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[Criminal Element] Crime and violence

Started by Ron Edwards, April 28, 2003, 09:33:12 PM

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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I didn't mess around - within 24 hours after the 24 hours of the game's creation, I had both ideas for characters/scenarios and a burning urge to put them into practice. A quick trip to the corner store for some cheap-ass card decks (hip-hop motif, if you must know), and a few prep sheets later, we were on it. Since this is the campus group and we almost always play one-session games, I brought pre-generated characters and a one-sheet explanation of the game. The sheet had some character information, a picture of the character (see below), and this text:

Doing things

It's modified Blackjack. Everyone has a deck of cards, and during conflicts, always start by drawing two. Ordinarily, they go one-up one-down, but if your Knack's involved, then both are down, and if your Vice is involved, both are up (together, Knack and Vice cancel out).

Now, draw extra cards up to the rating in one Trait. Use as many as you want to construct your hand.

Whoever gets the highest with a max of 21 succeeds - first, you set out the cards you've decided to use; second, everyone flips over the ones that are face-down. Going bust is therefore a user-option rather than an unlucky outcome (you might want to in order to reduce the margin of victory).

You may also spend Drama Points to effect
Dramatic Shifts, which range from bringing a minor item into play (such as a hidden gun), inventing an important contact or other key NPC, or even uncovering a major secret, in increasing order of costs.

The fun part is that doing so "buys" you a
Collapse, which may be invoked by you or the GM in the future, which means succumbing to your Vice. I suggest that a Collapse is only valid when it threatens the success of the Caper in some way. It is perfectly possible to have built up a whole bunch of future Collapses.

Let's not forget
betting Drama Points. You can bet as many Drama Points, if you have them, as you have face up in your hand (and bear in mind that you can play Trait cards face-up for this very purpose if you want). If you succeed, you keep your bet and get 50% more; if you lose, you lose'em; if you succeed and you're in a condition of Collapse, then you keep them and get 100% profit as well.

The good news: we played for five hours based strictly on round-the-table excitement with the developing story, commitment to the characters (if not necessarily to their survival), and enjoyment of the system. I have plenty of criticisms, but realize, these are criticisms of what looks to be an exceptionally strong game.

I'd worked up a little relationship map for some NPCs: Paul Warcroft, a rich fellow who'd just married a much younger woman named Mabel; her ex-husband Ralph Turner who's pretty mad about it; Warcroft's daughter, Liz, and her husband, Lee Rountree, who respectively dislike and idolize Warcroft. No big deal.

I used my terms I'd suggested earlier for prep: The Caper, composed of the Prize, the Heat, and the Twist. The Caper was basically to steal these papers from one of three safes (which one unknown) from a guy's mansion during a big party that he's having. The Heat (that the characters know about) is the security people hired for the party, who are pretty good (a senator is present). The Twist is that at some point, I'm planning on having Warcroft get shot by some other member of the relationship map during the evening.

Here are the pregenerated player-characters I came up with, with links to the images I copied & printed for the handouts:
- Xena, played by Reese Witherspoon - Concept = the scheming twister, Motivation = pure and total self-interest, Knack = the perfect liar, Vice = believes others' lies
- Malcolm, played by Ed Harris - Concept = the aging ponderer, Motivation = finish this one last job, Knack = Sees the big picture, Vice = everybody's a vicious fool but me
- Mikey, played by Mickey Rourke - Concept = scumbag loose cannon, Motivation = corrupt the weak and innocent, Knack = Everybody's Huckleberry, Vice = can't let a victim alone
- Stotz, played by Eric Stolz - Concept = young tough on his way up, Motivation = pride & looking good, Knack = awesome tactician and butt-kicker, Vice = can't think past the moment
- Bethany, played by Alicia Silverstone - Concept = the good girl caught in the web, Motivation = true love without lies, Knack = motivate others to non-selfish actions, Vice = mistakes "good-looking" for "good"

They all had 6 traits which were pretty much what you'd expect for each, and a few had some traits that added a Wound level or two (I used the 3 light, 2 serious, 1 mortal framework that I've mentioned on a previous thread, rather than a 3:3:3 as originally proped). It so happened that five players showed up, so we were all set.

I also used some pics for the NPCs, which I printed out together onto a sheet and showed the players as we went along. A good way to do this is to use the Internet Movie Database for a movie, then run Google Image searches for the actors in it that catch your fancy. The Replacement Killers is a fine source for sinister male actors with bad skin, one of whom I used for Mr. Glick, the guy who gets the characters together for the Caper.

The opening stories worked out reasonably well, although I think that player talent-ability varied greatly in this regard. Get ready for at least one fairly lame story, I think, and be ready not to get all bent out of shape about it.

I won't bore everyone with the step by step of actual play, but I'll say this about that first hour and a half: I recommend limiting the "investigation, prep for caper" phase; otherwise, players go all tactical and waste tons of time. I suggest keeping them to one "get stuff" draw and one "interact with someone" draw for each player-character, and be done with it.

The card resolution is awesome in its place, which is to say, isolated action resolution. It's quick and fun, especially since the basic draw is the same no matter how complicated the action, and the numbers make lots of sense. People didn't have any trouble with which traits to use; obviously they gravitated toward the higher ones, especially since those dovetailed well with Knacks, but so what. It made it all the more fun when they were out of their element (shooters trying to negotiate, bullshitters trying to shoot). Full marks from the players.

However, the current design has a very serious problem: there's no IIEE. This is also the typical problem for people's first role-playing game designs, as well as being all too common across many published games. It's also the source of the most acrimonious and dysfunctional play across all of role-playing.

For threads on IIEE, see:
The four steps of action
What is IIEC?

During play, we ran into a classic Sebastian-ogre situation, just as I described in the first thread. Let's see, Malcolm was brandishing a grenade at everyone, someone was shooting at the grenade, at least two characters were trying to convince one another of various things to do, and all sorts of crap was going on. What happened? Who drew? Who goes? Does Malcolm draw for something? What? Most of the time, during play, I ran it in a kind of Sorcerer way (free announcements for everyone before anyone draws) and then used degrees of success as an indicator of order, but I didn't really like that very much (success shouldn't dictate order, in my opinion). This scene wasn't possible to adjudicate with that rough method; we needed System. I dealt with it basically through sheer GM fiat, which is not my style any more and way too much work, as well as, essentially, being less fun for everyone.

Here's another idea, which may or may not float your boat. I suggest completely eliminating the concept of NPC sheets (Knacks, Traits, etc). Instead, just use the opposition draws, *always.* For each of my NPCs, I designated the difficulty for "anything" pertaining to some sphere of action; e.g., to fight the head security guy, it's always Arduous; to do anything social with Lee Rountree is always Easy; to do anything social with Mabel Warcroft was always whatever; and so on, for each NPC. They're easier to make up that way and very, very easy to play.

I suggest removing the jokers from the deck - they actually screw up the cards' ability to express the power/importance of a character's sphere of excellence, in my view.

Drama points are way fun for equipment, but people need to understand that they are not actions. I strongly recommend that you play the game and come up with *practical and play-generated* guidelines for spending Drama Points. For instance, are intermediary values (not 5/10/20) allowed?

I really like the fact that the GM doesn't use Drama points at all.

Betting Drama points is easy and fun. One player used counters, one used a die, and others used tallies. Conceivably you could use the paper-clip on the player-character sheet idea. However, the current exchange rate is both cumbersome (halves round which way? Why bother?) and low-return. I recommend the following: if you bet without being in Collapse and succeed, you get 100% return (e.g. bet 2, keep the two and get 2 more); if you bet during a Collapse, get 200% return (in which case you'd get 4 more). That's it, no halves.

Collapses work quite well - people know about them, reserve them, and accept them as future plot elements. I love the "... you ... you're shooting my guy?" look on new players' faces, especially when the blood-opera experienced player grins back with glee.

Problem #1: getting to them all, which I suspect works better over multiple-session play. You could have whole sessions just interacting and working out Collapses, such that every Collapse doesn't have to be a climactic shootout. Problem #2: when the Vice really doesn't operate especially well in the situation, which I'm now thinking is a criterion for calling for a Collapse - if no one can see it no matter how they try, then no Collapse at this point. The person playing Xena in our game was perfectly happy to take a Collapse when I invoked everyone's Collapse all at once, but no one was lying to the character, hence the player apologetically confessed he wasn't sure what to do. I couldn't come up with an NPC-lie for her either, at that moment.

It might be good to explain that a Collapse does *not* mean "the GM takes over the character." It's a player cue, not a railroad.

A character's Vice is not the same as a typical player-character "psychological disadvantage," because it doesn't act as a hard-and-fast character-play parameter except during Collapses. I like this - it lets us know what the character is like, but doesn't dictate what the player has to have the character do most of the time.

What, you want to know what happened? H'm - well, blood happened. Grenades, fake police IDs, two betrayals, some half-baked attempts to try to weasel out of completely hopeless situations, and lots of gunfire. Amazingly enough, several player-characters did indeed make it to the rendezvous with the papers from the safe.

Here are my main recommendations.

1. Get some IIEE in there. As I say, I think the existing system allows plenty of room for doing so, without adding any sort of clunky "initiative" sort of thing.

2. Decide whether any NPCs really need character-style mechanics, or whether the Simple/Arduous/Etc table is enough. My vote is that it is indeed enough.

3. Really pump the idea that alliances and validation of real-people stuff is just as likely as breakdowns and berserking, whether during a Collapse or otherwise. If you haven't, check out the games Dust Devil and Sorcerer for examples of how a given negative character trait can be either redemptive or disastrous, and how rules can give the player the power to decide which.

4. The 3 light /2 serious /1 mortal Wound system worked very well, and I recommend it.

Criminal Element is, I think, a very strong start at a game design. For some comparison, it's way less radical than, say, Dust Devils or InSpectres, but much cleaner and more solid than, say, Over the Edge. I'm looking forward to its next revision, and I plan to play it again at that point and review it for the Forge.



wow, am i a dumbass.  didn't think to look in the "Actual play" section of the site for the review of actual play of my game.  thanks for the heads up, ron.  ;-)

alright, first up, i would like to say thank you for playing the game and apparently getting so much joy out of it with you and your crew.  also, the comparison to Over the Edge and Dust Devils is definitely a little blush inducing.  

now onto the fun part of the review, the question and answer...

firstly, i don't know anything about IIEE or IIEC, so i'll have to research that and get back to you...

the way you have worked up your NPCs is really a great idea.  works kind of like an NPC in whispering vault, but with more abstraction.  i like this quite a bit and will probably shepperd its way into the final version of the game, probably leaving in optional rules to create fully-fleshed out with traits and the like NPCs.

i also like the way you suggest awarding drama points for betting.  makes the math easier, and since i hate math, this is good.  in general, i have to say thatdrama points are a sore spot in the game right now, numbers pretty much acting as place holders until i can see what actual numbers would work best.  any suggestions would be very helpful come that department.  my math isn't exactly the greatest and i know there are some phenominal mathematicians on the board.

(side note: My players use poker chips to stand in for drama points during play, giving the game that much more ambience i think.)

Collapses are intended , just like you say, to only work in the instance you describe, when it puts the Caper in peril and when it can be used to enhance the story of the game or fits thematically.  Both the concept of the Caper and the expanded ideas behind Collapses will be in the newer versions of the book, probably released online next week.  I will also agree that collapses work best in long-term games, allowing players and Directors to get to them in good time.

well, it's two a.m. and i have to open at the store tomorrow, so i should wrap up this response before it makes me look like even more of an ass.  thanks once again Ron for your support.  it's really nice to see that i'm heading in the right direction with this game and hopefully i'll have something that is playable, fun and interresting for everyone out there to enjoy.

i find myself working on a couple of things for the game including some "archetype" characters for out of the box play, a lot more on genre, since setting information is kind of useless really, and oddly enough, live action rules.  hey, a friend convinced me to try and do it, and i was never good at turning down dares.  i'm also doing the photoshoot for the game art on monday and tuesday, so new stuff for you all probably by the end of next week.


Michael P. O'Sullivan
Criminal Element
Desperate People, Desperate Deeds
available at Fullmotor Productions

Ron Edwards

Hi Michael,

I'm excited to hear that the game development is still proceeding. We'll talk more about the IIEE stuff, I'm sure.

One thing about game playtesting and development ... sometimes the least useful playtester is actually the one who's (a) closest to you in friendship and (b) providing the most detailed feedback about how the game is working. I really don't know why I'm feeling compelled to mention it in this instance, not knowing you or your group at all, but I do.

Maybe it's the Drama Point comment you made. The currency for how much you get, and how much you spend for this-or-that, is the essential power currency for game events. Some people may want it to be more giving, based on their scenting a possible opportunity for dramatic powergaming; others may want to be as piddly as possible in order to stave off such powergaming. So maybe I'm seeing the "sore point" discussion, in my imagination from afar, as possibly an arena for these highly emotional issues being brought into the playtesting discussions. Please ignore if I'm totally off base.