Saturday, November 16, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] Results

The results are in!

I got distracted by other things halfway through the competition, so I played only about half of the games. I haven't played any of the top 3, and in fact only one of the top 7 games, so I guess that there is still some good stuff for me to try out.

I'm flabbergasted by the fact that Their angelic understanding has scored an average of 5.99. I changed my own mark to a 9 at some point. There can be some disagreement about marks, of course, but I cannot imagine how anyone could score it below a 7. This piece has beautiful writing, interesting thematic content and does new and impressive things with its medium.

It's a difficult piece, sure; but if you don't understand something, just refrain from judging. As a judge, you are called upon to judge a work of art, not to tell us how much you "liked" the experience of playing it. If you don't understand it, you shouldn't be judging.

(Yes, I'm kind of mad at this injustice, and guessing at the motives and thoughts of the people who misjudged Porpentine's fantastic piece. Those guesses might be wrong. Enlighten me.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Beta rules version 1 -- please playtest!

I have created a full set of beta rules for Comrade Stalin. It is a simple, yet (I hope) tactically and socially complex game that slightly resembles games like Mafia and Werewolves. Comrade Stalin explores the fear, paranoia and ruthlessness of totalitarianism ... while you are having fun.

To play, you need to download the rules and the roles. The roles are presented in an easy-to-print format: simply cut the pages in half to get role sheets.

Please playtest this game and tell me about your experiences! You can post here, e-mail me (victor@lilith.bb, except that it is "cc" instead of "bb"), or post wherever you like and put a link here. Thanks in advance! All playtesters will be credited in future versions of the rules.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

[3:16] Weak sauce aliens on Rubens and Rembrandt

Introduction

The first session of my 3:16 campaign was stellar. The second session wasn't as good. It wasn't bad, and fun was had, but in some respects it was quite problematic.

All the previous players attended, plus one new player, Lenny. I had her make a character as if an old character had died: start from scratch with weapons, but start with slightly higher abilities than a true starting character. Our team thus consisted of Lieutenant Sektor ("by the book"), Sergeant "Mad" Mina ("recalcitrant"), Corporal "Iron" Sue ("Rambo") and the new character Soldier Fabio ("man in the mirror," i.e., very vain).

Last time, I had prepared the planets in some detail. This time, I wanted to make room for more player input, so I rolled the planets on the random tables right in front of their eyes; except for AA, which I chose by hand.


Overview of play

Rubens

The first planet was planet Rubens, a radioactive planet with leaping plant life and an AA of 7. (During play, we forgot about the radioactivity.) Since our very first mission had featured a squad of soldiers sent out to test experimental weapons which unfortunately exploded, I decided to start the mission by an  R&D guy called Captain De Vries telling Sektor that his squad had been selected to test some new experimental weapons. Sektor asked whether they were really safe this time, and was assured that yes, of course they were. Also, that he shouldn't use them himself, because there's no use in risking the lives of the higher officers. Unable -- or rather, unwilling -- to believe that the army would contradict itself, Sektor accepted the orders as given.

The planet featured vast trees, and we had fights with explosive fruits in the canopy, with huge roots coming out of the forest ground, and finally with a super-massive root in a rain-soaked clearing. It turned out that the new experimental cartridges exploded when they came in contact with water ... ah, well. Mina used a strength to take out the gigantic root.

This strength was mostly used so that Michiel's character Sue -- an ally of Mina -- could get the level up for most kills. Sue was carrying a fully-upgraded 3d10 weapon, whereas Sektor was carrying a d100 one (the only one in the party). By a combination of luck and having a higher combat ability, Sue had scored far more hits than Sektor, and had exactly 1 more kill when the final encounter began. Annet had Mina use her strength precisely to ensure that Sue would remain in the lead.

The most interesting event in the mission was Sektor -- who had once again been wounded by Sue's grenades -- ordering her to hand over her grenades. She flat-out refused, and they got into a conflict that Sektor had to walk out from, but not after threatening her with a court-martial.

This did feel a bit like a re-hash of the previous session, where something similar happened. There wasn't much drama coming from the rules this time, mostly because I rolled rather badly for the aliens. Nobody had to use strengths or weaknesses (Mina's use of one was entirely tactical), and nobody had the opportunity to kill or save another trooper. The mission never felt dangerous, and without the pressure of an external threat, the rules do not kick in to suggest fruitful development of the intra-party relations.

Between Rubens and Rembrandt

Sektor did ask for a court-martial, and quite reasonably so. As a GM I had to improvise some plausible way of keeping Sue and Sektor together in a single party. I had Sue arrested, but then visited in her cell by a Captain McAulife, who turned out to be a sworn enemy of R&D guy Captain De Vries, and "his friends, like that ass-kissing Lieutenant Sektor". McAulife is very interested in the story about the exploding energy cartridge, and promises to free Sue. Which happens.

The next mission briefing is given by McAulife. De Vries is nowhere to be seen.

Also, Mina gained a rank and became Lieutenant. I tried to create an interesting romantic sub-plot for Fabio, but that didn't really go anywhere.

Rembrandt

This time I rolled a reefs & coral world populated by rays, sharks and fishes, with the special ability Lasting Wounds. I was like: yes! Lasting Wounds! That is one of the nastiest special abilities in the book! Finally, the difficulty will be ramped up. In order to give the players a chance of surviving, I chose an option that brought the AA to 6.

And then, during the mission, I went on to roll a 10 about 50% of the times (true), and a 7 most of the rest. The aliens literally never did any damage. Never! No wounds, so no lasting wound either. Thus the problem of having too little external pressure was not solved, but only exacerbated. Again, it gave the mission a bland feel; there was some bickering between the PCs, but with nothing on the line, little really happened between the characters.

The mission -- finding a sunken human spacecraft -- was fine, and I used it to establish that some of the higher-ups had illegal (?) business (?) interests here that they needed the party to cover up. Because of the utter lack of external pressure, I decided to fall back on an old GM trick: secret messages that only some of the characters received. Fabio got messages from an unknown person that he would be rewarded if he destroyed some crates that the team had been tasked with salvaging. (Which he promptly did.) Sektor was asked, probably by the same person, to kill the intelligent alien they met inside the sunken space ship.

Actually, that was a nice scene. The party enters the sunken space ship. There are three crew members: two human skeletons, and an alien -- purple, with tentacles, but also clearly humanoid and intelligent. The try to kill him, but he suggests that they listen to what he has to say, because boy are they going to be surprised if they find out what has been really happening here! So they all lower their weapons to listen and find out what their superiors are up to ... and then Sektor shoots the alien. The rest of the party looks at him aghast.

So, that was nice scene, but the rest of the planet wasn't too memorable. No strengths or weaknesses were used; and, as remarked, the aliens didn't ever do any damage.


Diagnosing problems -- and solving them

First problem: not enough opposition. The aliens need to be a real threat. I'm going to choose higher AA's next time. At least 8 for the next planet. (We'll assume I'm not going to roll 10 all the time again.)

Second problem: the missions themselves were a bit weak. I think I underestimated preparation, and will spend some time preparing good plot elements next time. Since the main plot is about the army, not about the aliens, those elements should fit any planet I randomly come up with.

Third problem: there was some evident player frustration about the unfairness of the system. With some of the players now having 1d100 weapons, and others being very far from getting those; and with the players having the better weapons also having higher abilities; and with everyone having a lot of Strengths and Weaknesses left -- well, let's just say that some people felt rather powerless and outclassed. They were experiencing the obvious and deliberate unfairness of the system in a negative way, which is of course a problem.

The solution to this only became clear to me when I thought about it after the session. It consists of two parts.

First, you need to realise that getting better weapons, and even getting higher scores, isn't very important. Your character can still be a protagonist, even a heroic protagonist, if she never gets a better weapon and consistently has the lowest amount of kills. Heroic, because you get to describe all successes and failures yourself, and can make them as heroic (or mean-spirited) as you want. A protagonist, because being unfairly treated by the army and your squad members is a great start for Story Now.

But the second things I realised is more important, because it showed me some possibilities for using the rules that we hadn't even thought of exploring. The key insights are these:
  1. The unfairness of the system represents the unfairness of the army.
  2. Thus, the system doesn't care about giving your character a fair chance of remaining as competent as the other characters. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  3. The system rewards those who exploit and keep down their team mates.
  4. This represents the higher officers being only to happy to use the friction in your team for their own gain. Divide and conquer is their motto ... and they'll make it worth it for some people in your squad, while leaving the rest of you in the mud.
  5. But that doesn't mean any of you have to go along with them. There is one way to combat unfairness: loyalty to your squad. Working together. Helping each other out. You've got to stand up for each other, because otherwise, you'll get screwed.
  6. If the game treats you unfairly, that is only because your fellow players allow it to treat you unfairly.
  7. But they always have a choice not to.
So, yeah, there is basically no way that Sue, with her 3d10 weapon, no weapon that she could ever get to d100, and very low NFA, is ever going to get most kills in a mission again any time soon. Unless her team mates help her out. They can lend or give their weapons to her. They can use their between-mission NFA rolls to request better weapons for her. Hell, the team could even come together at the start of the mission and give their best weapons to the player with the lowest abilities, agreeing to have their weakest member go level up.

That's possible! And if your team mates don't want to help you out ... well, that's a great opportunity for Story Now. And for grenades. And for sabotaging their weapons. And, who knows, maybe even for shooting them in the back in a crucial fight with the aliens. Because, you know what? They'll have deserved it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

[Comrade Stalin] Roles

First draft of the roles! There are currently enough roles for a game with 9 players.

Every role, except Stalin, has the ability to spy. Once during the game, this allows to you look at one goal card of one person. You cannot show the card to anyone else, though you can of course make claims about what you've seen. Whether people believe you is up to them.

Once you have spied, rotate your character sheet 90 degrees to indicate that you've used up your one chance to spy. Some rules indicate that you can refresh your ability: this means that you get to rotate your character sheet back to the normal position, and you can use your spying ability again.

Every role also has two special rules.

The Favourite (King)
  1. True loyalty: If you have a single goal card which means that you must kill Stalin, it instead means that you must protect Stalin. If you have two goal cards indicating that you must kill Stalin, they have their normal meaning.
  2. Hated: If Stalin dies, all surviving players -- you excluded -- get to vote on whether they want to kill you as well. You die even in case of a tie. (This doesn't apply if you are the only person left.)
The Heir (Queen)
  1. Chosen successor: If only you and Stalin are left alive, you both win, independent of your goal cards.
  2. Poised for takeover: If Stalin dies, you can discard one of your goal cards.
The General (Jack)
  1. Counter-espionage: Once during the game, you can prevent a spy or expose action. The person performing it has still used up his or her ability.
  2. Backed by the army: When Stalin attempts to kill you, you count as your own defender. (So you need one fewer defender to survive the attempt.)
The Ideologue (10)
  1. Expose: Instead of the spy ability, you have the expose ability. This ability allows to you turn one goal card of one person face up. That card will remain face up for the rest of the game, even if it gets transferred to someone else.
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Assassin (9)
  1. Merciless: Once during the game, you can have your vote to kill someone count double. (Note: not your vote to defend someone.)
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Believer (8)
  1. Open book: You can expose your own goal cards whenever you wish, turning one or both face-up. Any card turned face-up remains that way for the rest of the game, even if it gets transferred to someone else. You can use this ability as often as you like.
  2. Betrayed: If Stalin attempts to kill you and fails, then from that point onward all your goal cards count as "kill Stalin".
The Interrogator (7)
  1. I have the dirt on you: At the start of the game, before goal cards are dealt, choose another player (not Stalin or the Protégé). If you are killed, you can choose to have that person die as well.
  2. Purify: Whenever you kill someone, refresh your ability.
The Protégé (Joker)

There are no goal cards indicating that someone must kill or protect the Protégé. The Protégé is not dealt any goal cards.
  1. Powerful patron: At the start of the game, before goal cards are dealt, choose another player (not Stalin). As long as that player remains alive, Stalin cannot attempt to kill you. If that player dies, you immediately discard the role of Protégé and take over that player's role and goal cards. Any goal cards that used to indicate that player now indicate you. If the Interrogator had the dirt on your patron, they now have the dirt on you, unless they used it to kill your patron.
  2. Ambitious: You cannot win the game. (Note: you can of course win after you have discarded this role.)

Any thoughts?

Friday, November 08, 2013

[Shooting the Moon] Fleeing the Empire

Introduction

Shooting the Moon by Emily Care Boss is a game I've had in my possession for a very long time, but which I'd never played before. (I think. I may once have started a game with Jasper Polane, but if so, I don't think we managed to finish it.) Last Friday, I got online with Sam Ashwell and Emily Short to finally play this thing. Both of them had played it before. Emily once, I think; and Sam quite often.

Like Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon is a game about love. (At least it claims to be a game about love. See below.) Whereas the former game shows two people coming together, the latter gives us two Suitors fighting over the Beloved, who is also pursuing a dream of his or her own.


Creating characters: the rules

Character creation is where the rules of this game really shine. It is very much a group activity, so much so that we did most of it before we chose who would play which character. (We finally decided that I would play the Beloved.)

The three players first work together to give the Beloved six attributes that are, by definition, desirable in the setting. This at once establishes three things: (1) the Beloved's character; (2) what is romantically attractive in the setting; and (3) that the Beloved is attractive in the setting.

As the player of the Beloved, I found it very useful to know that my main traits were by definition attractive. During the game, your character gets into all kinds of trouble, and may look soiled afterwards. But I always had a way of re-establishing that my character was attractive: I just played up my attributes, and it was immediately understood that the Suitors and the rest of the world would fall for this.

Then the Suitors are created by giving each of them some attributes that are synonyms or antonyms for the attributes of the Beloved; after which a "but" is added to each of those attributes. This means you automatically end up with characters defined by traits that are interestingly related and that have a clear relation to the value system of the setting

Also, the characters are guaranteed to be completely different from what any of the players would have made up on their own. Like the web of association in Breaking the Ice, the shared web of attributes, synonyms and antonyms really gets you creativity flowing in directions you would not otherwise have explored.

Creating characters: the result

After some discussion we decided that our characters were passengers on a space ship fleeing from the Empire to impart important information to the Rebels. The Beloved would be the person with the important information.

Beloved attributes: mysterious identity, protecting an innocent, higher calling, crossing me means trouble, fierce, savoir-faire.

Synonyms and antonyms:
Fierce: forceful / physically cowardly.
Higher calling: idealist / cynical.
Mysterious identity: deep cover / famous.

At about this point, we decided that I would play the Beloved. I decided that me character was the Emperor himself, deposed in a palace revolution and trying to get the Rebel army behind him. The Suitors know that I have important information, but are in the dark about my real identity.

Opportunity (why is the Beloved available to these two suitors): We're the only known rebels on the chartered ship.
Obstacle (what is making life difficult for the Beloved): the entire Empire is after me.
Dream (what does the Beloved want even more than love): the rebels swear allegiance to me as the rightful Emperor.

Further creation led to the following two suitors, and, for completeness, the Beloved:
  1. Carmen Steel (played by Emily) is an ex-space-bullfighter.
    • Cynical, but secretly soft-hearted.
    • Famous, but glory has faded.
    • Forceful, but has an old wound.
    • Person: Fidelis Mandelbrot, ship's engineer and big fan of old.
    • Place: the ship's bar.
    • Thing: light sabre.
    • Conflict: angling to restore her super-wealth.
  2. "Clea Woolford" (fake name) is the ship's security officer.
    • Idealist, but bad conscience.
    • Deep cover, but identity compromised.
    • Physically cowardly, but not when protecting someone.
    • Person: Captain Erskine, the ship's captain.
    • Place: planetary combat simulator.
    • Thing: identity badge with real name on it.
    • Conflict: mistrusted by the Rebellion.
  3. "Peter" (fake name), a passenger, but in fact the rightful Emperor.
    • Mysterious identity
    • Protection an innocent
    • Higher calling
    • Crossing me means trouble
    • Fierce
    • Worldly knowledge, savoir-fair
The unfolding story




Almost a week has gone by since I played the game, so I'm sure I cannot reconstruct all the scenes in detail. But the main plot was as follows.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Someone has figured out that Peter is the Emperor, and anonymously tries to blackmail him. Peter and Carmen put the money somewhere, then ambush the person who comes to collect it: it turns out to be Erskine, the ship's captain. This means trouble, but for now they convince him that they have many dangerous friends and that he should keep quiet.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) Clea makes sure she can talk to Peter in private by disabling all the technology that the captain uses to spy on him. He tries to sexually seduce her, but without much success. Erskine's goons come to investigate why the camera's have stopped working, and before Clea accomplishes anything worth talking about, she's taken away by them and put under disciplinary supervision.

(Beloved scene.) When they're docked on some trading asteroid, Erskine sends Carmen and Clea to "retrieve" an old weapon that he claims to be his from a shady arms dealer. Violence follows, and the ship has to flee the asteroid -- but Carmen has grabbed lots of cool weapons in the process, and ends up with the trait: "Unknowingly owns a small-scale antimatter device."

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) Carmen tries to give a great present to Peter: a personal energy shield. She doesn't really know how it works, though, and soon the two of them are trapped in a very personal shield. Peter believes the things is a weird sex toy, and suggests politely that this isn't really his kink -- but Carmen doesn't know how to turn the damned thing off, and finally they have to be rescued by the ship's nerdy mechanic, who is also Carmen's greatest fan and secretly in love with her.

(Suitor scene: Clea.) The three of us meet at a private place in the ship to discuss a plan Clea has drawn up. The aim of the plan is to get rid of Erskine, who is endangering our mission, while making it look like an accident. Carmen has by far the most dangerous role to play. Clea has a very reasonable explanation for that, but Carmen isn't buying it -- until Peter leans towards her, and whispers in her ear that he is in fact the Emperor. Clea only sees the look of shock of Carmen's face, and hears how she immediately acquiesces to the plan, but doesn't get the same information. She feels left out. (Sam wasn't rolling well, and didn't get many points during most of the game.)

(Beloved scene.) The Empire has found us! They're already on the ship, looking for us. Peter tells Clea that it is essential that he rescues a certain 8-year old girl that's also on the ship, though he doesn't explain why. Meanwhile, Carmen will bring Peter to safety. They both confront difficulties. In order to get an escape pod, Carmen has to threaten the mechanic who's in love with her with what she believes is a grenade; he recognises it as an anti-matter device that would destroy the entire ship, and quickly allows her to leave. Clea finds that getting to the girl is easy, but that all the marines on the ship are looking for the child. She finally decides to announce through the intercom that she's actually Lt. Rhea Stone, infamous rebel commander, and hated and feared by both the Empire and the Rebellion (because she once sacrificed an entire Rebel cell to save herself). In the ensuing chaos, they all escape, though Rhea and the child land on a different part of the nearby planet than the other two.

(Suitor scene: Carmen.) The planet is low-tech and backwards. Carmen and Peter manage to get the local populace to help them search for Rhea and the girl, but only by promising to stay very far away from any villages.

(Suitor scene: Rhea.) Rhea finds the others. She is not amused, and demands answers. Peter explains that he is the Emperor Paul III. He also has to tell his Suitors that the girl is the daughter of the Rebel leader, and his own future bride. Carmen and Rhea are perplexed and scandalised. There's a harrowing scene between Paul and Rhea where she asks him what they're fighting for if they're even willing to use children as pawns in political games. Paul is forced to confront the depths of his own moral degradation.

(Beloved scene.) We arrive at the Rebel base, where Paul and the child are heartily welcomed. Rhea and Carmen, however, are met with open hostility and lots of guns pointed at them -- Rhea because the Rebels hate her guts, Carmen because she's carrying an anti-matter bomb. At this point, Paul asserts his authority; then the Empire attacks in force; and Paul leads his two Suitors in a heroic attempt to ward off the attack. "Let's fight! Let's forget the past! We'll start anew, and make the Rebellion something to be proud of!" They mount the anti-matter device on a rocket, and use it to blow up the gigantic Empire ship that is threatening the planet. The Rebels win, though, unfortunately, the Rebel leader has died.

Then we roll dice, and Sam, who rolls least dice, nevertheless wins. So he tells us how Paul becomes the leader of only a small section of the Rebel force, and never wins back his Empire. He is, on the positive side, a morally good leader, a point of light in a dark galaxy. And, of course, he has a romantic relationship with Rhea, who becomes his right hand. Carmen lives on as a shady arms dealer.

Thoughts about the system

As I said, I love the character creation system. Having Suitor turns and Beloved turns, in which different players work together or oppose each other, also works very well. The Suitor turns create a bond between the Beloved and the Suitors, while the Beloved turns serve to remind us that there is something the Beloved wants more than love.

I also like the dice mechanic, in so far as it is very, very random. I haven't done the math, but if you're rolling 6 dice against 4, there's still a very good chance that the person with 4 dice will win. As a player, you do not have a lot of control over who is going to win, and this adds an amount of unpredictability to the game that seems to be appropriate here. All is fair in love and war; but let us not forget that all war is chaos.

What I'm not convinced about is the whole system of Traits, both the ways that you gain them and the ways that you use them.

Traits are supposed to be rewards or failures. The Opponent in a Suitor scene can threaten you with a nasty trait, and you might not want to accept this; in fact, you may choose to gain less dice, simply because you wish to avoid a bad trait. But in fact, gaining a trait is never mechanically bad. Nor is it ever mechanically good. There is a strictly limited number of moves you can make in any scene to earn dice; and there will always be enough traits to make all of these moves. Neither you nor your opponents are ever helped or hindered by you having, or not having, certain traits. There is, then, no mechanical effect of gaining traits.

So why are we making them? How can we threaten each other with them, or gleefully give them to ourselves? It seems to me that if traits are mechanically inert, as they are, we'd be better off just using narration rights and forgetting about traits altogether.

Nor do traits have a clear story effect beyond the narration in which they get established, since they do not act as constraints on what can be narrated later. (The game text isn't entirely clear about this, but I think they cannot act as constraints, because there is no way to change them as the fiction demands.) So overall, the whole trait system seems to be pretty useless.

Also, I'm not too sold on the whole "think up three responses"-stuff. There's a notable pause in every scene while people try to think up not just one response, but three of them -- and in suitor scenes, each Suitor must think of three responses! That often makes the game slow down remarkably.

In the end, I decided that in Beloved scenes, I would make each Suitor describe one response; then I would narrate some more; then they would make another response; I would narrate some more; and finally they would think up the third response. This worked fairly well, but if this is how the game is meant to be played, I'd like to see it in the book. And I'm not sure how to apply this procedure to Suitor scenes.

I obviously need to play the game again. But my current feeling is that the rules for playing out scenes aren't nearly as good as the rules for character creation, and could in fact use some changes.

A game about love?

Don't believe Emily Care Boss. Shooting the Moon is not a game about love.

Of course it's not a game about love! Here are three characters playing a zero-sum game. It's not just the rejected Suitor who loses; no, one of the two others must also lose. The Beloved isn't looking for love, and getting together with one of the Suitors will ensure that he doesn't achieve his dream. The successful Suitor, if there is one, can only capture the Beloved by destroying his dream. That's not love. Love is not the situation where you conquer someone and then force them to give up their dreams. Love is not a fight where you try to beat someone else to a prize who has no say in the matter.

Just think about this: the Beloved has no say, no say at all, about which of the Suitors will win his hand. All he can try to do is make sure that neither of them does.

Shooting the Moon is a game about power. It is a game about forcing other people to do what you want, and to be what you want. The Suitors are trying to force the Beloved to be a prize, to be the desirable object they can show off -- primarily to their humiliated rival! The Beloved is trying to force the Suitors to help him achieve his dream, without giving them anything in return; without taking their needs into account.

This is a game that poses as a game about love, but is in fact a game about objectifying and using people. Is that a comment about how we often tend to think about romance, especially in popular culture? Undoubtedly. And the fact that Shooting the Moon generates stories that do look like romance on the surface makes that comment all the more believable.

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!