With Great Power…

Reposted from Gametime

As well as my excursion into Old School, I have been sallying forth into the realm of the Shared Narrative/Indie Game with a multi-session game of With Great Power. Those who have followed grandexperiment for some time will be familiar with it. For the rest, let me summarize it thus: It is a game in which the group collaboratively pitch story ideas and then use a card-based mechanic to pick a firm outcome; and it is intended in its detailed architecture to model the conventions and stories of Silver Age Super Heroes.

Any discussion or actual play report of an “Indie” game needs to grapple with the meaning and application of several key words. These words arise inevitably, and I wish to dispense with that formality first:

– Shared Narration
– Scenes (and Scene “framing”)
– Conflict and/or Stakes
– Aspects

With Great Power is a Shared Narrative game. What this means is that the role of the GM is more in the nature of a specialized player than of an omnipotent/omniscient overseeing mind. WGP is one of the more venerable of these games, which does show a bit in places. Generally in WGP the players offer one version of events and the GM another and one is selected by the core game mechanic.

Scenes in WGP seem to be essentially intended as story nexus points. A player or the GM initiates a scene. They are required to declare a scene objective, which must be a statement couched in terms of a change in one of the core PC mechanical parts (Aspects, which I’m getting to.)

These scenes set up a conflict of some kind: a potential change in story direction. Then the players offer one outcome of the “conflict” and the GM offers another. These are termed “stakes”, and are resolved. Either the character wins the stakes and the story takes the direction they choose, or they lose the stakes and receive a mechanical reward. There are two, and only two, ways of having and resolving this conflict in WGP: “Enrichment” scenes where you alter some aspect of your own character and “Conflict” scenes where you try and alter another character’s aspects.

Aspects are therefore the character’s in-game representation^. They are the tool that a player uses to influence the story, and they are also a resource to be expended and consumed or bolstered when conflicts are won. They are the only mechanical part of the character, encapsulating not only the character themselves, but every part of their presence in the game world (insofar as the game is concerned anyway.) Aspects are tracked on a single-axis scale representing both their importance to the story and the level of stress that they are under. In other words, the more stressed (i.e. damaged) an aspect is the more power you derive from it.

The mechanic works by having players compare the value of cards held in their hand. Cards are obtained from winning “conflict scenes” and from “enrichment/suffering” scenes and lost in the process of fighting a “conflict scene” and again if you lose a “conflict scene” and are lost to restore aspects in an “enrichment/restoration” scene.

It should be apparent by now that there are a number of overlapping terms here (such as “conflict”) and there are some whose apparent importance is not really reflected in the mechanics (such as “stakes”); and that some things are conflated in a counter-intuitive way (such as what amounts to “damage” being done to an aspect making it more powerful.)

Combining all this, the run of play might go along these lines:
1. A character frames an “enrichment” scene.

In this scene one of his aspects must either suffer (and give him cards) or be restored (for which he pays cards.) This card transaction automatic, but must also lead to a story decision point (the “conflict” where the opposed parties set “stakes.”) The player then says what outcome they desire in the story, and cards are compared. The winner decides what happens in the story and a replacement card for the one they put up, and the loser gets the cards that were put into the fight.

It sounds here like a genuine comparison of interest and a neutrally weighted decision point is being carried out. In reality, the player always wants to lose the stakes. From a meta-game POV, the “stake” has no follow-on effect. The character already has the mechanical benefit to their aspects of the scene, and by losing the stakes they stand to gain a card, whereas they gain nothing more from winning. However, the GM will certainly know this, and so should always offer the lowest card at their disposal in deciding the stakes. Chances are they will win anyway, and have given little away.

Even the somewhat nebulous value of the stake that has been set is not really a factor, since framing rights for future scenes are not decided here and everything of real importance to the character should be represented by an aspect that cannot additionally be affected by the stakes. No indeed: you are playing purely for pride, and for meta-game reasons of character/situation sympathy.

2. The GM frames a “conflict” scene.

The GM states what they want to see happen as a result of the scene, and usually this is in terms related to a PC aspect. The player states counter stakes, usually related to an attack on a villain aspect. Cards are drawn based on how many aspects are at what level of damage (both sides escalate on this point) and the scene is gradually played out. As the combat progresses you can expend aspects to get more cards.

The basic problem with this mechanic is that in order to win you will almost certainly need to sacrifice part of an aspect to get more cards (e.g. by moving it from “risked” to “imperiled”). But this automatically gives the GM what they wanted from the conflict: suffering in your aspects.

In essence, even if a player wins the nominal stakes, they probably lose. The GM starts with more cards and so the players are always on the back foot. The best you can hope for is that a victory gives you enough spare cards left over to buy back the aspects you damaged to win… but this will merely weaken your hand for the next fight, putting you back into the same position.

By the time you get to the end of the game, most of your aspects will probably no longer be yielding cards either (having been “devastated”), and instead will be giving cards to the GM (who gains cards by moving them beyond devastated and into “transformed.”)

So there are these three very major problems with the fundamental mechanics of the game. In summary: that enrichment scenes are easily meta-gamed, and that a core feature of theirs (stakes) are in fact immaterial to the action of the game, and that the bare facts of probability mean that players will have difficulty ever winning a “conflict scene.” Fortunately, working around these is not too difficult: but it does require a conscious avoidance of the system’s natural functioning. This is always a worrying sign.

At its simplest, you obviate these anomalies by making something more important to the characters than their aspects. I think this is what the game designers intended when they ask you to pick a “struggle” for the game; but in fact the struggle is a rather amorphous meta-physical entity that confused and hindered our game rather than providing a framework to justify pushing against our characters’ interests. I think this should take a pretty simple form: a statement of a villainous objective unrelated to the specific characters. The problem with my solution is that it cuts directly against the obvious intent of the game designers for the action to be completely un-specified in advance of being reached by the group.

Of course, while the game designers have a powerful aversion for pre-prepared action or pre-known story events, they explicitly want to have a general story shape. The model for this is the “story arc”, which is crudely a measure of how many conflicts the players have lost to the GM. As the players lose, the value of some cards change. At the start of the game 2s are Wild for the GM, but after three or so conflicts are lost, he loses black 2s. And as the aspects become devastated some cards become wild for the players*.

This provides a nominal structure, and even comes with a pithy naming scheme in 5 steps. Again, this is fundamentally disfunctional, because it bears no relation to the actual entities that are crucial to the players: aspects. In this way, the progression along the story arc is arbitrary. Players, having lost a conflict, simply decide whether or not it will advance. And in real terms, the obvious tactic for the players to pursue is advancing the story arc as quickly as possible, while their aspects are intact enough to provide lots of cards to ensure a victory over the GM in future conflicts. (If they delay, they will have devastated aspects which provide no cards for the conflict. So ideally you want to have all of your aspects near the middle of their damage spectrum, none devastated, and to move the story arc as quickly as possible on once you’re in this position, ideally using the cards from your victory over the GM to heal the aspects you’ve injured in order to win.)

This flaw can be worked around. But the disconnection between a “story arc” and the events of the story merely highlights an even more structural flaw: that there is no requirement for scene continuity. There is no mechanical way to track whether scenes interrelate to previous scenes or future ones. Nothing is “set up” in one scene to be paid off in another, the way we commonly experience in the traditional dramatic structure of exposition -> conflict -> climax -> denouement.

I used the word “structural” just now, because the separation of scenes and characters is fundamental. Characters cannot easily directly mechanically affect each other unless it is an intra-party conflict. And even then, the way conflicts are managed divides each conflict into individual one-on-one battles, where no continuity or interrelation is enforced, encouraged or even easily achieved. In effect, aside from the shared nature of the world construction, the characters exist independently and can only interact mechanically by coming into conflict, or very tangentially through coincidental outcomes of conflict scenes with the GM.

I suppose that this too could be worked around through discipline and close attention; but working around something so integral to the operating mechanism of the game really suggests to me that something has gone awry. And alas, that must be my overall conclusion about the mechanical game design of With Great Power: it has gone awry.

It fails in very many ways to deliver the gaming experience that is prompted in the “fluff” text of the player and GM intros and the way the rules are couched. And for those who are traditionalists in terms of seeking character immersion (whatever that may mean), I can see that almost every way of working around the inherent systemic difficulties will be counter-intuitive and counter to enjoyment. That failing at least is intentional: for this is a story game, and not a roleplaying game at all. I found that most schemes where I pushed my character and player objectives really only needed to feature my character tangentially, and all the mechanical arts I possessed came instead to represent a more general story power of the kind you expect from, say, Universalis.

Having assessed this game as largely failing, I still wonder whether there are skills and processes that it uses which I can uplift into my traditional gaming. Or at the very least, into my other Indie gaming. In general, and without wanting to make a whole post of this segment, the main problems that I’ve faced both as a player and a GM can be summarised as:

– Getting GMs to pick up on story hooks that I put out as a player
– Getting players to put out story hooks and be story pro-active (without crossing over into unpredictable and destabilising actions)
– Getting people in conscious agreement on the game conventions

These have been a problem in all games, but the second has been my bane as a GM, and the third has typically been the death blow to my Indie game experiences.

This, more than most games, seems like it should offer some insight into how to pick up on player hooks. The basic process of character generation and the opening salvoes of the game is for the players to say “this is what matters to me.” And the selection of a “strife aspect” and attendant enrichment scenes seems like a less overtly meta-game/OOC tool than some other “kickers” that I’ve seen in play.

The problem with them in WGP is that already mentioned: directly invoking these is an winnable position for a character, and if pursued leads inevitably to a tale about the downward spiral of suffering. Most people would shy away from a game advocating that basis in those terms. So, outside of the context of this specific game, this kind of “aspect” might be best seen as delimiting the story tool kits of the characters. So, for example, in a Buffy game, you might declare to the GM an aspect of “Popular Kid”. The GM can use this as a starting point for specific scenes or situations. Their mental question is “what will the effects of this character being a Popular Kid be? How can I emphasise this.” In WGP, such an aspect can only ever lead to the character’s increased unpopularity, as the aspect suffers. In a Buffy game, this would in essence be a non-mechanical graft, a simple story aid.

This is, however, not a new concept originating with, and solely expressed in, WGP. It is perhaps an especially clear statement of a character’s story facets, but any GM worth their salt will be able to find a wealth of material from all but the most skimpy character write-up, and from close observation of what the character does.

Moving on to the second problem I have, we might say that forcing characters to pick a “strife” aspect, with all the story implications of that choice, and make then practice scene framing, would be useful. However, WGP encourages a very strange kind of scene framing: one whose outcomes are specified before the scene begins. This is fundamentally different from a traditional arrangement. In a WGP enrichment scene I frame the scene and enact it knowing that an unavoidable and inviolable effect will be the change in aspect. This predetermination is offset only slightly by the “stakes”, which are simply window-dressing to distract the player from the crushing inevitability of their scene once begun.

Conversely, in a traditional game, a player or the GM frames a scene rich in latent story potential, but once begun there is no possibility of predicting the twists and turns or outcomes. This is especially true if the GM has been savvy enough to incorporate “bangs” into his arsenal of tricks.

So WGP, instead of teaching players how to frame scenes with a rich range of possibilities, encourages them to frame scenes of very focused and limited potential, with perhaps some appropriate “stakes” tacked on.

And lastly: does WGP provide a framework for ensuring compatibility of game understanding between all the players and the GM?

I think that WGP is neither better nor worse than most games for this. I think that its genre conventions are sufficiently entrenched that if someone doesn’t get them, they will be a liability to the game. My only comment here is that perhaps the limitations of the Silver Age need to be more clear. And by “limitations” I mean that every conflict scene will result in physical fighting. That was not something I had adequately considered in advance, to my chagrin.

Despite all my criticisms, the game is not beyond hope of being upgraded and revised into something a little more manageable and robust. Indeed, many of the changes that I would consider playtesting were I the game’s author are relatively minor and straightforward.

Firstly and most fundamentally, the Story Arc in its present form needs to be utterly ditched. Instead, I think that the story object itself should be represented by an aspect: something central to focus around. Something mechanical for the players to look at and say “its worth sacrificing my own aspects” over. Because at present, the Story Arc is unrelated to the thing which drives every other action in the game: character aspects. You might have a story-aspect of “the City of New Orleans” or “the Gem of the Ancients.” As the player characters win conflicts, they can change the rating of the aspect. This sets the default stakes for every conflict. You could perhaps set a separate story aspect for each character, or each villain.

I think this would more closely model the picture on the front of the game: do I cause my own aspects to suffer, so I can win the conflict and prevent harm to the story aspect? In the end, this still generally indicates a losing trend for the PCs in terms of either their personal aspect loses or their story aspect loses, but I am sure a shift in available wild cards such as already exists in the game framework could be used to balance that out.

Secondly, there need to be better rules for multiple characters in scenes. The current rules where combats are undertaken severally is just plain stupid. I would favour more of a tag-team approach, where different players pay a small penalty to shift the fight between them. Glancing through my own silver age comics (largely Spiderman it must be confessed), I see quite a few fights where one person fights the villain, then is temporarily out of the fight while another does. It means the action must all be concurrent and yet prevents the players from “ganging up” on the GM.

Thirdly, there need to be bridging scenes with no stakes. While these might be less dramatic and exciting than having every scene show a change in an aspect, I think that they are very necessary for enabling a sense of story continuity that the game sorely lacks.

My trial with this game has been interesting, and the specifics of the game we played had a lot of very fun moments; but my view is that this system as it stands is in dire need of an overhaul. It displays a lot of potential, and a lot of the thought processes are sound, but as a package and without rigorous game balance, it presently needs such a large amount of player/GM house rules that you might as well just play a better game. Truth and Justice anyone?

^ It has been pointed out to me that characters can have a number of aspects that don’t get primed or observed in the game, but which do impact on the way the game is played. My counter to that is that the aspects which remain un-primed can easily be substituted with anything similar on the fly in the course of the game, and so really comprise a prompt for improvisation rather than something genuinely pre-defined.

* One of the other players also made the very good point that as aspects suffer, it becomes increasingly difficult for players to frame anything other than Conflict scenes. Enrichment/suffering scenes can’t be framed because that would push your aspects into too-damaged territory, and enrichment/redemption scenes can’t be framed because of a card shortage. I think this is perhaps the one single part of the system that works as intended: exposition first, then increasing conflict until one side wins. If it were linked to the Story Arc in any meaningful way, that would have been useful… as it is it merely feels entropic.

Appendix: Some figures

I kept track of the number of scenes, the type, the stakes and who won. I missed a couple because I was in the heat of the moment or because I was out of the room at crucial points, but in broad brush:

The game had:
– 13+12+12 = 37 scenes
– 7+6+6 = 19 Player Enrichment Scenes
– 4+3+1 = 8 Villain Enrichment scenes
– 2+3+5 = 10 Conflict Scenes

The players initiated only 3 of those conflicts. Tallying the individual participants in the fights, the players lost all but 5 of their duels with the GM, out of a maximum possible 20 wins. So a pretty comprehensive victory for the GM. I kept less meticulous track of the enrichment scenes, but those are skewed anyway by players deliberately losing in order to get cards.

Looking at the player Victories:
We had one scene where two characters were the clear and honest victors.
We had one player-sponsored conflict scene where the GM yielded right off the bat.
We had one conflict where I won my stakes, but the other two players lost.
And the final victory came directly from the GM choosing to play sub-optimal cards and unnecessarily imperil one of his aspects.

So, of our 5 victories, 2 were directly due to the GM letting us win.

It may be that this reflects a huge disparity in our luck and/or understanding of the core mechanics… but I think it more likely reflects a game that has very poor mechanical balance.

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