Tuesday, June 6, 2017

An Experiment In Thuggery

At GaryCon IX this past March, I had the pleasure of meeting +Paolo Greco. Paolo and I hadn't really interacted before this, other than a passing admission of admiration for each other's work. I was hoping to meet him last year at GC VIII, but our paths never crossed. This past year, though, I was headed back to our room and when I crossed paths with him (I didn't recognize him at all, since in real life he looks nothing like a My Little Pony -- Geeplussers will get that -- but he was wearing a Lost Pages shirt) it turns out that he was in the room next to us along with a bunch of other great folks! (I'm not sure who all stayed in that room, but I know that +Jason Sholtis+Jeremy Duncan & +Richard G were a big part of the crowd hanging out there.)

Kate and I had the opportunity to play in Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit game, and it was here that we realized that he and I share a particular proclivity for the "thieves' guild" or gang-style game. Paolo's Gangs & Bullshit is just this and, he says, he wrote it as a reaction to Blades in the Dark and Dr +Edgar Johnson's own Street Kids of Ur-Hadad from MGOUH #1. As it so happens, I was planning on running Blades in the Dark as an after-hours game the next night with +James Smith, so there was this really cool confluence of things kind of running together in a few short days that really left its mark on me.

Gangs & Bullshit was a really neat game. I think I can talk about it a little bit without giving too much away -- but if Paolo says to shut this post down, I totally will. Gameplay is structured around two alternating phases: a planning phase and an... action phase? You know, the phase where stuff happens. The thing that really worked for me was that the planning phase had a real-world time limit attached to it: the entire party (gang, crew, whatever) has twenty minutes of real-world time in which to plan what they're going to try to accomplish in the next phase. Once that time limit was up, it's time to get shit done! During the action phase, everyone gets one broad action to take -- and this could be to participate in a heist, investigate leads, cook up a batch of drugs, pretty much anything -- and the phase ends when all of these actions are resolved. Back to the planning phase. It's pretty much this back and forth the whole time, with one cycle of phases representing around one week of time, more or less. Between each cycle, time passes, things move on and then before the next planning phase, the players get to learn about how things have changed in the game world since the last cycle ended. I loved this dynamic; it felt kind of addictive. I kept feeling like I wanted just one more turn... that same sort of feeling that keeps me up late at night playing Civilization.

As I said, the next night, I ran Blades In The Dark with James Smith. We knew this was going to end up a multi-table event because that's how shit happens with after hours con games, so we set up the first gang by the book (ish) and got them started on their nocturnal depredations. This game went pretty well, but suffered from something that Paolo's game didn't: the Kate & Kovacs Effect. You see, when my wife and +Doug Kovacs get together, they pretty much wreck shit. Maybe that's unfair. They didn't wreck this game. They played it precisely the way that they wanted to. That having been said, the way they wanted to play the game wasn't quite the way that the game wants to be played, so they made some table mayhem. All in all, the game was fun, but very little got done and when we added the second table things got confusing and muddled... but still fun.

I enjoy the mechanics of Blades, but it does take some buy-in and a small degree of system mastery (or at least system curiosity) to make its core principles work. Here, I think Gangs & Bullshit has the advantage: you don't really need to have any degree of system mastery to have a fun game where people can play a fun gang-scale game without any of the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades. That having been said, the fancy doo-dad-ery of Blades is often its strength! I'm not going to say that the optimal game for me lies somewhere in between the two (I think that sort of logic tends to over-simplify things), but that it would likely employ aspects of either.

And so, I propse an experiment in thuggery.

I'd like to spend some time with these rules and see what I like about them, what works for me, what I feel I can take from them and make the game that I want to run. Here, Blades has the distinct advantage of actually being in print. Gangs & Bullshit, Paolo has admitted, is having a hard time making its way into a written format, so maybe we'll try to tackle that one later. For now, I think what I'd like to do is try to run Blades In The Dark for a predetermined number of sessions (maybe a certain number of heists?) and then do a little postmortem where I and my players sort out what we liked and didn't like about how the rules worked. I'd like to be able to do the same with Gangs & Bullshit, but it's not like I can twist Paolo's arm into getting him to write something just for me.

And so, who's up for playing some Blades In The Dark so I can figure out what I want to steal from it?