Distrust and suspicion in Last Fleet

One of the themes I’d been planning on putting front-and-centre in Last Fleet, my BSG[1]-like PBTA game, was suspicion and distrust. The mechanic I used to make it happen was Social Conditions. Put simply, when someone did something that put their loyalty or reliability in doubt, they’d get a Social Condition that described what people thought about them. “Drunkard”, “traitor”, “criminal”, that sort of thing. The effect of a Social Condition is twofold: first, they give you a penalty when you make a relevant roll - e.g. harder to get access to secure areas if people think you’re a traitor; second, there’s a general fictional effect that people may respond to you as though the Social Condition was true, which at higher levels could mean they try to get you fired, or throw you in the brig, or similar.

The problem is, they don’t seem to be coming up very often and (perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising) they don’t seem to have much mechanical impact. So now I’m trying to think through my options to drive this theme home.

Apart from Social Conditions, I’ve already got the theme coded into the game from other angles:

  • MC Moves and MC Threats. I can make NPCs suspicious of the players, and give the players reasons to be suspicious of NPCs - including actually putting traitors, plotters and criminals in my NPC base.
  • Playbooks. The Scorpio playbook is a sleeper agent with a scary move that makes them do bad things in their sleep, or similar. The Gemini playbook is a cult leader, politician or criminal with their own agenda.

So I guess the question is, is that enough, or do I need to make the Social Conditions harder-edged or more salient somehow? Or come up with some other way to make distrust and suspicion more central to the mechanics?

Any ideas or reactions welcome.

ETA: [1] Battlestar Galactica

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An option I’ve considered is to require every character to write down a secret agenda, something they care about that they might prioritise over the fleet’s interests. They’d be forbidden from revealing it, so nobody would know for sure what they were really up to.

That seemed to prompt some strong reactions from some people, though.

One suggestion which might make it easier to deploy social conditions is to make them factional. In other words, put characters in situations where they will have a hard time avoiding getting a social condition with someone. For example:

Moose comes to you asking for a favor. “I know I’m supposed to work that shift with you, but I have some other stuff I have to take care of. Can you punch my card for me? I know you aren’t supposed to do this but I really need this favor. Remember that time I covered for you?” If you do cover for Moose, you risk earning an unreliable condition with people who notice, but if you don’t, you might earn ungrateful from Moose and his friends.

Not sure if this fits the tone of your game, but often I think the best social tensions are situations where there’s no “safe” choice.

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My Gemini first officer had a secret agenda and it worked well with that particular playbook. Not sure about the more upstanding members of the crew.

Perhaps the breaking points could be exploited for this purpose. Could you make it more explicit that they result in social conditions?

I think the relationship questions are also important in setting up distrust between players characters.

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Possible teeth:

  • If you have a social condition and you are trying to do anything social with NPCs (or at least those without history with you (maybe some sort of token that would get spent)) you somehow top out with a 7-9 result (or roll with disadvantage)
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Is there some incentive to drive players to play into these conditions? Otherwise, the burden falls on the GM to keep the conditions present and relevant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that might be why they, like in Monsterhearts, don’t get much play.

P. S. Please define acronyms at first use. While I know BSG= Battlestar Galactica, I expect there are many here that don’t.

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A couple of random thoughts:

In Jerry Tidwell’s game Companions, when a specific thing happens in the fiction, the person in focus opens a sealed envelope. One of them is “when the first person dies”, for example. Inside is a new, custom move and some supporting material. I could see something similar really amping up tension and suspicion in your game.

My impulse regarding social conditions is to make them extremely hard edged in this setting. If you have the social condition “criminal”, there are things you can no longer do, moves you can no longer make, until the condition is removed. You will never be able to access the armory, or whatever. I’d give them big nasty teeth.

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I think a thing that is leaving me slightly torn is, it’s fictionally logical to give them teeth, but the more I give them teeth the less people will want to do them, right? So there needs to be some amazingly good payoffs that make up for the pain.

I love the sealed envelope idea. I love secret specials that you can unlock, especially if you get to physically open something. How did companions get around the fact that the sealed material is presumably available for anyone to read if they buy the product? Is it just “don’t read this if you aren’t the GM”?

I don’t think Companions is quite done, so I don’t entirely know, but there’s a ritualistic element to being the one to open the envelope (IIRC there were maybe eight different triggerable cases, and corresponding envelopes). It becomes a focal point and a momentous occasion, even if everyone knows what it means.

Imagine if one of them is “the first time someone expresses doubt about the mission, open this envelope”. The person opening it is the one who did that. They carry that. Everyone knows it. And they get a cool moment and a cool/terrible new thing to do that reflects it. Secrecy and surprise aren’t necessary (although they would be fun the first time around).

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You should ask your players a bit more about the strong reactions they had. In my group there’s usually a strong reaction against PvP (player vs player). It happens eventually but we all feel it as toxic, even in games that are oriented to PvP (Like Vampire the Masquerade, etc.), so we tend to keep PvP restricted to a single moment/scene instead of going into a vendetta, because most of the times once there’s suspicion and distrust and things escalate a little, players will straight jump into murdering other players or NPCs.

How do you and your group usually deal with things like these? I love a good intrigue but I haven’t seen enough mechanics/techniques that could actually help a group separate character vs character from player vs player, so everybody can enjoy developing the story instead of going straight to the kill to “solve” things at once.

Also, your Social Conditions look good. One thing they can help players with is getting access to the trust of minorities that have the same condition. Like, criminals may approach each other seeking collaboration, and even a traitor may find someone that agrees with them and is ready to take things further.

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Ooh, good point. I’d not really thought about this as PvP - I think I’m just used to the sort of inter-character drama you see in (e.g.) Monsterhearts. Hadn’t really thought about the potential for people to start throwing each other out of airlocks. (I mean I had, but was more thinking of NPCs trying to do it, than players doing it to each other.)

My group’s reaction, I think was more about the experience of playing BSG board game and feeling anxious/uncomfortable. It’s sort of a PvP thing, but I think more about the secrecy/surprise traitor element than the fact of antagonism between players.