Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hacking Fate: Capers, Part 1

The Fate system from Evil Hat is possibly one of my favorite modern RPG systems.  For me, it hits the sweet spot of mechanical complexity, where players have interesting tactical choices to make in a conflict, but aren't bogged down by needless complexity.  Each iteration the game goes through refines it even more, from its beginnings as a set of diced rules for Amber to the latest expression, the Dresden Files RPG.

I am also partial to a good caper: heists, grifts, and cons make for great viewing.  Until the Leverage RPG comes out, though, there's not much in the way of support in the RPG world for that type of game - but Fate's aspects seem perfect for the kinds of problems that grifters and thieves run into, and giving the players power to make declarations can produce a more involved caper than if the GM has to make everything up on his own.

The idea that really set me on this path was the Thaumaturgy rules from the Dresden Files RPG.  Rick Neal has a great post on how they work over at What's He On About?, but the key part is "The Story of the Spell", which Lenny Balsera also talks about in the Designer's Corner.  The basic idea is that the details of the preparations for the spell are not important in and of themselves - it's how they drive and flavor the story that is important.  The same thing is true for the setup for a con or a heist, and that's what I decided to play with.

Testing the First Draft

My first victims playtesters were my Diaspora group, who had just wrapped up a social conflict that got them hired to steal a confiscated shipment of medical supplies and transport them to a planet that desperately needed them.  Unfortunately, the rules in my head were murky and half-formed, and I think that contributed a lot to the confusion in the playtest.  I tried to combine the Thaumaturgy rules with Diaspora's social conflicts and created a mess that…well, it probably would have hobbled to the finish line eventually.  Here's the important points:
  • A caper has a primary skill, which is the main skill to be used in the caper.  If you're stealing something, it's Burglary.  If you're hacking into somewhere, it's Computers.  If you're running a con, it's Deceit. And so on.
  • A caper has a complexity.  You can run a caper whose complexity is less than your primary skill with no preparation.  If its complexity is greater, though, you need to spend some scenes building up by making declarations - that is, using other skills to provide bonuses.
  • Once you've reached the Complexity of the caper, the preparation ends and the actual caper starts.  I gave the caper a stress track based on the primary skill and made it a pseudo-character with the skill rankings of the skills used during prep.
  • Pulling off the caper worked like Thaumaturgy: each round, you need to decide how many shifts you are going for, then roll your skill to see if you could control it.  Originally I planned for the opposition to oppose these rolls directly - then I changed my mind and had the opposition attacking the caper's stress track and the caper defending itself separate from the rolls to actually pull the heist off.
Unfortunately, I broke one of the important rules of playtesting and changed how things worked partway through, decreasing the difficulty for the players significantly - and then we found out that everything resolved too quickly, as the characters blew through the actual heist in only three rounds, so it was definitely the wrong call to make.

What did I learn from this?  A couple of very important lessons:
  1. Be Prepared.  Have your rules ready and concrete rather than just a vague idea in your head.
  2. Stick With It.  When playtesting, just like in gaming, the middle of the game is not the time to discuss the rules.  Run through the entire segment, whatever it is, then talk about it later.  I think I made two major changes during the session.  Either one alone might have been fine, but both together made things end too quickly.
I also have a set of flaws with the rules as they stand:
  • the preparations seemed like "busy work" to the players - there was no real sense of urgency or of bad consequences if they failed.  I think some kind of time track or other mechanical push is needed here.
  • there was little sense of the actual plan for the caper.  Maybe there needs to be something to track the various stages: the pitch, the hook, the blow-off for a con.  Could the characters draw their own "map" for the con?
  • most of the players seemed to have a problem with the added level of abstraction of creating and using a "group" character for the con.  This is actually something I took from Diaspora but a) I don't think I had a good set of rules for creating the pseudo-characters, and b) it was too many new concepts at one time.
I'm going to go back and look at what I can steal from other games, too:  D&D 4e skill challenges and the caper scheme in the Scoundrel book for Traveller seem like good starting places, and it only makes sense to pick up the quickstart rules for Leverage.  

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