Echo Bazaar: character and story

I have recently been playing a lot of Echo Bazaar. The genre’s Victorian dark-fantasy — a few steampunky elements, but really it’s more interested in the criminal-horror aspect, plus a fair bit of cosmic horror. As far as game design goes, it’s sort of a social-network game with somewhat less meta-game sociopathy (you need a Twitter account to play, but it’s generally polite about it, and friends are moderately helpful but certainly not necessary), much better writing* and really strong setting. Warning: it will eat your brain, for the first few days of play at least.

Other people saying interesting things about this: Emily Short talks about writing and story. Jenni Polodna has written stuff that is a lot more entertaining than this is going to be, and is illustrative of what’s awesome about the game and what’s not. And Dan Shiovitz has a series of posts about gameplay, how it kind of sucks and how that might be changed: 1 2 3 4. What’s affecting my play most, though, is not the gameplay itself so much as how the gameplay contributes to characterisation, and how it fails.

Caveats before I talk about stuff: first, I am probably not the core target audience that Echo Bazaar is going for, and any commercial game that had me as its core target audience would have to be fucking insane. At a rough guess, Echo Bazaar’s target is literate casual gamers; people who aren’t really interested in game qua game, but who are sick of being condescended to by the creativity-deficient lowest-common-denominator casual/social network game market. This is a perfectly valid thing to do. The criticism that my complaints and the things I’d like to see change aren’t really relevant for what EBZ’s designed for: also totally valid. I am writing about what would make this a better game for me. I don’t make any claims about what anybody else wants. Most of what I’m suggesting is about breadth rather than depth, which — a familiar tune, this one — ultimately means more work for designers and less new content for any given player.

(There’s a basic conflict in player desires here. On the one hand, players want to craft their character’s identity, and the best way to do that is through meaningful game elements. On the other, players don’t like being shut out of content. This is a bigger problem in a game like EBZ, where there’s no real simulation; the game is delivery of content, so the only real way to distinguish character through gameplay is by shutting off some content to some players.)

So, character. You will be playing some sort of self-centred criminal asshole; this is what the game is for. All characters are going to have a prodigious opinion of their own character, a tendency to blame their failures on anything but themselves**, a cavalier attitude to the interests of others and a basic disinterest in them as individuals***. You do, however, get some choices about the style and degree of your douchebaggery. For the main mechanics, you can choose to work on different stats — Dangerous is for being a thug, duelist and glorified rat-catcher, Watchful for espionage and detective stuff, Persuasive for seduction, art and other ways to fake your way into high society, and Shadowy for burglary, smuggling and the like. These go some way towards character definition, but this is sort of fleeting; since you’ll eventually grind all your stats to fairly high levels, you’re only a dedicated thug or smuggler or conman today. Tomorrow you might be something else; there’s no analogue to character class.

What does seem intended to distinguish character, on the other hand, are Story qualities that refer to personality in some way. You can acquire levels in things like Ruthless, Subtle, Magnanimous or Daring; you mostly get these from rare opportunities or the conclusions to longer story arcs, rather than from storylets that you can easily grind. This makes them feel more important; anything you can easily grind is just another commodity, but rare choices are special. Further, they’re generally presented very much in the style of other games — Planescape:Torment is the one that really ran with this idea, but it’s a pretty widespread trope — where in-game choices define your character’s personality and ethical approach.

The trick in many of these games is that it’s quite hard, design-wise, to have these choices contribute meaningfully to the story. Sometimes this is because some choices are obviously best strategy-wise; being good has no significance if being nasty always hurts you. As often, though, it’s because the choices have no impact at all beyond characterisation: being cruel or generous or vengeful is treated more like an achievement trophy. Kind of shiny, but has no special impact on the course of the game. I’m not saying that there’s no value to this kind of exercise; the process of defining a character can be a lot of fun. But… well, if you’ve made an awesome character for a tabletop RPG, it’s not much fun unless you get to do stuff as that character. And it’s not a whole lot of fun to know that your character idolises his older half-brother or is a classically trained organist or can recite the Odyssey from memory unless that comes into play in the game.

There are also Connections, qualities that establish your character’s relationship to various key groups in Fallen London – the Church, the Constables, urchin gangs, Rubbery Men, Hell. These seem as if they should play some part in defining who your character is — who do you work for? who do you care about? — but in practice they’re every bit as functional as your primary stats, and are mostly just a function of which stats you’re grinding. (If you have high Persuasive you’ll almost inevitably get a lot of Connected: Bohemian and Connected: Society.) This means that on the fairly rare occasions that they unlock storylets, it doesn’t feel very special: since most of the Shadowy storylets from the high 30s to mid-50s give you Connected: The Orient, it’s not very exciting when The Orient unlocks a high-50s Shadowy storylet. Emily Short has mentioned how the game feels sort of lonely and heartless because none of the NPCs are referred to by name; you seduce an Artist’s Model or collude with a Stuttering Fence, with the implication that all such are pretty interchangeable****. The same applies to your approach to groups; you’re sort of eternally an outsider to all the groups you’re Connected to, and your social standing is just a series of favours to be traded in. If Connections were a bit more divergent — if they unlocked more content in a way that wasn’t redundant, if they interacted with or were in competition with each other, if they were mostly useful for opening up things to do rather than trading in for cash and stats — it would go a long way.

I guess this is pretty vague, and I should give a couple of examples of what I mean. Let’s say you’ve just got your Persuasive to the point where the Shuttered Palace starts to get useful. Normally this just means, okay, here’s the next thing that it makes sense to grind, do that until you can grind the next thing. What I’d like to see is something like: if you’ve got a high Subtle, you get Persuasive storylets about intrigues and conspiracies and witty barbs that the victim doesn’t get. If your Ruthless is higher than your Subtle, perhaps you get storylets that mix Persuasive and Shadowy or Dangerous a bit, or leave a trail of broken reputations and ruined careers in your wake. And if Hedonist is higher than those then it’s mostly about having better parties. (I mean, ideally I’d like storylets forcombinations of high Story traits — unique storylets for if your two highest stats are Heartless and Hedonist, say — and I’d like a magical flying pony while I’m at it.)

This would have to start kicking in at the midgame, I think, because you don’t really have time to define Story traits before then. But this isn’t really a problem; the early game gives you plenty to entertain yourself with, and I’m told things start getting really good at the higher levels, but right now the midgame sags rather.

I’d like similar things to happen with Connections; there should be repercussions for who you work for, and it would be nice to have the option of being something other than this uninvolved freelancer who can leave at any time. All these groups, a lot of them seeming pretty obviously opposed — Criminals and Constables, Hell and the Church — and yet your allegiances never come into conflict, or the reverse. At one point I not-very-seriously said that what I’d really like would be the ability to hold my own parties and then invite contingents from different Connections over, plus maybe Acquaintances and seduction-objects and so on, and see what happens. At this point I’m not really talking about the same game at all, of course, but… rgh, I really like this setting, I want my character to be more embedded in it.

I get the impression that might be a few things analagous to this in the upper levels — mostly to do with involvement with the Masters — and I’m sort of getting to that stage, but if it’s going to kick in it hasn’t happened yet. (I’m at the stage where my stats range from 70 to the mid-50s with appropriate equipment.)

* Mostly good writing; most of the text is divided up so that you can see who wrote any given snippet of text. Some of the writers — mostly Alexis — are considerably stronger than others. Goatdance in particular is given to overwriting.

** This is possibly a side-effect of the game’s strategy of trying not to blame the player for failures that are, after all, basically down to the fall of a dice. Usually this means that you make an excellent effort but circumstances conspire to ruin everything. Partly the effect is a writing thing; the less controlled writers make it a lot more obvious that this is what’s going on, so it feels more forced.

*** I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this before, but: as you get higher-level, your character starts to feel like every bit as legendary a monster as Jack-of-Smiles or the Eater of Chains or what-have-you. You know, you’re this figure in radium-tinted goggles, hobnailed boots and black velvet, humming a tune that you learned from drowned men, dancing across the rooftops with a raven on your shoulder…
The main creepy thing about the PC, though, is that they’re a chameleon; hobnobbing with high society one minute, hunting monsters through the sewers or colluding with urchin gangs the next, and to you all these roles and the people you meet in them are deeply interchangeable. A doppelganger.

**** This is true even when the story suggests that certain characters initially presented as nameless and interchangeable, like the Artist/Artist’s Model or the Comtessa, are in fact particular individuals who crop up in your life again later.

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