Monday, 19 September 2011

Death and Thugs

I am the Warden!!

One thing has become apparent in OS playtesting: it's fun to kill thugs! By the dozens too. Watching those 1-hit wonders drop like stones never seems too much for players. Every once in a while, a thug delivers a nasty punch or shoot a hero in the back for a couple of hits of damage. Nothing big, but enough to piss off that hero to cash in a nasty reaction or two. While thugs can be considered a success without any design revisions required, perhaps it's important to consider the role of thugs in the Optional System and how they impact the game as a whole.

Commence with non-analytical data!

1. A Body Count
Considering action movies are the basis for the Optional System's design, then I'd say thugs help prove that point. Mowing down useless bodyguards, soldiers, punks, terrorists, or whatever your heroes are up against just helps demonstrate how awesome they truly are and that feeling passes on to the other players. This is where all that talk about balance can piss out a window; players love kicking ass. Not all the time, mind you, which is why there are villains and challenges to boost the difficulty at the appropriate time.

2. Freedom of Movement
During what I call a "thug explosion," the Optional System has proven you can literally pit a couple of heroes against 50 thugs in a single fight. Not all 50 thugs are engaged in direct combat as you have to factor in the number of characters who can surround a single hero. During initial playtesting of the infamous Stonehut Massacre, this was exactly the case and keeping track of how many options all those thugs used only to wipe them off your rough notes because they die 10 seconds later was excessive. Hence the new rule for thug movement: each thug can move once in a series freely without using an option. As soon as one thug falls down, another one quickly steps into place, keeping a fresh supply of thugs ready to get their heads shot off.

3. Reckless Combat
Tempting as it may be to start spending some skills and stats against thugs, this has already demonstrated as disastrous for the heroes. During the Stonehut Massacre, the heroes used up so many resources on the 50 thugs that by the time the main villain entered the picture, they were running on nothing more than base, power, and circumstance dice while the villain was stocked and ready to lay waste. In time, I'm expecting all players to reserve their skills and massive dice pools for an actual threat.

This becomes a slippery slope for any Director to walk across. If your thugs become too complacent and - well, thug-like - your players will start regarding them as nothing more than a chance to earn a training point or two. (Another reason why they won't use up their precious resources; you can only earn training points on thugs by rolling a 20 on your base die whereas the right villain comes with an achievement of some kind.) To this end, I have been working an additional to thugs: the boss.

4. The Boss
Kill Bill: Volume 1 has a boss. The guy in the Kato mask from the Crazy 88s. While the other 87 are clearly thugs and bleed all over the floor like a whining mule, he presents a more formidable opponent but still dies like the rest of them. Still untested at the table, a boss remains a thug with more skills, stats, and perhaps even an extra hit or two. He has additional armour to negate damage and powers granting him healing whenever he gains the Edge, let's just say. Bosses throw a loophole into a thug explosion by lobbing in a grenade of uncertainty to the fight. A boss could provide a bonus to all other thugs or could target the strongest hero in the party and take him or her on in a full-scale brawl to topple the skirmish in their favour. Either way, the purpose of a boss is to make the players stop and say "Shit!"

Conclusion: Thugs Live to Die
That's it in a nutshell. Thugs exist so they can be killed. Truthfully, they exist for the players, not so much the heroes. With the dynamic opposed rolls of combat, popping in some thugs break up the monotony of investigations, interrogation, social interaction, and whatever else is going on to give the players some excitement when they just want to kill without consequence. For the heroes, they are an impediment to their true objective: the story.

A fine line has to be walked when dealing with thugs for one reason: training points. In that they don't offer any. Only when a player makes a damn good roll (simulated by the hero performing an incredible maneuver as part of their attack) do they gain something towards their career. Repeated fights with thugs can quickly become boring and repetitive, regardless of what those thugs are and what they do, unless there is reward for the undertaking. As playtesting continues, I'm hoping to evaluate a standard guideline for developing thug explosions, but will leave you with one thought.

You're the Director. If a thug explosion resulted in some awesome fun combined with shouts of joy, clapping, and celebration dances, hand out a minor achievement with a training point or two. Reward your players more than your heroes. They know what they're doing.