Facilitating Backstabs

edited November 2011 in Play Advice
Prior to getting back into the indie/homebrew/hack mode of thinking, my gaming group was heavy into Paranoia. Specifically, they loved the concept of a group of Troubleshooters working together on the surface, but repeatedly and hilariously backstabbing each other the whole time.
I've been trying to come up with a good system to facilitate inter-party backstabbing and have been coming up with blank. Currently, the players either write down their intentions on a slip of paper and pass it across the table, or send me a text message with their backstabby ideas. This works okay, but I often find it difficult to manage all these different ideas from six different players.

Does anyone have any keen ideas on how to help facilitate secret backstabbing?

Comments

  • I've always tried to keep backstabbing out in the open. And while yes, player knowledge has a terrible tendancy to bleed into character knowledge, perhaps require some kind of check to see if the backstabbed character knows of or is suspicious of the backstabber.
    And when their replacement clone arrives, it will be appropriately apprised of the circumstances of its predecessor via the Computer's security feeds or after-action reports. (Citizen, be aware that your previous clone was vaporized after being accused of stealing thirteen cans of Bouncy Bubble Beverage, as reported by the sole witness and executioner, Fink-R-STN. Any further infractions of this sort will be detrimental to your genetic records. Thank you and have a nice day.)

    Secret notes are just too clunky, time-consuming, and, honestly, not as fun.
  • I think I agree with Michael: backstabbing works best if there are fewer secrets between players, even if there are secrets between characters.

    Secrets between players lead to problems and unfun game, where I can't build on what cool stuff you're doing and I become heavily invested in my PC and therefore unhappy when they get destroyed by a secret plan. But if you plan in the open, it encourages me to separate myself-the-player from my-character, and I can enjoy watching the terrible stuff unfold without my dude's knowledge. This dual set of perspectives leads to all sorts of comedic and dramatic irony, which is a load of fun.


    If I were to run a Paraoia game, I'd make a Fiasco playset for the job. That's a game that involves a lot of PC backstabbing and black humor and irony and mistaken, shortsighted goals. And it regularly gives me that comedic irony feeling when I play.
  • edited November 2011
    I don't personally enjoy, really, any hidden information at the table (I'm in the same camp as the opinions above), but if your group finds that play exciting, then more power to you!

    In respect to system:

    Do the backstabbings have to happen asynchronously? Diplomacy, while closer, I feel, to a Parlor Larp than an RPG, can involve an incredible amount of backstabbing--in fact that's pretty much the only way to win the game. It handles all "actions" at once, with players writing them down and the moderator reading them aloud (this follows about 10-15 minutes of players plotting with one another, including as many or as few of the group in a series of individual conversations). I don't know if your players would be content with all backstabbing being planned at once, but that could be a viable method for you. It is important to note for Dimplomacy, however, that there is a) an expectation of backstabbing/hidden information, and b) one player backstabbing another typically involves a deal between the player backstabbing and the backstabbed's enemy, that is to say, information is not totally hidden, and there are opportunities to collaboratively scheme.
  • I got some great insight from John Wick at a convention once about this idea.

    His way of thinking about it was this - the planning for a backstab/betrayal lead up DOESN"T EXIST IN THE STORY until the audience experiences it. And when a backstab/betrayal come completely out of the blue for the audience, it's totally unsatisfying. It's just a big WTF? moment.

    In a novel or a movie or TV show, the author spends time planting the seeds of possible betrayal up front, so that the audience is prepped for the possibility. You see that shifty character that claims to be going straight but keeps giving the audience reasons to think they might go bad. That builds the tension, so that the betrayal becomes the payoff. It's most satisfying when the author makes the audience have their suspicions, but then come to trust the shifty character, and then experience the betrayal - that's good stuff.

    But in RPGs, the players are the audience. So it's best to keep the scenes open to the players, or at least mostly open.

    Sure, it can be a bit rough to resist the temptation to do things based on your knowledge about impending betrayal. We have a minor betrayal happening in my home game right now, and my 9 year old son keeps wanting to have his character out following around the other guy who's doing shifty stuff, when he hasn't been given any reason to be suspicious.

    But I assume most of you have players who are older than 9 and can handle such things more easily. Heck, even my son is getting the hang of it. He's starting to realize that there is fun in knowing things that his character doesn't know.
  • edited November 2011
    Ben Robbins ran a game he referred to as "Western Paranoia" using a mechanic called the Tripod of Deceit, which I thought was fairly clever, and an amusing mechanic that might be useful to you.

    Aside from that, you can chalk me up as another vote for "secrets between character not secrets between players," particularly as it pertains to betrayal (player-held secrets work great for crowning moments of awesome).

    EDIT: I must note that my "amusing" I simply mean I enjoyed reading about it and imagining the results. No humor required. :D
  • The big question is, what do you want your *players* to play? There's a great big huge difference between players playing a game where they backstab each other and in the end there are winners and losers, and a game where the players create a story about characters who backstab each other.
    All of the advice above is basically advice for the second option, and if that's what you're after then it's all good advice. Since you mentioned Paranoia, I'm guessing this is indeed what you're after, since play among players tends to be serious and not humoristic. In that regard, you might want to check out the game Skulduggery. It's a bit too clunky in my opinion, but it's not too bad if that's what you're after.

    If, however, you do want a game where the players work against each other, you need to take a different approach. First of, you cannot distinguish player knowledge from character knowledge. It will completely ruin the game. Passing notes, taking players aside etc - all are essential. If done correctly, they also create the right atmosphere and encourage players to plot and backstab. Also, you basically must create pre-generated characters, who are tailored for this specific game and all come with lots of secrets, hidden agendas and the like. Obviously, the players MUST NOT know anything about the other characters other than what their character knows (preferably written explicitly on their premade character sheet). If you know your players, it's best if you decide in advance who gets which character.
    When I design such games, I more or less use the following guidelines:
    - Every character has a goal which he must be actively trying to achieve. ('surviving until the end' or 'not losing the secret documents' aren't active goals, they are passive goals. 'Finding the secret documents' or 'killing John Doe' are active goals.)
    - Every goal should contradict the goal of some other character.
    - Every goal has some means which can help achieve it. Some of these means the character possesses at the beginning, but some he must find gain during the game in order to achieve the goal. Means can be weapons, documents, the help of NPCs, the help of other characters, information etc. Usually the means are good for more than one goal - probably everyone will find weapons useful, for instance.
    There are other considerations in designing such a game, but that's the gist of it.
    For the record, I'm toying with the idea of writing a short system for just this sort of games. But that's another story.
  • Zachary, have you played the Battlestar Galactica boardgame? That game has my favorite betrayal mechanics so far.

    Speaking of RPGs: My problem with secrets in a GM-driven RPG are not that they are un-fun. My problem is that they are klunky, because they seem to require one-on-one interaction between the game master and the secret-holding player.

    So how do you solve for that klunkiness while allowing characters to covertly maneuver?

    Diplomacy, with its simultaneous reveal and resolution of actions, does seems like a good inspiration.
  • edited November 2011
    johnzo: For one, you do your best to minimise the time you spend with only some of the players. Notes are also a way to get around taking players to the side.
    However, if the game is well designed and the players are half decent, such games usually run themselves. Most of the time everybody has something to do and somebody to talk to, or at the very least has some food for thought that he can chew on. I've run such games where most of the game I simply sat back and watched the players talk among themselves (sometimes in several independent groups), not having to do anything at all. And yeah, it led to some cases where the players had to fill me in on things *I* didn't know about (as I can only listen to one secret conversation at once). But when players come to fill me in on something it means they need to have some input from me, which usually means they're excited to discover what happens next and thus probably don't consider the need to fill me in on the details as unnecessary downtime.
    So, in this case, even if you take one of the players aside, the other players still have stuff to do and are thus having fun.
  • edited November 2011
    Wow, so most people do not like secrets between players. I see the merits behinds keeping everything out in the open, and how that can lead to some humorous and ironic situations where the player has to knowingly walk their character into certain doom because their character is unaware of the situation. I'd be willing to try that, though I'm curious how my particular group would handle it.
    Posted By: stupidgremlinSecret notes are just too clunky, time-consuming, and, honestly, not as fun.
    Yes, open-group knowledge of backstabs solves this, but that's not really what I'm trying to get at here. I want the players to secretely plotting against each other behind their backs, and I'm looking for an alternative, streamlined method because I agree that secret notes are too clunky and slow (and make the game slightly less fun only for these reasons).
    Posted By: Nicholas MooreI don't personally enjoy, really, any hidden information at the table (I'm in the same camp as the opinions above), but if your group finds that play exciting, then more power to you!
    Actually, they do really enjoy the angst and mystery of knowing that people are scheming, and they might just be scheming against you. Infact, playing Paranoia like this, I've gotten the biggest amount of excitement generated of any game we've played (lots).
    Do the backstabbings have to happen asynchronously? Diplomacy...
    Yes. The players are free to write and pass notes at any time during the game. As players pass notes to me, if I have a moment, I'll read, interpret, and plan on how to implement the players request. If I don't understand what they wrote, I put a question mark and pass it back, or I'll write "OK" so they know I've acknowleged their intentions. If I'm getting bogged down, I'll basically create a queue, first come first serve basis, move the scene or react to the players overt actions, then go back to the queue and try to process them. It's kinda of stressful for me as the GM, but the effect is usually hilarious.

    I get players secretly trying to kill each other, trying to create traps that make it look like another character comitted the crime, trying to secretly follow each other to see what they're up to, passing false information back and forth to each other, creating dual alliances and betraying them at the last pivotal moment. I mean, they get really creative, and all the while, they get a sense of real paranoia because they know all this crazy shit is happening behind the scenes and they're only getting a limitted point of view of events.

    I take it as my responsibility to process and interpret the requests the players make into fair and exciting outcomes. I'll roll the dice to determine if your backstab was successful or not, and whether or not anyone else noticed what you were doing. If the dice say that someone saw, I'll roll again to see if it was another player(s) or the computer.

    I'll have to look into Diplomacy. Sounds interesting.
    Posted By: ODDinThe big question is, what do you want your *players* to play? There's a great big huge difference between players playing a game where they backstab each other and in the end there are winners and losers, and a game where the players create a story about characters who backstab each other.
    Based off of the way we've played the game in the past, it seems to be something like "players having fun together by working against each other to hilarious ends". There are really no winners or losers in the end, but the players are definitely (whimsically) at each other's throats. As the GM, I make sure everyone has a chance to screw and get screwed. The "winner" per se (the one the computer punishes the least) is picked more or less arbitrarily based off of whoever I think would be funniest if they came out on top. Sometimes it's the underdog, sometimes it's the guy who's been master-minding a serious of genius backstabs the whole game.
    Posted By: RobMcDiarmidIn a novel or a movie or TV show, the author spends time planting the seeds of possible betrayal up front, so that the audience is prepped for the possibility. You see that shifty character that claims to be going straight but keeps giving the audience reasons to think they might go bad. That builds the tension, so that the betrayal becomes the payoff. It's most satisfying when the author makes the audience have their suspicions, but then come to trust the shifty character, and then experience the betrayal - that's good stuff.
    Well, I can tell you, when it came to suspicion and foreshadowing betrayel in our games, nothing does that like watching your fellow Troubleshooter grin evily and pass a note to the GM. You just KNOW they're plotting against you. Or are they? Yes, this is totally meta, but then the players as an audience is meta as well. But then, this brings us back to our original problem of passing notes being klunky and slow.
    Posted By: ODDinSince you mentioned Paranoia, I'm guessing this is indeed what you're after, since play among players tends to be serious and not humoristic. In that regard, you might want to check out the game Skulduggery. It's a bit too clunky in my opinion, but it's not too bad if that's what you're after.
    I'll take a look at Skulduggery, definitely. I'm surprised, if I read you right, to hear that Paranoia tends to be serious and not humoristic in your view. To me, it's always seemed to be heavy with tongue-in-cheek black humor and subtly silly situations.
    If, however, you do want a game where the players work against each other, you need to take a different approach. First of, you cannot distinguish player knowledge from character knowledge...
    Yes, this is what I'm aiming for. The players are technically working against each other, but at the same time they need to work together and cooperate to finish the mission and not get caught backstabbing each other in the process (ideally). I tried to reinforce these ideas with some pre-game handouts and explain the situation. On the surface, the Troubleshooters need to appear as one big happy family (I reference the classic cartoon scene where the two characters are fighting, but as soon as the authority figure looks in on them, they pretend to be playing nicely with big fake smiles on their faces). All the while, each player has secret They also need to finish the mission otherwise face summary termination, so they need to learn how to balance killing each other and making sure the job gets done so they don't all end up dead.

    When I design such games, I more or less use the following guidelines:
    Definitely agree and follow you here. I made pregenerated character templates with goals that work against each other and secret missions to take each other out for big rewards.

    So I guess I should elaborate on what I'm looking for here. I'm looking for a way to facilitate secret backstabs between players without open knowledge to build suspense and paranoia amongst the group.

    Until I can get my hands on them, how do they facilitate these actions in Diplomacy and Skulduggery? Anyone else have any ideas that maybe are untested?
  • I believe you misread me somewhat. I indeed think that Paranoia is humoristic and not serious, which is why I thought you were looking for the option of "players creating a story about backstabbing characters" rather than "players actually backstabbing each other". Skulduggery takes a pretty light and humoristic approach to things, and there are very few secrets and nothing to act as the "means" I've suggested, so it doesn't really work if you want backstabbing among players. It's really geared towards the "let's create a fun story where are characters backstab each other".

    You say that you do actually want it to work on the player level and not only the character level, but then you say that the winner is decided arbitrarily - which doesn't work together well, I think. Basically, I think that backstabbing on the player level is better suited for serious and dark games, where the players take the backstabbing quite seriously, and the game has winners and losers based on the specific player actions. Games which are light and tongue-in-cheek, where the fun comes from watching the mayhem and you don't particularly care for your character, are better suited for the players-create-a-story model (that is, with no secrets at the table). That's just my opinion, of course.
    Let's put it like that. Secrets at the table are worse suited for creating a good narrative, because the more you know, the better you know how to do things appropriate for the narrative. Backstabbing on the player level is not designed to create a narrative, it's essentially a tactical game between the players. (It is, if you want, much more GAM than NAR). As such, it works better if taken seriously, and it more or less must have winners and losers based on specific player actions.
  • Zachary, have you read or played The Mountain Witch? There's a cool trust mechanic in it (which originated, IIRC, from someone else's idea for a heist game on the Forge, but I might be misremembering this). Players give each other trust dice that you can use to help each other, so the more you trust someone, the better your teamwork is. Thing is, you can also use those to betray that person, and the more trust you have, the more powerful your betrayal will be.

    Backstabbing without first creating some trust, it seems to me, is not really very backstabby :)
  • edited November 2011
    Thanks again for the comments fellas! Again, I can see how open-player knowledge can be fun for some groups, but believe it or not, actual player secrecy works just fine for us while maintaining a fun and light-hearted atmosphere. I mean, this is just conjecture, but I get a sense that some people feel strongly that if players are keeping secrets from each other, they therefore mustn't be able maintain a fun and zany tone. If that's not the case, I'm not sure what leads everyone to think it's so much less fun. I think that, if that's the experience you've had, then you're missing out. Perhaps it's just my particular group, but they seem to have a blast plotting against each other in secrecy. The players get an actual sense of paranoia that I don't think can be achieved by "open knowledge", while still having a buttload of funsies.

    In any case, I'd like to move on from the subject of "open player knowledge vs player secrecy" as that's not really what this topic was meant for. To clarify, there is no open player knowledge in my Paranoia game. I'm looking for suggestions on how to speed up or replace klunky note passing. It does look like I have some homework to do! So far, I need to look at Diplomacy, Skulduggery, and The Mountain Witch. Thanks for those suggestions guys! :)
  • If you want to play a game where everyone is spending a lot of time interacting directly with the GM to plot and scheme against the others, perhaps you should tech it up a bit. Have everyone bring a laptop to the table. Use chat programs or a virtual tabletop client to facilitate.

    Works particularly well with the theme of Paranoia, with the GM being The Computer.

    For anyone with half decent typing skills, sending text notes via chat is much faster than passing physical notes. And you don't have to spend as much time deciphering your friends' crappy handwriting.

    Also, in that format, you could have friends who can't show up in person play remotely.


    --

    Or, to go in a totally different direction - try larp.

    I think the larp format is better for independant, player-driven PVP play than tabletop.

    Larp lends itself very well to the "my experience of this game is uniquely driven by my own limited perspective, rather than a global audience perspective" format.
  • Aaaand long post deleted. Fucking Firefox.

    Zachary, I don't have the strength to rewrite it all. Yes, look into Diplomacy. Mountain Witch, yeah, I guess, or Cold City if you can't find a copy (though I personally found it exceedingly meh).

    Listen to Johnzo and get the BSG game. Cannot recommend it highly enough. Shadows Over Camelot too, though not to the same degree. Both use decks of cards played facedown to conceal player intent and effectiveness (up to and including strong interference) when performing actions.

    RPGs require a lot of description which, yes, ultimately has to come out at the table to be part of the game. That is currently being addressed by the notes and conferences, presumably. You need to somehow shunt that description off to the side. Lists of events that can be triggered might work, it allows players to develop their own betrayal scenarios. You can also abstract the whole thing and let the GM come up with the specifics, like betrayal points or tokens, etc.

    Are you explicitly interested only in things to help your Paranoia game, or are you looking for general techniques as well?
  • I would love to play Paranoia using Smallville or Cold City, yeah. That would rock.

    Cheers,
    Cam
  • Posted By: RobMcDiarmidIf you want to play a game where everyone is spending a lot of time interacting directly with the GM to plot and scheme against the others, perhaps you should tech it up a bit. Have everyone bring a laptop to the table. Use chat programs or a virtual tabletop client to facilitate.
    This is kinda of interesting. Like I said, some of the players actually text message me (yay free texting) to convey intentions. Laptops might work faster but I'd imagine they would clutter up the table given that we have seven players including me. I tried to get some of the guys interested in LARPing but they won't have it. Too many stereotypes against LARPers I guess (I know, sounds silly coming from a bunch of nerds playing paranoia).
    Posted By: MarhaultAaaand long post deleted. Fucking Firefox.

    Zachary, I don't have the strength to rewrite it all. Yes, look into Diplomacy. Mountain Witch, yeah, I guess, or Cold City if you can't find a copy (though I personally found it exceedingly meh).

    Listen to Johnzo and get theBSGgame.Cannot recommend it highly enough.Shadows Over Camelot too, though not to the same degree. Both use decks of cards played facedown to conceal player intent and effectiveness (up to and including strong interference) when performing actions.

    RPGs require a lot of description which, yes, ultimately has to come out at the table to be part of the game. That is currently being addressed by the notes and conferences, presumably. You need to somehow shunt that description off to the side. Lists of events that can be triggered might work, it allows players to develop their own betrayal scenarios. You can also abstract the whole thing and let the GM come up with the specifics, like betrayal points or tokens, etc.

    Are you explicitly interested only in things to help your Paranoia game, or are you looking for general techniques as well?
    I'll try to get my hands on those other games, but given my tight wallet at the moment, it might be easier said than done. If anyone would care to outline how those games handle backstabbing, I'd be much appreciative.

    I toyed with the idea of playing cards. For example, at the beginning of each scene, each player pulls a card from the deck which will represent whether or not the character will have an Opportunity to backstab (maybe face cards represent the fact that your character has an opportunity this scene to attack another character). On this same idea, if the game was limitted to four players, each suit could represent one of the four characters so the card you pull could tell you if you had an opportunity to backstab and whom you have that opportunity against. Anyone have anything to add to this concept?

    In answer to your last question, I'm looking for general techniques. I've been itching to design an indie-style paranoia-esque game that had more concrete rules for plotting and backstabbing in secret, but using our Paranoia game as a common reference point.
  • Posted By: SentientGamesThanks again for the comments fellas! Again, I can see how open-player knowledge can be fun for some groups, but believe it or not, actual player secrecy works just fine for us while maintaining a fun and light-hearted atmosphere. I mean, this is just conjecture, but I get a sense that some people feel strongly that if players are keeping secrets from each other, they therefore mustn't be able maintain a fun and zany tone. If that's not the case, I'm not sure what leads everyone to think it's so much less fun. I think that, if that's the experience you've had, then you're missing out. Perhaps it's just my particular group, but they seem to have a blast plotting against each other in secrecy. The players get an actual sense of paranoia that I don't think can be achieved by "open knowledge", while still having a buttload of funsies.

    In any case, I'd like to move on from the subject of "open player knowledge vs player secrecy" as that's not really what this topic was meant for. To clarify, there is no open player knowledge in my Paranoia game. I'm looking for suggestions on how to speed up or replace klunky note passing. It does look like I have some homework to do! So far, I need to look at Diplomacy, Skulduggery, and The Mountain Witch. Thanks for those suggestions guys! :)
    I have played Paranoia with secrets between players, and yes, it did work. I just think it'd work better without them, that's all. For instance, I played Lady Blackbird several times, and there were times when there were no secrets among players (everybody knew the captain was in love with the lady, for instance), and there were times when all character secrets were also secrets at player level. And it worked better without secrets between players, since it enabled to create a more interesting narrative.

    Anyway, I myself don't find notes to be too clunky. They also have one big advantage over the laptop system - with notes, everybody sees you passing notes, which creates tension ('What's he writing over there? What's he plotting?')
  • Battlestar Galactica rules are online here.
    Shadows rules are online here.

    They both follow the same basic pattern, one (or two) players are secretly traitors and seek to work against the rest, who are co-operating against the game's automated adversity setup. Traitors undermine in secret, subtly playing sub-optimally, subtly arguing for sub-optimal play, sewing dissent, etc. BSG gives you a special power to reveal yourself and do a one-time whammy on the humans. In Shadows you can only be revealed by an accusation from one of the other players, which is risky for them.

    Both involve group actions that you can secretly sabotage. Both use cards as the primary mechanical interaction which are usually played face down to conceal whether or not you're sabotaging.
  • Thanks very much Marhault! I'm intrigued by how the cards work to facilitate subterfuge. I think a set of specialized cards that can be passed back and forth between players and the GM might be the method I'm looking for. I could create "sabotage cards" to represent different styles of backstabbing to speed up gameplay and the GM's job would be to interprett these backstab styles into the current situation of the story. I'm going to expirment with this over the next few weeks and see what I can come up with.
  • Let me know what you come up with, Zachary! For the record, something akin to BSG's skill checks would be trivially easy to accomplish with a standard deck of playing cards.
  • Would it be possible to play Paranoia using the game rules from Mountain Witch? (i.e. reskinning the Mountain Witch into the Paranoia setting)
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