Monday, 18 June 2007

Pentasystem: Radicalization

The Pentasystem just gets more radical as I go along. I mean that in a couple of senses. Firstly, it started out in very early concept (before it was called Pentasystem) as a generic "adventure" system. "We're adventurers. Our motivation is - adventurosity." Not quite as bad as that, but definitely towards the pulpish end of things.

Of course, Spirit of the Century has this pretty much sewn up, and if you wanted to play the game that was my original concept, SOTC would probably cover it reasonably well. So as the Pentasystem has evolved, it's as if it's searching for an unoccupied (or at least less occupied) evolutionary niche, and is wandering through the possibility space attempting to achieve a comfortable distance from what is already there. Or something. And that seems to be a game of radicalism - challenging the status quo at a basic level. Which is odd, because although I describe myself sometimes as a spiritual descendant of radical Anabaptists, I'm really fairly conservative in my day-to-day life.

Anyway, a couple of threads at Story-Games are currently pushing my "that's intriguing" buttons. Not surprisingly to me, both of them involve TonyLB, who is more or less my muse of gaming for some reason. I just like the way the guy thinks. The questions he asks push light switches in my head.

One of them, started by Tony, is The Power of Class-Based Systems. Pretty nearly everyone chiming in there is saying "classes = good" in the sense of giving you a good start towards a character definition, and this fits with a direction I was already moving in with attributes and derived attributes. Basically, a primary attribute with a whole set of derived attributes is (kind of) a class. It isn't necessarily just a "what do I do" class, though. You can have an attribute Mage which is a "what do I do", but you can have an attribute Dwarf which is "who am I" with a bit of "how do I think", or an attribute Earthist Mystic which is "what do I do", "who am I" and "how do I think" all wrapped up together. In D&D your abilities are defined by class, and your stats are modified by race, while national origin, religion and so forth are largely colour. In TSOY, race and national origin are two independent variables which define what Secrets, etc., you have access to, and your abilities work together to define what you do. In the Pentasystem, it's all attributes, all the way down.

The other thing that's come up in that thread - because Tony is talking specifically about his game Misery Bubblegum, which is all about how other people's opinions of you contribute to your identity (it's a teenage setting) - is that the whole Best Friends chargen thing, where your character's abilities are determined by the other characters' jealousies of you, is another good way to define characters besides class. This is where Enmeshment comes in. It's ultimately based on Best Friends, and gives attributes to other players' characters (and to elements of the setting, and so forth). I need to work more on the "unreliability" of all of this - not only the attributes given to you by others' opinions, but the attributes you give yourself, perhaps. All your attributes are subject to change (unless you lock them); maybe that's enough.

The other thought-provoking thread is one on analyzing GM-less games, which now that I look at it again doesn't have anything in it from Tony at all - but several people reference his game Capes. Ben Lehman says:

There is no inherent need for a GM in a role-playing game. So just write your game, say who does what when, and playtest it. If it isn't fun, or if you see people doing things that are not part of your who does what when, then clearly you need different rules.

And light dawned for me. I'm holding on to a GM-like figure (the Opposition) in my design because, well, you need someone to provide adversity for the other players, right? Because the Czege Principle says you shouldn't provide your own adversity, right? And someone needs to manage all the bits of the setting and situation that nobody else is managing right now, right?

Um - why? Why can't you set it up so that players provide adversity for each other, just as a natural consequence of playing the game (I believe Capes does this really well)? And since the group is collectively defining the world, why do you need to have someone who's in charge of the world? Why not say: "OK, A, you're positively enmeshed with the Lunar-Asterist Church, so you run that aspect of the setting. Define it however you want (but you pay resources for anything that has mechanical effect). You over here, however, B, you're negatively enmeshed with the Lunar-Asterist Church, right? So you are going to adversity the hell out of A, and vice versa, whenever the L-A Church comes up, because that's what's going to reward you. Plus, you get to say that things are true of the Church as well, and if A disagrees, you get to have a conflict over it. Whoever wins - that's how it is." (Actually it may be better to have someone who's not enmeshed either way be the one to run the setting element, which is how the rules currently read.)

Which leaves a lot of detail to fill in, and some questions (like "What happens if there is someone pro but no-one anti?", to which the answer may be "that setting element simply doesn't get fought over"). Plus, it moves it much closer to Shock:, and I wasn't really wanting that, because Shock: seems a bit too abstracted for me. Definitely gives some design challenges. But also, if I can pull it off, marks it out from the pack of slightly-drifted-trad-games, which is where I started out.

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