Days & Nights in the Dusk City

From the beginning, one of the most significant goals for Dusk City Outlaws has been to be the kind of game that could be easily pulled off of the shelf at a moment's notice and be ready to play without significant prep work. A lot of the decisions that went into the design of the game come from this root, and one of the most significant one is the decision to break play up into fairly structures daytime and nighttime segments, during which you either do planning, or do legwork.

Another major goal for the game is that I wanted it to be a player-driven sandbox; this goal also ties into the idea of being able to run without prep work, because it means the Judge doesn't need to understand some twisting path of a narrative, only react and allow the players to keep the story moving forward. But sometimes player-driven sandboxes stall out; players have too many options, and don't know what they should be doing. To address this, I knew the game was going to need two things: a clear call to action and a limited amount of time in which to get things done. This is the pull-and-push of player motivation in Dusk City Outlaws.

The Call to Action

The call to action is something that many tabletop roleplaying games that I like get right. Shadowrun, for example, is one of the best examples of this; you need to get a job from Mr. Johnson in order to pay your bills, and that job has a clear goal that you have to accomplish. There's a lot of Shadowrun inspiration in Dusk City Outlaws, and indeed one of the elevator pitches I use when describing the game to my fellow game designers is, "It's the premise of Shadowrun, the strong factions of Legend of the Five Rings, against the backdrop of a fantasy version of New York City." Getting your job from your broker at the beginning is the clear call to action, and I've found that the best successes I've had in scenario design are the ones where there is a clear target (steal this diamond, rob this bank, etc.) with interesting obstacles around them. This is the pull, the thing that lures the players toward it: the clear goal, with a call to action to achieve it.

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The Time Limit

It's that second core need of the game, a limited amount of time in which to get things done, that led me to clearly define day and night segments, as well as planning scenes and legwork scenes. Putting a time limit on the Job puts pressure on the players to move forward; it's the stick that puts forceful motivation to the players' actions. But at the moment you put any limitation on the players, you need to also give them a clear sense of what the confines of those limitations are. In the case of putting a time limitation on the Job, that means the ultimate resource the players have is now time itself, and I found quickly that I needed to be able to tell the players now only how much of that resource they had, but how quickly it is expended. That's only fair, and the players won't enjoy their time at the table if they have a limitation placed on their resources but no clearly defined way that they are expended. If it's all arbitrary, they don't get the satisfaction of feeling like they earned their success, or deserved their failure.

Planning

While that realization led clear definitions of time resources (you have X days to do the Job, and each day is divided into one daytime segment and one nighttime segment), players then needed to know what they could actually do with their time. From the start, I said I wanted this to be a game where clever planning is rewarded, and where that instinct to come up with the foolproof plan that many gamers have is both rewarded and prevented from spiraling out of control. I felt strongly that coming up with not only the basic sketch of a plan, but also coming up with all of the details and contingency plans, would lead to a more satisfying payoff. I also wanted there to be a real risk of failure (if not complete failure in the Job, at least failure to account for something in your plans) because I feel like the highs of success are greater when this is the case. But if I was going to let the players do the planning, I had to put limitations on it. We've all played in that game where players dither forever. To keep planning from spiraling out of control, I said that planning consumes your main resource (time, in the form of an entire daytime or nighttime segment) and put a 15-minute real-time limit on planning scenes. This has had the nice effect of spurring the players to the meat of their planning quickly, with little distraction or dithering.

 Spencer Crittendon's planning notebook.

Spencer Crittendon's planning notebook.

Legwork

Looking to the source material for the game, the con/heist genre, it seemed like a common trope is that no plan can instantly be put into motion. The main characters needed to get out there and set things up, meet contacts, recruit allies, set up cover stories, and, in the process, provide lots of opportunities for their opposition to make life more difficult for them. Every time the main characters went out and started putting a piece of their plan into motion, it was associated with a high risk of being caught. The classic con movie, The Sting, is one of the best examples of this, and some of the most tense moments in the movie come well before the climactic final act.

This is where the idea of legwork scenes came from. I found pretty quickly during playtesting that a player-driven sandbox game needed something very important to feel satisfying: a sense of progress. If you're going to ask the players to drive the action, they are going to want to feel like they're actually getting things done. So, I started out allowing everyone to define or participate in one legwork scene. That "or" in there was quickly revealed to be a problem; it led to lots of time spent with the crew divided into smaller groups, which would inevitably result in two or three players sitting around the table doing nothing and waiting for the current scene to play out. So I shifted the rule to say that everyone takes the lead on one legwork scene, and then can participate in as many of the other players' legwork scenes as they wanted. Coupling this with some better guidance for the Judge (focused on introducing complications that encourage many members of the crew to get involved in the scene), the pacing picked up significantly, and the players' sense of progress grew significantly.

There was one final major tweak that I made to legwork scenes, and it came after a playtest I ran at PAX West 2016. After that playtest, some of the players made the suggestion that the one thing missing from legwork was some assistance from the game in helping the players define the scene, a template that they could follow to easily set up the action. This is something tied into the challenge of player-driven games; when the options are too wide-open, players often feel paralyzed by their choices. I then created the template that players use in the game right now to help define their legwork scenes:

Specify one thing you want to get out of the scene (a specific piece of information, some asset or resource, the cooperation or aid of an individual, and so on), and describe the place you are going to get it. You then explain how you are going to get it and, if necessary, who you interact with to get what you want.

This turned out to be a great aid in keeping the pacing at the table moving forward. Defining what the player wants to get out of the scene up front sets and end goal for the scene, the "pull" that the player is working toward. This is also nice because, at the end of the scene, the player can look back and see if they got what they wanted, leading to a very clear sense of progress. Describing the place where you are going to get it helps the Judge provide the backdrop and set decoration for the scene, an important part of immersing the players in the setting. Defining how you are going to get what you want helps the Judge not only make the call on what obstacles and challenges are present, it also points to which skills or other mechanics you're going to need to use to succeed, and the option to talk about who you interact with opens the door to introducing recurring NPCs into the game. Best of all, this structure still allows players freedom to drive the game forward in the way they want, and lets them play to their strengths. If you're a Vesper who is good at dealing with nobles and need blackmail material on a noble to use as leverage, you describe your method as interacting directly with the nobility; if you're not good at dealing with nobles and are instead a Mummer who is good at dealing with criminals, you describe your method as seeking out another criminal who actually has the blackmail material already. Players can play to their strengths while still following a template that makes things easier on everyone.