Friday, 26 May 2017

The Leviathan Manifesto

The title above might sound like one of those thick-as-a-brick Len Deighton novels, but in reality this post puts together a number of ideas that have been fermenting in my head for a while. Ingredients in this heady stew are the TV programme Person of Interest, current events relating to security and personal liberty, and many years of online discussions about the best way to conduct investigative RPG sessions. There's also some reference to classic social theory, whose origin I hope should be obvious from the title. What follows is a both a nano story game and a statement of my personal philosophy about certain types of game, where the players have to investigate a mystery and put together the clues they find to come up with a solution.

Knowing & Doing

The State sees almost everything: cameras watch us in public and at out work places, 24/7. Our
Person of Interest, CBS, 2011-2016
personal details are harvested from our online transactions and our private files are subject to government scrutiny. We can hide nothing from them. This may be the way things are in the near future or how they are right now; you may be working for the State or rebelling against it. What is known is that you have the keys to the kingdom: free access to any piece of information the State has collected about it's citizens.

This level of scrutiny has a drawback though: the machinery of government sees everything but understands nothing. The eyes that watch us have no comprehension of what they see, they merely observe and collate, storing the data without the knowledge of what it signifies. There is a vacuum in the process: your role is to fill it. With unrestricted access to the personal lives of tens of millions of citizens, your job is to pick out the ones who pose a threat to themselves or others and to defend those who are unaware that they have become a target for violence.

Using the above premise, you can play this as a game of maverick heroes tapping the data to help ordinary people, or you can be the State's ultimate sanction, an elite team of operatives who work to bring criminals to justice or even prevent crimes from happening. Think of the personal back story of your character and how they came to be involved in this, writing the concept down in a short sentence or two. Don't worry about their personal skills or abilities: you are all multi-talented experts and you all work in a team that supports each other as needed, so you can always call upon the exact speciality that you need as you need it.

Surveillance & Research

Start each new mission with either a criminal/violent incident (bank robbery, unexplained explosion, security breach, murder, etc) or simply have the system throw up an identity flagged with a 'suspicion index'. Keep the initial details to a minimum: the time & location of an incident or the name, age and gender of a person of interest. The game then continues as an investigation into that incident or person, following these two principles:
  • Every question will get an answer.
  • You may only act upon what you know.
The first principle is the most important: answers are never kept from the players, so the trick is asking the right questions. There is an element of time pressure applied by both the rules and the situations the characters are in, so they can't simply ask every question they can think of, they need to focus on what they need to know and then act upon it swiftly. The results of their investigations, and the time they have remaining to conclude them, are mediated via a deck of standard playing cards. Each player takes it in turn to perform one of the following actions. going around the group until the mission reaches a conclusion.

1: Observation
Starting from the initial seed data about the incident or person to be investigated, agents may call upon video footage from any camera and there are presumed to be cameras in all public and business locations. In order to Observe, you must first name a time and place you want to see, or a particular target you want to follow forwards or backwards from a named time and place. It's up to you what you choose to Observe, but you must be able to describe it in the above terms: you can't ask to see "the murderer's current location" or "the site of the next murder." Time passes in a linear fashion, as normal, so you can't see past the current moment in time, and the time you spend Observing is time that passes in the mission.

When you Observe, draw the top card of the deck and turn it over: you always observe something, no matter what, but it is only relevant on a red card; if the card drawn is black, the data you collect is either irrelevant to the investigation or is relevant but complicates the mission unexpectedly, e.g:
  • You Observe someone you know personally, interacting with the target.
  • The target is revealed to be working with someone else, adding another suspect to the mission.
  • The target is Observed to be doing something they should not know how to do, raising a question over their identity.
Basically, a complicated answer should confirm or support the information you were acting on, but then raise questions that might also need to be followed up to complete the mission. Whoever provides the answer, and any complication, does so in terms of what might be seen or heard on the video footage collected: they can't reveal the thoughts or motivations of those observed. The card drawn is then put face up in the 'Open' stack, unless it was a King of any suit, in which case it is placed beside the deck in the countdown row.

2: Investigation
The agents have access to recorded phone conversations, bank details, personal files and all other public or private records pertaining to all citizens. You can use your turn to access this type of data and get more details about anyone who has come under scrutiny: do this by choosing a card from the 'Open' stack, either red or black. When you choose a red card, describe how the data you access explains or clarifies what you already know, answering a question that had been raised; when you choose a black card, the data accessed just raises further questions about the identity, connections or motivations of the citizen or organisation being Investigated. In either case, put the card chosen in the 'Closed' stack, which effectively acts as a discard pile: cards in the 'Closed' stack are out of the game.

3: Intervention
Agents can get out in the field at any time during a mission, collecting more information from witnesses, suspects or crime scenes, or even taking direct action to protect, capture or neutralise a person of interest. There are any number of ways this might be done: flashing their authorisation (even if faked), infiltrating events under cover or launching an assault against a suspect location. Whenever you commence a field Intervention on your turn, take the current 'Open' stack, turn it face down and shuffle it thoroughly.

An intervention is played out as a separate scene, taking place in the field, with the player who began the Intervention naming a goal for it. They then act as lead agent in the field; the lead agent sets the scene and controls the 'Open' stack during it, drawing and assigning cards as required. Every significant action taken in the Intervention (getting past security, bypassing a locked door, capturing a suspect, fighting off an attack, etc) requires a card to be drawn from the 'Open' stack: if it is red, the action succeeds fully, but if it is black, the lead agent has a choice. They can either fail the action or push it: if they push it, they simply draw and discard the top card of the deck, or place it in the countdown row if it is a King, then carry on with the field operation. If they fail it, they are taken out of the Intervention in some way and must pass the 'Open' stack to another player to continue it, who then becomes the lead agent. In both cases, the Intervention continues until the current lead agent determines that they have successfully met their goal or that the goal is now unobtainable, or until all agents have have failed an action in this Intervention and their is no-one left to continue it. Whatever happens, all cards drawn from the 'Open' stack are discarded to the 'Closed' stack and all remaining cards in the 'Open' stack are also discarded when the Intervention ends.


A mission is complete when justice is done or when a target is safely secured from any further threat from a particular source: it's up to the players collectively to weave a story together that ends in their success, but a failure can be determined by the cards. Each time a King is drawn from the deck, it goes to the countdown row: Kings never go into the 'Open' or 'Closed' stacks. The moment a third King is drawn and placed in the countdown row, something occurs that forces the end of the mission in failure for the agents: perhaps the target they were trying to protect is killed or the criminals complete their plan, getting away with millions. Whatever the worst outcome is for that particular mission, it happens when the third King hits the countdown row.

You can soften the above hard ending by giving the agents a chance to continue; you can even play this as a series, so the failure of one mission is a set-back, not the end of the story. When you hit the third King, pick up all the cards and shuffle them back into the deck. Now you can begin a new mission, with all the information you had from the previous one, taking the failure of that mission as the starting point for the next.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


First of all, a big thank you to all of you who backed The Imposters on Kickstarter, an anthology of conspiracy themed games that I contributed to. It set off a chain of thought about conspiracy theories, which leads me here: a short game you can play online, via text, or in person. You will need access to Wikipedia, a pocket encyclopedia or a fact finder.

Everything is Connected

If you're playing this online, start by going to a random article on Wikipedia; if playing face-to-face, open your encyclopedia or fact finder to a random page. Whatever article you find is your starting point for this chain of conspiracy; the first player then does this again to find a second article. They then have to link the first article [x] to the second  [y] in one of the following ways:
  • y secretly controls x
  • y is trying to destroy x
  • x is a hoax perpetrated by y
On your turn, you have to explain the link between the previous article and the one you have randomly chosen, using whatever arguments or evidence you like, but you can't just claim it to be true, you have to present your conspiracy theory. An example of a chain might be like this:

Starting from an article about Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Virginia, the next random article concerns Oregon Route 41, so I have to link those in one of the three ways dictated above; I might say that the High School is a hoax perpetrated by those responsible for the highway. Using the school as a kind of cause celebre, they plan to gain sympathy from the public and more funding that will enable them to extend the highway all across the country, allowing those 'poor, needy children' to get fast access to the West Coast! In actuality, this is all part of the plan by the highway authority to take over the country!

The next article is about Zum Roten Bären, the oldest hotel in Europe, which is clearly the secret puppet master behind Oregon Route 41, using the highway as their beach-head in their planned invasion of the USA! Soon, there will be a chain of Zum Roten Bären hotels stretching all the way across the United States! Bwah-hah-hah-hah!

The next link in the chain is Benoît Laffineur, a French swimmer who competed in the 1976 Olympics and clearly wants to destroy the hotel, as he has his own plan for world domination by way of raising the sea levels so that everyone must enroll in his swimming academies merely to survive in a flooded world! If the hotels are built, then the citizens of the USA will learn to swim in the pools provided by all those hotels, depriving Benoît of his customer base! Curse you, Zum Roten Bären... he might say.

Etiquette for Conspiracy Theorists

There are some guidelines to follow when playing, to keep the game fresh, fair and interesting:
  1. Don't use the same connection as the previous player: if they used y secretly controls x on their turn, then you must use one of the other two options on yours.
  2. Explain yourself: don't just state the connection, explain it. What is the motive of y and why is it targeting x?
  3. Be brief: other people are waiting their turn, so don't go into huge detail about the conspiracy, just provide the highlights.
  4. Sharing is caring: whatever is said can be unsaid, so your contribution is not set in stone. A later chain in the conspiracy can reveal any of your statements for the sham they are and, equally, you should consider everything that has already been said as open to reinterpretation and even contradiction on your turn.

Don't Believe Everything You Read

Image result for conspiracy theoryThe game suggested above is just one way in which it could be played, with no real ending: just play until it stops being fun. There are a couple of alternatives you could try to add some strategy into the exercise though.

Conspiracy Radio: play competitively. The first player chooses two articles, then opens the table for the other players to each contribute their own version of the link between the two; once everyone else has proposed their connection, the first player chooses one of those answers as 'correct' and passes control of the game to the 'winning' player. That player then chooses the next article and repeats the process: you can either score points for winning or give each player a number of 'lives': they lose a life each time they are not chosen as the 'winner' and the games ends when any player loses their last life, as the Conspiracy shuts down all this speculation the hard way...

Crosstalk: another competitive version, but in this, any other player can challenge your statement about the connection between two articles, challenging you to answer a question about it. They pick another random article and challenge you to explain how that fits in to what you have said; if you can't, they score a point, but if you can, you claim all their points or score a point if they have none. You may only be challenged once on your turn and, if you aren't, you score two points; play passes on to the next player as usual. The game ends after a fixed number of rounds or when any player reaches a particular score.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Twilight of the Gods

or, You Can't Teach an Old God New Tricks

What follows is a very special playset for Blood & Water: the rules stay the same, but the setting and assumptions are different. This playset is based on an idea by Scott Dorward, adapted from his notes.

Shade Orchard

What happens to the Gods when their believers dwindle and their powers fade? The Gods can never truly die, as long as someone in the world still believes in them, so they find ways to pass the quiet millennia. Shade Orchard is a nursing home with some very special residents, though the staff remain largely unaware of this; a significant number of the people living here are in actual fact the Gods of various pantheons who have settled in for the long haul. Though individually weak, collectively they have enough power to cast a haze about their home that prevents the mortal staff from asking too many inconvenient questions.