Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Game Translation: This War of Mine

Generally its a rare game that goes the full simulationist / slice of life route.  The grand majority of games are plotted.  There is some major conflict that you need to weave your way through, defeating a succession of obstacles of increasing drama and tension to defeat some Big Bad (or more rarely to merely survive and escape).  Therefore I have little experience, but loads of ideas, for how to accomplish This War of Mine through a roleplaying lens format.

In This War of Mine you don't play elite soldiers out to cleanse the city nor do you play rebels seeking to overthrow the government.  You're not even a single Action Hero Father trying to rescue your kids.  You could well be an old teacher, handyman, and sneaky girl from the wrong side of town.

You also don't shoot up bad guys unless you want to risk an easy road to death.  Instead you sneak through abandoned (and not-so-abandoned) locales picking up spare parts so you can spend your daytimes constructing various appliances, gardens, and water purifiers to allow you and your friends to survive a few days while occasionally thugs and desperate civilians make armed raids on your home.

It's a different sort of game.  It's a touch depressing.  And it would make for a very interesting roleplaying game.

If you have Narrativist players, then you probably already  know how you can run this.  You could simply focus on the relationships with some moments of rising tension, perhaps randomly drawn from a deck of cards to represent what is heard on the radio or what occurs during the night or on scavenging runs as a launch pad for ideas.  Players could then interject with what they think would be most entertaining - "I've caught a cold...."  "A sniper wings me...."

Simply watching the various characters interact as things slowly get worse and they struggle to put together enough to make it through the war could be perfectly entertaining for one or more sessions with the right crowd, but if you're a full Narrativist who have played a number of games in this style you probably don't need much advice on that front and as I've never run that sort of game I'm really not in the position to advice you on it.

So what if you're used to running the more common sorts of games with a GM in full control of the world around player controlled characters used to dealing with GM created obstacles while interacting with each other and NPCs in character?

Well you'll need to make sure that everyone plays pretty low-powered and ordinary characters.  So think small, think weak, think hopelessly out-gunned just like if the average office worker suddenly had to survive in an urban environment without proper stores.  Ensure the rules work with that and be sure the players are open to it.

You can play "This War of Mine" with more capable folks, say ex-emergency services personnel, and you can play the setting within a different style - even slice of life it with emergency services dealing with call outs within a besieged city but as that doesn't focus on the style of the videogame, just the setting, we won't be looking at that.  So make sure the players are onboard with creating utterly normal people with one particular specialty - good cook, good craftsman, etc.  I'd recommend each player make three such characters so that they can replace them quickly.

Ensure that wounds won't heal without medical attention and that sicknesses get progressively worse without warmth, food and rest.  When the characters get too hungry, too sick, too wounded or too tired, their movement speeds should be cut to a walk and then a stagger.  Every effort should take them longer and they should no longer be much use scavenging.

As with any good sandbox game you could get a map showing identified locations which they can travel and some basic rumours about them.  Danger levels, likely lootables, and possible NPCs should all be described.  You could even make it a bit of a hex crawl if you like by allowing PCs to spend a night in different blocks looking for places that haven't been revealed to them yet.

Unless you're willing to have a full group traipsing about to every location (increasing the chances of a TPK and reducing the sense of desperation), you'd need to keep the missions themselves quite short and sharp to allow players to guiltlessly split the party.  Ten to fifteen minutes per supply run should generally be enough.  Twenty to thirty if everyone seems enraptured.  Let the players know that they will need to split the party in advance so that they can protect their homes in case of looters.

I'd use a randomised system - like dice or card draws - to decide whether they're attacked.  You can either roleplay the attack or resolve it with dice or simply matching the defences against the attacker's skill and desperation, if you like.

Be mindful the PCs may crave revenge after a successful raid on them.
Inventory management is important as well in any game based on scavenging.  Firstly you'll need to determine the build phases - what they can build and what they need for it - then you can decide what they find.  You could do this board game style by putting tokens on a map and making them navigate the location or you could just decide it on the fly.  It's up to you.

During the build phase, you need to decide how many items they can build and if time will factor into it or simply what they have in their inventory.  Bear in mind how long you want it to take for them to purify water or grow crops.  You won't want this to occur in real-time as it would be very dull to have to get through fourteen days to make things happen so maybe have each phase represent a week of activities.

What they build should also have meaning during the gameplay and roleplay parts as well.  You could assign bonuses or penalties depending on what they have but other than slowing the PCs down when things get too rough I would focus on adding roleplaying pressures.  Describe the aches and pains of sleeping poorly ... describe the taste of dog food when they lack vegetables for soup ... describe the pangs of thirst ... describe the aching cold ... describe a day spent with nothing to read and nothing to do ... describe the maddening lack of information on how things are progressing for lack of a radio.  Each day, no matter what they have got and what they have recently built, describe what they lack and make it ache.

When the characters don't eat, simply progress them through categories that are easy to understand.  Slightly Hungry.  Hungry.  Starving.  Starving.  Dead.  Same thing with a lack of sleep or creeping sadness.  Reinforce the sensations of it most of all by describing the physical issues within each problem.  That will be the most galvanising thing for the players. 

When it gets cold, you could make one of them them draw from five cards to see if they get sick - increase the number of illness cards if they are exhausted, starving or if the temperature has gotten quite low.

So that it doesn't just become a depressing spiral of angst, ensure that there are some moments of levity as well.  People request for help and offer it.  People repay their debts when the PCs help them out.  Some of the locations are open to trade.  Some are robbed.  Some are cruel.  Most are just trying to survive.

Anyway, a campaign based around This War of Mine or including elements of it, should appeal to -

Communicators who find personal interaction and psychological horror interesting may enjoy it quite a bit though anyone who's main desire is for politics may find it sorely lacking unless they can affect alliances and recruit NPCs over to their way of thinking.

Explorers may enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of poking through people's homes and businesses while on scavenging missions so play it up and ensure little secrets are found here and there.  Keep it lively and keep the descriptions full of unqiue moments.

Action Heroes will stick a target on some of the bad guys and want their revenge.  If they succeed, they will love it.  If they fail, or fail too often, they will become frustrated.  They may be able to do it for a session as a favour to other players but this is not a good game for them long-term.

Tacticians will find it irritating because there's no win condition other than base survival.  Every decision they make is as bad as it is good.  Oh you built a cage to trap animals?  Well now we don't have a heater ... or a vegetable garden ... or an upgraded machine shop.  Some may enjoy this, plenty won't.

Investigators won't have much in the way of questions to solve and cases to follow.  They, like the action heroes and tacticians, could enjoy the setting but not the style of This War of Mine.  They may well find it dull.

So if you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here.

For the next Game Translation (which will be in a fortnight's time), you have a choice of these: Wastelanders 2, Wolfenstein, Dead Space, or Vampire: the Masquerade (Bloodlines).

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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