Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Five or So Questions on Piece of Work

I interviewed John LeBoeuf-Little, Kit La Touche, and Austin Bookheimer from Transneptune Games  about their current project, Piece of Work. Piece of Work is a cybernoir game, blending the grit and grim of noir themes with the high-tech punch of cyberpunk.

Tell me a little bit about your current project. What should I be excited about?

(JOHN) So, Piece of Work is set in the near future dystopia, with cyberware and megacorporations. You've been pushed out of society by an unjust system where citizenship is predicated on having a job. Now you have a grab-bag of personal problems and almost certainly a grudge against the people who've done you wrong. It's quiet tension punctuated by staccato action. We call it cybernoir.

But enough with the pitch. The game has a ton of things I'm really excited about. We've spent an amazing amount of time trying to get the tone just right - cybernoir is surprisingly fragile to maintain, so every mechanic we have is tuned to keep attention on the parts that matter. It's a pretty sweet mix.

I love the die mechanic particularly. We ask questions at the table about why your character is doing whatever they're doing. Based on how you're doing it, for whom you're doing it, and why you're doing it, you get better or worse dice. Each game I've played, there's been this wonderful moment when someone picks up the dice and thinks about what's about to happen and you can basically eat it with a fork because they say "No, damnit, this is about revenge" and everyone gasps. It happens all the time and I love it.

Give me a little more about cybernoir. What kind of play will I find in this genre?

(KIT) So, we start with the familiar near-future dystopia: corporations have become the de-facto powers of the world, everything and everyone is ground under them and their profit motive. (Of course, "near-future" is perhaps a bit optimistic; we keep coming across things we thought we made up for this in the news.) But instead of the usual "they supplant governments", we decided that governments are a useful tool for them—privatize profit, socialize loss, right? So, that's where the System comes in: citizenship, and all the benefits and rights that comes with, is contingent on employment, but there's a cost to having non-citizens around, so a system alarmingly like debt-bondage comes up, where the unemployed are given employment and limited citizenship benefits, but without real choice in what they do.

So that's the world, right? You are people who've fallen off the corporate ladder, and are dangling above the precipice of the System. You're probably doomed, like Deckard in Blade Runner, to be unable to make the world you want, but maybe you can help get someone else to safety, to salvation, to justice, and in the process, get yourself part-way to redemption.

There's a kind of beautiful hopelessness baked in—I've mentioned Blade Runner, but perhaps it's worth also comparing it to neo-noir cinema like Chinatown or Romeo is Bleeding. Everyone knows the end of Chinatown, right? "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." You're almost certainly gonna be dragged down into the mud and gutter, but you stand a chance of doing something selfless and good before that. You're in too deep to save yourself.

(JOHN) So all the things Kit mentioned are completely correct, but I thought I’d add that cybernoir is a complex of two other genres - noir and cyberpunk.

Much of old film noir is about proper ‘society’ and with the protagonists not really fitting that mold. Often, something has changed them to make them outsiders - they were falsely accused of a crime, or got mixed up with the wrong crowd, or they couldn’t let something go. They’re filled with iconic personalities, and everything is connected somehow.

In cyberpunk, there’s the disaffected oppressed, striving in spite of a massive, uncaring, inhuman world that sees humanity as a product to be commoditized.

In cybernoir, you get an interesting blend of these two - the characters are people who no longer fit into society because of these very noir reasons who are then exploited by the system for the benefit of those in power. They have very noir sensibilities - for them, everything is personal. But they also have very futuristic abilities - cybernetics and other advanced technologies.

What went into designing the die mechanic? How does it work?

(JOHN) Oi. We’ve been tweaking the die mechanic for a long time. It started out as a cool mechanical toy - roll three dice and take the best two. Each die was always intended to be scaled up or down independently, using any of the standard sizes (up to d12). Each of the dice represents a different thing - your character’s motive, what gear you’re using, and for whom you’re acting. But it didn’t used to be so cleanly delineated.

I forget who first suggested that there be a die for your character’s Motive, but it fit perfectly. You get a better die for motives that are more noir. If you’re doing it for money, you only get a d4. If you’re just in a hard spot and you have to roll anyway, that’s a d6. If you’re acting to get respect, that’s a d8. If you’re doing it out of passion - love or hate - you get a d10. And finally, there’s a motive that particularly drives your character based on its perspective, so you might get d12 when you’re trying to find out The Truth or you might get it when you’re trying to Clear Your Name.

In our earlier playtests, the other two dice were Gear and Cyberware. But it was pretty clunky. We tried a bunch of things - rules for gear breaking, ways of making cyberware more distinct from gear… what we finally came up with was that two dice dedicated to Things was a die too many. This was kind of a frustrating time for PoW; I’m pretty sure this was after Kit had returned from Metatopia, and at the time, the game kind of looked like a cyberpunk heartbreaker with a vaguely interesting die-mechanic. It was a misguided mess.

We had one of our famous kitchen conversations where it came out that I really wanted three specific stories for Piece of Work - noir and cyberpunk, but with an undercurrent of hope. I wanted players to eventually get charged about the world and to at least try to do something to make it better. And that wasn’t being reflected at all in the dice. That galvanized the third die as a kind of activism die - we call it Scope in the game. You get better dice for acting on a bigger scale - if you’re acting just for yourself that’s just a d6, but if you’re helping a friend that’s a d8. If you’re helping someone who’s innocent, that’s a d10. If you’re trying to save the downtrodden in general, that’s a d12.

Oh, and I guess I should talk about the other side of the roll - where you compare your result to something. We’ve had a few false starts with that as well; originally it was entirely set by the GM, then it was set by the GM but depending on circumstances might be increased or decreased, and sometimes if you had gear it might go up or down… anyway. What we have now is that you ask yourself questions about the situation and based on the answers, the target goes up or down in fixed amounts. Questions are a design theme that permeate through most of the game. In this case, it’s questions like “Is it dangerous?” or “Do you have back-up?”

The result of all this is when you want to break into a file cabinet for records about where the corporation moved your family after they fired you and you have a kick-ass lock pick set you scored while growing up, you get to roll better dice than if you just want to boost some intel in order to sell it for cash. And if it’s immediately dangerous or requires a light touch, then you need those better dice.

What's your favorite scene you've played out in playtest, and how do you think it's unique to Piece of Work?

(JOHN) There’s a bunch of really good ones. I think there was a great moment where our ex-assassin clone ended up wanting to get some information out of her friend’s father, but her Professions were shaped pretty narrowly - she was mostly a killer. So to get the information required her to beat up this old man, because she didn’t know how to be any other way. It was a very emotionally charged scene.

Another one that was really good was a scene at the end of a session mid-way through one of our playtests. The previous session the heroes had done a raid on a corporate research facility. They’d found out some uncomfortable truths and spent the whole session trying to damage control fallout from crises, but it didn’t really work out. The last scene was them in a safe house, staring at a pile of cash they’d ‘liberated', drinking scotch, and saying nothing to each other, because things had just gotten that messy.

What's up next after Piece of Work?

(KIT) OK, so I am really excited here. First, "Transneptune Games" is really a loose collective, so we're all working on things at the same time—John's spearheading Piece of Work, while Austin's working on a few different things, including his own take on cybernoir, where everyone plays facets of the main character's memory of an event, and you reconstruct things, in a world where memory is editable and pluggable.

But what I'm working on is maybe our next most far along thing. It's called Et in Aradia Ego, and it's a game about young people carving a space for themselves in the manner-bound world of Jane Austen, in a game of manners, madness, and magic. You're not perfect demur well-mannered people, and you've caught the attention of a fairy who wants to help you get what it thinks you want, all to its own ends.

This time period and topic are really interesting to me. It's easy and tempting and wrong for modern readers to see it as a very proper and laced-up period, but it was in so many ways acutely modern: you've got Romanticism and Byron, proto-free-love utopians like William Blake seeing ecstatic visions of magical beings, awesome feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, and the birth of modern scifi from her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. On top of this, the King is mad (and, worse, German!), and mumblings about Republicanism rear their head. That's without even getting into the fact that the country is at war with Bonaparte, but, just like recent US wars, doing its utmost to ignore that on the homefront.

So, there are a number of things I like about this period—it's really unstable, uncertain which way to grow, torn between the poles of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—and adding in a "helpful" fairy who's really trying to abduct you for its own amusement just heightens it.

The game focuses heavily on relationships, and asks you to make a lot of judgment calls about how interactions went, while building up dice from every interaction towards a moment-of-truth roll. At least, that's how it is now—it's been through many incarnations, and might take some more before it's ready.

Thanks to John, Kit, and Austin for a great interview!

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