Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Second-Fiddle to the Urchins

The Urchin RPG is weird. It’s not just because you’re playing crazy homeless people living in the tunnels beneath New York. The mechanics of the game upend the usual power-structures, leaving the GM the person at the table with the least control of the plot and world.

A week and a half ago, I played Urchin during one of the midnight time slots at the Dragonflight convention in Bellevue, WA. Two days ago, I GM’d urchin for a group of 6 that included 4 new gamers with very little (1 to 5 sessions each) previous RPG experience. Seeing it from both sides of the GM screen in such a short time has convinced me Urchin is a game where the GM has the least interesting job, and the least narrative power. The GM is at best second-fiddle to the urchins, but even that probably over-estimates the GM’s importance in this game.

At the game where I was a player, I absolutely dominated (and created from whole cloth) the plot. At the game I GM’d, I couldn’t make my pet plotline materialize no matter how hard I tried to push it.

Band On The Run, aka Let Me Tell You About My Character:

At Dragonflight, I played a has-been failed punk-rocker with dreams of getting his band back together.

In the real world, I (the player) once (many years ago) met a friend of a friend who claimed that they’d accidentally left a diary at a bus stop and a year later one of the poems they’d written in that lost journal was now a top 40 pop song. I was skeptical, but, whatever, the truth of their story is beside the point. The idea at least has dramatic potential. I’ve always kinda wanted to use that notion in a character (in an RPG or a piece of fiction) but never got around to it… until the game at Dragonflight.

My character, Rory Wanker (of the once-almost-famous “Rory Wanker and the Bloody Stickahs”) took that diary story and dialed it up to 11. He also had serious psychopathic delusions, and was convinced that he had previously killed Sir Paul McCartney four times and They just kept replacing the blighter with clones. I was basically claiming to have written the lyrics to every Lennon-McCartney song ever, and also claiming to be the cause of the “Paul is Dead” meme. I just riffed off that nonsense all night long.

Every time it was my turn, I pushed the rest of the our group of punks and bums towards tracking down Sir Clone McCartney and offing him again. As a group, we raised the Kill Cartney Count up from 4 to 6 over the course of the session. At least one of those two kills was deliberate misdirection from my fellow PCs, but who was I to quibble over the identity of the body they’d shivved? So our characters invaded the random hotel that I, in my delusion, insisted was where Sir Clone McSongthief was staying while he was in town.

So there’s this major player-driven plotline that served as the backbone of the session. About the only decision left for the GM was whether Paul McCartney was actually staying at that hotel - but from my crazed perspective it was irrelevant because no matter who was in that penthouse, I would fill in the connection to make them part of the Clone McCartney conspiracy. That’s kinda the point of playing a crazy person.

Long story short, I jump off the roof of the pent-house where we just killed McCartney #6. I did this at the end of somebody else’s scene that I happened to be present for. I chose my timing because I’d get to Kick the next scene:
Fade to black. Fade in to a fancy office with a huge desk, and framed gold records on the wall. Rory is there with his agent. “And that’s how the concept album ends, hence the name ‘Paul is Dead’. I’ve got most of the songs written, I’m ready to go to the recording studio.”
That’s a complete dick move, right there, narrating that the session only existed in my character’s album pitch. I tell myself it’s okay because my character is nuts enough that if anyone has an issue with my ending, they can just write it off as the crazy thing running through my head as I fall 20 stories. I was being a bad player, grandstanding and spotlight-hogging, then invoking my own Deus Ex Machina after I made a bone-headed suicidal move. That's totally the sort of nonsense I engage in as a player, especially in a rules-light "hippy game" like Urchin.

In any normal RPG, it’d be appropriate at that point for the GM to say “No, you’ve jumped off the roof, and now you’re dead.” Or at least roll damage or call for a saving throw vs falling or something.

Mechanical Failure:

Urchin’s mechanics aren’t really set up that way. PCs don’t die unless the player wants them to. Instead they end up “in the gutter”, which is just this unfun quantum state where your turns are skipped until a fellow PC brings you food, then you’re magically all okay. With the rules as written, the only way your PC can die against your will is if all the PCs end up in the gutter at the same time… or if all your fellow PCs hate you so much that no one will bring you a candy bar to save your life. You are expressly granted the narrative control to set your scene where-ever you want, and the GM’s main job is say “yes” repeatedly.

I feel urchin is broken. The rules are flawed. Every time I enjoy the game (and I usually do) I feel simultaneously guilty and lucky. The game is a house of cards that could topple over at any moment, but more often than not we get to the end of the session without bumping the metaphorical table.

In Urchin, players go around that table taking turns. Turns are entire scenes that could last anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes. You can either “kick” a scene, or “grab” a scene. Kicking a scene is where the player narrates the situation and what their character is trying to do, and the GM just adjudicates the rules (and maybe sets the difficulty and results if the player chose to do something that’s not covered by the rules). When you Kick, you as player are usurping at least 80% of the power a GM normally has. A good game of Urchin is one with colorful PCs who take the initiative to do interesting things.

The other option is Grabbing a scene. Grabbing frees up the GM to narrate and frame the scene (giving them back the power most other games assume they always have). The rulebook also provides a chart the GM can roll on if no obvious scenes spring to mind. The Scene Grabbing Chart ranges from absolutely devastatingly terrible (attacked by multiple bad guys that each individually outclass you), to just mildly better than the average turn. Once the players have been bitten by that chart once or twice, they’ll stop grabbing and start kicking hard.

There’s only three ways a session of Urchin can end:
  1. Agharta — Someone raises Mind up to 10 via the Blessing, receives a quest, and follows that to fabled hobo heaven. This is the intended ending the rulebook sets you up for.
  2. Total Party Kill - Usually the result of failing to pay the light bill. Sometimes the lights are covered, but you still get a TPK when somebody grabs a scene after they or other players have stirred up the sort of trouble that could logically draw a police response.
  3. Fizzle — The party splits and rambles, having some good flavorful scenes but never really engaging in anything that smells of plot. You eventually call the game because you’re getting tired and the game is growing old.
Of the three ways the game can end, two are generally undesirable. The occasional TPK or plotless rambling can be fun, but more often than not most players prefer some sort of dramatic arc and some chance of success. If you’re actually getting a group to play Urchin a second time within a few months of the first, there’s a good chance they’ll be on-task for the whole Mind 10 trip to Agharta thing.

Sadly, the path to Agharta is mathematically solvable. Each time around the table, one scummer needs to collect money to pay the lights. Everyone else can focus on the Blessing. You can scavenge for the raw materials, which you’re guaranteed to find, and if you’re willing to Push you can even ensure nothing bad (other than Mind Rot) happens while you’re searching. So Scummer A finds the components, and passes them off to Scummer B. Scummer B brews a few hits of the drug, pushing the roll if needed, and possibly suffering some Mind Rot. They pass the finished blessing to Scummer C who sells it to meatheads for 2 to 3 cash tokens per hit. In a four (or more) player game that can be done in one round. In the second round (or the same round if you’ve got a lot of players) you spend the cash buying more blessing from NPCs, and then selling it to other NPCs. It’s a goofy loophole that lets you, once you’ve got the initial investment capital, generate a feedback loop that slowly inches towards infinite blessing. Even if the GM plugs that rules-hole (and they might not want to, as being able to buy the blessing from NPCs is a nice safety net for low-mind PCs struggling with Madness), it’s still pretty easy for a 4-scummer circle to generate large amounts of blessing in just a couple low-risk rounds. Ultimately, Blessing is easy to come by.

Lots of blessing = lots of money and a high mind score = the lights never go out, and somebody becomes Captain. So if you’re concerned about winning the game, and willing to cooperate like a normal RPG party instead of struggling like scummer nutjobs, “winning” the game becomes a trivial exercise. The only thing that can trip up a coordinated party is rolling a 3 or a 5 on the Quest chart (but even that can be solved by aiming the blessing machine at a second player to generate a new Captain and a new Quest in the next round).

About the lights and turn order: 

It’s vital that the turn order get shaken up from time to time (don’t always start the round with the same player) or else the player at the end of the line usually gets stuck having to chase Cash Tokens every single turn. That player is left feeling like they have no freedom (as their only choice is whether to panhandle or mug from turn to turn), and probably won’t enjoy the game as much as the others. They may be tempted to not pay the light bill. The Lights Out Table is certainly fun, but it has at least a 1 in 3 chance of producing a TPK. I'm happy when that table gets action on in any Urchin game I'm involved in, but I can understand how it may not be some scummer's cup of tea.

The more I play the game, the more strongly I feel that Urchin desperately needs a 4th ending scenario. It could really use a little more narrative structure in case the players scatter, but that would require rules revisions, since the rules-as-written keep the GM from introducing any sort of plot at all.

Curse of the Were-Gator:

When I was GMing Urchin on Sunday, I tried to work in this oddball subplot about a were-alligator in the tunnels. In a five-hour game with 6 scummers, they Grabbed a scene exactly twice. Every time I could get away with narrating a background detail in somebody else’s scene, I mentioned the beast howling in the distance or causing problems with the subways, but nearly every time the players Kicked a scene they (wisely) narrated themselves far away from my were-villain. Most of the group individually chased after the Blessing right away, but weren’t very cooperative or coordinated about it early on, so they doubled-up on redundant steps and never actually got enough of the drug to boost someone to Captain status. Along the way, they mugged a rich person just outside an opera house, and drew police attention. Immediately afterwards they neglected to pay the light bill and rolled a Meathead Invasion that resulted in a (police-based) TPK that had nothing to do with my alligatanthropic monster.

The one time I got people to interact with my were-gator, the player Kicked his next scene by narrating that he was searching for ricotta cheese. Because “everyone knows” that ricotta is like wolvesbane for were-crocodiles. In a normal game, the GM would have control of whether or not this ludicrous notion was valid or just going to endanger you further… but in urchin searching for a piece of gear that gives you +1 die on rolls vs the crocogator is an automatic success and the player gets to narrate what that found gear is. In later turns they can even DIY themselves a better version of the object (maybe a cross-shaped cheese-log?) that gives even more dice. That’s cool. Bizarreness like this is at the heart of Urchin, but it does illustrate what I’ve been saying about the GM having very little power. I leaned hard on my big threat, and all it got me was one player spending one action to invent it’s weakness while everyone else just steered clear.

Everybody had fun playing weirdo nutjob scummers, so it all worked out for the best despite the relative lack of plot and the the TPFM (Total Party Ferguson, Missouri-ing) ending. Urchin is broken, but it’s not unplayable. It’s like the first edition of Og - you can run it as a one-shot and have a lot of fun, but consecutive plays in a short time frame are less fun and become increasingly focused on the mechanical failings. Urchin could really use a revision with the same goals as Robin Law’s “Unearthed Edition” of Og (which is to say a rewrite that preserves all the best bits of the current game but fixes core mechanics and gives you more reason to play a second time). I’ve got a couple ideas towards rebalancing it, and I may type them up in a future blog post, but for today I’ve probably rambled on long enough. There's blessing to brew, and somebody's gotta pay the lights around here.


Unknown said...

Hey Rolfe, great post! yeah Urchin's a funny one. It seems to me this is a game than can easily be done having a rotating GM; what do you think?

rbbergstrom said...

Do you mean GMing duties rotating during the session, from turn to turn?

I bet that would make for a more enjoyable experience for the person who would have otherwise GM'd, while maintaining much the same experience for those who would have otherwise only been players.

I like the idea, though it will probably result in an even more disjointed storyline than the current version. It would also still have the problem of there being no "challenge" to the game unless people forget about the Lights or make intentionally bad decisions. Definitely worth toying with it some more, but you're probably on the right track there.

I've got some rough draft notes for my own revisions, but I like your idea and may end up stealing it.

kedamono@mac.com said...

Great review Rolfe!

The one thing about all the games of Urchin that I've played, is that it's usually on Saturday night, after 11pm, I'm tired, and I've spent the day running three consecutive games.

So I view Urchin as a relief valve to go gonzo in my roleplaying. To play outrageous characters I would never get a chance to play anywhere else. Considering how quickly things can spiral out of control, I don't know if a group of players could pull off Blessing mining.

I think that a fourth ending is one Laura pulled off one time: You're all inmates at a mental hospital experiencing a group hallucination. Though that could be just a Agharta variation.