Thursday, 8 September 2016

GM-less RPGs

One of the key challenges of the High Frontier RPG is making the game GM-less. At first this was almost included as a throwaway line with the thinking that it'd play just like a cooperative legacy board game like Pandemic: Legacy and those are really easy to make, right :)

But what I hadn't initially envisioned as being an issue and what is increasingly becoming apparent is aside from scene setting, conflict resolution, rules arbitration and flavour - functions that the High Frontier RPG has answers for, the Game Master has another function which is far less easy to solve: maintaining the game state.

What I mean by this, is the information that is preserved when the game is packed up and put away at the end of the game session. Legacy board games solve this by recording the game state using the game components: you open packets, write on the board, tear cards up and so on, which ordinarily would be considered big problems with board games and are the 'controversial' part of a legacy game, but in reality provide this function transparently and intuitively without anyone having to write anything down.

The Game Master does this for RPGs: he's the storage engine of the game, the hard drive if you will to which any changes to the game supplements are recorded. But it's not the storage function that is important - because the player's have memories as well - so much as the integrity of this storage function: the game master is the final arbiter of truth in the game universe and what he or she remembers to be true is the ultimate truth modulo a player making a compelling argument otherwise.

I could of course just make one player perform the 'secretary' function, but to me this feels like the bad parts of being a game master without any of the fun stuff. Instead I've made a set of assumptions that may or may not be true for any individual game:
1. Information that is publicly shared to all the players is going to be remembered by the majority. This is a massive side step of the issue, but I'm going to develop some work sheets that'll help here - essentially a mission log, to allow players to record some of the random results so that the play events can be reconstructed. This mission log can be filled in by anyone, and should hopefully be easy to maintain.
2. Information that is secret, is secret but verifiable.

Secrets are going to be the really tricky part of the game. A lot of what constitutes secrets in most games are going to be replaced by random tables. Unlike virtually every other RPG on the market (sans Microscope), High Frontier RPG does not have a fixed game world - the game world dynamically evolves from the real world today into something unknown. So the fact that say the New Attica Secessionists are the result of, for instance, a massively multiplayer alternate reality game spiralling out of control, is a random number that is rolled on a table at the time you could potentially figure this piece of information out.

But there are important secrets that are going to be part of the game. The three secrets that players will actually care about are:

1. The psychological profile of the character.
2. Whether a piece of equipment or person or faction that we're relying on is actually reliable (defect cards) and to a lesser extent, upcoming events (although events could just be replaced by a random card drawn without too much loss).
3. For any published game scenario (one is planned so far): The origin and intentions of the scenario threat.

To encode all of this information, I'm going to use packets of playing cards.

Psychological profiles are encoded by turning two 1d6 rolls into two cards. Since crews have four players, there's a straight forward mapping of crew position to suit. And the encoding scheme is simply going to be the first card is the lowest roll, second card is the sum of the lowest plus highest roll. This is a incredibly weak cryptographic system, but I'm using this as an advantage in that showing another player one of your psychological profile cards is an incredibly important thing. More importantly, at the moment once your psychological profile is created, you don't get to hold the cards - they're dealt out to other crew members. And to verify this, the rest of the unused psychological profile cards are sealed back into the profile deck and signed by all players so if someone is accused of cheating, we can check the profile deck to see which cards are missing from each suit.

Defect cards are associated with individual ship components, or parts of the High Frontier playing board. That's the big downside with defects - you have to have the High Frontier playing board, and you probably have to leave it set up somewhere between play sessions. Tracking defects are the weakest part of the game, easily manipulated and prone to cheating, which is why they are optional, but they are a very cool idea originally used in the Leaving Earth board game and I hope people find them interesting enough to respect the rules governing them.

The origin and intentions cards for the game scenario has only just come up as I've started designing High Frontier RPG: Titan. I originally envisioned this as a solar system wide conflict simulator for people really into their military sci fi to play ultra-realistic space battles and campaigns. However at the same time I wanted to add a bit of mystery by having the actual nature of the big bad be randomly determined, and as it turns out, only two of the six planned origin stories are straight forward kill the bad guys - two of them are figure out the bad guys, and two of them are 'I didn't realise we were playing an RPG adaptation of Naked Lunch/Edge of Tomorrow/Thirteenth Floor'.

This is a bold experiment, and if it doesn't work, I have a backup plan to allow a game master to run the game with all of the above resources available to them. But I'd like to see this 'in the wild', not just in controlled play tests to see whether it works and whether players can adapt to the challenge.

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