Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Game Translation: KGB

KGB is an old game from way back in 1992. I purchased the re-release, Conspiracy, that had Ronald Sutherland voicing the main character's dead father and drip feeding the odd bit of advice. The game is set in the final days of the Soviet Union and follows Maksim Rukov (a name I've pilfered for several roleplaying characters) as he undertakes missions for the KGB and learns details of the conspiracy that killed both of his parents in a car accident and left his uncle a cripple.

This is a difficult game with a real time clock and correct / wrong answers in long (but interesting) conversation trees that can end with you dead if you don't pick all of the right ones which generally takes trial and error. You can also make errors that make the game impossible to progress beyond a certain point hours before that point. You can't choose to rewind your game very far (though there is a limited rewind function) and may well need to start off at the very beginning. Unlike in The Last Express, the game won't indicate where that point of failure even occurred so you just need to try things a little differently.

Having said that, the game certainly makes up for that with richly drawn characters, a compelling (if difficult to unweave) plot, intriguing conversational answers, and a sort of real world consequentialism that makes it a thrill to lose (at least if you're me) just to see the other side of things.

So just what can you take from this game?

Well, strangely enough, that high consequences can be fun. Its old school willingness to kill you, or maim you, or send you to the gulag, or put you on a desk shift, for obeying orders at the wrong time (or disobeying them at the wrong time) makes a change from the modern hand holding and "See that light switch over there? Flick it ... not now buuuut now."

Call of Cthulhu gamers are well aware of the joys that can come from having your soul horribly sucked out into a painting because you were fool enough to open a wardrobe and look at it. Sure, you still get the obligatory save to avoid it but oftentimes an accidental mistake you couldn't foresee ends in a roll to see if the dice gods are on your side. If they're not, you're doomed.

The other joy of the lack of obvious sign posting is that you end up having to really pay attention to the conversations (which are beautifully written) and while the word choices might not actually help you find your way through (people are realistically unknowable in how they might respond) it adds a certain degree of discovery. "Oh, that's how he reacts!" "Oh, maybe I should have just attacked him!"

The trick here is to have such lovingly drawn characters and then breathe life into them through clever dialogue and witty repartee. How to gain those skills if you don't already have them? Well, that's a topic for a future series of articles. Suffice to say that knowing your NPC's personality, paying attention to how other people speak, and practising the roles all help.

Of course, one of the tricks to roleplaying this sort of game is that you can't just assume the characters will "go to the gulag" or will "fail the fight" because dice gods and player reactions are unpredictable and you shouldn't make those assumptions. If you know the NPC really well, even if you intended that he couldn't be talked down doesn't mean that the characters might stumble across just the right approach. If they probably should succeed, then let them. This sort of game should be hard enough that all of their successes will shine all the more.

This is a game of high consequences. Leave a corpse on the sidewalk and cops might come along. Get spotted in a room behind someone's pub and get your knees broken. A lot of players get used to such issues being hand waved just a little, but this is the sort of game where players should have to figure out just how to remove the blood spatter from the alley walls after slitting the enemy's throat. Give them a bit of time.

That metaphor makes my foot hurt.

With high consequence games, however, remember that roleplaying isn't a visual medium. Players are trying to absorb a lot of your verbally described situations and scenarios and therefore might not necessarily make connections (or remember them) even though it would be very obvious to their characters. Be fair to them in this regard and don't penalise the players by withholding or burying information their characters should be well aware of. It might be as simple as adding a single descriptive note at the end of the scene, such as "You leave the bloodsoaked alley...." So long as they hear those words, if they decide to walk away anyway and go back into the hotel right next to that alley then they should be aware of the risks.

Also bear in mind that a High Consequences game shouldn't fall into the "All Answers Are Wrong" framework. There's always the chance that no one will pass through that alley. There's the chance that dropping the corpse out of the hotel window and then throwing it into the river is the best thing to do. If the corpse washes up immediately and is traced back than a sense of futility will set in. In a roleplaying game, you should certainly give them options and make it possible for them to stumble along through.

If you cleave too closely to KGB's obscure path of success model then the players will get fed up and leave and none of your adventures will be successful. The players can't reload an earlier save. They can't rewind a couple scenes. They're trapped with the consequences so do make them a little more obvious even if only by obeying the rule of common sense rather than the rule of 'nudge, nudge, try this'.

So, how to evoke this game the best? I'd suggest creating a wide open sandbox game with a small conspiracy (preferably mind mapped earlier by you so you kow the connections) whose members, allies, and rivals are constantly active over time (create a timeline) whereby the characters are given only one or two primary leads and must piece together clues, leads, and locate witnesses without any real guidance from the Storyteller. In other words, no helpful coincidences or narrative nudging. Its just them and the game world and they have to find their own ways through.

A campaign based around the KGB, or including elements of it, should appeal to Investigators who are happy to jot down vital information so that no clue or lead is forgotten (because they're definitely necessary). The necessity to pay absolute attention to what is said is likely to confuse Communicators but they're the ones most likely to enjoy seeing the full range of possible human reaction. Explorers would enjoy seeing the well drawn locations of a foreign country and may even enjoy the trial and error approach so long as the consequences are kept unique and interesting.

Tacticians are likely to get quite frustrated because the game has multiple failure paths and chances for success requires a person to stay on their toes. They may enjoy it if they have a couple good Investigators to help ensure they have all of the information they need. Still, they're likely to be frustrated by any accidental and unforeseen Call of Cthulhu style failures.

Action Heroes may well be all right with the failure conditions, per se, as loss can roll right off their backs. The constant attention to the clues to find the paths and the need to be very aware of how combat often leads to further consequences that needs to be painstakingly pre-judged and dealt with will probably annoy them. Having to find bleach to scrub the bloody from an alleyway after a murder may interest them the first time due to the novelty but after that it gets old fast.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about this game, you're out of luck because it doesn't have one that I can find. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that KGB used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Metro 2033, Skyrim, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Metro 2033.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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