Saturday, April 11, 2015

Designer's Notes - Wicked Lies & Alibis

I recently launched a new game; Wicked Lies & Alibis, a whodunit roleplaying game set in the age of art deco.  I thought it might be interesting to briefly discuss how this game came about and the thinking behind some of the key design decisions that were made.

It all started when I was playtesting a new EPOCH scenario - Harvest - which was subsequently published in The Experiment Continues.  One of the suggested setups for the characters in the opening scene is that they are old friends who are travelling together to sprinkle the ashes of a recently deceased friend from the cliffs of her remote, coastal, hometown. This background served no purpose to the scenario beyond being a reason that the characters travel together to the town where the scenario begins

EPOCH is designed to encourage the players to construct interesting backstories for characters with a specific flashback mechanic.  As my playtest progressed the players began to focus on the story of the deceased friend, and created a Tarantinoesque story involving a drug-deal gone bad, double-crossing and finally death.  Each player used their flashback to show a different way in which the friend was badly injured during these escapades, but concluded with the friend being alive when they last saw them - implicating the other characters.

So engaging was this story of betrayal it came to compete with and even eclipse the scenario plot.  That led me to conclude that EPOCH worked pretty well to support this kind of a game. But what, I wondered, would a game that was explicitly designed to generate this kind of story look like?

I have always found it interesting that in most murder mystery stories the crime itself is fairly straightforward; the bulk of such stories are the lies, obfuscation and twists that the guilty, and not-guilty, weave in order to hide their secrets.  It seemed to me that there was a neat game experience to be had in recreating this kind of game for the tabletop, focussing on the human drama and secrets of the suspects, rather than the procedural aspects of following clues and deduction.

I started with character creation; EPOCH does a pretty good job of supporting the players to generate interesting concepts from a few card-based concepts which could be fleshed out in much greater detail over a single session, so I borrowed these mechanics - but there were a few tweaks I wanted to make.  For example, in the past I'd observed players complain they simply couldn't reconcile two randomly dealt character creation cards, and sometimes players would even agree to swap cards.  So, I decided it would be important to give the player several options so they could pick a combination of cards that suited them from the outset.  I also added a motive card which would have obvious importance for later in the game.

In EPOCH I suggest using a group relationship to help players establish an identity relative to one another.  For Wicked Lies & Albis I wanted this relationship to have a mechanical effect, so during the opening scenes each character can play a connection (which they specify) on another character, and both players look at each other’s secret motive and circumstance cards, binding them together in a way that enables them to help or incriminate one another later in the game.  During playtest this had the greatest impact when players established close relationships, particularly immediate family.  It also means that some characters might end up being heavily connected (and knowing a lot of other people’s secrets) which I think helps reflect the reality the way social groups actually work in real life.

The game itself is split into two parts.  The opening scenes serve to ease the players into their characters, and to interact in order to establish some basic relationships.  Another EPOCH device that I’ve slightly refined this is also where the GM does the scene setting and introduces the future victim, and at the conclusion, the means of their demise.

The System
The second part of the game is perhaps the real meat of the game experience.  I wanted the characters to be able to tell stories of the victim’s demise, and ultimately accuse each other – but I needed a way to balance the different skills and experience that players bring to the table, and create a story framework that was constrained enough that it could evolve over the course of the game, and where the key elements could be remembered by the players. 

My solution was to create a deck of accusation cards.  Each has an element that incriminates another character somewhat (for example the character has a violent temper or previously threatened to kill the victim), and a player draws three such cards in each of four rounds and choses one to play on another character at the table in order to incriminate them as the potential murderer.  Played cards remain on the table as a physical reminder of the story and where the weight of accusations sits. 

In the hands of some players these cards support the framing of a detailed flashback scene which culminates in an accusation; for others less interested in exercising narrative control, simply making the accusation across the table is sufficient.  There are also alibi cards that allow a player to cancel an accusation played on another character by providing an alibi, rather than making an accusation.

The key is that the accusations can fit any context that the players construct – for example we know the character of the actor has a violent temper because it has been narrated in an accusation that they assaulted a theatre critic who reviewed them poorly – now that we know the actor is violent and probably ambitious, so a further accusation might infer that perhaps the victim was preparing to fund their next theatrical outing and reneged at the last minute, or perhaps they were a beneficiary of the victim’s will and needed a cash injection to promote their career... As the accusations are played, we learn more about the character and their motive to murder.

So while the accusation cards provide elements of a story framework, the players are the ones who really shape the story.  Playing multiple accusations on a character allows players to build on one-another’s stories, and ultimately each is a vote for which of the emerging narratives is most compelling.  This is an unusual experience for the players as they begin the game with total autonomy over their character, but in the second part of the game, they give up some of this autonomy and gain a level of narrative power over other characters, while still remaining in the skin of their character. 

During this phase the GM takes a formal facilitation role through the NPC of the Great Detective, who already knows the identity of the murderer, but will only reveal this once the secrets of the key suspects, and their attempts to obfuscate the truth, have been laid bare.

Playtesting the game yielded a further element – players wanted to have the opportunity to respond immediately to accusation made against their character, by turning them back on their accuser.  So I added the Prime Suspect card (given to the character with the most accusations) which allows this to happen once per round, providing some disincentive to piling accusations on one character, while also providing a physical reminder of which character is soon to face charges for murder.  This all comes to a conclusion in a formal end scene, where each player provides a conclusion for their character.

So, how does this all work?  In my experience Wicked Lies & Alibis supports an almost entirely player-driven story experience, and balances interaction so that everyone at the table has a fairly equal degree of participation.  It manages this without needing a 10,000 word scenario or the threat of character elimination that is the modus operandi of EPOCH.  All the GM needs is a deck of cards, a one-page case summary and to have some idea about the Great Detective they want to portray.

That said, much like EPOCH, I imagine this won’t be a game for everyone, it’s pretty non-traditional, dispensing with attributes, skills and characteristics, and my perusal of relative sales status of DriveThruRPG titles suggests that while investigation is common in many popular RPGs, dedicated murder mystery RPGs don’t seem to have a huge following.  There’s also the need to assemble the deck, which is obviously a much higher bar to entry than simply grabbing your trusty dice and a pencil.

As always, it took much longer to pull together all the material I wanted to include than I initially imagined.  Following on from the example of EPOCH scenarios I wanted to offer some detailed facilitation notes to explain how to get the most from each phase of the game, and some summary materials to make the GM's life easy at the table (as a regular 'con GM I am a big advocate of simple reference sheets).  Then there is the historic context - I wanted to set this during the art deco period (mid 1920's- late 1930's) to parallel the 'golden age' of detective fiction, so I wanted to add a few historical details, but as this wouldn't be the focus of the game, I didn't want to get bogged down in this material, so I hit on the idea of introducing selected historical themes in the same way you'd introduce an NPC - some general details to enhance the flavour of the game.

So, that's a high-level overview of creating Wicked Lies & Alibis.  It makes it sound a much more orderly and planned experience than it actually was - at it's heart this is a game that evolved from a tabletop experience, and was refined through further gaming and experimentation.  

[Cross-Posted to Wicked Lies & Alibis]

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