Synanthropes, simplification, and emotional beats.

Hey there folks; it seems like it’s been a dog’s age since I last mentioned Synanthropes. Let’s me fix that.

Synanthropes.

It’s been a while, but I finally started working on the game again; you’ll note that the versions in the sidebar have been UPDATED.

With Synanthropes Lite, I didn’t have too much to do; I changed some of the wording, I altered the Roach’s attitude toward the Artifact to encourage a bit more fussing, and I dropped the timer down to ten minutes, which is a bit more reasonable than fifteen for pure arguing. There’s a semblance of mechanics there as well; indeed, I’m pretty sure I’ve created the world’s simplest game engine: you can do anything that you say you can do, unless someone says you can’t do that, in which case… you can’t.

(I’m sure I’m not the originator of this game engine, which owes a lot to the third grade “Nuh uh, ’cause I have a laser shield” brand of narrative construction).

As far as Synanthropes proper, there have been a few more changes, one of which is a baby-killer: no more career dice.

I think one of the advantages of not looking at this game at all for almost two months is that it allowed be to clear away some of the assumptions that I had been making, and instead throw a fresh pair of eyes into the problems. Before, players had a Career; it gave them a bonus which they could use once per floor, allowing them to either re-roll a failed roll OR allow another player to re-roll a failed roll, if that roll had some sort of relationship to their career. It’s… it’s fine enough, I guess. It’s really useful, at times! It does some of what it needs to do: gives players a meaningful way to work together AND to have a sense of self-identity not tied solely into their species. Plus, it seemed like a great idea when I made it, which was at a time when characters were nothing more than their species.

Also, it was a fiddly thing to track. It wasn’t commonly used. It was often unhelpful. In playtests, I would make an effort to use it every floor, and other players would… not often remember it existed. Sometimes they would take advantage of it, usually because I prodded them. It may have been useful, but it wasn’t memorable and it wasn’t FUN, so it wasn’t used. I had to have a bit of a think about why that was, and that think happened subconsciously over the course of October, springing forth the instant I clapped eyes on it this week.

“If I am a soldier,” I thought to myself, “I can use this re-roll when I fail when I’m fighting. But, if I’m fighting, shouldn’t I… not fail? Shouldn’t being a ‘soldier’ be something that helps me do well, not something that fixes it when I don’t do well?”

Consider it an issue of emotional beats. If you haven’t read Ryan Macklin’s commentary on this, well, you should, but the hyper-brief summary is this: every action you take produces an emotion, and you should ensure that the emotions created by the mechanics are able to work with the emotions created by the fiction. Career dice were producing a toxic situation here.

In the fiction, I set up to do a difficult task, attempt it, and (hopefully) succeed because I had the skills and resources. Call that the narrative progression. Mechanically, I gather my pool (which re-enforces the idea of marshaling my resources, a positive or at least appropriate emotional beat). I roll the dice and count the successes (it’s an analysis moment, so it disrupts the emotion but only very briefly… call it almost neutral). I see I have sufficient successes, and accomplished the thing (hooray, I did well) or I do not, and I failed (oh no, what goes wrong?), either way my reaction as a player to the roll of the dice matches and re-enforces my reaction as a character to the situation.

But with career dice in play, there’s an extra step: I fail, and I have to ask myself if I can use my career here, if I have already used it, if the situation is important enough TO use it, so on and so forth. Emotionally, I am already disappointed by my failure, and the flow of the narrative is even more disrupted by another round of the “what resources do I have” game, with a resource that is more rare and finite than Artifacts, allies or even hoard points. Even if I do re-roll and succeed, I succeed having already been irked by my failure earlier; emotionally, it becomes a toxic moment, destroys the flow of the game, makes me dislike thinking about my career, and does not bring the fun.

Damn! No wonder everyone ignored their career dice! If anything, being a soldier and trying to do soldier-ish things is actively DETRIMENTAL to feeling like you’re good at stuff. Not only are your odds of success only slightly improved, but often those successes don’t FEEL good.

So what do I do? I get rid of it. Oh, there’s still a career die, but now it gets put in your pool like everything else; simplicity, consistancy, and now the awareness that “hey, this is the sort of action I’m trained for” is a part of that marshaling of resources which is where I want it to be!

As for giving someone else a boost with your career, that’s been folded into Hoard points. Again, one less thing to track (now, the only mechanically-limited resources you have are your hoard points, which you can track easily). You can’t re-roll for yourself (which means that for the actual roller of the dice, there isn’t an additional hiccup), but you CAN offer your career-based boost to other players; this is a different emotional response. For one thing, it means that, in a situation in which you are otherwise outside of the roll, you can still be invested in it and participatory in it. For another, the emotional journey of “Oh no, I failed! Wait, Seneca is here to help me? Huzzah!” MAKES SENSE; it’s a case in which the mechanics track with the fiction, instead of fighting against them, while simultaneously re-enforcing the theme of working together (or attempting to work together) which flows through the piece. At the same time, if it’s tied to Hoard points, it still remains a relatively valuable commodity (which means I might need to consider awarding Hoard points more often, in light of their increased value and necessity).

The question is whether this will make careers more useful; my gut says that it will mean players can have a greater investment in their careers, which will translate into an increased tendency to show them off. Whether that is true or not, time will tell.

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