Game design: Pheno Freeform — The Nebari Who Sold The World

I originally posted this on facebook, but figured it might have more longevity here, so am reposting, with a few edits.

People were interested in Pheno game design posts a while back. I didn’t feel like sharing my process for my Farscape freeform while it was still under construction, but I’m happy to share it now along with some thoughts about how it worked.

Generally my design philosophy is that the game should be all interaction between the players with minimal gamemaster (GM) intervention needed. All the things the characters want should reside with other player characters and the player shouldn’t need to go outside the game space to accomplish their goals. Basically this is because I personally hate waiting around for a GM and then standing about while the GM narrates a scene that would have been better executed in a tabletop game. Obviously this philosophy lends itself well to trading and political larps/freeforms, less well to investigative or heavily story based larps/freeforms.

Structure

I pretty much followed my usual process, with a few tweaks which I think had some interesting results. First up I worked out the central conceit of my game (a rogue Nebari was selling off Nebari weapons secrets to the other factions who would try to outbid each other for them).

I also spent a bit of time thinking about the themes and plot elements I wanted to include.

I decided how many groups/factions I wanted and how many people should be in each faction. I played around with numbers a bit here. Usually I find a 5x5 game works really well, but it wouldn’t sit as nicely with my isolated Nebari in the middle. Groups with five characters also tend to be large enough to have intra-group conflict, and I didn’t want that for this game. I wanted to stick to groups of three or so trusted allies so groups could work effectively together to achieve their goal rather than be consumed with infighting and suspicion. I played around with different combinations for quite a while before I ended up going with eight groups of three. I also gave my central Nebari character a support crew making his a group of four, giving me 28 characters across nine groups all up.

At this point I generally use index cards to start building characters. You can see each of the characters, grouped by faction, in the early design phase in the picture above. The top three rows are the powerful Peacekeeper and Scarran factions, the bottom three rows are the less powerful rebel and pirate groups, the Nebari group is spread across the middle.

I refined my plot elements at this stage too. You can see each of them on a card in the right hand column in the picture. This was a new step for my process. I’d noticed that a lot of my games seemed to be a little too light on for plot. They often suffered from having multiple observable lulls that needed GM intervention to get the game going again. I had hoped that by adding in a few additional plots the game might not suffer from these lulls. I ended up narrowing the plot elements down to about four fairly simple concepts (trading for the Nebari superweapon, spreading the Nebari STD, the fight for independence, and a bounty on the rogue Nebari).

Relationships

I’d already decided that characters would be friendly and loyal to characters in their own faction, so then I just needed to add inter-faction relationships. I opted for one positive and one negative inter-faction relationship for each character in the main eight different faction groups. Then I added an additional positive and negative relationship for each of the rogue Nebari group characters. I generally had the Nebari’s positive relationships with the less powerful rebel groups and the negative relationships with the more powerful Peacekeeper and Scarran groups. I meddled with this a little bit to try to also make sure I had characters that would draw each group into each of my plot elements (since at this point it was already becoming clear that some characters would be heavily involved in some plots).

Goals

Each faction had an overall goal, driven by the faction leader, but each character also had at least one personal goal. I usually framed these around the relationships that I already had, but also used them to draw in plot elements until each group had a possible tie in to each plot.

Powers and tradeables

I gave each character something they could trade or something they could do that might be useful to either the rogue Nebari or another group. I ended up putting these on additional index cards so I could move them around to make sure no group had a power or item that would satisfy their own goals instantly. Where possible I tried to make sure people couldn’t just go to one of their immediate allies to get their needs met either. You can see how I played around with these in the picture below.

This picture also shows more of the notes I’d made on the character cards at this point about relationships, plots, goals and other interesting character notes I jotted down as I thought of them.

Putting flesh on the bones

Once I had all that settled I started to write up sheets. Nominally writing sheets from this point is just putting flesh on the bones and adding flavour text, but a few things were further tweaked and refined through that process as well.

I made a few further refinements through editing and, interestingly, as people selected characters. I’d not given the characters genders to start with and mostly gave them genders as I was writing them. I initially wanted to make all the group leaders female and all their subordinates male (giving me a gender balance that would roughly reflect my expected player base). But with only two exceptions women didn’t pick the leadership characters unless prompted by someone else, so I had to change a lot of character genders as people nominated characters. This resulted in a few interesting character implications.

For example, I’d written one character as a bit of a ladies man whose friends were hoping he’d grow out of that phase eventually. He’d also been exposed to the Nebari STD. When that character ended up being played as female, I worried that it risked coming across as slut shaming or the plot punishing the character for her promiscuity by giving her the STD. Thankfully the players involved were pretty responsible with it once I mentioned my concerns.

The result

Generally I’d say the game ran pretty well. There were a few elements that maybe didn’t work as well as I’d like. Some of my abilities had a few unexpected effects that became frustrating for the players involved. Usually I try to get a group together to read through sheets and play around with powers and goals a bit to catch things like that, but I didn’t get time for this game.

I also didn’t get time to improve the formatting of the character sheets. Since I wanted to provide enough information for people who might not be very familiar with Farscape to play, the sheets ended up being quite long (two pretty dense pages for most characters, three or more for a couple of characters). With so many relationships and other information to convey, better formatting and layout would have probably helped, but after a great early start I ended up running out of time for this.

Having additional plots, and more positive relationships than I normally have, definitely made the game run faster. The game had one barely perceptible lull about halfway through, more of a pause to catch breath really, and quickly spiraled into a chaotic and decidedly manic climax. This might also have been influenced by the slightly manic tone that Farscape itself has. While the manic pace was effective for a Farscape game, I think I’d want to tone it back a bit for future games. I suspect I could do that either by having fewer positive relationships (since I’ve noticed that positive relationships generally help people do things, while negative ones often make them act more cautiously) or one or two fewer plot elements. Or I could try siloing some of the plots rather than having them spread across all groups.

If you played my game I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.