Why the monkeywrench is a good thing
While I would love to tie the subject of this particular entry to a broad base and discuss how to integrate it to a wide variety of games, the sad truth is that it is system specific, tied to a game that no modern game collection is likely to have available. If there were a way to make this system agnostic, I would be the first one to buy it, but unless I’m like to do it myself, it’s probably not going to happen.
The game in question is Torg. I’ve talked briefly about the game before, in this entry, and as noted, it’s one of my favorite games of all time. I know that there are plenty of industry people that like the game, and there are strange isolated pockets of gamers that played it and enjoyed it at the time. There’s not a lot of love for it in this day and age. I would lament this truth, but life moves on.
In Torg, one of the unique mechanics lies in the use of cards for various purposes. Most of the time, they’re used as bonuses and re-rolls, supplementing the Possibilities as character points. The rest of the time, they’re the basis of the game’s initiative system. (For what it’s worth, the use of cards for initiative in Deadlands enticed me to that game, even though the systems were wildly different.)
The best use for the Drama Deck in Torg (and the Master Deck in Masterbook, for that matter) was the use of Subplot Cards. There were a scattering of these cards in the Drama Decks, and they served to change the flow of the story as the game unfolded, allowing a minor manipulation of the plot on the part of the players. Because of the randomness of the card draw and the intent of the player, these cards were something completely beyond the control of the GM, even within the context of a module. If the GM was on his toes, these were a welcome addition to the overall plot of the adventure. If the GM was unprepared, these were a complete monkeywrench.
At the low end of things were the situational subplot cards, which dealt with immediate results in the situation at hand. The most immediately relevant cards were Alertness and Idea, which allowed a character to notice some previously unnoticed element of the scene or have some profound insight into the situation, respectively. These cards bordered on ‘GM Hint’ cards, but they allowed an easier way through odd situations and were used sparingly because of their general utility.
There was the Connection card, which allowed the player that used it to know someone in the area that could help them. It’s a simple thing, and it gave the feeling that the characters were an active part of a living world. They might be somewhere in India, but they had the chance of running into a friend of theirs from back home. It helped develop the complex backstories of the characters on the fly.
From there were the Mistaken Identity, True Identity and Suspicion cards. The Mistaken Identity allowed the GM to throw a confused NPC in the path of the character in question, and depending on the situation, this could either allow the character to past a difficult situation (“Isn’t that the Commandant? Let him through!”) or land them in something a whole lot worse. (“What’s the notorious war criminal doing in Tangier? After him!”) True Identity was a little more problematic to pull off, but when it happened, it was that much more precious. Essentially, it would allow the player to throw it in whenever their connection to the plot was more significant than previously assumed. This could either take the form of a previously unknown revelation about the character’s past that they had never revealed, or one that even they were unaware of. And Suspicion was a hot potato of drawing unwanted attention to oneself, either from the NPC’s around them or from their own team mates.
These subplots were able to be played either for an immediate Possibility (essentially discarding them without any other effect) or as a multi-scene effect, where the character would be enmeshed in this plot for as long as it took, and they would receive an extra possibility for each scene the subplot was active for. Because of the longer burn and the higher reward, my experience was that players would go for the active subplot rather than the immediate reward.
Another multi-scene subplot card was the Nemesis card, which turned an adventure’s villain into a direct thorn in a specific character’s side. While the Nemesis card was in play, the villain spun his plots against the group, but he was intent on destroying the character in question personally. Coupled with the Campaign card, which could be played to make a specific subplot permanent from game to game, this allowed longer term returning villains to plague the characters.
The most popular of these subplots, however, was the Romance card. There were a number of points when I saw this card played on behalf of other players, just to screw with each other. One game in particular had an FBI Agent that was investigating a number of occult murders, where one of his informants was a teenaged girl that knew some of the details of the situation. A Romance card got thrown to give the girl a crush on the older agent. This was followed by a Campaign card to make the teen crush a permanent and recurring character in the plot.
It should go without saying that this was not looked upon in kindly terms by the FBI Agent’s superiors. Or his fiancee, for that matter.
As an example of how these cards can affect a game, I’ll run over the high points of one short campaign that I ran a couple of years back. I’d dusted off some old Top Secret modules that I’d played in (and therefore knew the plots backward and forward), and the players built CIA Agents to run through the plot. It was a low pressure, blow stuff up sort of game, which allowed much of what took place from there.
The characters were assigned to help set up what amounted to being a CIA listening post in a banana republic in the Caribbean. (For those diehards that are reading this, it was the Web of Deceit module.) The characters show up in the airport on the island, and the first thing that happens is a Suspicion card gets dropped. Since they’ve been playing for all of five minutes, I decide this applies to the lead agent, who’s already a little sketchy about things. He becomes suspicious of the limousine driver, thereby missing his ride into the city and setting up further paranoia.
The characters are tasked with searching for a missing nuclear scientist that was looking to defect. They decide to ask around and eventually start checking the morgues. In the process, a Mistaken Identity is played upon the lead agent (again), who seems to bear a striking resemblance to a known international weapons smuggler. One of the local drug cartels gets fidgety and decides to kidnap him, tazing him and throwing him in the trunk of a car. (Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the subplot is made permanent. He is now known to be Kowalski, the gun runner.) The other members of his team set out to look for him, but a True Identity is played by one of them. In the interest of brevity, I declare that this allows the cartels to identify the other character as being an associate of Kowalski, essentially by having them be seen together. The other characters get ambushed and kidnapped as well.
In the mean time, the character now assumed to be Kowalski wakes up in a dog cage and convinces me allow him to use pocket change to unbend the hooks holding the cage together. He escapes the cage, beats his captor to death with it, and manages to rescue his team mates when they show up in custody.
By this point, the Kowalski subplot has taken on a life of its own, and the team decides to call in support to help them out – in the form of new players that have joined the game for that session. None of the original team is able to do any amount of investigation in the city they were in, being that they were now marked as being associates of a well known international criminal. Later on, another player character was recruited by one of the cartels (all of whom were on guard with the presence of Kowalski), because (being Cuban) he ran into a friend of his from Miami through the play of a Personal Stake card while standing around a coffee shop.
Sadly, the game never proceeded much farther, but given the way that the subplots rolled out in the sessions that were played, it had utterly changed the landscape of the plot in extremely interesting ways. A fairly simple plot sequence had been derailed by the players, and the result was that they’d made the game that much deeper than it had originally been written to be.
Narrative manipulation and cooperation shows up in a number of modern games, but the systems for it are a little less random and unpredictable. For me, the Drama Deck managed the subplot mechanic wonderfully, but the fact that it’s been limited down to one particular subset of out of print games is something I continue to find depressing.