Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dissecting Psi*Run

Psi*Run is a great little pick-up game that requires no prep work from the GM (other than printing 2N+1 single page documents for the group of N participants to reference mid-game). The PCs have partial amnesia, mysterious powers, and are being pursued. That’s it. Everything else is determined by the players during the game. I do mean players, because, (like Urchin) it’s a game that intentionally takes some of the power usually reserved for GMs and distributes it around the table.

It's a game about an extended chase. You could use the system to tell tales along the lines of Bourne Identity, Logan’s Run, or The Terminator, anything where pursuit is a huge part of the plot. In practice (because there’s no default setting, it’s all improvised, and relies on collaborative story telling) I find you tend to get things more like a gonzo, trippy, four-color version of the X-files. A wild ride, to be sure. The mechanics push you towards this sort of story, with flashy misfiring powers going haywire in nearly every scene.

It’s mostly awesome, but sometimes strains disbelief or kinda fails to come together in the third act. There’s a couple of recurring pitfalls inherent to the system, stemming from the odd mechanical structure and the lack of a single guiding hand at the narrative wheel.  Here’s the problems as I see them:
  • Powers cannot be subtle.
  • The 2nd Act Slump.
  • Die-assignment paralysis.
  • Passive GMing.
Nothing that can’t be overcome with a bit of forethought, but I’d like to discuss them here to aid anyone who’s looking to run the game in the future. The solutions are for the most part fast and easy, and I really like the game overall.

Powers Cannot Stay Subtle.

The most common Psi*Run problem is thankfully a minor one. Despite not being a huge issue, it has come up in at least 4 of the 5 sessions I’ve run, so it deserves some attention. I’m talking about the problem of low-key, non-threatening, and/or passive powers. When someone’s making their Psi*Run character, sometimes they’ll describe a power that doesn’t do much, or shouldn’t realistically endanger anyone, or (going the other direction) is just one giant enigma beyond their faintest understanding.

If the power doesn’t do much, or is _completely_ outside the PC’s control, then they won’t get to roll as many dice and won’t have as much of the spotlight. That part of it is a self-correcting problem, in that most players will quickly figure out that they’ve got to start triggering their own ability… but once you’ve started arbitrarily dictating that your power “randomly” kicks on in the middle of actions, you tend to use it in every single action. “All the time” is better than “none of the time”, but either is missing out on some of the depth of the system. A player who chooses “none of the time” is basically choosing to have a boring game, and missing out on at least half the fun of the setting. Don’t let them do that, GM.  Encourage them to take a more active power, and tell them that the game will run better for everyone if they do.

A related problem (really the second half of the first problem) is what happens when you have one of these low-key or passive powers, and then proceed to assign a “1” die to the Psi category during play. When the dice are arranged in that way, it’s supposed to be lethal and destructive on a grand “would make national news” style. Every single power has the potential to go horribly awry. In recent memory, I’ve seen this happen with powers like “my hands glow different colors” or “I have a 12-foot tongue”. How do those kill dozens? As a GM, I’m willing to roll with it and narrate a crazy overblown moment. Turns out your glowing hands are just the warning lights of a much more deadly power, or your prehensile tongue doesn’t know it’s own (super)strength. Oopsie!

The problem here is that the player may actually want to play someone with subtle low-key powers. If so, they need to never put anything less than a 3 in “Psi” so that nothing over-the-top gets narrated… and that’s really hard to pull off for an entire session unless you’re willing to let something else horrible happen (or willing to never succeed at your goals and never regain lost memories). Player, it’s on you. If you want a subtle power, you just have to accept that the story is going to get dark in other ways. You’re going to fail and you’re going to get hurt, because you don’t have “Psi” available as a place to dump your lowest dice. Subtle powers either become outrageous over time, or they successfully remain understated while everything else bad happens to you all at once. There’s really no other alternatives (unless the dice are abnormally kind). The GM should mention this early on, preferably during character creation, so there’s no unpleasant surprises during play.

The 2nd Act Slump.

The other major problem the game sometimes runs into is a 2nd or 3rd Act slump. The first Act always opens up strong, with character introductions amidst a flaming wreck, and mysterious pursuers right behind you. There’s built in dramatic tension, and we’re all still experimenting with the mechanics, so that first part is golden. Sometimes (2 out of the 5 Psi*Run one-shots I’ve done) the players will, instead of experimenting, just click on the supposed “optimal” plays or get freakishly good rolls. Some people always play to win, even if it’s an RPG.

If you’ve always got 5’s and 6’s to stick in “Harm”, “Chase”, and “Goal”, the PCs can quickly shoot out to 5 or more locations ahead of the chasers. At that point the dramatic tension diminishes significantly. The notecard system clearly tells us exactly where the conspiracy has gotten to, and with no injured characters your dice will probably continue to extend the lead, so things kinda slow down. The players spend a ton of time discussing options at this stage, which is sad because it’s not really a game with a “right answer”.  If there's anything that can ruin a game of Psi*Run, it's the second act slump, but in practice I find even the slumpy games have such good starts that you don't regret playing at all.

There’s three ways to get out of this slump, should it happen during your game.
  • Player “sabotage”
  • Remote villainy
  • Cheating the chase tokens

Player "Sabotage"

The best way is for a player to ‘intentionally sabotage’ the PC’s progress, by sticking low numbers in “harm” or “psi”. The GM has less power in this system than most, so it’s hard for them to create tension or steer the plotline. Players, by putting their dice in “sub-optimal” parts of the resolution sheet, can rapidly change the tone of the game. As a player, if you feel things are starting to slow down, you should grab the reigns, and intentionally screw up. It will rescue a game that’s starting to get away from the GM.

Even if the game has given no indication that things are going wrong, it can be very helpful (to the narrative) if someone purposefully fails or causes trouble from time to time. It helps keep the game tense, and sometimes amazing scenes develop from it.

Remote Villainy

The second best option is for the GM to introduce a subplot about the Pursuers conducting some act of evil at an off-site location. Give the PCs a reason to leave the safehouse they found, and start heading towards an enemy stronghold. If anyone’s Questions implied a friendly NPC is out there, put that NPC in danger. If not, then think big, and engineer things so that the PCs are the only ones who know about the villain’s planned coup or terrorism. If they do dive into the heart of evil, the lack of tension from having such a huge lead on the Chasers may make it anti-climactic, but at least with them rolling dice there’s a chance things will go south. It only takes one bad die roll to suddenly make the game interesting again.

Getting the reaction you want is hard when you’ve got limited narrative windows, and an inability to dictate the danger level. The PCs might call your bluff, and there’s really no consequence if they do so. The Crossroads system in the end game will usually let them hand-wave a solution to your impending apocalypse even if they ignored it all session. GM, don’t restrict yourself to only in-character motivations. Tell the players “I think we’ll probably have a more enjoyable session if you put yourselves back into dangerous situations.” You’ve escaped, caught your breath, and time has gone by. What would your favorite movie heroes do next? Vengeance? Justice? Infiltration? Pick one and do it.

Cheat It

The third option is untested (by me, anyway). That would be to just cheat the chase tokens. There’s no official mechanism by which the GM can ever control the rate of the pursuer’s advance. Officially, the players set the bad guys pacing, and their location on your trail is public knowledge. You really couldn’t get away with suddenly moving the pursuit token 3 or 4 spaces along the trail just to make the game interesting again. Doing so would break the rules, and more importantly it would make the players feel like their previous decisions (about where to go and what dice to assign to various boxes) were meaningless.

What you could do without breaking immersion or rules, is just decouple the Pursuit token from the narration. The Chasers are officially 5 spaces behind you, but that just means the bulk of their forces (enough to turn “Chase” into “Capture”) are trailing that far back. Instead, you introduce scouts or advance units that are much closer. They can’t capture any one, but they provide immediate danger (forcing players to add the “harm” die to every roll) and keep the plot rolling. This still runs a tiny risk of generalized “our actions were meaningless” perception, but certainly less of it would come from arbitrarily moving the markers around. Again, the players could call your bluff and just ignore the scouts with only minimal consequence. As with the “Remote Villainy” option, you may have to get a little meta and ask the players to please try to work with the plot, since they’ve already proven they can beat the mechanics.

Die-Assignment Paralysis.

I’ve noticed that some players take a lot of time agonizing over which dice to assign to which box on the resolution sheet. Sometimes, it feels like the only way to get exactly the result you want is to run a dozen different ordering around in your head and compare them. I understand that, and am known for a bit of analysis paralysis myself in other games. In practice, though, agonizing over the dice in Psi*Run does you no good. It just slows things down for everyone. Also, I find that every time someone has spent a lot of time and energy moving the dice around, they _always_ screw up who gets first say on at least one of the dice. Which means that the thing you just spent 5 minutes silently envisioning won’t actually play out at all like what you pictured.

My advice is to move those dice around fast and not worry too much about the exact numbers.
  1. What’s the most important thing you wanted to accomplish with this roll? It’s usually going to be Goal or Chase/Capture/Disappear, (but sometimes it will be Reveal or Harm instead in certain circumstances) and you’ll generally know which one before you’ve rolled the dice. Slide your highest die onto that first. If nothing calls out to you, just move on to the next step.
  2. Next, look for the 1’s in your remaining dice. You get to ignore one of them (unless you’re impaired) so just set it aside. If there’s any 1’s left over, put them somewhere other than Harm or Chase/Capture/Disappear; most people find that Psi or Reveal is a good sink for that. 
  3. The remaining dice can pretty much be put anywhere and you’ll be equally happy most of the time, so I recommend just move each of them to the box nearest where that die stopped. It’s quick and easy.

A little less than half the dice in the game won’t actually affect the narration at all, so don't sweat it. No matter where you put dice, you will eventually experience a roll where some else getting first say on a single die completely derails what you were trying to do. That’s okay. The game is actually at its best when the unexpected is suddenly happening out of nowhere. Don’t overthink it, just play the dice where they lay. The only thing you’ll ever actually regret is if you put a “1” in the wrong place at the wrong time, so if you get your ones solved the rest can be arbitrary.

Passive GMing.

This is the most minor of the flaws to this game, but I don’t really have a good solution for it. Passive GMing might not be the right word, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it “GM’s feeling of powerlessness”. It's not that you can't or don't do anything as GM, it just feels like that's the case.

Like Urchin, the GM in Psi*Run has very little narrative power. You get to set up the original crash, and cobble together your badguys from the things implied by the PC’s descriptions and Questions. After the game starts, you’re down to just narrating side effects and the degree of success, with the occasional physical description thrown in for flavor. If you try to force a plot, the players will ignore it.  If you try to establish background detail, the players will contradict it when they answer Questions.

If you’re the GM who loves to run taut mysteries or large casts of NPCs, Psi*Run will seem like you don’t have enough to do. If you’re the sort of person who loves GMing more than Playing, Psi*Run is going to feel weird to you. If you’re the inverse - a person who would rather Play than GM, or who likes describing combat scenes colorfully but is intimidated by the idea of generating entire plots - then Psi*Run is right up your alley as a game to break out whenever it’s your turn to provide the evening’s entertainment.

The hardest part of being the Psi*Run GM is choking back the answers you want to give to everyone’s Questions. Only players answer Questions, so the GM never gets a say in anyone’s backstory or mysteries.  I’ve considered changing the “Reveal” box so a 3 result lets the GM answer a Question, but I think that would speed up the game too much for long-term play. For a one-shot it’d probably be fine, you’d use 5 or 6 Questions per player instead of the truncated 4 per player currently recommended for Con games. Perhaps more interesting would be to use the “1” result not the “3” for GM reveals, but in the process encourage the GM to narrate the most punishing Answer they can dream up when those 1s do happen. That would make Reveal much less of a safe die sink, and I haven’t played around with it enough to know if that’s a good or a bad idea. Next time, I guess.

Despite That, It's A Really Good Game

These are small problems with wordy solutions, but not much needed in terms of house-rules. I've run the game 5 times total, with 3 of them being brilliant and the other 2 hitting the second act slump mentioned above but still being mostly solid. It's an easy game to run when you don't have time to prep something more involved, and it's a great icebreaker game for conventions or strangers.

Psi*Run. It's cheap. It's easy. It's fun. Check it out. Link to publisher.


Manu Saxena said...

Great review! I've wondered myself about setting a maximum of spaces the Chasers can fall behind, so the players always have to worry about them at least a bit.

Also, I played a game once where we alternated being GM, and that actually worked pretty well. said...

I've played this game three times so far and we've always had a great time. The first time, my character had lightning powers and did massive damage when his power went out of control.

The second game I was playing a speedster. At least once or twice his power went out of control and he hit Mach One on the ground and promptly ran into a tree! That second game was over two sessions online.

I didn't notice a 2nd act slump in either game, as we were pushing it every step of the way. The pursuers were always one or two steps behind us in both games, and the GM introduced a second set of chasers when we split the group. Since we were going in "table order", no one got to sit and wait till they had a chance to do something.

I really like this game, and I should read up more on how to run it, instead of playing it.

zircher said...

The key to GM success is to keep the roller coaster moving, increase the number of chasers and mention their activity even when they don't advance, introduce mysteries as the players advance, throw in regular folk (NPCs) to interact with the runners.

Favorite psi-backlash for a minor power... exploding monkeys while you're inside their heads. :-)