17 March, 2010

A New Theory in Quincunx Storytelling

I'm hastily trying to get a decent revision of my current Quincunx thoughts together for Go Play Brisbane.

There have been some significant changes since Gencon Oz 2009.

I know that the core of the system works, because I've used it successfully for two dozen games of Guerrilla Television, and for almost a dozen games of Quincunx. But if the core of the system is a skeleton, I'm having trouble attaching the meat and the organs.

Guerrilla Television is designed to be a fun and light-hearted look at extravagant violence in the vein of Battle Royale, Gamer, The Running Man, and even real world concepts like Survivor or Big Brother. If you understand the tropes, you understand the game. There is little story, there is just carnage until one person is left standing...some people might try to escape, but it's so hard to do this that most would-be escapees die in the process. It's just a cathartic excuse to let out some narrative angst with a board and dice.

I've wanted something more from Quincunx. I want it to be a vehicle for telling the stories of people thrown into a world familiar yet far beyond their wildest dreams. I want it to reveal the thoughts that go through people's heads when they deal with issues of fame, fortune and the supernatural. But all this needs to be seen through the filter of investigation and bounty hunting.

I like the Go Play Brisbane description of "It’s Torchwood meets Channel 7’s The Force with corporate sponsorship and psychic powers. Don’t use your powers enough, and you’ll end up owing everyone favours. Use them too much, and your fans and sponsors will disown you."

So this means looking at scene framing, investigative play and really highlighting an operative's connections to the world around them.

So a revamp of the path system, and a revamp of the story system.

Earlier incarnations of the Path system have seen each path given a constraint, a basic benefit, an advanced benefit and a trait gained by it's followers. Under this system, an operative is defined by the collection of paths they follow. Balancing together the various constraints of their different paths and trying to apply the best benefit during a given situation. Other operatives and antagonists gain bonuses or penalties against one another based on the interplay of their traits. Each path is monitored and tracked separately.

If you think it sounds easy enough, so did I. If you think it sounds complicated, you are probably the kind of person who we spent half the game trying to explain things to multiple times. Honestly, I thought it was simple enough, but the system was just getting in the way of good storytelling and exploration of character...so it had to go.

Now, I'm streamlining the paths a bit. Every path feeds power into one of two resource pools; "influence" reflecting the mortal world, and "energy" reflecting the supernatural world. Each path then draws power from these pools via a series of benefits. The benefits all work much the same way, offering re-rolls at low levels, or multiple automatic successes at high levels. I figure that making all of the paths function in the same way makes the game a bit more approachable, and allows players to get into the grind.

The other problem that I was seeing is that the paths seemed to offer diversity, but were deceptively rigid. I want the game to produce a variety of character types. Guerrilla Television doesn't suffer from this because it's a light game with disposable characters, Quincunx is the current flagship of my TALES game engine, so I want to get the complexity right.

I think I've got it working, but let's see how the current incarnation works in a blind playtest.

My first thoughts of Quincunx looked at the concept in the light of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" meets "Cops" in a struggle against the supernatural. But now I'm thinking a bit more about an episode from a typical investigative drama perspective; NCIS, CSI, Law & Order.

The narrative builds through a series of escalating scenes, events that seem disconnected at first all start to tie together until the primary antagonist is faced.

With that in mind I'm try a new narrative tool; a scene pyramid.

This pyramid reflects the power structure of an episode's main antagonist, it has a nice illuminati feel to it as well.

The idea is that the players can start by choosing any of the scenes that aren't covered by other cards. The base difficulty they face is equal to the cards height on the pyramid. This means that all cards accessible at the start of the game have a difficulty of 1. The players don't know what they are in for, they just have to approach a scene and flip the card to see what they must face.

Once a player reveals a card, they must attempt to face it. Different cards portray different types of scene, one could be a bar-room brawl, one could be a confrontation with a drug dealer in a dark alley, another could be high tea with a fey courtier. Certain operatives will be better at some scenes than others, but this is designed to give everyone the chance to shine.

If an operative fails their scene, another operative may flip an alternative card, then choose whether they want to engage in the first card flipped or the new card they have flipped.

Once a scene has been resolved, it opens up the pyramid and opens up the options. The new cards accessible on level 2, have a base difficulty of 2. But since they are still partially covered, the difficulty for these scenes is higher. The second accessible scene from the left is partially obscured by an unflipped card, so it's difficulty is increased by 2 up to 4. The third accessible scene from the left is partially obscured by a revealed card, so it's difficulty is increased by 1 up to 3. The remainder of the accessible scenes are all one the first row and aren't obscured by any cards, so their difficulty is still only 1.

Let's move onward to a later stage of the game...

There are now a few open options to choose from. If a card is obscured by another card that is obscured, the difficulty increase is cumulative. Some of the scenes on the first level are still left untouched because the players either didn't think they were interesting or didn't think their operatives were able to handle them. There's certainly a range of difficulties to choose from.

Every card removed gets the operatives a step closer to accessing that final card at the top. And the aim is to remove as many of these cards as is feasible in the time limit provided. Operatives could take their time eliminating every card on the way to the top of the pyramid, but they should run out of time before this theory works.

To cut corners, I'm thinking that if an operative eliminates a scene card that disconnects others from the pyramid, those cards are eliminated without confrontation. For example, if the second card from the left, or the second card from the right were removed, the linked cards on the bottom row drop off entirely. If the third card from the right were removed, then the two rightmost cards would drop off the pyramid. Players just need to decide whether the extra speed is worth the extra difficulty to their operatives.

Once all the cards on the bottom row have been eliminated, the base difficulties shift up by 1. Overlaps still cause difficulty increases, and chains of overlapped cards can cause some incredibly high difficulties. This is the kind of thing that the main antagonists have been building up and hiding behind.

Eventually, the main antagonists scene will become visible. Do the characters directly go for the jugular? Or do they dismantle the last of the power structure?

The game still leads to the conclusion that the scenario designer intends, but there are plenty of choices along the way (and each of those choices is actually significant within the both the narrative and the game mechanisms).

I hope the idea makes sense.
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