Monday, October 25, 2010

Playtest Results: Aspects as Contacts

Of the playtest feedback I've received to date, the most expansive request for more material and explanation was regarding aspects. They've really lit a fire under some of the players, but while the players are pretty clear on how to use them mechanically, they remain mystified as to how to make a good one for themselves, and in fact I received an email from a player who was trying to do just that and instead felt he was "just flailing."

So, clearly, aspects deserve their own chapter. Not only would a discussion on their creation and use benefit players, but as one of my own pointed out they're a narrative tool that has everything to do with defining a character even as they give a mechanical benefit. If I want deeper characters who have more to them than their ability to beat ass, I should be pushing the aspects pretty hard.

I'm going to spend this week on aspects. This post and the two that follow later in the week will go into more detail on how I envision aspects being used in Shadowitz, including eventually a sample run through of creating a couple aspects for a character.

Now, let me throw in this statement as a starter: because aspects are largely narrative, I don't think there's ever going to be a single set of hard rules that govern their creation in this game. You won't find point values by which you can guarantee that every aspect is 100% balanced against every other. Done right, they're not formulaic and resist such mechanical rigidity. If you approach them as ways to make the most important parts of your character matter in the game rather than a list of bonuses you can gain to boost your preferred knack rolls, the process becomes smoother.

That said, let's start with a relatively simple application of aspects: contacts. Shadowrun has had contact rules for as long as its existed. When I first started playing they were just a pair of names and roles that I slapped on my sheet as the last step in character creation. Later, as I got more into the game, I found levels of contact (associate, buddy, etc.), which even included some guidelines as to what it took to elevate a contact to higher devotion levels and keep them there. Finally, the latest edition of SR added yet more granularity by giving contacts a pair of scores, which quantified the raw capabilities of the contact, and how willing the person was to do anything for you (so you might know a CEO, but she's not interested in taking your calls very often).

The thing is, we almost never used our contacts. Usually someone would take a decker contact so that no one else would have to run the Matrix, and someone else would have a fixer so we could get jobs. Past that, no one bothered, and rarely did anyone look at the list of who they knew when presented with a tough situation.

This stuck out all the more when I read Neuromancer. That book has a scene early in the story in which one of the characters uses her contacts on a very Shadowrun-ish mission. During that mission the contacts don't just provide information and let the runners go on their way, but they instead become a critical part of the mission, creating a big distraction that allows the runners to slip deeper into a secure building. As soon as I read that scene, two things struck me:

  1. This is what contact use in SR should feel like. Maybe that's even what they intended when they included contacts as part of your character.
  2. There was no mechanical element in the game that supported this. 
Further reading showed exactly how much the street sam of the story relied not only on her own skill and cybernetic edge, but leveraged how many people she knew and how diverse her web of contacts was. More and more I was convinced that there needed to be something like this in my game.

That's where the Fixer method comes in. That rule allows characters to utilize their contacts as something more than information banks. They can get directly involved in the action, but by making it a stat on the character sheet, does so in a way that keeps the player involved in the scene instead of relegating everything to the GM rolling dice against himself behind his screen.

So what does this have to do with aspects? Aspects can be used to add color and depth to your contact base. While the Fixer method still has a lot to do with the number of hits you wind up rolling, you're still using the same method no matter the contact, since Fixer represents a mix of contact competence and the level of personal connection you have to them. Aspects, however, can make exceptions, and exceptional contacts.

Like any aspect, contact aspects have upside and drawbacks, which can be invoked or compelled respectively, and it is these qualities that can make a contact truly stand out.

For example, one of the characters in my game has a Vory boss as a contact. I've been urging him to make him an aspect, and recently we worked out the details. The two shared a prison cell for a while, and the character, a hacker, managed to do some creative accounting from his cell for the Vory, which prevented the boss from losing any ground during his incarceration. He's developed a soft spot for the character, and has done him the favor of making him an exclusive employee of the syndicate without the need to go through the standard ranks of promotion. The problem is that the character never wanted to be in the Vory, but he never cultivated any other fixer contacts upon being released, and has done nothing but Vory runs since hitting the streets again (something the player himself was unaware of until I brought it to his attention).

As an aspect, Mr. Ivonovich looks like this:

"Old Roommate"
You shared a cell with Ivonovich and did good work for him while incarcerated. He's paid you back, making your original agreement complete, but there's a genuine affection that remains between the two of you, and he's gone out of his way to help you whenever he can. Unfortunately, he seems incapable of understanding that you don't want to join the Vory, so his help has the tendency to get you ever more deeply involved in an organization you want to avoid.

Invoke: The Vory are excellent data miners. Given enough time and money, they can get the goods on almost anyone. They've also, in more recent years, developed a successful smuggling operation which specializes in weapons trafficking. Whenever you ask Ivonovich to provide either information or weapons, you can invoke this aspect.

Compel: Ivonovich is fine doing favors for you, but he does take heat for it. You have, after all, not gone through the normal ranks and don't technically deserve the treatment you get. Ivonovich is a big enough man to fend off most of the problems that come his way for the continual favor he shows you, but he does require you to show your loyalty to the Vory as a whole every now and again. Most of the time he calls with job offers like any other fixer. Sometimes he calls with Vory assignments. Those are not optional, and they are guaranteed to be heinous, even for a Shadowrunner.

As another example, the party as a whole has a contact named Icelady, who is a former Johnson of theirs. They did good work for her, and even went over and above the call of duty to help her out when the job became WAY bigger than what they signed on for. As a reward, I said they could automatically add her as a contact in addition to receiving pay.

She hired you to invalidate her dead boyfriend's will. Instead, you found he was still alive, was framed, rescued him, and even put their relationship on a better track, and this after you protected her store from looters and saved her from an assassination attempt. She might still be rough around the edges, but she's eternally grateful.

Invoke: Icelady is a store owner specializing in talismongering. If you need magical supplies, from fetishes to magical reagents to foci, she can either hook you up or knows someone who can. And she's willing to give you a big discount. Whenever purchasing magical gear, you can invoke Icelady for a bonus to your resource roll.

Compel: Since the run's conclusion, the heat's cooled on Icelady, but the woman has a knack for getting into trouble. Her store's still right across the tracks from Redmond, and she ruffles enough feathers on a regular basis that there seem to be no end of people who want to cause her trouble, either by ransacking her place or even roughing her up (it's possible the bassist from her boyfriend's band is still interested in giving her drek out of jealousy too). You've been there before, and you're kind of friends now, so when in trouble, guess who she calls? Wouldn't you know those calls happen to come in only when you're in the middle of trying to outrun a Lone Star HTR team or trying to sneak past a pair of sentry guns.

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