Tuesday 1 December 2015

That Relationship Mechanic

Ok, so I've wanted to include a relationship mechanic in Chariot from the beginning. I like relationship mechanics. The question is, how do you do them? Dogs in the Vineyard, which is still one of my favourite games, gives you dice for doing things if you can bring in a relationship, as does Monsters and Other Childish Things, in a slightly different manner. I wasn't sure that I wanted it to work exactly like that. Vampire and its siblings, for which I wrote, well, quite a lot have a set of optional "people you know" stats, Allies, Contacts, Retainers and so on. I felt that was a little too vague, too easy to drop.

This is what I settled on. Feedback is welcome.

Your character doesn't exist in a vacuum – you've already accepted that by being part of a culture and accepting a place in society. But on a smaller level both of those things depend on the people you know and the people who shape you.

In real life we all know dozens, maybe even hundreds of people. Family, friends, colleagues, and – let's be honest here – rivals and enemies. It's the same for your character, except as a fiction with a limited story, only a very few of those people will factor in.

On your character sheet, you'll find sixteen relationship slots, each of which has a little checkbox in the corner, and each of which corresponds to the sixteen Court Cards of the Minor Arcana. Each of these slots has the potential to represent someone important to your character's story.

In the most simple degree, Cups and Pentacles are your friends, Wands and Swords your enemies. These relationships aren't always equal; feelings between people, good and bad, are rarely mutual. Someone might hate another person bitterly, for example, and that person not even know who they are. The Queens and Pages carry the most emotional weight of the courts, and Swords and Cups are the most emotional of the suits.

The courts of Cups represent the people you love. Your close friends, your romantic entanglements and your family.

The courts of Pentacles represent your comrades and colleagues. People who are in common cause with you. The people who stand by you, who have your back. A relationship represented by Pentacles isn't equal and doesn't have to be bound up with personal feelings. They might be employers or subordinates, people you fought alongside you in a war, or people you grew up alongside rather than people you love.

The courts of Wands represent people who get in your way, your rivals, people who complicate your life, perhaps often without meaning to. A relationship represented by Wands isn't necessarily equal and doesn't have to be bound up with personal feelings. They might be people who might not even be your enemies if circumstances were different.

The courts of Swords are the people you hate, the people whom you consider to have wronged you and yours. These people are your sworn enemies.

Kings represent people senior to you, older than you or in power. Rulers, parents, mentors. A king of Pentacles might be a former commanding officer who remembers you fondly, or a teacher. A King of Swords might be the general who burned your parents' village to the ground.

Queens represent people with whom you have a personal history. You always know a Queen. A Queen of Cups is a lover or a beloved best friend. A Queen of Wands is a constant thorn in your side, someone who is always in your way.

Knights represent equals and counterparts. A Knight of Wands might be a rival, an opposite number. A Knight of Cups might be your brother or sister.

Pages represent people younger than you or junior to you. A Page of Cups might be your child or kid sibling. A Page of Swords might be a former pupil who turned against you.

Starting Relationships
When you first make your character, separate out the Court cards, shuffle them, and draw three. Put a tick in the little box for each you have. These are Open Slots.

Don't name them. You'll get that opportunity as you play. The more you play the more opportunity you get to open Relationship slots, and the chance to decide when the people you know will pop up. I'll talk about that later, in the section on Conflicts.

Claiming Relationships

It works like this. As the game runs its course, the Narrator is going to introduce supporting cast members (most games like this call them Non-Player Characters, or NPCs). If you have an open slot, you can Claim anyone you meet – anyone – as someone you know.

When you've Claimed a relationship, write their name in the open slot (and something about who they are if you like), and then add a point to the Suit on your sheet that matches the suit of the relationship. 

So if you have the King of Pentacles open, you say, “I know this person, this is my King of Pentacles,” and the Narrator has to honour that and play that person's part accordingly and you add a point to Pentacles.

Oh, this is important: any relationship card can represent someone of any sex or gender. Just because the picture on the Queen card is of a woman and the one on the King card is a guy, it doesn't mean that your Queen of Swords (your sworn enemy) has to be a woman any more than your King of Cups (a parent or mentor) has to be your dad rather than your mum.

Look, here's an example. You made your character and you're still new, so you have the Knight of Wands (someone who's always getting in your face), the Queen of Swords (someone you really, really hate) and the Page of Cups (someone younger than you whom you care for deeply).

I'm the Narrator and I tell you you've arrived in Hollowbridge during the Slave Riots. On the way to meeting the Provost, you run into the Captain of the city militia, and a bunch of nameless guards.
You want to make this personal. You say “I know the Captain – he's my Knight of Wands,” and then your character says to him, “Not you again. It's like you're following me,” and I say, playing the Captain, “I could say the same to you,” and there's a bit of wariness and conflict and the whole thing could start getting difficult.

Or you could say, “I know the Captain – he's my Queen of Swords,” and then your character says to him, “YOU! I should have killed you when I had the chance!” and the Captain (played by me) says, “We'll have a reckoning, mark my words,” and there's some growling and circling because this isn't the time for an open fight, but now he knows where you are and there's going to be some words. And probably fighting.

Or you could say, “I know the second guard on the left – that's my Page of Cups,” and say to her, because you've just decided it's a woman, “Illiane! Sis! Where have you been all this time!” and the Captain and everyone else doesn't know where to put themselves because you're having an emotional reunion with someone who until a couple of minutes ago was a nameless spear carrier I had put literally zero thought into characterising who is now an important member of the supporting cast, and that's sort of great.

Another important thing to bear in mind: you can Claim anyone played by the Narrator, even if they've been Claimed by someone else.
Seriously. In fact, it's better if you do, because you get all sorts of great complex story things happening.

So going back to that Captain in Hollowbridge. So in the end, you've just decided to make him your Queen of Swords and there you all are, snarling and circling, and everyone is wondering if this is going to collapse, and then Anna, who's sitting next to you, she says, “I know him too – he's my King of Cups” and then in character says to the Captain, “Dad? Is that you?” and then the Captain does a double take, and then there's a really awkward moment because your character despises this guy and Abi's has all these ambivalent bonds of familial respect that I'm going to have to honour and I'm kind of pleased about this, because everything suddenly got a whole lot more complicated, and the game's pretty much running itself at this point.

It's on you to be proactive with this.

I mean, you don't actually have to do this part, and you can have a perfectly fun time without having a single relationship slot filled, and I suppose that's OK, but I guarantee that if you spark connections like this, stuff will happen, and characters like that Captain who might have been forgotten suddenly become recurring members of the supporting cast with lives and stories of their own, stories that you'll remember.