Monday, November 04, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Alpha rules 0.1

Background: Stalin's Story

A long time ago -- late in 2005, it seems -- I created a role playing game called Stalin's Story. It combined the structures that Vladimir Propp found in Russian fairy tales with a totalitarian Stalin figure. One of the players is Stalin and has unlimited power to kill people and change the rules; the others are either actors trying to tell a Proppian tale or courtiers trying to use the tale's elements to have each other killed.

I never played it, because I had serious doubts about the game achieving my design goals. However, I just found a post by Harry Giles who says he has played it several times, and goes on to say that
“Stalin’s Story” is rich, multi-dimensional, original and scary fun[.]
He is definitely being too charitable in that piece, but I do need to talk to him about his play experiences! But this blog post is not about Stalin's Story.

Thematic content

Stalin apparently still occupies my brain. I've just gotten back into playing RPGs, and I already found myself grappling with a new Stalin game. It is so different from the former one that it needs a new name: Comrade Stalin.

The game is a bit like Mafia or Werewolves, but with a stronger role playing component, more tactics, and a bigger dose of paranoia, power games and backstabbing.

Comrade Stalin is all about paranoia and power.
  • The players will portray people at the centre of a totalitarian government. Their situation is characterised by paranoia, and in fact by justified paranoia. There's not just the fear that someone is plotting to kill you. Some actually is plotting to kill you.
  • A totalitarian leader has power, and it may seem as if this makes him safe. But in fact, it makes him vulnerable. Not just because other people want that power for themselves, but mostly because that power is inherently unstable and illusionary. The leader is wholly dependent on other people doing his bidding; if they refuse, there's nothing he can do except calling on yet other people to punish them.
You will easily see how these two thematic elements are incorporated it into the game rules below: everyone has a reason to be paranoid; and Stalin wields a lot of power, but is also completely dependent on other people for actually doing anything with it.

(It turns out that by making Stalin himself threatened, I was following advice given me by Troy Costisick. I had completely forgotten about that, but am happy to rediscover the thread.)

Materials

To play Comrade Stalin, you need a single deck of normal playing cards (or special cards for this game, but I'll write up the rules for use with normal playing cards now) and printed out character sheets for all of the characters you're using. (There are no character sheets yet.)

You need at least 5 players, and a table to sit around that is big enough to hold three playing cards and a character sheet for every player.

Preparation

From a game of cards, take all aces, kings, queens, jacks, 10s, and any further numbers such that there is one value of card for each player. Thus, in a five player game you take aces to 10s; in a six player game aces to 9s; and so on. Discard the other cards -- they will not be used.

Now take all diamonds. Shuffle them, and deal one card to every person. Once the cards are dealt, everyone reveals their card and puts that card face-up on the table before them. This card determines which role you play:

Ace: Comrade Stalin
King: Comrade Beria
Queen: ...
[Roles to be defined later. If you know of colourful members of Stalin's court, let me know! Beria was Stalin's notorious chief of secret police.]

Take the aces of spades, hearts and clubs. Shuffle them, then discard one. Nobody is allowed to see which one.

Then shuffle the rest of the spades, hearts and clubs. Discard some of them, so many that you are left with 2 * (players - 2) cards. So in a 5 player game, keep 6 cards. In a 6 player game, keep 8 cards. And so on.

Add the two spades you have left to this pile. Shuffle them again. Now everyone except Stalin is dealt two of these cards, face down. (There are exactly enough cards left to do this. The preceding procedures were for making sure that there are precisely two aces in the cards that are dealt.)

The players can only look at their own two cards. During the game, these should be kept on the table, in front of the player, next to the revealed diamonds card. These two cards are your goal cards, which are explained below.

Once the cards are dealt, Stalin takes an alarm clock of any sort (a mobile phone, for instance), and sets it to go off at anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes in the future. Stalin does not tell anyone what time he has chosen.

Winning the game

This is what the goal cards mean:
  • A black card (clubs or spades) means that you need the indicated person to be killed. So a king of clubs means that Beria must die; an ace of spades means that Stalin must die.
  • A red card (hearts) means that you must protect the indicated person. So a king of hearts means that Beria must survive.
  • If any card indicates yourself, it applies to Stalin instead. So if you have a card that means that you must die, it instead means that Stalin must die.
A non-Stalin player wins when the game ends, and (a) that player is still alive, and (b) that player has attained both their goals. If you have failed to attain your goals, this means that a deadly enemy is still alive, or a crucial ally is dead. In that case, you are doomed to die soon (though not during the game).

It is possible to have incompatible goals (when you need to kill and protect the same person). This means that you cannot win. However, you can get rid of goal cards by killing people (see below), so make sure you kill someone.

Stalin wins when the game ends, and (a) Stalin is still alive, and (b) nobody who is still alive has a card meaning that Stalin must die. If someone has such a card, Stalin has failed to purge his court of assassins. He will soon die (though not during the game).

It is possible for more than one person to win. It is also possible for nobody to win.

Ending the game

The game ends when any of the following conditions is met:
  • The alarm clock goes off. (If you're in the middle of an attempted killing, that attempt is aborted.)
  • Stalin declares that all traitors are dead.
    • At this point, any of the surviving players can still attempt an assassination of Stalin. If such an attempt takes place, the game doesn't end; though Stalin can repeat his declaration afterwards, if he survives and still wants to.
  • Stalin is killed.
Killing players

A player who is not Stalin can only be killed by Stalin asking the group in general to kill them. If at least one of the other players offers to perform the killing, and Stalin accepts the offer, that player dies. If nobody does, the player survives. For instance:
  • Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Nobody says anything in response. Kruglov is not killed, because Stalin cannot kill someone on his own.
  • Stalin says: "Comrade Kruglov is an enemy of the people. He must be removed from this world." Beria says: "I will take him out for you, comrade!" Stalin accepts this offer, and Beria kills Kruglov.
If more than one person volunteers to kill, Stalin must choose who performs the killing:
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria and Khrushchev both step up to do the deed. Stalin chooses one of them (or stops the procedure), and that person gets to kill Kruglov.
However, people can also step up to defend someone. If the number of people who defend the potential victim is equal to or greater than the number of people who offer to kill him, than the potential victim survives. The potential victim himself doesn't count towards this total.

If there are fewer defenders than killers, Stalin can order the killing to proceed. He can also have one or more of the defenders killed; and he can have this done even if he decides to spare the potential victim's life at the last moment. If more than one person is killed, Stalin must give each job to a different killer.
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev says: "But no, comrade Stalin! I am sure that comrade Kruglov is a true communist. We should not kill him." If nobody else says anything, Kruglov survives.
  • Stalin indicates that he wants Kruglov dead. Beria states that he will perform the killing. Khrushchev defends him. Malenkov now offers to kill Kruglov. The killers (Beria and Malenkov) outnumber the defenders (Khrushchev), and so Stalin can have Kruglov killed. He can also have Khrushchev killed, or have both Kruglov and Khrushchev killed. If he chooses the latter, he must let Beria kill one of them and Malenkov the other.
When a player kills another player, they first get to describe how they do this. A bullet in the neck; a show trial; deportation to Siberia; unknown tortures in the cellars of the NKVD building. Something that fits your character, and your relationship with the other character. Then:
  • the killer discards one of his goal cards; nobody gets to see it;
  • the killed person chooses one of his goal cards and gives it to the killer; only the killer gets to see it. It cannot be refused.
Thus, a player always has two goal cards, but he can get different cards during the game by killing people.

Killing Stalin

Anyone can attempt to assassinate Stalin, simply by saying so.

Other players may step up to defend Stalin. They may also decide to join the assassin. (Stalin cannot do either.) Once it is clear that nobody wants to join either of the groups any more (either because everyone has joined a group, or because all non-declared players remain silent), count the number of assassins and the number of defenders.

If the number of assassins (including the original assassin) is greater than the number of defenders, the assassins win. Stalin is killed. The original assassin, and the original assassin only, decides which of the defenders also die in their attempt to protect the great leader. They are effectively in charge of the coup.

If the number of assassins is equal to or less than the number of defenders, Stalin -- and everybody else -- survives. It is of course highly probable that Stalin will immediately start an attempt to kill the would-be assassin.

During an attempted assassination, Stalin cannot start an attempt to kill one of the players. During an attempted killing of a player, nobody can start an attempt to assassinate Stalin. Resolve the current attempt first, and try the other attempt thereafter. (Usually, the order doesn't matter anyhow. If more than half the players want to kill Stalin now, then they'll also not allow Stalin to kill one of the potential assassins.)

You do not get to discard a goal card after killing Stalin.

Character sheets
 Each character sheet will have a short description of the character on it, and several special rules and abilities pertaining to that character. For instance, the special rules and abilities of Beria might be:
  • Stalin's confidant: if you have a single goal card indicating that you must kill Stalin, it means that you must protect him instead. If you have two of them, you must kill Stalin normally.
  • Despised by all: if Stalin dies, all surviving players -- except for you -- immediately vote on your fate. If a majority, or even just half, of them want to kill you, you die and cannot win the game.
  • Killer: whenever you kill someone, your spying ability becomes available again.
  • Spying (ability): You can look at one goal card on the table. Do no show it to anyone else. (You can of course tell people what you have seen... but you might lie.) One use only.
Several roles will have either a spy ability or something akin to it. (For instance, a one-time "expose" ability which allows you to turn someone's goal card face-up. That card will then remain face-up during the rest of the game.)

This will make the game more tactical than games like Mafia and Werewolves, which are almost entirely about gut feeling, body language, and revenge for earlier games (and, at least for me, somewhat disappointing because of that).

Each character will have several rules or abilities to set them apart from the others, so that playing any of them will feel different from playing any other. Those with abilities or rules that specifically threaten Stalin will also have an ability or rule that makes them more useful to Stalin (otherwise, they would always be eliminated early in the game).

What do you think?

Comments and ideas are very welcome!

18 comments:

  1. One of the players is Stalin and has unlimited power to kill people and change the rules; the others are either actors trying to tell a Proppian tale or courtiers trying to use the tale's elements to have each other killed.

    This instantly put me in mind of Dog Eat Dog, and also a little of Serpent's Tooth although both of those are pretty different takes on it. But asymmetrical power is a pretty great thing to build stories on. Anyway! The actual thing you were meaning to post about.

    The main thing that strikes me as I look at this is 'man, this feels a lot like a Werewolf variant, with maybe a little Junta thrown in.' The thing is that neither of those are role-playing games per se: they involve deception and treachery, but not really any character-building per se; there's not much reason to develop characters. To what extent is this meant to be a role-playing game? Do characters do anything apart from trying to kill one another?

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    1. I recently read Dog eat dog, and that is certainly interesting. Did you ever play it?

      Comrade Stalin is definitely meant to be role playing light. There's not going to be much character development in a 30-minute game! But I do expect people to call each other "comrade X," and do a little narrative stuff when killing people. Maybe mention their character's traits. So that is definitely more role playing than in Werewolves, where (a) everyone is trying to convince everyone else that they are a nameless, faceless citizen; and (b) a lot of the talk, at least in my experience, is very out-of-fiction, like "I felt him moving, he must be a werewolf," or "yeah, you said that last game as well, you can't be trusted!".

      Though I should stress that while having some role playing light in the game will, I hope, make it more fun, that is not the game's main selling point.

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    2. I've only played Dog Eat Dog once, and it wasn't an ideal experience because I was metagaming a bit: I wanted to see whether it was possible to play a forbearing, hands-off, mostly-benign colonial power, or if the game mechanics would force me into being a horrible bastard. Answer: you can, in fact, be mostly benign, but the game is less interesting that way.

      I'd be inclined to split up the character powers into individual cards that could be shuffled around in different games, rather than pre-assembled as character sheets. That'd be a whole lot harder to balance, I know, but this is definitely a game about imbalance. (It'd also be cool if you could steal powers from other players somehow, but maybe I'm overcomplicating things and/or trying to make them too much like [i]Junta[/i].)

      The other reason is that roleplaying-wise, I also think that it would be better to de-emphasise the degree to which non-Stalin players are based on Stalin's actual historical underlings. My experience has been that many people are reluctant and nervous to play in historical settings that they don't know much about; they can become less willing to improvise in case they get it wrong, and so forth.

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    3. My first reaction is that splitting the powers would be very hard to do well. For instance, you absolutely need to have someone in the game with the "Stalin's confidant" power. Otherwise, Stalin cannot win, since anyone who is killed can always give their "kill Stalin" card to whoever kills them.

      Do you think de-emphasising could be done by being slightly humorous in the description and/or depiction of the historical characters?

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    4. I think mandatory powers could be combined with power-splitting fairly easily - every game you create a deck with the mandatory powers plus enough optional ones to give each player N powers, then shuffle and deal. I think the real issue would be about powers that, in combination, become either totally useless or staggeringly powerful.

      Still, if roleplaying is an optional cherry on top, the actual-historical-character aspect doesn't matter anywhere near as much.

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  2. One clarification: in any attempted killing -- of a player or Stalin -- you can only declare your side once. Once you have done so, you cannot switch sides or step out of the conflict.

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  3. I'd give it a try if all the roles were provided. My friends like games such as The Resistance and Avalon - having the roles all known buy goals hidden seems like it would be a good twist.

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  4. Yeah, Dannii reminds me - I guess the question is, if I were going to test this on a group, would it be on my regular one-shot narrative-RPG group (who play stuff like Dog Eat Dog), or my regular boardgame group (who play stuff like The Resistance, but generally don't get into character very much)? It sounds like it's leaning towards the latter, but my sense is that this might be one of those games like [i]Gloom[/i] that sits a bit uncomfortably in the middle.

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    1. I'd lean towards the latter as well. I think a main difference with Gloom is that the role playing in Comrade Stalin is optional icing on the cake, whereas the storytelling in Gloom is essential to the fun of the game. (Without that storytelling, it isn't a very good game.)

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  5. Interesting... I played it last weekend with my family and it was my experience that only during the first round in Werewolves, people are following their gut/body language/ revenge during the first round, in which no information is available. As soon as one the first round was played, people were observing voting behaviour.

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    1. I guess that's true. But a smart werewolf can easily change his/her voting behaviour to align with that of the villagers. One thing you must learn as a werewolf is that it doesn't make much sense to protect other werewolves! And as soon as you stop doing that, it becomes almost impossible to detect you.

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    2. Perhaps. However, to provide a more interesting answer to your proposal. I think this could be quite fun, but I am a bit afraid that it would suffer from the same arbitrariness as Werewolves, basically because the first person to select is arbitrary, dependent on the cards. Stalin, after all, doesn't have any person to select, since he doesn't have any selection procedure, unless his character sheet provides him with at least a method to learn something about his would-be assassins.

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    3. I mostly play Werewolf on ifMUD, where there's access to a full transcript of everything that's been done and said, and where some standard tactics have evolved to make the seer's information more powerful. This adds a lot more logic to the game, and tends to balance it against the wolves, which means that wolves often have to go with more audacious tactics to stand a chance.

      (But I guess that some groups don't even play with the seer as a standard role. That's largely chaos.)

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    4. @ Remko, I don't think the first person to be selected would be arbitrary. If I were Stalin, this is why I would do.

      Stalin: "Comrade Beria, don't you agree that your spies should take a look at comrade Kruglov?"
      Beria: "Yes comrade, I will have them do it immediately. [Uses spying ability.] Well comrade, I have reason to believe that Kruglov is trying to assassinate you!"
      Stalin: "We can't have that happen, can we, comrade Beria?"

      Staling can of course order other people to use their abilities. They can lie about what they see, of course. They can also refuse to use their ability, but then Stalin would be well justified to kill them.

      @ maga: Yes, it becomes a bit better with the seer.

      Talking about roles: what if the roles are defined functionally ("Stalin's spymaster" rather than "Beria") and people are to address each other as "comrade [real name]"?

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    5. In the Mafia games I've played there's always never any actual logic involved unfortunately. Those these rules from one of my friends is very fun: http://t.co/azjZWO5fcI There are no ordinary villages, so even if you don't logic out a strategy it remains interesting. I much prefer The Resistance/Avalon because there's real data to logic over, and people don't get eliminated.

      Functional roles and addressing each other as Comrade is a good solution!

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    6. I play a lot of forum mafia and it's tends to be very analytical.

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  6. Ironically, Werewolves and Mafia were originally a game about Soviet farmers and KGB spies and double agents.

    @Victor: On the arbitraryness: I guess that solves it mostly. There is the albeit small distinct possibility that all players only have the role to murder Stalin or to protect others, which would leave Stalin with no one to work for him.
    On Stalin: Do you envision a role for him?
    On roleplaying: I guess it has as much roleplaying as my 'Soviet Politics' had: narrating the outcome of the events.
    On roles: I would actually prefer functional roles which were included in the address, such as "comrade admiral [real name]. I also thought of an extra ability, akin to a werewolf expansion which had this ability called 'the seance', which would be the ability to ask a dead player (who is supposed to be expelled to Siberia) one last question, which he must answer truthfully (such as: "What was the card you saw with your spying ability" or "Show me one card of your choice").

    On Werewolves: I never played it without the seer.

    @Dannii: Now I'm quite interested in The Resistance and Avalon...

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