Game Mechanic - Altruism vs Self-Interest

edited June 2011 in Story Games
Okay - looking for a little design direction.

Been working on a game with a focus of altruism vs. self-interest (this would be Horde of Corpses, the zombie game I posted about a while back). A friend suggested an interesting mechanic which I'm trying to incorporate...here's a breakdown, and the issue I'm dealing with.

At the beginning of the game, you'll generate a party of survivors - each player chooses a character, which is then their Active PC. All other unchosen characters are referred to as Inactive. At any time a player can switch to an Inactive PC, moving their character back into the Inactive pool (borrowing from Gregor Hutton's Remember Tomorrow, there). So - periodically, the group will be attacked by zombies or some other threat (i.e., other people - there's a mechanic to determine the frequency of these attacks). When attacked, one of the Active players is killed - unless they spend a Survival Token (a finite resource, say 3 per player at the start of the game) to shift death to another Active PC. That player can spend a Survival Token to shift it to an Inactive PC, while a third player can spend a third token to prevent the death from happening at all.

So - it's cheap to prevent your own death, but costly for the group as a whole to protect everyone. If an Active PC dies, they must switch to a new Inactive PC.

My issue regards the endgame - currently I envision the endgame being initiated when there are only as many characters as players. But what prevents players from hoarding Survival Tokens until the endgame and then spending them all to ensure nobody dies at that point? It seems pretty anti-climactic. I have some ideas for how to encourage players to spend tokens up front, to ensure a lack of them in the endgame...or to mitigate their use in the endgame, but I'm curious what you guys think. I've toyed with using a party tracking sheet, like Warhammer FRP 3rd Edition - something that tracks party tension and provides feedback for social breakdown (letting people die increases tension, etc).

Comments

  • Posted By: AlexMayoBut what prevents players from hoarding Survival Tokens until the endgame and then spending them all to ensure nobody dies at that point? It seems pretty anti-climactic.
    What if the hoarding resulted in characters dying left and right, just so one tricky SOB could get himself out, easy as lyin', at the end?
    I would recommend losing your aversion to hoarding - let the players have more choice about when they spend tokens.
    At the same time, there could be a way to gently incentivize spending them earlier on, possibly by making them slightly less effective later in the game. No idea how to do that, at the moment, but it could revolve around the number of deaths-so-far, the number of tokens already spent, etc. I'm sure there are ways.

    I like your idea!
  • Posted By: AlexMayoBut what prevents players from hoarding Survival Tokens until the endgame and then spending them all to ensure nobody dies at that point?
    How about finding a way to make this very application of the tokens more dramatic, or thematically evocative? Tie the use of the tokens to thematic advances in the fiction. Take a cue from Apocalypse World and use the opportunity to constrain the players a bit. Maybe you say that when you spend the third coin, you have to either get someone free from trouble, or have someone come to the rescue, or have someone make a crucial discovery, and then when the player spends that coin, he chooses one of those and builds it out.
  • A) Simply going longer before the endgame gives you more resources for the endgame. Each time you survive a zombie attack with no death is another scene to go without the endgame occurring. If you hoard tokens, then characters will die quickly, leading to the endgame very fast. Making prolonged survival valuable in the endgame would incentivize keeping people alive as long as possible. The obvious way is to make Survival Tokens less valuable in the endgame compared to some other resource (characters gain new skills, perhaps). Or maybe a conversion rate: if you speed straight on to the endgame, then each Survival Token gets you X Endgame tokens. But each scene you play before the endgame adds 1 (or more) to X. So you want to have some Survival Tokens at the end, but you also want to spend some to improve your return on investment. (Balancing this will require some math and some playtesting, of course.)

    B) Make sure people really care about the unplayed, Inactive characters. This is a bit tricky, but if you can get it to work, then the fiction might take care of the mechanical side. Creating an emotional attachment between player and character will do this, though it sounds like other parts of the system might be working against that. Giving the characters meaningfully different capabilities will make the decision tactical, but still might do the job. When an Inactive character is gonna bite it, do you lose the helicopter pilot (Right as we're reaching the airport? come on, man!) or the scientist working on a cure for the zombie plague? Or are you gonna spend another token?

    C) Related to that, changing up the payment structure will do a little, too. Experiment with making the first buyout more or less than others: it costs two to save your current guy, but only one to save an inactive player. This will make the player see the first couple tokens as a sunk cost: I already spent most of the cost to save a guy, so if you will spend a little more, we don't have to lose anyone. But if you don't, then I spent my tokens for worse return than we really want. You might also change up the order of decisions: do people save more characters if the order is "first Inactive character, then your active character, then my guy" or "My guy, then your guy, then Inactive guy"? Try playtesting each way to see how it changes the decision process.

    D) Make Survival Tokens worthless or even of negative value in the endgame. Incentivize spending toward the end of the game, rather than hoarding. If the final boss monster adds your Survival Tokens to his strength, then you'll be wanting to spend those before you get to the endgame.
  • edited June 2011
    @Zac - I don't have an aversion to hoarding the tokens, per se. But I want it to be a compelling choice, not just an arbitrary way to ensure your character's survival in the endgame with no repercussions. Hoarding should be fine, but there should be a corresponding narrative cost that makes it a meaningful choice. I had flirted with the idea of increasing the cost with each death, so that spending them in the endgame would be more expensive than spending them up front.

    @ccreitz - One idea I've had is to require narration of the token expenditures. Spend one to save yourself, you narrate how your action (or inaction) results in the active player's death. Spending two, resulting in the death of an inactive character, and the blood's on both your hands - narrate that. Spend three and the group narrates how they were able to keep everyone safe. I like where you're going with this.

    @Mr. Teapot - B is great! I like the idea of giving all the survivors useful skills which must be preserved - and perhaps these skills can be 'earned' during gameplay, further increasing the desire to keep them alive. It also addresses something which has vexed me a little bit, namely why would a player feel compelled to hold on to a specific character, or to advocate for them? Maybe I'm over-thinking it a bit, and this will emerge in gameplay - I need to playtest some to see how people react to these elements.

    It may help a bit if I explain the game's other mechanic, namely how scenes are introduced.

    The game uses a standard deck of playing cards, at the beginning of the game each player draws 5 cards from the deck. Each player takes turns framing a scene, using cards from their hand as a guide as to what kind of scene they will frame, and serves to set the difficulty of their challenge. These break down as follows:

    Hearts - Fellowship, Altruism, Companionship, Solidarity
    Spades - Power, Authority, Domination, Leadership, Strength
    Clubs - Violence, Force, Coercion, Struggle, Duress
    Diamonds- Selfishness, Self-Preservation, Self-Interest

    Playing a numbered suit card sets your difficulty. You roll 2d6, of distinct colors (I'll explain that in a second) - added together, if they're equal to or below the number on your card, you succeed - if you fail, the GM narrates the repercussions of this failure. Other players can help or hinder this action by playing a card which is one higher or lower, thus increasing or decreasing the difficulty. This can happen as many times as players have in their hand. Face cards subtract one from the roll, two if it's a matching suit. Ace cards are automatic successes (no dice roll required).

    With regards to the different colored dice - one of these is a 'threat' die. At the beginning of the game, the GM rolls 3d6 to determine the current Threat. When a player rolls their dice, the number on the threat die reduces the Threat by that amount. When it hits 0 or below, the GM interrupts the scene at some point - the zombies or an enemy group has killed one of the Active PC's. After the scene is over, the GM re-rolls the Threat, taking into account negative numbers if it was reduced to -1 or below.

    So that's how the rest of the game works - if that helps...
  • Posted By: AlexMayo@ccreitz - One idea I've had is to require narration of the token expenditures. Spend one to save yourself, you narrate how your action (or inaction) results in the active player's death. Spending two, resulting in the death of an inactive character, and the blood's on both your hands - narrate that. Spend three and the group narrates how they were able to keep everyone safe. I like where you're going with this.
    Every word I said was spoken first by Vincent Baker, for what it's worth. You might be interested in this blog post, on giving the mechanics traction on the fiction ("IIEE with teeth").
  • Thanks for the link - that's very helpful...can't refer to it right now, as Vincent's blog doesn't seem to be responding to browser's pleas for attention.

    Really what I'm trying to model is one of my favorite zombie movie tropes, namely the disintegration of the survivor group - when strong self-interest results in the breakdown of the tribe. I initially had a dice pool mechanic. Each player had their own small pool of dice to be used to resolve challenges, and there was a larger group pool to which everyone had access. Players could take dice from the group pool as a one-time addition to their personal dice pool, but this would weaken the central pool - which would be needed in the endgame. I still kind of like that idea, although the survival token setup has a nice, direct feeling that the dice pool mechanic lacked.
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