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Author Topic: [Air Patrol] Ronnies feedback  (Read 7215 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: February 15, 2011, 10:22:37 AM »

Air Patrol by Patrick Gamblin is a Runner-Up, and if there were an award based strictly on a setting's fun color and zappiness, it would win it. And that's saying a lot from me, because I dislike most stuff called steampunk, considering it to be creatively bankrupt and boring. But Air Patrol has something special to it beyond merely pointing to a few batteries and toot-toot steam pipes and claiming cool-ass genre status. I like the integration with history which does not revel in how wonderful it must have been to be non-wog in the Victorian British Empire,* but rather highlights the arbitrary, alienating, and future-defining features of WWI.

However, good as it is, the question is what lies beyond - or perhaps beneath - the colorful flash, such that it translates in play into something actually compelling and forward-driving, rather than merely being fun to read and otherwise a bog-standard investigate-and-fight Chill clone. (And I chose that example carefully, as it's a clone of Call of Cthulhu, hence, clone of a clone.)

So Pat, that's why I think the worst, very worst thing you could do at this point is beef up the setting any more in terms of details. For all those places in the text where you say "I'm gonna add this," I think you shouldn't, or at least, hold off for a good while. Instead, given what you do have, I think your better priority would be to consider the situations and immediate concerns of characters and players, in practice. The current text is very weak in this regard

The core weakness: two manifestations
1. The big situations faced by the Patrol player-characters are crimes, which they must investigate and solve. In the vast majority of games focusing on such situations, the whole thing is not essentially different from a classic dungeon crawl. It might be a little more linear, and there might be a little more in-character posturing along the way, but the clues are bread-crumbs along a trail, and the ending is some kind of fight to bring down some perpetrator. All that most games offer beyond this rather thin gruel is a hell of a lot of setting-based, fanboy-type color summaries of a given genre.
 
Now, if you want to write Air Patrol this way, I certainly can't stop you. But I'm hoping that you can agree with me that what I'm describing, despite being industry standard, has no real reason to live and that Air Patrol could well take a stronger approach to the whole techno-cops crime-fighting idea. If that agreement is even partially possible, then the first thing to address is:

1. What kind of crimes are we dealing with?

If we were talking about some kind of intense Dust Devils or Nine Worlds approach to that question, then many of the crimes might not be wrong at all, or be so politically situated that they make ordinary moral considerations inadequate. I'm not necessarily calling for that degree of nuance. But I do think it's worth considering what makes a crime (i) important enough in fictional-setting terms to be prognosticated and investigated by the Air Patrol, and (ii) engaging enough in real-person-us-playing terms to match to the color and interest most of the people at the table have invested in their characters.

The text implies, although not in detail or with any examples, that we might be talking about very dangerous and possibly confusing social crimes made possible by new technology. If my reading about that is correct, then great! That'd be enough! That's all I'm looking for - to see something like that more directly articulated and provided with examples. What this means, ultimately, is that the bad guys aren't coming out of left field, and both playing them and interacting with them will be a lot of fun.

2. Does the investigation really matter, and if so, how?

The grim reality is that "investigating" in most role-playing is not investigating at all. That doesn't mean it's always bogus; when I play Call of Cthulhu I know full well that the investigation is a celebration of colorful source material in some modified way, and that's what I'm there to do. But when I'm supposed to think that we are actually investigating and if the GM expects that I personally will experience the deductive and inductive processes that we like to romanticize in fiction ... come the fuck on. It's all roaming around picking up bread-crumbs and being subjected to the GM's sense of pacing, whether we've uncovered the Surprising Thing he wants us to uncover yet, or whether we've futtered around "enough" to move on to a planned next stage, or whether he's enjoyed playing Old Missus Futterbottom enough yet. Genre after genre, system after system, all the same - endless variations on nothing.

At the moment, I'm seeing hints of this approach in the text, specifically the prognosticator, the whispering, and the "tell me what to do next" ability, among other things. I think this is not a good thing. The positive options include what I just mentioned, opening up the process so that we can all enjoy the genre during a pro forma non-consequential investigation sequence that will happen no matter what; or possibly a very different approach in which how the investigation goes (i.e. well or badly) really matters, a lot, in consequences to the setting, to various NPCs, and to the characters. I'll leave aside the really freaky options like InSpectres in which the back-story is not pre-set by a GM at all but rather constructed through player input as play goes along, which I don't think would fit Air Patrol very well.

You do have some neat colorful stuff to work with, specifically the Prognosticator and the whispering. At the moment, it seems only to be a directive method for the GM to say, "Go here, do this" - do you want to talk about some possible alternatives?

"Let me tell you about my character!"
So, Sgt. Wodecki is an Air Patrol officer. He's a big guy in great physical shape with chiseled features and a blond buzzcut with some hair jutting over his forehead. He's not really all that bright, emotionally a bit immature, and tends to be morally simplistic, but he's got a big heart and sometimes naively sees to the heart of things. He's definitely not leader material.

Alertness 3, Athletics 5, Brawling 4, Charm 2, Driving 3, Education 2, Flying 4, Interrogation 2, Resistance 4, Shooting 3, Sneaking 2, Medic 4

Brutal Fighter 2, Won't Go Down 2, Extra Cool Jetpack 1, Lying Eyes 1

Weakness: Bit of a doofus when faced with sophisticated or unfamiliar problems

When I look over a character prepped like this one, two things are most important to me. The first is whether I have a working image of the character, with a sense of "go" to him or her, and whether the numbers and details on the page contribute to this dynamic quality. In this case, I discover that there's an exception to my comments about "no more setting material," because I need a standard personal equipment list for the Air Patrol in order to know what Sgt. Wodecki looks like.

The second important thing is what might happen to all these values on my sheet. I understand that various penalties will get applied and recovered from; that's easy. The big question is whether anything will progressively improve. The text mentions that such rules might be forthcoming, but I want to call into question whether they matter for this game. Not every game needs to have characters get better, or if they do, get better indefinitely. And lots of high-Color, high-Setting, investigate-and-catch-villain guys are hampered by those mechanics, for reasons we can discuss if you want to, Pat.

If you are interested in my thoughts about alternative reward mechanics, i.e., which are not indefinitely focused on on character effectiveness, then we can discuss that too. At the moment, it seems to me that the reward mechanics process may be an opportunity to make Whisper a more useful and central concept in play.

Cool mechanics
I like the way that resolution, out of combat, may well often be handled without rolling, and the dice, when used, exert a modifier to the existing flat numbers comparison. It's really not mathematically different from the standard approach of thinking of the roll first, and the values as modifiers, but it may be experientially different and keep the dice effects where they belong, in circumstances of risks. Or, another way to say this is that you've articulated what a lot of people functionally do with traditional roll + modifier systems, as opposed to the usual situation in which the rules say to do it one way and people have to cobble together a way which makes better sense.

I really like the denouement idea! It beats the crap out of the non-tension of the widely-practiced climactic fight scene, which always comes several sessions of play too late, in which the heroes "might" defeat the bad guy, oh no.

Here's my request for necessary added cool: I humbly beg for some kind of consequential, fun use of those jetpacks, utterly unique in terms of both the fiction (i.e. they do something crucial that cannot be done any other way) and mechanics.

Mechanics suggestions and considerations
1. A lot of games provide two things to modify a basic resolution system. The first is some set of graded difficulty levels for tasks which sets target numbers, and the second is a bunch of difficulty modifiers which reduces one's effectiveness value. I know this is so common as to seem normal, but the fact is, it sucks and always has. Why not just the first set of levels, which is totally sufficient? I'm doing X. How hard is X, right here and now, period? OK, that's the difficulty, here's the target number, go. A game from about ten years ago, Haven: City of Violence, was so absurd in this regard that one routinely faced -10 to -15 modifiers on the most ordinary conflict-situation d20 rolls, i.e., fights. Sure, you might have add an 8 to your roll from your skill, but some difficulty level was set just to shoot your gun, then all sorts of stuff hammered your roll for anything. Even in less extreme designs, the stupid lies in the fact that you're getting hit with a double whammy for no reason.

So I'm recommending either to have target number difficulty levels or to have die-reducing difficulty modifiers, but not both. Either one is perfectly adequate by itself for setting how hard a given task might be.

2. I recommend that hit location be chosen before hitting, not afterwards, especially considering the extreme consequences of a vitals or head shot. It strikes me that armor as written isn't much fun - it just makes all rolls less effective, and hence combat gets more drawn out as you slowly grind away at opponents' scores. I guess if you wanted to get really practical and colorful about it, you could assign specific attacks to specific armor, which that sort of armor simply negates in full. That's pretty out there, but something like it would be more fun - it turns armor into a tactical circumstance rather than yet another (and annoying) step and modifier of resolution.

3. I suggest that concrete penalties be acquired only through damage, and that complications should not affect the numbers in play, but only the immediate situation and circumstances. Oh, and that a rolled 6 should get a complication too.

4. There's an epicycle problem with tracking pool vs. It Wasn't Really Me. What I mean is that the two things only exist to revolve around and counter one another; each is annoying when the other isn't involved, but they negate one another when they're both involved. So it's like a spinning propellor on some kid's hat; it spins and spins but doesn't have anything to do with what the kid is doing. I really love the idea of It Wasn't Really Me, but I think this implementation should be reconsidered and redesigned. Maybe every villain has some version of it, and part of the investigative process whittles away at its effectiveness, and you don't find out whether it works until the denouement.

Patrick, this entry was a hell of a lot of fun to read. It's great to see the virtues of more traditional game design brought forward. I know my take on it is not industry standard (same-old bogus investigative model, pages and pages of equipment, pages and pages of historical details, plans for never-ending supplements), so let me know if it makes any sense for you.

Best, Ron

* Pardon me while I spit copiously, preferably upon some feature of said empire. Did I mention that I think this whatever-it-is called steampunk, in nearly every example, is bereft of political sanity, to the point of becoming genuinely grotesque? But that's not a Ronnies issue. We return now to our regularly scheduled feedback.
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Devon Oratz
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« Reply #1 on: February 15, 2011, 11:38:27 AM »

I like steampunk stuff, so I'm gonna keep an eye on Air Patrol.

Quote
1. A lot of games provide two things to modify a basic resolution system. The first is some set of graded difficulty levels for tasks which sets target numbers, and the second is a bunch of difficulty modifiers which reduces one's effectiveness value. I know this is so common as to seem normal, but the fact is, it sucks and always has. Why not just the first set of levels, which is totally sufficient? I'm doing X. How hard is X, right here and now, period? OK, that's the difficulty, here's the target number, go. A game from about ten years ago, Haven: City of Violence, was so absurd in this regard that one routinely faced -10 to -15 modifiers on the most ordinary conflict-situation d20 rolls, i.e., fights. Sure, you might have add an 8 to your roll from your skill, but some difficulty level was set just to shoot your gun, then all sorts of stuff hammered your roll for anything. Even in less extreme designs, the stupid lies in the fact that you're getting hit with a double whammy for no reason.

So I'm recommending either to have target number difficulty levels or to have die-reducing difficulty modifiers, but not both. Either one is perfectly adequate by itself for setting how hard a given task might be.

This is a really interesting point.
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #2 on: February 16, 2011, 02:26:41 PM »

Hi Ron. Hi Devon. Sorry to respond so late, but I saw the review post just as I was getting ready to write up a submission for 1KM1KT's movie mashup rpg contest, and I figured I should get that done while the ideas were hot. I'm a little tired and wrung-out at the moment, so this is just a quick response for now. I'll give a much longer and more detailed one in a couple hours after I rest a bit. :)

I'm very happy that you enjoyed the game as much as you did, Ron. I was hoping some of my ideas were heading in the right direction, but I still lack confidence. I am very open to discussing ways to make it better and more interesting. I'll post something more coherent and detailed in about 4 hours or so.

Pat
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #3 on: February 16, 2011, 10:59:37 PM »

Thanks a lot for the review of Air Patrol, Ron. I'm really glad it had some good parts in it. Your review certainly gave me a lot to think about.

For all those places in the text where you say "I'm gonna add this," I think you shouldn't, or at least, hold off for a good while. Instead, given what you do have, I think your better priority would be to consider the situations and immediate concerns of characters and players, in practice.

Yeah, part of me wanted to just leave it a generic city for people to make up themselves, while the other part of me thought I should make it New York Specifically and work the details of NYC into the writeup. I donít think Iíd figured out which way I was going to go with it, but a more do-it-yourself setting is my personal preference. I agree very much with that last couple of lines. Itís probably the part I have the hardest time with. Learning how to deal with that is one of the reasons I try these contests. Thereís a lot I need to learn.

1. What kind of crimes are we dealing with?
If we were talking about some kind of intense Dust Devils or Nine Worlds approach to that question, then many of the crimes might not be wrong at all, or be so politically situated that they make ordinary moral considerations inadequate. I'm not necessarily calling for that degree of nuance. But I do think it's worth considering what makes a crime (i) important enough in fictional-setting terms to be prognosticated and investigated by the Air Patrol, and (ii) engaging enough in real-person-us-playing terms to match to the color and interest most of the people at the table have invested in their characters.

If I can do something better and more interesting than what has become the standard way of doing this sort of game, Iím certainly open to any suggestions you may have. Iím unaware of Dust Devils and havenít gotten to read Nine Worlds yet. Iíll see if I can rectify that soon. Initially I was thinking the Air Patrol gets the really weird stuff, the high-tech crime stuff, and anything the regular police canít handle. I should probably sit down and think of specific sorts of crime or crime trends that the Air Police would be used for. I definitely have to think more on what will engage the players in the game world and the sessions.

The text implies, although not in detail or with any examples, that we might be talking about very dangerous and possibly confusing social crimes made possible by new technology. If my reading about that is correct, then great! That'd be enough! That's all I'm looking for - to see something like that more directly articulated and provided with examples. What this means, ultimately, is that the bad guys aren't coming out of left field, and both playing them and interacting with them will be a lot of fun.

The term social crime isnít familiar to me, so I had to look it up. It seems to be an action that is criminalized by the wealthier classes, but not seen as a crime by the poorer classes, such as smuggling or poaching. Or from the other angle in some sci-fi settings you have clones, illegal to own, being owned and used/abused by the rich who can normally ignore the law.  Am I understanding it correctly?

 
2. Does the investigation really matter, and if so, how?
The grim reality is that "investigating" in most role-playing is not investigating at all.
At the moment, I'm seeing hints of this approach in the text, specifically the prognosticator, the whispering, and the "tell me what to do next" ability, among other things. I think this is not a good thing.

I can certainly see that, upon thinking it over. Iíve been trying for a while to come up with a better way to do investigations in games. The closest I came to something Ďnewí (new to me, that is) was in reading, um, I think one of the Gumshoe games, where the author suggested getting rid of alertness checks to find clues and just handing out the clues, since failing to find a clue just stalls the momentum of the game. I liked that idea, but it felt like there should be more. I wasnít able to come up with anything better, however. Now you mention that really, the investigation is a forgone conclusion, that it must happen, and happen correctly in order to get to the later parts, the dramatic confrontations and such, and I find myself agreeing completely. 

The positive options include what I just mentioned, opening up the process so that we can all enjoy the genre during a pro forma non-consequential investigation sequence that will happen no matter what; or possibly a very different approach in which how the investigation goes (i.e. well or badly) really matters, a lot, in consequences to the setting, to various NPCs, and to the characters.

You do have some neat colorful stuff to work with, specifically the Prognosticator and the whispering. At the moment, it seems only to be a directive method for the GM to say, "Go here, do this" - do you want to talk about some possible alternatives?

Definitely. So far the Prognosticator and Whisperers are a fun setting colour bit, but functionally are just a way for the GM to prod players with clues. I did have thoughts of making them a bit more menacing/creepy, but never really got it in there in time. Other than setting colour Iíd love a way to make them more interesting and Iíd love a better way to handle the investigation angle. Near the end of the writing period Iíd come to the conclusion that the game was in a way more about what happens other than the investigation. The dramatic scenes, action, and so forth, rather than the collecting clues and piecing them together. Itís based on the old serials and such, and those are mostly dramatic scenes and action, rather than finding evidence and analyzing clues.

The second important thing is what might happen to all these values on my sheet. I understand that various penalties will get applied and recovered from; that's easy. The big question is whether anything will progressively improve. The text mentions that such rules might be forthcoming, but I want to call into question whether they matter for this game. Not every game needs to have characters get better, or if they do, get better indefinitely. And lots of high-Color, high-Setting, investigate-and-catch-villain guys are hampered by those mechanics, for reasons we can discuss if you want to, Pat.

Iím certainly open to that as well. When I first started lurking here a year ago, one of the first things that drew me in was a discussion people were having about alternate methods of character advancement. Iíve toyed with the idea of not having charactersí stats/skills advance at all, but it feels to me like there has to be something that improves in some way, whether itís new abilities to use, or new fun stuff to access. Leverage has something like this, in a way. After you complete a Ďjob,í you write the name of it down on your sheet. In a later session, you can call back to that episode for a bonus during a similar situation (ĎHey, remember that time IÖ?í). Instead of stats or skills getting higher, the character has more experiences to draw on.  Thatís not necessarily what I see for Air Patrol, just an example of something Iíve seen that is different from my previous experiences. If the characterís skills arenít getting better would there be new abilities to learn, connections gained, or similar, or would the characterís sheet be completely unchanging? Iím torn in a few different directions here.

If you are interested in my thoughts about alternative reward mechanics, i.e., which are not indefinitely focused on on character effectiveness, then we can discuss that too. At the moment, it seems to me that the reward mechanics process may be an opportunity to make Whisper a more useful and central concept in play.

Iím very interested in that sort of thing. Anything that integrates the Whisper theme better would help too. 

I really like the denouement idea! It beats the crap out of the non-tension of the widely-practiced climactic fight scene, which always comes several sessions of play too late, in which the heroes "might" defeat the bad guy, oh no.

Thanks. It just kinda sprung into my mind. Iím not sure what influences brought it into fruition. I think there may be a problem connected to it, though. Or at least something that feels like it could be a problem. The denouement setup depends on the hero point economy (I think Iím using the term right) from earlier parts of the campaign/session. If the points the villain gets and the ones the heroes get are too out of whack, it could make it hard to ever pin the villain down. Iím not sure if it balances out there. I suppose that may be best figured out during playtesting, though. An alternate version might be to have the villains special abilities start out high and get reduced when the PC's successfully stop parts of their grand plan, so the villain may have to confront the heroes before they completely wreck his plans (and drop his villain ability scores too low to be of use). Just a thought, anyway. I like the general idea of 'use the early part of the session/game to build up hero points, so that you have them to use during the denouement,' I'm just not sure it's balanced right.

I humbly beg for some kind of consequential, fun use of those jetpacks, utterly unique in terms of both the fiction (i.e. they do something crucial that cannot be done any other way) and mechanics.

Iíve been trying to think of more for that. Initially my setting idea was to have the city flooded or worse, so that flight packs were by far the best way to get around. Or to ramp up the use of dirigibles and aircraft so far that flight packs were the best way to Ďpoliceí them in a way. Flying towns that are for some reason necessary to visit might help that too. Iím just not entirely sure what way to go and how far to take it. Iíll do more thinking on it, though. So far they're only real use is that they're faster than most forms of ground transport and kinda convenient in not needing a helipad/runway.

Mechanics suggestions and considerations
1. A lot of games provide two things to modify a basic resolution system. The first is some set of graded difficulty levels for tasks which sets target numbers, and the second is a bunch of difficulty modifiers which reduces one's effectiveness value.

So I'm recommending either to have target number difficulty levels or to have die-reducing difficulty modifiers, but not both. Either one is perfectly adequate by itself for setting how hard a given task might be.

I agree. I almost went with solely using a target number for things. A more difficult situation, due to cover, darkness, distraction, whatever, would simply mean you used a higher difficulty. Give the GM general guidelines and let them come up with the difficulty based on the current situation. The problem that I ran into was opposed rolls. There the difficulty is effectively the opposing roll, and the only way to I can think of to change it to represent specific aspects of the situation is through modifiers. I suppose I could make it situation agnostic (so to speak), make opposed rolls only take the opposing roll into account and not the rest of the situational modifiers, but Iím not sure if that feels right. Iíll keep trying to work something out.

- it turns armor into a tactical circumstance rather than yet another (and annoying) step and modifier of resolution.

Hm, Iíll give it some thought. I agree armour is probably an unnecessary step. Just something Iíve gotten too used to using in games. I could go with armour simply giving a bonus to rolls to avoid getting hit. Itís another modifier, but itíd be simpler and faster than having it reduce damage. I suppose armour in that day and age was really, really uncommon. It would largely apply to big things like armoured vehicles and large robots. They could just have 'immune to personal weapons/attacks' as a trait and not include personal body armour in the game at all.

3. I suggest that concrete penalties be acquired only through damage, and that complications should not affect the numbers in play, but only the immediate situation and circumstances. Oh, and that a rolled 6 should get a complication too.

More agreement. Complications originally werenít going to be able to be used as a penalty to the current roll, I just added that in near the end as I realized I wasnít going to be able to think up enough ideas by the time I needed to have that section done. I can see adding a complication to the highest result on the die. Mind if I ask what your reasoning was?

4. There's an epicycle problem with tracking pool vs. It Wasn't Really Me.

Ugh, I hadnít even thought of that. Iíll have to come up with a different way to use It wasnít Really Me.

Thanks muchly for the ideas Ron. Sorry for responding in a big chopped-up post. If you want to split it into subtopics or something I can do that instead.

Pat
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Baxil
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« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2011, 11:52:46 AM »

Touching on the "social crime", Prognosticators, investigations, and setting -

"Social crime" basically means any action that is criminal primarily because it challenges the social order.  There's a large overlap with "victimless crime" but not 100%.  Modern examples would be things like drug laws, sodomy laws, sedition, or blasphemy (in more religious states).

Having the Air Patrol deal with social crime could be interesting because it could add a moral dimension - are we enforcing just laws? - but looking into the setting background, I think there's a MUCH more awesome direction to go with it.

You have aliens - suspected to be from within the Solar System - attacking in 1917 and being beaten back.  Then we scavenge their technology and they never show up again.  20 years later, and not a peep?  Doesn't that seem a little suspicious?

So you've got MIA aliens who know they can't beat Earth in a frontal assault ... at least while Earth's warring nations are united.  You've got a police force that's a "dedicated fast response unit tasked with investigating strange occurrences".  You've got "Prognosticators" that, in some undefined way, point PCs toward crime. 

To me, this all screams "Underground alien subversives!" 

Embrace it!  Go all Battlestar Galactica on your steampunk!  Make prognosticators alien detectors!  They're infiltrating society, finding would-be traitors and agitators, and giving them the tools they need to overthrow or destabilize Earth's governments in preparation for a second alien invasion.  The Air Patrol's mission is to uphold the thin blue line against people with legitimate grievances and dangerous, diabolical backers.
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #5 on: February 19, 2011, 12:51:52 PM »

Touching on the "social crime", Prognosticators, investigations, and setting -

"Social crime" basically means any action that is criminal primarily because it challenges the social order.  There's a large overlap with "victimless crime" but not 100%.  Modern examples would be things like drug laws, sodomy laws, sedition, or blasphemy (in more religious states).

To me, this all screams "Underground alien subversives!" 

Embrace it!  Go all Battlestar Galactica on your steampunk!  Make prognosticators alien detectors!  They're infiltrating society, finding would-be traitors and agitators, and giving them the tools they need to overthrow or destabilize Earth's governments in preparation for a second alien invasion.  The Air Patrol's mission is to uphold the thin blue line against people with legitimate grievances and dangerous, diabolical backers.

That's certainly something that could be run in it. I don't know if I want to tie in any specific enemy for it, but I would like to put in a bunch of ideas for stuff that could be run. I cringe at the new Galactica, but the idea is neat. ;)

Pat
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #6 on: February 19, 2011, 12:52:59 PM »

Whups, after that first section about social crime is supposed to be a 'Ah, thanks for the info.'

Pat
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #7 on: February 19, 2011, 09:05:34 PM »

Bought a copy of Dust Devils and downloaded Nine Worlds. Going to be reading through them at work tonight while I ponder the 14 things that need pondering in the system.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: February 20, 2011, 05:28:10 PM »

Hi Patrick,

1. Baxil nailed it concerning my intended use of the term social crime. To talk about that, I think it's most useful to let his aliens-example be strictly that, an example, and not go there as a suggestion before you get the chance to think over the term completely on your own.

So - given your setting and the text of the Ronnies entry, and starting completely from scratch, what'd be a social crime that would need an elite police unit to investigate, particularly one with exceptional mobile capabilities?

2. Let's talk about investigations as game processes. More blunt facts: players don't investigate anything, or rather, not when "anything" means a fictional situation. They never do; it's not possible. Investigations may be venues for something else interesting, in which case the "something else" needs to be understood as the point of play. Or they may not, and if not, they're merely transitions and Color in terms of what really matters, which in many cases is what is discovered (and hence guaranteed to be discovered).

I'm sticking with your stated interest in play not being hours of fucking around before the GM throws the bone and we get to have a fight scene. In which case either interesting stuff occurs during the investigation that , or what is discovered (and quickly) is so interesting that it will be the topic for hours of play.

The question is, then, which of this set of if's is best suited to your vision of play?

3. Changes in characters ... boy, the meat of play, in its way. I have seen many, many ways, especially those which have little or nothing to do with simply increasing effectiveness. The one I'd like to recommend for Air Patrol, at least as food for thought, considers the character sheet to be something of a portrait. The beginning sheet is like a sketch - enough to work with, gives strong first impressions, perhaps a sense of motion, but that's it. As play goes on, the sketch turns into a drawing and ultimately into a rendered, nuanced, and striking final piece.

Wait - perhaps I'm not being clear. The artistic wording is intended to be an analogy, not a real drawing et cetera. What I'm saying is that as play goes on, think of session by session time-lapse photography on Sgt. Wodecki's sheet. I'm saying that very, very little of it changes the character in the game-world - the skill numbers don't go up, he doesn't change in rank, et cetera. But you do see much more about him as a person. More psychology, more about his values, all of which have been generated by play. Perhaps a service record of the cases worked in play, including his personal take on them. And of all the things originally on the sheet, perhaps only his Flaw might change every so often.

That sounds like a lot of fun to me.

It also mght be worth considering that one might phase one's character out, when it seems like the portrait is done, with a fun and painless way of bringing a new character in.

Which itself brings up another point - do you really want to make it possible for a player-character to die in the ordinary course of applying system mechanics, in this game? There is no right answer - it's yes or no - but whichever one it is, matters greatly. Way too many games have "no" as the only rational answer but retain mechanics that kill characters anyway, for instance.

4. One thing you aren't seeing in my #3 above is mechanical reward, and that's on purpose. It makes more sense to me in this case to move all such mechanics into a different realm of play - specifically, the Prognosticator and the Whispers. To discuss this, those aspects of play need some clarification in setting terms.

Forgive me if I'm going too far with this - and also, let me know if I'm simply wrong in all I'm about to say - but my current impression is that your notions about the whispers being scary or sinister are very unformed at this time. And even more unformed, perhaps, is the notion that the Air Patrol command itself may not be the ultra-virtuous Boy Scout organization that its propaganda and the idealistic player-characters would indicate. The fact that the founder of the Air Patrol is now a most-wanted terrorist (i.e. disgruntled, probably heroic rebel) seems consistent with this.

I suggest that this whole line of thought may not be productive for this game. Or even if you want it to be, let's at least make sure that the basic, introductory level of play is sound on its own before you go deconstructing it. More specifically, I'm asking whether the sinister quality of the whispers is real or not. And no half-and-half or any of that, it's a yes or a no.

OK - what I'm about to suggest about reward mechanics presupposes that the answer is "no," and the whispery stuff is cool-sinister rather than uh-oh-metaplot-sinister. You may or may not be familiar with the ephemeral but crucial bonus mechanics found in games like Primetime Adventures, The Shadow of Yesterday, and Space Rat. I'll tell you about the PTA one, called Fanmail. Basically, when a player (not the GM) does something that any other player likes, the player who likes it takes a token from a certain reserve on the table and gives to the one who did something. The something can be anything: a turn of phrase, a decision made by the character, a good card draw, whatever. The token can be used to buy a bonus card in later conflicts. It's also important to understand that the reserve that Fanmail tokens are drawn from is derived from previous conflicts, so if you want your group to have lots of fanmail kicking around, (i) get into lots of conflicts, and (ii) do fun things and reward fun things others do. It's a very, very functional mechanic and has been imitated and elaborated upon countless times.

I'm not suggesting you merely imitate it. For one thing, the "that was cool and fun" basis for Fanmail is intimately tied to the core concept of PTA, which is that we are playing protagonists in an ensemble-style TV series. Whereas here you have a different core concept - and I suggest that you articulate that for yourself and consider any sort of fun little bonus/benny mechanic which rewards doing it - and tie using that bennie to getting a whisper! So the only way the player-characters get whispers is to have this kind of bonus in action.

Which, uh, means you have to have the whispers do something which isn't just the GM bugging you to go to the docks to find the clue that will in turn tell you to go to the warehouse to fight the bad guy. But whatever - make the whispers do something worth all this mechanical effort.

One thing about PTA Fanmail which is sort of atypical, is that it disconnects the bonus from any success or failure result in a current conflict. You can do it that way if you want. But if you don't, then consider that many minor reward mechanics of this sort are based on conflicts' outcomes, falling into two models: success breeds success vs. adversity breeds success. In the former, you get bonus rewards to use later for doing well now; in the latter, you get bonus rewards later for failing now.

5. As for those jetpacks, my suggestion is that they should be unique, or very nearly unique to the Air Patrol. In other words, it's not like the cops have jetpacks because everyone else has jetpacks; it's so this particular set of cops can have a unique advantage that no one else comes close to without significant effort, itself probably illegal in its own right. Clearly this touches upon all sorts of details in the setting.

But whatever it turns out to be, if the jetpacks are merely a standard gear item, I'll be sad. I'd love to see them grant a unique game mechanic that's fun to use.

6. Let's talk about the difficulty levels vs. the modifiers some more. I wrote,

Quote
1. A lot of games provide two things to modify a basic resolution system. The first is some set of graded difficulty levels for tasks which sets target numbers, and the second is a bunch of difficulty modifiers which reduces one's effectiveness value.

So I'm recommending either to have target number difficulty levels or to have die-reducing difficulty modifiers, but not both. Either one is perfectly adequate by itself for setting how hard a given task might be.

You wrote,

Quote
I agree. I almost went with solely using a target number for things. A more difficult situation, due to cover, darkness, distraction, whatever, would simply mean you used a higher difficulty. Give the GM general guidelines and let them come up with the difficulty based on the current situation. The problem that I ran into was opposed rolls. There the difficulty is effectively the opposing roll, and the only way to I can think of to change it to represent specific aspects of the situation is through modifiers. I suppose I could make it situation agnostic (so to speak), make opposed rolls only take the opposing roll into account and not the rest of the situational modifiers, but Iím not sure if that feels right. Iíll keep trying to work something out.

Let's stay with your almost-went!! I suggest that you were on the right track, then found yourself somewhere unfamiliar and bolted. Your problem is no problem at all. Brace yourself ...

... you don't need opposed rolls. NPCs do not have to be played by the same rules as PCs, not at all. Give each one a target level of difficulty for offense, meaning what the PC has to roll in order not to be hit by them, and a target level of difficulty for defense, meaning what the PC has to roll in order to hit them. You could use those same values for anything the NPC is doing (i.e. that the PC has to deal with), or you could have one more score which set the level (for the PC to beat) for "everything else."

Seriously. It sounds crazy, yes, but it covers every single situation in play that could ever, ever come up. And adverse circumstances just add one or more levels, done deal.

I'm not saying, by the way, that all games need to be like this. My own game Sorcerer and one of my favorite games ever, Hero Wars (now HeroQuest), are totally traditional in this regard, for instance. But lots of games use it without any trouble and a hell of a lot more ought to. I think Air Patrol is one of them.

7. My reasoning regarding the complication on a 6 is based on my other suggestion that the complications be wholly situational, without imposing dice penalties. So, my thinking there is that a complication is always a good thing for play over and above what the character might think. It solidifies the communication about what is going on and what must be taken into account regarding one's next action, and it provides raw material in a way which often proves very consequential without being pre-planned.

Therefore my thinking about a complication with a 6 is that it would not undercut the success in any way. It merely makes the world a little bit more than merely a punching bag for your skill roll - think of it as a ball going through the basket and then doing something else, sort of an elaboration on the success. And that same logic is still consistent with their current role accompanying failures, I think, because by this logic, when you fail, a complication or worse, two, makes life all that much more adverse.

Whew! That was a lot of Air Patrol and a hell of a lot of RPG concepts packed into one spot. Patrick, I hope it helps or at least makes sense.

Best, Ron
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: February 20, 2011, 05:41:40 PM »

Oh - one thing to clarify. I did not recommend either Dust Devils or Nine Worlds to you as settings to emulate for your game. They are in fact two of the best RPGs ever written - and I do not say that lightly - but I brought them up as examples of settings in which crimes were very, very hard to pin down morally, and in which the whole concept of "the law" was either dubious or corrupt or both. I mentioned them only in order to contrast them with the Air Patrol setting.

Looking over the paragraph in which I mentioned them, I find that there's a transitional concept between the sentences which may not have been evident. It was supposed to be present in the short sentence, "I"m not necessarily calling for that degree of nuance." I will present that paragraph again with the transitional sentence made more explicit.

Quote
If we were talking about some kind of intense Dust Devils or Nine Worlds approach to that question, then many of the crimes might not be wrong at all, or be so politically situated that they make ordinary moral considerations inadequate. I'm not necessarily calling for that degree of nuance, and it is likely that Air Patrol will do better with a more traditional, rule-of-law approach to police work and criminality. But I do think, even then, it's worth considering what makes a crime (i) important enough in fictional-setting terms to be prognosticated and investigated by the Air Patrol, and (ii) engaging enough in real-person-us-playing terms to match to the color and interest most of the people at the table have invested in their characters.

Best, Ron
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #10 on: February 24, 2011, 05:04:47 AM »

First, the most recent post (Dust Devils/Nine Worlds):
   Oh yeah, I wasn't getting them for emulation purposes, just to look at and see how they did things in general. I'm about halfway through Dust Devils, and I can see what you mean. Definitely worth reading.



Now on to the Main Post:
1) Hm, I can think of a few types of crimes they could be called in for. One broad aspect would be high technology. For the Air Patrol to be called in, I think the crime would have to involve people with high technology (enough that regular police and 'g men' wouldn't be able to handle it) or would require knowledge of high technology, an expertise that members of the Air Patrol would necessarily have.

Apart from that particular 'theme,' I could see them involved in investigated/stopping a number of different things:
 - Terrorism: Mad bombers and anarchists were a bit of a holdover from the Victorian fiction period, but still appeared occasionally in stories, as well as foreign agents intent on causing problems and criminals extorting money.
 - Militias/gangsters: Groups capable of undermining the law and interested in acquiring high technology to further their ends.
 - Spies: Theft of military or government secrets, either by foreign agents or people trying to get rich.
 - The creation of artificial life: Robots, if smart enough/sentient could cause a cultural backlash similar to some of what is currently going on in the realm of genetics (or more accurately the potential future of genetics). Against God's plan and all. Something like The Island of Dr Moreau would have a similar effect. I could see a clash between religious groups, who want robots banned, and companies that see robots as an efficient form of unpaid labour. There's a parallel to slavery there too. Do thinking robots get rights? If so, whose rights do they get in a society which was still segregated?
 - The creation of other banned devices: Other technologies might be banned as well, in the interests of order. Death rays, and such. This area could also have some corruption, if I wanted to to add some grey into a black and white universe. I agree, though, that I should get the rest of the system straight before worrying about that. I think I'll avoid anything to do with time travel machines, though. Too much of a headache.*
 - Ownership of restricted devices. If the advanced flight packs used by the Air Patrol are not legal to own, they would likely be in charge of making sure others don't get their hands on them.


2) Hm, this is turning out to be the hardest part to work out right now. My own thinking is that I want to have the players do what I believe is the most fun, which is the dramatic scenes, whether it's action or interaction with other characters. The actual forensics aren't, usually, the fun part. There are clues, you find them, you do something with the information. It seems to me that what's important is what happens next. You've found a ticket to a club in a dead scientist's hand, that leads to checking out the club, interviewing (or interrogating) people there, getting into a fight, or whatever the scene results in. Finding the ticket isn't the fun part, roleplaying through the scene is. Unless the scene ends up not being something important, in which case it's a waste of time. I guess I want to set it up to get people to those interesting scenes during the investigation, culminating in one or more confrontations with the villain(s) later on.

One problem I have with investigation in general is when the GM is not giving out enough clues or the players just can't put them together and the game stalls. I thought about having investigation scenes potentially give bennies as a reward and allow a player who is stuck spend a benny to get a clue from the GM, possibly suggesting the type of clue ('Do I find anything out about where X is hiding?), but I'm not sure if that's the right way to handle it.

Basically, I don't mind skipping over the boring parts of the investigation, as long as the players get to have fun playing the dramatic parts. Trying to make that work gave me enough of a headache that I took a couple days off.


3) a) Got what you were saying about a character sheet representing (in text form) a 'sketch' of the character. A while back you put up an Actual Play post that I found very interesting. It was for Zero. The idea that the character started out as almost a blank slate and added new skills (I think it was skills) based on what had happened in play was brilliant. That couldn't be directly used here, since the serials and other source material definitely follow the 'group of archetypes/stereotypes' idea, but I think the idea of the core of the character not changing, but adding things as the game goes, like new contacts, reputations, unique gear, favours owed, tricks learned, and so on could be interesting. Not major changes to the character sheet, but mostly minor notations. It could use the case file idea you mentioned. Maybe a part of the sheet where you write down the name of the case just finished and a comment on it, and add a minor benefit gained from it. It might be workable, anyway.

b) About phasing characters out, I can see it. If they change little (or not at all) in terms of ability, there's no balancing needed if someone wants to switch to a different character, though you may need to pick a new leader. Whether the phasing out is permanent or temporary, I don't see a real problem, as long as someone doesn't go overboard, making new characters every session.

c) Hm, I think it fits the genre more if the characters can't die normally, but may be able to do some sort of heroic sacrifice. If this was a gritty noir game, I'd say characters could die during any dramatic scene, but it's meant to be more heroic, with the main characters trying ridiculously dangerous things and, almost, always surviving.


4) Yeah, a lot of the stuff around the Prognosticator and the Whisperers is unformed and typed up on the fly.  That's the second hardest part for me to work through right now, after the investigation part. The initial idea was that they may be sinister, but the Air Patrol uses them anyway. Near the end of the 24 hours, I decided maybe they tapped into something spiritual. At first it was something sinister, and the 'evil air patrol' guy was affected. After he disappeared, they tinkered with it more and found something they could tap into without driving anyone crazy. At the time I was thinking the spirit of the city, but something more appropriate might be the spirits of the dead.

Sorry, a bit of a tangent there. A more explicit answer is, no, I don't see the Protagonist/Whisperers being sinister now. Just a weird science tool that perhaps no-one really understands, but they use it since it works. It may be creepy, but not evil.

I had heard of fanmail, but hadn't thought about it during the initial writing. Going back to what I wrote above about the investigation phase, maybe I could say that a benny spent on getting a clue is effectively given by the Whisperer whispering something to them.

Maybe the Whisperers are more directly connected to the Prognosticator and allow some sort of communication with HQ. Iffy on that one too.

As for success breeds success and adversity breeds success, I do have the possibility of the character's weakness being used to automatically fail at something and get a benny. What if normally bennies were gained by success? Make success breeds success the norm, but with an ability to use the character's weakness once each session to turn adversity into a benny. Or maybe instead of the weakness creating a failure to get a benny, make it that if the character fails at something, and they can involve their weakness in the failure, they can get a benny from it. If they can't explain how their weakness was involved, no adversity benny.

Bennies could then be spent on clues, bonuses, or whatever they're set up for.


5) Agreed. The Tesla-style flight packs are supposed to be Air Patrol only. I could see making it illegal to have them if you're not the government. Everyone else has to use an Edison flight pack, which is not remotely as good, but it's cheaper and it can fly, so it has its uses if you're not a sky cop. Basically, the Edison type is about as fast as an average car and can fly 10 miles or so. The Tesla one can fly much faster, as fast as a fast aircraft, maybe, and generates it's own power, so it has potentially infinite flight time. Is that the sort of ability you were meaning, or did you mean a more active ability, like a power? I did some thinking on maybe having each Air Patrol flight pack have it's own special thing due to each one being made by hand rather than on an assembly line. It may be too super-hero-y, though.


6) Agreed. Actually, the (very extensive) rewrite I never finished for After the Fall used a similar idea. Rolls were a dice pool, with the average die roll giving you one success. Therefore the average roll was equal to the level of the skill in the first place. If the GM wanted to make things faster, they could have only PCs roll, and use the NPC's static skill number as a difficulty. It wouldn't be hard to work that idea into the rules, since the only dice rolled at the moment are risk dice for combat and in case you need to push your skill beyond it's normal level outside of combat. I think it might still need some difficulty modifiers, though. That is, if the difficulty to hit an NPC is their skill score, the difficulty to hit them while they are in fog/darkness should be higher. I could have modifiers be just a general idea rather than a big list, though. Slightly more difficult, +1; up to veery much more difficult, +3.

Or maybe there are no modifiers, you use the one set of difficulties currently used for unopposed rolls. The difficulty to hit someone then depends on the situation they're in, but if it's lower than the level they have in the skill they're defending with, they can use that skill level instead. If they want to boost their skill level with risk dice defensively, they can, at the risk of complications cropping up as normal.


7) Hm, I'll have to think on that. I was initially thinking of the complications always being negative, so that you won't want to always roll 5 risk dice every time. If complications are going to be more neutral in nature, then I think some other negative will have to be put onto the risk dice to keep them a risk. I'll certainly remove the actual skill penalty from them, however. It's something else I threw in in the final hour of working on it, to help cover up the fact that I was having a hard time coming up with complication ideas right then.



* Not that I intend on detailing the world much. I'm thinking I want to have examples of villains, plots, and such, though, and I'll be avoiding time travel ones. Good for stories, not good for most rpgs.



Thanks again for the assistance, Ron. It is a lot of help. I think most of it can be working smoothly shortly. The only real problem areas I see (unless I've gone of the deep end somewhere) are investigation and the connection to Whispers.

I'll try to have an updated pdf ready by Friday afternoon.

Thanks muchly,
Pat
PS: Any really odd typos are due to the spellchecker on here, honest.
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #11 on: February 24, 2011, 05:07:14 AM »

Almost forgot 'It Wasn't Really Me.' Still not sure what to do with it, but maybe finding out if the villain has that as an ability could be handled as part of the investigation. Or it could just be dropped. I like the idea, but I'm not sure it'll work out.

Pat
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Gryffudd
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« Reply #12 on: February 28, 2011, 09:13:17 AM »

Going to try to get the pdf updated and posted Tuesday night. Wasn't able to get much done this weekend, and reading something Vincent posted (I forget if it was a recent post or old one) got me thinking about 'what I want from the game' vs 'what the people I want to play the game want from it.' I definitely need to take a bit and think about how I play a game as compared to how the people I write a game for play it. Urg, low sleep is not grammar's friend. Should still be able to get most of the pdf updates done tomorrow, though.

Pat
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: February 28, 2011, 09:44:57 AM »

Hi Pat,

I've been working up a big reply which unfortunately got steamrolled by the demands of my weekend. I'll try to get it posted this afternoon.

Best, Ron
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #14 on: February 28, 2011, 12:43:25 PM »

Hi Patrick,

1. It's great to see you considering the crimes. I suggest that you focus on the social aspect of the crimes, i.e., what actual harm they do, and against whom. It's useful to consider that law enforcement is at least as much about preserving the institutions of power as about stopping or preventing harm to ordinary citizens. I don't bring that up to be all edgy but rather to provide the kind of range that makes any cop drama more than Boy Scout propaganda (rather, if it isn't merely such propaganda).

Regarding technological crimes, I urge that you avoid circular logic: "New technologies are dangerous, they're dangerous because they're new technologies." Conceiving of the real danger is a big deal because it validates the fictional presence of the Air Patrol in the first place.

Ah ha, ROBOTS! Here's the reference for you, and note the publication date: 1920. See the R.U.R. Wikipedia entry and the actual R.U.R. script.

2. I'm going to extract your own words from the investigation section to show that you've already reached a conclusion, and that all you have to do is slough off the expectations and habits of highly-ingrained but essentially stupid play.

Quote
... I want to have the players do what I believe is the most fun, which is the dramatic scenes, whether it's action or interaction with other characters.
... There are clues, you find them, you do something with the information. It seems to me that what's important is what happens next.
... I guess I want to set it up to get people to those interesting scenes during the investigation, culminating in one or more confrontations with the villain(s) later on.
... Basically, I don't mind skipping over the boring parts of the investigation, as long as the players get to have fun playing the dramatic parts.

See what I mean? You've totally answered the question. So my question as I read through all this was, why is he repeating this over and over? It's like stomping around in sticky mud. I think it's because this is so unfamiliar even though you totally recognize the truth when you see it, the expectations and habits are still all over your shoes and pants. You're engaged in the uncomfortable but ultimately productive process of scraping it off.

Quote
One problem I have with investigation in general is when the GM is not giving out enough clues or the players just can't put them together and the game stalls. I thought about having investigation scenes potentially give bennies as a reward and allow a player who is stuck spend a benny to get a clue from the GM, possibly suggesting the type of clue ('Do I find anything out about where X is hiding?), but I'm not sure if that's the right way to handle it.

And that bit is the mud not on your pants, but the whole swamp that's doing its very best to drag you back in. All that kind of talk is based on the idea that the events of the investigation (the clue-finding and the clue-content) actually move the events of play forward, i.e., that the players are investigating and actually finding things, which if they didn't, would make play stop. As I said in my post above, no, they're not doing any such thing; all that is an illusion thinly covering the crashing boring reality. In much traditional play, we fuck around in what my friend Terry calls the Panama Canal model, where you investigate and investigate in the Atlantic Ocean until the GM decides it's time to shepherd you through the Canal into the Pacific, where the planned ending or next clue is.

 If that's the way one was trained, considering play that starts in the Atlantic is a little bit scary. It's creates the sensation of saying, "But but, what do we do?" and conjures up images of beginning and ending with one fight scene, and that's it. I think that's your headache.

And going by what you said four times, I know very well how to cure it. The answer is, the way to handle it is not to fuck around with "if they get enough to move forward," at all. There will be "enough," because moving forward will be a given feature of play. I am not saying to pretend the investigation is real, either. Instead, just as you said yourself, and therefore I'll piece together your own words: We play the dramatic scenes during and at the culmination of the investigation, when the players announce what their characters are doing in response to the information, whether action or interaction with other characters, where the fun is.

Instead of imagining characters jumping through your GM hoops and the players being so awed and appreciative of your mad GMing skilz, imagine the players deciding what their characters do, and doing it.

4. What I'm thinking of, is a situation in which the characters are indeed launched on an investigation and they will indeed find the bad guys. But the trouble is, if they don't investigate well, then the confrontation will be stunningly unsuccessful. I'm thinking in terms of relevant knowledge and the choices and actions the players can make on their own.

- finding not only the direct perpetrator, but the associates and networks which benefit from his crimes
- the abilities, back-story, and intentions underlying the crime

So it's definitely not whether you can find him; we'll take that as given. The question is what you'll do when you find him, and whether you have a fighting chance to bring him in. And that does depend greatly on what you do at dramatic steps during the investigation itself.

Quote
6) ...

Or maybe there are no modifiers, you use the one set of difficulties currently used for unopposed rolls. The difficulty to hit someone then depends on the situation they're in, but if it's lower than the level they have in the skill they're defending with, they can use that skill level instead. If they want to boost their skill level with risk dice defensively, they can, at the risk of complications cropping up as normal.

With that last paragraph, I think you got your system! NPCs don't roll. There are no modifiers, merely difficulty which is affected by circumstances. Effectively, you can go with hit or miss as set by your skill level, theoretically, and risk dice are always an add-on if you want.

I think you should assess bennies in that context.

7. Don't let me mess you up about your own game! Complications can stay negative. I still suggest they should arrive on a 6. My rationale is simple: getting what you want, but with complications (as long as they don't undercut the success) is a lot of fun.

Best, Ron
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