Much to my relief, Guerilla Television works.
After four games with wildly different groups, the game had a couple of consistent problems (which I can now clearly identify as a symptom of the system, rather than a symptom of the player set).
I've also rediscovered that I have a nasty habit when it comes to game design.
I design games one way, then run then a different way and wonder what's wrong.
Guerilla Television was designed to be a simple 1 page RPG (All the rules on the front and back of an A4 page). It's a pretty dense read, but for general play purposes, everything you need is there. Scene framing, character interactions, crisis development, conflict resolution. Many thrown together with interesting twists that make the game a bit different. It uses less tokens and counters than the Eighth Sea, and those tokens often perform double duties.
Have a read of it here and the rest of the post will probably make more sense.
On the whole it works, a bell curve might show it to work between the 10th and 90th percentile, with irregularities showing up at the 5th to 10th band and the 90th to 95th band. While the game just doesn't handle the outer limits at all. Not bad for a one page game that allows a lot of creative freedom. I've certainly encountered tomes of 200 pages or more that have been less successful in handling a diversity of situations.
Like most games, I tend to have a few people at the end of each session telling me that the session was good. I indicated in my post on the cult of fame that people often say this stuff just to be polite, but if they care enough to be polite, then there is obviously something positive in the experience they've just had. I certainly haven't had anyone walk out...but then again this hasn't happened since the mid 90's, and that particular player walked out on at least half a dozen games over the course of two years (so I hold that as a player problem rather than a GM problem...another rant entirely).
What's more interesting though is that most of my sessions have had some experienced gamers of a few different types stay back to discuss the game mechanisms with me.
Each offering suggestions for how they might be improved.
The core mechanism of the game starts each player with a single die from a collective pool equal to four times the number of players, the GM/Story gets a number of dice equal to the number of players, leaving a pool of dice equal to twice the number of players. Players try to claim dice from this pool by rolling 6's.
Success is achieved in the game by rolling a die and scoring a face value of 4 or better. If a player rolls 2 or more dice for their character and achieves more than one "4" then they accumulate higher degrees of success.
Players also score an automatic success from possessing skills relevant to the situation at hand.
Where we've found problems in the mechanism is the requirement to roll 6's to accumulate new dice. This has a very nice effect, of increasing game speed exponentially, but with low numbers of players it can start too slowly. Not really giving the game a dramatic thrust.
I tried to overcome this in one session, by simply allowing successes to claim dice from the communal pool, while 6's are necessary to pull dice from opponents (or from the story). But this drained the pool of dice too quickly (though other factors may have been at work in this game). Mid way through the second cycle of scenes, all of the dice were gone and the infighting began.
I pulled it back to allowing only 6's to accumulate dice in the most recent session, but with only three players things built up too slowly (this might also be due to another change I made though).
Given the balances of results, I think the accumulation of dice on a 6 works well. But I still need to fine tune the mechanisms around this.
Fan points are the next issue. And I've started to see how arbitrarily they are handed out. This really reflects the medium of Reality TV, and for the genre they work well. 2 dice, if 1 rolls 4 or better the scene is viewed on TV, if both roll 4 or better it is seen on prime time.
Basic probability: 25% chance of a scene not being viewed, 50% chance of it being on TV, 25% chance of prime time.
If a scene is viewed on TV, the active character gains a point of fame per unopposed success they rolled. If it's on prime time, they automatically get a point and two extra for every unopposed success.
If characters haven't completely killed each other off at the end of the session, the final round of scenes is played out and the player with the most fan points wins. It can make things cut-throat, but on a couple of occasions it hasn't been vicious enough.
Fans points have a follow on effect. Player may spend them to increase their die rolls on a one-for-one basis. They may also use these dice to make it more likely that their scenes will be viewed on TV.
During certain games it became a dilemma for the player to pay a bit of fame for the immediate advantage or hold onto it for the chance of winning the show. During other games it became quite dramatic to see two different players wielding their fame to modify as many dice as possible in climactic battles.
A few issues came up regarding fame though.
Firstly, the fame accumulated far more quickly than the dice. With a 1 in four chance early on of getting a successful die in a viewed scene (plus the characters automatic success for a skill earns them 3 pts), and a 1 in eight chance of being seen in prime time (thus accumulating 1 automatic and four extra points).
One of our sessions saw players earning in excess of 20 fame points toward the end of the session, while other players in the same session were struggling along with one or two. This really made the game unbalanced when these "famous" characters could use their fame to increase every die into a success, then guarantee their scene was viewed on TV (pretty much refreshing their pool every time). The less famous characters just acted as pawns in the struggles between two really powerful characters. Realistic, maybe.
Fitting in with the genre of reality TV, definitely. Fun, I'm not so sure.
I've toyed with the notion of limiting the number of possible fans in the show. In the last session I actually did this, but I think I went too far. I started with a number of fans equal to the number of players, then added the same amount each turn.
The problem here lay with the ratio of fan uptake by the characters compared to the amount of fans being added to the pool. Within two or three scenes, the fans were all gone, and the remaining characters each turn had no chance to gain fans. Earlier sessions had allowed expended fans points straight back into the pool, but this game I removed the spent fans, only adding the set value each turn. This had the benefit of restricting the final fan points to more manageable levels, but really hindered the visceral feel of having fans rooting for the characters from their home TVs.
Pulling everyone back to a more even playing field meant that co-operation was less necessary to get an advantage, Pushing the playing field to extremes meant that even with careful player co-operation, two players at the weakest end of the table were unable to successfully confront one of the more powerful players (in a game of five or more players).
How do I get a balance where two weak characters can make a meaningful attack on a powerful character?
Do I even need this? After all, if a weak player launches an attack on a strong player, this means the stronger player has to use some of their available resources to defend... and this might leave them vulnerable to the attack of another strong character.
Thus the weaker characters still have the ability to tip the balance between two stronger characters, but I'm still worried about what might happen when a single character becomes too powerful. It hasn't happened yet, and I'm hoping that as soon as one player starts taking the obvious lead, the other players will try to reign them in through a series of in character attacks. I'm hoping it will be self regulating, and making an assumption about human nature to this effect.
There's another aspect that I got wrong initially in such a simple RPG, but that's now been corrected with a few successful runs.
Initial versions of the rules allowed players to pick 3 skills for their characters, any 3 skills they thought might make it easier for them in an elimination gameshow environment.
I ran this way during the first game, and there was an immediate disparity between the players who wanted to make the game competitive and the players who were present for a bit of fun. The first category of players choosing things like “Possesses a spell for every situation”, “Perfect shot with throwing knives”, or “Invisibility” while the second group of players chose things like “Swedish Cooking”, “Tightrope walking” or “Square Dancing”. The second group of things were far more interesting to work into reality TV situations.
During later games I had players generate characters for each other, randomly distributed after character generation. This meant that most players took the skill sequence at a more “tongue-in-cheek” level, hoping that they’d get the chance to inflict bizarre and unusual skills on their companions (knowing full well that the other players would do the same for them).
There are a few other comments I’d like to make about how the game is evolving, but I’ll get to them once the convention is over.