My final Bring Out Your Dead entry is Matchmaker (other working title: The Sheep Hook Up). It was my Giant Procedural Folly.
Premise: there’s a city-state somewhere handwavily in Europe. (I never settled on a name for it. Characters are fun to name; cities are tough.) It has long been ruled by a noble class, but they’re getting decadent, over-fond of refined culture and elaborate entertainments. Meanwhile, a middle class of artisans and merchants has established itself and is looking to climb. Combine this with the tendency of rich, leisured teenagers to act out, and the barriers of class are in peril.
The king re-institutes an old office, the King’s Witness. It’s a job for a sorceror. Sorcery, in this world, is closely linked to spycraft, and it slowly, fundamentally erodes you. Experienced sorcerors have no permanent form, having become constantly-shifting mosaics of identity. Very experienced sorcerors…
Your job is to take this year’s set of marriageable young nobles and make sure that they pair off with one another in suitable ways. No elopements, no secret pregnancies, no triads, no marrying foreign nobles and moving away, no serious homosexuality, and absolutely no love-matches with commoners.
Here’s the introduction. Needs work.
‘ – some of them very useful fellows in their own way, and if it were to remain an occasional occurrence… but it seems as if there are more of them every year. Or else the girls marry outside, and we lose them. If this continues, within a generation our noble Houses will be quite declined; I need not spell out the consequences for my own line, and for the State.’
He has moved over to the slit-window, and stares down through ivy and lead. ‘There is, politically, not much I can do; the privy rights of the Houses, quite properly… privy rights first and always, and the realm be damned. So be it.’ The last time a monarch made free and easy with the Tolybroke Charter, the result was thirty years of bitter war, culminating in the public torture and death of his great-granduncle; for a few heady days there was even talk of a republic.
‘There is a precedent, however,’ he continues, shaking off the ghosts and turning briskly towards you. ‘The old office of King’s Witness has, for some time, been allowed to lapse into an appointment to accustom bright young things to courtly forms without the embarrassment of actual duties. I have complete personal oversight of the appointment, which, happily, is not one to which the Houses will pay overmuch attention. Nor need I make any proclamations if I reinstate ancient privileges to an inconsequential office, or supplement them with a few unofficial discretionary powers necessary to modern challenges.
‘I will be blunt. Courting-season has arrived. There are, in my estimation, nine really suitable young people in society this year. Have them married off to each other, or bring in foreign noblewomen, as you please. I would like four matches by marriage-season, young and noble. Undersecretary Bundle will apprise you of the details. Good day.’
The PC would mostly operate through spycraft and subterfuge. They had a set of sinister minions to do their bidding:
Smokehouse is a person. The description of Smokehouse is “Relaxed, Smokehouse has the constantly shifting form universal to veteran spies, which draws attention to her static features: full, smirking lips, deliberate hands, a common sensibility to the hairstyles. A slim majority of the shapes are female, and most of the male ones are somewhat feminine.”
Whitegrit is a person. “Whitegrit’s shapes reflect little of gender or aesthetic tastes; he has doubtless retained more abstract, private features instead. A deeper liability; but his superficial flexibility is a great asset. Even relaxed, in your presence his shapes unconsciously guess (poorly) at something that might ingratiate.”
Sputtercusp is a person. “Although it is probably not the original, Sputtercusp’s shape does not vary as much as her seniority might suggest. Her tastes are too definite, one suspects; all her forms are female and share a dancing quality of movement. Her faces are all from the same stable; her voices always confident, melodic and perfectly grammatical. No crones or children. Most spies pass through this stage, but those who remain in it are rarely promoted far. Sputtercusp’s rank owes a great deal to her ability at other forms of sorcery.”
Catwrench is a person. “Catwrench has an entirely military background, and the only theme of his forms is a vague flavour of the corps. A man with one eye-socket crushed; another whose speech, though sonorous, is blunt and obfuscating; a woman whose unoccupied hands move automatically to at-ease.”
You would mostly be operating through spycraft: here’s a draft of the major verbs and their tutorial-explanations:
arrest: “So one of the simplest things we can do is arrest someone one a fabricated charge. Doing this to gentry is a risky business if we can’t pin anything on them; that’d bring Tolybroke into play, and if our legal situation looked dodgy the Prince would throw us all to the wolves. You first. Commoners, now, there’s not so much scrutiny; we should be able to get away with it if we don’t go overboard. Either way, it’s a good way of getting someone out of the way for a few days, and maybe make ’em reconsider a few choices.”
assassinate: “Now, the Prince hasn’t sanctioned this or nothing, but, if things start to look really bad somehow and there’s no other way… well, we could, after a manner of speaking, have a person taken care of. If it’s genuinely needed and we keep our hands nice and clean, the Prince will look the other way. These things are like carting powder, though: sometimes it all goes along without a hitch and everyone’s happy, sometimes it goes to hell for no reason and you’re picking teeth out of the gutters for months.”
sorcery: “Some of our folks have a hand for the sorcerous arts. Not proud of it, but we’re not in this for our own pride’s sake. Set ’em to it and they’ll… well, they’ll come up with something or other, no doubt about it, but damned if I could guess what. Sputtercusp is our specialist, but any spy can handle it in a pinch.”
distract: “One of the simplest ways we can tweak a situation is to hold up someone. Let’s say you don’t want someone to be at a certain party, or to make a certain appointment. So you send someone round. Maybe his servant doesn’t wake him up and he sleeps in half the day; maybe there’s a minor carriage accident; maybe an old drinking buddy reappears from nowhere and the whole evening gets diverted. If you do it too often there’s a chance that a smart fellow will start to smell a rat, but otherwise it’s a reliable tactic.”
shadow: “We can put a tail on someone if you so care. You’ll get regular reports on where they go, what they do, who they see; if they send a message, you’ll see it first; if they go to a private party or meet a lover secretly, we’ll alert you. And the shadow acts as a bodyguard, too, just in case some young idiot decides to take up duels or amateur racketeering. But it doesn’t pay to shadow someone forever; even the worst fool will twig eventually. I’d say our best tail is Whitegrit.”
stakeout: “The most basic job we ever do is staking out a place. Place an agent – any idiot can do it – and you’ll get reports on who visits, what goes on, any letters that happen to pass that way. Just like placing a shadow, except we get to put our feet up and eat pastries.”
forge: “Once we’ve got a decent sample of someone’s writing, we can replicate their fist, style idioms, the works. If you need, we can send love-letters, breakup-letters, proposals of marriage, invitations to trysts or duels… whatever you need. Just be warned that this sort of thing makes people ever so suspicious if they catch on.”
investigate: “If you worry that somebody’s hiding something, we can snoop around, open some desks, bribe some servants; maybe scratch up a dirty past, maybe catch on to a current affair. This is only a little risky if done right, but it takes time.”
You’ll note that these mostly happen in between parties and so on, rather than during them. I was going to simulate acts at parties and trysts in a fairly abstract, Sims-like style – the King’s Witness doesn’t care much about the particulars of speech, just the information. I really didn’t have this part nailed down at all; I thought you could push people into interacting with one another a bit, but not infallibly.
The actual subjects of all this intrigue, the young lovers, were the focus of most of the fiddly mechanics. Oh, boy, were they going to be complicated.
Every character had a set of personality and appearance traits. Every character also had a list of personality and appearance traits that they found attractive, partially created from stereotyped templates; the combination of these established baseline attraction. They would then develop their relationships and passions through parties, trysts, correspondence by letters, and (if they got annoyed enough with one another) duels. They would be members of noble families, possibly meaning that some of them were related to one another and share traits as a result. (The families would have auto-generated coats of arms which might reflect family traits.) They would form cliques based on commonly-held traits and try to become more like people in their cliques, and they would follow, and try to influence, seasonally-changing fashions. Traits, particularly popular traits, would determine the kinds of party that were held, but there would also be a fixed list of seasonal festivals.
And then there would be visiting nobility and unscrupulous social climbers, who would try to lure the young gentlefolk into foreign ways and delightfully low-class environs. Young gentlemen falling in love with their mistresses, young ladies running off with their dance tutors. Rumours and accusations. Gender-disguise and lovers’ quarrels. All that good stuff. You can probably see why it never got very far.
Since I was doing this long before Prom Week, I hadn’t really thought at all about how the player would be able to process and use all of this complicated, incremental information. If anything, I was probably inclined to hide most of it from the player and force them to uncover it. I totally designed this the wrong way around – I spent most of my energies on very fiddly generation of characters and figuring out whether they were initially attracted to one another, when the first things to figure out should really have been: what do they do, and how does the player affect it?
Mercifully, I7 – which was then relatively young – began to bog down on my extraordinarily inefficient code, which made very heavy use of many-to-many relations.
The main thing I salvaged from this was the code which created the utterly-ghastly family backgrounds of the ignoble suitors – avaricious strumpets and picaresque rogues, the lot of ’em. It got repurposed and slightly expanded for the orphans of Olivia’s Orphanorium. I got another chance to put a dancing-lime in a game in Invisible Parties (really they’re a German thing, but too good not to steal).
I kind of like the setting. I really want to write a big, detailed, setting-oriented urban piece at some point. I want to do a lot of this stuff, honestly. Just maybe not all in the same game.