Friday, 26 May 2017

The Leviathan Manifesto (Redux)

The title above might sound like one of those thick-as-a-brick Len Deighton novels, but in reality this post puts together a number of ideas that have been fermenting in my head for a while. Ingredients in this heady stew are the TV programme Person of Interest, current events relating to security and personal liberty, and many years of online discussions about the best way to conduct investigative RPG sessions. There's also some reference to classic social theory, whose origin I hope should be obvious from the title. What follows is a both a nano story game and a statement of my personal philosophy about certain types of game, where the players have to investigate a mystery and put together the clues they find to come up with a solution.

Since posting this game, I've been fortunate enough to get feedback from Story-Games forum user Rafu, who playtested it across several sessions: their suggestions for some changes to the game to highlight the player-characters are now included below.

Knowing & Doing

The State sees almost everything: cameras watch us in public and at out work places, 24/7. Our
Person of Interest, CBS, 2011-2016
personal details are harvested from our online transactions and our private files are subject to government scrutiny. We can hide nothing from them. This may be the way things are in the near future or how they are right now; you may be working for the State or rebelling against it. What is known is that you have the keys to the kingdom: free access to any piece of information the State has collected about it's citizens.

This level of scrutiny has a drawback though: the machinery of government sees everything but understands nothing. The eyes that watch us have no comprehension of what they see, they merely observe and collate, storing the data without the knowledge of what it signifies. There is a vacuum in the process: your role is to fill it. With unrestricted access to the personal lives of tens of millions of citizens, your job is to pick out the ones who pose a threat to themselves or others and to defend those who are unaware that they have become a target for violence.

Using the above premise, you can play this as a game of maverick heroes tapping the data to help ordinary people, or you can be the State's ultimate sanction, an elite team of operatives who work to bring criminals to justice or even prevent crimes from happening. Think of the personal back story of your character and how they came to be involved in this, writing the concept down in a short sentence or two. Don't worry about their personal skills or abilities: you are all multi-talented experts and you all work in a team that supports each other as needed, so you can always call upon the exact speciality that you need as you need it.

Surveillance & Research

Start each new mission with either a criminal/violent incident (bank robbery, unexplained explosion, security breach, murder, etc) or simply have the system throw up an identity flagged with a 'suspicion index'. Keep the initial details to a minimum: the time & location of an incident or the name, age and gender of a person of interest. The game then continues as an investigation into that incident or person, following these two principles:
  • Every question will get an answer.
  • You may only act upon what you know.
The first principle is the most important: answers are never kept from the players, so the trick is asking the right questions. There is an element of time pressure applied by both the rules and the situations the characters are in, so they can't simply ask every question they can think of, they need to focus on what they need to know and then act upon it swiftly. The results of their investigations, and the time they have remaining to conclude them, are mediated via a deck of standard playing cards. Each player takes it in turn to perform one of the following actions. going around the group until the mission reaches a conclusion.

1: Observation
Starting from the initial seed data about the incident or person to be investigated, agents may call upon video footage from any camera and there are presumed to be cameras in all public and business locations. In order to Observe, you must first name a time and place you want to see, or a particular target you want to follow forwards or backwards from a named time and place. It's up to you what you choose to Observe, but you must be able to describe it in the above terms: you can't ask to see "the murderer's current location" or "the site of the next murder." Time passes in a linear fashion, as normal, so you can't see past the current moment in time, and the time you spend Observing is time that passes in the mission.

When you Observe, draw the top card of the deck and turn it over: you always observe something, no matter what, but it is only relevant on a red card; if the card drawn is black, the data you collect is either irrelevant to the investigation or is relevant but complicates the mission unexpectedly, e.g:
  • You Observe someone you know personally, interacting with the target.
  • The target is revealed to be working with someone else, adding another suspect to the mission.
  • The target is Observed to be doing something they should not know how to do, raising a question over their identity.
Basically, a complicated answer should confirm or support the information you were acting on, but then raise questions that might also need to be followed up to complete the mission. Whoever provides the answer, and any complication, does so in terms of what might be seen or heard on the video footage collected: they can't reveal the thoughts or motivations of those observed. The card drawn is then put face up in the 'Open' stack, unless it was a King of any suit, in which case it is placed beside the deck in the countdown row.

2: Investigation
The agents have access to recorded phone conversations, bank details, personal files and all other public or private records pertaining to all citizens. You can use your turn to access this type of data and get more details about anyone who has come under scrutiny: do this by choosing a card from the 'Open' stack, either red or black. When you choose a red card, describe how the data you access explains or clarifies what you already know, answering a question that had been raised; when you choose a black card, the data accessed just raises further questions about the identity, connections or motivations of the citizen or organisation being Investigated. In either case, put the card chosen in the 'Closed' stack, which effectively acts as a discard pile: cards in the 'Closed' stack are out of the game.

3: Intervention
Agents can get out in the field at any time during a mission, collecting more information from witnesses, suspects or crime scenes, or even taking direct action to protect, capture or neutralise a person of interest. There are any number of ways this might be done: flashing their authorisation (even if faked), infiltrating events under cover or launching an assault against a suspect location. Whenever you commence a field Intervention on your turn, take the current 'Open' stack, turn it face down and shuffle it thoroughly.

An intervention is played out as a separate scene, taking place in the field, with the player who began the Intervention naming a goal for it. They then act as lead agent in the field; the lead agent sets the scene and controls the 'Open' stack during it, drawing and assigning cards as required. Every significant action taken in the Intervention (getting past security, bypassing a locked door, capturing a suspect, fighting off an attack, etc) requires a card to be drawn from the 'Open' stack: if it is red, the action succeeds fully, but if it is black, the lead agent has a choice. They can either fail the action or push it: if they push it, they simply draw and discard the top card of the deck, or place it in the countdown row if it is a King, then carry on with the field operation. If they fail it, they are taken out of the Intervention in some way and must pass the 'Open' stack to another player to continue it, who then becomes the lead agent. In both cases, the Intervention continues until the current lead agent determines that they have successfully met their goal or that the goal is now unobtainable, or until all agents have have failed an action in this Intervention and their is no-one left to continue it. Whatever happens, all cards drawn from the 'Open' stack are discarded to the 'Closed' stack and all remaining cards in the 'Open' stack are also discarded when the Intervention ends.

Highlighting Characters

Rafu provides two options for adding more definition and personality to the player-characters: the first option is a very light change to the rules which can be easily implemented; the second takes more work from all concerned but gives the PCs' own stories a more pivotal role in the proceedings. Both are quoted verbatim here, with thanks to Rafu for sharing these hacks.

The Small, Inconspicuous Hack: In-Character Chatter

During play, you'll often be tempted to discuss what-ifs and the significance of the evidence collected so far. You know, stuff like: "Wait! If Mr. Bocelli refused to get screened by the metal detector at Bruxelles airport, it means what the man we know as Ivan Ilic stole from his hotel room must have been..."

Do it, then, but do it in-character. It's not the players discussing the story, it's their characters discussing the case. Whenever you feel like making such a comment, do it in your character's voice - maybe you are at a briefing or debriefing meeting, maybe you're just rising your head and voice over your computer cubicle at HQ while everyone's busy screening different pieces of video, or talking over an encrypted connection into your team-members headpieces the very moment you put your fingers on incriminating paperwork. Any replies are considered to be in-character too.

As a side benefit, since you'll probably take your turns Observing and Investigating in an out-of-character, director-like voice instead, adhering to this rule makes for a sharp distinction between when you are declaring fictional facts as your binding game move vs. just making up conjectures as table chatter.

The Bigger Hack: Making it Personal

Not recommended with more than, uhm, 4 players perhaps? And only use this hack if you are planning an ongoing series, not just a one-shot (or maybe introduce these rules from episode #2).

You have a character sheet. On your character sheet, besides your character's name, mark what your Personal Card is - for example, "Aces" or "7s" (in all suits). To each player a different Personal Card, please. You can't choose Kings, because those are already reserved for the mission failure countdown.

On your character sheet you can, at any time, write down your Personal Strengths - skills your character most notably excels at or most extraordinary personal traits. You can have any number of Personal Strengths and you can add more whenever you wish, but they have no quantifiable effect until you get to draw checkboxes next to them.

Your Personal Card coming up represents your character's personal life and issues either getting mixed up with the case, in the worst possible way, or otherwise taxing them and impacting their ability to carry on the mission. This manifests as spotlight time for scenes which "waste" turns, not advancing the mission. As a trade-off, you get to activate your Personal Strengths for later use - to save the day or just have an easier time progressing in the mission when you really need it.

When any player - you included - takes an Observe action and happens to draw your Personal Card from the deck, resolve the Observe action as normal, but the card goes to you instead of the Open stack. When, during an Intervention, any player but you chooses to "push it" and the card they draw from the top of the deck happens to be your Personal Card, it goes to you instead of being discarded to the Closed stack; keep playing the Intervention as normal. You could, but don't have to, introduce personal elements to the observation or field action, if fictionally appropriate, to pave the way for the upcoming personal scene.

When your turn comes and you are holding a Personal Card, you have to frame a personal scene instead of Observing, Investigating or Intervening (you may think of this as "skipping a turn"). After acting out a personal scene, put the Personal Card where it belongs - Open or Closed stack - at last, and draw a checkbox next to one of your Personal Strengths (you choose).

A personal scene demonstrates a problem your character is facing. It can be just a conversation between your character and any other team-members, or it can be something more dramatic. If multiple personal scenes come up during the same mission (you have, in fact, 4 Personal Cards in the deck: one per suit) keep escalating that same problem to new heights or depths.

If you are the lead agent in the field, "push it" and your own Personal Card comes up, then something happens to reframe the whole Intervention into a personal matter. Whatever was originally at stake is lost, failed beyond any hope of recovery, but you get to set new stakes for the Intervention - as long as those are strictly personal matters to settle, which don't really advance the mission. You can't pass on the lead anymore: if you draw a black card and choose not to push it, the Intervention is over and you lost (with regard to your newly-established personal goal). Whichever the outcome, this Intervention "doubles up" as a personal scene, thus you get to add a checkbox. You don't have to skip your next turn either: you've effectively skipped this one, by failing to achieve the original Intervention goal.

So, what are Personal Strengths good for?

When on your turn you choose to Investigate, you can cross out an unchecked box next to a Personal Strength to benefit from that particular skill or character trait in your investigation. Choose a black card, and the data you access answers a question anyway - like a red card would. However, it *also* raises further questions, as appropriate to a black card.

When during an Intervention you choose to "push it" and have any unchecked boxes available, you can check one instead of drawing and discarding from the deck. You overcome the obstacle or challenge by taking actions specifically related to that Personal Strength of yours.

When the mission is over - no matter whether successfully or not - "reset" your character sheet by crossing out any boxes left unchecked. You retain any Personal Strengths you named, of course, unless you decide those don't apply to your character anymore. Any notes you made about your escalating issue you retain as an addition to your backstory, but next time your Personal Card comes up in a future episode, start over with a new issue.

Optional (hack of the hack): track the escalation of your personal issue on your character sheet. If all 4 of your Personal Cards come up during the same episode, it escalates to a stage where you're out of the case! As a player, keep taking turns to Observe or Investigate, but that's what the team does, not what your character does: your character is out of the action until the end of the current episode. You can't use your Personal Strengths and you can't choose to Intervene - in fact, you can't take the lead or even be featured in field intervention scenes (so there's one less team-member to go through before the Intervention fails).


A mission is complete when justice is done or when a target is safely secured from any further threat from a particular source: it's up to the players collectively to weave a story together that ends in their success, but a failure can be determined by the cards. Each time a King is drawn from the deck, it goes to the countdown row: Kings never go into the 'Open' or 'Closed' stacks. The moment a third King is drawn and placed in the countdown row, something occurs that forces the end of the mission in failure for the agents: perhaps the target they were trying to protect is killed or the criminals complete their plan, getting away with millions. Whatever the worst outcome is for that particular mission, it happens when the third King hits the countdown row.

You can soften the above hard ending by giving the agents a chance to continue; you can even play this as a series, so the failure of one mission is a set-back, not the end of the story. When you hit the third King, pick up all the cards and shuffle them back into the deck. Now you can begin a new mission, with all the information you had from the previous one, taking the failure of that mission as the starting point for the next.

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