10 July, 2013

Getting into Background Action Specifics

The specific rules for actions behind the scenes need to be simple enough for new players to quickly grok them, but complex enough that they provide richness to the setting and develop storyline.

I’m thinking of using three currencies for behind the scene actions.

Gold – A single use currency that is expended as it is used.
Status – A replenishing currency based on open standing within the community.
Influence – A replenishing currency based on networks of social intrigue and shadowy manipulation

You could probably include an additional currency reflecting favours, but sometimes an economy works better if certain things aren’t specifically codified. They also work better when there is a different set of rules governing different aspects of the economy, this allows different parts of the economy to become more valuable than others and a flux to develop within the system. Such a flux leads to tension in some areas where stories can develop, we see it in the real world when some countries link their currency to the value of gold, or to the relative value of their stock markets. If one economy becomes stronger, it becomes harder to move within it, and opportunities are sought elsewhere…once the opportunists leave, the economy weakens and eventually the opportunities start to appear again. It’s a delicate balance, and it requires both a good underlying system and a decent number of canny participants to become a self regulating mechanism.

If we keep favours outside the regimented mechanisms of play, we allow the possibility of people adding favours to sweeten deals, or reneging on favours as a means to get ahead (and generate stories all of their own).

Gold is something that characters would gain by trading in the treasures they acquired while adventuring, it might also be something they generally earn in the course of their regular duties within the city. Lowly characters might earn a single gold per week, and it might cost them a single gold per week to pay for their meals and lodging. Characters with more noteworthy jobs might earn 2-3 gold per week; allowing them to pay for more expensive lodgings, acquire more nutritious foods, or maybe pay for a few favours that make their lives more comfortable. Much more prominent individuals such as merchants, bankers and courtiers might earn a gold per day through their regular trade. Similar incomes might be generated by officials such as the town sheriff, the bursar, or the local judge, while in the employ of the city in official roles.

For the mechanics of Gold, a common unit of 1 gold to pay for accommodation and food for a week might be good (as a real world comparison, in Sengoku-era Japan, a single Koku was defined as enough rice to feed a peasant for a year). A flat rate of gold would be accrued each week by characters based on their regular occupation within the city. If a character was to live as an adventurer, they might roll a die (or draw a card) each week, with the possibilitiy of getting multiple gold on good weeks, one gold of average weeks and nothing on weeks where things didn’t go so well.

Gold may be spent within the game to pay for things like equipment, weapons and armour, or to cover expenses like food and accommodation (which might in turn modify healing times). Cheap items might require a breakdown of gold into smaller units like silver. Maybe the whole idea of a gold piece is too valuable as a starting unit, and the base currency could be silver pieces broken down into copper coins. Either way, this “hard currency” is what must typically be spent to acquire physical items.

Games of status are where the rules from Mind’s Eye Theatre are quite good, and I’d be looking to adopt a lot of these ideas into the setting. The basic system, if you have more status your word has more authority. If you have no status, no one trusts you. If you have high status, it takes someone else with high status to injure your reputation. The person with the highest status is the local leader (this may be a king, a baron, a count, etc.), the faction whose members possess the highest cumulative status is the most powerful faction in the region. People may loan status to one another to show their favour toward a particular individual, this is typically the way votes are conducted. Status is a nebulous thing, most important when determining who has rank within court and who is most suitable for a civic posting when the opportunity arises.

Status is only gained or lost through the weight of individuals who possess it. Accepting a civic position within the city might confer a point of status associated with the role (eg. the sheriff might gain the “Peacekeeper” status rank, the head courtier might gain the “Prestigious” status rank). The head of a faction might gain a number of status ranks equal to half the number of members within their faction (rounded down). The leader of a city would need the backing of a faction to empower their position on the throne, but they might gain a number of additional status points due to their prominence within the city (let’s say three extra status ranks just to make sure there is a significant edge to the role: “Exalted”, “Revered”, and “Peerless”). A wise leader would have an inner council made up of individuals from the various factions, an unwise leader would find their position quickly untenable as two or three factions might easily consolidate their status to enact a coup.

Generally, factions vote for their leader by allocating their status behind specific individuals, whoever has the most status is the leader of the faction. In a diplomatic coup, a new leader of the city is chosen from among the factional leaders, with each factional leader assigning the status from their faction toward one candidate or another. In a violent coup, the old leader is typically killed and the new leader is either the one who killed them, or the one who shows by status that they have enough military support behind them that they can hold the throne.

High status characters may bestow levels of status on lower ranking members of their factions, the local ruler may bestow status on anyone in the city for their valiant deeds or honourable actions (such bestowals often occur in exchange for gold or influence actions, but people don’t often talk about this in public). Such characters may strip status in the same way. A character may only modify the status of other characters who possess a status rank less than half of their own.

Lower ranked characters may strip the leadership status from their factional leaders by simply allocating their status behind a new leader. They may also combine their status to strip the status earned by deeds; en masse, they combine their status, and if the total is more than double that of the higher ranked character, they may strip a status point from the more powerful victim.

Actions regarding status typically have a status cost associated with them, but certain character might be able to waiver the cost in certain circumstances. Voting in a new factional leader might have a cost equal to half the number of status traits used in the vote. Casting your vote in a trial to determine someone’s guilt or innocence might cost a single status trait. This means that those characters with more status have more say in the votes they participate in, and they may generally participate in more votes each session. When it comes to waiving the costs, the local sheriff might apply the negative status rank of “under investigation” to a single person in the city, at no cost to themselves, a courtier might be able to assign (or remove) a status trait to any individual once per session at no cost to themselves, the head courtier might be able to do this any number of times per session (but only once per character) and they might be able to assign the role of courtier to a single player each session.

From the perspective of fighting, status has no bearing. From the purpose of civilisation, status is everything.

The spheres of influence exist somewhere between the hard currency of Gold and the nebulous political power-mongering of Status. Physical things can be accomplished through the expenditure of Influence, so can manipulation of events behind the scenes. Not all influence is equal though, different characters would have a tendency to be influential in different areas.

For this, I’m thinking that a split of seven fields will be good.   

  1. Craftsmanship – connection to the guilds and ability to get things built or crafted.
  2. High Society – connection to the rich and powerful members of the local aristocracy
  3. Militia – connection to the local town guard and those who work by raising arms
  4. Occult – connection to the secretive groups of mystic scholars and wizards of the realm
  5. Religion – connection to the priests, bishops, monks and access to religious artefacts
  6. Street – connection to the commoners from town and the typical farmers in the rural lands
  7. Underworld – connection to local ruffians, rural bandits and access to illicit goods.

(I had considered using Wealth as a form of influence, but this would really be doubling up the benefits of gold…so it doesn’t make sense in a medieval setting to have multiple definitions of richness)

Generally, a city will have a maximum number of influence points available based on its size. The bigger the city, the bigger each share of the pie will be.

Starting characters will have five points to distribute across these spheres of influence (with starting characters allowed no more than 3 points allocated to any one). Their rank allows them access to specific actions…and to keep it simple, each action has a cost equal to its availability level.

Eg. Street Actions
  1. Get the lowdown on what is happening somewhere, or identify the faction strongest in a particular part of the city
  2. Access a small and relatively insignificant contraband item, arrange a temporary safe haven.
  3. Get insight on another area of influence, “acquire” a weapon, organise a distraction, or gain access to a basic “street” skill.
  4. Smuggle someone into (or out of) the city, control a small gang (6-10 members), or gather some quick funds (1d6 gold).
  5. Control a medium sized gang (10-20 members), arrange a riot, or gain access to an advanced “street” skill.

Characters get 4 points per level to spend on influence actions (roughly one per level per week). Characters may instead choose to invest their actions to improve their influence score (increase your score by 1 if you invest a number of actions equal to 10 times the new score). They might attack the influences of other players behind the scenes. They might spend points to see who is making moves within their sphere of influence, or they might spend points to conceal the actions they are undertaking. Characters who move quickly are easily noticed by those who already move within the same fields. Characters who make waves too often sometimes find their actions bring the attention of the town guard, the town criers, or the newsletter sheets posted at the centre of town.

Characters might accumulate more than 5 levels in a specific sphere of influence, but to do so, they would need to control a specific part of town…perhaps claiming the university to get more “occult”  influence, or claiming the palace to get more “court” influence. There would only be so many of these influence focused areas, and controlling them would become a part of the long term game for those players who wanted a lot of power in the shadows.

Learning new skills can easily be linked into this type of system, by forcing players to spend their influence points over a number of weeks to gain access to certain skills. If a player wants a skill and they don’t have the influence necessary to learn it, they might have to start a process of negotiation with someone who does possess the necessary sphere of influence. This helps to link players together.

It’s also noticeable that certain types of influence may interact with “hard currency” by producing gold at different levels, and some may influence status when certain levels are achieved. These types of interactions keep the three systems linked to one another, thus improving the cohesion of the setting.

Again, just spit-balling at this stage. To hammer this into a functional system will take quite a bit more work.
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