Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Amnesty on Storium

It's 1933 and the Great Depression has made the world a grey and bitter place: in Europe, there are rumours of wars to come with the rise of Fascism in Germany, whilst America drowns its sorrows as it celebrates the end of Prohibition.

Some strangers arrive in Chicago, sent there by an enigmatic agent know only as the Recruiter, who has given them a singular opportunity to match their remarkable natures: each of them is a monster who has preyed on the human race for centuries, but with Judgement Day said to be approaching, they must find a way to wash away the stains of their sins lest they be swept into Oblivion when the end comes...

Amnesty is a game idea that's been knocking around in the back of my mind for years as a kind of antithesis to many other "you're a monster struggling to be human" games on the market. What irked me about those was that your progress as a character was rewarded by gaining more powers, thus making you more of a monster: the inspiration for Amnesty was that you played a character who was already a total monster and that you were rewarded by losing your powers, thus becoming more human and capable of living a normal life.

I decided to bite the bullet and finally try out the premise after playing a game on Storium for a month or so; briefly, Storium provides a site for writing a collaborative narrative, with one player taking on the role of Narrator, who sets up the story and frames scenes with challenges in them, while each other player portrays a different character in that story. Characters get a set of refreshing resources to spend to face challenges, with the type of resource they spend (and how many of those they spend collaboratively) determining whether the outcome of a scene  is good, bad or mixed.

This has involved something of a learning curve, since it's my first time trying to run a game in this format: the lack of auditory and visual cues you get from playing face-to-face at a table keeps throwing me off and the narrowness of the game's communication channel (there's a sidebar for comments that appears with each separate scene) limits how much detail I can provide. This has lead to a couple of stumbles as I try to communicate setting details to the players and negotiate their characters' background and actions with them.

Important Note to Self #1: Lay out the details of the game in the intro and check my assumptions about it; you can't be too clear or explicit.

Play on Storium seems to default to party-mode: there's nothing built into the system that allows for intra-party conflict and even splitting the party relies on a formal agreement between the players about which characters are going where to do what, then waiting for one group to complete their scene before moving on to the next group. One thing that did fit the concept of the Amnesty game though was the Strength & Weakness cards players use to define their characters: characters almost always succeed at every challenge they are faced with, but the quality of that success is determined by the cards played in response to it. When a challenge is resolved using mostly Strengths, the characters succeed in the best way possible in that scene, but when mostly Weaknesses are used, the outcome is a mixed success or comes at a price.

For the Amnesty game, I've started by defining all the available Weakness cards as being monstrous powers, so players can use them to succeed, but it tends to get messy and will create problems for the individual character, even as it resolves problems the characters face collectively. On the opposite side of the equation, all the Strengths characters can begin with relate to their familiarity with aspects of human society and culture, e.g. Technology, Politics, History, Art: these are all a little harder to fit into the narrative, but they reward doing so with a flawless success.

Another issue I wanted to tackle was the depth of history to the characters: they have all been around for a long, long time, so I was looking for a method to bring that into the story without simply requiring each player to provide pages and pages of back story. The trick I've implemented to do this involves Assets, a neutral resource that players can collect: they can be played to meet the requirement of the number of cards played to complete a challenge, but they count as neither Strengths nor Weaknesses when determining the outcome. I've created a subset of these called 'Flashbacks': when played as part of completing a challenge, the player must recall an episode from their character's past and then relate that to what's happening in the present, much like the way in which flashbacks were used to great effect in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

This brings up another important lesson I've learned through hard experience: don't expect players to know how the rules work, especially if you're making changes to them. I was happily chugging along, laying out intangible assets to be picked up and then being  surprised when players in one game didn't pick them up and players in the other game picked them up reluctantly. I was assuming the players knew how Assets were collected in the first place, then assuming on top of that they would somehow sense the expectations I had relating to the way in which I was making changes to the function of assets in my game.

Important Note to Self #2: Coach new players through new processes, especially if you're not using them exactly the way it says in the rules.

There are currently two Amnesty games running, with different players, characters and plots in each one, but both sharing the common premise of monsters in 1930s Chicago trying to save the world and themselves; I'll update the blog periodically with developments in the games and anything more I've learned about both Storium and games in general.