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.