Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Clairvoyance (and other ESP powers)

So we took a stab at playtesting (this is truly the second or third attempt) the ESP rules with psychic detectives. This is a complex sort of game for two reasons:

  1. The structure of the game is going to involve investigating mysteries which is trying ground for roleplaying. Why? There are all kinds of structural questions even without ESP or the paranormal. Things such as: if the PCs don't figure out the clues, do the characters? If the PCs go to solve cases based on things like narrative laws of drama (the killer must be someone we've met or no one will care) is that good for the game or not? There are procedural questions (should the GM try to be deceptive when an NPC lies or follow the TV experience where it's usually clear to the audience something is amiss). And finally stuff like: how good a mystery-writer is the GM anyway?
  2. With psychic powers the problem becomes much starker. How does a psychic detective stack up to a non-psychic one? How do you maintain drama and interest in the game when, in theory at least, a well made roll can "solve the problem from the character's lounge chair?" Is 'we know who did it but don't have the evidence' good fodder for the game? Or is it just frustrating.
But here's the real deal: If you (because you, reader, are so cool) just answered all those questions easily? Are you /so cool/ that your answers are good for everyone else? No. No one is. Even people (who actually are cool--and we know that scientifically) who read the JAGS blog.

We're not really going to try to be all things to all people, of course, but we think we have a plan for doing some best-fit rules and then being very, very clear about how we plan to use them. This, of course, isn't easy.

What Is ESP and Clairvoyance?
I don't mean the dictionary definition which I presume everyone kind of knows already. I mean in game terms, how do we sell these powers and such. The current answer is this: ESP is the "top level domain." It includes things like Precognition, Channeling (speaking to spirits), Clairvoyance and clairvoyance. Under those "second level domains" are more granular powers like:
  • Psychometry (Clairvoyance): Object reading
  • Remote Viewing (Clairvoyance): seeing what's inside the envelope or in another room
  • Medium (Channeling): Speak to dead spirits
  • Spiritual Advisor (Channeling): Ask a person's "spirits" what they think is good advice for them.
  • Combat Precog (Precognition): See a few moments into the future and fight like a Jedi
  • Forecast (Precognition): See what's going on vs. a specific question in the near, medium, or far future
And so on. We have a decent (if not complete) taxonomy of abilities and some (decent) rules around them.

What Broke?
What broke was the basic difficulty and Drama system. Our thinking goes like this:

  1. Problems (mysteries, questions about the future, trying to tell what's written on a piece of paper you can't see, etc.) have a difficulty level (in our minds it goes from 1-trivial to 4-hardest).
  2. Psychics have individual abilities (see above) at a given level (1-very basic, almost 'not psychic' to 4-super-hero level psychics).
  3. When the difficulty is below the character's level they can solve the problem pretty easily. When it's at the level they have an "okay shot" and when it's above the level it's hard. If it's two or more above the character's level? Almost impossible.
  4. The use of an ESP power is a JAGS Drama roll. That means that the character has a skill roll (say 13 or less) and makes three die rolls adding up how many points they made their roll by each time (missing a roll doesn't subtract points, you just get zero). You need to hit a certain level in order to succeed. Between rolls, if things are not going so well, you can take "maneuvers" such as risking burning your mind out or calling evil spirits or whatever. These risks get you more Success Points (SPs) towards your goal but can go varying degrees of wrong. Some maneuvers aren't risks--they're just things you do--like getting a prized belonging of the target to 'object read.'
  5. The final note here is that a normal mystery could be solved much the same way: the detective has their detective roll and makes three rolls taking maneuvers like "questioning witnesses" (probably not a risk, just some roleplaying) or "roughing up the underworld" (probably a risk).
What broke was our ability to correctly judge the difficulty of a problem (or, well, that didn't exactly break--the GM deemed it too hard to do) combined with a lack of concrete vision around what the results should be for various levels of success.

The number one thing that was broken though was the actual running of the drama. The rules called for a Psi-Skill that the PCs didn't have (we faked it using WIL rolls) and the difficulty numbers didn't make sense (we had to mock up a table quickly to fill the gap there). There were at least two "missing powers" (Know Fact and View Remote Area) that ought to be there in some capacity. There were some typos.

How This Seems To Be Working
The issue of determining how hard a psychic problem is is vexing. Part of me thinks that if the game master doesn't create the system themselves they're going to find anyone else's list of guidelines insufficient. That said, we certainly need a lot more by way of guidelines for whatever we do. 

The basic element of the "guideline" is the "Use Case." A use case is an example scenario where we write down what happens step-by-step and the reader (or analyst) can see how that example plays out. Use cases should illustrate the principles the system is based on. We had some spotty examples (nothing as robust as a real use case) and lacked a collection of principles.

What Use Cases Were We Missing?
Well, the GM wanted to know what would happen if you wanted to use some version of ESP to get the correct answers on a test. All our examples were for individual cases ("What is the card on the table right now?") and while we realized that statistically there had to be some error rate the system wasn't well set up that way (i.e. we would not expect any L2 Esper to get 100% on any multiple choice test by guessing--the hit rate shouldn't be that good--although that's what the system implied because with low stakes involved and minimal security the failure rate for test-style questions would be pretty low).

We also wanted to know if someone hiring a hit-man was L2 (standard difficulty) or L3 (hard) since there was a level of distance than if they'd done the hit themselves (conclusion: hiring people is pretty standard so it shouldn't be utterly impenetrable). Finally there was a question about how to impress someone with your psychic mind tricks. There was no real metrics for that (although, again, I think it was an overly harsh reading of what was there that led to the implication that there was no good guidance). 

However bad the examples were, though, the lack of principles were worse.

So one of the things we know for sure when dealing with psychic detectives is that if the game involves them sitting in a bunker and making a bunch of rolls it's not going to be very exciting. We want them to have to go out and investigate, talk to people, and so on. Kind of like a real detective but with more juice. 

Principle 1: Most Psychic Results should get the PCs to go out and do something to capitalize on them.

Right now this is being framed, by me, as the principle of "actionability." How good you roll should determine how immediately actionable your data is. If you get the name, address, and location of damning evidence for a murder that's highly actionable (go out and collect the smoking gun then go pick him up). If you get a general description and a vision of him at a Starbucks you might have to frequent a lot of starbucks over the next few weeks looking for someone who matches. Then you'd have to follow them or something. It's intermediately actionable. If you get a general description and nothing more? It might come in handy later when ruling someone out--but it's not actionable at the moment.

Principle 2: Date Comes In Letter Grades.

We aren't fully sure how to handle "vagueness" because getting vague information is very difficult for the GM (how vague should it be? Especially if it's supposed to still be 'useful.'). However we know that using a sort of A, B, C, D, F system (letter grades) is useful for a lot of things. For example, the test question--but it's also good when any use of the ability returns a number of results: the better your letter grade the more of the complete result set you got. 

Principle 3: The GM Can Say 'No.'

If I want to know when a criminal's next crime will be committed and the GM has no idea there are two possibilities: (a) make something up and stick to it or (b) simply tell the Player "It is unknown ... always in motion is the future" (in a Yoda-like voice). The second isn't satisfying but it may well be far better for the game. Forcing the GM to make up data that may be crucial and isn't well thought out can hurt play and puts a lot of pressure on the GM. Giving the GM the ability to work with the PC to formulate another question (probably keeping the same roll) is a way to avoid that problem.

Principle 4: Successes Where The Question is Bad Should Not Be Inherently 'Deceptive' (a question can be blocked)

This is common: the Player asks "Should I do this: yes or no!?" and the answer is "maybe..." The GM has no real idea if the player 'should.' That's a judgement call. Now, we can forbid that sort of question but it does crop up all the time "Dear Psychic Hotline? Should I ask this girl out?" Well, she's crazy--but she might be your kind of crazy... if the GM has to give a yes or no answer and the character didn't get (or ask for) further information then answer can't be correct. 

It may also be the case that the situation is just more complicated than the player thinks. If a jewelry store owner is threatened by the mob and forced to steal her own jewels and the psychic asks "Did she steal the jewels?" the answer is "Yes ... kind of" (the real motive force behind the theft were the mob bosses). Certainly if the character gets enough data to see everything then that becomes clear. But when there's just a little the GM should have a way to make a success not necessarily be deceptive.

We do not want the game to devolve to asking the exact right questions. We want a mechanic that will inform the character that there is some larger issue at hand.


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