Monday, January 23, 2006

Fixing the Lone Wolf Problem

This is a follow-up to my last entry. In particular, I want to look at my second suggested method for dealing with the Lone Wolf Problem:

Multiple players share the single heroic character. Each of them might have a different agenda and different commitments (some of which they may be able to impose on each other). This would be a more appropriate method for dealing with complex characters with significant internal conflict.

This is something that I've been struggling with for quite a while. A few years back, I was working on creating a game called Standard Deviants. This was a science fiction game in which the players would portray members of a group of clones that have a psychic bond forming a sort of hive mind. It was heavily influenced by Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. The PCs would be deviants within this group who would be different enough from the other Standards (i.e., clones) to upset the psychic balance of the group. Ultimately, the game design came to a standstill when I couldn't come up with a compelling idea for what the characters would actually do within the setting I'd created. The idea itself, though, was an early attempt at shared narrative control of a single character (in this case, the group organism of the Standard Group) by splitting up the aspects of that character and assigning them to different players.

I'm fairly convinced that this could work - and work well. Something not wholly unlike it is used in Wraith's mechanic of shadowguiding.

Now, in Standard Deviants, as I conceived it, each player has a distinct character capable of independent actions while being constrained somewhat by the actions of the group as a whole. If we treat a single character as a Standard Group and assign each player to an aspect of the one character, however, players become much more constrained by the other aspects. There is no physical independence of aspects.

Can players have a satisfying game experience if they lose control of their character? One of my big frustrations in gaming is when a character I am playing succumbs to some sort of mind control or paralysis, and I lose control of that character. I certainly don't want to build a game mechanic where that loss of control is a central feature. This strikes me as a potential danger. I don't want people to be sitting around bored and doing nothing while one person has narrative control of a shared character.

Here are some thoughts toward one possible solution:

Each player has one or more desires/passions/goals. For now, I will just call these agendas. Agendas have power. Player's can spend the power of their agendas to accomplish things or prevent things from being accomplished. Player A can bribe Player B with the power of A's agendas, offering to help B in the pursuit of B's agendas. In return, B might (1) promise to assist with/interfere with/refrain from interfering with some future action (2) allow A to narrate the specifics of the action. While (1) allows some interesting negotiations between characters, it is (2) which I find to be an interesting possibility. Let me give you an example:

Meet Albert, our protagonist. Albert is a computer hacker in high school. He's overweight and has low self-esteem. He's thinks he is in love with his best friend Shannon, who is dating Robert, a football player who treats her poorly.

There are three players, who each have three Agendas which largely line up with each other (but may be contrary to the agendas of other players).

Player A: Agendas - Idolization of Robert, Desire to be accepted, Believes himself unworthy of Shannon
Player B: Agendas - Jealousy of Robert, Hatred of the establishment, Thinks Shannon is buying into society's view of what is attractive and seeks to open her eyes to the truth
Player C: Agendas - Desire to escape reality, Hatred of Self, Wants what is best for Shannon

Let's assume that there is a scene in which Albert confronts Robert about how he has been treating Shannon. Depending upon who has narrative control at the time, that scene could turn out very differently. What would happen, though, if one of the players traded narrative control away for some resource with the agreement that the player gaining the narrative control would use it to accomplish a particular task. For instance, let's say that Player C has initial control in this scene. Her main goal is to convince Robert to treat Shannon better. If she were to do this on her own, she might debase Albert in the process. Player A or B, however, might offer C something in order to take control of the scene while still generally meeting C's primary goal. Player A might appeal to Robert's better nature, feeding his ego and then pointing out that he is above the sort of behavior he's shown in the past. Player B might berate Robert, pointing out how Albert would never treat Shannon like he did.

The idea here is that everyone would have a chance to influence every scene. I would obviously need some sort of mechanic behind this, determining who gets narrative control, how things are accomplished, and how power is measured and transferred. I'm toying with the idea that the only impediments to success in this system would be internal ones. Nothing that the gamemaster (if, indeed, there would even be one) puts in the players' path would be insurmountable if they are willing to pool their power. Would such a system work? Has something like this been done before? I don't know...

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