[Dirty Secrets] Solo Story Gaming and Subverting the Czege Principle

So I’ve had this idea for a while. As a fiction writer, I’ve been historically good at writing scenes, but not so good at “what happens next.”

As a GM, I’m used to managing multiple counter-motivated NPCs. This is the whole point of Trollbabe; you create a web of wanty but agency-less characters trapped in a power equilibrium. Then you throw a Trollbabe character, basically made of 100% agency, into the mix and see what happens.

I thought, “well, why not take this up a meta-level? I could GM a couple of NPCs playing Trollbabe with each other, each fully committed to his own Trollbabe-appropriate agenda. I could use it as a kind of story-driving engine to help me write stories.” If I got stuck, I could always imagine that the NPCs were actual people I know - “what kind of thing might Mike come up with here?” - to get around the whole “creative stagnation of one person” problem.

This has to do with this idea, from Vincent: “As far as I'm concerned, the purpose of an rpg's rules is to create the unwelcome and the unwanted in the game's fiction. The reason to play by rules is because you want the unwelcome and the unwanted - you want things that no vigorous creative agreement would ever create. And it's not that you want one person's wanted, welcome vision to win out over another's - that's weak sauce. (*) No, what you want are outcomes that upset every single person at the table. You want things that if you hadn't agreed to abide by the rules' results, you would reject.”

I think that this can apply to one person engaging in a creative act just as well as an entire group. The point is to have more satisfying writing sessions and to produce a higher quality end result by engaging with a procedure than I would solely through the activity of my imagination.

This idea has been on the back burner for a while. Then last month I got Dirty Secrets. Dirty Secrets seemed like an ideal framework for this project. First, because the Authority and the Investigator are already clearly defined meta roles that it’s easy to think of as NPC forces. Second, because Dirty Secrets takes the traditional approach to drama and turns it upside down. Instead of during-prep creation of a network of counter-motivated NPCs that the PCs then encounter, the point of play is to generate iterations of that network that emerge during play.

Someone, I forget who, a long time ago said that play is the process by which we generate the next iteration of a character sheet from the previous one. Dirty Secrets takes that idea and applies to the whole game.

There are a couple of tweaks required to make this work. First, I need an alternate conflict resolution system. I hacked together a quick kludge: the Authority and the Investigator roll Sorcerer dice. The loser loses dice equal to the number of successes the winner got. To generate Violence, roll three dice against the winner’s highest die. In violence scenes, the violence is the number of dice that come up odd from both rolls combined. This works pretty well, but still needs some tweaking in terms of die size, etc. (For example, the violence check dice need to be a different size from the rest of the dice, or you’ll have either a 0% or a 100% chance of violence any time someone wins with the max die value.)

Second, I need some clear behavior heuristics for the Authority and the Investigator. I learned this from playing a few days without a clear idea about the motives of the Authority and the Investigator. At the start of the game, you have a bunch of “Character” cards that exist only as packets of census data with no connections. The Investigator’s job is to take those blank slates and generate story-map connections between them through Revelation scenes. Those connections become facts in the game. The Authority’s job is to stop that from happening.

Third, since the standard Story-Game way of making characters interesting (i.e., making counter-motivated characters who run around spewing emotions and agendas all over the place) is - as a design feature - denied, I need some other techniques to make the characters interesting. I figured this is a good spot to take a page from the Coen brothers; their characters are initially defined by individually distinctive appearance, and by voice. When we meet a character for the first time we get hooked because of how he looks and because of how he speaks. We only discover over time what that character wants.

I’ve played for a few days with good, but mixed results. Mixed because of two things: one, I didn’t create new characters from the blank character cards quickly enough, and, two, I pre-created too much story map when generating the initial situation. Old habits die hard. The characters have got to be unknowns going in, or it won’t work.

This is getting long, so I'll stop here. I've been having a good time with this project though, so I'm going to keep experimenting with it.

-N

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