Seems like the mountain is waking up again..."
Player C: The spire on the Wizards' College has a strange, cup-shaped form; the Dragon sitting there looks kind of like a bird in a nest...
Player D: A wizards sticks his head out the top window and raises a wand towards the Dragon. "You can't nest here!"
Player A: That's all we see before the mountain erupts with a huge bang!
Player B: Molten lava trickles down its sides, and black clouds engulf us.
Player C: Okay... that's the ending on our Episode card, right? Whose turn is it to draw Episode IV?

Question
- I'm thinking of using a reward mechanism to keep players on the right track; playtest has shown that in the last episode there's a lot of trying to force the story in your own direction. Perhaps at the end of an episode, players vote about which player was best at picking up plot threads and keeping the story on track? This is such an abstract story thing that I find it near impossible to make a non-human-judgment-based system around it.
- I'm also specifically looking for critical questions about the game. Answering such questions always helps refine the concept, which has been in my head for so long now that I feel it has to be done right.
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ethan_greer
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« Reply #4 on: May 15, 2004, 05:37:35 AM »

If you don't own it, I suggest picking up a copy of Once Upon A Time for inspiration. While it's a much "gamier" card game than yours, it's got some ideas for settling disputes and keeping stories on track.

To summarize, while one player has the stage, the other players act as judges of the content that player creates, and can override the narrating player in extreme cases of silliness or irrelevance.

I also suggest including text in the rules that defines what the players are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act. This will help get all the players on the same page before play begins.
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matthijs
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« Reply #5 on: May 16, 2004, 07:34:43 AM »

Quote from: ethan_greer
If you don't own it, I suggest picking up a copy of Once Upon A Time for inspiration. (...) To summarize, while one player has the stage, the other players act as judges of the content that player creates, and can override the narrating player in extreme cases of silliness or irrelevance.


OuaT is a nice little game, which I enjoy playing occasionally. However, it's a bit flawed (in my view) in several ways. The "winning" aspect makes for exactly the thing I'm trying to avoid, which is ego-centric plot thread hogging towards the end. And the rules for avoiding rambling, contradictions etc are very vague; what's allowed or not is left entirely up to player discretion, and other players have to actively interrupt the storyteller to complain if they feel she's not making sense.

What I want to do is have a clear mechanism for keeping stuff on track, and one that's positively angled - meaning that instead of players interrupting each other when things go wrong, they have a strong incentive to do things right instead.

I've got a few ideas:

- Each turn, a player kan add a token to a Secondary Character. When a player integrates that character into the story, he/she gets all tokens from that character. (Meant to encourage keeping threads going, instead of introducing elements that just disappear after first mention).

- Each turn, a player can claim one point; if other players agree (quick vote, simple majority), the player gets the point. Points come in different flavors: Good fun (player gets the others to laugh or smile), story twist (moves plot in unexpected direction), bringing it all together (tying together two or more plot threads) etc.
  So if player A comes up with a good one-liner on his/her turn, and everyone laugs, player A can say: "I claim a Good Fun point!" Players probably agree, player A gets a point, play moves on to next player.
   Winning conditions can be as simple as having the most points at the end of the game; or perhaps more subtle - each player's score equals whatever points he/she has the least of. That would force players to take into consideration all aspects of storytelling.

Quote
I also suggest including text in the rules that defines what the players are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act. This will help get all the players on the same page before play begins.


Definitely!
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smokewolf
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« Reply #6 on: May 16, 2004, 08:12:11 AM »

Actually what you described could be used as a random campaign generator of sorts. You could market as the adventure on the fly. Draw some cards, picks some npc, encounters, traits, etc. and whala, a whole adventure in under 2 minutes.
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Keith Taylor
93 Games Studio
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As Real As It Gets
matthijs
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« Reply #7 on: May 16, 2004, 08:44:21 AM »

Keith,

yes, it'd be possible to use the cards for scenario and campaign generation. They would have to be modified a bit, though; and perhaps tailored to a specific setting - seems to me most people are much more interested in something for their game than something that's supposed to work for all games, but actually doesn't.

In "Okkupasjon!", we're working on a random scenario design system that's showing a lot of promise, but is also so flawed right now that I've decided not to post it yet. If we get that to work, I will definitely try to get it working for other settings.
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smokewolf
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« Reply #8 on: May 16, 2004, 09:10:49 AM »

But what sells are things that people can use in any setting, theirs, Monte's, Forgetten Realms, etc.
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Keith Taylor
93 Games Studio
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As Real As It Gets
matthijs
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« Reply #9 on: May 16, 2004, 10:02:49 AM »

Quote from: smokewolf
But what sells are things that people can use in any setting, theirs, Monte's, Forgetten Realms, etc.


Well, I don't have enough sales information to discuss this properly, though it's an interesting debate.

Thanks for the comment, though. Do you have any other ideas, suggestions, criticism...?
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #10 on: May 17, 2004, 11:33:22 AM »

Quote from: matthijs
Quote from: Mike Holmes
First question, what happens when player A says, "Bob comes to a large pool of water."
And player B says, "Bob then leaps the pool to get to the other side."


Well, by the rules, as soon as player B has said it, it must be true. If player A meant the pool was too large to jump over, he should have described it as such; now, he'll have to adjust his view of the pool to fit B's description, even though A was the one who introduced it.

This readjusting of reference frames happened a lot during playtest; people seemed to take it mostly in stride. There were some puzzled looks, but as far as I can remember, no actual discussions.
I think that you got lucky, then. And, I also think that players are going to be disapointed if their creations get twisted just because they left a semantic door open somwhere.

In my example, what if, instead of leaping the pool, the player had said that they got into the "swimming pool"? The player indicating pool had not said that it wasn't a swimming pool, just that it was a pool.

Is this still OK?

What if one player wants the character to go to his secret hid out and get his Bass Guitar to then go to the gig and play, and says, "Bob goes back and picks up his Bass." Followed by the next player, "Bob then flys with the base to atlantis."

Are Homophones and words with multiple meanings undefined until somebody puts some modifier that makes it apparent what it is? Or can the person clarify that it was the Bass Guitar to which he refered, and not the secret base? Further, if I say Bass Guitar, can another player then interpret that to be the name of my secret base? "Let's hurry back to Base Guitar quickly - we have to be at Base Fiddle in twenty minutes!"

To go back to the original example, what if it's the middle of the forest, and instead of a swimming pool, B says, "Bob joins the pool, asking to be assigned to light typing duties as he's new." (Do they even have secretary pools anymore?)

You're assuming that all phrases have one and only one possible sane interpretation. But that's just not the case. This is bad enough accidentally, but if a player has a mind to take control of the story, there are lots of semantic tactics that they could use to alter the intended meaning of a previously made phrase, even if it was obvious.

Me, "Bob goes to the bakery, and grabs a tart."

You, "Despite being a tart, she still objects, and slaps Bob. Her business damaged, she takes Bob to the circuit court on a Tort."

Me, "Bob, liking the taste of tortes, complies happily, eating it while wondering how the pastry supports him. He then starts up a pickup game with the other players on the court, asking them about the other players on the circuit."

You, "They tell Bob that the other players are all dead because the circuit shorted out."

All I'm saying is that, if you're using a point system, that it should be possible to discourage this sort of behavior by assessing some sort of penalty for it.

Mike
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matthijs
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« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2004, 12:58:40 PM »

Mike,

thanks, you've picked out a potential problem area that I didn't actually see as such. And it's got me thinking a bit.

First off: Perhaps the endgame problem where everyone tries to push the plot in their preferred direction is not actually just an endgame problem. All the groups I've played with only played once; by the time they really got into things, the game was nearing its end. So this competitive behavior could be a result of the players' understanding how they could manipulate the rules (vague as they are).

Second, then: I'm not sure just where I stand wrt competition in WTEF. On the one hand, I'd like to be able to pick a winner. On the other, I do not want it to be possible to win by distorting and destroying the story. It's okay if someone misunderstands a statement, or takes a little creative liberty with it just to fit it into the plot; but it's not okay to deliberately twist it in a way the previous player never intended.

You said:

Quote
All I'm saying is that, if you're using a point system, that it should be possible to discourage this sort of behavior by assessing some sort of penalty for it.


I'm not a great believer in penalties, personally. But I think such behavior can be discouraged simply by it not resulting in anything positive. Okay, so arguably that might be seen as a penalty, and it might be what you meant... but moving on:

All of this is getting me back to the point where I'm thinking that it might be impossible to create an objective and non-intrusive reward system in this game. That is, if I managed to define "plot threads", "disrupting the story", "twisting semantics" etc. in game terms, well... the rulebook would probably be several volumes thick, and I'd be working in AI research next.

So: What do you (and others) think of the Claim / Vote system that I described earlier, where a player can Claim a point after making a statement, and other players Vote about whether he/she earned the point?

Possible problems:
- Ganging up, where two players always vote for each other.
- Sabotage voting, where some players never vote for anyone.
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matthijs
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« Reply #12 on: May 18, 2004, 03:49:23 AM »

Quote from: matthijs

Possible problems:
- Ganging up, where two players always vote for each other.
- Sabotage voting, where some players never vote for anyone.


Not much sleep tonight, but I came up with answers to the above:
- Ganging up I just won't bother to try to prevent. It'll break just about any competitive game - from Diplomacy to Monopoly. I might write "No ganging up!", but I feel it's more one of those Eternal Unwritten Rules of competitive games.
- Sabotage voting: At the end of each episode, players tally how many points they've handed out. Those who handed out the most, get bonus points. This rewards those who are generous with their votes.
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ethan_greer
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« Reply #13 on: May 18, 2004, 05:13:25 AM »

The more I think about it, the more I think you need to eliminate any considerations for a "win" condition. It doesn't seem like your game is a competive passtime, and you yourself pointed out that the winning aspect is a flaw in Once Upon A Time.

Without a win condition, any incentive to circumvent the behavioral guidelines in the game rules evaporates.
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matthijs
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« Reply #14 on: May 18, 2004, 05:43:38 AM »

Quote from: ethan_greer
The more I think about it, the more I think you need to eliminate any considerations for a "win" condition.


I'm always considering this as an option. However, without a winning condition, how on earth can I make players create convergent plot threads, and not just try to follow their own endings? Perhaps I just have to write a small piece on "The philosophy on WTEF" in the rules, explaining that it's not "that kind of game"?
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