Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Five or So Questions on Flotsam

Hi y'all, I have an interview today with Joshua Fox, who you might recognize from Lovecraftesque, about Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, which is currently on Kickstarter! It seems like an interesting new game and Joshua's track record with Lovecraftesque makes me excited to see what's there! Let's see what Joshua's excited about:


Three people standing around a small table, in front of a large porthole window looking out to space and a spaceship. The people are a of diverse backgrounds and potentially species, two looking mostly human - one lighter skinned, one dark skinned - and the third blue-grey skinned and humanoid.
The art for Flotsam is so gorgeous!
Tell me a little about Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars. What excites you about it?

Flotsam is a GMless game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. It's all about their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small scale drama, against a backdrop of poverty, social strife, gang conflict and supernatural weirdness. That's the basics of the game. System-wise it's kind of like a cross between Dream Askew and Hillfolk.

There's two things about the game that excite me. First, I love stories about space and space stations, and I'm excited to offer a different take on the genre. Shows like Deep Space Nine and The Expanse give me all the genre trappings that push my buttons, but the bits I'm most curious about are the ordinary people lurking in the shadows, away from the epic political drama and space battles. What's life like for a Belter union worker while grandiose plotting goes on? What does that Cardassian spy get up to when he's not worrying about being assassinated? How do all those people relate to each other, and what little dramas take place in their lives? Flotsam answers those questions. It gives you an awesome science fiction setting, but zoomed in on the part of the story that usually gets skipped over.

The second thing - and if I was honest I'd have put this first, because it's my personal quest - is that Flotsam is my take on how to do GMless gaming. It give you the best of both worlds. It lets you play one Primary character and explore their personal issues and relationships, really inhabit that character. It also lets you take the fullest possible part in building the setting and driving external threats forward, stuff I really enjoy as a GM. And of course I get the same back from my fellow players. That combination has given me some of my best gaming experiences. I'm particularly proud of how the system streamlines both sides of the game down to a level that makes it easy to juggle those two jobs.

Tell me a little about the core mechanics and how they relate to the setting. How does what players do mechanically translate to what happens in game?

Each player controls one Primary character and one Situation. A Situation is a constellation of threats and problems united by a theme, such as "the gangs" or "the spirits". The setting is mostly encoded into the character Playbooks and Situation sheets, which are stacked with thematic details and setup questions to prime the game.

In any given moment of play, you'll probably have two or more people playing their Primary character, and you'll have at least one person playing their Situation. The interaction between those is pretty free-form most of the time, very much the "roleplaying is a conversation" approach. The game rules tell you when to step outside that freeform conversation, and that's mostly mediated by decisions taken by people playing their Primary character.

If you want to inject some energy and threat into a scene that you're in, you activate one of your character's Weaknesses. Weaknesses can be external issues, like an enemy or rival, or they can be personal flaws, like the fact your character is arrogant and overconfident. When you activate a Weakness, you're inviting the other players to make trouble for your character. In exchange, you get a Token which you can spend to power your Strengths. When you want to solve problems and put your character in the driving seat, you activate one of your character's Strengths and spend a Token. Doing that gives you permission to narrate how your character competently does their thing, and blocks other characters from complicating what you do with new problems. And finally, if you keep your hands off those two mechanics, the Principles of the game encourage the other players to step back and let you have whatever interesting interaction is at the centre of the scene.

In other words, when you play your Primary character, you're in control of pacing for the scene. Do you want to be put under pressure? Do you want to kick ass and take names? Do you want an intense, undisturbed conversation? You get to decide. With that said, you can't just say and do whatever you like - if you ignore a problem in the fiction, or do something risky or challenging, that gives the other players permission to make trouble for you even though you didn't activate a Weakness. But most of the time, the pacing of the scene is in your hands, with the default being the interpersonal interactions that the game is focused on.

The final piece of the puzzle is the XP system. This rewards you for having social and emotional interactions with another character, where you show them something of who you really are, and take the relationship out of its equilibrium. Every time you do that you earn Marks against your Relationship with that character, and when you accumulate enough Marks you rewrite the Relationship and improve your character. Together with those charged setup questions I mentioned before, this mechanic drives the game towards an overall focus on developing, evolving relationships.

a horizontal banner styled like riveted metal, with a desk in the center (top down) that has a book, star charts, and a watch on it.
This is such a pretty banner :)
How are you balancing these difficult concepts like poverty and gang conflict with the supernatural and sci fi elements? How do mechanics influence this?

Oh, wow. What a question! That's a great question.

The game has a number of key themes, of which poverty is one, which are woven through the game. Each theme is threaded through the playbooks and the situations, in lots of small ways. So it's difficult to disentangle how they're handled, because it's not like there's a mechanic for poverty or something like that. But the game also brings each theme into sharper focus in individual playbooks and situations. For instance, for poverty, there's a specific situation devoted to it, which means there will be one player whose job it is to think about how deprivation and want (and conversely wealth and privilege) impact on the community, ask questions about that and push that theme into the game. And there's a particular playbook - the cast-off - that is all about what it's like to live with economic precariousness, working different jobs to pay the bills.

The science fiction and supernatural elements are essentially handled in the same way. As to how they're balanced with the more real-life serious elements - they're not exactly distinct elements, if you see what I mean? The cast-off might be an ordinary human with mundane skills, or they could be an alien who has crash-landed on the station and is trying to parlay their unique skills to make a living down here. In one playtest game, my character was a trader up to his neck in debt, trying to stay afloat, but also happened to be a member of the race who built the station - and who had been driven off by humans. So his circumstances and the science fiction bits of the game intersected fairly heavily.

Now having said all that, it's down to the players how they handle these themes. It's totally possible for one group to de-emphasise a given theme, by choosing to pick up particular characters and situations. You drive the game in the direction you want to go. You could let the weirder elements come to the fore, or you could focus on the social problems of a place that lacks basic necessities, that happens to be on a space station. Either way the game's principles push you to treat the characters like real people, to focus on their lives and relationships, and make them the centre of the story, not cool tech or weird phenomena.

Tell me about some of the Strengths and how they tie to the narrative and character development. What kind of Strengths can you have? What do they mean to the characters narratively?

Each Playbook has its own unique set of Strengths to choose from, which tie into the nature of the Playbook, and could be a skill, a resource, or a special ability. So if we take the Spider, who is a trader, criminal or spymaster, they can have straightforward abilities like "deception" which enables them to lie their way out of trouble; they can have resources like "connections (underworld)" which enable them to invent items or contacts that they need; and they can have interesting options that sort of sit between the two like "contingency plans" which allow them to invent a way out of a situation on the fly and say they planned it all along.

An example of weirder abilities are those of the Sybyl, who is a prophet with strange gifts; most of their Strengths have slightly cryptic names like "Dreamwalk" and "Thread of Fate". The game doesn't define what that means - we find out what your character can do in play, and in the process we might also find out what drawbacks or side effects those abilities come with.

Some of these Strengths link to the Playbook's Weaknesses, like the Thunder, who may have a gang at their beck and call (which is a Strength) but that gang might also be liars and schemers (a Weakness). And one fun mechanic I haven't yet mentioned is the way that Weaknesses can turn into Strengths; so perhaps your character is paranoid and vengeful, which starts out as a Weakness that can get them into trouble, but later on you might spend a character upgrade to switch that to a Strength. Maybe you rename it to "it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you", or something like that, and now you can spend it to be ready when things go south - rather like the Spider's contingency plans. So we see how a character can come to understand and master their own flaws.

I think the key thing about Strengths is that, as long as you have a Token, they're pretty much a guaranteed get-out-of-jail-free card. So that encourages and enables players to dig themselves into deep trouble, knowing that ultimately their character can get out of it. So we can tell stories about characters whose backs are against the wall, without the fear of a couple of botched dice rolls ending the story there. Similarly, your fellow players are free to push as hard as they like because they know you've got that option. It really puts the direction of the story in your hands.

What are the most important stories you've told with Flotsam so far, and what more are you hoping to see from players? How has seeing the game played influenced the design?

I'll tell you about a couple of my favourite stories so far.

In one of them, Oscar (a gang leader) and Deacon (a political activist) forged a tense and interesting relationship. Deacon was a demagogue, telling anyone who would listen that they needed to overthrow the oppressive government of the Above. Meanwhile, Oscar was worried that Deacon could light a powder keg under their community and bring the wrath of the Above down on their heads. This was complicated by a romantic relationship between Oscar's daughter and one of Deacon's followers. The story saw Oscar choosing between all these competing concerns to decide whether to throw his weight behind the resistance movement, even though it meant putting his people and his family in danger.

Another story included Barter, a trader struggling to avoid the attention of some very scary creditors, and Scarlet, a runaway who worked any job from appliance repair to stealing artifacts. Life kind of had both of them on the ropes, but they - and the other characters in that game - had each others' backs, coming through for each other when their lives seemed right on the verge of falling apart. When Scarlet's makeshift home got burned down by a gang, Barter gave her food and shelter. When Barter was running out of excuses not to pay his debts, Scarlet helped him make the trade that kept him afloat. So that was a great heartwarming story about people pulling together in the face of adversity.

I'll come to what more I'd like to see from players in a moment, but in terms of how playtesting has influenced design, it's kind of a truism but it's really reinforced the need to simplify. The original draft game had a lot more moving parts and custom moves. But when people are juggling a main character and a situation, flipping between a GM-style role and playing their character, and keeping track of all these relationships, simplicity is absolutely key, to ensure nobody is overwhelmed. So I've stripped it back to the simplest set of rules I can without losing the things that make the game tick. At the same time, I've put a lot of work into refining how the system is taught, which again comes down to the fact that everyone has to know the rules. With Lovecraftesque we created a printable teaching guide to help people grok the system without everyone needing to read the rules, and that's the same approach I've taken here.

Finally, what has amazed and delighted me about playing this game is how it seems to unlock people's creativity. It gives you just enough structure and starting prompts to make it really easy to create intriguing, flawed relationships and beautiful, evocative settings, each reflecting the whole group's ideas and input. So I guess I'm looking forward to seeing even more of that, seeing what different groups come up with. One thing I'm excited for is the stretch goals I've got lined up - these will provide some pre-written setting material and charged relationships, and each puts a very different spin on the game, so I'm eager to see how people use that at the table.

Two femme-appearing individuals at a bar, one tending bar and the other on a stool, wearing a military-style uniform and drinking.
I love the styling of the uniforms!

Awesome! Thank you so much to Joshua for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars on Kickstarter! Make sure to share the post so your friends can learn about it too!

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