FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design

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When we first came across the PbtA engine, we were intrigued with the possibilities of the core mechanics. The playbooks-and-moves structure gets players into the hands of wild and crazy characters quickly and easily. We knew it would be a good fit for our "over-powered sci-fi after dark" game.

The key design issue was "over-powered". It's one thing to play a game about real people having real problems, or natural people with some unusual reach in time and space. But what do you do when some characters can lay waste to entire civilizations, and others can barely open a bag of chips? How do you make a game that has one player with Rick and another with Morty? Or Bender and Frye? Or KOS-MOS and Shion? You might be lucky enough to get a group of players who intuitively understand that different characters will have different levels of power... but will the game know that? Will the players work together by working with the game, or working together despite the game?  We knew that this would require some thinking.


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Fishes out of Water: The Genre

FARFLUNG is inspired by the high-concept sci-fi genre. These stories have a lot of ASYMMETRY — some characters are far more powerful than others. In HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, Arthur Dent is just a normal human who wanders around in a bathrobe — he’s not a three-armed ski-boxing playboy, a polymath engineer, or an immortal robot. In DOCTOR WHO, Rose Tyler is a day-to-day temp worker — like many companions to a time lord, she doesn’t have unusual skills, psychic powers, or durability. And in the TV series LEXX, Stanley Tweedle may be the only person to command a planet-destroying starship, but he himself is just this human — he’s certainly no undead assassin or seductive death-robot, like his other companions are. And so on.

Arthur, Rose, and Stanley are asymmetrical characters because the other characters CLEARLY have more influence. It’s not merely that they have less combat prowess… these other characters have LESS power overall. Even on the few occasions when they show off their technical skills, their diplomacy, or their knowledge, other characters — even in their own party! — are clearly more capable.

There’s a problem when adapting these stories to the tabletop. If threats are rendered as contests where “you do something to it” by making rolls, any group of players is going to suggest the logical thing: that the player with the best rolls hammer on the thing every turn. And when some characters are more capable than others, that means their players are front and center all the time, making all the rolls, while everyone else watches.*

How do we empower non-confrontational players with weaker characters to participate in group challenges, even when their characters might not have the agency to participate? Let’s lay out the problem, and then, lay out our solution.

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A Wargame, Interrupted: Conflict in Tabletop Gaming

PbtA games tend towards the confrontational: You declare that you do something against something else, then roll to see if you get your way. High rollers are rewarded: They seize the thing by force, they seduce the thing. While middling rolls may require the player to make some kind of compromise, they still force another character to submit.**

PbtA games also usually focus on single-player actions. Group activities, such as “we all have to pitch in to fix the water purifier” or “we need to make the Cultists of the Rusted Root happy” are largely absent. Some games imply that players should work together; for example, a group event could be assigned a countdown that everyone could work to roll back. At best, a group-countdown has each player pitching their solo actions in to fight one big fire.

PbtA games (like most tabletop games) often have more rules for combat than anything else. Weapons will be assigned distinct, varied harm levels (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) and, curiously enough, a descriptor (reload, ranged, ap, etc.) This descriptor rule usually isn’t usually used anywhere except combat.  Because combat gets so much space in the book, and has so many rules and resources to manipulate, many players get the message that combat is INTERESTING and therefore must be a LARGE PART of the game.

Combat is often the only group activity where everyone can participate. It’s one of the few times progress is measured in numbers. Enemies have this many HP, and when that HP reaches zero, we win.*** High numbers are the way to win. High numbers with powerful powers, even better.
So let’s tie this back to ASYMMETRY. When all conflict is confrontational,quieter players with non-confrontational characters can get lost. They aren’t invited to roll to defeat challenges – if their numbers are too low, they can’t beat it. In fact, by putting themselves at risk, they may be “feeding the other team” by forcing their team-mates to spend effort pulling them out of trouble.

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None of Us is as Strong as All of Us

FARFLUNG had some serious design challenges. Many of the characters are people who are victims of circumstance. Their only major ability is determination and luck, not skill or power. Obviously, seeing those characters overcome adversity is part of what makes the genre interesting. But in the context of having agency in a GAME, it’s hard to argue that death-blasts at +4 aren’t way cooler than throwing rocks at -1.

FARLUNG’s playtest encouraged these solutions:
  • Harm has not one kind, but three: DOING (physical exhaustion), FEELING (emotional anxiety) and THINKING (mental stress). A character who is strong against one kind of harm will be weak to other kinds of harm. Even if a character has the best ADDS to deal with a problem, they may stand down and let another player’s character deal with it, if they have better RESISTANCE to the harm that problem causes. (Brutes will do things physically, talkers will handle the feels, and smarties will handle the thinking.)
  • Characters begin the game with “Time Points”, which can be used to enable powers and to boost rolls. It’s important that the characters BEGIN with these points, rather that forcing them to earn them through play – especially confrontational play. (You must win rolls to get points to boost rolls… so you can win rolls? That’s not going to work.)
  • These time points aren’t destroyed or lost, but cycled. Fx points (for super-powers) and Px points (for extra-ordinary abilities) become Hx points. And Hx points are used to boost OTHER PLAYERS, not yourself. An active character who frequently hogs the spotlight becomes exhausted… and then asks their friends for help, bringing them into the action.
  • It’s very important that time points are cycled. If the points were merely spent, players would be encouraged to spend all their points to deal with a problem… and then rest. By cycling points into the Hx category – abilities that only boost other PCs – players must rely on each other.
  • The key Hx move is INSPIRATION. One player calls on another for inspiration, and the two players must briefly describe how the inspiration works, possibly in a flashback. The players must describe the moment when they were inspired within the story itself, bringing the fiction and mechanics together.
    The inspiration move doesn’t have to be pre-planned. When there’s too many “carry +1 forward” moves, the players might spend all their time buffing each other before pressing on. Instead, players say they’ll act and then act, knowing they can call  upon help when they need it.
  • The inspiration moment doesn’t require the two characters to be in the same place, only that they had a connection at some past point – that is, a flashback to a previous moment. Players will often get separated. FARFLUNG is a sci-fi game, so there’re high-speed vehicles to split them up over great distances, and radios or telepathy so they can stay in contact despite that.Even though the character may be physically absent – and it might make sense that they are, since they might not survive being on the surface of the sun or whatnot – they can still help another character out.
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Rules Endorse Behavior

The most important decision of FARFLUNG was transparency. The players shouldn’t have to think about “meta” factors, or how to manipulate the rules for best advantage. Time spent meta-thinking is time spent away from being immersed in the game’s fiction. When all a player has is Hx points, they will act to exchange those Hx points. When a player’s character has high resistance to harm to their Feelings, but low resistance to harm to their Doing, they will choose moves where emotions are at risk – because they don’t care – and they will avoid moves where physical harm is a danger – because they do care. The player doesn’t have to know all those bullet points are in effect… they will have a playbook in front of them, and they will know when to shine, and when to help their fellow players shine, almost by accident.


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* DOCTOR WHO has long been plagued with the problem of passive companions, with a variety of responses.  (http://nerdist.com/doctor-who-for-newbies-the-companions-part-two/) (http://www.warpedfactor.com/2015/01/doctor-who-companion-pieces-ace.html)
** There’s been progress on this front. APOCALYPSE WORLD 1e (2010) has the move, "When you try to seduce or manipulate someone, tell them what you want and roll+hot." AW 2e (2016) has updated the move to read, "When you try to seduce, manipulate, bluff, fast-talk, or lie to someone, tell them what you want them to do, GIVE THEM A REASON [emphasis mine], and roll+hot." Still confrontational, but now it acknowledges the target won’t submit to any request just because you rolled high.
*** Some events might have a countdown, instead… but the only mechanical difference between “everyone takes turns rolling to reduce the enemy’s HP” and “everyone rolls to reduce the countdown” is that you might be using a different number than +fight.

Re: FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design
« Reply #1 on: November 03, 2016, 06:15:10 AM »
Very interesting. I'm extremely interested to see the details of this. Especially the Time Point -> Hx -> Time Point cycle.

"An active character ... becomes exhausted… and then asks their friends for help, bringing them into the action." sounds like something I really, really want as a GM.

*

Spwack

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Re: FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design
« Reply #2 on: November 03, 2016, 07:09:39 AM »
"Keep him distracted! I need five minutes to charge the SUPER MEGA DEATH BEAM, and I can't do that while he's hitting me! Go, previously unimportant side-characters! Do your thing!"

The rest period doesn't necessarily have to be from exhaustion, just a thought. Seconded to the other guy, keen to see what this looks like when it comes out. Even if I'm not enamored with the other mechanics, that cycle does sound extremely interesting. Sneak peak plz?

Re: FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design
« Reply #3 on: November 03, 2016, 12:15:20 PM »
FARFLUNG has moved out of the beta phase and into immediate-access phase. Details here:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sanguine/farflung-sci-fi-role-play-after-dark/

Re: FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design
« Reply #4 on: November 03, 2016, 03:31:19 PM »
I find some of the moves and examples rather hard to parse, but I'm big fan of the genre, and I like the thinking which has gone into this.

The idea of "cycling" points into a dynamic Hx mechanic is really clever!

Also, I love the "quark" stats (although I have no idea how they work), that's very cute.

Re: FARFLUNG Designer's Notes: Asymmetrical Characters in Game Design
« Reply #5 on: November 04, 2016, 07:34:38 AM »
Aw man. And I had just promised to myself that I wouldn't spend any money on crowdfunding this month.

Oh well, if I only back one project..