Getting the Upper Hand

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week, and I thought it was great. But also, it made me think about what GotG would look like as an RPG, because that's how I consume all media now. 

Of course, it would be a superhero RPG, just as usable in, I dunno, Gotham City as it is in deep space. Much of the Guardians' universe is color thrown over standard superheroic tropes, but that's not a bad thing by any means... I like big bombastic superheroics. So I ended up brainstorming something that I'm going to call the Upper Hand Engine for the moment, based on the assumption that this is a setting in which it doesn't really make sense to track who throws every punch and how much health everyone has... that's slow and plodding and unnecessarily granular. Granularity is the enemy of spectacle, and Guardians of the Galaxy is a series about spectacle

Instead, what matters in an Upper Hand Engine conflict is, as the name might imply, who has the upper hand (and as such, who will win the clash). 

Rocket v. Yondu

Let's say that Yondu and Rocket are having a fight (and let me say that while this is obviously inspired by thoughts I had while watching Guardians of the Galaxy, this is a battle I'm making up, not a play-by-play of the film. No spoilers here). If you're not familiar with them, Rocket's an angry raccoon and Yondu is a blue mercenary and both of them are violent and there are ten thousand reasons they might be fighting. Also you should watch these movies, come on.

Rocket is a player character, and whatever other statistics and meters and points that might entail, it also means he has a list of attributes, and they are numbered. Let's say that there's four, and they're numbered 1-4 (just for the sake of having numbers). These are, essentially, Fate-style aspects in their construction... short descriptive and evocative phrases that define the character and should be at least a little double-edged in their construction. 

So, Rocket might have...

4: It's me and Groot against the universe.
3: Guns! Guns guns guns!
2: Yeah I can make just about anything outta just about anything. 
1: The result of a hideous experiment by immoral scientists or whatever.

That's his four. And each one is at a certain level, which dictates how powerful that particular aspect makes him. This is a diceless game, so that level is reasonably stable (barring alterations based on character advancement or temporary bonuses or other things I haven't really considered, of course). So, if Rocket is trading on his love of guns, he's operating at level 3. When he's making stuff out of stuff, he's operating at level 2. Et cetera.

Yondu is a supporting character, so he only has three aspects. 

3: Got me a brain-fin and psi-linked arrow. 
2: I lead this pack o' Ravagers.
1: Little soft spot in my heart for Peter Quill. 

Similar deal. At the head of his pack, he's level 2. If it's him and his arrow, he's level 3. Dealing with Star-Lord, he's just at level 1. 

Putting your worst foot forward:

Now, here's the rub: in a situation when a character is using two of his aspects at once, they use whatever the LOWER value is. 

If Yondu is rocking his arrow on his lonesome, he's level 3. If he's leading his pack, he may still be using his signature weapon, but he's effectively level 2, hampered by his entourage. Leading them in pursuit of Peter? A rather pathetic level 1.

Likewise, Rocket is level 4 when he's back-to-back with Groot against some opposition, but once he pulls out a firearm, he drops to 3. If he makes a weapon to use, then he's down to 2. 

That's why these attributes can also be weaknesses, since challenges and NPCs and whatnot are also going to get levels... Rocket excels at making things when the challenges are reasonably minor, but if the stuff he makes has to stand up to greater scrutiny, it's going to be found wanting. 

I suppose it could make sense to enforce a type of attribute at those given levels, where your 4 is "What do you fight for" and your 3 is "What do you fight with" and so on, but I think that might be a bit too prescriptive. I like that there's room for both people who are at there best when they let go of their skills and equipment and are purely working to help the person they love, AND for people who are at their best when they let go of all pretensions and let their super-powers do the talking. 

So how's this look in practice?

Our scene starts when Yondu ambushes Rocket with his arrow at the ready. Rocket pulls out his gun and fires wildly to defend himself. At present, both are operating at level 3, which means they are equally matched. As with Fate aspects, the question of "can you use this attribute" depends on the state of the narrative... for the sake of argument, we'll give Rocket the benefit of saying that he saw Yondu coming, giving him time to pull out his guns and defend himself.

Since they're both at 3, nobody has the upper hand. The fight scene can go on forever, and unless something changes, they would fight to a standstill, with Rocket shooting Yondu's arrow away whenever it gets too close but Rocket unable to focus on Yondu enough to shoot him. A conflict here isn't really set in time specifically... this clash can represent a minute or an hour or a week, depending on what makes sense and the players narrate. In this case, it's a few minutes of fruitless back-and-forth.

Since Yondu went on the attack, Rocket gets to act next. He needs to change something in order to resolve the situation, but what? He decides he's going to flee... in the direction of the rest of the Ravagers. Probably while saying  something like "Yondu's a real grade-A jackass, but even he's not going to fire an arrow into his own people."

There's nothing directly in his way, so this is a level-0 challenge, the baseline for "thing that you might fail at." There might well be environmental things like dense shrubbery or whatever that kick it up to level 1 or higher, or someone actively preventing Rocket from moving, but neither of these are the case right now.

He doesn't have an attribute that makes him specifically good at fleeing, but his player argues that being "the result of a hideous experiment or whatever" justifies some cybernetic-enhanced acrobatics. That puts him at level 1. He succeeds at the task and dives into the group of Ravagers. If he hadn't been able to argue his way up to level 1 then he probably would have had to spend some resources on that. 

The Ravagers themselves? They're just an obstacle, more so than a proper character. They only get one aspect to describe what they are, but since they've got a bit of borderline competence it's at level two. 

2: Violent gang of Ravagers

It's their turn, and they have nothing better to do than attack the raccoon. They dive at him and Rocket activates a homemade shield bubble he scrapped together, knocking them all back. That's an application of his level-2 "Make anything outta anything" attribute, so it's a push. This time, it's a clash that's over in a few seconds.

Now it's Yondu again, and he can try to take out Rocket, but, damn, he's trading on both his arrow AND his "leader of the Ravagers" aspects, so he's level 2. Rocket is shooting through his homemade shield, which means he's operating at level 2 as well. Another push, as he's taking out loads of nameless Ravagers and enjoying a maelstrom of destruction. On Rocket's turn, he declares that his shield runs out of juice and sputters out; this potentially leaves him without an obvious form of defense should the tables turn, but he's not worried right now, he just wanted to get back up to level 3 by relying on his guns alone. He shoots at Yondu, who can only muster a 2 because he's with the Ravagers; in narrative, this probably means that some of the Ravagers try to block the shot, but it's not enough. Since Rocket has the upper hand, he wins, and Yondu is taken out. 

Practically speaking this could mean "killed" but since we are largely operating on comic book superhero logic, it usually doesn't. I'm not sure entirely what it means, but it seems elegant to have "wounds" in the form of level-0 attributes. In this case, Rocket decides that Yondu isn't hurt so much as he looks bad. Now he's got a new attribute at level 0: Lost the Respect of my Crew. Wounds like that are bound to heal eventually. But until that happens, Rocket's gonna have an easier time getting the upper hand, even when he's not bringing guns to the table.

...or something like that.

Obviously there are huge swaths of this idea that are still pretty nebulous, but there's something about it that is appealing to me. It's fittingly bombastic, I think, that conflict is all about who has the upper hand at a given moment... it narratively accounts for those moments where a drawn-out battle suddenly flips on a dime because something has Changed. It probably needs something to ensure that PCs can survive at least a few blows from someone with the upper hand, but I don't think I want to have traditional health... I like the idea that wounds just take the form of lower-numbered attributes. 

Someone powerful villain can have, like, 5: Walking Murder Machine as their only attribute. The PCs will have to think up ways to tackle them that can't be covered by that attribute, and in so doing stack attributes that make them easier to deal with. Engage them in a battle of wits to give them 4: Annoyed at the PCs. Do some spying to discover their plot and give them 3: Plan for galactic domination. Narrowly foil that plan to give them 2: Now it's time for revenge! And at that point the PCs have become the bad guy's kryptonite... they're still a walking murder machine, but when they're facing off against the heroes they're almost doomed. And that makes sense to me.

At any rate, I'd be interested in seeing how it works in practice, outside of the theater of my brain.

Unpacking some thoughts about The Stolen Century

If you're anything like me, you've been listening to The Adventure Zone for some time now. It's a fun show. The McElroy family are good at this podcasting thing, and Griffin the DM does a fine job running a D&D adventure that does all the things I like about D&D and only a few of the things I don't like about it. But in the most recent arc (and yeah, there will be spoilers here if you care about such things), he's shifted from D&D into a different game. The game, like the arc, is called "The Stolen Century" although to limit the confusion here I'm just going to refer to it as Griffin's Game.

I like The Stolen Century, but I know (from my ample time trawling the The Adventure Zone subreddit and other fandom watering holes) that lots of people are having problems with it, which is fine. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, it represents a significant genre-shift for the podcast, and, of course, it’s New and Different and there are people who don’t take kindly to that sort of thing. But also… I think it’s got some problems on a game level. And I’d like to talk about the problems I see, because this is what I do… I write and edit RPGs professionally, and I’m between projects at the moment, which is why I’m spending my free time doing the same thing I’d be doing if I weren’t between projects. Such is my madness. 

Now before I get off on a rant, let me say that I like Griffin’s game on the whole. It works for what it’s trying to do with the story, but I think beyond that it’s a cool idea by itself… a highly narrative account of people who arrive on a fantastic planet, explore it for a bit, and then hop off on another adventure. It’s got cool Star Trek vibes, and lets the players run though a number of weird and interesting setpieces that might be hard to make like a full campaign around, but are fun to interact with briefly, like a planet of just animals, or a planet at war with giant fungus, and so on. I get that some listeners aren’t a fan of it, because it’s so distinct from D&D. It’s a different kind of RPG with different goals, and that’s setting some folks off, but I love the idea. And I think, with some work, it could be a really cool game, one that could stand on its own and be playable and enjoyable for people who’ve never even heard of TAZ. 

Issue 1: Resources that don't need to be managed.

Now, the obvious problem with talking about Griffin’s game is that all the rules haven’t been explained to us just yet… specifically, players can gain XP, bonds, and assets, and we don’t know how those resources are going to come into play when the grand finale comes along. But I would argue that this is part of the problem, because as far as I can tell, none of the players know how these things are going to shape out either. And that has a negative impact on gameplay. 

Take, for instance, assets and bonds. 
Getting an asset is cool, because an asset will help you on a future task. And I like the asset abstraction as well... you don't have to track particular things, but you do have to pull in a little creativity to use those assets, and that's good for storytelling. Having assets is great. Spending assets is great. Assets are great.

Bonds... add up. And for now, that’s all they do. Maybe it will be cool in another couple episodes, but right now, it's just a point or two that don't have any purpose. Having personal interaction that leads to bonds is fun but it’s strictly better to try and get an asset if the option is available. If we had a clearer idea what bonds were FOR, that would make bonds more exciting. Heck, we don't even need to know their ultimate purpose... if there were just a situation in which we could USE them, knowing that we want to save them down the line but having an immediate benefit to their use, that would make them feel more interesting.

What could bonds do? Well, Davenport said that the ship's engine essentially runs on bonds in some metaphysical fashion, and I assume that's going to tie into their ultimate importance. In the short term maybe spending a bond could empower the ship in some fashion. The first thing that occurs to me is allowing bonds to influence what world the Star-Blaster lands on. Say, the players can choose from a small selection in which one is clearly more unpleasant than the others. "You see a world, flickering between three states... now it's blue and green, a seemingly-pristine eden. Now its covered in grey clouds and shimmering lights, obviously highly industrialized. Now... it's an ashy husk, criss-crossed with lines of bright orange lava. The ship is between planes right now, about to emerge into one of these realities where you will be stranded for the next year. You have limited control over the Star-Blaster at a time like this, but the ship's engines are powered, in part, by your bonds. By giving up a bond, you can influence where the ship emerges." I don't know how exactly that influence might play out mechanically or even if this is the best idea, but it is, at least, something to give bonds immediate import.

Same thing applies to XP. Maybe the players have more information than we listeners, but right now there's no clear indication of what gaining XP actually means. Will there be leveling up, will XP turn into points to buy or upgrade skills, can XP be spent on something, or is it just another meter to track for the final encounter? Gaining XP in a traditional RPG is nice because it gets a character concretely closer to something beneficial. 

The fact that bonds and XP aren’t exciting is especially disappointing because they’re one of the few ways in which player decisions have ongoing impact.

Issue 2: Immortality can be boring.

Making it so that the characters can't die or be maimed is necessary for a flashback, I get that. And it’s also useful on its own: it encourages them to do interesting experimentation and take risks and stay behind and do all sorts of things that the risk of death or other long-term ramification would complicate. But... it also means that getting killed or severely wounded is pretty meaningless. This is especially true when the characters only do one thing per cycle. Getting killed won't take you out of the action, because you’re naturally out of the action while another character is in the spotlight. Getting killed won’t complicate things for your allies, because practically speaking there’s nothing you can do to help your allies after you’ve already taken your turn. 

In D&D, a bad decision now will have an impact later... I get hit, I'm low on HP, the next fight is all the more tense. Or I'm missing equipment so my rolls are lower. Or I'm in a bad position so I have disadvantage. Or whatever... D&D is has a number of systems working together to give character decisions extra weight. In Griffin’s game, decisions can impact the narrative by revealing new information that another player uses, but it’s entirely divorced from the mechanics of the game. Adding some sort of mechanical hook will give decisions more in-game impact. Imagine, if someone dies, everyone else gets -1 to any rolls for this cycle, because morale is shot. Suddenly there’s a reason to think twice about getting yourself killed. Or a success might translate into a +1 bonus to a particular sort of action… for instance, Taako learning the language of the animals means the others get +1 if their action centers around communicating with them. I get that bonuses are inherently more powerful with 2d6 than with 1d20, but that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible. Apocalypse World comes with many instances of +1 bonuses, and there are derivatives which use -1 penalties, and it all works fine. 

 It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, and it would do a lot to make the events that happen during a year feel like they are linked together; there have been folks commenting on how this arc feels like it lacks momentum and bemoaning how disconnected the different vignettes seem. But if one player’s action gives a bonus to the next player (or even if it could have given a bonus but didn’t because they failed), their actions will feel more solidly linked to one another.

Issue 3: Weak-ass penalties.

Another issue I’ve noticed is that the 7-9 mixed success has been, well, a mixed success. I know Griffin's been getting pushback for having mixed successes that aren't very mixed, but that's because he's put himself in a pretty hard position. What price can a character pay when death is meaningless, and the value of resources is unclear? One of the reasons Apocalypse World’s mixed success mechanic works as well as it does is that Apocalypse World is pretty specific about what its moves do, and that means that takes a lot of the effort off of the GM’s shoulders. There’s built-in guidance for what is a significant creative challenge. I feel that Griffin is struggling here, and some of his mixed successes are pretty milquetoast. “Oh, you get what you want but you sense that they’re hiding something from you” doesn’t bring a lot of trouble to the table. I think one of the problems is that Griffin likes the characters and wants them to succeed… he’s a good DM, which means he’s a fan of the PCs. 

My general tweak for mixed success would be to do as AW does and prescribe what “mixed success” can and must mean. That is to say, come up with a list of possible effects of a mixed success, and when the moment comes, pick one of them and stick with it. For the best effect, make sure the effects on the list are things with lingering effects, to make this decision more impactful. 

An example of an option with a lingering effect would be “Make the player make a hard choice.” For instance: "Okay, Magnus, you can find the light... but you have to push the people helping you very hard and very far to do it. It takes you a long time to find the light, but you do. And when you do, you realize there's no time to get back to ship. Well, no time to get everyone back to the ship... you're faster and stronger than everyone who's been raised on this world, so you could, if you wanted, abandon them in the mushrooms and take back off on your own. You'll need to take the map and some extra rations for energy. You'll be abandoning them with no way of getting home, most likely to die in the fungus. But you can make it. Do you do it?" That’s a hard choice! It’s hard in a way that “do you die to achieve your goals” can’t be… Magnus doesn’t care if he kicks it, but having to leave innocents to die in order to save other people? That’s a character decision that will stay with him. 

Another example: “Have the player get into a fight with a crewmate.” After all, while their bodies reset, their social interactions are ongoing. Griffin has control over four major NPCs, and being on the outs with any of them would suck for one of THB. If Davenport doesn’t trust you because of a decision you made, he can make the next year very unpleasant indeed. What if the result of Taako’s roll was that he got what he wanted but Lup wasn’t speaking to him anymore because of how it went down? I imagine he’d be pretty tempted to blow an asset to avoid that. 

And even “Put an ongoing -1 to a certain type of task.” It’s a more minor option, sure, one that will only last for the remainder of the cycle, but it still lends impact to the outcome. 

I’m sure there other ways in which a mixed success can have a lingering effect which aren’t coming to mind right now. And things like starting a fight or getting a penalty would, of course, be combined with whatever narrative effects are appropriate. I don’t suggest this as a way to shackle Griffin’s storytelling… I suggest it as a way to force Griffin to keep the characters in the crosshairs, so to speak. Statistically, mixed success is the most likely thing to happen on any given roll, so it should always be an interesting option.

Issue 4: A bad bad guy.

The other ongoing issue I’ve noticed is something that Griffin seems to have picked up on already, which is that the interaction between the IPRE, the light of creation, and the Hunger isn’t particularly interesting. The Hunger is an existential threat to a plane, it cannot be reasoned with, and the only feasible way to save the world is to get the light of creation, which means that the players are never NOT going to spend one of their actions trying to do just that. At least one. And that’s not exciting. He’s already started using GM fiat to declare that the light is either unobtainable or absolutely obtainable, and that’s great, because that means all three players get to use their limited actions to do what they want to do. “How do you busy yourself on a doomed planet?” is an interesting question. “What do you do on the beach for a year?” is obviously lower-stakes, but it’s still interesting. “Do you seek out the light of creation?” isn’t interesting, because the answer is “yes.”

Since the nature of the Hunger isn’t likely to change, I would encourage Griffin continue pulling the focus away from the light of creation, or take other methods to make “getting the light of creation” a more nuanced and interesting effort than stomping through the forest and hoping to stumble across it. Maybe they need to take the light away from someone who’s seized it. Maybe there’s a hard choice built in, because some people are now relying on the light to live. Maybe a crew-member has a massive disagreement about whether they should take the light. Maybe the world would be better off destroyed. There are ways to make the choice interesting… but if the choice isn’t interesting, it’s not worth making, so most planets should just have their fate essentially sealed, and the IPRE be left to figure out what to do with themselves on a world that they know to be doomed or safe. 

In summary: I like The Stolen Century, and I think there are only a few things it needs to be a really cool game both to play and to listen to. Bonds and XP need to have a use, so that we care about building those resources and have interesting decisions to make regarding them. There needs to be a greater focus on the lasting impact of decisions, both in short-term bonuses and in long term narrative effects like damaged relationships and painful decisions. Mixed success should be more codified, so that the results will always be impactful, and not just watered-down success. There should be less time spend on looking for the light of creation, giving the players more freedom to explore with their character choices. And that’s about it. I’d play this game. I mean, I’d play it even according to the original rules as written, because I think the concept is great, but I think these fairly minor tweaks will make it even more fun, both to play and to listen to.