Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting Closer To the Client

Dreamation was awesome. At this point that almost goes without saying. It's like "the sun is hot." I feel spoiled by a convention in which a night of copious vomiting is immediately forgotten under the weight of great conversation with stimulating, like minded individuals and their impressive and emotive games. Favorite moments? Wow. I don't know. Maybe the "What are you doing fighting a fox?!?!" thing. That had me crawling out of my skin in the best way possible.

Rather than retread the ground of other con delights already expressed by more eloquent and faster-on-the-draw posters, I will write about my playtesting and GMing experiences.


So, Contract Work. Hmmm. These were the roughest playtests I've done so far. Nearly every modification I made since the last major draft was shaky at best. Here are the issues I encountered.

I sped players through character creation. In the second playtest I put all 4 players in the same organization. This created a false expectation about the focus and led to confusion.

I should emphasize the networking of hitters. They come from all over the world and from differing backgrounds. "Ronin" was an influence on this element. I must reinforce diversity and allow them the same starting value, regardless of who is a mafioso and who is a government assassin.

The reward split. At present, all involved receive the same pay at completion. I had a rule that made players who didn't participate pay more active players. My first playtest of the day (the solo Hitter, the mission in which this rule did not even apply) pointed out that I was using this mechanic completely backwards. Punishing the brazen rather than the cautious.

Gone. In its place, I will create rules whereby the players are paid for their level of participation. Players must stake their claim in segments of the job. Perhaps as they are determined. If a player botches a segment, it passes to a different player covering for the mistake, claiming that reward.

I want the game to move faster. Which is odd, since the average playtime is 2 1/2 hours, character creation included. Confrontation exchanges lag. One character is the lead so others wait. Not unlike a lengthy, detailed, wavering combat turn in D&D. If I want to create independent movement among the players, I can't afford to let them sit around. This also leaves more time to narrate a confrontation; usually truncated since I feel the need to pick up the pace.

This is the biggie. I need to streamline the core mechanics of confrontations. An all-or-nothing approach was suggested which would ratchet up the tension (maybe allowing other players more cringing involvement which will fill in the gaps in their own action.) Narration could be improved if I have the players narrate what happened on each bid and raise. (I had that in my drafts from 2006 and lost it in the shuffle!)

While typing below I had another idea for this. I'll write it up elsewhere.

Preparation trade-up. Players plan out the job from the hit, backward in time as they explain what they did to prepare. The hitters spend money to collect the advantages that they must spend to do the Hit. Now players can make any action an attempt to gain a preparation as preps trade-up and roll into each other. This nullifies the need for an actual Hit action as preps are already cutting the target's defenses effectively.

A) The GM decides if a confrontation is a hit and makes players use preps instead of gaining more. B) A phase with a cut-off to gain preps and another to use them. C) Abolish the Hit actions and let there be one kind of confrontation.

A cuts the players off from possible narrative approaches. Is kidnapping the target's bodyguard a hit because it diminishes the target's ability to strike back, or a prep because that bodyguard might have a key to the house? B can break the phases by the money spent. A "what did you do?" and "how did you do it?" segmentation. C: Hit actions were created because using money on the target makes less sense than using preparations instead.

Also, instead of combining preps on a single hit, play each preparation out in a series at the Hit. This happened in a playtest when the players wanted a Plan B.

Debt threat and the campaign cycle. The long game. Over a Hitter's career, they must avoid accruing debt. Too much debt makes them a target. At the same time, they must end their career by paying off the reason for their hitter's life and getting out when debt does rise too high. Playtests show the current economy gives a hitter a lifespan of about 10+ jobs. This may be too long. The tension of increasing debt needs to be more prevalent.

It's hard to say how this plays out. In a one-shot playtest, why should a player avoid debt on a character they will never play again? I may be getting artificial results.

The real problem is how to adjust. This means fcuking the entire economy of the game. The player needs time to pay off their character so that they could survive the end of their career.

I based the difficulty of jobs around the pay and target's budget so that an easy job allows for low bids and low risk on the job but slim rewards at the end. This may tie in to adjusting the resolution mechanics if I end up diverging from the simple bidding system.

One quick thought is to eliminate the player's cash up front for the job. They bid only against their debt. If they win a confrontation, they recover the bid, plus the preparation or damage to the target. If they lose, that's the money that goes on debt. That needs a lot of thought.

The reason for being a Hitter and career's end. This is supposed to be the most important bit of background. It is the character's motivation and foreshadows the events it will take to get the hitter into retirement without a bullet in the head.

Again, in the original draft, one example character needs money to get through school (!) and start her own business. Another wants to fund his revenge against the guy who's blackmailing him back into the life of a hitter. Telling us what is happening under the hood and what getting out means. I can fix this if I return to my original notes and communicate this properly in playtests.

Trust mechanics? I see these in a lot of similar games and I've wondered about adding to mine. (No one has directly suggested these, just my own curiosity.)

FCUK THAT! My models at the start of designing were "Joey the Hitman," "The Mechanic" and "Hitman: Codename 47." These people are already beyond morals. They do not show remorse or confusion. This is a job. My players are allowed to glory in being a person who has trained themselves to kill. Forgive me Father.

If I remember to set up the network concept, the players recognize they don't trust each other. They use each other. "You have to trust me" should be followed by the thought "where's my money?" They don't need to be at each other's throats so long as they have the common goal (everyone suffers if the job fails.) They are not required to do anything more and can get more money by doing more of the job. If they want, they can share at the end, but too much camaraderie needs to be discouraged by the risk v. payoff. More immediate danger of failure may help this as players recognize who takes point and who does not.

How to be a Total Bastard. The GM had no bite in the first iterations of the game. The GM now has more ways to strike at the players, creating increases in difficulty, making players acquire liabilities that will hold them back later in addition to GM assaults on preparations. The GM uses Risk tokens to call on these effects. In my first game, the solo play, I didn't get many more than the starting tokens and in the party game, I had too many and not enough time to spend them.

In the hands of a sadist, this may be enough. I don't really fall into that category when running CW. I need to take the option of being a bastard out of the GM's hands and make the rules do it. Maybe secretly distribute the GM's Risk tokens ahead of time, as the job is being created. They are fixed to events and the player who steps on them is hit by the trap. Possible bonus: If they beat the confrontation, they collect the token and THAT tracks their reward.

The GM must also be allowed to trigger liabilities, increasing the threat they represent.

Maybe the GM needs to be able to lure players off the job in addition to pushing them. Then again, maybe not. If the debt threat is high enough, dropping loyalty to the client may mean a quick turnaround into being a target.


I'd like to thank everyone for their recent playtesting help, both at the con and before: Aly, Tim, Don, Jo, Blake, Brett, Jon, David, and . . . Oh sh*t. Blake, please save me here. I have her badge number and a blank where the name should be.

As always, the indie round table is a great source of ideas. I went through a great deal of trimming and it seems a lot of useful ideas hit the cutting room floor. I'm going through that mess now.

My run of Don't Rest Your Head was a well developed story I felt. Suitably spooky and so engaging I entirely forgot my promise to keep it brief since it was a midnight game. Oh well, sleep is the enemy of fun.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Contract Work; the Dexcon 10 Playtest Post Mortem

For any first-time readers, Contract Work is a game of Debt and Hitmen struggling to pay that debt. You don't become a Hitman for fun, you do it for money. (And if you did come to the business for fun, it's not long before a mobster, the law, or a black ops program has a huge investment in you.)

Players are called Hitters and the GM is the Interrogator. The game is played as the Interrogator leads the Hitters by way of question and answer through the job, starting from the kill and tracing back the path to it. Cul-de-sacs and lies are just as much a part of the game as truth as Hitters narrate their successes and failures to satisfy the Interrogator. Is the Interrogator an FBI agent, ready to send the Hitters away for the rest of their lives? Their lawyer hoping to make a convincing case? The Boss wanting the seedy details of the job he ordered? Only the end of the job will let us know.

The game system is about resource management. Every aspect of the mechanics reflect money. Time is money, effort is money, growth is money, cash is money. Characters are built in a point buy system and wagers are made with poker chips to resolve Confrontations that are determined by how much the Hitters and Interrogator wagered on attacking their foes and defending themselves. There are Free Action tokens that allow them to act covertly and hold an advantage over the Interrogator and Risk tokens that let the Interrogator push back.

Hitters get some money up front for a job and try to make the Target spend all his money so that there's nothing left to pay for security that can be used to stop them. After the job is done, the rest of the pay is divvied up and the Hitters pay an upkeep for their abilities (called assets) to reflect the work they do on downtime to stay in shape.

Injury to Hitters raises their debt toward a credit limit created by the Boss's investment in you. If a Hitter exceeds that limit, they are worth more dead than alive and become a target themselves.

A campaign follows the life of the Hitters as they try to earn enough money to buy their way out of the business before they outlive their usefulness.

And now, on with the report.

Firstly, the most important point: Everyone had fun! I was overjoyed to hear that people were still talking about the game afterward, not as a math exercise or as a stress test, but as a game they enjoyed and are looking forward to when it is finished and released. That's what I wanted first and foremost out of the game. Impetus to move forward.

Who doesn't need a little of that anyway?


What went well:
1. Character creation allowed for a unique collection of Hitters. Maybe a little too exotic but I expect the release of that movie Wild Aces earlier this year will lead to lots of "whacked-out" hitmen.

2. Players got right into the groove of recounting their plan from the kill, back to the preparations they made leading to it. They enjoyed the way it was presented as they answered the questions of the Interrogator and narrated in options to follow up and branch off.

3. The bidding wars that form the mechanics of Confrontations were easy to grasp. The Hitters made bids for preparations that started out low with easy math and grew into weighty numbers on both sides. This meant more math as the game went on, but showed an escalation of risk as asset value stats and dice were less affective in turning the tide of a missed wager.

4. The build up of preparations into a huge mass at the end of the game was exhilarating. Everyone threw in all their points and overwhelmed the target. Interestingly, I saw a degree of competition among the players, each trying to become a bigger part of the killing. That feeds in well to a few more ideas. The Hitter left with the most unspent Free Action tokens is entitled to a smaller share of the pay unless the others take pity on him. This may mean a mad dash at the end of the game for a conservative player to get in the running.

What went wrong:
1. Liabilities and debt at creation were extravagant. I should have explained that they have a effect on the asset pool of the target. When I forgot to, I just wiped extra points off the target's assets to compensate. Not the best idea. Since Liabilities offer more points for Hitter assets and can eventually be flipped into assets, everyone took lots of them.

The Hitters had to take my word that a broad range of assets is better than a focus. This was based on the idea of a hitter losing their one asset and being useless. The point value of one asset means it's less likely to be lost, so the motivation is gone.

2. The narrated banter between the Hitters and Interrogator started out great but diminished as the preparation numbers got bigger. The math went longer so by the time the Confrontation's winner was decided, the players were ready to move on with a brief description of what they got, not how they got it. I was allowed a chance to push the You Lie, You Die mechanic, when John S. mentioned a body in one scene (a major detail) that wasn't accounted for by a later scene. I pushed him to create another situation that explained it, so he avoided paying me the $100 Liar's fee, which I had kept as a surprise, but never had to fully invoke.

3. Bidding wars went well for the players. Too well in fact. They still had a large number of Free Action tokens at the end of the game so they were able to avoid taking risks in most situations. I need to get more of those chips out of their hands and more Risk tokens into mine.

Also, the Retaliations of the Interrogator against the Hitters lacked bite. They were still too much of an opportunity for the players rather than a stumbling block. Interrogators attacking the assets of the players falls flat when the numbers of the endgame focus on the preparations.

The most tense Confrontations were the ones that involved a player violating a condition and risking gaining a new liability. These need to be a greater part of the Preparation gaining process. I budgeted myself to two instances and that's too few.

Confrontations still focus on gaining preparations so that there ends up being only one attack on the Target. I'm dissatisfied with that. I want there to be a need to chip away at the target between gaining advantages.

4. The endgame overwhelming the Target is great fun for the Hitters, but not much fun for the Interrogator. By that point he has lost so much of his resources that there's not much chance of fighting back.

On a personal, non-rules note; I felt I was forgetting something near the endgame. And I was. I didn't bring enough chips to cover the budget, so I had a small plastic box stand in for a $10K chip. AND I FORGOT ABOUT IT! I left $10K out of my budget. It's no wonder the players were so far ahead in chips when they finished.

What I will do next:
1. Liabilities will carry more weight. In addition to giving the Target assets, they will also carry a penalty to Free Action tokens. In addition to the Hitter's ability to take the penalty of a Liability in hopes of flipping it to an asset, the Interrogator should be able to invoke the Liability as a bonus to his side of a Confrontation. Hitter victory still leads toward the Liability flipping to an Asset.

If a Hitter reuses an asset, the Interrogator gains a Risk token, regardless of the Hitter's use of a Free Action token. The Target's security is learning the modus operandi of the Hitter so assets cannot be kept undercover.

2. Stay in the narration. This is gamemastering more than anything else, but it will be important for the game when things like You Lie You Die are in effect. Without narrated details, there is nothing to follow up.

3. Hitters earn preparations separately so to use the prep of another Hitter, both must pay in to the Confrontation. Both will need to play a Free Token to affect the spread. If one person is on a stakeout and the other rolls up in front of the house with a floor plan and climbs into the bushes, cover is blown. Hitters have another option; arrange a Meet. A scene in which they come together to exchange preps. Only one of the participants needs spend a Free Action token to keep the Meet under wraps, or else the Interrogator gets his Risk token.

Cash will be handled the same way as a personal fund divided amongst the players, swapped at Meets.

I've mentioned in past games that the Hitters aren't necessarily buddies. They could be a network of operatives who never meet each other. They may even compete among themselves as a greater reward is available to the player who takes the most actions on the job (already in the epilogue rules but not used to its full potential.)

Retaliations will not target Hitter assets. They will target Preparations. Damage in these Confrontations will cut down the effectiveness of a Preparation, and hopefully inspire the Hitters to move more quickly against the Target, chipping away at defenses rather than waiting to the end.

Conditions will be an option for the Hitters to invoke in a Preparation or Attack Confrontation. They can defy the conditions of the job on a Confrontation by not paying a Free Action token and describing a course of action that defies the Boss's orders. Damage in these conflicts creates liabilities for the Hitter and gains debt, but the Interrogator will also be forced to spend extra on the Confrontation bids (I'm still deciding the amounts.)

4. The Target's resistance stat will return as a larger generic Resistance that can be harmed by different kinds of attacks. Only a violent Force based attack will reduce that stat to zero. The Interrogator will retain the ability to Refresh damage for $100/pt. This isn't really an unfair advantage as the Interrogator has now paid out 3 times for that point (once in the Gain Prep, once in the Attack, once to Refresh.) A $300 return on a Hitter's $100 investment.

The danger of Preparations being lost if the Interrogator gets too many chances to attack them will also lead to the players using them instead of leaving them around to be hit.


These changes introduce some new rules and alter some old ones (and even bring back some abandoned ideas) so more play-testing, soon. I'll see what of these new ideas can be stripped out and start streamlining the rules again.

Thanks to my players for some very useful feedback and most of all, for showing me that I'm on the right path and just need to follow it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Giant snakes, expensive booze, and a lot of dust.

Another playtest two weeks ago showed me that I'm bringing more balance into the game. I modified the effect of the Interrogator's tokens and they had some impact. But not enough. I've begun the real overhaul of their rules and effects.

I also need to hang more on the endgame. The past few games have slouched in to an ending. I need more tension there and I think shifting around the kinds of resources available to the Hitters and the Interrogator at that stage will do it.

Here's a story:

My three players, Matt Coburn and Don and Joanna Corcoran, Played a group of down-and-out Nevadans. Living outside Vegas, they saw glimpses of the good life but didn't have the money (or sobriety) to share in it. The money would pay off gambling debt, let them move on from the trailer park and generally rise above drunken poverty.

Tasked with offing a sheriff's deputy who had gotten too big for his britches, they went about looking for a way to make it look accidental. They decided a rattler bite might do the trick.

Stealing the snake:
It was decided that the best way to get a "good snake" for the job would be to steal one from the mini zoo at a nearby casino. With a bit of trickery and a well picked fight, the Hitters got a big, nasty snake into a bag. Unfortunately, it wasn't venomous. Rather than lose the time and money spent, they decided to trade up.

The Russian's bar:
There's an old Indian chief out in the hills who might be able to help. But to win him over, you need to bring him some expensive liqour (he's quite well read on the subject so don't try to fool him.) Most bars out here can't afford much but the crazy Russian who built his mansion in the middle of a dust filled canyon is known for expensive tastes. With a little seduction grift and quick thinking from the gambler they made off with a bottle of cognac. The cost? A bullet wound and frantic drive in a stolen limo.

The old man:
He was happy to have the booze, and the snake they gave him was a nice addition. He offered them a snake he had trained. Unfortunately, they didn't test the goods out beforehand and the snake's fangs were broken.

What now?
With what they had left in time and money, the Hitters got to the sheriff. Telling him that if he didn't do something about the deputy, bigger guns would roll in to town.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Progress, of a sort.

I have been lax in posting but the good work continues all the same.

A report of my Dreamation playtest will be up soon.

Suffice to say, it pointed out to me that more emphasis must be placed on the limitations of the players. How I go about doing that will form the meat of the next draft.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


. . . as the air you breathe.

InSite is a competitive story game featuring the grotesque abuse of power in the face of petty annoyance.

Along with your co-workers you will draw cosmic power through the conduit of the internet. Use this magic to get out of having to finish your financial reports for the board meeting! Or to score a date with the cute receptionist. Did Allen just get a promotion? Maybe you should get a double-promotion! Are you hallucinating the printer is leaking blood? Too bad! Corner offices don't earn themselves! You want to be the boss, you'll have to re-write the rules of the cosmos!

Written for the Compact RPG Challenge contest on the Forge, this is a complete game on 2 pages.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


I registered www.lucrepress.com today.

I'm making up some ashcan prints and a .pdf of a side project so the site will have some content while Contract Work gets finished.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Save Your Games.

Negativity abounds. The "death of the industry" clouds every subject. Saving rpgs is something you can actually do something about! It's not like the weather or the rigqed elections.

Find a designer whose work you truly enjoy and buy everything they produce. Tip them with Paypal. Buy copies of games for your friends to entice them to play. Don't download the pirated .pdf. Pre-order the next book.

These designers are the source of the games you love, not the publishers. If you support the people whose ideas you truly cherish they will find ways to keep sharing them with you.