Thursday, 13 August 2020

DEADLINE rules draft + play report

I got a great response on the socials to yesterday’s post about my new game DEADLINE (get up to speed here), thanks to everyone who commented, shared and offered their own thoughts and ideas! It’s super early days but everyone’s reaction has me energised to get to work on this thing.

I figured I might as well share the draft rule book so far, such as it is - this is very sketchy but has all the basic mechanics and should be enough to run the game on (you’ll have to supply your own adventure for now though, sorry!).

Here’s a google doc with the first version of the game.

Like I said everyone’s feedback and ideas have been really awesome and helpful, so if you have any comments, questions, etc about the game now that you’ve read it (especially if you manage to play it!) I’d love to hear them.

The final version will obviously have more mechanics and content than this sketch version, so if you have some thoughts about what you’d like that extra stuff to be let me know that too! Comment on this post, hit me up on Twitter, email me, whatever (my email is in my twitter bio).

I also wrote up a little play report, the idea being that something like this could maybe be included in the final version of the book to help teach the game.

Honestly I think I’ve laid out the rules pretty clearly in terms of giving readers an idea of how gameplay works, but maybe something like this could be useful? It’d be edited down and changed up of course, as with everything the paint is very wet here.

Anyway here’s a Mission Report, with GM advice-type commentary.


Mission Report: Room 106


The best Agents learn from the best. Study the following mission report from Agent 1, and try to find techniques you can utilise when playing your own game.


In this mission, Agent 1 is in a hotel room, behind enemy lines, where she must meet with a supposed defector from the other side who claims to have important information.


As the Agent who has prepared this mission for the other player, Agent 1 currently has all the info, while the Operator has none. Her first objective is to get the Operator on the same page so that he can play along too.


Agent 1: “Ok, so for this mission, I’ve been sent to a hotel room to meet someone and get some secret info. This is our first mission so let’s just work it out as we go.”


Here, Agent 1 is just a player, talking to her friend and explaining the premise of the game. The easiest way to get key information across to someone is always to just tell them! At the very least, an Operator will need to know the objective of a given mission.


Operator: “Cool, makes sense.”


Agent 1: “Operator? This is Agent 1. I’m approaching the room now.”


Now, Agent 1 is speaking in-character. This can be a fun way to bring players into the game, but it isn’t always necessary. The key is to communicate clearly, whether or not you’re acting a role.


Operator: “…”


Here, the Operator is pausing, unsure of what to do. That’s because Agent 1 hasn’t yet given them enough information to go on. They know their overall objective, but not what to do to get to it, or what obstacles might be in their way.


Agent 1: “Shall we check if the room is secure? I don’t trust these people…”


Now, Agent 1 has given the Operator an actionable prompt. She’s not telling them what to do, or doing the thinking for them, but she’s given them a clearer, immediate goal.


Operator: “Ok, uh, listen at the door?”


Agent 1 has all the mission info, and she knows there’s nothing in the room that could be heard through the door. But the Operator doesn’t know that, and is making a pretty sound judgement based on the small amount of information they have.


Agent 1: “Good thinking, Operator… No, I don’t hear anything. Let’s proceed.”


What just happened was an example of the basic cycle of play in DEADLINE. The Agent described a situation, the Operator made a call on what to do next, and the Agent made a decision about how those actions would play out. Everything that happens in your game will be some variation on this basic pattern.


Operator: “And then you get shot as soon as you open the door.”

Agent 1: “Ha, yeah, that would be terrible!”


They’re only joking, but the Operator has just given an example of how an Agent could disrupt that basic cycle of play and possibly ruin their game. If there really was someone waiting with a gun behind that door, it would be the Agent’s responsibility to telegraph that danger somehow. Footprints, noise from the room, or a suspicious individual seen earlier might be good clues.


Then, if the Operator did make the mistake of letting the Agent proceed without caution, it would be their mistake for not paying attention, not the Agent’s for communicating poorly. If an Agent ever realises they’ve misspoken or left out a crucial detail, they can always just apologise and backtrack a bit.


Operator: “Ok so are you in the room now?”


Agent 1: “I’m in. Looks like a pretty standard hotel room… I don’t see anything suspicious…”


Agent 1 knows that the room is bugged because she has all the details of the mission noted down, but within the game, the Agent wouldn’t know this information. Part of the fun is for the Operators to work out what’s going on themselves and investigate the mystery.


Operator: “Ok… So, I guess we just wait here for this meeting?”


Looks like the Operator hasn’t guessed the room might be bugged. Somebody familiar with spy stories might jump to that conclusion, but in this instance Agent 1 simply hasn’t communicated the situation clearly enough. Just like the assassin example, she should have left some clues lying around.


With a bit more time to think, or if she was playing this mission again with someone else, Agent 1 might add to her notes, reminding herself to describe the room as being in disarray, as if someone had been in there before. That might work as a clue.


Agent 1: “Well, like I said, I’m not sure we can trust them… maybe we should search the room?”


For now, Agent 1 is thinking on her feet. Telling the Operator what to do next isn’t a perfect solution, but at least she didn’t reveal the surprise. Now the Operator knows to search, but they don’t know what for, so they’re still able to play the game by coming up with their own plan. If Agent 1 just led them through the mission step by step, they wouldn’t be playing the game along with her.


Operator: “Oh, yeah, there might be traps. Or bugs or something. Ok, uh… Agent 1, search the room.”


Agent 1: “Where should I look? There’s not much in here, just a bed, some lamps, a chest of drawers and a mirror. And there’s the bathroom next door.”


Now, the Operator can play the game. They have agency, information, and can make their own decisions. Agent 1 knows where the bug is, so it would be no fun if she picked where to search.


Operator: “Well, it says on the character sheet that you have Investigation… So can I use that?”


Agent 1: “You could, but that would advance the DOOMSDAY clock. Maybe it’s best not to risk it.”


Operator: “Ok, I think I get it. So rolling dice is dangerous, huh. So what do I do instead?”


Agent 1: “I’m the Agent, you’re the Operator. Just tell me where to search and I’ll get to work.”


Good work, Agent 1. Here, she’s reminding the Operator of the core tension of the game. Just running in blindly and using the Agent’s training to solve every problem will only end badly. She’s encouraging the Operator to rely on LIFELINE more, think creatively and come up with their own plans. That’s going to make for a more engaging and rewarding game.

Operator: “Start with the mirror. It might be one of those two-way mirrors, where they can see you from the other side.”


That’s a good idea from the Operator! In this case, though, it’s just a mirror. However, since Agent 1 knows that this part of the mission is about finding a bug, she decides to reward the Operator’s clever thinking.

Agent 1: “No, it’s just a mirror… It comes away from the wall. Wait a second… You hear a kind of cracking sound, then I whisper through the LIFELINE… It’s a bug! They’d hidden a listening device behind the mirror.”


In Agent 1’s notes, she’d just written that there is a bug in the room. That fact wasn’t going to change. But what wasn’t particularly important was where exactly the bug was. By deciding in the moment that it would be behind the mirror, Agent 1 made the Operator feel good for trusting their instincts, and also saved a lot of time instead of checking every piece of furniture one by one.


Agent 1: “Ok great! You found the bug. That was the first obstacle I had planned. Sorry, that was a bit simple, it should get more interesting from here on.”


Operator: “No, it’s cool! I get the game a bit better now, and I feel like we’re in a spy thriller. I’ll check every room that I can for bugs from now on!”


Agent 1: “I liked your two way mirror idea too, I might steal that…”


Be careful changing details last minute. An Agent is the Operator’s eyes and ears into the mission, and so something only becomes true from the Operator’s perspective once the Agent communicates it. As well as communicating information regularly and in detail, an Agent needs to keep the world of the mission consistent.


If an Operator feels like reality is shifting, or that things only appear or exist for their benefit or to make the mission difficult, they won’t have any fun. Agent 1 could have decided that the mirror really did have a window or camera behind it, but that’s not true to the mission she’s playing here. Sticking to her notes helps her keep the mission’s reality feeling real. Besides, improvising a whole other mystery she hadn’t planned for would be a lot of work!

This part of the mission is now over. An obstacle has been identified and overcome. It’s a small victory, but now both players understand how to play better, and can use that knowledge in future missions.


Nobody starts out as a world class agent. The best way to learn is on the job. Start playing, work things out as you go, make mistakes and have fun.


Spwack said...

A few thoughts:

Instead of a "stun" effect, you could have the reception be blocked for the Lifeline, so the Operator only hears bits and pieces coming through.

What if the Agent is a Double Agent?? Can the agent betray the operator??? This really doubles-down a sort of "unreliable narrator" thing. Maybe that would make the game too hard though.

Have you heard of The Wizards Grimoire? It's a little like this, with one player who acts as the character and also knows the rules, but they rely on the other player(s) who don't know the rules to create the world.

D. G. Chapman said...

I’m leaning away from interfering with the LIFELINE, since it’s more of a mechanical concession than anything, but I’m definitely in favour of stuff like the Agent going quiet for a bit while the character is hiding, for instance. Or being unable to speak plainly when they’re around possible enemy agents, having to come up with codes and stuff. I really like the thought of the group working all that out themselves

I like it as an option, but I think I’ll let groups come to that idea on their own, like you said it could be a bit much.

I haven’t, I’ll look it up!

Thanks :)

Luther Gutekunst said...

This looks great! Are you planning for this to have a paid release at some point (possibly for next year's Zine Quest)?

D. G. Chapman said...

I have another plan for Zine Quest if it happens next year! But I will definitely release a “proper” version of this at some point