Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Can't You Change The World?

Wednesday morning at Origins is not an exciting time. The sad people who failed to file their paperwork online (like me) get to stand in line a lot (and, as ever, convention lines are such a perfect microcosm of the hobby) but once that's done, it's all "Ok, time for breakfast and wondering what to do today". That's about where I am. I've sat down in the Origins Food Court (which is probably the best food court I've ever seen - it's at least 50% real food) with an omelette and coffee and about 65 minutes before this is supposed to post. So, not much convention to write about yet, but thankfully, something's been niggling at me.

I enjoyed the recent BBC series "Sherlock", a modern re-imaging of Sherlock Holmes. It's only 3 episodes (whose quality I would sequentially characterize as fantastic-ok-great) and available on netflix streaming. I strongly recommend it, for a variety of reasons.

One element in particular has stuck with me though, that of conspiracy. It is clear over the course of the episodes that there is something bigger, just out of sight, and while that something is predictable to any Holmes fan, it's handling is excellent. What particularly grabs me is that Holmes feels like his awesomeness has elevated him, but in doing so has brought him close enough to something that had previously been too high to see. It's an idea I love: that reaching the apex of awesome reveals to you the next mountain to climb.

This idea is relevant to any game with super-competent PCs (Leverage, for example) and it's an extension of a classic questions pressed through a strange lens. If these guys are this good (and by this good I mean cinematically good, which is another way to say "explainable super powers") then why haven't they changed the world?

One answer - one that makes for a specific but very interesting style of play - is that other people of similar competence got there first with the same idea. That is to say, cinematic competence can be fuel for a conspiracy game just as surely as any supernatural element can be.

What's fun about this is that it's very easy to flesh out the NPCs and their capabilities, because you just have to ask yourself the simple question of what your characters would need to do to change the world, then assume these guys have already done it. Your character might be badass enough to build up vast wealth and a personal spy organization - and those are great goals - but it gets complicated when there's somebody out there who has already done this.

And it gets doubly interesting when the fact that you're doing this means that you're drawing their attention.

This mode works fantastically for "high level" play in a reasonably mundane setting (like the real world) because it solves the two big problems that comes with that. First, it introduces challenges which _don't_ undercut the awesomeness of the players, and in fact, reinforce it. Moriarty's not terrifying because he's smarter than Holmes, he's terrifying because he's _as smart_. Same for your PCs.

Second, it addresses the XP issue. There comes a point where just buying up skills feels like throwing points away because everything important is maxed out. This model give the opportunity to start investing XP in the world (building up your resources, base, followers or the like).

Anyway, there is obviously more to this in a good conspiracy game, but for the time being just think about what it means to have other people in the world who are as good as your PCs - just a few of them - and what that means for the world and for your group.


  1. "There comes a point where just buying up skills feels like throwing points away because everything important is maxed out. This model give the opportunity to start investing XP in the world (building up your resources, base, followers or the like)."

    I felt like quoting this because it highlights something that's been bothering me for a very, very long time, Rob. After a fashion, you have to ask yourself what the point of investing in skills or hit points or whatever, because after a time it becomes almost... well, pointless in a way. Many systems 'cap' or hit a glass ceiling, yet you still have to reward players in some form for the things they do. Gear doesn't quite do it.

    Now, I'm not saying that spending XP for things is the right answer, but it's kind of a good nudge in the right direction. In XP-less systems, maybe instead of spending Development Points on the character, you could spend them on other things around the character. Such as hiring some cronies to gather information to begin your spy network, that sort of thing.

    Thanks for the interesting nugget, and I'll probably be checking out Sherlock. I think you may have given me some great ideas to use for my current high-level game.

  2. A very interesting post, Rob. I also immensely enjoyed the new Sherlock series and would love to see more of them. I think this idea would work in non-conspiracy games, too. Obviously, the BBEG could be as good, smart, etc. as any of the party individually, it's only their efforts as a team that bring the villain down.

    It brings to my mind another question as well. If your players aren't investing in the world in this way, why not?


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