“The truths we cling to” — By The Stars scattered thoughts


There are some thoughts swirling aimlessly in my head about BTS that I haven’t been able to articulate for months now. This is my first attempt. They may very well be understandable to no one but me, but that’s what rough drafts are for. At least they’ll be down and out of my head!
One Scene to Rule Them All
I have a very tight focus for the game I want to create this time. I want to emulate the Luke-Vader duel scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Just as WGP… sprung from the Thanksgiving dinner scene of Spider-Man, the duel will serve as BTS’s guiding light. But what makes the duel so special? Why does it still capture my imagination nearly 25 years later? Let me list a few features, and then I’ll talk about my ideas for putting them in a game.
"I am your father." — Sudden Character Redefinition
This is the thing that had everyone talking from the time they saw Empire until Jedi came out. "No, Luke. I am your father." The duels starts out with Luke, the Avenging Son, coming to face down Vader, the Sire-Slayer. Luke’s lack of a father–as well as his desperation to follow in that unknown father’s footsteps–has defined his character up until this point. To suddenly learn that those footsteps lead directly to one of the greatest cinematic villians of all time shakes Luke’s character to its core.

How to do that in an RPG? My concept is for each character to have "open" spots in their character history. Things they don’t know about their own past. Perhaps I’ll put a grand diaspora or two into the recent past of the setting info to explain it. They can grab a bonus die for alluding to this open concept, and putting some constraint upon it. But so can other players. Whenever that happens, the open spot becomes worth another point of payout when it is defined. A player cannot define his own open concept. Only someone in conflict can define your open concept, and they get part of the payout. Kat suggests that you can set it in stone yourself, but only for half the pool.
"Join me. It is the only way." — Cutting Off Options
Look at the progress of the duel. They fight. Vader attempts to outmaneuver Luke and defeat him with technology (the carbon freezing chamber), and Luke just barely manages to dodge out of the way. Then, Vader overwhelms him with the Force. Finally, he visciously out-duels Luke and (literally) disarms him, driving him out onto a precipice where no other manuever is possible. The only way out is (seemingly) through Vader and by accepting what he offers. The only other choice is stepping off into the abyss. The fact that Luke does choose death before dishonor is the first step of redefining his character in the rest of the trilogy.

How to do that in an RPG? I think that all characters will be able to act in a number of different realms: Technology, Manuever, Melee, Ranged Combat, Social, Psychic Powers, that kind of thing. That happens to be six, so we’ll use d6s. Each one is associated with a single number on the die. During a turn, each character chooses a number/method that they’re using this round. They roll the dice for that method and a success is any die which matches the number of that method. Whoever gets the most successes on their own dice wins that round, and they get a number of consequence points to dole out equal to the matches of all players that round. You use these consquence points to add penalties to your opponents’ traits. But, these are not penalties in the sense of decreasing their effectiveness, they are damage penalties that accrue if the opponent choose that option. And, they’re not just abstract point penalties, they are "cannot" statements, much like in the character creation section of Puppetland and My Life with Master. They restrict your options. But, they can also be spent to give someone options they didn’t have before….
"Father, please!" — Enhancing the Options of Others
This slides into the climax of Return of the Jedi, which is really a continuation of the Empire duel. Luke has accepted that Vader is his his father, but even though his father has fallen from the path, Luke will not. He stumbles, but rights himself, throwing his lightsaber away before the Emperor. As the Emperor begins his lethal assault, his appeals to his father allow Vader to do what he could not do previously: Strike at the Emperor.

How to do that in an RPG? Just as you can cut off options by heavily disincetivizing them, characters can spend consequence points they gain to incentivize options to others. They’ll get bonus points if they do choose the option that you set up for them. Characters will have Oaths that forbid them from doing things. And they CANNOT do those things that they’ve voluntarily given up, unless some other character has given them this option.

This is where my thoughts drift into more abstract, less concrete stuff. In life in general, I think giving people options is generally a good thing, and cutting off their options is generally a bad thing. I see it as empowerment rather than control–call me democratic rather than authoritarian. Translating that shaky, ill-defined philosophy into game mechanics is tricky, because there will be innumerable counter-examples and players looking to gain advantage without consequence.

Tangent That’s something that drives me nuts in games–advantage without consequence. One of the things I wanted WGP…’s Aspect system to do (that it doesn’t do all that well) was that you couldn’t gain the advantage of an Aspect unless you brought it into the conflict, and thus risked damaging it. It doesn’t work so well in WGP… simply because everybody brings everything into every conflict. ::shrug:: But, in BTS, I want to bring that into play more centrally. If you use something to gain advantage over me, you give me the opportunity to affect that thing and potentially gain advantage over you.

My thoughts are all ragged now. Maybe I just need to do some self-playtesting.

4 Responses to ““The truths we cling to” — By The Stars scattered thoughts”

  1. Hi Mike,
    What strikes me as interesting is the time of choosing. A Game where I can choose “here is where it all goes down with my father,” is much different from where someone else chooses for me. The second is potentially more frustrating and more rewarding depending on the tension. For instance if I was playing with Steven King I would go on a rampage as he takes too long to get to the point, but Bachman I’d love to game with.
    The Oaths strike me as problematic though. If I can’t do my oath, who polices infractions, or watches against subtle ways to route around an oath, or is that a problem? I have some ideas for something I’m working on for if I ever finish my game, for a second game that is not so specific, but is more built around the difficulty of enabling Functionalism. Anyway without giving up the complete secret sauce and just the ketchup part, I think it may be better to place your control on the individual, Darth for example, rather than a can’t do Oath. Then have the characters have positive Oaths like in Burning Everything, and dilemma bang them with this relationship somehow. Am I making any sense?
    Also what time frame are you looking at? Having 5 people face five Darthes at the same time is likely to be a bit on the silly side. You may want to consider pacing of these confrontations. This might also help getting people to put the focus on someone elses character, if they can’t get their sunshine time till yours is over.
    I never asked about the shorting of Michael to Mike. Is that kosherized rules or would you prefer Michael?

    • Hi, Clyde!
      As for policing the options, I’ve found that groups tend to quickly find their own standards of flexibility on these things, and consensus tends to work pretty well. Particularly because everyone will have their own “can do this/cannot do that” statements to work around, a common sense of what is acceptable should develop pretty quickly. Playtesting could show me that I’m a pie-in-the-sky dreamer, but we’ll see.
      Idealy, I’m hoping that in a group of 5 players, 2 of them will be antagonists for the other 3. Since all villains are eventually redeemable, and all heroes have the potential to fall from grace, I don’t know that this is necessarily a “GM plays all the bad guys” sort of game. Although, perhaps the GM plays the most irredemable vilain, and a player might play one who is closest to possible redemption. (Ironically, in Empire Strikes Back, that give the GM Boba Fett and a player Darth Vader.)
      “Mike” is just dandy in informal communication like LJ and interviews, etc. I only like to use “Michael S. Miller” in publishing, credits, promotion, etc. because both “Michael” and “Miller” are extremely common names.

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