Playtesting a Scenario

So a few weeks ago I ran the scenario I wrote in late October/early November (parts one, two, three, and four) over on Technical Difficulties. Originally we were going to have three players, but someone had to drop out last minute. Thus, I ended up running it for just two players, like I originally decided to write the scenario for. I think I got lucky with who ended up being able to play, from the perspective of getting good feedback β€” Ethan designs scenarios himself and I could observe Partner in the moment to get body-language feedback on how things were working. Folks had fun (me included), even if the scenario didn't work out how I intended. Or produced the type of game A Dirty World is written to facilitate.

The issue I found was that I had written the scenario backwards. I started with what had happened and worked out from there what evidence was left for the PCs to find. Which would have been fine except for one thing: I had a huge disconnect between the PCs knowing nothing and getting their first clue. More or less, once they had the first piece of information about the crime, they had everything. Or so it felt to me. I think, in terms of building a scenario, I would have done better by starting from the no clues stage, figuring out the first layer of clues and what they'd point towards, figuring out the layer after that and what that pointed towards, and then arrive at the end goal (which I needed to keep in mind the while time). So that's a thing to keep in mind for next time. 

Another issue I found is that I had failed noir the genre. The characters I wrote weren't morally grey in a way connected to the plot. While I liked their secrets/backgrounds and they  made for some cool characterization, it wasn't connected to the issue at hand and thus never came up. What I actually ended up getting was a buddy cop scenario. The player characters had no reason to distrust each other and could bump their stats up by being semi-horrible to the suspects and therefore did. Also, I wrote a plot that happened because people did stupid things, but not in a tragic way. We all had a lot of fun playing a buddy cop scenario, it just wasn't my goal. And therefore a thing to work on – hitting my intended tone.

I was pleased with how the scenario worked with two players. But, per Ethan and Partner's suggestions, I'm planning to write up two more characters, either beat cops or detectives from another division, so the scenario can run with two or four players. I'm not designing it to work with three, because I like the structure of sets of partners.

Lessons learned: 

  • Write mystery plots as layers building up to an end goal, not as what happened so what clues are left. 
  • The One Roll Engine can do comedy in the A Dirty World instantiation
  • A Dirty World scenarios can play well with only two players
  • Ethan, Partner, and I enjoy giggling our way through playing a buddy cop scenario

Last bit of my Dirty World Scenario - NPCs and Locations

All right, based on my plot write-up from two weeks ago, I already know I need the following NPCs:

  • Samuel McNiven, the pawn shop operator, bookie, and the one reporting the theft
  • Officer White, homicide detective and blackmailer
  • Officer Jones, White's partner
  • Lena, romantic partner to the drug dealer, Tiny, killed by Melvin
  • Melvin Nikodemos, addict who killed Tiny
  • Petru, addict who owed Tiny money
  • Liza, addict who owed Tiny money
  • Moses Nikodemos, Melvin's father, rich business leader
  • Shade and Kevin, two small time thieves hired by Moses
  • Katrin White, Officer White's wife, Samuel McNiven's lover, and witness to the theft

Location wise, I'll need:

  • Three Rings, McNiven's pawnshop
  • a Police Station (the one our characters work out of) β€” I'll say that Officer White and Jones are based out of this station as well

then, assuming the players actually make progress on the hidden agenda,

  • Tiny and Lena's apartment
  • Officer White's house (best place to find Katrin White)
  • the corner stoop, neighborhood bar, and/or local apartment complex where Shade and Kevin hang
  • abandoned houses where Petru and Liza crash (separately)
  • Nikodemos's office

I don't want to make full character sheets for all these NPCs, so I'll just concentrate on McNiven, White, Jones, Moses Nikodemos, and Katrin White in the finished write-up. The rest I think I'll be able to note down a couple Identities and Qualities players would be likely to hit while questioning them and go on from there. Locations will need the NPCs most likely to be found there and I'll need to note clues each NPC could give our investigators with the right incentives. Should probably note down some ideas on incentives for NPCs too.

One of the things I've seen in other Dirty World scenarios is Lost, Mislead, vs. Hot on the Trail information. The idea is that if the PCs don't really have a good idea what's going on, give them the information under the Lost section in order to point them on the right trail. If they've got some ideas but those ideas are wrong, use the Mislead section to maybe straighten them out, maybe confuse the issue further. Hot on the Trail information is designed to throw folks off track. It's all about controlling the speed of the scenario, as I understand it. So, in addition to the clues to keep players on track, I'm going to need to think up some complications.

I've got one or two with Petru and Liza as potentially the killers to throw folks off Melvin. I'm thinking McNiven's pawnshop had security cameras, so I can tell PCs that the folks they see on camera could be X, Y, Z, Shade, or Kevin. The PCs are robbery detectives, they know folks in the business.

I actually don't think I should add in too many complications since we're already at three steps in this chain of crimes to get back to the original murder. I'm not too happy with the ones above though... I'll have to keep thinking about those.

So, now I need some clues to let our players get from the robbery to the police misconduct and murder. Well, we've got Shade and Kevin on camera breaking in. I think I'll say Kevin cut himself and left some blood at the scene. It'll take weeks for DNA typing to come back, but it's a good threat to hold over Kevin's head to get him to talk. Let's see, Shade and Kevin, if they fold, can say "you don't want us, you want the guy who hired us!" Also, if the detectives get a warrant and toss these two's places, they'll be able to turn up a) the money and b) the evidence-bagged gun. From the gun, they can go to what crimes happened at the location marked on the bag. From location and crime, they get the officers on the scene and the fact that this bag was never logged into evidence. You've then got Jones who's clean and fucking pissed at being suspected β€” so maybe after talking with our PCs, Jones goes to confront White and the PCs can sneak over and listen to the conversation.

I think I can improvise this. The question becomes do I try to make a write up and then play-test or take what I have, play-test now, and then write it all up? There is the matter of finding time to run a play-test, so I probably should make a centralized write up from these posts and then play-test.

Oh, and I'm totally changing my DOJ's secret from cowardice to Moses Nikodemos is his brother-in-law and Melvin is his nephew. Because I'm a GM and I can. πŸ˜ˆ

Dirty World Characters

So I've got a plot which gives me a list of NPCs and locations to build, along with figuring out which clues show up where. But honestly I rather work on characters first.

I've already got the basic idea for everyone: cops in the burglary unit of the Baltimore PD plus someone on ride along, if I need a third character. Just have to decide if that third character is a journalist (in which case I get diversity of job descriptions/skill sets AND the added complication of them having no actual arresting powers plus the ability to screw up the evidence chain) OR an investigator from the Department of Justice (similar skill set as my cops, different resources, completely different aims, intra-party tension of 'this guy's out to get us,' less likelihood of them accessing up evidence).

Either way on the third character, I think I've got everybody's secrets. Which has really been the starting point for everyone coming alive for me. I suppose I could have started with professions, but that seemed like a fairly mechanical approach to coming up with them, and just not how it worked for me this time.

So, secrets. They come in three levels in A Dirty World: Minor, Serious, and Horrendous. Minor's are the default and embarrassing if they get out; no additional points to build your character. Serious gets you one more point and would "really changes your life if it's widely known, and not in a good way." Horrendous secrets wreck your life if they get out β€” disgraced and ostracized is the good outcome for a horrendous secret, jailed or dead seems more likely. Which is why you get 3 more points for a horrendous secret. So, let's look at what I've come up with. 

Secret the First
'You're a coward. Oh, not of the physical stuff. You did your year in Vietnam and came home more or less whole. There's been enough rough stuff on the streets since then that you're sure you can face any sort of physical threat.  No, it's the emotional and social stuff that you're a coward about. God you wish you had a quarter of the courage these kids on the force show these days, never apologizing for their personal lives, never hiding who they are.  Maybe if you did you'd have had the courage to divorce your wife back when the two of you started to go bad. Maybe if you did you'd have been able to stand up to her for your daughter, who's a hell of a lot happier now than she ever was as your son.'

This seems like a minor secret to me. We've got what, shame over not living up to his self-conception of who he should be, unhappiness in a marriage, possible bi- or homosexuality, and a trans kid. And most of the focus in the writing here is the shame and self-flagellation over not living up to his ideal. Heck, I think I've left it open to player interpretation whether or not this guy's open about his kid being trans. Looks to me like he's got the pronouns down. If the secret was he was trans, I'd say yeah, it'd qualify as a Serious secret, due to the risk of violence trans folks face. But not as the parent of a trans kid.

Secret the Second
'You're a rat. A snitch. A traitor. At least that's what everyone you work with on a day-to-day basis would say if they knew you're Internal Affairs. You're a long-term embed in the burglary department, in here long enough that the head of the unit has been replaced and the new guy was never informed about your undercover role. You've never had to turn in or turn a blind eye to your partner, thank God. But several dirty cops, both inside the department and in other units, have been brought down by your patient insider knowledge. You just don't think the civvies should have to fear their protectors. Or good cops should be tainted by association. Too bad even the good ones would see your career as a betrayal.'

This one is a Serious secret I think. Word gets out, this cop faces ostracism, violence from angry co-workers, and a major turn in their career (no more undercover work inside the police department). The examples of a Horrendous secret consist of "cannibalism, murder, or betraying your country during wartime." This just doesn't rise to that level to me. So, Serious it is. 

'Dad always did say you were blessed with too much imagination. You're a coward. The idea of a fight scares the heck out of you. Just thinking about the possible consequences makes you sick to your stomach and your skin prickle. That's why you made sure your career has stayed as far from the rough stuff as possible. You want to protect and serve as much as the guys walking the beat, you just know you've got to work with YOUR strengths: people and paperwork.'

This last one would require some rewording if I go with the journalist. Also, I'm not too happy with it in general. On the one hand, it works as a nice parallel to the first secret. On the other, it feels like all these secrets are of one particular type: hiding how you don't fit the face you present to the world.

um. That's kind of the definition of a secret, isn't it? Gah. Let me try again. They're all about, in one way or another, hiding how you are, not something you've done

Either way, this one would also qualify as a Minor secret, keeping in parallel with the first one I wrote up.

So, that's the secrets. For professions, I'll make the cop a Defender (let's him slide abilities between Courage and Endurance), the IA cop a Detective (Selfishness and Observation), and the journalist/DOJ investigator (I really need to pick one.... DOJ it is) an Academic, so they'll be able to slide abilities between Generosity and Demonstration. And, in order, let's name them Michael, Kendra, and James.

NPCs, locations, and clues write up next week. Meanwhile, if anyone's got a better idea for DOJ James's secret, please, lay it on me. That third one is the weakest of the lot and I'd love to give a player more to work with for that character.

Pulling together a scenario, part 2 β€” Using a plot generator

All right, let's get building this story for A Dirty World scenario started. To start with, I'm using the plot generator/prompts in the Appendix of the book called One Roll Legal Problems, where I am directed to roll 11d10. I got: 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, 9. The sets (two 1s and two 7s) determine the 'central disputes' and the single numbers are the 'Twists, Reveals and Complications.'

Oh wow, I've been in editor mode a lot today. That lack of an Oxford comma is really bothering me.

Any rate, back to story crafting.

The Central Disputes. The ones set gives me theft, petty, minor stuff while the sevens are Government Regulation, Police Misconduct. First, that's hilarious given the setting I've already chosen and secondly, it either works really well with my character concepts or is going to make character creation harder. If the police misconduct is know or apparent from the start, it would make sense for the PCs to be Internal Affairs. But, one of the secrets I was going to lay on a character was that they were undercover Internal Affairs. (It's noir, everyone has a secret. It's coded in the rules and everything.) So, I can either make the PCs part of the Robbery unit and they have to figure out the police misconduct OR the misconduct is apparent enough when the crime gets called in that it's all handed off to IA off the bat.

Given my personal experience with identity theft, I happen to know that at least some jurisdictions aren't going to investigate/take it to court if the theft is under a certain monetary amount (because resources yo, the department is overwhelmed as it is). Therefore, petty theft doesn't seem like something a modern police force would hand off to detectives. Which pushes the story either towards being primarily about the misconduct or I need to make the theft bigger. I'm going to look at the complications and come back to that. 'Cause there's a lot of complications from this roll.

Given how few sets I managed on 11 dice, I have seven out of ten numbers on the Twists table.
2: A frame job, or evidence tampering
3: Insanity
4: Addition
5: Reluctant key witness
6: Seemingly damning physical evidence
8: Passionate, powerful courtroom testimony
9: A marital infidelity angle

I'm not all that comfortable with the insanity complication β€” there's a tendency in popular media to portray mentally ill folks as 'crazies' who commit crimes when in real life they are statistically much more likely to be the victims of crimes. I don't really have time to research a mental illness to portray it as sensitively as I'd hold myself to. So, since it's my story and all, I'm just going to change that 3 to a 1. And now the theft our characters need to sort out is "an item of great sentimental value."

I can fold the frame job/evidence tampering (2) into the 7s set. So know I know what type of misconduct happened. Or, the evidence tampering can be the clue pointing our PCs to the misconduct. I think I like that better. Alternatively (again), I could drop the addiction (4) complication to push up the theft into the "Elaborate, intrusive theft of something very expensive" category and say the goal of the theft was to steal evidence (2) but high-value things were stolen as a cover. Or, you know, payment to the thieves. Now I'm getting into some territory I feel familiar with.  

So, lets look at the complications I have left:
5: Reluctant key witness
6: Seemingly damning physical evidence
8: Passionate, powerful courtroom testimony
9: A marital infidelity angle

The 5 and 9 pair nicely: a key witness is reluctant to give evidence because they're involved in marital infidelity. So somebody knows something but only because they were stepping out on their partner and giving evidence in court would mean their partner finds out. I can work with that.

Now the question becomes do the players need that reluctant key witness to give 'passionate, powerful courtroom testimony' to counter the seemingly damning physical evidence? Or is their testimony opening the door to introducing the physical evidence into the record? Namely, is the evidence accurate or not? Basically, should I be looping back to tie the 6 evidence into the 2 frame job/evidence tampering or leaving them as separate elements?

Hmm, I like the idea that the theft of physical evidence was itself evidence tampering and our reluctant, cheating, key witness needs to give courtroom testimony in order for the stolen items to be admissible in evidence.

Melvin killed his drug dealer Tiny in Tiny's own home and then dropped the gun where it got kicked under the couch. Officer White found the gun and was sealing it in an evidence baggie when his partner interviewing Tiny's partner mentioned that Melvin, Petru, and Liza had all been behind on payments lately. Officer White knew Melvin's daddy Moses Nikodemos was a) rich, b) protective, and c) influential in the business community. Also, White wanted to retire in a couple years. Nikodemos could certain provide a little starting capital and recommendations in the real estate business in say... Portland. Somewhere other than the East Coast any rate. So Officer White pocketed the gun, still in the evidence bag.

White wasn't stupid enough to keep the evidence in his home β€” he contracted out the evidence collection and actual blackmail to a bookie he knew. Samuel McNiven, the bookie White knew, (don't get him started on the Catholic versus Jewish guilt; he's a connoisseur of both) did a pretty good job with his end of the deal... right up until he let slip to Nikodemos that he was the one holding onto the evidence that would lock up Melvin for life.

Nikodemos senior is not afraid of direct action or breaking the law. But murder would just bring too many unnecessary risks. So he contracted out a theft to a couple of professionals β€” hit the bookie's place and steal the gun in the evidence bag. Don't touch anything else and they'd be well compensated. Too bad for Nikodemos that the thieves decided the cash in the safe was a bigger payday than Nikodemos could provide and to keep the gun as insurance against Nikodemos. After all, if that was all he wanted, it must be pretty important.

Too bad for the thieves there was a witness β€” Officer White's wife Katrin whose having an affair with McNiven. She was in the room when the thieves broke in and hid behind a curtain. She got a good look at the whole shebang, including the debate over whether or not to take the money or follow Nikodemos's instructions. And a good look at the evidence bag and her husband's writing on the bag. She doesn't want a divorce just yet, nor her husband to wind up in jail...

Too bad for Nikodemos AND Officer White that McNiven decided to report the theft. After all, all that money in the safe was part of his perfectly legitimate pawn shop operations. And he wants his money back. He'll just not mention the gun that was in the safe too...

Pulling together a scenario

The other week I volunteered to try and improvise a session of A Dirty World for my gaming group. Pretty much as soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized that a) I didn't have characters generated they could use and b) I really wanted a review of the rules before I ran anything. Luckily for me and my big mouth, the group choose an Eclipse Phase one-shot instead. Which let me tell you, was soooooo much fun; our characters all died horribly!

But, you know, now I really should follow up on making that A Dirty World scenario. 

For those unfamiliar with the system, A Dirty World is a One Roll Engine powered system designed around noir/hardboiled stories. Mechanically, you're rolling d10s looking for matching numbers. Thematically, the attributes that build that pool of d10s you're rolling describe your mental state (mostly), rather than your skills. Are you more observant or more better at demonstrating? Patient or cunning? Because right now, to spot that ambush in time, you're going to have to roll that Cunning Observation. 

Getting back to scenario building, I did quite a bit of editing on Red Markets over the US Federal Holiday weekend, so I had the advice to 'zombify your surroundings' kicking around in my head on Tuesday. Which produced the lovely little reaction of "gods damn it brain: set the scenario in Baltimore, with the PCs as local law enforcement! WTF could go wrong with that? </sarcasm>" when that thought percolated up in my brain. I may have only grown up in the Baltimore suburbs, but still, that's the area that came to mind. Although now, of course, I have to name the PCs off of characters from Homicide: Life on the Street. Could be worse, I suppose β€” I could be pulling everything from The Wire

The original 'what are we going to play tonight?' came up because one of us is on a business trip for almost a month, in a job that's eating all his free time. So all of a sudden we were  down to two players and a GM. I'd like to have something in my pocket if that situation comes up again. Which says to me the PCs should be partners in local law enforcement. That gets me the structure of a newer, younger partner and the veteran. I mean, it's a trope/classic/clichΓ© for a reason. Then, if we suddenly have one more player, I could add a journalist on ride-along (which should display my influences right there). If I've got two more players (four total), another set of cops makes the most sense. Either set could be patrol officers or detectives, but if there's four players, I should definitely enforce one set of each, instead of letting everyone be detectives or patrol officers. It's noir after all, got to have conflict.

Given the idea of a journalist on ride along (ooh, or I could make them an investigator from the Department of Justice), this is definitely set in the now, instead of noir's usual period of somewhere between the 30s and 50s. Cops suggests investigating a homicide, but that's my bias from TV dramas showing. No reason they can't be in units focused on arson, or burglary, or identity theft, etc. This being Baltimore, and especially with Freddy Gray, race and racism are going to have to be an element in the story. Which would also explain the DoJ investigator. 

Any rate, for the story/mystery itself, I'm either going to pull straight from The Wire or use the random plot generator included in the book. It's called One Roll Legal Problems; I've got to give it props for the name.Β  Whichever I actually do, I think I'll walk through using the generator and writing up a plot for next Thursday's post. Having the setting, time period, general character types, and an element or two I want to include in the story feels like good progress during the week.

Of course the second I started going back through this part to add links, I find a free scenario the game designer offers on his website... Welp, looks like I'll have two games to choose from! And a model scenario on how to write one up in-system. On wards!Β