2015-03-30 : Dirty Tricks in My Games

In my game Murderous Ghosts, there are two dirty tricks.

1. On the bottom of every page in the explorer's book, there's a note: "If you've had enough and you're ready to stop playing, turn to 48 instead." On page 48, spoilers! You wake up safe in your bed and it was just a bad dream. This is, as you'd guess, basically never a satisfying ending to the game. Furthermore, the corresponding page in the ghosts' book says that congratulations, you've won by frightening the explorer player into quitting.

So one way to win Murderous Ghosts, as the ghosts player, is to make the game so unpleasant for the explorer player that they'd rather quit than keep playing.

2. In the explorer's book, it says that if you manage to resolve the violence that keeps the ghost here, seeing the ghost to its eternal rest, you win. In the ghosts' book, though, it says that explorers who are trying to help ghosts to peace are extremely easy to murder, so one strategy is to drop false hints, and use the explorer's curiousity and compassion to draw them into a situation they can't escape.

When you're playing with an unexperienced explorer player, the text of the explorer's book is your lying accomplice.

I'll stand by both of these dirty tricks as essential pieces of Murderous Ghosts' game design. Small as they are, the game wouldn't work without them; it wouldn't be the game I wanted to create. When I designed Murderous Ghosts, I included them on purpose.

On the other hand, I must and do recognize that they limit Murderous Ghosts' appeal. Including them in the design means that some people who play the game have a bad time and never play it again, and tell their friends it's not good, and so on. When I included them in Murderous Ghosts' design, I had to accept this.

Most of my games include dirty tricks, traps for the players to stumble into.

In Apocalypse World, the hardholder is a trap, and the hardholder's -2weird stat line is a double trap.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, "yes, your gun can be big and excellent, and in fact you can have as many big and excellent guns as you want" is a trap. Taking the blow when you're just talking is a trap, in that it gets you used to taking the blow when the danger is small, so that you aren't appropriately wary when the danger is greater.

Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant is nothing but a big trick on Rock of Tahamaat's player, who can only watch events unfold with increasing helplessness and desperation.

You can win The Doomed Pilgrim basically only if you can trick or trap the internet into playing to lose. Midsummer Wood is similar.

Spin the Beetle might be my only honest game!

1. On 2015-03-30, Vincent said:

A friend of mine (who may choose to come forward, if she wants) is working on a game built on a trick: half the players think that it's an adventure game, but the other half, the ones in control, know that it's actually survival horror. She asked me what I think about this, in consent and safety terms.

Other than "you know me! I say caveat ludor," the above is about the best I can do.


2. On 2015-03-30, Caitie said:

It's me! I'm the butt in question.

I'm on board pretty much with the idea that some people won't like your game, some will, focus on those who will - but don't you think, at least, that there should be some sort of safety net for "victims" of such dirty tricks? Like, I think, on paper, the idea of making the game so horrid that nobody wants to


3. On 2015-03-30, Meserach said:

I get (at least I think I do) how the hardholder seems like a trap :on paper they seem to have all the power, but in practice they have all the burdens and so feel like they have the least freedom. (The Hocus maybe has it worse, but there's less of a trap because it's crystal clear how doomed the average Hocus is).

But what do you have in mind when thinking that - 2 weird on a hardholder is a particularly bad trap? I mean, non-weird players end up now ignorant than the rest,  which is certainly bad   (or if they try for less ignorance they'll get hosed by hard MC supernatural moves a lot). But is it especially bad for a hardholder? Particularly because it feels to me most of the hardholders I'd seen subcontracted weirdness out to another PC, and generally had resources sufficient to keep such person sweet?


4. On 2015-03-30, Caitie said:

(Phone error!) I think squicking players out and screwing them out of play is a really smart, really interesting, and fun idea for meta play - but it also makes me feel guilty, doing that to someone, pushing their buttons until they frown and walk away.

Mind you, if the other player is down with that, then no problem. But you can't always gauge that with unwitting players, right?

I have a friend who doesn't deal with horror well at all - the movie Interstellar, for example, was too much for him (yes, that Interstellar, the non-horror movie) and because I've has that conversation, there's certain games I won't play with him. Suppose I didn't know?

Is sizing people up, even unwitting players (especially unwitting players!) part of the mechanics themselves, and not just mere considerations?

Or do you just let this go, trust in people? I feel a real sense of responsibility for not ruining someone's experience, especially when I am outright lying to them.


5. On 2015-03-30, Vincent said:

Caitie: Yeah.

For me, let's see.

Like, Murderous Ghosts, dirty tricks are part of the genre, so I consider them fair play. If you've signed up to be murdered by ghosts, you're probably okay with a dirty trick or two. Dirty tricks feature in all the best murderous ghost movies, after all.

The rules also say to have the person who's more easily scared play the ghosts, and the person who's tougher about such things play the explorer. So that's some safety there.

The hardholder, though, is a trap for people whose impulse is to seize and hold authority by force, and them I don't mind sucker punching. Similar thing with Rock of Tahamaat.

Meserach: I wrote a bit about the hardholder trap a couple of years ago, in this thread on the Barf.

When I played a hardholder, I fell into the -2weird trap myself. I figured that I could hand off all the weird stuff to my excellent and loyal friend the brainer, and all I'd have to worry about was keeping the brainer excellent and loyal. Which I mostly did, but then come to discover, some of the weird stuff was legitimately my responsibility to deal with. I could either take it on myself or let my holding down, and that's when the -2weird trap sprung.


6. On 2015-03-30, Vincent said:

Caitie: Oh but hey, here's a bizarre thought. What if it's okay to be spoiled?

Here's my guess: If I play your game on the "unwitting" side, I'll still find it scary, if the other players make it scary. And if they don't make it scary, I won't find it scary, even if I wasn't spoiled on it beforehand.

I base this guess on the fact that the last time I sat down to watch Lake Mungo, I got too scared and turned it off before the halfway mark, despite the fact that I'd seen it twice before and totally knew everything that was going to happen. That movie just scares the crap out of me.

What do you think? Could you run a casual test, play it once as intended and a second time with all spoiled players, and compare?


7. On 2015-03-30, ndp said:

Your Hardholder traps (both of them) were my favorite part of playing AW.

In carry there's a big ol' trap the first time the squad sees combat. I think it's a great, productive, worthwhile trap but I know at least one person who tells people "I'm not giving you all the information about this before you do it, and you might be unhappy with the results, but trust me that it's part of the game" because of uncomfortableness about robbing the players of agency. So that's interesting. When do you ask people for consent to trick them? Or rather, when should you, I guess?


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8. On 2015-03-30, Gordon said:

Wow, so many thoughts - I don't know what it is about these recent posts, but they get my brain churning. So much that I'm not sure which thoughts are actually useful & on-point ... any focus, Vincent?

In any case - I think there's a lot that could be said about not playing the same game. Not knowing you're playing at all (for me, == "not a player", but perhaps to-mae|mah-to). And probably more substantively, not playing (to various degrees) what you think you're playing.

Two things to say that might be useful to Caitie. First, not playing what you think you're playing has been around in RPGs forever. Usually, it's been "the GM knows "real" game, players think something else." An easy example is the "fantasy is actually sci-fi" in TSR's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980), but I'm pretty sure I played games like that even a few years earlier. On the other hand (and my second thing), of course you do need to be sensitive to your social context. I'd like to think that the "don't play this with jerky people" caveat covers most sins, but some text telling the knowing folks "sure you're being deceptive, but don't be jerks" couldn't hurt.

Which makes me want to design a game where who's knowing (about the "real" game being played) shifts around, in some sense unpredictably, and ... madness!

Somehow, this is all reminding me that I think there are just limits to how much the game design/designer can control. Now, a designer can try to use that very fact, but it's a bit of a "ride the tiger" situation. Rather than getting them to play to lose, I'd say that Doomed Pilgrim gets people to play a different game. Once you're on that "different game" tiger, how much control do you have? Less than you want, but maybe also more than you think ... certainly enough to get people to lose the game they're supposedly playing and not care.

And added re: spoiling - it was totally normal to expect that players be able to play Barrier Peaks without player knowledge of the module "unduly" (oh, what a bag-o-snakes dwells there!) influencing character actions. I'm not sure how you decide if keeping players uninformed is needed in a particular game, but I think Vincent is wise to point out that just reminding folks (e.g.) "dammit, the characters think they're adventures, not potential victims!" can sometimes work fine.


9. On 2015-03-30, Caitie said:

Vincent: I aim to do just that this weekend! I suppose we will see. I'm interested to see if I even need to have the "unwitting" part at all - though I'd really like to keep it!


10. On 2015-03-30, silby said:

Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant is nothing but a big trick on Rock of Tahamaat's player, who can only watch events unfold with increasing helplessness and desperation.

I knew it!


11. On 2015-03-31, Vincent said:

Gordon: I don't know about focus. I wonder if you're looking for an ethical consensus, where I don't think there is one.

Someone else asked me about this in email, am I trying to reach an ethical consensus, or what? I'm not! For now I'm satisfied just to point out that there isn't one.

There isn't one, no matter how obvious to the "making someone an unwitting player isn't ethical" crowd one seems. For instance, I think that the text you suggest, about "sure you're being deceptive, but don't be jerks," would be fine for some games, but terrible for others. Murderous Ghosts, for instance, includes almost the opposite text.

Whether Caitie's game would be better with that reminder, Caitie's the one to judge, of course, but I'm pretty skeptical!


12. On 2015-03-31, Ben Lehman said:

kill puppies for satan is totally honest.



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13. On 2015-03-31, Ben Lehman said:

blatant lying aside, this is a good insight into how game design works.

rpgs are inherently a trick. these people aren't real! we're not really them! and yet we have all these emotions for them.

It's deceptive.


14. On 2015-03-31, Gordon said:

Vincent: Oh, no, I'm 100% sure there's no ethical consensus. But ... so? I think there are ethical issues, and I do kinda think that in a design that includes people without their knowledge and/or consent, a designer owes those issues some attention.

So, for focus, I guess I wonder if you're looking for examples of how designs have handled that? (Brenda Romero's Train has "there's only one copy of this game, and I or a representative are always there when it's played.") Or looking to offer a further opinion than "make it work for the game" - which YES, but then what? Or ... something else?

If not " ..don't be jerks," then what DO you say? (I'll check to see if I can find an answer in Murderous Ghosts).


15. On 2015-04-01, Vincent said:

Some games call for their players to be jerks. This is as it should be.


16. On 2015-04-01, Gordon said:

Vincent: Pardon my obtuseness, but still - so what? Some games call for their players to be jerks, and that's as it should be. OK. Surely that's not all there is to say? I think I'd have a bit of contempt for someone who'd claim that "sometimes, jerks it is" is all there is to say.

Clearly, that someone isn't you, especially if I read your (emphasis added) "for now I'm satisfied ..." correctly.

Maybe I just need to wait until it's not now anymore, because now is looking kinda pointless to me. But then it was more the player-ness issues than the ethical-ness that grabbed me, anyway.


17. On 2015-04-03, Vincent said:

Gordon: Oh, no, I was trying to answer you. You asked, "If not ' ..don't be jerks,' then what DO you say?" My answer is, not only does it depend on the game, but it really totally depends on the game. In Sunshine Boulevard or the Dollar Auction, "don't be jerks" or anything like it would be comically misplaced. In Murderous Ghosts, it says "here's a fun way to win by being a jerk."

I don't think that there's a larger discussion to be had about this, except the discussion embodied in our games. I'm really riveted by Caitie's game, for instance, and I can't wait to hear what she finds with it.


18. On 2015-04-08, Josh W said:

I was quite disappointed that one of my friends jammed the -2 weird trap; he picked the move off the touchstone playbook that let him meet the maelstrom with hard, maxed his hard, and then we were like "Is there any point highlighting hard? He is always going to use that stat for everything." (although there was still enough choice between cool, hot and sharp that it didn't matter too much).

In fact, that was something I really liked about AW dark age; that rolling for the fortunes of your stuff didn't tie to a particular stat: Closer to the hocus's move than the operator or hard holder's, although I found that the operator's move fit closer to the "highlight the kind of stuff you want to see them do" model, as it directly set up putting them in the middle of trouble.


19. On 2015-04-09, Gordon said:

Vincent: Really? No larger discussion to be had? Well, I'm not that attached to the ethical issue, and I'd certainly agree we need the context of a/the game(s), so I guess I'm not the guy to press that point. I squint at "no larger discussion" suspiciously, though.


20. On 2015-04-13, Vincent said:

Gordon: You saw my "except," right?


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