Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Year and a Day

This post originally was a comment on Vincent's blog, in response to a conversation about one-person RPGs. But as a comment, it turned frickin' huge. So read it below, instead.

Yes, by the way, I've been lollyblogging. Cope. There's family news to post, a whole host of cool links to post, and other stuff... but putting it all together ain't gonna happen right away.

The thing I moved here, from there, is a sketch of a game.

A Year And A Day

This is a game which uses time, and the fallibility of memory, to take the place of the GM/player split. What you'll create is a game/story about a search and a journey - against the clock.

Take a stack of index cards. Prep ten cards with a description of someone's life-situation... job, family, social class. Keep it as culture-independent as you can. Say nothing about emotions, motivations, or personality. Subject to those constraints, though, make 'em interesting. Not throwaway people; the seeds of cool characters. Put them into an envelope and label it "AYAAD - Lives." Seal it and put it where you'll be able to find it. If this was a published game the rulebook itself would ideally be hardbound and have inside pockets for this.

Wait a year and a day. Don't look. Do put it on your calendar. Again ideally we'd include a big-ass sticker for you to put there (or to put at the bottom of the last page of this year, for now, to be moved when you change calendars).

Take another ten index cards and put personalities on it. Emotions and the targets of said emotions, specified by relationship to the character ("jealous of sibling's spouse" and so on). Say nothing about the details of job, skills, and so forth. Again give it the kind of complexity you might give to a proto-character you might want to play someday. Seal this set in an envelope labeled "AYAAD - Personalities." Put it with the other one.

Wait a year and a day.

This time put together ten plot situations, plot hooks. These hooks relate to the trail of a McGuffin, but should specify neither the nature of the McGuffin, the place they should happen, nor the order they have to happen in. Where they require an NPC, do one of two things. One, specify the NPC - "A local shopkeeper" or "the city's richest man". In this case it'll be a throwaway NPC. Or, two, use a number in a circle, from one to seven. All occurrences of (1) will refer to the same NPC. In this way you can set up for recurring NPCs, nemeses and companions. Also, put exactly one instance of [delay] into it, either during the hunting-for-clues part or somewhere else. Two instances of [half-delay] are OK too, etc., so long as they all add up to one full [delay].

An example here would be "The town is in an uproar over something. After investigating you learn that (1) was here only recently, involved in a romantic scandal with the city leader's eldest child; (1) has vanished, the son/daughter is dead. You're approached by (2) who wants your help finding the McGuffin; (2) wants it for himself, and is willing to pay *you* as a henchman/hireling to help. Both (2) and (3), who arrives in town only after [delay], know that (1) was actually here for the McGuffin and the scandal was a cover. Only (3) knows where (1) has gone next."

Put these in an envelope and label it "AYAAD - Hooks." Seal, store, and wait another year and a day.

Then you actually play. Get the AYAAD book out, and find one more resource: a map of somewhere. Ancient maps a la Marco Polo would be cool; so would a map of the London Underground. Choose the map based on the kind of game you feel like playing at this point, not based on anything you remember about what's in those envelopes.

Create a character. I'm thinking the basic stats here would be Smiles, Words, Tricks, Deeds... approaches to problem-solving, basically. Detail them as much as you would any other PC. Build it around this: "This character has promised, sworn, wagered, or been lucratively bribed to obtain (the McGuffin) in no more than a year and a day. They've suspended their lives for this." Making the McGuffin and the circumstances of the oath should be done together with creating the character. Aside from your stats you get a strict ration of discretionary dice to hoard through the whole game and use as needed. It might also lend itself well to a Relationships mechanic where you have unassigned dice which will eventually be put toward interactions with one of your recurring NPCs.

The rulebook also contains a randomized method of figuring out a location from the map. According to a set of die rolls you might end up with "The nearest place to the compass rose," "The first place you can find whose name is of the form 'At____'," or simply "The closest labeled point to the exact geometric center of your map." Roll these dice; you start there.

Now break the seals on your envelopes. Take one Hook out at random. Read it; this is the circumstance which is currently true, where you are. Adapt as required. Where it refers to a numbered NPC, generate that NPC. They receive:
- A number.
- A Life, and a Personality, at random from their respective envelopes.
- Randomized scores in Attraction, Persuasion, Deceit, and Force. These are methods of manipulating them, matched to the PC's Smiles, Words, Tricks, and Deeds, respectively. Note that even if a Personality later would suggest that they would be easy prey for (say) Attraction, a high score (difficult to Attract) is therefore just an excuse to elaborate the circumstances. Maybe someone got to them first.
- A name, and all other necessary "fill-ins" called for by their Personality and Life.

The core mechanic is all about time. Attempts to attract, deceive, etc. someone will use up time whether they're successful or failed; in fact, the time is the primary output of these attempts, success and failure subsidiary. (The equivalent of a wargame's Combat Results Table might serve well here, or dice pools which compare high die for success/failure but which count pips for time spent. Something like that.) Time you spend as a result of a roll could be time spent on the act itself (getting friendly with someone, spying on them, etc), could be lost time (following a red herring, possibly even going somewhere else for a while before returning), or could be corollary time (time spent in hospital, etc).

The big gotcha is this: You're not allowed to skip ahead. The game is played in "real time." Return to it as often as you need to, to think about where the character is right now, how they're doing, and so forth. If this prompts you to write little vignettes, cool; if you were doing it because you were having fun and were into it, give yourself a bonus die back, which you are allowed to roll immediately to try and reduce the time you have to wait during the current stage. If the delay inclines you to write stuff down so you can remember, then do so - but do it in-character. Journals are cool.

Depending on the era and the primary mode(s) of transport, time can and will be used up in travelling. We make up for this - to get our one year and one day challenge - with the [delay] inserts. Make and record your assumptions about travel speeds; we provide some examples. Work out how long it would take someone using that means of transport, to travel a distance equal to the diagonal distance of your map. Feed that into some math in the rulebook and you'll emerge with a set of dice (10d6, whatever) which you'll use whenever you see [delay]. In the example above, you and (2) will be looking for information but won't find it until [delay] days have passed and (3) shows up in town. The less time it takes to get around the map, on average, the longer [delay] will tend to be. At a guess 10d6 is the high end, corresponding to travel times of basically zero... the London Underground and so on. That plus times-elapsed due to stat rolls might be about right.

Once you figure out IC where the McGuffin has gone next, use the random location tool again to tell you the actual location. Chase it down (costs travel time!) and repeat this process for the next Hook, next location, and (if needed) new numbered NPCs. When you get through the seventh Hook, rather than using the random location system, your informant leads you directly to whoever has the McGuffin... they're still in town. Getting the McGuffin from them (via Words, Deeds, whatever) requires a roll as normal vs. the NPC, but now the NPC gets to roll d8s instead of d6s or whatever.

The index cards for completed Hooks should be burnt as soon as they're no longer needed. Rather than relying on them, rely on whatever in-character pieces (journal etc.) you choose to create instead. Treat the index cards as though they were the verbal contribution of someone else - they're explicitly ephemeral, like the things people say while you're playing. In a fancier setup you might even record the Hooks onto the computer, as voice; just put filenames on the index cards. Once you convince the NPC, and spend the time, you get to listen to "Hook3_Part2.wav" or whatever. This mentions the delay and its circumstances, at the end of which you get to listen to part 3. If using this method, again, delete the files as soon as you have access to the next one. Treat it as someone else speaking.

Your challenge is to complete it in less than a year and a day.

(The math on the resolution system, [delay], and so forth should be such that on average it'll take noticeably over a year to complete. I expect impatience to motivate people to get those bonus dice, and I want it to get more common as the deadline draws near.)

Is it playable? Maybe. Self-induced Participationism, essentially, but I'm okay with that... sure can't argue that anyone's being left out. Does it beat the Czege principle? I dunno... but I hope so. Certainly I'd have a lot of trouble remembering what I'd put together for Hooks a year ago. I think the Hook creation stuff would want tightening up so it's providing better adversity, and the order/timing of when you put together the Hooks and Lives and stuff could use work - maybe do five of each, wait, five of each, wait, play. But I think the training wheels of the idea are at least strong enough to bear some wobbling around on. And I think the character's journal you come out of it with would serve a decent amount of the 'witness' function you'd be losing by not playing with other people.

Besides, though it breaks the stated objective... truly one-person play, no witnessing... I would totally set up my character's journal as a blog and give people the address. Heck, if I published this game I'd probably give out access to webspace on, and a pre-set-up blog environment with a nice cursive font and everything, just to host those journals. Free with purchase of course, tech support/journal customization included. I wanna watch, you see.

Break the one-person model a little further and you could submit Hooks, Personalities, and Lives to a central database, shuffle, and do away with the years of waiting before play.


Damn concept-RPGs keep making me want to actually write 'em...

It's a rough life.