Tuesday, September 7, 2010

House Rule : The Nemesis Effect

So, Lady Penelope’s Odyssey is back for a second season - and we’ve already played the first three episodes!

The inter-season break has allowed me to toy with some new story ideas and future campaign events – but it has also given me the opportunity to do a ‘debrief’ regarding the various rule variants I have used in my games – including the most important ones about Story points (see these two previous posts).

Restricting Story points to the most important (and presumably recurring) NPCs has allowed me to run the game in a far smoother manner – and to focus on the use of Story points by the arch-baddies and other prominent NPCs… but even with this variant approach, I found that these NPCs didn’t really needed these Story points, especially because they tended to have very high attributes and skills, as well as some powerful traits, which already gave them significant edge in play - in terms of game mechanics as well as from a purely narrative angle.

Every single time I spent Story points on behalf of a major NPC, it was during a conflict with the heroine, usually to counteract a corresponding expense by the player. I did not premeditate this: it was simply how things turned out in each and every case - and it's not very surprising, since the concept of conflicts is one of the core elements of the game system. Still, all this got me thinking and I decided to do a retrospective analysis of these moments - how they had flowed in play and what the use of Story points had added or changed to their outcome or dramatic tension. In most cases, I found that such Story points expenditures had not really added anything to the story itself – and could even have worked against it in some cases, giving some NPCs a chance to nullify the effects of an inspired action or decision by the sheer abstract power of their Story points, without providing any rationale for this in story terms.

The only case in which NPCs’ Story points really added extra tension and dramatic power to a story was when the character faced her nemesis (and mother), the witch-queen Morgaine . During this scene, the use of Story points really “raised the stakes” of dramatic tension and helped convey the feeling of a truly climactic and desperate confrontation. Why did it work so well in this particular case and not so well in the others ? Because in the case of the Penelope / Morgaine confrontation, we had a dramatic rationale for such a clash of fates – let’s call this the Nemesis Effect.

In the series, we see this same Nemesis Effect at work when the Doctor faces arch-villains like The Master or Davros… but not when he faces, say, the Pyroviles of Pompeii, the Cybermen or hordes of nameless Daleks. Sure, these creatures are formidable opponents in their own right – and this is precisely what their attributes, skills and traits reflect in game terms: thanks to the alien Armour trait, any Dalek or Cyberman will only take 3 points of damage from a normally Lethal damage result, without having to spend any Story point… The same reasoning applies to Pyroviles: these beings ARE powerful - but if they really had Story points, there is no way the Doctor could take them out with a few squirts from a water pistol.

Running fifteen game sessions and re-watching various episodes from the show have only convinced me to go one step further in the direction described in my previous posts about Story points and NPCs. Giving Story points to NPCs should have nothing to do with “raw power” or “lethalness” (as reflected, for instance, by the various traits of Daleks and Cybermen) - but everything to do with the NPC’s relationship to the heroes. If there’s nothing personal at stake, if we are not talking about a “clash of fates” with the heroes, then giving Story points to a villain will probably work against the game rather than in its favor.

Of course, this is only my personal take on the matter, but after fifteen game sessions and numerous re-visions of various DW episodes, I feel I have some solid arguments to back it up. And DWAITAS is all about possibilities, experiments and alternatives…

So, in my next games, I will take this extra step and restrict Story points to those NPCs who can really qualify for the Nemesis Effect – something which should normally only occur once or twice in a single season, usually during one of those epic, climactic two-parters. And if this proves to be Not Such a Good Idea After All, well… I guess I’ll just have to jump back in time!