Wednesday, September 18, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] Cues and Aspects

So! Self-indulgent tangent time!

I was a music major for a little while -- like, four years -- back in the '90s, during my first go at college. Two years performance, two years composition. I left high school with really no understanding of music theory at all. I mean, I'd taken a fairly informal after-school "class" taught by our band director, but clearly I didn't get a whole lot of actual understanding out of it, because in college, if it was more advanced than basic counterpoint and harmony, it was a struggle for me. (I'm much better now. My ego compels me to say that.)

Anyway, when you learn music theory -- and forgive all this bloviating if you've done just that -- you generally start with Baroque music, and specifically the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (father of PDQ). Baroque music has all kinda rules to follow for it to be "right," and most of it becomes second-nature after a while. Like, avoid parallel motion if you can, and parallel fifths in particular, and this chord wants to resolve this way while that chord wants to resolve that way, and so on. These rules inform all Baroque music, but we study JS Bach because, among other reasons, he's the GOAT.

The thing is, though, Bach and his contemporaries didn't study these rules the way we do. We've reverse-engineered these rules by analyzing their music.

Shift now to game stuff. I've said before that sometimes I see making a game like making a machine: You build it for a specific function, and the more maintenance you have to do on it, the more problematic it is. From this perspective, houserules are maintenance. Relying on the players to ignore problems or exploits because they "get it" is maintenance. I want to be able to send a game out into the world and have it work for everyone else the same way it works for me.

In this case, I want a game/machine that, if you input players and characters, and everyone follows the rules, it produces a Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars story. But a Sparks Nevada story is a lot more than whiz-bang action and shoot-'em-ups. Those things, in fact, usually have very little prominence. There's probably only one fight, often even just one shot fired, in an average episode. While it looks like an action-adventure story, it's way more character-focused than you might expect. What keeps me coming back is the characters and the way they relate to one another. If a Sparks Nevada game can't produce something like that, whether or not the players know the source material, it's not much of a Sparks Nevada game, if you ask me.

One of my favorite nudge-them-into-roleplaying mechanics is The Shadow of Yesterday's (and Lady Blackbird's) keys (called milestones in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying). A few weeks ago at Gateway I ran a Saturday-night Firefly-ish Spelljammer game using the Fantasy Heroic rules from the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide, and coming up with the pre-gens' milestones was integral to getting those characters "right." I loved that the goblin mechanic could earn XP simply by complaining about the ship, or that the Githyanki monk could do the same by offering up a cryptic aphorism. These have nothing to do with complicating the character's life or even spotlight time, really. It's just offering the player roleplaying cues.

The thing I love most about keys is that when you use them correctly, you may feel (as I did) like you're abusing the system, or getting away with something. But you're not! It's a trick. All you're really doing is playing your character to the hilt, because you're incentivized with small, immediate rewards for injecting personality and color into the story.

In other words, it's a perfect mechanic for Sparks Nevada. I want Sparks to be annoyed with Croach, or announce that he's... from Earth. Likewise, I want Croach to inform Sparks of an increase or reduction in onus owed, or to drop vaguely unsettling comments about his egg sacs or multiple esophageal tracts. To me, these fly under the aspect compel's radar, primarily because they're lousy, weaksauce compels. They don't get the characters in trouble in any way. They're fun, but hardly worth a fate point. But it's these little character moments that give the show its, well, character. And for a hack like this, that's absolutely vital.

These are essentially keys, but I'm calling them cues, partially because I'm treating them a little differently, and partially (largely) because I'm writing for my intended audience, whom I figure will more easily parse "cue" than "key."

Every PC has three cues: two Scene cues, and one Episode cue. You can hit a Scene cue once per scene, and an Episode cue but once per episode/session. When you hit a Scene cue, refresh one aspect. When you hit an Episode cue, refresh up to three.

(I'm not 100% on the Episode cue's benefit there. You'll only use it in one of two circumstances: you desperately need to refresh multiple aspects and don't have a lot of time to do it, or you've already used your Scene cues this scene and are just using your Episode cue out of necessity to refresh fewer than three aspects. The right way to do this will depend on how exhausting an aspect ends up working, as I mentioned in yesterday's post. Maybe a better option would be "Refresh an aspect and gain a fate point." Dunno. The point is, the reward is getting to exhaust an aspect again for a +3, which is something we want people doing anyway because it calls attention to various facets of their characters in dramatically appropriate circumstances. That's not cheating or working the system; it's being bribed to play up your character's personality, which leads to a fun, memorable game. Everyone wins.)

So maybe these are Sparks' cues:

  • Scene: Act annoyed with Croach.
  • Scene: Call attention to how great you are.
  • Episode: At a dramatically appropriate moment, justify your course of action by reminding everyone that you're... from Earth.
And maybe these are Croach's:
  • Scene: Tell another PC your onus owed to them (or vice-versa) has just increased or decreased owing to something that just happened in the story.
  • Scene: Make specific reference to some bizarre feature of your Martian physiology, or humans' lack of same.
  • Episode: Rank a sensation. For example, "This is the fourth-worst pain I have ever endured" or "Your face is the seventh-most pleasing face I have ever beheld."
In other words, this is just reverse-engineering mechanics based on an "analysis" of (i.e., "re-listening to") episodes of the show itself. And hopefully, those mechanics will successfully create a play experience that feels like a Sparks Nevada story. For example, It's a rare episode in which Sparks doesn't pull the "I'm... from Earth" thing, but he doesn't run around saying it all the time, either. However, bickering with Croach? Calling (totally justified) attention to himself? Pretty common behaviors for the Marshal on Mars.

Next time: messing with stunts!

Related but non-Fate P.S.: BTW, my first whack at a Sparks Nevada game is based on Apocalypse World. There, cues get you either 1 XP or 3 XP. This essentially replaces stat highlighting as the main route to advancement.

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