Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dead Drop and Focused Design

One of the games that is percolating in my head is called Dead Drop, a Cold War-era spy game. I've definitely had a bit of a block about this game for a while. I know what I want to do, but I haven't had any great ideas to solve the problems. I just read Ben Lehman's post in his blog, and his contention about focused design got the gears grinding.

Here is what I see as the main challenge in Dead Drop: determining what the final theme and shape of play will be, and creating a strong design that supports that theme every time. Reading and playing games like Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life With Master, Inspectres, and The Mountain Witch has really opened my eyes to this type of design, and one of the features these games share is a very focused nature of play. Rather than "here is how to make your character, now go and do whatever you like," these games say, "here is how to make your character and here is the scenario you will be going through every time." Variation occurs in play as the players deal with the same or very similar situation with different characters and different takes on the material. I think this style of play would be really good for a spy game of the sort I am trying to develop, and that will help me constrain the general scope of play as well.

This is a pretty fundamental design philosophy. Choosing to take Dead Drop in this direction will have a huge impact on the ultimate play experience. I do think I can make a really intense, immersive spy game this way. The key questions of Dead Drop are how far will you go, and at what point do your actions begin to cheapen your very goals. A tightly focused design can really bring these to the forefront.


At 2:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Give me some ideas to work with and I'll try to help you out.

A place that I often start is with the characters. Defining what makes individual "heroes" different often helps me realize what sorts of tests these heroes will be up against.

Agents could have several simple stats. Maybe something along the lines of:

Martial Arts


Seduction (not just sexual... seducing anyone to your cause)

In addition, the great motivator in the game could be $$$. Give agents some petty starting cash and shady opportunities to earn more.

Start out the game at home base, dealing with the agents' director. Make it look almost like a Bond flick... pampered but bureaucratic, with cool gadgets and lots of talk of honor and country. Give the players very clear goals, with a no-nonsense "You will complete this assignment" attitude.

Put them on a tough mission and give the players a few choices. If they choose to stick to their mission and morals, it goes very, very wrong. You know the drill... spiral everything downward until players are stuck in agent hell.

If they go the other way, giving into corruption, have it look nice and pretty for awhile, but have the pressure of being a corrupt agent build.

How the situation resolves is, of course, the climax of the game. Do the agents survive? Do they make it home? Do they flee to another country with stolen money or information? Do they try to return to ordinary lives?

I can't envision many happy endings to an agent's life... maybe being promoted to an information analyst or director of human intelligence or some such thing. I suspect that's one of the few legal ways out. But I suspect the difficulty of getting out is a large part of the point.

I hope I've at least given you a bit of inspiration!


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

You're ideas are definitely in line with what I have been playing with so far. The stats are going to be really short and relevant. Anything not related to the theme is out.

For skills, rather than a list, I am going to assume that all of these spies are at least competent at basic spy-related stuff. Each spy can have one or more specialties that make him more valuable to the group.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Russell Collins said...

I love the concept. I think one of the best ways to refine the design is to have that outline that each adventure follows.

At least, it seems to be working for me.

To get that outline, go through the old cold war spy novels; John le Carre, or maybe the "real life" ones too. If you can, just skim a few of these and see if you can make a general outline of what happens in these stories.

Example: Mole Hunting

I. A discrepency appears in the data,
a. someone is not who they seem to be.
b. enemy agents are gaining intel.

II. Agents are called in to find the Mole
a. often from outside the agency
b. they analyze the processes to find security holes

III. The mole responds
a. digs in deeper, or
b. runs

IV. Confrontation
a. the mole is captured/killed
b. shut out of the intel.
c. remains at large.

Once we have a structure, adventures are just puzzles.

By the way, I'm tempted to suggest you try to base the mechanics of the game off tradecraft. Instead of rolling dice, what if a player has to guess a combination or work out a coded message. The better his chances of success the more tries he gets. Sort of combines wits with luck instead of straight numbers.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

The tradecraft thing is a real cool idea, Russell. I think I like it. I want to try it in play to see how it works or whether it's too gimmicky, but it could really add to the ambience.

As far as the sequence of play, there could be multiple scenarios sort of worked out, to give a basic script for play. Players can then deviate as they see fit, but it would give a good structure to get people into it.


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