[Within My Clutches] golf club domination, mansion bison, death & taxes

Started by David Berg, June 08, 2011, 12:49:27 AM

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David Berg

This is a report on the first playtest of Within My Clutches, which I created for the April 2011 Ronnies (thread here).

Here's the current draft of the rules.

For reference, here's the draft we used in this first playtest.

At an impromptu game night with my friends Matt, Marsha, and Amir, I pitched a variety of games, including "my supervillain snafu game."  People were interested in supervillains, so I elaborated: "It's about pursuing your goals, but it's not gonna go well for you.  It could be kinda farcical."  I was getting excited about playing Within My Clutches, so I threw that last part in for Marsha, who loves comedy.

They were sold, and we sat down to play.  I read my text intro aloud to the group and everyone understood it.  We discussed tone, and it was instantly clear that light & funny was in the cards, but I stood up against using the protagonists as punchlines (I can't remember whether that's in the text or not).  Everyone agreed - Amir and Matt wholeheartedly, and Marsha grudgingly.  We then discussed power level and scope, and settled on "dominating a city" as opposed to dominating a galaxy or a street corner.

Character creation: Protagonists

Expecting a 5th player, we went with the 5 basic Wants.  It took a bit of explaining for me to pin down Control so that it didn't overlap with Status or Wealth (hopefully my latest draft helps on that front).  Once we ironed that out, the distinctions were clear and we picked our Supremacies.

Dave: Respect, Matt: Wealth, Marsha: Control, Amir: Status (the 5th player would have had Adoration)

Powers time!  Which quickly became Supervillain Identities time as well!  I tied my protagonist's Respect Supremacy to his voice, resonating on frequencies that stimulate the "god experience" spot in the right hemisphere of the brain.  So everyone who hears him falls to their knees in awe.  I declared this an "at will" power, so he'd still be able to have conversations.  I decided he'd be rather full of himself and prone to classic supervillain braggy monologues, and dubbed him Vox Dominus.

Amir and Marsha had some trouble drawing power inspiration from Status and Control Supremacy.  Fortunately, they both found my lists of examples from each Want to be helpful in getting them started.  Amir wound up mainly coming up with a character concept and then a power he thought was cool and could at least connect to Status somehow.

Then we filled out our goals.  I reminded people that we just needed one really good one for now, and would have chances to revise the others later. The results:

Dave: Vox Dominus
Voice of awe, talks like Doctor Doom, dresses like Magneto.  Supreme in Respect.  Alias Gabriel Johnson.
Wealth Goal: Marry a rich woman
Control Goal: Eliminate most taxes -- libertarianism for all!
Status Goal: suburban mansion (Ted Turner's house)

Matt: The Doubler
Atomic Doubling Power gives Supremacy in Wealth.  He's Alan Allerbee, nebbishy office drone.  A supervillain name was an afterthought.
Respect Goal: successfully play the stock market without using my power
Control Goal: calendars & deadlines -- make it possible to buy more hours or days into his life
Status Goal: become President of Ameribank

Marsha: The Weatherman
Supreme control over "events of nature", basically weather plus volcanoes and earthquakes.  Day job as TV weather man, Mr. Albus Snow.
Respect Goal: meteorologists
Wealth Goal: own the rainforest
Status Goal: Nobel Peace Prize

Amir: The Ethicist
Dr. Hal Dennerby, old-timey tweed-wearing professor, shocking sociopath who can kill with a look.  Supreme in Status.
Respect Goal: my adversary Captain Invincible should respect my moral code and accept that I killed Lois Lane for a good reason
Wealth Goal: enough money to be secure and buy protection*
Control Goal: I want to control Death

Character creation: Supporting Characters

Now it was time to take all these goals and focus them on some Supporting Characters.  As a group, we went one protagonist Want at a time, which nicely enlisted everyone's creativity, but was slow.  Next time, I'll try to figure out how to keep everyone busy at each point, to speed things up, without making anyone multitask.  Anyway, here are the Supporting Characters we came up with:

Note: There aren't supposed to be duplicate Wants per S.C.; that was my error, based on expecting a 5th player.

Dave's S.C.:
Doubler's Status Goal: become President of Ameribank
Weatherman's Wealth Goal: own the rainforest
Ethicist's Respect Goal: impress arch-enemy
Combined: Captain Invincible, civilian identity Mark Druckerford III, current president of Ameribank, which owns the rainforest.

Matt's S.C.:
Vox Dom's Wealth Goal: marry rich woman
Ethicist's Wealth Goal: enough $ to be secure & buy protection
Weatherman's Status Goal: Nobel Prize
Combination: Sally Nobel, rich great-granddaughter of Alfred Nobel

Marsha's S.C.:
Vox Dom's Control Goal: no taxes
Doubler's Respect Goal: play the stock market
Ethicist's Control Goal: death
Combined: Capitalism Man (retired) a.k.a. Steven Rutherford, Ph.D., Chairman Emeritus of the Fed, an incarnation of the Hands of Fate, which gives him his capitalism powers, and has previously manifested as the superbeing Death And Taxes.

Amir's S.C.:
Vox Dom's Status Goal: suburban mansion
Doubler's Control Goal: control time (calendars, deadlines)
Weatherman's Respect Goal: respect of meteorologists
Combined: Lem Lerner (comic universe Ted Turner), famous owner of mansions, weather channels, and... uh... I guess we decided not to worry about the time control thing for a one-shot...

Group Scenes

I reminded everyone that anyone could call for a group scene before or after their protagonist's scene.  Matt suggested we do one turn around the table of protagonist scenes and then a Group Scene, and everyone agreed.

First Scene

I looked through my goals and they all seemed doable, so I asked who was up for GMing.  Amir was the first to volunteer, so I went with my Goal that targeted his Supporting Character.  My intent for the game is that the players just choose their Goals, but I wanted to start off with someone who was comfortable GMing to get the night off on the right foot.

So, scene 1: Vox Dominus: Status Goal: Suburban mansion of Lem Lerner.  I suggested that Vox Dominus would go look for Lem Lerner at his golf club.  I figured it would be fun to introduce Vox Dominus with a search through an uptight institution, and Amir accommodated nicely with a doorman who forced me to use my Awe power to gain entry. 

Once inside the club, Matt and Marsha took brief cameos as peripheral NPCs.  Marsha started running with the supers-universe concept with Bellhop Man talking to Porter Man about the location of Caddy Man, etc.  This wasn't my first choice for a way to approach the fiction, but it was pretty funny and we all understood that Marsha would be bringing a certain amount of silliness.

As Vox Dominus made his way through the club and grounds in serach of Lem Lerner, it became apparent that the concept of "powerful supervillain who wants stuff that he can't easily just seize" was, in fact, fertile ground for improv.  Every NPC interaction became awkward as the villain's unrealistic expectations bumped up against regular people's common sense.  Amir played all of his NPCs as pretty normal, what you'd expect for someone in their position.  Accordingly, Vox Dominus was forced to use his bad-ass superpower just to do things like get directions.  Showing up in a supervillain costume didn't help. 

So, I got to pretty much have my way but feel a little bit ridiculous in the process, which only encouraged me to try harder to seem bad-ass.  Sweet.


Once I was actually asking Lem Lerner to give me his mansion, it was time to employ the resolution system.  I grabbed my 6 dice and rolled, needing 5 successes to achieve my aim.  As expected, I rolled fewer than 5, in this case only 2.  That meant that I could either accept no progress (try again next scene, or try a different goal next scene), or Commit for 3 in order to get the total of 5 and achieve my Goal.  I Committed and, as required, authored a 3-point Expectation: "the envy of my neighbors and peers."

I wrote down "Status" under my Achievements, and filled in the corresponding Expectation, while Amir filled out the same Expectation on his Supporting Character sheet (Lem Lerner).  Next to the Expectation, Amir recorded the point total (3).

This may seem like the obvious strategy, but there would be consequences later on.  I did my best to explain those consequences to everyone, but in a short one-shot, they didn't have too much incentive to weigh those.

The rest of the first round

We went around the table, clockwise, everyone taking their turns to have their protagonist pursue a Goal.  Three of the four protagonists achieved their Goals, with Marsha even Committing 4 dice to get The Weatherman respect from meteorologists.  Matt chose an interesting strategy after rolling 3 successes.  He Committed a single die to bump him up to 4 successes, which grants a +1 on future attempts.

We wound up with the following Expectations:

Vox Dominus: Status: owning this house will earn the envy of neighbors and peers.

The Doubler: Status: will be recognized as a financial genius once president of Ameribank.
Nervous Alan Allerbee goes to his boss, Druckerford (Captain Invincible), who basically does everything possible to express that he views Alan as having even less status than his position would suggest.  Druckerford calls Alan a disappointment and says he's heard that Alan's been hitting on secretaries who've become annoyed at having to constantly reject his awkward advances.  Alan asks Druckerford to tap into his webcam to disprove the allegations, then leaves -- to meet up with the two secretaries, who are conspiring with him to frame Druckerford for spying on employees!

The Weatherman: Respect: being named Weatherman of the Year in Lem Lerner's speech will earn me the respect of meteorologists.
Mr. Snow goes to the meteorologist awards and tells Lem Lerner that his channel will get the inside scoop on an impending summer blizzard if Lem name-drops Mr. Snow in his opening speech to the award judges.

The Ethicist: Wealth: Sally Nobel's money will buy me security.
The Ethicist acosts Sally Nobel at her bank in Switzerland, kills the teller, kills random bystanders who interfere, causes a mass panic, and coerces Sally into giving him the Nobel Prizes and the money that comes with them so he won't execute a hostage.

Each scene was fun, and they were very different from each other.

I hadn't anticipated Matt's strategy and whether or not it makes sense to author an Expectation for a Goal not yet achieved.  I'll have to think more about this.  I should ask Matt what guided this decision.  At the time, it seemed appropriate to the fiction: his character had done some things to make progress towards his goal, but the nebbishy Doubler lacked the boldness to go for broke on the spot.

Group scene

We met at the abandoned Pemberton University physics lab, where Captain Karma had blasted himself into the past and never returned.  I believe it was The Ethicist who called for the meeting.  We all showed up to brag about our achievements and also to look for understanding from fellow villains.  There wasn't a vibe of "I'm desperate for your approval."  It came out more like a club of people with superficially similar interests who couldn't really connect beyond trying to impress each other with small talk.  There were a lot of fantastically awkward silences.  Our characters said what they had to say, we all cracked up, and then the scene was over.

My second scene

In order to both test and demonstrate how our actions influenced play going forward, I requested a second scene before we called it a night.  Having not yet formed any Contingencies, I couldn't test every feature, but I did get to play a second Conflict that incorporated my Expectation. 

Vox Dominus went to see Capitalism Man to persuade him to support a tax reduction (Control: taxes).  After a conversation that provided us hilarious material for political satire, we got to a point where Vox Dominus was ready to make a final convincing push. 

Amir, as owner of my Expectation (mansion = peer envy), had 3 dice (the strength of my Expectation) to roll, representing a threat to my Expectation.  He narrated that Lem Lerner's former grounds (now mine) included a herd of bison who were messing up the area and earning the contempt of my neighbors.  I would have to deal with this immediately if I wanted to retain their envy and my Status. 

I had the standard 6 dice to allot between opposing Amir and striving to achieve my Goal.  I put 2 dice against Amir's 3, and rolled 4 dice for my Goal.  My hope was that, if I rolled reasonably well in both dice pools, I could avoid needing to author a Contingency for my Expectation, and avoid needing to Commit too many dice for my next Achievement. 

As it turned out, Amir rolled 2 successes and I rolled none on my two opposing dice.  As I had not previously authored a Contingency for this Achievement, I now had the opportunity to author one in order to satisfy my bison problem.  After some group input, I decided upon a Contingency: a Manor Steward who would double as a bison herder.  If we had continued to play, Amir would have been able to stress me (costing me 1 die) with the Bison Steward at the beginning of my third scene.


After my second scene, everyone seemed to understand the incentives in play, and we pondered strategies as we packed up to go.  Had this been a regular group, I think we would have had enough interest for a second session.  Alas, this was the only time with this specific set of people.

I have plenty more I could say, but I've typed enough for now.  Please ask questions!  I'd really appreciate getting some more folks to try out the game, so if there's anything I can do to clarify stuff, just let me know.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Ron Edwards

Here's my question topic: silly and still genre-fun. This has been an ideal for superhero RPG design for decades, in tandem with the counter-ideal of achieving genuinely effective two-dimensional soap opera. It's a tough double-goal: the first relying on parody and absurdity, and the second relying on taking the material more seriously than its imagery would suggest, at least at a certain level.

As far as comics pedigree goes, my background is distinctly lacking in Legion of Superheroes knowledge, which is kind of whole sub-universe of both comics settings and fandom. But maybe that's one example of how that double-goal has been made consistently available (if not always reached) in the comics themselves.

You have apparently managed to get this double goal rolling in actual play, in all the playtesting I've read about so far.

So, my actual question: how the fuck did you do that, in design terms? (do you think)

Best, Ron

David Berg

The first thing that jumps out at me as an answer to your question is the fictional situation the Protagonists are put in:

1) you have a power that is so badass is gives you complete mastery over one Want
2) your power can't also give you mastery over the other Wants
3) you desire the other Wants

And then:
4) in play, what you do is pursue those other Wants

You came to play a supers game, so you'll show off your badassery (silly & genre-fun), but ultimately you have to do things other than just be a badass super in order to achieve your very human desires (soap opera).

What the mechanics provide is a very, very not-badass way to go about your goal-seeking (and subsequent achievement-maintaining).  The tensions and frustrations invoked are hopefully relatable enough to provide for genuine empathy rather than just more grist for the silly.  I'm not sure whether that last part is key or just a footnote.

To throw in some theory just for fun: the badassery is mechanically inert (that thing that used to get called "parlor narration") while the mechanically relevant fictional inputs are more about putting yourself on the line.

Sound sensible to you?

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Mark Truman

This immediately reminded me of the awesome supervillain novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible.  It had that perfect mix of farcical silliness (the main character is a supervillain who always loses), but some pathos that totally rose above that to some other level of melodrama.

I think that the key to these characters is the same as the key to Falstaff from Henry V.  Their reach exceeds their grasp.  They can have so much, yet that always leaves them wanting more, forcing them to confront their own limits.  In the end, this usually means death, defeat, or disgrace when they reach the end of their roads.

Might I suggest that perhaps that end should be written in as well?  In the Invincible novel, the main character is eventually defeated by the "hero" of the story, a moment that made me genuinely sad for the villain, despite the fact that he was trying to blow up the moon.  In some ways, he was a metaphor for all the time I felt that I had gotten so, so close to something meaningful but fell short. 
Eternity is coming!  Let us know that you think of our sneak peaks.

Proud member of the Indie Game Developer Network.  Currently running: HotB, Eternity

David Berg

Mark, yeah, that would be a pretty appropriate ending for this game if there was some conclusive moment of defeat.  I think that there will be moments of defeat, and hopefully the players will sense when their game is nearing its end and pick one such moment to be the final straw.  Perhaps I should have a note in the text about how to execute that. 

"When you lose an Achievement, feel free to fly into a rage (or panic) and do something (to reclaim that Achievement or otherwise) that makes you a vulnerable target for the law or superheroes.  The player playing your Supporting Character will then narrate how your defeat arrives, and then both of you can roleplay out exactly how your villainous career ends (imprisonment, death, mindwipe, reduced to a child, paralyzed, power drained, etc.)."
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Mark Truman

Yeah, that note sounds fantastic.  I would prefer to narrate my own defeat, however, if I was an epic supervillan. 
Eternity is coming!  Let us know that you think of our sneak peaks.

Proud member of the Indie Game Developer Network.  Currently running: HotB, Eternity