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July 25, 2011

Agents of Empire: the Importance of Metaphor

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 10:58 am

The first arc of that board game RPG mentioned in my last post is over. It’s on hiatus as I try to work out how to get it more like what I want mechanically, but in the meantime I’m going to write a post or two about it. Like this one.

For some reason I had to do a hell of a lot of improv for this game. My games are already pretty on-the-fly, but this one seemed to be more so than others. I think this was partly because the characters had greater scope than usual (so far things have ranged from political negotiation to exploration of ancient tunnels to computer hacking to astro-polo), and partly because it’s set up on a (player) premise of “ok, here are some rules, and to succeed you’ll have to figure out how to do an end-run around them”.

Anyway, I bring this up because I thought on the whole the improv worked out really well: the setting felt both large and consistent, there was a good amount of challenge regardless of what people were trying to work on, and stuff that showed up early in the game came back to haunt people as appropriate later on. A few things didn’t work out as well: details of names and places got lost, and “point of interest exploration” never worked out as well as I’d intended. (A bunch of other things worked out well or not well in the game, but I’m focusing on the improv-related things here.)

So, techniques. The main one (which is why it gets to be in the title of the post) is “pick a metaphor and stick with it, but it doesn’t have to be the same metaphor for every situation”. So in this game, the base setting understanding is Star Wars: ships have hyperdrives but it still takes a while to get across the universe, droids exist but they’re mostly menials and don’t take over any interesting human jobs, the standard sidearm is a blaster, there’s a big imperial senate (ok, it’s older star wars). However, for particular of the world-building, some other metaphor comes into play. Like, the politics in the large are all Dune: big powerful feuding Houses, some associated with a particular trade, and the Emperor trying to balance things out. But in the small, they’re parody real-world politics: everybody wants something, and there is a lot of tacking unrelated riders onto bills to try to pull together a coalition to get the thing passed, and balancing who you’re going to suck up to and who you’re going to piss off. For another example, the Imperial culture tends to be HHGTTG but the general culture is 50s space serial.

Once I have this worked out, then when it comes time to talk about what kind of party the emperor would throw, I can say this: it’s going to be expensive, because the empire is rich (Star Wars), but also ridiculous (HHGTTG). I decide they towed in a planetoid to hold it on (roughly equivalent to making the Death Star) but instead of looking like the Death Star or like Cloud City, it looks like some crazy pleasure planet covered in xtreme sports facilities and 24-hour buffets. Then when you ask what’s going on with the party guests, I can tell you that a bunch of the Houses are using the chance to make behind-the-scenes deals (“real” politics), and there are also squabbles between various Houses, mysterious assassins, and fights about the succession (Dune). Or if you want to get a bill passed, then I know the opposition should come primarily from other Houses (Dune), and you should have to work things out with them by horse-trading (“real” politics), but that what they want should be a combination of the more-serious (Star Wars) and the crazy (HHGTTG).

Really this-all is the same thing that Vincent Baker talked about with setting principles, but instead of principles we’ve got whole metaphors — it basically works the same way but it’s a little fuzzier.

The thing I didn’t do here and should have was write stuff down after coming up with it. Normally I’m better about keeping transcripts but this time I didn’t, with the result that I’d remember that, say, Seve had to smuggle something from the Planet of Sheep to the Planet of Vaguely East-European Industry, but I wouldn’t remember what their names were. Maybe I should have made a wiki page. Anyway, this made it hard to do some callbacks, and even led for awkward “ok, you finish your mission, and report back to whats-her-face…” moments.

The other place this fell down was the point-of-interest exploration. Part of the original intent of the game was your House exploration would uncover interesting sites, and then your character would go and explore the site. This was fine in theory, but I couldn’t seem to work out a viable metaphor for what exploration should be like, and it caused some problems when trying to come up with a challenge. Like I think my original thought was that it was going to be straight-up D&D-style exploration, and then I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, so then I figured maybe it would be D&D-parody exploration: like, D&D challenges, but you get to solve them with Star Wars technology. That was amusing for a bit but it didn’t totally work either (for one thing, part of that premise is there can’t be any non-trivial challenges for the characters).

I think at this point I’m inclined to say I made a bad choice in the original concept: points of interest like “these ancient tunnels” are generally too small-scale for characters to have as projects, and the focus (and challenge) should be on stuff more like “explore and clear out the entire city” and skill rolls should be done on that scale, with occasional zoom-ins for color and detail. Like, I’m thinking maybe the right metaphor here is Lensman, where the PC does stuff like “meet evil lady at a party, scan her to find out a description of her boss, search most of the planet for the boss, infiltrate the boss’s lair and destroy him”, and they’re handled at that granularity — searching the whole planet is covered in a paragraph or two, not even as much weight as talking to the lady at the party gets. The thing is, this (in part) depends on some of the opposition coming from social interaction where you can’t bull through with high tech, and the setting itself isn’t designed to support that (the colony worlds are mostly unsettled by “modern civilization”).

Anyway, I feel like overall this is a pretty satisfying technique; I’m going to have to see if I can re-use it in upcoming games.

1 Comment

  1. I also think on the exploration side it pretty much was solo quests, which is restrictive even in straight D&D as to what you can pull off. I did attempt to get someone to tag along on my own adventure but people were too distracted by everything else and gameplay-wise it wasn’t worth it to spend a player turn just to add a 2nd team member to an expedition.

    In the future with a similar area I wouldn’t mind sending our Explorer unit in and having him deal with things, except that twice during the game explorers (in other Houses) have disappeared.

    I also find Lensman in general to have been a more useful metaphor to have in mind than Star Wars (I got to thinking of the setting as Lensman + Dune with wacky inky humor tossed in). Star Wars as a feel really needs one implacable Enemy, rather than two warring ones where alliances could be played off each other and so forth.

    Comment by Jason Dyer — July 25, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

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