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Emerging Threats Unit Big Bad Con 2014 Report

I ran two Emerging Threats Unit builds back in October, one the Friday night of Big Bad Con and one that Saturday night. I built a character sheet prototype that had a good deal of the rules on it, mainly so that I had the rules written down somewhere for myself and for the playtesters.

Warning: this post is about failing forward, and the trying to tackle problems that came up in playtesting. ETU is less done now that it was before Big Bad Con, but my understanding of it has increased.

The Alpha Mission: Friday’s Playtest

The Friday playtest session (which I called the alpha mission) used the action/cover rules I wrote up earlier this year. Those rules vaguely functioned in my 2012 playtest at Big Bad Con, and completely failed here. It lead to confusion about how to handle the dice even with the physical space on the character sheet. Worse, playtesters felt like they were making bullshit choices about dice rather than meaningful choices about fiction. One playtester, June, asked why I didn’t just making the system a single roll, and I had a “precious artist” moment at the suggestion, saying that if I was going to do that, I might as well just make it an Apocalypse World hack.

Cover in particular confused people when there wasn’t obvious danger. And when I say “confused people,” it also confounded me. I felt like I needed to respect the die roll, especially in a playtest, so I shoehorned in cover failures when they came up. And that contributed to a bizarre problem: the nature of the threat seems to scale out of control in direct proportion to the operatives’ action. Every little action was an opportunity for the threat to become unmanageable, even when they were otherwise being totally competent.

Then I hit onto the really weird, quasi-existential question: Is the premise too adorable? People really like it, but it has some traction issues in play. There are two general narratives for supernatural investigation: with law enforcement authority and with no authority at all. Using the framework of the CDC takes a different stance, because there’s a sense of authority that we all feel when people in hazmat suits tell us we’re in danger, but it’s not the same as the casual authority that law enforcement can throw around.

An FBI badge opens more doors than a CDC one. I’ve been watching Supernatural lately partly as research for monster-hunting procedurals, and it’s clear why the Winchesters rarely use CDC cover stories, and the rare situations in which they do. The CDC doesn’t have teeth; they would rely on law enforcement as, well, a force. So what does a clandestine CDC operation look like? That’s not something played with in fiction, so I don’t have a great model.

Of course, I need to go back to researching the CDC’s history and organization. It’s been long enough that i need a refresher.

The Beta Mission: Saturday’s Playtest

I took the afternoon slot to rework the rules and character sheet, rather than play a game. Still married to the idea of one-roll-multiple-outcomes, I decided to go back to one of ETU’s mechanical inspirations: Otherkind dice. I also recognized that I didn’t have an explicit discovery mechanic, but was doing that ad hoc in the alpha mission, so I made a separate mechanic for that. (Not unlike how GUMSHOE splits investigative and other actions, though with much more of a mechanical division than I was going for.)

What I came up with in a couple hours’ time was this.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 9.22.08 PM

You rolled three dice for whichever sort of action you were doing, and assign the dice to each outcome after you see the results. If a category was particularly hard, you’d have to put two dice there and take the lower result, but you rolled more dice accordingly. There were some other elements on the character sheet that you could exhaust to bump a die.

I also revised the idea of “cover” to “exposure,” after talking with ETU playtester and champion David Gallo. We talked about when the idea of cover did and didn’t work, how in many cases I was thinking about it as mitigating exposure to danger, so he suggested renaming “cover” to “exposure.”

This gave me something that I thought I wanted with investigation beats: a chance that danger could happen. In practice, all investigation lead to was a constant escalation of the threat, making it oddly safer to not investigate something. That’s an instance where creating a mechanic that you think will give you one outcome ends up creating the exact opposite effect. Fascinating, but also unfortunate.

The action system was okay. It was a little better than the alpha playtest, but that isn’t saying much. After trying two different ways of handling one-roll-multiple-outcomes, they fiddliness combined with rewarding antithetical behaviors leads me to think that I’m just being precious about this idea.[1] (This sort of mechanic does work, but the choices always have to have meaning. To use Robin Laws’ terminology, this is a system for a dramatic game, not a procedural one. ETU is definitely a procedural.)

In both missions, the game was slow. Some of that can be pinned on playtesting and learning, but the system actively encouraged and facilitated wheelspinning.

What Playtesters Liked

I’ll only dive into what playtesters liked, as a way of archiving that data so I know what I shouldn’t accidentally remove as I remove and change other stuff. Emphasis on “accidentally;” I might find I need to purposely remove one of these elements.

  • The premise was grabby, even if collectively we didn’t understand what it meant.
  • The damage system was very engaging, even though there wasn’t really any combat in our sessions. It covered other dangers.
  • The promise of terror in the magic system, and that nearly everyone had some form of magic, was awesome. People had this frightening thing they didn’t want to use, and that put them in a different headspace than a pure “normal” person trying to fight off outsiders. (I randomly determined who would get each spell, with one possible result of “You’re sane.”)
  • The weirder parts of the setting that the PCs could touch, like being able to ingest a pill that gave them expertise in a field they didn’t have but at the expense of possibly getting that expert’s memories (and thus effectively some “sanity damage”) make ETU feel really different from a grounded FBI-type of supernatural procedural.

Examine the Corpse For Yourself

Download the alpha and beta mission ETU Character Sheets from Big Bad Con here and the character briefs and unnatural abilities here. There’s a “DOES NOT FUNCTION” watermark on it, as a reminder to me to not accidentally print them out and use them if I’m searching my hard drive for an ETU sheet. And, I suppose, for others to also not accidentally do that should a functional build of ETU happen in our lifetimes. :D

What’s Next for ETU

Remember how I said “I might as well make it an Apocalypse World hack?” That’s actually my next step—or, at least making it a single, simple roll engine is. I want to see what the game looks like in that mode. It might work, it might not. Even if it works, I might not be satisfied with the system. But in any case, it’ll give me data to work from.

– Ryan

[1] You were right, June.

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