Monday, January 26, 2009

The Werewolf Mafia, On Fire

As I noted a while back, Cartomancy is, for now, dead, but I have a new project. I think that new project is far enough along (that is, I've actually written something down - amazing!) that I can talk about it without dispelling all my inertia.

One of the places I haunt is Story Games Community, a message board for people who play games that tell stories. It's a fun board, recommended to me by my friend Albert on a day that RPGnet failed to amuse. One day, I saw a post on the Story Games board about a Werewolf Mafia game. I clicked, intrigued, and was disappointed to discover that they were talking about the party game Mafia (also called Werewolf) and how to allow "dead" villagers to continue to play make the game more of a story game.

But the seed, the seed was planted.

For me, werewolves are up there with ghosts, paladins, and tarot cards on my list of plot and setting elements that continue to fascinate me in strange and mysterious ways. And the mafia, well, I'm not particularly fascinated by the mafia, but one of the things that's interesting about urban fantasy is finding cool ways to port fantastic elements into a modern setting, little bits of sympathy between things that do exist and things that don't.

Werewolves and the mafia are a match made in hell. Humans who get power from their own inherent savagery, living in a tightly controlled environment to keep their own inherent violence in check... am I talking about werewolves or mafiosos? Exactly.

Here is my setting premise: in the wilds of (insert appropriate Italian locale here) an outcast mafioso was running from the family he'd betrayed, leaving behind the dead bodies of his wife and children, when he encountered a werewolf in the same situation. She was running from the wild werewolves she'd offended. The unlikely duo struck up a deal. She would teach him the secret of lycanthropy, and he would use his dwindling resources to transport them both to America, where they would both have a chance. Flash forward to the present day, and the werewolf mafia is growing in the United States. It is besieged on all sides by it's three primary foes: the mundane authorities, the conventional mafia, and the wild werewolves of America. However, the combination of supernatural power, and criminal savvy gives them an edge on every front. In a standard game, you play werewolf mafia types of this growing organization.

* * *

Is it three question time? I think it is:

  1. What is my game about?
  2. How does my game do that?
  3. What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Line 'em up and knock 'em down.

What is My Game About?

On one level, Werewolf Mafia (working title) is about violence and the legacy of violence. It's about violent friendships - physically and emotioanlly aggresive friendships, physically and emotionally abusive romances, physically and emotionally violent parenting - and how that kind of violence begets violence. How emotional violence can turn into physical violence. How humans get aggression from one tense relationship and take it out in another.

On another level, Werewolf Mafia is about having an emotional problem, the legacy of abuse (which can be violent, or otherwise) and being just ever so slightly aware of it. It's about that feeling us crazy people have of our inner tensions rising, of knowing we are going to do something stupid and being only barely capable of stopping it.

In those struggles - to escape the legacy of violence, to fight the rising tide of tension and craziness - is this game's drama.

How Does My Game Do That?

Ok, here is where we get a little systemy (systemic?). This is also where we run into the parts of the game I haven't quite finished and am not sure of yet.

A primary trait on your character sheet is your various relationships and a brief descriptor of what raises tension in that relationship. In some scenes, the GM (with the help of your fellow players playing bit parts) gives you the opportunity to raise tension in these relationships - though it's also possible to want to raise tension and fail, or want to avoid raising tension and have the tension raised anyway.

The tension in your relationships is the fuel you use to power your character's werewolf abilities. However, if the tension gets too high your character might lose control and lash out at the people in his life, potentially harming them or permanently damaging his relationships.

On top of it all - adding to a sense of lost control - is the moon. The moon moves through its phases, exerting more and more influence over your character as it waxes, making it more likely that she will completely lose it and transform against her will.

What Behaviors Does My Game Reward and Punish?

Werewolf Mafia rewards playing your character behaving like a jerk to the people in her life to raise tension in her relationships so she can channel that tension into her life as a violent mafioso werewolf. It also rewards your character trying to keep the tension in those relationships under control, because if things get too tense, your character might do something she can never be forgiven for.

* * *

What I have so far is the beginning of a game document. It needs a lot of work, and not all of it is written, and I haven't even touched the "flavor" yet. Before I depart, however, I'd like to touch on my challenges with this project.

First of all, I don't like scene framing mechanics. The only game I've played with scene framing mechanics was Full Light Full Steam, and I found it problematic. Don't get me wrong, I had lots of fun that night and the motifs of Full Light Full Steam tickle me brass (get it? Tickle me brass? Like tickle me pink only steampunk? I'm hilarious), but I found the scene framing mechanics artificial and distracting. I prefer to let the flow of the story arise naturally from play, mediated by a GM to keep it consistent and coherent.

At the same time, I think I need some kind of framing mechanic, if only because there are clearly two kinds of scenes: scenes with your partners in relationships where you get tension and badass scenes of werewolf criminality where you spend tension. I want to make sure there's some structure for getting that tension. I don't want it to be totally GM fiat, because that would lead to too bickering at the table.

My current thought to solve this problem is some sort of intent-declaration thingy. At the opening of each relationship scene, the GM says something like "ok, your wife is annoyed at you because you were out late last night" and you say "I want to avoid letting her know how deeply I am involved with the Family." If your tension profile is "fighting about the affair I had last year," then it's pretty clear at the end of the scene whether or not you gained a point of tension. This can be handled through roleplaying, with the potential for social rolls thrown in. With some structure, I'm comfortable with GM fiat as a way of cleaning up ambiguity with fiat.

Secondly, I'm struggling with the core mechanic. Right now, I'm lifting a dice and bid mechanic directly from Houses of the Blooded and paring it down a bit. That means I need to check out how open source Houses of the Blooded is. The Fate Engine it's based on - the mechanics behind Spirit of the Century - is pretty open, but I'm not sure about Houses of the Blooded yet. Right now, I'm focusing on writing the damn thing. If I need to swap out the core mechanic or beg John Wick for an indulgence, I'll feel more comfortable when I've got a game to deal with.

I should also note - and this isn't a challenge, just a note - that I'm lifting the player-defined setting thing from Houses of the Blooded. That is, when rolls are made by players to decide what they see, know, or figure out, the player has the power to determine what is revealed. I find this mechanic fascinating in so many ways it's not even funny.

And that's it. Cartomancy is dead (for now), long live Werewolf Mafia!

* * *

Instead of asking any specific questions, I'm just going to open the floor for you thoughts on Werewolf Mafia.

I'm also going to note that, as with my White Wolf freelancing, I plan on continuing to blog about my experiences with this project. You all get to follow along with me as I muddle through the process of designing (and marketing? And selling? We'll see) this game. Don't you feel lucky?


Anonymous said...

You might want to also look at The Power 19, which also contains The Big 3. But when you answer these questions, aside from a design direction, you also get a scaffolding, or at least I have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the head's up. I'll check it out.