Deconstructing the Future, Part II: Seeking Your Fortune

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In Part 1 of Deconstructing the Future, I laid out several of the initial elements of Shock:Social Science Fiction, ending with Links and Escalation. I want to go back into those elements and discuss more of why they’re there, what they’re supposed to do, and how they wind up working as “Fortune in the Middle” mechanics alongside the Audience participation mechanism, Minutiæ.

One of the most important technical innovations of The Forge’s RPG design conversation was the process known as “Fortune In The Middle”(“FitM”). It comes from the recognition that randomness (“Fortune,” as distinct from “Karma,” which is the consequences of your earlier actions, in the taxonomy of the conversation) often comes at the end (“Fortune At The End“, the much cooler-acronymized “FATE”) of a decision process, but it needn’t. For instance, in many RPGs, one might decide to jump over a pit of trolls, then describe backing up and taking a running jump, then, at the moment the character’s toe leaves the ground and no further decisions can be made, roll the dice. If the character rolls well enough, they clear the pit. If their roll is insufficient, they fall into the troll pit.

However, in a Fortune In The Middle system, the player might roll the dice as soon as they say they want to. If the dice come up well enough, they might jump over the pit, or they might gain a bonus to their jump skill, or might get to make some choices about the consequences. or perhaps gain the ability to help others over the pit, or gain some other benefit. If their roll is low enough, however, they might find that they are going to fall into the pit unless they accumulate a point of Exhaustion; or they are wounded by a troll and must spend a point of Self Control to avoid getting into a pointless argument with a troll; or they might have to reveal something of themselves to the other characters, or they might have to figure out how to prepare to jump the pit, with whatever consequences that has in the game.

There are three places where FitM exists in principle in Shock: in the use of Links, Audience Participation, and Escalation. But only Links and Escalation actually work.

Hyper Links

Links are central aspects of a Protagonist’s identity in Shock: They fall into three categories, only clearly delineated in my 2010 focus of the game, Human Contact:

  • People, who you care about. Specifically, in Human Contact, they are individuals with whom a Protagonist have eaten, are family with, have helped you or vice-versa, or have had sex with.
  • Identity, which are things the character believes in, including their bodily integrity. Sometimes these are articles of faith, like the Academy’s philosophical assertions. Sometimes they are wounds or modifications to the body, like artificial or missing body parts. For the purposes of a game of Shock: these are much the same; characters are, themselves, their players’ statements about the human condition, so an evolving sense of self is a statement about the meaning of the self within the thought experiement of a particular set of fictional circumstances.

To use a Link, a Protagonist player must do two things: roll dice that are worse than the player wanted, and have a context that makes the relevant. That might mean that, suddenly, your relationship with your daughter, leader of the clone revolution, is on the line. Or it might mean that your lost arm, replaced by a prosthetic, may suddenly reveal how it’s been r00ted and turns against you. Or it might mean that you now have reason to question the wisdom of God. When you write down your Links, you’re saying both what the Protag cares about and what you, as a player, want to see stressed in that character so you can see what they’re really like — do they care about it as much as they say they do? Win or lose, putting that relationship, assertion of identity, or body on the line has an impact. Maybe your daughter finally trusts you, or maybe she puts a price on your head. Maybe your prosthetic arm’s security software shows you who thinks they’ve r00ted it, or maybe it strangles you in your final scene. Maybe God makes good and brings you a miracle, or maybe the very reason you had any trust at all is shown to be a typo in the accidentally-uncommented-out code of the simulation you live in.

I designed Links to be impactful, no matter what. The resolution system is tilted so you need to lean on them a couple of times in a game, and they quickly communicate between *Tagonists both what matters right now and what is liable to happen next between the Protagonist and Antagonist.

That’s not to say that they work great.

In order to use a Link in Shock:1.*, you interrupt causality and establish a perhaps-tenuous reason that this Link — established early-on in the game and without the context of the current situation — can now be at stake. The intention is to encourage players to bring those elements into arms’ reach where they might have languished in backstory.

While designing Human Contact, I started to realize that I had been parsimonious with the Link resource and so changed the rule about how you got them: any other player could notice and point out that you’d developed a Link — separated into Indentity (“Taking the bullet for your boyfriend must have really hurt, even if the vest saved you from dying. Write down your broken rib.”) and People (“You fed this person and helped them! Write them down!”).

Doing so gave players the ability to keep your Links relevant, and they gave you more visceral contact with the character’s state, yes. But that’s not the most important part of the rule change.

The most important part was that Links were the first place where the fiction could affect your play resources directly. If you’ve played The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze (and I suggest you do; it’s the best game I’ve designed), you’ll see this kind of rule come up a lot. The gist is, “When you see [element that the design considers an important part of the game] happen, point it out so the rules and resources agree with what’s really happening.”

The sole remaining problem I have with Links at this point, therefore, is that they are implemented awkwardly in Shock:1.*. I want their use to flow smoothly, for the mechanical effects to agree with the events of the fiction.

The Power of Popcorn

When Audience members use Minutiæ to affect the outcome of a scene, they’re also part of the FitM cycle. The important difference here is that they are motivated by their momentarily-granted authorship to do what is funniest, saddest, most ironic, or otherwise most satisfying as the sources of the universe.

The way a *Tagonist player gets access to those dice is by playing to the interests of the audience. This was a realization I hit while playing Human Contact: that, once you’ve seen your dice, you can continue to act, simply by being funny, sad, ironic, or otherwise offering satisfaction to the other players. Once you’ve all rolled your dice, you can see the highest value of the dice in front of one of the Audience players. You can tell if it’s enough to make you succeed or fail. And they will take delight in generating ironic twists. It’s your job to behave so that the universe, itself, will pursue its interest in irony in your favor, as a player.

This is a phase of play I didn’t address in the text of Shock: at all. It’s a slushy space where all but the most experienced players sort of fumble around, unsure of what they can do or say. You can probably tell that wheedling is cheating. But is it cheating to make your *Tagonist respond to their imminent failure in a way that caters to the sympathies of the Audience member with the highest die value?

It is not.

It will take some design to draw those lines clearly.

Escalation: Tending Toward the Absurd

The last, far-less satisfying FitM element is Escalation. When your die result comes up exactly on the value of your Praxis (something like a 25% chance, even higher if your Audience is inclined to push you toward it!), the scale of the conflict increases. Where you thought this was about you and your daughter settling your differences to gain freedom for all your clone brethren, now your daughter reveals that she has engineered a sexually-transmitted zero-day virus, carried by clones, that will spread through humans, sterilizing them. The future belongs to the clones.

And then you have a >25% chance of escalating again.

So now, uh, what? It’ll kill all non-clone life on Earth? Sure! That seems good (given that we had to improvise it). The odds of this situation arising are greater than 1/16.

But, in resolving that, you still have a >25% chance of escalating again. So, the virus will, um… kill the clone life, too? Odds of getting in this situation are still only 1/64. And there are about 12 rolls in a game. Which means that there’s a ~20% chance of the game getting this wildly out of control at some point.

That’s one in five games where the players start off with serious, personal stakes, only to see them get gonzo.

…and then you roll, and you win, so none of that stuff happens. You imagined all these possibilities, necessarily even considering the consequences so they didn’t obviate any other players’ Termini or your opposition’s Intent.

That means that one game in five is engineered in such a way as to turn into a Rick and Morty nightmare of alternate universe horrors that actually don’t take place in this continuity at all. When the dice hit the table that final time, can you even remember that this was about you and your daughter learning to communicate again?

You know how we tune in and talk about it for years when Buffy has to deal with Angel and Spike and her mom’s death and dropping out of college, but we never talk about the fate of Sunnydale, and it falls into a hole in the ground in the finale, and you just say, “OK,” it’s because the stakes have left the realm of the characters? We care about some of the characters and their relationships, but the town is a comically simple TV set.

Escalation does that to one Shock: game in five.

That’s not good.

The irony I mention here is not an accidental feature of the game. It’s what Shock: is about, and it comes through a need to compromise. We’ll see how those work together in next month’s chapter of Deconstructing the Future!

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