Friday, August 7, 2009

Earning Mission Points in Wilderness of Mirrors

On paper, mission points are the main tool and resource of the players in a game of Wilderness of Mirrors. The first time I GM'd the game, however, they failed to provide the expected dramatic tension, and weren't even a meaningful form of resource allocation. The PCs had far too many Mission Points for them to carry any weight or meaning.

This is bad, as one of the ways the game achieves the "you don't know who to trust" element of the spy genre is by giving out "Trust Points" when PCs betray each other or narrate in events that hose the group. But if you're sitting on a pile of 12 Mission Points and have only been using about 2 per hour of play, you're really not motivated to do anything underhanded to add Trust Points (which, other than how they're gained, work just like Mission Points) to your collection.
It's worth noting that I did not play using "Solution #1" from the rule book. It strikes me as much harder on the players. It may turn out you're just fine handing out tons of Mission points if using that mechanic. Eyeballing it, it seems like too harsh a correction to me. After 2 hours of play, the difficulty needed to earn basic narration rights for a PC would be a 41 (instead of 11), and that's pretty brutal. In the final scenes of 4-hour session, the PCs would need to roll a 65 to even get a veto/ammendment option.

So, the rest of this post assumes you, like me, are not using "Solution #1", and are instead using solutions 2 or 3, or some similar variant of your own devising.
It feels to me that the number of Mission Points needs to be curtailed a bit. Of particular concern are Mission Points gained by flavorful embellishing details, and Mission Points gained by details that help the Party succeed at it's mission. The goal is to reduce the former and all-but prevent the later.

House Rule regarding how Mission Points are earned:
At the start of the planning stage, the GM sets aside X # of Mission Points, under the name "Style Points". X is usually 3, but if there's fewer than 4 players, X is one less than the number of players (minimum of 1). These X Style Points are for flavor, in-genre tropishness, awesome ideas, etc. Whoever comes up with the coolest idea during Planning gets all 3 points, but if the GM's having a hard time deciding, he can split them between 2 or 3 players. Style Points go directly to the pool of the player who won them, they don't get split up by the Saturn. In all other ways, they work just like Mission Points.

Actual Mission Points then are handed out only for details that provide challenges to the team. On the map or plan that the team is drawing up, anyone may designate a detail to be a challenge. They describe the challenge, and list 2 of the 5 attributes - those are the only two attributes that can be used on that challenge. This gets written on the plan, and is then worth one Mission Point. This might not seem like much of a bonus, but there's nothing stopping players from putting in additional challenges beyond what they expect to deal with. For example, if there's two entrances to the building, one might have a guard post (takes Mercury or Mars to get past) and the other has a security lock (takes Vulcan or Pluto to circumvent). Unless things go very badly, no individual player will have to deal with both of them. In fact, the existence of these two challenges makes it easier for the party that splits up, because they can match appropriate skills and get in by different routes. But at least they've added some measure of a challenge in exchange for the two Mission Points they've earned.

I suspect you'll end up with 8-15 mission points per player, but if still at the high end they'll be offset by more (and better defined) challenges.

The rules for Trust Points remain unchanged, and will hopefully become more attractive since there's a bit more challenge in the mission.

Thoughts behind that House Rule:
For those interested in why I concluded such a house rule was needed, here's the problems I found with the existing system. These became apparent in just one session of play, and were a real shame to deal with...

Earning Mission Points for trivial details: Here's the prime source of the problem. The game says any given "detail" the players bring up in the planning stage is worth from 1 to 3 mission points. But it gives no parameters of what constitutes a "detail". It being a cinematic game, you naturally want to reward stylish and flavorful details, details that play to tropes of the genre, and of course details that provide challenges for the players to overcome.

So at first I'm giving out mission points freely. As I'm handing out the 12th or 13th point, however, I realized that really the only detail they've given that potentially adds any challenge was "The perimeter is patrolled by guards in scuba gear with harpoon guns." The scenario at that point was shaping up to be flavorful and cool, but a total walk in the park.

Crap. Half the details given out so far were actively making it easier on the players, and I was foolishly rewarding them with bonus dice for making it easier on themselves. So I slammed on the brakes, and started only giving out points for details that actively made the scenario tougher on them. I feel I was draconian from then on. At least 50% of the details after that didn't get rewarded, and only one detail in the whole list was awarded more than one point. Despite my being a hard-nose, the party still earned 31 mission points during the planning stage.

Motivating Saturn to not just evenly split the mission points: This is a minor problem, but worth mentioning. So you've got 31 mission points, and your team leader has Saturn rating of 5 so the other 3 players each start with 5 free mission points (for a total of 46 points for the whole team). What's that team leader going to do?

Unless there's some abnormally clever reason to do otherwise, they're gonna take 5 of the 31 free points for themselves, then split the remaining 26 points roughly evenly between all the players. It just felt like there wasn't much of a motivation for splitting it in any other way. With a total pot of 46 points, it's not like anyone can argue that their character really needs more than say 14 or 15 mission points. Which means that one of the big "advantages" to the Saturn stat (to compensate that you probably never roll it) is negated by the decision being almost meaningless. Maybe, late in campaign, after you've established some rivalries and betrayal, there might be a situation where a Saturn is motivated to snub someone at Mission Point allotment time, but for a one-shot it was pointless. (And yes, I gave my team leader secret directives to get the "traitor" killed, so she slighted him by about 4 mission points. This tipped him off, and yet still wasn't enough of a deficit to matter, since it left him with about 9 points.)

Defining what you roll: In most RPGs, you take an action, then roll for success or failure. In Wilderness of Mirrors, you basically just state the category of action (from five categories) and roll. If your total is 11 or higher, you narrate what happens. If you roll lower than that, the GM narrates.

Since the categories are very broadly (and vaguely) defined, it's pretty easy to justify using your specialty for just about everything. Seriously. You put a PC in a knife-fight, expecting them to use Mars (the hit man stat). Instead, they roll Vulcan (the fixer / techie stat) to produce a hidden sonic device that immobilizes the foe. You present them with a locked and alarmed door, expecting them to use Vulcan to disable it, and they instead suggest Pluto (the stealth stat) for thievery, or Mars for demolitions, or Mercury (the charisma stat) to charm an code-key off someone. Surprise, it turns out every stat is actually a 5! Or, rather, that every roll is made using your best stat.

This flexibility with the stats and rolls means Mission Points and Trust Points are further devalued - as you'll almost always be rolling 5 dice even without them.

When can you spend mission points? The rules seem to be implying you spend the mission points before you roll, but don't state it very firmly. For reasons stemming back to Luck Points in Cyberpunk 2020 (but also applicable to 7th Sea's Drama Dice, and Savage World's Bennies), I generally prefer to have players spend such resources after they've seen their other dice. It just sucks too much to squander a rare resource on a roll that would have succeeded without it, or on a roll that doesn't have a chance to succeed even with the resource.

In Wilderness of Mirrors, however, the resources aren't rare at all. Instead of 3 per player, you get at least 10 per player, maybe as many as 15 or 20 counting Mission and Trust. Unless you trim back the number of Mission Points earned (or use Solution #1), I heartily endorse making the players choose how many Mission Points and Trust Points they'll spend before they roll any dice.


Anarchangel said...

I don't have my copy of the book handy, but I thought those "house rules" on earning and timing of expenditure were explicitly in the rules. At any rate, that's how we play it and it works fine.

rbbergstrom said...

If by "expenditure" you're refering to Mission Points, then the rules are far from explicit in how they're earned.

The relevant quote:

The players tell Operations about
the terrorist organization that’s holding the hostage, where the terrorist
are keeping the hostage, the men heading up that organization, all the
details, all the problems, all the entry points, all the exit points... the
players tell Operations everything.

All the details the players give Operations
are worth Mission Points (MP). The more
details you give, the more MPs the players

What constitutes a "detail" is left vague or all-encompassing. Nothing in that text indicates the points are just for challenges.

In fact, it seems to be specifically stating that if 4 players each describe a different way in, the group gets four mission points... even if the fourth entrance is "there's an unlocked door in the alleyway that lets us bypass all those tricky alarms and defense systems."

Now, I doubt most GMs would want to reward that sort of behavior, and that's why the house-rule, to put into explicit terms that the entrance that requires no die rolls and just makes everything easier doesn't earn you mission points. Saying "the doors are all pink" isn't a detail that gets rewarded, either, unless there's some relevance to the color.