Saturday, September 22, 2012

Playtest Journal #3: Divided Loyalties

Hello and good morning!

Just to let everyone know, we're slightly changing our Playtest Focus, and specifically identifying whether a session would be a good one for playtesters new to Infinite Earths to attend.  We've found that having to completely re-explain the system, answer questions, etc. for the first hour and a half of every 3-4 hour playtest session is really starting to inhibit what we would like to test.  If you've already signed up, don't worry!  This isn't going to kick in until October, and we'll make sure to have at least one newbie-friendly playtest (wherein we actually do that 1.5-hour synopsis) per month.

Because we didn't do a Playtest Journal this week, this week we're going to take a broader look at our most recent playtest, picking out some specific parts that we thought worked or didn't work.  Join me after the break:

So with our most recent playtest, we set up this (names deliberately obfuscated, for now) scenario:  one of the players, as part of his character's backstory, had his father murdered.  His predominant motivation is to hunt down and kill the murderer, but he has no idea who the murderer was.  This takes place in a city where various gangs are at war with each other.  While hanging out at the edge of the territory of the "dock ward" gang, the party is presented with a clue that points them at the "suburban mafia" gang.

One of the players in the party is a member of the "suburban mafia" gang, albeit a low-ranking one.  His delightful first response when asked if he knew who was responsible?  "It wasn't me!"

Two of the players in the group are various kinds of spellcasters.  Their first thought:  perhaps I can cast a spell, perform a ritual or craft a magic item to find out who the murderer is, so we can go kill him (more on this later).

Finally, the player whose father was murdered decides to go talk to a friend of his who is a member of the "suburban mafia" gang (and a higher-ranking one than the member who is in the party).

At this point, some insight from the GM's perspective:  I had no idea if they were going to attack this guy, talk to him, try to kidnap him, or what.  So I drew a map of where this fellow was.

By drawing the map, all of a sudden the players weren't certain if they were about to get into a fight or just have a conversation.  As it turns out, it was just a conversation--and one that didn't go very well, because the player who did all the talking (the others stayed out of it, because this guy wasn't their friend) just isn't very good at it numerically speaking. 

And that highlighted to me, as a designer, that we're getting close (if we're not already there) with our social interaction mechanic.  Because if I were GMing, and playing off-the-cuff, this player's ability to speak, be social, and string together logical statements would have been benefits.  The conversation would have probably gone better for him.

But one of the things we want to do is make the dice do more of the talking, so that highly-social players aren't always dominant, and conversely less-social players can be more dominant.  So far, it looks like this is happening very well.

So the player botches the conversation through some bad dice rolls, and his friend goes off to get drunk because his friend is unhappy that (to his mind, thanks to those rolls), the player just accused him and his friends of murder.

The player then uses his Tracker abilities to quietly hunt the man through the city and watch him.  Meanwhile, the player who's a member of the same gang is suffering from a severe case of divided loyalties.  Because of the team mechanic that's in play, he can't outright act against the party, which is investigating his gang.  At the same time, he doesn't want to risk appearing like a traitor to the gang.

The session ended when this guy, who is apparently drunk, leaves the bar and heads back home.  He is followed out by several people whom the gangmember player recognizes as members of the gang.  The rest of the players think that the people following are going to try and rob him--so they prepare to attack.  What a cliffhanger!

We took away several lessons and important points from this playtest (and the one before it, which I'm just going to roll into this):

Our Stealth mechanic was horrible.  There was a lot of stealthing going on in this playtest, and that's great because it really gave us a chance to test it.  It was a change of mechanic that we weren't internally sold on, and seeing it in action just didn't work.  We're going to try another mechanic in the coming weeks.

Our revamped Social Interaction system, though, is working out fairly well.  It's hitting that sweet spot of "there are mechanics here" but "these mechanics are not interfering with play."  We want to do more testing with it before we actually say anything more publicly about it.

We are also considering making this an "open roll" system, where DCs are announced ahead of rolls and dice are rolled openly.  This tends to remove "GM Fiat" capabilities, but we're increasingly under the opinion that GM Fiat probably needs to go away.  That's a paradigm shift bordering on blasphemy, though, so we definitely need to discuss it further and tread carefully with it.

One interesting thing to note is that there was some surprise among the players that this kind of "divided loyalties" situation was allowable, given that we are specifically not including intra-party conflict resolution mechanics.  The thought being that divided loyalties must always and inevitably lead to PvP combat.

Another interesting thing to note is that, with the initial clue being "I heard somebody in this gang did it," players trained in more straightforward "I am NPC A, I inform you that NPC B needs to die, go kill him he is at Location C" storylines very quickly got stumped on how to proceed.  It took several minutes for them to be able to look at their character sheets and say, "Hmn, maybe I could talk to somebody I know to find out more."

I think this highlights how unimportant NPCs are in most roleplaying games.  We've frequently been asked about the difference between "story" NPCs and "non-story" NPCs, and how to use one against the other and vice versa.  In our concept, there is no difference between different NPCs. . .they're all just characters played by the GM instead of the Players.  But what we find, and have to account for, is years of training among players that there's a distinction.

It's definitely a challenge!

But this doesn't indicate, to our minds, that players are playing wrong.  They're playing "the easy way," the way they've been trained to play.  What this tells us is that as we formalize the rules, we must also make sure to provide a steady stream of examples throughout the book on how the rules can be used, and how they're expected to be used.  Because having a robust social system isn't going to mean a damn thing if the players have no idea how to use it.  This is the challenge of entering a space that has always previously been left undefined.

Let me conclude by saying, in case any of this was taken negatively, that we're not unhappy with how the playtests have gone, and that we are delighted when our playtesters challenge our assumptions and point out where we've made bad ones.  That's how the system grows and evolves into something that not only we want it to be, but that other people can use.  The biggest value of having playtesters who aren't a part of your "normal gaming group" is that they see things differently from you, they have different perspectives and assumptions, and that you can (once you've got enough playtesters) see trends in those perspectives and assumptions that can help you as a designer define the space you need or want to occupy.

Playtesters teach you so much.  And we here at Room 209 Gaming are blessed to have some really great playtesters.

Thank you all for reading today's long (and maybe a little rambling) post.  We've been doing a lot of design and redesign and math work lately, so the majority of what we're doing is stuff we prefer not to mention until we've tested it.

See you next week!

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