Mutants and Masterminds Campaign Idea: The Replacements

I know I’m supposed to be working on builds for pathfinder, and that is nearly done.  In the meantime, I had this idea for a M&M campaign.  I suppose it could be used in any super hero RPG, but M&M is my favourite.  I decided to share it.

Imagine this:  As usual in super hero universes, the first super heroes showed up during world war 2.  Ever since, the super hero identity was secretly passed from generation to generation, under the supervision of a supervisory organization.  Now it’s the year 2014, and it is about the 6th or 7th generation of each superheroic identity.  And then suddenly the current super heroes went missing.

The supervisory organization wants to keep the illusion of undefeatable and immortal heroes protecting the earth going strong, so they promote up from within their own ranks.  The players are the agents, technicians, test pilots, arcane researchers, etc.  They are the people in the organization who work behind the scenes, and because of their familiarity with magic, superscience, advanced trainings, etc.  The players are some of the few people in the world who have an idea how to operate the old power armor collecting dust, or commune with the spirit inside the magic sword, or keep the nuclear powered gadgets working within safe parameters, etc.

Major Choice to Make:  What is the supervisory organization?

The GM’s choice about what kind of organization the supervisory organization will significantly change the flavour of the setting.  Compare the differences: the organization is a branch of the US Military, or the organization is a charitable organization dedicated to social justice.  Both could easily start out with an ideological branch opposed to fascism, then have reasons to oppose organized crime and communists (I personally have nothing against communists, but fighting communism is a part of the super hero genre).  However, if the superheroes are all military agents the story has to deal with nationalism, and will make the US a bit of a police state.  If they are all members of some non-government organization, then it becomes highly objectionable that they would use violence to meet their goals.  No matter who the organization is, there are reasons to object to them being in charge of superheroes.  The nature of the objection will highly flavour the story, provide obvious themes, and create clear moral tension that the GM and players can use.

Pros

1.  It is very easy to make a clear conflict between the Superheroic Identity and the Normal Identity, because the superheroic identity is something that the hero has been given (not something they created).  The psychological and social tension between these roles is often key in superhero stories.  To capitalize on this, the kind of personality the Superhero is intended to portray should be significantly different than the one held by the normal person.

2.  Each superhero, their backstory, and their impact on the setting can evolve over time through the interaction of the GM and Players at the gaming table.  At the beginning of the story, one player makes a hero who has a hypnosis gun and calls the hero Mindslinger.  Mindslinger first used the gun to fight nazi spies.  The GM could later introduce that the 2nd generation of Mindslinger had strongly pacifist tendencies, and refuse to kill.  It makes sense because it would be very easy to subdue people without harming them when using a hypnosis gun.  A different player might think mind control is creepy, and might improvise some historical justification for this during an in-character argument.  Maybe the 3rd generation of Mindslinger developed some kind of megalomaniacal tendencies, went rogue, and had to be secretly “put down” prior to the organization passing the torch to the fourth generation.  This kind of interactive character development and story telling is part of what makes table top games more fun than CRPGs or writing a short-story.

2.  The setting is set up so that being a super hero requires the support of society in some way.  This means that advanced technology does not exist in a vacuum; it requires a society capable of supporting it.  This can be applied to magic and training for special agents also.  To keep superheroes rare we’ll say that creating a superhero requires an investment similar to what it takes to build an atomic bomb.  A huge team of scientists and technicians are necessary to build it, a huge amount of labour goes into getting the raw materials, a huge amount of administrators are required to bring everything together, and someone has to fund this operation.  No more stupid gadgeteers building world altering devices in their basement and then not capitalizing on the opportunities created by the revolutionary device. Heck, perhaps the organization the PCs work for is an engineering firm that uses superheroes mostly to advertise their new products.

I consider this a pro because I tend to dislike how superheroes are often so disjointed from the rest of the world.  It also helps move the setting in a more creative direction, giving the GM more license to alter the world in response to the players’ actions.  Sometimes super hero stories seem to require that the world remain unchanged from the real world.  If aliens visit earth, no one cares and nothign changes.  This tendency is dumb.  Subverting this trend moves the super hero genre into the very “soft” end of Sci-Fi, but will allow the setting to become more reactive and vibrant.  An example of this in comic books is how the X-Men exist because there is a school dedicated to helping people born with mutant powers, and there is an accompanying societal response to the existence of the mutants.  This is minimal, but it ends up tying the X-Men to society in a way that Spider-Man (for example) is not.  Stark Enterprises occasionally will also do things that alter the setting, and iron-man stories will frequently include business-themed societal impacts and implications.  Contrast this with Reid Richards’ inventions.

3.  Serious topics can be used without being “darker and edgier.”  Because the setting’s society responds to the players actions, a detailed but relatively light treatment of these topics becomes possible in game.  This could be anything from notions of corporate responsibility or corruption, to questions about how to handle crime caused by rampant drug addiction in a community.  These topics, when treated in media, are often bleak and depressing.  This setting and story could use these topics, treat them with the complexity they deserve, and remain light-hearted, all at the same time.

Cons

1.  The superheroes kind of start the game as unassuming nerds.  This fits the genre perfectly, but it also means that they won’t have a lot of useful skills for beating the tar out of their enemies.  This could impact how enjoyable the characters are to play during fights.  It is an encounter design problem for the GM to overcome.  This problem will also challenge everyone’s creativity:  the player will probably want to come up with creative ways to use their knowledge of chemistry (for example) in a fight with street thugs until they level up their martial arts skills, and the GM will need to be able to improvise a fair and fun way to handle these unforeseen ideas.

2.  The superheroes don’t exist in a vacuum.  Many people like super-hero stories because the heroes ability comes from nowhere and requires nothing.  It is a simple and enjoyable fantasy.  Peter Parker gets powers on a field trip and can make webbing in his bedroom, then uses these powers and becomes an important person (albeit only when he is wearing his mask).  Some people like this aspect of super heroes.

I feel, however, that these heroes very rarely actually live in a vacuum.  Spider-man stories are mostly about conflicting obligations between family, friends, work, school, and society as a whole.  What stops spider-man from having an extensive impact on society is that he is a teenager who would rather get a date for friday night. Changing the world is not a priority for him.  Given the nature of the conflict, the broader ramifications of his actions are better expressed through his friends and family; not an impact on broader society.  And, if a player wants to have a story that focuses on one’s obligations to family and friends, they can do that under this setting easily.  They used to have a normal job, after all, and suddenly being thrust into the superheroic identity could have serious rammifications on a person’s ability to (for example) be a good parent.

That being said, some heroes do live in a vacuum.  If you genuinely like those heroes more, then this campaign is no good for you.

Threat Control, “Tanking,” Pathfinder, and MOBAs

A tank is a character who is so tough it is better for that character to be attacked than other players. Threat control is the capacity to control who an enemy can attack. Threat control can be accomplished in several ways, and the most simplistic is “aggro control” powers from games like World of Warcraft or the “mark” mechanics from 4e D&D. Threat control is an integral part of tanking because, without it, there is no reason for a character to attack the tough character.

Yet, there are significant problems with the aggro control model of threat control. If threat control is used on players, it denies the players’ the freedom to make choices. While concerns about the GM’s freedom is rare, it matters also, and if the players have aggro control powers it gets in the way. If we ignore this, and only give aggro control the players, then there is an imbalance between what the creatures of the world can do under the rules and what the players can do under the rules. This interferes with creating a believable setting.

Yet, many people I have spoken to feel there is no alternative to aggro control powers. For them I have a plentiful source of examples: MOBAs. Whether in League of Legends, DOTA2, or any of the other, newer ones. To a lesser extent, competitive strategy games (tabletop or otherwise) accomplish the same thing in a slightly less clear cut way.

The Concept of Threat

In this article, a threat is something that forces a response from an opponent. If the opponent does nothing, something really bad happens to them. The goal of a Tank is to impose a threat where the best response from the opponent is to attack the tank (and not someone else).

Examples of Threats

Single Target Damage: Being able to do severe damage very quickly can pull this off. This is very common in 3.x because the various warrior classes do more damage to a single target than any other class. In fact, it is so common in RPGs that the various warrior classes are all considered strong against powerful, singular opponents (such as a dragon or a giant), but weak against groups of opponents (hordes of orcs or goblins). In MOBAs it is very rare for a tank to be able to threaten with single target damage.

Area of Effect Damage: In MOBAs when a tank has an area of effect that does damage, it is usually an “aura” centered on the character. This works as a threat when the aura has duration because it means the enemies’ options are to either accept the ongoing damage or attack the character causing the aura (in which case they must implicitely not attack the other characters). In D&D this kind of threat is very rarely available to classes with sufficient hit points to be Tanks. In MOBAs it is fairly common, which makes a lot of sense because it is a simple and intuitive way to impose threat in a real time game.

Disables and Debuffs: In MOBAs disables are effects like stunning or silence. They completely remove a type of action from an opponent (movement and spell-casting, respectively). Debuffs, by contrast, impose penalties but does not completely remove an ability. In a competitive strategy game, the difference is actually quite minimal: a severe enough debuff makes a course of action so impractical that it might as well not even be an option. In a tabletop RPG, however, the difference between “not a choice” and “a bad choice” is more significant.

Full Attack Actions as Threats

From level 6+, full attack actions from fighters have the highest single target damage in the game. This makes them a threat that an opponent must respond to. Appropriate responses are to move away, or to gang up on the fighter with multiple weak opponents instead of one strong opponent. In the case of a ranged fighter, the threat will instead force opponents to close into melee range to prevent ranged attacks.

Threatened Area and Attacks of Opportunity

Consider attacks of opportunity for a moment. So long as a character is capable of doing significant damage with a single attack, they impose the threat of single target damage. They also impose this threat in an area around the character, making it in some fashions similar to an area of effect. Further, enemies normally cannot move through the character in question (unless they are ghosts or otherwise insubstantial), so it is also a minor debuff on movement.

For this reason, the easiest way to impose a threat that forces opponents to attack a character is to get close enough that the enemy is within the Tank’s threatened area. Combine this with the Step Up feat (if playing pathfinder), and that’s all it takes. This will be sufficient from level 1-5, but will gradually become less useful once the weapon wielding classes depend on using full attack options to do significant amounts of damage. It will never be completely useless, however: taking one attack of opportunity can be considered equivalent to at least a 20% increase in damage at even the highest levels. For contrast, before level 6 it is equivalent to doubling damage output.

Combat Maneuvers as Threats

As far as threats go, combat maneuvers are all debuff or disable themed threats. They are also frequently ignored by players. This is because the threat of debuffs and disables are very rarely as important as the threat of damage. However, I can think of at least one place for them: a ranged tank. A bow wielding fighter (for example) imposes significant threat of damage so long as opponents are not in melee range. This will force the opponent to close with the fighter, and engage them in melee. The bow fighter has several options about how to respond: fight in melee (a less than ideal option, because the ranged fighter probably has low strength), retreat and fire again (an acceptable option, but it gives up the benefits of having the enemy within one’s threatened area), or use combat maneuvers (the best option, in my opinion). By using combat maneuvers, the ranged fighter can significantly reduce their enemies’ ability to cause harm to the fighter or anyone else, while enjoying the benefits of threatened area, and enabling allies to attack the target with impunity. This works with ranged fighter builds because of the Agile Maneuvers feat or the Weapon Finesses feat (weapon finesse applies to disarm, trip, and sunder only, making it only useful against humanoid opponents).

Opportunity and “Initiating”

One way to ensure that a character is attacked is to be the only option. One way to accomplish this is to have everyone other than the tank to wait somewhere safe until after the Tank takes their turn. The tank moves out, the enemies take their turn and attack the tank, and then the rest of the team all goes afterwards.

In such a case, the best thing that could possibly happen for the Tank is that the enemies all delay their turns until after someone other than the tank appears, and the tank’s allies all don’t go until after the bad guys go. When both sides delay, both sides skip their turn. The tank just took a turn for free: a significant advantage. given that most combats only last 3 rounds this could be considered a 33% increase in effectiveness. You would be hard pressed to find any feat or spell that could accomplish something similar!

In MOBAs this is often called initiating. For relatively intuitive reasons it is normally done by tanks, but in some situations it is done by characters filling other roles. Sometimes an opportunity is too good to pass up, after all.

Pacing of Combat and the Goals of Tanking

In MOBAs, it is worth noting that often the tank only successfully forces the opponents to attack them for a short period of time. This allows more vulnerable characters to get into positions where they can contribute to the combat more effectively. Translating to terms for a game like Pathfinder (where combat only lasts 3 rounds most of the time) successfully imposing threat for just one round will have a similar impact. Successfully imposing the threat for 2 rounds should pretty much win the combat. Note that successfully imposing a threat does not mean that they chose to attack the tank. It could also mean they did not attack the tank, and suffered grievously as a result.

Survivability

The key feature that ensures tanks are drawn almost exclusively from the warrior classes is that they have high hit points. All of the classes can impose threat. Even bards. Only the warrior classes have high hit points and armor class without suffering a significant opportunity cost in terms of feat selection or ability score distribution.

In MOBAs survivability is often calculated with “effective hit points.” This is the amount of damage a character can sustain, after damage reduction from armor or magic resistance are applied. This is complicated in RPGs because armor does not cause damage reduction (in D&D at least). It instead reduces the chance of taking damage at all, and this “all or nothing” relationship makes it so that luck can play a significant factor in the short term. However, I lack the knowledge of statistics to calculate bunching. Inspired by “effective hit points,” I will suggest this: Take a character’s hit point pool, and multiply it by (AC/20)+1. In other words Effective Hit Points = HP x (1+(AC/20). Higher numbers are better. This is a decent way to approximate and compare different characters’ survivability, but it stops working at extreme ends of AC and HP values. It also does not work for spell damage.

Unorthodox Tanks

Non-warrior classes classes can be tanks too. They just require feat and ability score distribution that makes sure they don’t die when attacked, and the capacity to impose threat. For now, you’ll just have to take my word on it. However, soon I will post an update that has my builds for very unorthodox tanks. My favourite is my wizard tank build. I call that build “They said it couldn’t be done…”

Future Shock: Radical Changes to Society from Technology in Science Fiction RPGs

Some of the fun of science fiction is imagining the “what-ifs”. While players can be brought in to think about all the implications and possible new uses of a fictional technological capacity, this process is mostly left up to the GM. This is fair and reasonable: the GM is normally in charge of the setting and the world. Ergo, the GM ought think about a wide spectrum of effects from new technology. In this way, the GM can provide the players with a variety of stances and opinions to draw from, effectively increasing the amount of choices available to a player.

To facilitate this, I thought of three categories for how technology can impact society or individuals. They are as follows:

Radical: These are changes that have such a significant change on individuals or society that a “foundation” of modern life no longer applies. These changes are not normally destructive in nature; they are often either a good change or a just different. They are not bad changes.

Examples: Star Trek, the federation does not have businesses or corporations anymore; their technology has made the pursuit of material wealth redundant. For a darker example, cyberpunk stories feature advanced cybernetics and computing that have altered the culture industry significantly. It leads to completely VR television shows where a person becomes the character, electronic stimulation of feelings, and the gradual replacement of real world interactions with “matrix” interactions. In many ways, I think cyberpunk novels anticipated how the internet has developed quite accurately, but in the early eighties this was a radical prediction about how the world will change because of widespread computing.

Safe: These are changes that have very little impact on society as a whole or individuals, beyond the technology itself.

Examples: In William Gibson’s “the sprawl” setting (a cyberpunk trilogy), there is a space based industry and at least one entire city in orbit of the earth. Aside from the occasional low-G location, this technological change has little to no impact on society as a whole. It just moves the same things up into space. For a more extreme example, Cowboy Bebop has almost no radical technologies at all. They even have truckers in space. This can be contrasted with how different the world of star trek is.

Apocalyptic: These are changes that have disastrous effects on society or individuals. It is often the negative side effects of a technology. Some people might reject a technology, and believe it causes more harm than good. Modern concerns about genetic engineering and industrial agriculture are real world examples of a rejection of new technology.

Examples: In most cyberpunk novels, the development of cybernetics, biotech, and communication technology end up aggravating class divides to such an extent that only the criminal class and mega-corporate employees have access to it. The rest of the population end up isolated, powerless, and vulnerable. They are not necessarily impoverished, but they often end up that way. Frequently their condition leads to drug addiction, an obsession with inconsequential aspects of mass media, or mental illness. In many, many space opera settings, there is a nuclear war sometime in the 21st century. This is often a result of the proliferation of the same technologies that make large scale space flight feasible (fusion power and rocketry). In Red Mars there is a faction called “Reds” which hold that terreforming other planets is a misuse of power, on the grounds that a human who claims to love a place and change it so radically must not actually care about it. A recurring theme in stories that address transhumanist themes is a rejection of augmentation on religious grounds. This usually leads to religious intolerance and violence.

Applying this in Games

Keep in mind the goal of this is to create a setting rich enough that it gives each player something to interact with. This is easiest to accomplish if the GM provides a wide variety of ways that a technological change has impacted the world. To assist in this objective, the GM can provide each technological change with a way that it is radical, safe, and apocalyptic. The GM may also allow players the opportunities to extrapolate on these conceptions of technology, and create social or personal impacts keyed to their specific characters.

Lets start with an example that could become true in the near future: asteroid mining and orbital manufacturing.

Radical: Engineering work becomes largely about the rapidly growing space industry. Skilled trades (machining, electrical trades, computer hardware, construction workers, etc) jobs are shipped up to orbital stations, where they work on expanding the robot-driven mining stations across the asteroids.

Safe: Continued growth in manufacturing allows much of modern consumer society to continue largely unaltered. There are still malls. Most of the world is employed in the service sector, and most of the world lives in cities. This is largely like living in modern cities.

Apocalyptic: The rise of a global technical class, working in engineering, software, and robotics, is not limited by national boundaries. This results in the nation-state ideology gradually being undermined. Governments and political boundaries lose the little ideological basis for their existence. States embrace the brutal and cynical stance of political realism. All belief in their legitimacy is inherited from the past, and their power is nothing but lingering momentum. The political climate now has a unique kind of power vacuum: there is no recognized moral authority upon which actions can be criticized or embraced.

Now I will pick a modern problem: climate change. Lets suppose that space industry helps solve the problem somehow. How would this look:

Radical: The largest orbital construction job ever is currently underway: orbital shades to begin controlling global cooling. All the decisions and funding required for the orbital shades project have resulted in major political collaboration and overcome countless political boundaries. Environmental stewardship is one of the few moral principles that most governments and people can agree upon.

Safe: Continuing with the orbital theme, microwave power is implemented on a large scale. In order for this to replace fossil fuels effectively, everything needs to run off batteries. Although making everything electric was a difficult change to implement, once it was completed it did not significantly alter the kind of devices available to people. Oil continues to be used in the manufacture of plastics and as a lubricant.

Apocalyptic: Countries that rely on a resource export economy (like Canada or Brazil), overseas shipping (like Indonesia), or manufacturing (like China) suffer severe economic decline. These industries have all moved into space, and the result is better for the environment. The economic harm caused by this change is disproportionately effecting people in blue-collar jobs within these countries. They often are not well equipped to handle such burdens.

Lets look at possible impact of some completely fictional technology: faster-than-light travel.

Radical: There are many colonies on habitable worlds. Each colony is a unique ideological and cultural community, made up of people who chose to leave earth because they dislike the current cultural or political climate.

Safe: In spite of having many planets to choose from, Earth remains special. Although each star system is economically quite independent because of the sheer material wealth from space industry, there is one thing that remains scarce everywhere: culture. Cultural ties to earth are therefore immensely prosperous.

Apocalyptic: Ethnic and religious communities are significantly affected by being shipped off to space. Consider how important pilgrimages are across so many of the world’s religions. Consider how much pride members of a cultural diaspora usually take in their homeland, and once humans leave earth then they are all part of a diaspora. The culture industry is run by a small number of elite, oligopolistic mega-corporations. Culture in this case includes: history, academia, religion, and entertainment. They are able to turn a significant profit off of pilgrimages, art educations, and various forms of ethnic studies. This turns participation in culture into an endeavor for the social elite, and many people react by disowning earth and creating a culture more centered around their new home. These groups are often highly stigmatized, and sometimes outright oppressed.

And now we have a world at least as rich as most sci-fi settings.  Of course, I would think you can imagine different outcomes from these technological innovations.  It’s a simple process, and I encourage you to try it yourself.  It could also be used for alternate histories or fantasy stories, if you wish to extrapolate on all the effects of a what-if.

Player Failure and Agency

A GM I played with once decided to eliminate death from his games. Instead of dying, if reduced to 0 hit points a PC was unable to act and thus had their agency removed. He felt that this was sufficient punishment to keep combat a meaningful challenge while avoiding the problems associated with sudden character death. He was largely correct, but there is room for improvement on this system.

The first problem is that the player doesn’t just lose agency under these conditions. They are excluded from play until they regain consciousness. This is contrary to what I consider a necessary part of tabletop RPGs: they are social games.

The second problem is what I call “the team player problem.” A lot of players don’t really care if bad things happen to their character in combat, so long as the party wins and no one permanently dies. These players are not invested in their individual performance. They are invested in the party’s success, and the best way to measure that is often with what the party accomplishes in relation to the story: quest completion, saving the lives of NPCs, protecting villages, etc. Not being able to participate for a short period of time often has no effect on this. After precisely two combats in his campaign, I adopted this attitude.

I have a system that is both more fun and a more effective punishment. I call it Diabolus ex Machina. Read this if you care about the terminology: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DiabolusExMachina

The Theory

Although often a GM technically can do whatever they want, in practice this is not the case. Content introduced early allows the players to act upon it, and react to it. The later the content is introduced, the less chance the players have to act appropriately. The most severe case is content that the players have no chance to react to at all, right at the end of a session. Use this to imagine a spectrum of agency, ranging from players with maximized agency to the GM having maximized agency.

Although there is often no one to enforce it, the GM is subject to rules limiting their agency. The GM must keep the setting and genre consistent. The GM must keep the story consistent. The GM must ensure that the degree of difficulty is “fair” (Dungeons and Dragons is especially good at providing guidelines for this). Within these limitations, the GM can do almost anything.

A good GM introduces the content about all of these things early. By introducing content about the setting and genre early, the GM enables the players to creatively solve problems using the workings of the fictional world. Introducing story content earlier gives the players more ability to effect the events of the story, instead of just being “along for the ride.” Introducing details about combats and other rules-governed scenes early is necessary for meaningful tactical decisions.

If the GM is allowed to introduce new content for these things at later times than they normally would, the GM suddenly has a huge amount of power to derail the players’ plans. The trick is to make it “fair” by making it a transparent and rational system that doesn’t contradict other rules (either by breaking them or being inconsistent with the spirit of them), so the players don’t feel cheated.

The System

First the GM must define what counts as a significant player failure. For now, let us go with the minimal definition of “being reduced to 0 hit points.”

Next, explain to the players that the GM is responsible to provide information to them early enough that they can act upon it and react to it.

Whenever a player suffers a significant failure (ie is reduced to 0 HP) the GM gains a Diabolus Ex Machina Point. Hereafter it will be referred to as DEMP.

The GM is allowed to spend DEMP to introduce new narrative content at times when the players do not have the time or resources to react effectively. I call these times “unfair times”.

The GM is not allowed to spend DEMP to contradict any results that are normally governed by other rules.

Spending DEMP is not required to introduce complications that have been adequately foreshadowed, implied, or would otherwise be predictable to a player who pays attention and thinks about the setting.

The GM is to keep a public record of how many DEMP they currently have, every time they use DEMP, how it foiled the players, and a general statement about what they introduced to the setting or story each time they used a DEMP.

Example: The PCs have sneaked into a space-nazi battlestation to rescue a princess. They have planned an elaborate ruse wherein they pretend that one of them is a prisoner and the others are transporting them in. They succeeded at their disguise rolls, and the GM has one DEMP. The GM cannot use the DEMP to tell them their disguises fail, because that would contradict what is covered by a pre-existing system. However, using DEMP to throw a monkey wrench in their plans by having a story or setting based reason for their plans to fail is acceptable. The GM decides to introduce a prisoner transfer protocol that exposes the deception, and tells everyone “I am spending a DEMP. The guard says “Prisoner transfer? I was not informed. I will have to clear it.” and starts typing away at their computer. Your plan will be foiled in a matter of seconds. What do you do?” the GM writes down on their record “DEMP spent on foiling prison break. Empire has elaborate and effective bureaucracy.”

To make this a little bit more interesting, from now on it has been “adequately implied” that the space-nazis have an extensive bureaucracy, and any future ruse will need to take that into account. If the players were to steal a shuttle to smuggle a team of top notch commandos past the enemy fleet, they better make sure they have all their paperwork forged correctly. “Do they have code clearance?” “It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out… I was about to clear them.” If the players fail to take that into account, the GM is allowed to be very punitive without spending more DEMP.

To be clear, having an efficient bureaucracy is not particularly interesting; the fact that the detail can be introduced into the world by the results of a “back and forth” interaction between players is interesting. A different GM or players with a different plan would result in an entirely different use of DEMP. It is unpredictable, and plays off the social elements of collaborative storytelling while keeping the GM firmly as the players’ adversary.

Games with Similar Systems

Two games comes to mind that make use of similar rules: Mutants and Masterminds, and GURPS.

Mutants and Masterminds uses “Hero Points” to give the players a wide variety of nifty abilities, and anytime the GM makes something arbitrarily foil their plans the players get a “hero point.” This is especially similar because it highlights how the GM’s role is subject to fair play rules. The main difference is that the GM doesn’t have to win chances to be unfair; the players just get compensated when the GM does something unfair. This fits very nicely with super hero style games (like M&M), as it allows the villain to always escape, love interests to be at the site of bank robberies by coincidence, trusted friends to be sympathetic new members of criminal gangs, etc.

GURPS has the disadvantages Bad Luck and Cursed. They enable the GM to arbitrarily make bad things happen to a character. Once again, these imply a fair play rule. Unlike with M&M, the breach of fair play is character specific. Cursed gives the GM permission to permanently harm or kill the player. Bad Luck specifies that if the plot requires something bad to happen to someone, it happens to the character with bad luck. There is a character type in action TV who drives the plot foreward by always having something bad happen to them. These characters are often perfectly competent but show remarkably bad judgement; giving the GM permission to punish these characters with bad luck enables them in games. There is also a type of character in comedies who is always on the receiving end of jokes at their expense, almost like the universe hates them. This kind of character can also be made.

The main difference between these two systems and DEMP is that in DEMP the GM earns the privilege of being arbitrary and unfair by being an effective but fair adversary to the PCs. In M&M it is a trade between the GM and players, and in GURPS it is given to the GM by the players. Ergo, DEMP could make competition between the GM and the players more meaningful: something is at stake for both parties. The GM wants to win more agency, the players don’t want the GM to be able to take away the results of their choices.

A Note on Genre

Games that emphasize anything other than combat will usually (but not always) have a similar consequence to player failure “built in” to checks already. If a player fails some kind of check related to personal interaction, it is up to the GM to decide how the other person reacts. If a player fails a check to repair a device, it is often up to the GM to decide what malfunctions might occur. If a player fails a check to jump from one building to another, it is up to the GM whether they chicken out at the last minute, fall short but land on a fire escape, or plummet to their death.

If a GM wishes to use DEMP in such a game, player failure would need to be defined quite differently and in a very genre specific way. What comes to mind to me is for any kind of intrigue game where the players are all members of the same organization, and if any of them fail skill checks related to their official projects they would obviously be fired or the plot of the game becomes completely unable to continue. For example, if the players are all part of an organization terreforming Mars and the Engineer character fails their engineering check when designing a nuclear reactor, it is quite plausible that the game would be unable to continue because everyone has been blown up. The GM could just say the power system is buggy and prone to brown outs, but that might make the players feel like there are minimal consequences to their actions. However, if the GM instead gets a DEMP, and the power system is just “buggy” from then on and prone to power outages, the players may end up much more concerned as all their goals beyond “don’t die and don’t get fired” are now threatened by a malicious GM.

A Note on Terminology

The term “agency” is, when talking about RPGs, imprecise. It can refer to having control, making meaningful choices between provided options, or being able to create new options. However, it is the term that is in favour these days, and I will tow the line. However, if you are a GM and you are thinking “I want to give my players more agency” you are trying to do something vague, and you are thus likely to fail. If you think “I want to give my players more choices” or “I want to give my players more opportunities to pursue options of their own devising” then you can figure out what to do.