Let’s Play Chrono Cross: Back Through the Looking Glass

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Alternative Party Structures

The overwhelming majority of tabletop RPGs rely on the same basic party paradigm that’s been with us since the hobby was some house rules for Chainmail: Three to seven dudes with varying skills work together to accomplish some shared goal. Even if the goal is something mercenary, like amassing wealth, it’s a conceit of the game that the party will work together rather than double-crossing each other for a bigger share, and the game goes very poorly if that conceit is ignored[1]. Even if one person is very noble and idealistic and another is very mercenary and cynical, it’s assumed that this is going to be a buddy cop story where the two overcome their differences and learn to work together (and also there’s a third guy, but he doesn’t roleplay so much, mostly just swings his sword at the orcs).

There’s a reason that’s the norm and it’s a good one, it’s hard to mess that up. Everyone is on the same team, no one has any reason to get in anyone else’s way. There’s alternative party structures, though, ones so rare that they can be referred to by the name of the game that created them, because they have never been reused. You might think that this is because they are evolutionary dead ends, but I don’t think that’s accurate. These alternative party structures are interesting and refreshing and while I doubt that they’ll eclipse the original D&D structure for me, there are many games that seem eminently better suited to some other kind of party structure, but which use the classic D&D instead, just on pure momentum, I guess.

The first party structure is what I’m going to call the Paranoia Party, although in this case there is another game that tried the same basic concept, which is good, because it helps shed Paranoia’s party structure from all of its other quirks (Paranoia has a lot of innovative ideas going on, and a lot of it doesn’t really work well for anything else but a dark comedy about dystopias run by paranoid AI that may or may not be a commentary on megalomaniac GMs). That game is Great Ork Gods, and while I think the rules on that game are tragically too sparse to be interesting for longer than one session, I love its more pure and undistracted development of the Paranoia Party.

In a Paranoia Party, the party as a whole has a single goal, but players are competing with one another to accomplish that goal. In Paranoia, the goal is to accomplish whatever mission the party has been given, but you compete with other players to take credit for all successes and deflect blame for all failures. The easiest way to do this is to be the only survivor of the mission, so no one will be around to contradict your story at the debriefing. What makes this tricky is that everyone has six clones, so you either have to kill everyone else juuust before the debriefing, so that their replacements arrive after it’s over and just in time to be executed for treason, or else you just have to kill all of your party members six times. In Great Ork Gods, the goal is to come out the end of an adventure with the most glory (called Oog in the game, for some reason) by killing powerful foes, accomplishing specific objectives of your troll overlord (or whoever’s in charge), and there is a pool of glory for surviving to the end of the session that’s split between any player who didn’t ever have their ork killed and replaced. If you die, you generate a whole new orc with his glory set to the minimum standard of 1 (or 2 if you pick a name that offends the gods – this isn’t always wise).

Both Paranoia and Great Ork Gods have a sort of Fate point, but which can only be used to hinder another player’s rolls, not improve your own. In Paranoia XP, these are called Perversity Points[2], and in Great Ork Gods it’s called Spite. We’re going with Spite because it’s easier and communicates the idea. Spite is the main tool that can be used to prevent a clear leader, someone who has more glory or who’s lost fewer clones than everyone else, from staying in the lead indefinitely. Like being the most powerful person on the board in Risk, it’s actually the most dangerous place to be because you’re the most likely target of an alliance.

Great Ork Gods refines this concept with an innovation Paranoia doesn’t have. In Great Ork Gods, the GM decides which of seven skills is appropriate to roll in any given situation like normal, but he doesn’t set the difficulty. Instead, the player who’s been assigned to the relevant ork god assigns a difficulty of easy, medium, or hard. If they’re using a skill governed by their own god, the difficulty is easy automatically (though it can be modified if other players spend Spite). Why would anyone set the difficulty to anything but Hard for a rival ork, though? Because if an ork succeeds at a skill check governed by a god assigned to another player, that other player gains Spite. This leads to Mario Kart balancing. Players in a weak position are given easy difficulties because it lets other players build up Spite without empowering a more threatening rival, and then they turn around and spend that Spite to jack up the difficulty of the lead player’s skill checks, even when it’s for one of the lead player’s own gods. Someone who’s just had his ork killed and lost all his glory will get a bunch of Bullet Bill and Starman power ups, and someone who’s about to soak up the entire survivor glory pool because he’s the only one who hasn’t died at least once is going to get sniped by a blue shell.

You don’t have to chew up the GM’s role in the game to do this (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). You could have every player have a pool of, say, five Fate points, three curses and two blessings. Every time you spend a curse to harm another player, you flip it over to get a blessing. Every time you bless another player’s roll, you flip it over to get a curse. You can only bless people’s rolls in certain situations, with different players having different portfolios just like the ork gods, but you can curse whenever you want. This encourages players to bless every single roll made in their portfolio by a weak player, in order to build up a reserve of curses so that they won’t run out at a critical moment and possibly be forced to bless more powerful rivals to replenish their supply.

A game that this isn’t used for but would benefit from it is Vampire: the Masquerade. Although direct PvP murder should not be such a prominent feature as it is in Great Ork Gods or especially Paranoia, the idea of competing for the favor of your sire or the prince or whoever (and you could set up a campaign structure that starts with neonates answering to their sire and has them outgrow him only to find themselves caught in a near-identical relationship with a primogen, and then a prince, and then a justiciar) is extremely evocative of the backstabbing intrigue that vampires get up to. If you don’t succeed in your task, the best you can do is try and deflect blame onto your allies, but at the same time you must sabotage your vampiric siblings to stop them from stealing all the glory, and you may have secret missions given you by other factions within the city’s kindred population, missions which may contradict your siblings’ own secret missions or even your primary objective, and then you might have some scheme of your own brewing on top of all that.

The second alternate party structure I want to talk about is the Ars Magica Party. In Ars Magica, everyone plays a wizard. You do not, however, spend very much time in a party together. Instead, each wizard has his own wizard monastery and his own set of non-magical grunts who are not nearly as cool as him. The wizards might work together to some ultimate goal, like defeating a common enemy or completing some kind of megaproject, but they don’t spend a whole lot of time actually in the same room as one another and wizards will probably spend a lot of time pursuing their personal projects, perhaps even to the total exclusion of whatever the common goal is supposed to be. Wizards don’t compete against one another, but they don’t have to be team players, either.

The way this works is that players take turns playing their wizard, and while one person is playing their wizard, everyone else plays a grog in that wizard’s retinue. A grog is a muggle, and their muggle skills pale in comparison to the power commanded by the wizard. Grogs are expendable, if one dies, an NPC from the monastery is promoted to replace them. Your real character is your wizard, and all the grogs you play are just giving you something to do while you wait for your turn.

The obvious downside to this is that you have to be willing to be patient. In a group of four players, you have to be willing to play three hours of a four hour session as underpowered cannon fodder, although on the flip side you also get to spend one hour having other players be your underpowered cannon fodder. The less often you play, the worse this deal is going to be. If you play three times a week, it’s not as big an imposition to spend less time as your wizard than if you play once a month.

It has a lot of advantages, though. Firstly, it’s the only way to properly represent a party whose schtick is that each member wields significant authority. Having tokens on the battlemap who are your minions is not significantly different from having tokens on the battlemap who are the minions of a king, to whom you are also a minion. Spending five minutes on some guild management mini-game isn’t that different from just allocating XP. They’re perfectly acceptable compromises for a classic party, but the advantage of the Ars Magica party is that when the GM says “Rakthar the Vermillion, it’s the beginning of autumn and you’re in your monastery, what do you do,” your response can be “organize an expedition to the Elemental Plane of Fire to retrieve fire mana with which to forge a flametongue” and then you have an actual adventure where you go and do that with your minions, the other players. For however long your turn lasts, you are actually in charge, and when your turn is over, your party isn’t handed over for someone else to completely change course, you go play as a minion in someone else’s party. Your party will be exactly where you left it when you get back to it, and you can keep doing whatever you want with it.

The main thing that Ars Magica lacks is some means of advancing your wizard’s agenda while playing a grog without having every grog you play be a sleeper agent for your wizard. This could be solved by allowing players to accumulate some kind of abstract resource as grogs, like Fate, which they can then spend as their wizard as a free bonus or rerolls on skill checks or for more of some kind of “concentration” resource spent on magical experiments and item creation and the like in their monastery. I’m undecided whether it would be better to have the wizard assign Fate to his grogs from some kind of limited pool or to have the GM do it. If the former, probably for the best to have the amount of Fate available for each wizard to hand out be almost, but not quite, equal to the number of grogs, so that it can’t just be distributed evenly (otherwise there will be lots of social pressure to do just that, which defeats the point), and also it should definitely not be the same pool of Fate that they have to spend from their own grog work.

This is another party structure that Vampire: the Masquerade would benefit from. Playing now as older and more powerful vampires, you switch off between playing as a powerful sire with childer of your own and playing as the childe of another player (perhaps playing in the Paranoia paradigm, where you receive Fate only if you win more favor from your sire than any other (surviving) childe).

Holy Hercules that sounds amazing. One second, I’m gonna go tinker with this.

[1]Usually. Sometimes it works out and it’s awesome, but that’s dangerous and should only be left to trained professionals. Don’t try this at home, kids.

[2]I don’t know much about other versions of the game, except that Paranoia 5th edition doesn’t exist.

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