Ideas On Mechanics To Encourage Emotional Investment (The Dark Roads)

edited June 2014 in Story Games
So I'm working on a side project best described as "Firefly in a weird alternate version of the 16th century Ottoman empire with wagons instead of spaceships influenced by renaissance esoterica and Islamic folklore." For those of you with an interest in the full setting/premise pitch, it can be found HERE .

Characters in The Dark Roads form the crew of a Thunderer caravan who go from fortress-city to fortress city along obsidian roads built across earth long ago during the war for heaven trying to stay ahead of the Sultanate's Jannissaries and make a semi-honest living doing whatever jobs come their way. The crew is supposed to be a Firefly, Farscape, or Wagon Trainesque loving but dysfunctional family made up of misfits, rogues, and crooks.

Right now I'm working on character creation and have come to a bit of an impasse that I hope you folks will be able to help me out with. I'm trying to include, as part of character creation some sort of mechanical decision that does the following simultaneously:

Defines a character's "place" in the caravan. Not necesarily their job, but the part they play in the social dynamics of the crew. It's helpful to think of Joss Whedon shows here to get an idea of what I'm talking about: how Kaylee or Xander are the "heart" of their respective bands of misfits, or how Buffy and Spike or Inara and Mal's sexual tension and mutual snarking define them.
Encourages them to act the part. HX from Apocalypse World and it's ilk does a great job of showcasing connections between characters, but barring Dungeon World most of these mechanics don't actually encourage exploration of those relationships during play. Which is one thing that I'm especially interested in.
Helps define the structure and properties of the wagon itself. Uncharted Worlds, an AW hack for FIrefly is doing something similar with it's careers granting special ship parts, but I want something a bit different. I just have this image in my head of a wagon filled with tense and adversarial relationships being heavily armored and fitted with wicked spikes, while a wagon filled with sarcasm and witty repartee is light and quick, mostly made of wood stolen from the forests of the jinn and bedecked with warding sigils. You know, that sort of thing.
Does so with a minimum of fiddly bits. I've toyed with players asking questions of other people's characters and narrating "establishing scenes" that describe their relationships, as well as tokens that people can give to other players to give them bonuses and narrate aspects of their characters relationships but both of those struck me as too complex and fiddly. I want something simple and elegant, not a complicated subsystem that will be continually referenced during play.
If possible, I'd also like this same mechanic decision to encourage teamwork between crew members, with the choices the crew makes at this stage effecting the outcome of such team ups. Something like comrades in arms being more effective at laying down covering fire for one another, while lovers would be a great at putting themselves at risk for their beloved.

So with those design goals in mind, I'm looking for raw unfiltered ideas from you guys, gals, and folks of non-binary gender persuasions. If you can think of an idea or mechanic you've seen, developed, or (better yet) played with that you feel encouraged this sort of behavior and had these sorts of mechanical effects let me know. I don't care where it comes from: ttrpgs, video games, computer games, board games, your drug-fueled late-night musings on the nature of reality. I just want to be able to get over this hump, get past this writers block, and be able to write the rest of this gorram game!

Thank you in advance for all of your thoughts!


  • Sound like a great rp setting! I'd definately play it, I always seem to end up in some oriental campaign anyway! I like the idea of the enchanted caravans, please tell us more about that!

    First thing that comes to my mind is Lady Blackbird, it's also very close to Firefly in spirit and addresses the issues you're looking for. It's with pregenerated characters, but I'm sure you can work something out if you'd look into it (if you don't know it already).

    Secondly, I'd elaborate those establishing scenes. There's the moment when players either bring a vague character concept or a blank slate to the table, and then the actual roleplay. If you use that window to combine character generation and rules briefing with actually working out a character step by step and together, with special attention to dynamics. Those questions are a good idea. If the system can guide them, you plant the seed of great roleplaying later.

    If you know why you like Firefly (you seem like you do), try to reverse engineer it and use the parts to guide your character creation. And make it shared.
  • edited June 2014
    Defines a character's "place" in the caravan. /.../ Helps define the structure and properties of the wagon itself. /.../ I've toyed with players asking questions of other people's characters and narrating "establishing scenes" that describe their relationships,
    To make people invested in something, you need to build an interaction model where the participant takes it's values, project them into the game world—or wherever the interaction takes place; it might be a discussion between the participants—and adopt the view through the response from the interaction. The updated view will then again be projected into the game world, in what can be seen as a circular loop of interaction.

    I quoted the parts where I thought you touched this briefly. A discussion within the group is one way of creating this interaction model, like discussing the hierarchy of the group and brainstorming it's structure. If you provide a good enough structure about this, with questions about different topics and sometimes leading questions to steer the group's mind in a certain direction, interaction will come by itself. You could also let the game suggest relations and create a structure so that the group have to get an insight in how things are related to each other. What needs to be done is to give out "tools" that will create different results depending on how they interact together, but still leave room for interpretation so the participants can be a part of this.

    Another way of creating an interaction model is to let the group build the characters together. If I suggest a character and someone else build on that, which I have to adopt to, then we got a circular interaction. To be acknowledged like that also brings an intrinsic reward, and the more the interaction loops between different participants, the more they will be invested through both the intrinsic reward but also through the time they spend making all this up.

    To play out a scene is also a way of interact; to have a curiosity to where things will lead or to learn the other characters by playing out a scene and see the participants' reactions. It's like I said earlier: take a value, project it into the game world, adopt to the response that comes from the interaction in the game world.
    If possible, I'd also like this same mechanic decision to encourage teamwork between crew members, with the choices the crew makes at this stage effecting the outcome of such team ups.
    I personally like systems where as soon as the character does something, that will define them in some way. Psychodrame does this in a really good way, where you can only take actions through the way you usually handle things—avoiding, confronting, manipulating, helping—and through a personality trait—anger, despair, love, and many more. I'm not suggesting to use those exact words, but to use that kind of thinking. The combination of them will create different results depending on their interactions.

    If I want people to interact, I make sure they can use their abilities on each other or make the characters half-empty so that they need someone else to make them go through things. There is no possible interaction if only one person is available, so let the game only let people succeed/proceed if they are with someone else. Provide a structure where what the group discussed earlier will come in to use. I prefer games where you can start anticipate what can happen—to start to see different events that may occur—but never be sure of it's outcome.

    I recently read a paper that said that planning can motivate people to reach the goal. If the brainstorming at the beginning of the session also creates a planning stage of what to come—often by knowing the structure of the game in advance—that will motivate people even further to want to play this out.
  • edited June 2014
    Are you familiar with Misspent Youth? It has an interesting setup where each player has "relationship questions", leading questions that they put on their sheet at the onset of the game. e.g., "Why didn't you reveal my treachery to the rest of the group?" or "What made you decide to follow me home after work?" Each scene gets framed by a relationship question. When it's your turn to kick off a scene, you pick one of your relationship questions, and you use that to get things going, focusing either on that specific question, that topic, or the fallout of the question.

    I'm also a fan of the technique of "ask a question, get an honest answer from the player", although it steps out of the character headspace.

    Another thing you might want to ponder is how the Firefly RPG (the new one) treats non-tangible Assets (like "One of My Crew d6" or "Zoe's Got My Back d8" or even "Browncoat Camaraderie d6") just the same as physical Assets (like "Higher Ground d10" or "Meditative Preparation d8").
  • And, as long as you're looking at CORTEX, check out how smallville/CORTEXdrama handles relationships. It rewards playing to relationships, but also playing against them as a mechanism to redefine them.
  • Oh! And here's another idea to read up on: Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine uses "Emotion XP reactions". By using specific telegraphed gestures (like a thumbs-up or a facepalm) to communicate that a character is provoking a particular reaction from you, you can award their player XP.

    It sounds wonky, but in play (as long as you don't get hyperanalytical and refuse to play along in a sportsmanlike manner) it works out really well. I find that initially it's a bit slow, but as you get used to giving reactions to other players, it starts making those emotions easier to slip into, which means players get more enthusiastic about reacting to characters.

    It's really cool.
  • edited June 2014
    @johnthedm7000 - I'm just posting to say what an awesome fucking idea this is, and to volunteer as a playtester when you're ready for that.
  • @Asif Thank you! As it stands, I'm only just now trying to finish up character creation. When I do, I'll put the rules out to have people make some characters to ensure that that part of the system isn't broken. Once I've fixed any bugs from that "character test run" I'll put together a playtest group for The Dark Roads Alpha.

    @CarpeGuitarrem I've heard of misspent youth, although I've never played it. Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine is admittedly completely new to me. I like the idea of leading questions during character generation-it does strike me as very much akin to the AW system's HX/Bond/History questions like "You've fought side by side with this person" or what have you. Phrased differently perhaps, but a similar idea.

    What I played around with briefly was a mechanism actually not too far away from Misspent Youth's scene framing mechanics or FATE's scene editing through aspects, using descriptive elements of a character's role in the caravan, with scenes where 2 or more characters were present giving the option of combining descriptive elements to set the scene. It turned out to be a cool idea, but it's not exactly what I'm looking for. I want the social interactions between characters to arise organically and call out what makes each character's role in the caravan significant, rather than being a product of explicit "before this scene starts" negotiation and discussion.

    If that makes any sense?
  • @Maracanda I'm glad that you like the setting idea. I just realized that I was a dinkus and didn't actually link to the setting info that I wrote up. HERE is the actual link. Sorry about that folks :) That should provide a bit more information on the caravans, the role of Thunderers in the setting, and the general theme/aesthetic that I'm going for.

    I find myself surprised that I didn't think of doing something to riff off of Lady Blackbird sooner, especially since it was one of the inspirations for Fear The Living's relationship mechanics. Okay, in that vein here's what I'm thinking:

    1. Characters have a role in the Caravan, like The Heart or The Taskmaster that corresponds to their place in the social fabric of their little dysfunctional family.

    2. Your character's role gives you a benefit that helps the caravan out as a whole. So a Caravan with a Heart on board is much better at recovering from negative conditions and crappy morale whereas a Caravan with a Taskmaster aboard is organized and efficient.

    3. Related to #2, your role relates to the piece of the wagon that you brought to the caravan when you joined (it's traditional for new Thunderers to bring something to the wagon that they can make use of, as a sign of good faith. After all, if everyone has a stake in the wagon, they're going to defend it with their life.)

    4. @Rickard While I said that I wanted to stay away from explicit scene-framing mechanics, I've looked at some reviews of Psychodrame and I really like the use of multiple aspects of a character's personality that are combined to create a particular action.

    Riffing off of that, I'm thinking that when the characters interact together outside of conflicts that their roles "focus" each other, enabling each character to receive a more individual temporary boost or benefit. So say the Taskmaster and the Heart are secretly in love, and steal off together for a night of passion beneath the stars. The Taskmaster might remove a condition affecting them, while the Heart might get Advantage as part of the conflict they're involved in.

    So actually, kinda like AW and Monsterhearts Sex Moves, except more like "Camaraderie Moves" that provide a general more passive benefit for the caravan as a whole that's only augmented when the characters show a real interest in one another and interact together.Or to put it in AW speak "With time and intimacy."

    What do you folks think?

  • Looks great, this setting of yours! I haven't read it all, but it definately kindles my imagination. If the rules system looks alright, I definately want to help you playtest it.

    Also thanks to Rickard, who lucidly formulated some of the underlying social mechanics, it helps me too!
  • Awesome! As soon as I finish up the basic rules and character creation, I'll post them here and on rpgnet for everyone to critique/build characters. Thank you all for your wonderful feedback and support!
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