Thursday, 1 March 2012

Murder in Phases

I am the Warden!!

Creation is never stagnant, it is a constantly evolving process transporting you in new and unexpected directions. Game design may be the initial eureka of inspiration, but game development is the wake-up call. When I look at the direction Killshot has taken in just a few short months, it amazes me what has changed and what has sprouted from playtesting quite organically.

Most RPGs I've played over the years have dice rolls left, right, and center. Whenever you attempt something questionable, you roll the dice. "Do I notice something odd about the writing on the wall?" Make a dice roll. "Have I heard of his name before?" Make a dice roll. "How many arrows can I salvage from the battlefield?" Make a dice roll. I've seen some players ask for a dice roll just to break the monotony of an exposition scene. Hell, I've been guilty of that because I'm a sucker for rolling dice. I think it's a serious problem and if I ever find an ad for random polyhedral compulsive disorder, I'm signing up to address this issue once and for all.

But something happened in the last playtest of Killshot that I did not realize until a few days ago. Something profound which does not change how the game is played, but enhances it and provides a unique opportunity to make this RPG stand out against the others. After putting it into words during my first draft writing on Killshot: Direction, I can finally sit back and understand its impact.

All games are broken down into individual pieces, much like the composition of a book. In every session of Killshot, the players take on a job (the book) and each of those jobs consist of various objectives (chapters). Each objective is broken down into phases, much like the beginning, middle, and end of the chapter. These phases are the result of playtesting and allow players to incorporate the true impact and purpose of the game.

Killshot is a game of assassination, sure, but more importantly it's a game of caution and survival. Simply walking into a room and blasting the shit out of everything is all fine and dandy, but there are repercussions to deal with as the world of professional assassination is populated with uncountable amounts of law enforcement and aggrieved backers pissed off at exposing their contribution to an eager prosecutor. Assassins must complete the job without alerting anyone to the suspects so that they can carry on killing more people as part of a long and prosperous career. Think of it as complex as pulling off a jewel heist; no one rushes into a bank with ski masks and stumbles over who takes out the cameras, they plan out every detail in advance.

Hence the role of phases. Each phase builds towards the next, providing precious information players will need to make informed decisions and choose their skills wisely. As much as Killshot is a dice pool game, there is an amount of delicate resource management players must consider in each objective. For example, skills are spent as soon as the player makes a successful dice roll with them. Lacking the foresight of what's to come, players might find themselves caught off guard and screwed. And if their character ends up in prison, that term could be literal.

There are three phases per objective: Setup, Planning, and Action. Each phase plays a part in each objective, though certain objectives may not require as much emphasis on the Planning phase as others (such as meeting with a familiar broker whom the assassins trust explicitly). Yet in a more dangerous objective, especially those were you actually pull out your guns and shoot people, the Planning phase can be the ultimate lifesaver to your Team's survivability.

Allow me to briefly explain each phase and its application to objectives as a whole.

Setup: This is a brief explanation of the objective, its purpose, and the what players need to make the objective successful. For example, the objective can be obtaining the mark's car keys and making duplicates of them in order for the assassins to ambush him on his drive to work on Monday. This phase allows the Director a couple of minutes to detail all the core elements needed for the players to consider during the next phase.

Planning: Here, the players plot out their plan of attack for tackling this objective and kicking it in the balls. While they can be allowed dice rolls providing random bits of additional information and insight, there are little, if any, rolls allowed. The Planning phase is an abstract series of decisions made by the players: Which assassin will play lookout? How will they swipe his car keys? Who will be the one taking the keys and will anyone else act as a decoy or backup? Once they have the keys, where do they go from there and how do they return the keys to the mark without arousing suspicion? All of these factors are crucial to creating a clean and fluid last phase.

Action: Now we get to the nitty-gritty and roll dice. Using the information obtained from the Planning phase, the Director lays out the Tracker and organizes everything into series, splitting up the assassins into appropriate Teams, and calling on dice rolls as needed. It is here that success and failure is determined and, more importantly, sets down how the next objective will play out.

The difference between phases and the standard chaotic dice rolling used in all other games is organization, a benefit to both Directors and players. The Planning phase gives the Director a chance to predict how his mark and thugs will react to the player's plan should it backfire, research various options to ensure they are applied quickly during the Action phase, and more. For players, they have a sense of control and creativity in the objective, granting the best opportunity to overcome their challenges and adapt to any unexpected flaws or bad dice rolls they may encounter.

For me, the beauty of these phases is that they occurred naturally during my own playtests. The text for phases is the result of the player's reaction to the game, granting advice and suggestion for new players and Directors trying out the game for the first time. As playtesting expands to our Kickstarter backers and beyond, I'm hoping phases will be the lightbulb of revelation that translates Killshot from average RPG to exceptional experience. Once again, my opinion may be tainted...