In an offhanded comment in Changeling vs Vampire I pointed out how while both titles highlighted shadowy political machinations in the text, the presented rules did not actually support play involving that content. Most of the World of Darkness line talks big about politics and pulling strings from the shadows, but in actual play, this usually just turns into character and setting color. Players get to feel good because they get to say, "I'm a Reformist! That means I'm not a stuffy Traditionalist!" Generally this is followed up by working for the Duke without question, and me shooting myself in the head. Now, if I wanted to rip out all the stuff that I liked about the setting of those games -- shadowy conspiracies of demihumans lurking in the shadows of the modern world -- and create a system to support the political and conspiracy play, how might I go about doing that?
Relationships, Power, and Need
the Other and Transformation
Facades, Shame, and Fear
Let's boil the concept down to three elements: politics, fantasy, and secrecy. Politics is all about relationships, power, and needs. Fantasy is all about encountering the Other and transformation. Secrecy is about facades, shameful truths, and fear. Connecting these, we get... the Other, behind facades, exercise power through relationships to feed their shameful needs, fearful of what happens if they're found out. I'm missing transformation, though, which should permeate the entire thing. Yes, this sounds exactly like what lots of the World of Darkness was trying to be. But it also falls into the same trap as the WoD: these aren't protagonists. No, I don't mean good guys, I mean proactive characters. These guys are parasites, clinging to the underside of the world, purely reactive. Their goal is nothing constructive, it's mere survival, a continuation of the status quo. Not people I'd be too interested in playing. You know what this needs? This needs T. S. Eliot. The only way that the Other will be able to step out of the shadows is to transform their world, but they fear that transformation as much as they fear the vengeance of humanity. So the concept becomes: the Other, behind facades, exercise power through relationships to feed their shameful needs, as fearful of the vengeance of humanity as they are of transforming their world. What we have here is the first answer to the Big Three: this is what the game is "about".
What about the characters and players, though? The characters, obviously, are individuals from the ranks of the Others that are caught up in the transformation of the world that they both fear and need. Some might work towards transforming the world; others work against it. They do so by exercising that power through facades and relationships, careful not to upset the status quo too much too fast for fear of inciting the vengeance of humanity. Of course, all of their actions require that all-important need, and that need is dependent on the human society that they lurk within.
The original novelty of the World of Darkness line was its inversion of the encounter with the Other. Instead of being the vulnerable female protagonist encountering the terrible vampire, you were the vampire out to encounter your prey. Instead of being the knight lost in the land of faerie, you were the faerie lost in the real world. Let's see if we can invert that back, but by doing so invert some other intrinsic bits of gaming culture. Let's start with a protagonist -- the Chosen One -- on a 3x5 card placed in the middle of the table. She's nobody's PC, but she's the main character. She is somehow essential to the transformation of the world -- good or bad. Each player starts with a 3x5 card in front of them, for their shadowy conspiratorial transformed character. Because they're a shadowy conspirator, though, the card starts out blank.
The players jockey their resources (power, facades, relationships) in order to carefully transform the fictional world towards their goal. The system will need to support and encourage the players actively shaping their environment -- oh look, situation again -- but make sure that they do it subtly. If they make too many obvious moves, humanity exacts vengeance. Perhaps every action increases tension, and if tension hits some threshold, badness happens -- think the Black Ship in Catan. The Badness should not be a game-stopping event, and in fact I'd suggest that it should happen at least once in every game, knocking out some but not all player authority tools and changing the situation. There also needs to be a determination of how much transformation is 'enough' and the Others can live at peace, perhaps without need -- in other words, the situation is resolved. Throw in some "pulling strings" system-color and I actually think the Stitch-a-Sitch idea from my prior article could be well-suited.
Let's assume at least for now that players frame scenes and do a variant of the reveal-and-address elements of the situation that I outlined in that article. Everything that gets introduced into the situation gets based off of the protagonist in the middle of the table, slowly working out from her. Since the Chosen One is somehow the key to transforming the world, each player wants to weave the web of the situation back to their conspirator, which gives them more power over the situation, so they can effect the transformation they want, or squelch it before it destroys their precious status quo.
Players by default have relatively weak power over the situation by "pulling strings," but can greatly increase that power by revealing and working through one of their conspirator's facades, which allows them to take a little more control over developing events. So if I want there to be an art gallery party with a new collection to display, I introduce my conspirator's facade as the art gallery's owner, hosting the event. I imagine each Other has a limited number of facades -- say three -- that start out blank and can be defined as play progresses. The Badness created by tension thresholds might lose players facades.
Each player also has a pool of resources -- call 'em Influence Chips for now -- that they expend in order to perform actions to shift elements of the situation. Spend a chip to add characterization to an established element, spend three chips to introduce a new element, that sort of thing. Thing is, the only way that you can refresh your Influence is to feed your need, and feeding your need always creates tension, whether it's drinking blood, haunting dreams, or manipulating the stock market (Vampire, Wraith, Technocrat, for those keeping score). Feeding your need always impacts the situation -- it must be a reveal or an address -- which means that the Chosen One might track it back to you.
Conspirators (and perhaps all Situation elements) have an arbitrary number of 'slots' for characterization -- let's say three -- and players will want to keep theirs blank for as long as possible, remaining in the shadows. Other players will want to fill in your slots, revealing elements of your conspirator, and eventually exposing them. In other words, you start out the game not knowing what your conspirator's true nature is -- are they a hungry ghost, a vampire lich, a dark faerie lord, a grey from beyond the stars? -- and through the course of the game the other players will be striving to shift the situation in such a way that lets them characterize your conspirator. Once all three of your characterization slots are defined, you are "exposed" -- I imagine this means you can no longer use your facades, but have some potent personal abilities and a heavy turn-by-turn drain on resources (which you can then replenish, ratcheting tension). Needless to say, since the Chosen One is the main character, characterization of the conspirator always happens when the Chosen One finds out something about you. All the players around the table, then, will be motivated to make the Chosen One curious, prodding her with mysterious deaths and kidnapped friends, in the hopes of directing that curiousity at their opponents.
Which is nice and all, but I'm still groping after the end game or goal, the determination of how the world gets transformed and the situation resolves. I mean, I could totally bail out and do it the cowardly way, saying that, for instance, the last unexposed conspirator gets to narrate the end of the world / preservation of the status quo. Alternately, I could introduce some sort of investment mechanic where players flag certain elements in the situation as "significant" and if/when they all get connected (via relationships) to the Chosen One, the apocalypse occurs and the world is transformed. Facades are already in play as elements and carry some player investment; perhaps any need-feeding flags the involved elements as significant. The only thing missing from that is an incentive for the players to ever forge those relationships -- perhaps whoever has the most Facades/Influence/Points/Whatever survives the transformation, and the others don't. If it's a threshold, it would be possible for two players to win and the others to lose, or even everybody to survive the world-transformation, for that matter (the "Super Happy Ending").
There are lots more specifics to be hashed out and I suspect such a game would need some terrifically complex balancing of the mechanics to not spin out of control too easily. However, so far I've got hiding in the shadows, backstabbing, encounters with the Other, pulling strings, and dark secrets. I think they're even supported by the system rather than suggested by the color. Now I suppose it's time to put this on 'simmer' for a while and see if it fades away as a diverting thought experiment or sticks around as a project worth spending some real development time on.