Friday, 18 July 2014

The Thought Police

This is slightly meatier than a nano-game but you should still be able to complete it within 2-3 hours with around 5 or 6 players; it takes an amount of preparation and world-burning though, so make sure your players are up for that kind of activity. As this game deals with issues of segregation, nationalism and the persecution of minorities, please handle the material sensitively and respect the emotions of others who may be present while playing.

This game takes place in a world that is like our own but a little bit different: in this world, telepathic powers have been appearing randomly in the global population for decades, but since there is no way of measuring or detecting them, most national governments have clamped down harshly on anyone who is even suspected of possessing them.

Step 0: The Gift
All telepathic powers work in the same way, allowing those who possess the Gift to read the minds of those in close proximity to them: this is the foundational assumption of game-play. Therefore:

  • A telepath can only read minds, not send their thoughts to other people.
  • Minds can only be read when the subject is close enough to the telepath to touch: barriers such as windows, masks and other thin obstacles will not block the telepathy.
  • Telepaths possess no other powers: they cannot see the future, control the minds of others, move objects without touching them, etc.
Step 1: The Act
Most national governments have an Act on their statute books that regulates telepaths and those who protect them; the first thing the group needs to agree on is what powers the measures in the Act give to the state and how they enforce this Act. Essentially, what happens if you are found to be a) a telepath or b) harbouring one? Take a few minutes to talk about these suggested measures and how they would be reflected in the daily lives of citizens of this nation; these responses may be taken in various combinations and there may be levels of response proportionate to the perceived threat.

  • Execution: the state views telepathy as such a threat that it has made it a capital offence.
  • Incarceration: whether placed in regular prisons or specially constructed internment camps, the state has responded to the perceived threat by separating it from society.
  • Transportation: the state simply exiles those who pose a threat; this may involve sending them to a penal colony or just taking them past the borders and dumping them there to be someone else's problem.
  • Sterilisation: in a futile effort to stop the spread of telepathy, the state interferes in the procreative rights of its citizens.
  • Registration: telepaths are made to register and wear an identifier when in public; this may include other infringements on their freedom, such as a requirement to report to a registration centre regularly or the loss of the right to marry, own property, vote, etc.
Step 2: The Populace
To make characters, deal out a large index card to each player and start a discussion about the setting the characters are in: this should be a situation that allows for a small group of characters who all know each other well enough to approach each other and get involved in everybody's business. Some suggested settings are:

  • An extended family: parents, siblings, uncles & aunts, etc.
  • A neighbourhood: people who live in the same street or apartment building.
  • A workplace: an office, factory or other location the characters are all employed at.
  • A social organisation: a political party, religion or group of hobbyists.
It's best to mix and match different relationships, as long as no character is more than one degree of separation distant from any other, e.g. it's fine if Arthur is Belinda's father and Belinda works alongside Carl , but then Danielle also needs a relationship with Belinda; if her only relationship is with Arthur, then her connection to Carl will be too distant and vice versa. Characters can have more than one relationship, so in this example if Danielle was Carl's next door neighbour but also belonged to the same tennis club as Arthur, this would also satisfy the need to have no more than one degree of separation.

Upon each index card, the player writes the name, relationships and brief description of their character, but they also answer these two questions:

What do you most fear losing?
What do you most hope to gain?

Each player needs to think about two things that are important to their character: one thing that they have and want to hold onto and one thing that they are striving to achieve: these should not be dependent on any other player's character, though they may be dependent on supporting characters. Some common types of thing you may want to protect or to gain are status, money, love, justice, forgiveness, home, peace and self-control. Every one in the group should discuss their ideas and how they affect other characters they have a direct relationship with, then write down their final answers on the front of their index cards along with their other character information.

Step 3: The Telepath
Once everyone has completed their character description on an index card, gather all the cards up, turn them face down and give them a really good shuffle, then mark on the back of one card a capital letter 'T' for telepath. Shuffle them up again and hold them under the table or otherwise out of sight when you turn them back face up, then shuffle them once more: place the index cards back on the table, face up, and let each player reclaim the index card that describes their character. Once the cards have been reclaimed, each player looks at the underside of their own card and no-one else's, nor may they show the underside of their card to anyone else: whoever has the card marked with the 'T' has just awoken as a telepath and from henceforth their character can read the minds of the other characters around them.

Rounds of Play
Taking as many rounds of play as needed, each player gets one turn per round to frame a scene with other characters present: within this scene, they should make it clear that they want something from another character, even if that is merely their time. This is called the drive: the drive of any scene may be based on what any character in the scene fears losing or hopes to gain and the drive may involve more than one of these issues if appropriate, but these issues will not get any final resolution in the scene, only motion towards such. Framing takes place as it does in other story-games: describe a location with other characters present and some activity taking place, so that the characters are there for a reason, not merely passing the time of day.

Everyone plays their character honestly, portraying them as they believe that character would act in the given situation, but with the following proviso:

At any point, in any scene, any player may ask any other player what their character is really thinking.

There is no limit on how often this question may be asked, but there is a limit on how characters may respond to what the players hear: the telepath is the only character who actually hears these thoughts and then only if they are in the scene with the other characters. When asked what your character is thinking, you must answer honestly and stick to your answer as far as possible: there are no mind tricks or abrupt changes of heart, whatever you say must be the truth from the very heart & soul of your character.

The telepath is the only character who may directly act on this information: no other character knows it for certain, though they are just as entitled to be suspicious of a character's motives as they would normally be, without the player's inside knowledge of what the other character is thinking. The telepath may also lie about their character's thoughts if they wish: they should certainly omit any information that readily identifies them as the telepath, but if they lie about everything their character is thinking, this may out them just as quickly.

Resolving Scenes
A scene is resolved once the drive is met or blocked: drives are met through negotiation, so if the acting character can get what they want with the agreement of other character's present, the drive is met and the scene is resolved. If agreement cannot be reached, a character other than the acting character must try to block the acting character's drive. Any character in the scene who is not willing to let the acting character get what they want can try to block them: they toss a coin and, if the result is heads, they successfully block that character's drive. If the result is tails, the player may choose from two outcomes:

  • The drive is met, but they add a price that the acting character pays for achieving it.
  • The drive is blocked, but the acting character adds a price that the blocking character pays for standing in their way.
A character can never achieve the aims stated on their character card outright through meeting a drive, nor may a price cost them one of their aims, but both drives and prices can be used to build up to achieving those things.

At the end of each round, the players should discuss what has occurred and may then choose to out one amongst them as a telepath: there is no requirement to do so, but the only certain way to achieve your characters's aims is to be rewarded by the state for helping them to enforce the Act. If no-one wishes to out the telepath, or if there is no consensus to do so, begin the next round; if there is consensus between two or more players to out another character as a telepath, they may do so even if the majority of players do not wish to out anyone. If there are two factions within the group, each of which wishes to out a different character, the larger faction prevails; if the groups are of equal size, no-one is outed this round, but negotiation may take place to see whether any player wishes to change factions and thus shift the balance.

If a character is outed, the player tosses a coin for each other player who is accusing them of being a telepath: if any of these results are tails, the outing is successful and the character falls victim to the Act: the player should narrate what happens to their character, including the loss of what they feared the most. The player remains part of the game, but now plays supporting characters, in particular the manifestation of the state itself, which may take whatever action it deems necessary to enforce the Act in future scenes. If the outing is unsuccessful, the character remains as they are after being cleared by the state following a brief but intensive investigation, which they should narrate before the next round begins.

Anyone who takes part in successfully outing another character may achieve what they most hope to gain: they each toss a coin and, on a heads, they get what they wanted; on a tails, they get it, but there is a price to be paid, which is narrated by the player whose character was outed. Players choose new hopes for their characters before the next round begins.

The game ends when there are only two players left with characters who have not been outed or when two rounds pass without anyone being outed; these rounds do not have to take place consecutively and they include rounds where an outing was attempted but failed. The telepath only reveals who they were at the end of the game.

Questions for Variant Play
You can play variant  forms of the above game by asking the following questions about the assumptions and rules of play, or you could set aside some discussion time after a game and use these questions to provoke debate.

  • What if the Gift wasn't telepathy? How different would the game be if the supernatural power that threatened the state was x-ray vision? What about super-speed or teleportation? Or simply immortality? How would this affect the Act and the Populace? How would this affect the drives and resolution of scenes?
  • What if there wasn't a telepath? If there was one more card than the number of players and one was marked with a 'T' before the game, then the cards were dealt out before characters were created, there could be a game that didn't have a telepath in it: how would that affect things?
  • What if there was more than one telepath? Try marking up a set of index cards before play: what if two cards are marked with a 'T'? What if half of them are? What if nobody knows how many telepaths there are?
  • What if your issues depended on other characters? Imagine naming another character in each of your character's issues, making them important to the direction that issue takes the story; how would that affect how the characters interact? Would you still out someone who held the key to your happiness? Would you falsely accuse someone who was standing in your way?
  • What if you didn't need consensus to out someone? If it only requires one character to accuse another of being a telepath, how does that change the dynamic between the characters? Are characters more or less likely to achieve their aims if they don't need consensus?

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