Thursday, September 10, 2015

Velour Thursdays: El Capitan, Part One

Last time, I talked about one of the rules sections that's giving me stress.

This time, I'm going to talk about the other one.  Issues with this section of the rules are still ongoing, largely because they are complex, take up a not insignificant portion of the game, and have a rather substantial impact on how the players interact with one another.

That's right, I'm talking about the captain, but before I talk about that, I first have to tell you about Occupations.

Occupations are kind of like character classes in other role-playing games, in that they put you in a pigeonhole that is your role aboard ship.  If your Occupation is Medical, you're saving lives in the Med Bay.  If your Occupation is Helm, you're flying the ship.  If your Occupation is Security, you are dying horribly doing security things!  Mechanically, all your Occupation does is give you a bonus die to roll anytime you're in a situation where it would reasonably come into play; all you have to do is justify it with the GM.

In the original version of the game, one of the Occupations was Command.  Command had to do with inspiring and leading others, so you'd get a bonus die any time that happened.  On a re-read, I felt like that wasn't going to be enough of a boost for Command, so I started to do the thing that I dread doing as a designer, in which I make eight things that are more or less exactly the same, except for the one which is different and has special powers.

Version 1.01 of Command went a little something like this:  You had belonged another Occupation prior to the start of the game (Engineering, Systems, etc.), but had been recently promoted to officer rank.  This gives you two Occupations (Command and your original one) and you have an officer rank and you can give people your Drama Points and any time you directly order someone to do something, they get a bonus die because they don't want to let you down.

A little kludge-y as far as rules go, but it worked well enough. At least, it did on paper.

Unfortunately, one of the things one quickly learns when designing games is that the wonderful things you scribble down on paper usually fall apart and explode the moment you try to implement them at the table.  Version 1.01 of the Command rules wasn't quite that bad (to strain the descriptor, it merely melted badly and leaned over to one side), but there was still quite a bit wrong with it.

It turns out that I had forgotten to take player dynamics into account when designing the Command rules.  In an ideal group, people with the Command Occupation were leaders, but were also supportive of one another and of the people under their command.  Things worked like a well-oiled machine.

In non-ideal groups, the presence of the Command Occupation caused several related things:

  • Some players who had Command expected to be obeyed and got kind of obnoxious about it  At least one player made everyone else at the table list off their ranks so that they knew who they could order around.
  • Some players with quieter personalities either waited patiently to be told what to do or got forced to do all kinds of things that they didn't necessarily want to do.  Since Space Patrol is a quasi-military organization, there was social and game pressure to keep them from disobeying.
  • Even with players who were more relaxed, games eventually resembled a style game described in the examples of play in First Edition D&D, in which one player (known as the Caller) was in charge of telling the DM what the other players were doing. History has shown us that this was a playstyle that didn't work for D&D, and it certainly doesn't work in a game that was ostensibly going to be about (among other things) individualism, exploration, and diversity of thought.

As much as I wanted to find a way to emulate the command structure of the show, it wasn't worth it if that meant that some of the players felt that they had to be the obedient servants of the other half of the players.  I wondered if it might be better if I got rid of the Command Occupation altogether and put the captaincy in the hands of a GM-controlled NPC.

That didn't quite work out either.  I'll discuss that, as well as continued revisions to the captain's rules, next tiiiime!

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