16 January, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 2: Star Wars Obligations

Since it's week 2 of 2013, let's follow up that last post with another game mechanism.

This one is also from the new FFG version of Star Wars. I don't know if I should be posting about these mechanisms from a game that still sits in beta testing, but I didn't sign a non-disclosure agreement, and I'm not going to post the name of the player in our group who purchased the product.

Unlike the custom dice of the last post, today's mechanism is more easily portable to other game systems and campaigns. It is a framework for developing obligations as a narrative tool and game resource.

This mechanism has a complexity that could easily be split up into a half dozen subsystems, but for the moment I'll look at the whole thing and how it integrates into the storytelling experience.

Each character has links to the world around them, this might come in the form of tasks that people want them to complete, links to their family or a specific location, or something else that has expectation of them. Consider Han Solo when he is introduced in "A New Hope"; right from the beginning he has an obligation to Jabba the Hutt, and his ongoing story is influenced heavily by this.

The same idea applies.

Each character can typically start with 5 to 15 points worth of obligations (depending on the number of players). They increase their obligations if they get further into debt or might voluntarily increase their obligation by owing new favours to people (in order to get out of trouble). They decrease their obligations by paying off favours or resolving the story-lines associated with the obligations.

Generally obligations work as a percentile system. If you have an obligation score of 14, there's a 14% chance that your obligations will come into play during this story. If you have two obligations, one at 4% and one at 8%, you've got a 12% chance that one of your obligations will come into play this story, with twice as much chance of one appearing as the other. The GM rolls the dice at the start of play.

One of the other key things about obligations is that they are shared across the party. The GM creates a table at the start of the session...let's say that Andy's character has 7 obligation, Bruce's character has 12 obligation, Cheryl's character has 15 obligation and Dan's character has 9 obligation...the GM makes up a chart as follows.

01-07: Andy
08-19: Bruce
20-34: Cheryl
35-43: Dan
44-00: No Obligations come into play this session.

If a character is rolled, their obligation becomes one of the focal points during this story; if no character is rolled, the characters can follow their own interests.

As a combination effect, the more obligations a group has in total, the less likely it is that honest people will deal with them. A low group obligation total means that officials will see the characters as upstanding citizens, while a high obligation total means that most people will see the characters as shady individuals with ulterior motives (or citizens in someone's pocket)...which is basically true.

When a group reaches a total obligation of 100 or more, they are simply unable to pursue their own agendas, they are always chasing their tails, fulfilling the requests of those to whom they are obligated. There are two other side effects to a party with a total obligation of 100 or more, one set of narrative implications within the story and one set of mechanical implications within the game rules. From a narrative perspective, the characters become legendary in underworld circles, but are arrested immediately by the legitimate authorities. From a mechanical perspective, a character can't improve their attributes while the group obligation is over 100. It's a bit of a carrot and stick thing, apparently characters need to have the ability to pursue their own interests in order to improve in the ways they desire...I'm not too sure about that as a concept.

The most immediate benefit to this system of obligations is that it could easily be applied to virtually any game. Characters should always be making decisions about what is important to them, who they need to accept favours from in order to get ahead, who they need to pay off in order to get a bit more freedom, what they need to do in order to achieve fulfilment within their lives. A cyberpunk game could use obligations to gangs, corporate sponsors, family...a samurai game would be perfectly suited to the application of obligation.

If you play a game that predominantly uses d20s, you could create an obligation system with 5% increments. Players might have obligations at levels 1, 2, 3 or 4, then the GM could quickly construct a d20 based table. A game using cards might apply ranks to obligations.

The percentage idea is pretty good though and people's minds work well with fractions of 100. It also has the advantage of a nice level of granulation for these purposes.

The integration of this obligation system with the rest of the FFG Star Wars game is inelegant. When the rest of the system uses symbolic dice, a percentile system really feels like an ad hoc addition to the game. Throwing together disparate systems is one of my pet hates, but at this stage I've tried to think of something that might work better with the remainder of the game...I can't think of anything, yet.

Another con of the system as it currently stand is that it only really allows one character to be in the spotlight at a time. When the percentile die is rolled at the beginning of the game, only a single obligation of a single character has the chance of coming up. There is no opportunity for a character to be faced with a dilemma between two obligations, nor is there a chance for two characters to come into conflict due to their obligations. Perhaps this could be improved by rolling twice at the start of play, and if the same obligation comes up twice then this could be a really pivotal moment in the characters story with regard to this trait.

I can't think of a game that wouldn't be improved by the simple application of something like this. It's not a perfect system, but it does link characters into their world and it makes sure that the repercussions of a character's actions impact the ongoing story.

It's close to what I was aiming for when I was developing Quincunx a few years ago, where the supernatural hunting characters would gain advantages from corporate sponsors (but would have to do things for those sponsors in turn). It certainly a more simple and refined way of dealing with things like this than any of the concepts I had developed at the time.

It has also given some food for thought regard the relationships that I've been working with for Walkabout. I don't know how these obligation ideas will feed into my design process at this stage, but they have certainly become another part of the puzzle rattling around in my brain.
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