Actual Play – Too Many Secrets (5/27/2011)

GM: Sean Nittner
Players: Michael Wilson, Jennifer Thomas-Bryant, Alex Miller, and two others (sorry I wrote down the names lost them)
System: Leverage

Billing

Game system: Leverage
Start time: FRI, 8:00 PM
Duration: 6 Hours
# of Players:5
GM / Judge: Sean Nittner
Description
A job needs to be done. Not only is the money right but you don’t have a choice; your past has caught up to you. Your the best out there, what could go wrong? CHAR:Provided LVLS:Criminals

How this got started

I pretty much knew that if a caper game came out and I heard great things about it, I had to run it. It was almost serendipity that I started watching the show Leverage right around the time the game was coming out. The show is campy and fun and full of awesome, so I figured the game (coming on the heels of Smallville) would be too.

One mistake I made however was taking my favorite caper movie (Sneakers) and using it as my original premise for the game. Martin Bishop (aka Martin Brice) played by my favorite caper actor ever Robert Redford (The Sting, Sneakers, Spy Game) and he spends most of the movie in a horrible pickle, first being duped to perform a heist and then having to risk his neck ever further to fix his first bungle. The hiccup for me is that the game is set to be much lighter than that. The characters are unto gods in the game and bound by very few limitations, except perhaps funny quirks (you know the hitter that doesn’t like guns, or the thief who won’t steal from the poor), but those never affect the plot so much as they make the characters seem more empathetic or funny.

So I named the game “Too Many Secrets”, which any fan of Sneakers would recognize, but by the time I got the book, read it, and played in a game (Thanks to Carl Rigney: http://seannittner.livejournal.com/126810.html) I knew I couldn’t run a Sneakers game. I’ll do it someday but not with Leverage.

As good as check in the mail

As usual I made a bunch of props for the game. This time custom plot points for every archetype. The hitter got shotgun shells, the matstermind had chess pieces, the grifter had my favorite, little placards with pictures of the hearts and minds of people he or she had captures. All pics of gamers, many of which were probably at the con. I had the pretty, pretty character sheets John Harper made: http://www.onesevendesign.com/leverage/leverage_sheets_oneseven.pdf) Finally I took all the important NPCs and put their pictures in my clear picture frames. And then I forgot all of it at home on my way to KublaCon.

Yep, my entire box of props, packed nice and tidy, left sitting on my living room floor.

In retrospect a friend (Kevan Forbes) was probably right, props can become a crutch. It was good to run a game without them. Although it did cost me $60 in dice. Blerg.

Character selection and creation

Hacker: Jennifer played a good-ole country girl, who had a girly, Hello Kitty themed laptop and an always full cup of coffee.

Hacker

Hitter: A former prize fighter with amazing, long blond hair.

Hitter

Mastermind: Alex was the Mastermind. He made sure the plan worked, even when it was failing. Often that involved cleaning supplies.

Mastermind

Thief: He apparently spent some quality time in air-ducts.

Theif

Grifter: Michael played the iconic “Face”

Grifter

and

Fixer: Apparently complete with a Chet Powers stare

Fixer

The Mop Bucket Job

When we did full blown character creation in Carl’s game (aka The Prom Job) I felt like it ate up too much of our 4 hour slot, but with 6 hours it worked very well. At least timing wise.

What hurt the initial flow of the game, and continued to be a deterrent throughout was a combination of crazy dice luck (favoring the fixer) and me being not quite fast enough on my feet to think if why it “should” have worked. I want to break that apart into two different issues.

Win/Fail Paradigm. Most players I game with don’t think in terms of the dice deciding between two interesting results. The think in terms of winning or losing. I’ve seen three games try to address this mindset (Mouse Guard, S7S and Leverage). All of them take the tact that your actions were awesome and should have worked but didn’t because of some unforeseen complication. There is a visceral response however, when players see the dice rolled, do the mental math to realize they rolled lower and immediately start conjuring up images of their character being a buffoon.

I wonder if players not seeing the dice might actually help this? Or if there is a better way to present the dice options as Be Awesome/Be Awesome with complications rather than Win/Fail?

Here is are two example of the paradigm shift I’m looking for, one iconic and the other tied specifically to leverage. In every case assume the player misses the roll:

Iconic: Indiana Jones needs to swing over a pit to escape a collapsing temple. Typical Win/Fail paradigm: He tries to swing across but swigs short and falls in the pit. Awesome paradigm: He swings across and scrambles up the other side only to find natives there with spears at his chest. A big one walks over and kicks him in the chest knocking him into the pit. It is full of snakes, why did it have to be snakes?

Leverage: The thief is breaking into a secured office. Typical Win/Fail paradigm: The thief can’t pick the lock and is stuck outside. Awesome paradigm: The thief make it in easily but the moment she gets inside, the hacker starts seeing alarms go off and realized they didn’t know the office had motion detectors. Now the hacker needs to act to cut off the alarm.

In both cases the awesome paradigm keeps the protagonist being, well, awesome, instead of deprotagonizing them. Several games promote this but even when given the option to look cool, I see players defaulting to the “oh, looks like I botched the roll, okay I suck” mentality.

A Fixer Fast on his Feet. The second part of this problem comes from me, the fixer (GM, whatever) not being fast enough on my toes to think of these three things. 1) Why it should have worked. 2) What unforeseen complication prevented it from working and 3) What immediate threat/conflict needs to be addressed (often by another PC) because it didn’t. In the first case, Indie should have made it because he did in fact swing across the bit, but he didn’t know about the natives, so now he’s got snakes to fend off. In the second example, the responsibility is placed on the hacker. The goal there is to reinforce teamwork, but it generally came off as “I am incompetent, I need you to save my bacon”. As a fixer, I think it is key to cut off that line of thinking as quickly as possible. Maybe in the future for games like this, I’m just going to immediately start narrating their success and while doing so, keep my mind working on how to complicate it, so as not to give the players a chance to start thinking in terms of failure.

The game started off with the players rolling very poorly on several rolls in a row and the “easy job” ending up getting very complicated very fast. I believe the players still had fun but they lost some confidence in their characters. This may have also been a good time to have an NPC show them how bad ass they were in comparison (another crew tried to do the same job and failed, or someone acknowledges them in person as awesome, etc). Yes, it may be cheerleading, but players in Leverage should feel like awesome super competent bad asses.

The play is the thing aka The Starshine Job.

To make the job immediately personal I used some back story questions, which in truth proved to drive the story forward more that my intended pacing. The client was Ashley, a young aspiring actress duped out of her meager savings (and money she borrowed) by Peter McIntire, the owner of the Starshine Talent agency. Immediately I asked who was related to her and Alex went for the younger sibling angle, a perennial favorite amongst antagonistic characters. Then I asked about love interests and it turns out that Ashley had fallen for our hacker, but the grifter was head over heels for her. Great, a love triangle PLUS an overprotective brother.

From there I started doling out the basics, a simple goal (get her money back and reveal McIntire as a fraud) with several complications (he has powerful connections as well as a feverishly loyal ex-boyfriend of Ashley named Marcus that still believed McIntire would make him famous).

The crew got busy at working the angles of his connections and finding ways they could turn them against him.

The twist, in a rush

The game ended up running a little slower than I expected which meant the end was somewhat rushed. I revealed the twist, his money laundering for the mob, and that got the crew moving fast to get Peter to reveal himself before the mob could show up and “silence” him.
It seemed a bit cliché, but frankly the immediacy of the mob threat breathed a lot of energy into the ending of the game and made for a strong close. Aces in my book.

What rocked

The love quadrangle was a ton of fun, and great to play out through the entire game.

Our country bumpkin hacker was a very nice change of pace from the iconic Hardison. Complete with a hello kitty laptop.

The players were great about shining the spotlight on each other. I really loved that they would call in one another to do specific jobs, act as support or help clean up a mess. Awesome teamwork.

The Leverage system did all the fun bits it needed to. Creating flashbacks, assets and distinctions as needed to both create mechanical nuances and fill the narrative with interesting bits.

What could have improved

As mentioned above the Win/Fail paradigm hurt the energy of the game initially.

I had other back story questions I was going to ask once the ball got rolling so that all five members of the crew would have personal investment in the job (Like who got burned on a scam like this before, or burned someone and felt really bad about it afterwards and who has a past relationship with the Mark). I think if I had remembered those early on, it would have put some more oomph in the game.

We were a bit rushed in the end, partially because of starting late and taking kind of a leisurely pace so I had to rush through the closing somewhat, which is a shame because it’s one of the few parts of the game where the mastermind gets center stage.