16 April, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #14: Gathering the Party

It's been a while since my last game mechanism, I think I'm actually missing two weeks worth after a few incidents have taken my attention (Little Game Chef, EyeCon).

So I'll try to make this up with a couple of mechanisms in quick succession. I can't guaranetee that...I only said I'd try.

This week I want to look at an interesting phenomenon I encountered during my run of Guerilla Television over the weekend, especially in the later sessions.

Keeping the party together without forcing it upon them.

Now that I think about it, the concept of "not splitting the party" has long been an established gaming trope. Back in the days of the early editions of D&D, character type were deliberately specialised, compartmentalised...a warrior was great in a fight but he couldn't pick locks, a cleric could heal and do a bit of combat but mostly on the defense. There was a bit of leeway between the roles, but not enough for players to really step on each others toes. A good adventure would utilise the skills of everyone in the party, and for this reason you'd never know when the thief might be useful, or when you'd need a levitation spell cast. You'd keep the party together just in case one half of the party needed skills that were currently locked away in the other half on the other side of the dungeon.

Under that sort of system (even in D&D's modern incarnations), you also had challenges based on the strength of the whole party. So characters who wandered off would often encounter beings far stronger than they were capable of matching on their own.

A lot of newer systems have allowed players to create characters who are jack's-of-all-trades. I'm not going to say if this is more realistic or better for a game, but it seems like a much harder task to keep a group together when everyone is capable of doing everything (even if none of them individually do anything very well).

Some games bring a sense of unity back into the group dynamic by providing bonuses when characters assist one another. Other game designers believe that forcing characters to share agendas and goals will drive them to work with one another. But I've found many of these systems seem quite contrived. It might be good for the narrative to keep character's together, but what keeps two characters together when they are at odds with one another?

Do you need a third party to continually smooth out the differences?

What if none of the players want to take on the role of mediator?

Will the players simply see it as railroading if the GM introduces a character pure for the purposes of group harmony?

Every group is different, but I think a good game mechanism can be set up that will keep a character group together even if they do keep arguing.

The "Blood Brothers" from the Sabbat in White Wolf's original World of Darkness come to mind. They would wander around in identical packs, with flesh sculpted to look like exact duplicates of on another. It was in the flavour text that they wandered in groups (called "circles"), and it could be argued that they were just following orders, but there was something else insidious about them. Their flaw as a group meant that any time a member of a Blood Brother's circle suffered an injury penalty, all members of the group shared that penalty. If two had penalties, then the highest penalty applied.

It doesn't seem like much, but when you think about it, it really makes a player want to defend the other members of their circle. Why allow a weak spot in the circle when everyone will suffer the damage if it get's through? Why allow a team-mate to wander off into the night alone, when they might get damaged and therefore weaken everyone else? In every other way, these creatures of the night had virtually the same range of abilities and potential powers at their disposal, but this one additional factor gave them a coherence as a group that would hold together the most argumentative group.

Communal access to a limited resource can do a very similar thing.

Fan points in Guerrilla Television become available if a character succeeds in a scene that ends up being screened on TV. Fan points are a limited resource in the game which are used to manipulate die rolls and calculate a winner at the end. Everyone wants the fame associated with the fans but there's only so much to go around.

What keeps players together is the fact that if a scene is viewed in prime time, all characters present in the scene gain a fan point regardless of whether they are assisting the current action or acting against it. Merely being a part of the controversy adds a degree of fame to the character.

This only started to become important as other parts of the game were refined and clarified (it came most notably into focus when Fan Points were reduced to a limited resource).

Unlike the weakness of the Blood Brothers which nudges the characters to work together, the fan points in Guerrilla Television simply nudge them into proximity with one another. They can come together for co-operation or conflict, it doesn't matter, just as long as they are together.

A mechanism like this could easily be converted to spiritual energy points for magicians (if one magician is in close proximity to another when a power fluctuation occurs, then both gain a fragment of mystical energy). This could easily describe why many users of magic like to work their effects in mystical groups, even thought the members of the groups hate one another. It certainly provides different connotations to the typical stereotype of magic users being hated by the religious establishment and banding together to avoid destruction from roving inquisitors and angry mobs.

I'll have to consider this further.
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