Passionate Game Design

Silent Sound

Mechanics Flowing In The Wrong Direction

Last night we played the first session of Silent Sound. It went well in terms of the fiction and in terms of productive play testing. It didn’t go so well in terms of the mechanics doing their intended job. Such is the perils of trying to move a game from Alpha through Play-testing.

First off I made a GM blunder in terms of starting the game off. Part of the intention of the design is to get the characters to interact with reflections not only of their own crimes but of the other character’s crimes as all. The idea is to get a cross pollination of behavior across the characters. I think my situation setup is fine in creating an interlocking web of characters that have overlap between elements of the character’s crimes.

The problem is, that in order to foster a creepier or more subtle tone I started off two of the characters encountering material relevant to their Memory rather than their Lures. It turns out that Memory and Lure do NOT carry equal resonating weight with the players. It was suggested that I reverse my thinking. My attempt at “subtle” instead turned into the players feeling a little lost and disoriented. I should hit the players immediately with stuff relevant to their Lure and their own crimes and then introduce elements form their Memory to draw them into the cross pollination. Fortunately, I think situation I created is fine for that I just have to use it differently. As I put it last night, “The instrument isn’t broken; I just have to play different notes.”

The mechanics on the other hand are not working as intended at all. They aren’t driving the fiction forward in any way. If anything they’re grinding it to a halt. Colin felt the mechanics actively support turtle-ing. I’m not sure I agree fully with that but what I did observe was that the players were very eager to engage certain aspects of the mechanics much earlier than were “necessary.” Engaging with those mechanics carry a risk and thus the players felt they were being punished for engaging in something they thought was cool.

In particular I’m referring to the Flashback mechanic. In the game you can frame Flashback scenes to situations involving your crime. Mechanically this allows you to increase your base stats. What you’re risking is an increase to your Shadow score which is bad for you come endgame. The intended dynamic was that the GM would hammer the players with opposition which decreases their base stats thus *forcing* them into Flashbacks to recover.

Here’s the thing, doing that would take probably six or seven scenes and the players, fictionally, wanted to introduce flashbacks much, much sooner. Hence they seemed like a punishment because now they were risking Shadow for no reason other than introducing cool content. I have to think about this because I like the idea of a reflective “refresh” but if that’s the case then stats need to go “down” much, much faster or I have to decouple Flashbacks from “healing.”

Possible Solution: Instead of being fixed numbers, players spend their base stats like a resource.

With regards to the GM providing opposition the system has a serious problem here. There are two scores called Town Influence and Guilt. These two scores specify the base number of dice the GM rolls in a conflict. These numbers go up and down based on conflict outcomes. From day one of my design I saw the problem of the game becoming a death spiral for the GM so I added this mechanic called the Shadow Pool. The Shadow Pool is basically a resource the GM spends to add dice to his pool.

I’ve NEVER liked the Shadow Pool. First of all, it’s always been a tacked on hack to prevent the death spiral. Second of all, I’ve never really known how large to initially set it or a good way to refresh it. If I could, I’d get rid of it and last night it became apparent that I HAVE to get rid of it.

Here’s the thing, it is providing one thing that isn’t just about the death spiral hack. I like to be able to lend “emotional weight” to my die rolls. The limited resource allows me to demonstrate how much something is “worth” to me mechanically. Even if I fix the death spiral problem I’m not really sure I’d be satisfied with a static number that I had no way to influence.

Possible Solution: The GM can just add dice to his pool, but has to give the opposing player Judgment on a 1-to-1 basis. Judgment is currently a resource players can spend to influence the outcome of other player’s characters.

Another observation is that the endgame is WAY too compelling. The game has epilogue constraints based on the outcome of the final conflict die roll. I don’t mind glancing at the state of the mechanics to decide when to shift tone or direction or how to play your next scene to setup something else. But the players were looking at the system in a way that looked like eight or nine moves ahead like a chess match and that’s getting too “gamey” for my tastes. I want mechanical choices to be about the state of the fiction and what the player wants to express in the short term.

This is largely because the system as currently formulated is a giant machine which is clearly too complex. In fact, I’m pretty sure it computes logarithms as a side effect of play. I need to reformulate the machine so that (a) the long term effects are still present and visible but are a back burner concern and (b) the immediate short term decisions are more interesting.

Part of the problem is that there are a lot of levers that I deliberately put in the player’s hands because as GM I wanted to focus on playing the components of the town and not have to worry about certain pacing concerns. The problem is that these levers when pulled set off a series of gears that have layered consequences. It was my intention that the levers were to be pulled based on the immediate emotional desires of the players and that the machine would happily do its job unregarded. Turns out this is a little bit like me placing the lever of a guillotine into someone’s hand and saying, “Pull this when you fall in love.” Their rather natural response is, “But it will cut my head off.” And me saying, “Never mind that, just pull it when you fall in love” probably isn’t going to cut it.

There are NUMEROUS examples of this through out the system and is probably the biggest design flaw. The largest is the way Shadow works. You don’t want Shadow because it reflects on your character badly in the endgame. There are two ways to gain Shadow and both are entirely voluntary. The first is the Flashback mechanic I described earlier. The second way is by taking on Shadow to earn bonus dice on conflicts while in the Shadow world.

This is where Colin’s “turtle-ing” comment is probably most appropriate. I assumed that the conflicts at hand would eventually take on such importance to the players that doing these voluntary things would become worth it. Turns out they don’t. Or at least don’t fast enough (again see my problems with pacing and opposition above).

Possible Solution: I have been considering swapping the labels of the GM stat Guilt and the player stat Shadow for some time because that more accurately reflects their function. I mentioned this and it was suggested that rather than having Shadow thrust upon the player through opposition (which was the intent) make Guilt something the player starts with and has to proactively “burn off.” I like this idea.

It goes along with that discussion in the first thread about whether or not fictionally it’s important for the characters to feel guilty about their own crimes. I realize that I setup the whole Shadow mechanic with the assumption that the character’s had largely forgotten about their crimes and now Silent Sound has shown up to “remind” them by thrusting it in their face.

Oddly, I think this comes from me misinterpreting my source material, the video game Silent Hill 2. In the game James’s crime is a reveal that happens about 3/4th of the way through the story. For some reason I had gotten it into my head that James is in denial about his crime. That effectively he blocked out what he did and the ordeal of Silent Hill draws it out of him.

But that’s not right. I’m mistaking the audience experience of not being fully in the know regarding James’s motives with James himself not being in the know about his motives. I’m further mistaking his eventual admission with remembrance. On reflection it’s clear that James’s guilt is driving him the whole time. I think that confusion comes from the weird identity confusion that can happen in third person video games. If I don’t know something James must not know something because I am James, right?

In any event, I include that as a note to other designers basing games on the thematics of established source material. Make sure you really understand the thematics of your source material.

The group is taking a two week hiatus to give me time to think all of this over and retool the system and then we’re going to take another stab at it.

Silent Sound Playtest #1: Character Creation

So I finally got over my terror and pulled together some people to play test my game Silent Sound. The game is inspired by much of the color and thematics of the Silent Hill video game series and in particular the storyline of Silent Hill 2. However, while the video game is largely about exploration, surviving monsters and solving puzzles, my game is about addressing guilt. That’s much more fun.

Basically, the PCs are characters who have all committed a moral crime (which may or may not also be illegal). Silent Sound is a supernatural place of judgment that has lured the PCs there to face their crimes. The game is about whether or not these characters come to terms with their crimes through the metaphor of whether or not the town metaphorically devours them.

Last night we did character generation and it went very, very well. The players I have assembled are Christopher Kubasik (CK!), Eric and Colin. The first step of character creation is picking a Theme for the character’s crimes. These guys don’t pull their punches and went with: Kids. From that CK created a man who lost his son while he wasn’t playing attention. Eric created a school teacher who when he was a kid took one of friends out into the woods and then left him there, never to come home. Colin created a priest who broke his vow of celibacy and then abandoned the child that came from that.

The next step of character creation is for the players to create Memory of a time when they visited Silent Sound before and Lure which is something that has happened and compels them to come to Silent Sound right now. Both of these must imply a character who is effectively a player created NPC for the GM to play with. CK’s Memory was of playing in the sand with his son and his Lure was a letter from someone in Silent Sound claiming they have his son. Eric’s Memory was of his first kiss at the Silent Sound carnival and his Lure was that the brother of the kid he abandoned in the woods and who has been looking for him most his life thinks he may be in Silent Sound. Colin’s Memory was of fishing on the lake with his dad, and his Lure was that the mother of the child Colin abandoned has called asking to meet him in Silent Sound.

The final step of character creation involves discussing The Shadow. Silent Sound exists on two planes of existence. The normal world which may be odd or weird but not overtly supernatural and The Shadow Plane which is can be a full on nightmare. The mechanics of the game involve the characters shifting back and forth between these planes. During character creation a Look & Feel for this shadow plan is decided upon. The group went with: Rundown Coney Island-esq Amusement Park.

From that the players take the NPCs they’ve created and describe how they appear in the Shadow Plane. CK’s son appears normal except with a broken jaw, and the mysterious man who sent the letter appears as a clown. Eric’s first love appears as a doll, like you’d win at a carnival game, and the brother he’s catching up with appears as a security guard for the amusement park. Colin’s father is a carnival barker and the mother of his child is a lion tamer.

I’m very pleased with how it all went and Colin said it best: “Before I was interested in the game, and now I’m *excited* about the game.” And so am I.

Points of Consideration

One of the questions I asked was, “Do you think your character feels guilty for what he did and do you think that’s important.” There was a unanimous “YES!” heard round the table. Everyone thought it was super important not only for their character to feel guilty but that the Lure directly scratches the “itch” of that guilt. This was very interesting to me as I had intended the game to be neutral on whether or not the character felt guilt.

Last night I couldn’t quite properly articulate why but today I have clearer thoughts. First of all there’s a mechanic in the game called Judgment. Judgment is a resource pool that can be spent on *either* side of a conflict your character is NOT involved in. I’m curious with such sympathetic characters if Judgment is will ever be played against one another. I obviously won’t know until play.

Second, what the three guys created last night was three characters struggling to come to terms with what they did. I had originally intended to support a second kind of character who believed there was nothing wrong with what he did but Silent Sound has a different opinion. Such a story would be a character struggling to *defend* what he did. A character who stands up and says, “Fuck you, Silent Sound, I don’t give a shit what you say there’s nothing wrong with what I did!”

Question: Is that second idea workable?

That second character (theoretical) character concept dovetails with my second thought. The players were really excited about these characters and so am I but as I was driving home something was gnawing at me. Something seemed “off” about the characters and finally realized what it was.

In all my thinking about the game it has always been about character’s who have a crime in the past *that they have no way of ever dealing with in an external manner.* It’s over and done, with no hope of ever going back. But that’s NOT what I have with these characters. With these characters people *directly* related and involved in the original crime are still present and active in the situation.

This is an issue because I’m not 100% sure my situation creation process as formulated supports that. The basis of my situation creation system is predicated on the idea that the situations are *reflections* of the character’s crimes without actually *being* the character’s crimes. Essentially the game as originally formulated was about people confronting their crimes over and over and over again from an objective and ultimately *outsider* perspective.

That’s where that second character type above comes from. Silent Sound constantly confronting the character with situations similar to their crime and forcing them evaluate, “Would you do the same thing in this context? How about this one? How about that over there? What about NOW? Would you? Would you? Would you?!”

Now what the players did was so easy and natural and exciting I WANT to support it. In fact I’m pretty sure what they did was BETTER than my original idea. I’ve never been happy with my situation process and I think perhaps that’s because I knew this was going. In fact even BEFORE things started I knew CK in particular was probably going to do something I hadn’t anticipated because of his passion for creating these uber-focused characters. Notice: Crime: Missing Son. Memory: Missing Son. Lure: Missing Son.

Here’s the basis for my situation creation. Right now the GM is expected to create two NPCs from each of the player’s crimes. The names are dumb but I call one The Rejecter and one the Perpetuator. The Perpetuator is victimizing someone because they are committing a crime similar to that of the PC. The Rejecter is someone who is victimizing someone because they are *not* committing a crime similar to that of the PC.

So each PC has 4 NPCs associated with them. You basically then take the Perpetuator and the Rejecter and have them victimizing one of the 4 NPCs associated with a different character. Next you create a stressor which is someone or something that is putting pressure on that victimization. This yields essentially two micro-situations per PC that are reflective of their crimes. At this point you combine and collapse any of these characters. The only rule is that the original Memory and Lure characters must remain distinct but they may be combined with Perpetuators, Rejecters or Stressors.

Finally, you transform the whole thing into the The Shadow like you did with the two Memory or Lure characters during character creation. In particular at this stage Stressors become Monsters, truly horrible demonic things that are making things really bad for the situation.

I’m going to more or less stick to this process for now and see where it takes me with these characters. But all this was created with the idea that the players would be facing only *reflections* of their crimes, not actually engaging elements from their crimes.

Another thing I noticed was that the players were leaning towards making pretty much their own Monsters during character creation, the clown, the security guard, at one point Colin proposed having his father be a huge spider like thing which I clamped down on because of the Stressor to Monster mechanic during situation creation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that instead, simply noting the fact that the players have handed me monsters and that I should simply endeavor to reverse engineer them into Stressors in the normal town.