06 May, 2009

Quincunx: Power 19

When I first came across the concept of the Power 19, I thought it was a great diagnostic tool for a game designer. It's a series of questions that have been developed to really give someone an idea of where they are at with their games core structure and how it fulfills the intended goals.

Based on a quick google search, the origins of the Power 19 seem to come from the Socratic Design Blog (actually, if you're interested in game design, have a check through this blog...it hasn't been updated in a while, but it's a veritable treasure trove of useful design tools and ideas), an example of a power 19 in use can be found here.

It's a great idea, but it's something that I've just completely neglected to do for Quincunx.

Here goes...

The game is designed to be played on a few levels, so I'll answer these questions twice.
The first response is a superficial look at the game.
The second response is a deeper metaphysical accounting of the game.

1.) What is your game about?**

A reality TV show focuses on hunters of the supernatural, in a similar vein to the world-wide cult TV show "Cops". The regular people of the world argue over whether the show is real or not in much the same way that they do about the world championship wrestling. The hunters are imbued with minor supernatural powers of their own to level the playing field against the paranormal criminals they hunt.

It is a game about those who reveal it, and those who conceal it.
It is also about those who seek to define it, and those who are defined by it.
What is the truth? What is subjectivity? Can you believe the hype? Can you afford not to when your existence has become defined by that hype?

2.) What do the characters do?**

The characters are operatives for a global corporation/publicity machine named Quincunx. They exist as supernatural bounty hunters, claiming rewards from unknown sources in exchange for tracking down and neutralising entities which simple should not be. On one side, they encounter mythical beings, urban legends, religious figures and other strange creatures. On the other side, they acquire the funds necessary to continue these tasks by seeking sponsorships and making public appearances for their fans. Each character is defined by their feats of daring and their fame in the public eye. Yet they must also keep their heads level in the face of this chaos, they must maintain their connections to the mundane world around them lest they need to be removed from society themselves.

Every character is caught in a web of relationships that they must uphold. To gain power or knowledge they must use these relationships to their advantage, but the stronger a relationship gets, the more intrinsically they become tied to it. The more a character is tied to a relationship, the easier it is for enemies to use it against the character. It is a game of balance and risk. How much do the characters want to expose themselves for the chance at gaining a bit more power?

3.) What do the players (including the GM if there is one) do?**

There is a traditional player GM split, but more of the narrative responsibility falls into the hands of the players than in many games. The players control a single operative and an array of company support staff. The GM controls the remainder of the world, providing colour and background stories for the players to interact with through their characters. Players takes turns with the spotlight focused on their operative, and while one player is being focused apon, the other players may choose to assist using their own operatives or by using company support staff. In this way, the players choose which leads to follow and set the direction of the game, interacting with the storylines that have been set in place by other players or by the GM.

Through their characters, the players are forced to confront issues of morality, drama and paradigm. The game aspires to raise questions about systems of belief and to delve into the collective subconscious through the narrative of play. Players may introduce storylines that pose questions for themselves to answer, they may raise issues for other players within the context of the game, or they may pose dilemmas that the group can work through as a whole.

4.) How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?

Characters are defined by a series of traits. These traits derive from their racial heritage, their religious beliefs, their membership in certain subcultures, their occupations, their personal outlook on the world. All of these traits have layers to them, and characters may ascend their ranks in the traits by delving deeper into the groups or belief patterns associated with the trait. Very little is what it appears on the surface, and the whole setting is about revealing the truth concealed beneath the hype and the spin.

Everything in the game is about relationships and beliefs. The stronger a characters beliefs in a particular area, the more they will associate with that pattern and the stronger their influence will be in this area. Characters associating too much with the supernatural will start to resonate with the energies of the paranormal, and this is reflected by picking up the relevant traits. Conversely characters who focus too much on their fame will follow a different path of destiny. Other characters could focus on paths such as their families, their beliefs, or mundane occupations. Everyone is a combination of all these factors.

5.) How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?

Characters are defined by two things; firstly a matrix that defines their internal desires, drives and talents, and secondly their connections to the world around them. The matrix is divided into rows marked as aspects, and columns marked as elements. The crossing point of a row and column is referred to as a node. Players choose a dominant aspect and a dominant element at character creation (marking a box in each row and column's relevant node, and gaining two marked boxes where these intersect). This matrix defines areas where the character has innate talents and doesn't need to call on their allies or connections.

Beyond the matrix, all characters have a number of points to spend on their allies, connection, beliefs and mystical talents. All of these require the character to draw from beyond themselves to accomplish feats that would be impossible for a mortal to pursue on their own. All of these external forces bring traits to the character, and these traits may be used in various ways as advantages or disadvantages depending on the situation.

No character is invulnerable on their own. No man is an island. The character generation system is designed to really integrate a character into the world of play. All characters will have a connection to the Quincunx Corporation, but beyond that, virtually anything is possible. Characters could be reformed werewolves or vampires tracking down criminals to their own people, they could be fire-and-brimstone preachers with a strong religious belief and a hatred of the paranormal, or they could simply be people with some useful skills who happen to have been in the right place and the right time (or the wrong place and the wrong time depending on how the character views their circumstances). The aim of the game is to create fully realised characters with motives and agendas tied into the world around them.

6.) What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?

Every time a character pursues one agenda, they find that another starts to weaken. The character matrix is defined by pairs of opposing elements, and when a character performs a lot of actions associated with one element they find their value in this element start to rise, but the opposing element starts to fall. For every two points of gain somewhere, a point is lost somewhere else. So characters who focus too extensively on one tactic find that they become exposed to other tactics. Similarly, characters need to keep tabs on their connections to the communities around them. Every trait restricts the actions of a character in some way, either preventing them from performing one specific task, or requiring them to perform another task. The more connections a character has to the outside world, the more they will be expected to act in certain ways (or risk losing the bonuses associated with being a member of that group).

Players with strong ideas of their character will probably gain advantage from the system while those who "cast themselves adrift on a sea of opportunity" will flounder. The game is about dynamic individuals who help to shape reality through their fame and their actions, it's not a game about slackers who expect everything to be done for them. The game seeks to provide the opportunity to define a character in light of the obstacles they face, it seeks to force players into making the choices that will define their characters in this manner.

7.) How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?

Characters who follow the actions of their traits gradually become more closely associated with these traits. A goth who chooses to only wear black doesn't necessarily fit in with the community, but once they start regularly listening to the music associated with the subculture, visiting the right nightclubs and reading the current books circulating among the crowd, then they start to know how to talk the talk and eventually walk the walk. Not everything is appearances, but once a person takes on the appearance of a group, starts acting like the group, and starts understanding the mindset of the group; are they really all that different from the group they've been trying to infiltrate?

If that character has forsaken all of their contacts with other communities and now only associates with goths, then they might as well be a goth. They'll have to start all over again with another group if they want to forge a relationship with another group (or if they want to re-establish contact with their old friends). On the other hand a character who maintains contact with their old friends has a dual set of actions to uphold (things are harder for them to balance, but they gain the advantages of both groups).

On top of this, characters are beset by fame. If they take actions against the status quo of their trait, then it is quite likely that everyone will find out about it and the repercussions will be fierce.

Characters are expected to make a stand. They should hold a truth as sacred to themselves and defend it at all costs. This may put them into conflict with other characters, and it will definitely put them into conflict with many of the groups that exist in the shadows of the game world. This is neither good nor bad, it is merely a way to generate new stories and conflicts that will further help to define the character in the context of the world around them.

8.) How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?

On the whole, the GM maintains the continuity of narration and credibility through the course of the game, but this is by no means his sole domain.

The game is divided into scenes and in each of these, the narrative is a three way struggle between the player of the current focal character (referred to as the active player), the GM and the supporting characters. The player of the focal character defines their intended task for the scene, the GM sets the scene, and during every scene there is a chance that the focal character will face an issue relating to one of their traits. This will be incorporated into the scene by the player seated to the left of the active player (or the next player around if this player has chosen to be active in the scene as a supporting character).

9.) What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)

Everything in Quincunx has ramifications. Whether an action is eliminating a supernatural menace, dealing with fans, or simply trying to have some private time alone with the family. Everything affects a characters connections to the world around them and a player has to seriously consider not only what best for their character, but what the character would be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the world around them? Even if this ends up with the decision that the character wouldn't sacrifice anything for those they connect with...

The nature of scenes in Quincunx means that only a single character is focused upon at any time, and his would seem to diminish the importance of other players while the active role is not in their hands. While this is true to an extent, all players have support roles that they may introduce into any scene, and all players have the chance to introduce elements associated with the focal characters traits. Characters learn that through their differences they have the strength to face a variety of tasks, yet these differences also provide tension within the group. Through unity the group remains cohesive, but it starts to lack the diversity needed to confront the diversity of foes around them. The balance chosen by any group helps to define their characters in one way or another.

10.) What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?

All characters roll 3d6 for every scene, and this is opposed by 3d6. Any die rolling a 4 or higher counts as a success, and every success allows a player to narrate an action into their scene. The character matrix provides a number of automatic successes to characters if they perform actions that they have shown an affinity for in the past (typically 1 to 3 successes). Possessing specific traits may grant modifiers to die rolls, additional dice or additional successes. But this is just what a character is able to do on their own.

By interacting with the world around them, characters may draw upon extra dice in their scenes. There are stories at work in the game, and if a character successfully confronts these stories, they may strip dice from the story to use for their own purposes. The more they engage the stories around them, the more chance they have to gain these dice. If a character chooses not to engage these stories, then it is only a matter of time before these stories come to engage them.

Once a character uses any of their additional dice in a scene, the dice become exhausted. A rest interval needs to be called to replenish these dice, but once a rest interval is called, all of the stories at work in a game also replenish their exhausted dice (or gather more dice of their own).

Beyond this simple mechanic, there is the element of fame. An intrinsic part of Quincunx, at the start of every scene, a pair of dice are secretly rolled to determine if the characters actions are viewed by the public on television. If they are viewed they get fame, if they are viewed and are successful in their task they get even more fame. If they are viewed and they have done something wrong, they suffer a moral backlash and new complications enter the story. Once gained, fame may be used to reinforce sponsorships, or make it easier to replenish exhausted dice (after all more people want to help you when you're famous even if that help is offered just to gain a bit of fame for themselves).

11.) How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?

Characters can only do so much on their own. Those who draw on the world around them can do a lot more, whether they draw on friends, tools, or mystic powers. The extra dice they gain from these connections to the outside world help to identify the way the character interacts with the world and help to define them in context.

Everything about the game relates to a characters context within their setting. How do they handles their connections to the people around them? How do they look after their tools? How do they hone their talents? What helps them and what hinders them? What changes to their life paths are made after a moment of crisis?

12.) Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?

As described earlier, characters change their matrix over the course of a game. They simply mark the number of times they use each element and each aspect. They may place a new check-mark in a node belonging to their highest element, and another in a node belonging to their highest aspect (these may not go in the same node). The node combining lowest element and aspect combination loses a check-mark (of this is already at zero, then choose another node of the lowest element or aspect). This occurs at the end of every session, providing a 2-steps-forward-1-step-back progression that defines where the characters current priorities lie.

In addition to this gradual development, characters gain improvement points within their traits every time they face an issue associated with their trait. A Jewish character is faced with a plate of hors d'oerves with ham in them, and knows it would be considered incredibly rude to turn down the food while in the presence of the local mafia leader. Does the character choose to sacrifice their faith (and possibly be seen on TV doing so?) or do they risk the wrath of the mafia?

Any time the characters beliefs are called into question and they are forced to make a moral decision, they gain points that prove their resolve (and gain points toward improving the bonuses associated with that trait).

13.) How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?

See Above.

See Above.

14.) What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?

I want the game to produce three dimensional characters, rather than stereotypes. The more a character interacts with the world around them, the more they will be defined. And conversely, the more that characters views the world, the more the players will learn about the communal setting they are developing.

The game is designed to encourage a sense of community, within the context of an individual, the context of the playing group, and hopefully a community between the various groups that are playing around the world. The Quincunx website I'm developing is another step in that direction.

The game should raise questions, ethical dilemmas, moral quandaries, paradigm descriptions. At the superficial level it's about confronting supernatural beings, but what are these supernatural beings? In most cases the supernatural beings interacting with the characters are outsiders with belief patterns that exist beyond the scope of mortal reason and science, but that doesn't necessarily make them wrong (especially given that they've got supernatural powers to back up their arguments). Many of the prey that the characters have been charged with tracking down are outcastes from their paranormal communities, but why are they being hunted? What does this mean to the characters? Are they just following orders and getting a bit of fame and wealth on the side?

Players should remember that things are rarely what they seem, and moral dilemmas abound. But sometimes an apple is just an apple.

15.) What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?

At the surface, the supernatural beings receive the most colour. This entails describing the creatures, their cultures, their beliefs and their place in society (both their own society and the greater society of humanity). This is to show that the characters are carefully linked to the world around them, but so are the paranormal criminals they hunt. For every action, there is a repercussion waiting to occur, and a carefully interwoven story should cause ramifications to develop from the most unexpected locations.

Secondly, the Quincunx Corporation needs to be described in as much detail as possible, because this is the one clear part of the system that is different from our world.

The whole setting is designed to be a similar to our own world as possible, so much so that the website I've dedicated to it makes numerous links to Wikipedia and other real world entities. The setting is designed to be close enough to our reality that the moral questions invoked actually mean something to the players involved. The players can't simply step away from the game without really thinking twice about how the world really works.

16.) Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?

The things that really fired me up about this game was the interaction of reality TV and the supernatural. Like a clash of cultures between the old world of myth and the new world of hype. The clash of cultures oncept is something I've been toying with for a long time, but it was the injection of the reality TV angle that really spark the creative juices.

I've long looked for something that would emulate the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", I know that the early versions of Mage:the Ascension from White Wolf were based pretty heavily on that book and it's sequel, but there was something missing. The characters often seemed at a disconnect with the world around them, and that was really frustrating. I wanted characters in that context, but characters that really cared about the world they fought for.

17.) Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?

Marvel-style superheroes, where the emphasis is actually on the characters beliefs and links to the world around them rather than emphasising the cool powers.

I’ve seen a few games attempt the connections to the in-game world, but haven’t really seen many that have pulled it off successfully…and certainly nothing with the community spirit I’m hoping to achieve.

I’m trying to create levels of connection that I haven’t see in other games.
Connection between characters.
Connection between characters and the game world.
Connection between players and their characters.
Connection between players across the world in telling a communal story.

18.) What are your publishing goals for your game?

A game. A website. A comic. A global interactive fiction.

I’m currently working on a comic book which will be the major source of in game colour for the game. It’s a story about the original five operatives of the Quincunx Corporation and how they deal with fame and notoriety while they struggle against supernatural criminals continually trying to take over (or destroy) the world. The game will be a free (or very cheap) product designed to help others get into the world I’m creating for communal storytelling.

Hopefully a few more people will get onto the bandwagon and start generating fan-fic or relating their in-game adventures on the forums associated with the website in development.

19.) Who is your target audience?

Those who are looking for something more.

I’d love for this to be a crossover product to get comic book readers into roleplaying, because that is a huge market with the right general demographic. Most of them are aware of D&D but I’d like to really get them into independent gaming, and hopefully use my own game as a doorway to other great indie games.
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