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Author Topic: [I! I! Ph'iles] Prep-less mystery & dramatic characters  (Read 5072 times)
Christoph Boeckle
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Posts: 455

Geneva, Switzerland


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« on: September 18, 2006, 07:44:20 AM »

Hello

This is the report of the fifth playtest session of my mystery game, which I will use to present the game. I'll have some other threads coming up later on with more questions and a call to playtesters.

Basically, this game is a no-prep, no-GM story creation engine, where the aim is to create a compelling mystery story and finding out who did what. For the players, this has nothing to do with finding clues and being cleverer than the bad guy. Instead, the aim is really to tell why one might go so far as to commit a crime or otherwise be involved (perhaps as a not-quite innocent victim) in murky activities.


History

I came to the forge some two years ago, looking to gain understanding in game design and "philosophical" questions about roleplaying games (I was especially interested in the "ethics" (attitude) of players at that time, Ron's essays were just what I needed to hook me on).
At the time, we played a lot of Call of Cthulhu, with little use of the mechanics (except sanity, which led to many silly ideas and joyful madness around the table) and a GM whose main aim was to provide a canvas for the unleashing of madness (we never finished a single fucking scenario and couldn't care less). In the meantime, I was discovering those nifty indie-games.
One evening, just before play started, I say to the GM: "Hey, why don't we use the Pool thing?"
And he replied "yes" and this led to our first Improvised Investigation (and perhaps also one of the most "complete" stories to ever emerge from playing in this setting).
We played some more and I eventually tried to turn Sanity into an outright ressource instead of the somewhat punishing simulation mechanism it would have been if we played it straight from the book (I couldn't stand the random phobias, I always preferred the hallucinations).
And then there was this idea that we didn't really need a GM and that the famous story structure we used to study in school could perhaps be used as some kind of a game mechanism.
So I wrote my first version of the I! i! Ph'iles middle of February 06 and got to play it soon enough. First game went wrong because I didn't understand my own rules. The second version included the golden rules for clues and it went really well (a bit by chance though) and from then on I refined the game more and more (with some awkward endings until we found a nice mechanic for the endgame).
But it soon became evident that this had nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos in particular, madness in or out. Too bad, I liked what the game had become and have decided to finish it.


Play

The players were my close friends Jrme and Julien, whom I've learned to roleplay with not quite a decade ago. Both enjoy a good story and clever mechanics (we regularly play boardgames together as well) and have always very kindly put up with my "experiments" (whether it be indie games or sketchy designs of mine).
I will structure the report with key terms in italics, which actually refer to rules.

We settled for an intrigue at the french royal court at the time of Louis XIV. We are no history buffs and after cracking open an encyclopedia, we quickly decided we couldn't care less about the details. We were okay with a bit of esoteric on the supernatural side, and decided for a serious game (we often play in a wacky over the top and absurd manner (two previous playtests included this, but it wasn't convincing)), not too violent nor "graphic".

Our crime scene featured a visiting cardinal from Rome, drowned in the courtyard's biggest fountain.

Julien's character Madame Mathilde was found holding the cardinal's body, weeping and without knowing why she was sitting in the water (this risky statement earned Julien a drama point). Jrme's Henri Dubois, the royal gardener, discovered the scene and Bishop Archibald knew the cardinal personally.


From there, we narrated scenes in turn, inventing each time a clue that we would write on a sheet, and inviting the other players to add a troublesome trait to our character's background.
Sample clues included: a mysterious and beautiful Italian lady, a secret passage under the fountain, books were robbed from the cardinals personal effects, a pendulum was found on the floor of the cardinals room (a drama point for me, because of the supernatural implications), ...
Some of the more problematic traits: Madame Mathilde is a "courtisane", Henri is the illegitimate son of a noble who he had assassinated years ago, the bishop hates "Italians"...


After this, we reviewed the sheet with the clues and read our traits to the other players.
From there, we invented trails, hypotheses about the other players' characters connection to the crime, combining at least two clues and a trait each time. For each clue used, its creator gains an investigation point (you can't gather points for your own clues though).
For example: The Bishop and the Cardinal had an argument over some ancient books the night before, because the roman priest wouldn't lend them to the young french prelate. So he was probably the one who stole the books, loosing some personal stuff in his hurry...
or
The Cardinal impressed Madame Mathilde with his esoteric knowledge and she fell in love with him. The mysterious Italian lady that had followed him to the french court surely was his former lover and perhaps her jealousy overcame her reason...

Stuff like that, two against each player character.


As you may not see immediately from these trails, incoherence arises, and not all can possibly be true, at least not unless some more information is gathered.
That's why there is an interrogation stage, were each character is asked a question by another player (whether he plays his own character or not is up to him). The player answers as he sees fit, in order to resolve an incoherence between two trails accusing his character. I for example had Archibald deny he knew the Italian lady who haunted the court, but chose to take a drama point, clearly telling my friends that this was an outright lie.
Further investigation points are given out to the respective authors for the trails that get validated after this stage (normally, your character has two trails tying him to the crime in some way, authored by two different players).


Finally, we get to accuse and reveal the characters' roles. To be more precise, each player secretly divides and bets his investigation points against any number of characters except his own.
The character who has the highest total sum of investigation points invested against him and personal drama points is designated the chief criminal. The other roles are revealed in decreasing order of that sum.
My character got clattered: Jrme spent a whoping 5 pts (out of 7) against him and Julien went with 4 (out of 7 too) and I had 2 drama points.
Since I had less than half the number of drama points compared to the sum of investigation points, I lost the revelation to Jrme, the highest bidder. He told us Archibald had paid the Italian lady to kill the cardinal, because he knew too much about the heretic movement (another clue from the first stage) he was involved in: the so-called esoteric books where nothing more than notes of accountancy from the movement and where thus promptly burned (the rests of a fire where yet another clue introduced in the beginning of play).
I got my revenge on Jrme (can't remember how though) and Julien got to reveal the hot stuff between Madame Mathilde and the Cardinal (he had two drama points, and only 5 investigation points invested against him).

This stage can be the moment of interesting plot twists: all those clues can often be used for another interpretation that was left behind by the trails. In another session, I had introduced two weird clues vaguely suggesting that the deceased lady was maybe not dead (her husband started drinking tea after her death and now used a cane for walking (she was blind)). Most disregarded those clues for some cute narration I had included to show the husband's desire to hold onto his wife.
In fact, I got to reveal that the wife had swapped minds to get rid of her husband (we had agreed on Cthulhu Mythos for this session). That was with an earlier version of the game, where the criminal usually was an NPC.


Question

My friends and I enjoy this game a lot: it is fast paced (all this just lasted two and a half hours), to the point, involves dramatic characters who must account for their actions, etc. It's very scalable (one session featured 7 players) and easy to play (I'm considering playing this game with my aunt who loves mystery novels; a thought that had never crossed my mind before with an rpg).

Yet, narration is a bit arid, very factual, and scenes often don't really go together until the end where one retrospectively understands why they made sense.
I was wondering if those who have played Bacchanal felt the same way. Perhaps there is something I could learn from this game, since there is a lot of solo narration in my game as well, opposition stemming from a higher level (the way the scenes are connected later on).
Perhaps the answer is that I should just get used to this way of playing, as Julien suggested once (he was very happy with the abstractness of it all, with only punctual "roleplaying" if any at all).
I'm very interested in how to handle the scenes as elegantly as possible (maybe the "ingredients" should be given first: clue and trait and only then narrated together rather than the latter growing from the first, I don't know yet).


The newest version of the game can be downloaded here, older versions are in french and available through this thread on my personal forum.

Thanks for reading, and do feel free to play or ask questions!


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Regards,
Christoph
Emily Care
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Posts: 1126


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« Reply #1 on: September 23, 2006, 06:49:59 PM »

Hello Christoph,

Eureka, you've done it! This system sounds like what I and many others have been fumbling towards for a while. Letting go of the concept of the gm and allowing incoherence in the stories while making sure that they get winnowed out over time lets you create mysteries that are truly collaborative, yet still a mystery to all involved.  Bravo!

Quote from: Artanis
From there, we narrated scenes in turn, inventing each time a clue that we would write on a sheet, and inviting the other players to add a troublesome trait to our character's background.
Sample clues included: a mysterious and beautiful Italian lady, a secret passage under the fountain, books were robbed from the cardinals personal effects, a pendulum was found on the floor of the cardinals room (a drama point for me, because of the supernatural implications), ...
Some of the more problematic traits: Madame Mathilde is a "courtisane", Henri is the illegitimate son of a noble who he had assassinated years ago, the bishop hates "Italians"...

This is brilliant & critical. Both the fact that you involve the others in creating complications for each others' characters, and that you allow the mystery to unfold over time, trusting the players to tie in the facts together and to create a whole cloth of meaningful order from the created details.

Quote
As you may not see immediately from these trails, incoherence arises, and not all can possibly be true, at least not unless some more information is gathered.
That's why there is an interrogation stage, were each character is asked a question by another player (whether he plays his own character or not is up to him). The player answers as he sees fit, in order to resolve an incoherence between two trails accusing his character.
You are using the inevitable overabundance of possible solutions to emulate the red herrings and false accusations that happen in a mystery.  I am excited to use this system in a hard-boiled detective setting.  The private eye's real power is to have his story win out over the suspects.  Your game matches that perfectly with the task of the players.

Quote
Yet, narration is a bit arid, very factual, and scenes often don't really go together until the end where one retrospectively understands why they made sense.
I was wondering if those who have played Bacchanal felt the same way. Perhaps there is something I could learn from this game, since there is a lot of solo narration in my game as well, opposition stemming from a higher level (the way the scenes are connected later on).
I hope those who have played Bacchanal will comment and give you some insight. You think it is the lack of interplay between players as they narrate that creates the aridity of play?  Not much playing off of one another, more responding to each other's plays? 

Would it be possible for you to play the game in a way that each person's narration of events is seen as an initial framing of a scene that is going to be played out in character? I know that some groups who play Primetime Adventures tend to describe scenes in summary, while others frame and then play it out.  I don't know how this would work with your mechanics, though, since the conflict is resolved through the narration (that is the full events of the scene are pre-plotted by player narration), still, it is an option.

Thanks for sharing this! I hope that you feel inspired to formalize this system and make it available for sale because:

Quote
My friends and I enjoy this game a lot: it is fast paced (all this just lasted two and a half hours), to the point, involves dramatic characters who must account for their actions, etc. It's very scalable (one session featured 7 players) and easy to play (I'm considering playing this game with my aunt who loves mystery novels; a thought that had never crossed my mind before with an rpg).
...this means you could have access to very different markets than just the usual rpg world.  Bring it on!

best,
Emily
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Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games
Christoph Boeckle
Member

Posts: 455

Geneva, Switzerland


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« Reply #2 on: September 24, 2006, 07:15:57 AM »

Reply to Emily Care Boss


Thank you very much for the feedback and encouraging words, this means a lot to me!

I have listed some of the most influential games at the end of the playtest document, but your questions made me realize that maybe I should make it clear that I have not even read two games that seem to be very close in nature: Universalis and Primetime Adventures. So any examples taken from those games might be a bit hard for me to follow if they need a good understanding of their texts.
I do plan to acquire both as soon as possible though, and their reading might inform future developments.


Dryness of narration

I do think that the very nature of the turns and the resulting weakening of direct player interaction is a major source of this issue.
One solution I see is in line with what you propose. For example, in an investigation turn, the "active player" chooses a clue and assigns another player to come up with a problematic trait. Players could discuss who plays which character (but this could just as well occur while playing out the scene) and then the "active player" starts the scene, framing rapidly to the discovery of the clue, while the player who has to find a trait is looking for good moment to throw it in. That's where having NPCs or even other PCs played by the remaining players could become a source of inspiration for the traits, tying them into at least the context of a scene (which by the current rules isn't mandatory).

As a matter of fact, my friend Lionel had already spontaneously used such a technique in our session of Polaris (halfway down the post) and this could work. I'll give it some thought for my next version.

Is this what you meant with the examples taken from Primetime Adventures?


Publishing

I'd really like to try the adventure of publishing, but I have to learn quite a few more things (getting out of only roleplaying circles for example). Especially, I do want to keep a free version online, just like Clinton does with his games.
Since the game text is relatively small (and thus not printer costly at all), even if I pump more examples into it, I'd have to find some good ideas to make the costing version interesting. Maybe some "board game" elements that would facilitate play for people with little gamer background... The boardgame philosophy is definitely here, since their rules are generally free and one pays for the props (Thomas Robertson's posts about new publishing models and associated hurdles perfectly lay the ground for this issue).
I still need to think it over (and will start a new thread for that in good time).


Thanks again for the kind words!
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Regards,
Christoph
Emily Care
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Posts: 1126


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« Reply #3 on: September 24, 2006, 08:06:37 AM »

Hi Christoph,

Quote
That's where having NPCs or even other PCs played by the remaining players could become a source of inspiration for the traits, tying them into at least the context of a scene (which by the current rules isn't mandatory).

Yes, involving the other players in a given scene by giving them roles to play would reduce dryness by getting everyone's creative juices flowing, so to speak.  I highly recommend playing Primetime Adventures when you get the chance. It has a simple structure that incorporates everyone's input, so is a good candidate for inspiration for your game. 

I applaud your desire to make the game available for free a la Clinton. This is very compatible with publishing for print (and profit) as well, as he has shown.  Your game is simple, but has complexity to it. Writing a complete version, if that is something you are interested in, would create an interesting artifact for others to appreciate. Also, if you do have some inkling of getting your game into more mainstream hands, it is my impression that print is more likely to make inroads than pdf publishing. I would think that casual readers would be less likely to stumble across it online than in a game or book store venue.

By the way, what would the title translate to?

best,
Emily
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Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games
Christoph Boeckle
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Posts: 455

Geneva, Switzerland


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« Reply #4 on: September 24, 2006, 10:53:34 AM »

Oops, the first line of the post was for my own use at home and I copied it accidentally. I just realized that I added a "Boss" to your name and can't find why I did this, sorry for mangling your name!

Thanks for the further input, this discussion is already helping me gather my thoughts and put some form to them!


Concerning the game's title, it's only a provisional one reflecting the major source of inspiration and the fact that I used to be a big X-files fan (the early seasons only) even though it had little direct influence for the development of this game.

In french, it's called Aux frontires de R'lyeh, the same pun as in English (the series is called Aux frontires du rel which roughly means: at reality's frontiers).

I'm looking for a more appropriate title now that I know what the game does. Furthermore, I'm not sure private-jokes such as this work very well in the broader public...

If anyone has suggestions, feel free to mail me or drop a line along with the rest of your reply, but let's keep this thread focused essentially on the "dryness" issue.
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Regards,
Christoph
Christoph Boeckle
Member

Posts: 455

Geneva, Switzerland


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« Reply #5 on: October 04, 2006, 11:56:40 PM »

I'm using this post to reply to Seth Ben-Ezra, who sent me a PM, worrying he would clutter the thread.

I think these replies will be interesting for future use, since I'm very interested in how the reward system works (or not).

Circumstances that award a player with Drama points

At any stage of play (even initial chargen) where a player's narration sends a clear signal that his character is up to something not very "innocent", the player may take a Drama Point if he wishes (of course, others can call BS if appropriate).
Depending on the supernatural "dial" chosen before play, introducing paranormal elements also work for this, as they act as a gradual revealing of the "horrors" and that it's very often those who discover those things first that go down first. (In a very Lovecraftian spirit.)

I will have to make this clearer in my next draft. Basically, the circumstances have to be defined before playing.
Here, the first one is a risk of one's character being revealed as the chief criminal, while the second one is a risk of the character dying or going insane by the end of the story. Depends on the kind of mystery really.


What are they good for

In addition to getting the character into trouble at the Revelation stage, they grant the right to narrate one's character's outcome, once his role has been assigned. They might even allow for plot-twists.


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Regards,
Christoph
John Harper
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Posts: 1054

flip you for real


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« Reply #6 on: October 07, 2006, 12:39:21 AM »

Hello Christoph,

I agree with Emily: this is a game design that many have reached for over the years. It's thrilling to see that you're very close to working it out. I really like the structure of the game, with red herrings and incompatible clues that get resolved in the end.

I think it's okay that "roleplaying" is somewhat optional in the game. Players will "act out" scenes to their own comfort levels, and that seems just right for a game meant to appeal to non-gamers.

Thanks for sharing what you have so far. I'm off to check out your links now.
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