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Author Topic: [Secret Hearts] First Playtest - A Lot to Think About  (Read 6749 times)

Posts: 49

« on: January 18, 2011, 08:33:08 PM »

First up, as per forum requirements, you can download the current draft of my game at http://www.mediafire.com/?t8fma5dct4pia74.

There are two important explanations for Secret Hearts: Storytelling High Conspiracy.

The first is my recent and continuing X-Files marathon, which began at the start of the year. The second is my recent reading of David Berg's The Eye in the Pyramid, a game designed for the recent Ronnies. (Incidentally, the feedback for TEitP has been posted http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=30958.0 - but I'm yet to read that.)

I like The X-Files and I like that game, so the two combined to fuel a recent 48 hour binge of game designing, playtesting, and amateur graphic design (it's a vanity project so I may as well have fun making it look pretty).

Given all that, there's a chance Secret Hearts is more than a little derivative of TEitP. I'll let you judge that, I suppose.

Secret Hearts - First Playtest

I'll start with the story that was produced on the day. Then, I'll recap how it felt to play. Lastly, I'll detail changes I'd like to make, as well as asking for specific advice.

The Story

Jacques Gustea was the protagonist, an ordinary Parisian beat cop. After his wife OD'd on heroin, he developed a vendetta against drugs, and is now well known (and hated) within the police as a scrupulously clean cop. Currently, Parisian streets are being flooded by a mysterious new drug from the Philippines. The drug appeared soon after a coup in the Philippines, and is so new the EU is yet to outlaw it.

Elsewhere, we see a ragged looking guy running from a man he owes money to.

Jacques witnesses a petty deal going down, and recognises the buyer as a small time junkie he's arrested half a dozen times before. He has a word with the junkie, who promises once again that he's going to go clean. Jacques pockets the strange new drug and continues on his patrol.

He gets a call on the radio: there's more trouble at the cathedral. Outside, a large group of junkies, high on the new drug from the Philippines are crying and wailing, staring at the cathedral in religious ecstasy. Jacques, despite his atheism, feels a powerful wave of nostalgia for his Catholic upbringing in a small French village. He feels a blast of euphoria wash over him. The drug has burnt a hole in his pocket and been absorbed by his skin.

A few men in heavy coats stand by the ecstatic crowds. One notices Jacques and introduces himself as an officer from Internal Affairs - he has a few questions. Jacques is incredibly high and follows the men into a black car. They drive out of Paris, away from any police station Jacques knows of. He is blindfolded and taken to a room somewhere.   

Jacques is strapped into a chair and feels himself being injected with something. He blacks out, waking the next day in his own bed. There's a knock at the door. It's his brother, Peter -  the same man we saw earlier, running from debt collectors. Peter needs three thousand Euros or some people are going to kill him.

Jacques should have just enough in his bank account. He tells Peter he'll pay this time, but never again. They leave for an ATM but when Jacques checks his account he actually has more than four million Euros in there. He has no idea where it came from, and when he gets home a pack of reporters have descended on his house. They want to know about the rumours of police corruption in France, including a tipoff that he himself has recently used the new substance from the Philippines.

(For some reason, it was now dubbed "the love drug." That's obviously Ecstasy, but we ran with it anyway)

Later, an anonymous call informs Jacques that the press are sniffing around his bank account. There is the hint of blackmail.

A mobile phone arrives on his doorstep, dropped off by courier. On the phone is a text message, telling him to be at a certain address. However, on the way there, he is picked up by a man in a car. It is (shock) his father! Presumed dead!

His father is tightlipped and drives him to the airport, where he boards a chartered UN flight to Tunisia. In Tunisia, all is chaos. There has been a recent coup, and angry mobs clash with police. Jacques is led to a guarded mansion, where a "Mr Smith" shows him to a huge stock of the love drug. Jacques is told he will escort the drugs into Paris tonight, before the EU legislation banning it goes through.

He does so, for reasons largely unknown, and it goes off without a hitch. His father greets him at the airport and takes him to a local branch of a German bank. He takes Jacques to a safety deposit box and reveals that their ancestor first invented the drug in Germany during the second world war. Their ancestor, a Jewish man, used the formula behind the drug to secure a ticket out of Germany - into Russia.

Since then, their family has been behind some sort of plot involving the drug.

Jacques goes nuts and draws his pistol. The bank security think it's a robbery and everybody goes nuts. However, with a simple nod from Jacques' father, the bank manager calmly organises a helicopter to land on the road outside. The police weren't even called. Jacques is starting to lose it, powerless against the conspiracy, and hops in the helicopter. The pilot, without a word, takes off for Manila, in the Philipines.

In Manila, Jacques tries tracking down the manufacturers. He finds a man, but the guy won't deal unless he takes the drug in front of him, to prove he's not a cop. They go to a local church and drop - everything goes sparkly and religious.

Inevitably, his father appears and starts being a jerk. He drags Jacque to the front of the church, where the other trippers fall to their knees and worship him. Jacques suddenly feels the psychic presence of all the users around the world turn to him. He's been hooked into some sort of psychic internet.

Jacques' father shows him a diagram of the drug's molecular structure and says, "Complete the formula, make it perfect!"

In his altered state, Jacques knows exactly how to complete the drug's formula. His father is pleased and drags his other son, Peter, into the church. They give him the reformulated drug, to see if it works.

It does and it doesn't. Peter immediately coughs up dark blood and falls over dead. However, Jacques can tell he hasn't really died, he's been drawn into the network, living in the spaces between souls.

Peter is at first benevolent but is soon corrupted by his power. The conspiracy has backfired - Jacques was supposed to control the network, not Peter!

It all ends with an anime style battle of wills between Jacques and his brother. In the end, memories of their shared childhood quietens Peter's soul. He accepts his death, slipping away and letting the psychic network break into a thousand pieces.

Playing the Game

Sorry if that was way too long and/or detailed, but since it's a storytelling game I wanted to show that part of the playtest.


Firstly, playing the game wasn't nearly as fun as the story might have you believe. Three players took their turns very quickly, but one always took a minute before saying anything at all. That's a big problem because you can't speak out of turn.

The second thing that reduced the fun factor was the lack of twists or genuinely pivotal moments. There isn't much of a random element in this game. The mechanic simply dictates who narrates and under which power they do so. The actual outcomes are entirely collaborative. This meant that, as much as the Protagonist was shocked, none of the players themselves were.

Perhaps most importantly, there was about zero actual roleplaying. There was storytelling, but very little speaking in character.


On the plus side, the game only took two hours or so. By the time we were over the game, we were at the Epilogue.

The Prologue was fast and reasonably exciting - it's the section I'm happiest with. The players also understood the zero-sum sort of metagame between the players themselves, which I thought might be confusing.

Lastly, the story itself really was surprisingly coherent (to a given value of "coherent"). We very rarely spoke in character, but the characters themselves were remarkably complex. Jacques in particular had a genuine history, some emotional depth, and a particular feel to his actions.

Parts of SH I Like

Drawing stuff from the front page of Wikipedia got people excited, and provided some of the most interesting twists to the game. Having said that, it also provided some of the worst twists, jarring with the rest of the story. What I want is to promote those twists that are unexpected while still fitting well, and drop those twists that are only there because the rules dictate it in some way.

I like the four powers. They provided good suggestions for where to take the story next, and should also give each new game a different "tone."  I need to provide a list of potential powers, though.

I like the three act structure, as well as advice on what each section should be trying to do. This is probably the main reason the story was so coherent. However, I do need to make this section more supportive and, in all likelihood, more constrictive. I have a lot of ideas here, but I'll wait to see if I get any feedback.

Parts of SH I Don't Like

Currently, the secrets are kept from the protagonist - not from other players. This is very poor design on my part, and something I need to change. This is probably the holy grail of the sort of game I'm going for.

Currently, one slow player can really drag out the game for everybody else. It isn't so much the total length of the game that suffers. Rather, all the other players are unfortunately left with nothing to do.

Currently, the powers can force themes into a scene that really doesn't need it. For instance, one of the Powers in our playtest was Money. It worked occasionally, but was usually skimmed over.


What sections of the rules do you find the most confusing? I intend to change pretty much everything, but I still need to improve my clarity as a writer.

What do you think of the Hearts based mechanics? Would any other well known card games fit better?

Is there anything wrong with a storytelling game, as opposed to a roleplaying game? By this I mean the elements of roleplaying (speaking in character, player association with character) are weak, but the elements of storytelling (character development, plot, theme) are strong.

That's It

Thanks for reading, people! Beyond those specific questions, I'm after any sort of feedback.
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 17707

« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2011, 10:13:07 AM »


I have lots to say about this, as several of my designs incorporate relatively free, one-person narration with derived forms of existing card games.

But for start, so I understand the big picture better, I have a question about the final resolution. If I understand correcly, one player has the most counters, and everyone else individually has less. So these two profiles are possible:

Player A has not only more than anyone, he has more than everyone else combined

Player A has more than anyone, but together, players B-D have more than him.

OK ... my question is, doesn't case #1 ensure the success of the conspiracy, and case #2 ensure its failure? Am I missing something about the mechanics? And if I'm right, doesn't that drain the tension or resolution power from the exercise of the tokens during the final scenes?

Best, Ron

Posts: 49

« Reply #2 on: January 21, 2011, 12:22:57 AM »

Hiya Ron,

Player A needs to have more counters than B-D combined in order for the conspiracy to succeed. If players B-D have more than player A, the conspiracy fails. There is no random element.


If player A has 2 tokens, and the others have one each (for a total of 3), the conspiracy is a certain failure.

You're right about this making the epilogue's outcome predetermined. In actual play, this did leave a flat taste in my mouth. The person who wanted the conspiracy to succeed knew that it wasn't going to.

I assume your point there was, "that doesn't sound very fun." If so, then you're right.

One solution could be to keep the number of counters each player has a secret. This requires increasing the number of counters rewarded during the course of the game, but that's something I wanted to do anyway. In this version of the epilogue, the player who believes they have the most counters goes first, making a move on behalf of the conspiracy. The others respond, and this continues normally until we have a resolution.

A second solution is to randomise the epilogue a little more. Perhaps you trade counters in for cards or dice, and these in some way determine the outcome of the epilogue. The side with more counters is more likely to succeed, but not certain.


My thinking behind the epilogue was this:

The player with the most counters has probably had the least chance to influence the story thus far (because of the way the Hearts mechanic works). They therefore deserve a chance to influence the endgame.

It is thematically appropriate that the conspiracy's success or failure is non-random. The whole point of conspiracy theories is their ineffable nature. The lizard-men do not take chances. If you beat the conspiracy, it must be because you were even better at scheming and planning than they were.

I wanted the protagonist to have a non-trivial advantage over the conspiracy. Most of the time, the protagonist will come through. That suits the kind of cinematic storytelling I was going for. Perhaps that mutilates the gamist element in order to satisfy the narrativist element. However, remember that the failure of the conspiracy is not really a failure for any particular player: it is a four way tie.

Having said all that, I don't think any part of Secret Hearts is going to remain unchanged. In particular, I would like to move towards an explicitly television based meta-narrative. Instead of Ancient Masters, the players are TV executives.

Ron - what do you think about the non-random conclusion to the epilogue? Do I need to inject a sense of risk and surprise?
Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
Posts: 17707

« Reply #3 on: January 21, 2011, 07:26:12 AM »


There's a boring terminological issue that probably needs a little work. I think once it's out of the way, then we can really dig into your ideas. So you know, I printed your design document yesterday and read it pretty carefully, and I hope I understand it well enough to be helpful.

OK, the terms: you have designed and written a Gamist experience. It's about winning, and losing. That's what's up and that's what we come to the table to have fun with. (It also, incidentally, distinguishes your game from The Eye in the Pyramid, which is a fine Simulationist design by contrast. David will leap up like a caffeinated jumping bean to discuss this I'm sure, which will occur in another thread, David, please.)

There ain't no Narrativism to be found, not a speck. The issue at hand is narration, which is to say, talking in such a way that it establishes and communicates what is going on in the fiction. It's not a Creative Agenda at all, but rather a technique. The game facilitates Gamist goals about saying what happens.

The good news is that you haven't fallen into the biggest trap of such designs: competing over unconstrained narration. This is an attractive goal only to people who haven't tried it for real, because in practice, it sucks ass. In your game, fortunately, mechanical outcomes do constrain what the current narrator says in key ways, as well as leaving enough open to be fun.

All of that now takes me to the ending. And the real question is whether the ending is supposed to be the climax of the fun procedures and content of the game, or genuinely an epilogue, or aftermath, following a climax.

If it's the climax, then strategy and risk-taking should be involved, at whatever proportions you think work best. If it's not, then a climax of strategy and risk-taking should hit before then, and obviously be about something else besides whether the conspiracy succeeds (perhaps a protagonist goal or something like that). And also, if it's not, then token-by-token narration is probably laborious and unnecessary; merely compare the tokens and let the winner talk, then the loser round it out, and be done.

I'd like to talk about various procedural issues during the "ordinary" or bulk of play as well, but it seems to me that this needs to be ironed out first.

Best, Ron

Posts: 49

« Reply #4 on: January 23, 2011, 04:17:35 PM »


I'm posting this from my phone so this will be quick and (probably) incoherent.

Just want to respond:

Thanks for your feedback, it's helped solidify my understanding of the Epilogue. Basically, I'm now calling it the Climax, which should tell you my position. I'm changing the Climax mechanic to something random while still related to previous performance. Basically, the more counters your side has, the greater your chance of winning the Climax - more likely, but not certain.

Speaking of counters, I'm also changing the reward system, so that the player goal is to win certain combinations of cards by the end of the Act. Four 5s, for instance, is worth one counter - as is a run of at least 5 cards of the same suit in sequential order. The biggest reward, three counters, is for winning all 10 cards of the same suit.

It's inverse Hearts, where you're trying to win most hands. The scoring possibilities are akin to Rummy.

Lastly, I've firmly decided on a TV based meta-narrative.

I'll shore up some details in the next version of the core rules, which I should have
online tomorrow.

Until then, thanks for the feedback, and the project still lives!

Posts: 49

« Reply #5 on: January 25, 2011, 01:48:04 AM »

It's driven me insane, but you can now download version 0.2 of Secret Hearts.

Pretty much everything has changed in some way, including...

Players are explicitly assigned to pro- or anti- conspiracy camps throughout the game.
It is always strategically better to win hands, meaning more narration is mechanically rewarded (instead of punished).
Lots of crazy shit about being writers in Hollywood.

You can download the ridiculous Photoshop version here: http://www.mediafire.com/?ztbg60sccadyoyq

And the printer friendly version here: http://www.mediafire.com/?5gcb6t74b29289r#1

As far as the kind of feedback I'm looking for...

Does it seem like the competitive card playing elements are too complicated? I've played just the card game, sans roleplaying, and it's reasonably deep. One player in particular is a card counter, and he experienced some analysis paralysis trying to keep track of everything - that is to say, trying to keep track of EVERYTHING. Simply choosing a card to play is reasonably easy.

Is the Climax mechanic too laborious? I'm hoping there are three things that spice it up. Firstly, it's in some degree random rather than pre-determined. Secondly, there are genuine mechanical stakes involved. Thirdly, those stakes rise the longer the Climax takes to conclude.

Lastly, how clear are the rules on the whole? I'm not someone with a background in technical writing, so I find the task of conveying a complex process fairly daunting.

And, of course, I'd love to hear from anyone with two cents about the project.

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