My Games

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Game Design Patterns: Social Intrigue

I introduced the term Design Pattern in my Player Design Patterns pt. 1 post. Given the volume of Design Patterns that already exist for GMing and the paucity of Design Patterns for players, I think that's the more interesting domain, but in this case, the pattern can apply to both players and GMs.

Design Pattern: Social Intrigue

I was thinking about how, several times recently, I've had people tell me that the way I do what I've begun to call Social Intrigue is unlike anything they've played in before, and this is even when doing it as a player (such as in Semiurge's excellent Beyond the Bizarre Armoire campaign which unfortunately I had to drop out of). While I think of it primarily as a GM Design Pattern, it was enlightening trying it out as a player, and the degree to which I think it was still just as effective. It requires a willingness or buy-in from the GM and the rest of the group of course, but I think it's a potentially powerful way for players to exert some kind of ownership over the setting and course of events, without being strictly encoded into the game as is often the case with PbtA or those style of games. I think it's entirely within the purview of OSR, and is also in line with my thoughts on Non-Combat Conflict Encounters which in retrospect is a Design Pattern as well. On top of all that, in my opinion, this Social Intrigue Pattern is often truer to (my admittedly limited experience of) the Picaresque style of narrative that many OSR gamers say they prefer (more on that later).

A Social Intrigue game is one in which there is some instigating event; a broad goal or mcguffin, like a crime investigation, or a brewing conflict between factions, and each of those factions has some broad purpose and some number of important NPCs who have their own goals.

Design Implementation: Character Formula

To facilitate Social Intrigue, you need a good means of character generation. There are already plenty of Design Patterns for NPC and Investigation generation which I talk about in my Bastionland NPC Generator post where I reference Chris Mcdowall's Mash-Up Character Method but I've since developed a Design Implementation for this Pattern of my own. It goes something like this:

NPC: [Adjective] [Occupation] and [Hobby/Other Notable Activity] who [Personality Quirk]

For instance:

Kennedy Fitzpatrick: Thicc computer science professor and white-hat hacker who has no time for your nonsense.
Jordan Suleiman: Neurotic bespectacled crime journalist and jazz fan who aims to become a politician.
Bam Bam: Ambiguously European art student and intramural athlete who speaks mostly in gibberish.

You can see I don't follow it precisely, it's more of a guideline, but I've found that this implementation has a natural flow that's easy to write, easy to read, and helps me come up with more dynamic and interesting characters than I might otherwise come up with.

Design Implementation: Relationship "Pivot Tables"

Once you have a means of generating interesting characters, bringing it back to Social Intrigue, you then have to give them relationships to each other, factions in the game, and the players. Personally, what I do is create spreadsheets, sometimes multi-tab spreadsheets, so like pivot tables if you do any kind of analytics work. I know I'm not the first person to talk about this, but I can't remember where else I've heard people doing this so I'll re-explain here.

So there might be some number of factions and some number of NPCs, and you'll have the following tabs:

Factions: Has the columns Faction, Status (relationship with PCs), Description, NPCs (associated with this faction) NPCs: Has the columns Name, Status (relationship with PCs), Description, Factions (associated with this NPC)

Just laying everything out like this can make it more salient how the players are interacting with the factions and NPCs, or which factions or NPCs need more hooks, etc. and you can even have one for yourself as a GM, and one for the players, that may omit certain information they aren't privy to yet.

In terms of game design, and how I'm doing it in the Maximum Recursion Depth Module, rather than just having NPCs per se, you can have Roles: e.g. The Victim, The Client, The Journalist, The Professor, The Roommate, etc.

And have random roll role tables of, say, 4+ entries each. You could have just one big random roll table for all roles, but personally, I found that creating separate tables for each role, allowed me to design characters better suited for those roles.

If these NPCs are created using the formula above, you should wind up with really interesting possibilities for each role, and you may entirely change the scenario given the roles.

Before I gave the examples:
(The Professor) Kennedy Fitzpatrick: Thicc computer science professor and white-hat hacker who has no time for your nonsense.
(The Journalist) Jordan Suleiman: Neurotic bespectacled crime journalist and jazz fan who aims to become a politician.

But their relationship to each other, or to the players, or other NPCs, whether or not they're the murderer (if it's a murder mystery), etc., may be totally different if you had instead rolled:

(The Professor) Kentucky “Tuck” Johnson: Ruggedly handsome criminology professor and expert hostage negotiator with a narcissist’s smile.
(The Journalist) Nickelflick: Colorful hair-dyed performance artist turned war correspondent who is surprisingly mundane in day-to-day life.

Also, you now have a bank of extra NPCs to throw around! So if you need another professor or journalist, or just any rando, you've got it! These also could even work as PCs in many cases if you're struggling for a PC idea in the future.

So if you do all of this, what I've found, is that Social Intrigue games eventually start to just write and run themselves. An admittedly fair bit of prep goes into all of this up-front, and I haven't even really gotten into any patterns for the instigating events themselves besides vague suggestions like "murder mystery", I think that needs to be a separate post unto itself, but I actually don't even think it matters that much for reasons I'll explain from the Player perspective, the instigating events can basically be mcguffins, or afterthoughts, and this can still work just fine. But either way, it then becomes intuitive how different NPCs or different Factions will react to Player actions, and by extension to each other, and those relationships also define the conflicts and consequences that the Players themselves must consider, so it's all really organic and compelling.

On Picaresque

I don't want to tangent on this too much, but I've found that there is often a fine line between fun and interesting OSR Picaresque adventure, and murderhoboing. Some of this is subjective and personal preference to be sure, but personally, I just don't find the murderhobo style all that compelling. I know that, especially in the storygame camp back in the day, there was a lot of blowback on murderhoboing, and then on the OSR side there was blowback on the blowback where they tend to argue it's about Picaresque adventure. So I mean this could be a whole big conversation in itself, but I think these things can and should be dissociated, because if you're just using picaresque as a pretense for murderhoboing... I mean if you're having fun, then ok, but we can at least examine this more closely regardless.

A good Social Intrigue game can be Players in a new place, meeting all the factions and NPCs, the movers and shakers, and embedding themselves in that world, running cons, grifts, heists, and doing all sorts of interesting things, that aren't just "let's steal it and run/kill them and run/blow it up and run/touch the thing we're not supposed to touch and run". That's fun in moderation I guess, but for me personally, that quickly grows unsatisfying. But if that's what you want, then enjoy! But to my mind, Socia Intrigue is at least as true, if not more so true, of the kinds of Picaresque adventures I've read, such as Dying Earth, at least until it all falls on its face and then turns into "lets X it and run", but that has the oomph that it does, because of everything that preceded it. What makes the Picaresque fun is the ways they ingratiate themselves in the world and get involved in the intrigues of the other characters... and then break it (or die trying)!

Social Intrigue as a Player

I had mentioned higher up how the instigating events almost don't matter. Now don't get me wrong, being clever with your instigating events can be a really useful tool as well, but I think these things can be dissociated, and this becomes more so clear when you try to do Social Intrigue as a Player.

Sometimes as a GM, players will do things, and you may get frustrated, like "why are they doing X when clearly we're setting things up for Y?!", and I do think there's some need for middle ground, but also, often the best parts of tabletop RPGs are when the Players do the unexpected. Social Intrigue can just be a version of that.

Maybe you have a little village that the Players are passing through, maybe there's a general quest framework there and a few NPCs or things to interact with. But then, they start asking the NPCs deeper questions, they get involved in the local politics, embed themselves in the affairs of the village, and begin scheming. This requires some improv on the part of the GM (although oftentimes you can just lean into or lean against the expectations of the Players based on whatever they're angling towards), but if you do, then session over session, there can be all of these lingering places or characters, that maybe wouldn't otherwise have mattered, but now your Players care about them and have relationships with them, and so they can randomly show up, either as obvious consequences of the Players actions or in unexpected but exciting ways. And even if there are other quests or broader goals, this can contextualize it, or just give it a little extra kick, like a good hot pepper. And again, now you've got less prep work in the future, and less downtime if they complete your dungeon or whatever other quests or adventures more quickly than you anticipated, because you're building up a Gallery of NPCs and relationships that practically propagate themselves, and in this case, it was at least in part generated by the Players themselves and the things that concerned them.

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