Earlier this summer, I spent the weekend at Go Play NW, a Seattle storygaming-and-friends con. Go Play turns out to be pretty much a perfect con for me – very modest in scale, a strong focus on structured activities, almost completely non-commercial, a bunch of people I know, and (in my case) very little travel required. Getting to Capitol Hill on Pride weekend isn’t pretty, but it beats flying.
The other thing is that Story Games Seattle, where I do the bulk of my roleplaying, has a particular set of foci – some of it explicit (SGS doesn’t do games with GM roles) and some of it more a matter of preference, habit or culture. There are a lot of kinds and purposes of game grouped under the ‘storygames’ banner, and not all of them get the same level of attention at SGS.
In particular, there are a lot of games where the general intent is closer to traditional D&D-like roleplaying: playing to make your heroic character succeed, rolling a bunch of dice to see who wins conflicts. To at least some people, a central point of storygaming is to streamline and de-munchkinify the traditional action-oriented RPG experience; the games that serve this goal are much closer relatives to Fate than to issue-centred, player-fiat games like A Penny For My Thoughts or Dog Eat Dog.
Two games that I played right at the end of the weekend were occupying this kind of territory: they’re GMless games, focused on intense, tropey, pulpy action, in which you’re gunning for a heroic victory (and rolling lots of dice to see whether that happens). Capes is a superhero game, focused on players competing against one another; Danger Patrol is pulp action-SF where players cooperate to overcome threats.
(In the accounts below, I’m describing the games as I played them. A problem with writing about storygames is that games often go through a lot of revisions, some public, some passed around privately; then people house-rule them to make them GMless, or better-suited for one-shots or cons, or simpler, or to overcome recurring issues, and those changes are passed down as people learn games through playing them, and the facilitator’s individual style matters a great deal too; so when you actually go back and look at the system as written there can be some very big differences.)
Superhero game Capes, by Tony Lower-Basch, is all about character templates: you create your superheroes by combining a power module (Speedster, Godling, Animal Avatar) with a personality one (Angsty Nice Guy, Psychotic Loner, Spunky Kid). This gives you a list of abilities, which you winnow and assign power ranks to. Characters are linked by conflicts, which might be as straightforward as ‘I want to steal the magic artefact thing, she is honour-bound to protect it’; each active conflict has dice on either side of it that determine who’s presently winning. (Which conflicts are currently active seem to be the main determinant of current plot focus.)
Turns go around the table; on your turn, you narrate how you’re using an ability to influence the outcome of a conflict, which lets you reroll dice; then the other players get the chance to react and change your roll. Some powers are limited-use; others need to be activated by taking on Debt (or Angst), tokens that represent your emotional or raison d’etre investment in a conflict. Since failure on a high-debt conflict can make life harder down the road, there’s a certain aspect of bidding in this – which conflicts does your character really care about? what core identity values are they willing to imperil? – but in a oneshot game that wasn’t as prominent, and it made more sense just to pile up Debt in hope of a victory.
The presence of multiple conflicts on the table, and the limited actions you have to mechanically affect them, adds an element of prioritisation and opportunity-cost that’s straightforwardly compelling: and because it plays out over a good number of rounds, it offers players more sophisticated strategies than ‘save either Lois or the train full of Nobel laureates.’ It might seem that Lois is fairly safe by this point. You might invest a lot of effort in the Nobel laureates to relatively little effect.
Among the people I storygame with most often, there’s a strong scepticism about dice. Dice have their uses, is the perspective, but they don’t know what makes a fun, interesting story as well as the players do. It’s an inversion of the Primetime Adventures advice to not to go for a conflict if the different outcomes aren’t equally interesting: ‘go for the conflict, figure out what would be the most interesting outcome, decide that it happens.’ And that is a problem with Capes: in spite of some dice-splitting mechanics that make a total lockout unlikely, it’s possible for the dice to conspire to suck all the drama out of your story, and the content of the story doesn’t necessarily match the mechanical game state very well. We set up a story in which the villains were forgotten gods, ancient and terrifying; the heroes were more mundane in scope, and had stumbled onto something too big for them. For much of the game the heroes were trapped in a hospital basement, trying to protect a vital NPC, desperately throwing up magic force-fields and scrambling to rescue loved ones from the frustrated villains’ rampaging. The story said that the heroes were under siege, clinging on by the skin of their teeth; in this kind of story, victory should only come at the last minute, or at a great cost. But the dice said that they were comfortably in control of both their objectives more or less throughout.
We nonetheless worked through it and had a damn fine time, but for me it really confirmed the basic vulnerability of letting the dice choose. For some players, this will be an acceptable risk – there’s always something that can potentially mess up a game, after all.
The Danger Patrol (John Harper) are some kind of organisation – formal or informal, secretive or open, government or not – dedicated to protecting… something, quite possibly the world, from crazy-ass pulp menaces. The exact flavour can vary depending on your setup, but it’s strongly rooted in golden-age pulp: the threats you face are created by adjective-noun combinations that produce four-colour titles like The Etheric Monstrosity, The Ghost Paradox or The Robotic Vortex. Character types are created by a similar process, producing Mystic Commandos, Atomic Flyboys and Two-Fisted Professors.
Quite a lot of the setup involves figuring out what these weird-sounding threats mean and how they’re linked together into one acceptably-coherent premise; a willingness to concoct story-serving mumbo-jumbo on the fly is pretty important. We ended up concocting a strange world of interdimensional travel and culture shock, ley-lines, an unstable wormhole from a hell-dimension that created a psychic maelstrom that mind-controlled Manhattan; said maelstrom was inhabited by a malign and near-incomprehensible being that murdered psychics who tried to deal with the storm. Much of this was the moon’s fault.
There’s some obvious influence from Fate and the Fate-based pulp-edisonade Spirit of the Century; in a near-direct lift, you link your characters by a ‘Previously, on Danger Patrol…’ sequence recounting the heroes’ daring rescues of one another.
Attacking the threats involves rolling a great big handful of variously-polyhedral dice, which you assemble from basic attributes (Daring, Science), plus assists from your own traits and those of other PCs. Rolls of 1-3 hurt you, 4+ hurt the threat. The distinctive bit is that you can also add dice (d6, which are mixed blessings) by describing different ways in which the thing you’re attempting is dangerous. There’s a substantial element of metagaming here: you can pretty reliably knock out a threat by piling on danger dice, but the more dice you add the more likely it is that you’ll take yourself out in the process. (Heroes who are taken out aren’t necessarily dead, but need to be rescued by other heroes before they can do much.)
The tendency, at least in the pocket version, is to make every conflict a big, cataclysmic, high-stakes team effort. The full version seems to have an interlude element to cool some of the intensity off, and I suspect this was downplayed in the interests of finishing the story; but this is fundamentally a story about taking big heroic risks.
Rather like a three-hour explosion-filled superhero movie, the constant push towards the biggest, riskiest action sequences felt as though it flattened out the arc of the story a little. Character development has to happen in action-serving ways, or else gets squeezed into the cracks. This is kind of a shame, because the setup makes for flavourful PCs with good hooks in one another; I’d love to play this with a more campaign-style pacing, a bit more mechanical incentive for interpersonal-focused scenes, perhaps as a recuperation method necessary to tackle big rolls. (Maybe that’s how interludes work! I don’t know.)