Thursday, 20 April 2017

What's On Your Mind?

Way back in 2014, I created a short story game about telepaths living in a police state: in The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of a citizen of an oppressive state, only one of the characters is a telepath who can hear the other characters' thoughts. The game asks whether you can identify the telepath among you but also, if you can, what will you do about it? Turn them over to the authorities? Or protect them from the state's fury? I've since contributed an extended version of that game to an anthology project called The Imposters, which is currently being Kickstarted. The game itself has a history behind it that I've wanted to talk about for a while, so this seems like the perfect time to do so, as well as talking about The Imposters.

In The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of an ordinary citizen in an authoritarian state, going about their daily business: the twist is that there are telepaths among them who can read their every thought and the state takes action to oppress these telepaths as a matter of security. The inspiration for this came not from dystopian fiction but from the ways in which role-playing games are played at the table. Games mostly tend to be open, with all the players sharing what their characters are doing as they do it, but with the understanding that other players won't abuse their out-of-character knowledge to take in-character actions that they would otherwise have no reason to. Some other games are closed, with players secretly passing notes to their GM to secretly instruct them in what their characters are secretly up to, secretly.

During one of my game-design splurges, I wondered what a truly open game would look like, one with complete transparency, where you not only said what your character was doing, but explained and dissected their reasons for doing it. This kind of table-talk does occur in games which use stake setting, so that everybody is on the same page in regards to the motivations of the characters and what they expect to achieve in any conflict. For example, in espionage & conspiracy related games like Cold City and Hot War, it's not uncommon for characters to appear to want one outcome when they really want something completely different, but it's essential that this is communicated clearly before any dice are rolled in a conflict, to avoid unintended outcomes.

I began the game design with that simple premise, that any player could ask any other player what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any point in the game and that you had to answer honestly when asked. The next step was coming up with a story-telling framework that made sense of that one mechanic, something which would be supported and strengthened by this total openness over character agendas. Perversely, it seemed like the best story for this mechanic was one in which characters were encouraged or expected to keeps secrets: there would be no point in knowing what a character's true motivations were if they were as transparent as their actions. Therefore, something with secrecy and subterfuge, where a character might legitimately be thinking things that they didn't want the other characters to know.

For short games, I'm a fan of minimal exposition, so I like to to use familiar tropes as settings, with a statement like "This game is heroic fantasy" or "This game is gritty space opera." My favourite sort of elevator pitch is one that begins "It's like the modern world, but..." because then I know everyone instantly has a picture of what to expect. That's what I defaulted to when beginning the design of this game idea, so it already had that "contemporary but with a twist" shape in my mind. The criteria I had so far then were:

  • A game in which you could ask other players what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any time.
  • There had to be reasons for characters to keep secrets and/or want to unearth the secrets of others.
  • The setting would be pseudo-contemporary, with a twist that explained the above two points.
This suggested an element of conspiracy and paranoia, but I wanted to avoid something like spies on a secret mission and keep the game grounded in what the players were familiar with, so the paranoia had to be domestic, the kind of thing where neighbours spied on neighbours... a police state, in fact. That was the key that unlocked the design, the idea that the characters all lived in a fascistic state that curbed their human rights, which also felt like a hot topic for play: what would you do as a citizen of that state?

Setting a game in that situation wasn't sufficient though: what if everyone decided to play a 'good citizen' of the state? It would be pretty dull if none of the characters had anything to hide; also, what was the deal with always knowing what the other characters were thinking? Where did that fit in? Things clicked together quickly here and I realised that telepathy explained everything: the state had grown to protect its citizens from an internal threat to national and personal security. As it was, the players could hear the inner monologue of other characters, but what if one of the characters could also hear it?

From there, the design flowed quite naturally, with just a couple of elements put in place to encourage characters to strive to find and expose telepaths and one player-character randomly & secretly selected as a telepath before starting to play. I wrote the game up as a blog post, but even as I was doing so, I was thinking of ways to change the premises of the game to elicit other behaviours in play, e.g. what if the telepathy power was stronger? What if more than one character was a telepath? What if none of the players knew how many telepaths were in their group? I made a few notes to this effect in a book group discussion-style and appended them to the end of the blog post, but I kept meaning to come back to the idea and expand the game with suggestions for many changes to the rules, in an extended appendix that would be titled "The Thought Experiment."

By 2016, I still hadn't done that, when Josh T. Jordan asked for designers who wanted to contribute to
an anthology of games with a conspiracy theme, with one other requisite: that the designers themselves struggled with Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that they were just bluffing their way through and expected to be exposed as a fraud at any moment. That struck a chord: I have no idea how to design games, I just muddle through and make what I like, with the vague apprehension that some other people might like them too. It's actually somewhat reassuring that even other well-published designers like Josh struggle with this feeling of being an outsider and somehow not part of the club (oh my Bob, I don't even know the secret handshake! Is there a Club Song too?)

Anyway, The Thought Police with its appendix and The Imposters seemed like a good fit (or they were after some ruthless editing to the appendix to get it in under the word count allowed.) Instead of an appendix though, the alternative rules are scattered throughout the text as notes from a revolutionary underground seeking to change the narrative presented by the state, because I enjoy subverting my own texts. As of writing this, the Kickstarter is more than halfway to it's goal after just one week and that feels pretty good: perhaps not a cure for imposterdom, but certainly a treatment,