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26 April 2006 @ 01:33 pm
Verge: Network  
I mean network in the "interconnected system of things or people" sense, not the "group of computers sense." I know, not what you expected for a cyberpunk game. I'm talking about a kind of story map. If you have any interest in game design or cyberpunk games, you'll want to read this because it's the coolest shit ever.

I'm taking Verge in a new direction. Yeah, it's been -- what? -- a year since I started scribbling my crazy ideas about my "cyberpunk role-playing game on the edge" and it's metamorphosed a couple times. Now something really freaky is coming out of the cocoon. Till now, Verge has been a pretty typical (read: derivative) indie-style rpg. A month or two ago I stumbled on some new ideas and now the whole game is changing into something wondrous and, hopefully, innovative.


I don't know where the ideas came from and that sucks. I believe in credit where credit is due. I know a bunch of people have been talking about story maps and relationship maps (r-maps). Breaking the Ice apparently does some stuff with a story map. Sorcerer introduced r-maps to indie gaming, or at least popularized them. Some of the folks whose blogs I read have talked about different kinds of story maps used to guide a game. I'm sure all that has seeped into my head at some point. I can't say that any specific person was a direct influence and I swear that this feels like something that I created on my own, as an evolution of r-maps. I'll just have to thank a lot of people in my credits.

Role of the Network

If you read the article I posted on Story Games, here's a summary of what's changing in my head.

  • What I called the Story Map, I'm going to call the Network.

  • The network will be created during play with a setup phase borne of necessity but players will continue to modify the network throughout play. In fact, play will be defined as scenes that have the potential to change the network.

  • Players will spend points to add to the network and gain points by ratifying stuff added by other players.

  • There won't be a separate character sheet. Characters are just part of the network.

  • Thus, changing the network during play can change characters.

Creating the Network

The network is defined as a bunch of elements (nodes) interconnected by relationships (edges). Nodes are people, places, things, and ideas that exist in the fictional world. Edges are connections between those elements. Each is defined by a short phrase. For example, a node "Knight Carson, hacker extraordinaire" might be connected to "Megasoft data centers" with the edge "hacked them" with the arrow pointing from Carson to Megasoft.

In the game, the players use a big sheet of paper to record the network. This is the setting and the characters all one one page.

Each player will start with 5 tokens (poker chips or glass beads work great). Spent tokens go into a common bank. Earned tokens come out of the bank. There's a setup phase before standard play to create the network. In turn, each player has an opportunity to contribute to the network in one of the following ways:
  • Spend 1 token to add a node to the network. Write the name of a person, place, thing, or idea on the network page. Also initial it so you can remember you created it.

  • Spend 1 token to add an edge between two existing nodes. Draw an arrow from one node to another and write a short phrase describing the nature of the relationship between those two things. Initial it so you can get credit.

  • Earn 1 token by ratifying (approving) someone else's node or edge. Add an exclamation point after the description of the node or edge. For example, if you think "Cyborgs" is a cool node, turn it into "Cyborgs!" and get a token from the bank.. The person who wrote the thing you ratified also gets a token from the bank.

  • Spend 1 token to question a node or element that you think is dubious. Add a question mark after the description of the node or edge. For example, if you think "Cyborgs!" is silly, turn it into "Cyborgs!?" It's fine to question something that is already well-questioned (creating, for example, "Cyborgs!???????"). 

  • Spend 2 tokens to claim an unclaimed node as your character. Circle it and write your initials or first name under it. The node you claim must be a unique entity in the fictional world and it must have a name. For example, you cannot claim "Cyborgs" because it isn't a unique, named entity, but you could claim "Artie 550, Cyborg" since presumably "Artie 550" is the name of a single cyborg. You cannot write a new node and claim it in the same turn and you can't take an edge as your character. Claim as many as you like. A claimed character cannot be questioned but it may still be ratified, but not by the claimant or the person who wrote the element.

Setup proceeds in a sort of give and take. Players at first need to spend tokens to add new material to the network but must replenish their tokens by ratifying the ideas of others. There is a bit of strategy and diplomacy involved in creating the network. Players will have to sell their ideas to each other. Cool ideas will earn tokens, which in turn will let players add more cool stuff to the network.


These are the main components of the setting. As the network develops, players will start to get a picture of the world they are going to play in. It might have cyborgs, or artificial intelligence, or mind-raping viruses. Buddhism and Christianity could both be major components of the game world. The players can add concepts and ideas like "Hatred" to the map but they should also add specifically named people and organizations, too: "Megasoft," "The Demons, a street gang," "Knight Carson, hacker extraordinaire," "120 Park Street, NYC." The nodes should be evocative and sometimes mysterious. You don't have to know how it's going to be used in play.

You can't add a node that's already on there in any similar form. It's bad cricket to add "Cyborgs" when "Cyborgs???" is already on the network. Also, you aren't fooling anyone by adding "Humanlike Robots" when "Cyborgs???" is already there.


These connect the nodes together and the network starts to tell a story. Many of the edge relationships should create tension and conflict. Sure, you can connect "The Demons, a street gang" to "Megasoft" with a boring edges like "gang uses their software" but it won't earn you many tokens. You'll have better luck with an edge like "uses the gang in tv commercials to sell software" or something equally whacky.

Ratification and Power

The ratification process produces buy-in for the fiction. The Power of a particular node or edge is the number of exclamation points it has minus the number of question marks it has. So "Cyborgs" has power 0, "Cyborgs!" has power 1, "Cyborgs!?" has power 0, "Cyborgs!!!!?!" has power 4, and "Cyborgs!?????" has power -4.

Yes, you can have negative numbers. Negative power scores on nodes mean that the thing is very, very weak or the concept is non-existent. "Cyborgs????" means that not only are there not cyborgs in this world, it's really, really hard to create them. Negative power scores on edges mean that the opposite of the relationship is true. For example, if Knight has a relationship to Aliana in the form of an edge labeled "she loves him?!????" (power 4) then that can be interpreted as "she doesn't love him!!!!" Ouch.

Power is used during play to get dice for characters to do stuff and to get dice for character opposition. Players use the power of edges between their characters and other things to get dice on their side. The opposition gets dice based on the power of the relevant element at stake. More on this later, but I promise you it's very, very cool.


Each player needs at least one character. Claiming a character gets you ownership over the will of that character, but not his circumstances. All kinds of nasty things can happen to a character during setup and play. Other players might create undesirable edges to that character. During play, the character can be pressured and crushed. Claim on a character only gets you the sole right to make decisions about how that character reacts to his circumstances. Other players have opportunities to create those circumstances, and some of these might feel like things traditionally considered "character authoring." Deal with it. Embrace it. It'll be fun.

The essence of a character is the claimed node and all the edges that connect to it. These edges represent the character's relationships and influence over the world. If you claim "Knight Carson, hacker extraordinaire" you'll want edges to nodes like "Megasoft" ("hacked them"), "Knight's modified Darkforce DF5750 cyberdeck" ("owns it"), and "Cyberspace" ("knows its secrets"). Hopefully, those edges will have lots of exclamation points after them and thus, a high power. The higher the power, the stronger the influence the character has over the node on the other side of that edge. For example, if a character Knight has an edge "knows its secrets!!!" to a node "Cyberspace" then that's a power-3 relationship, which represents a fair amount of influence over Cyberspace.


At some point, the network will feel "done enough." You don't want it totally finished because a good game requires that the network have a certain amount of tension in it and an "unfinished" quality to it. That unfinished quality is what propels the game, by making you want to change things.

The game is "done enough" when everyone has a character, the characters are reasonably developed, and there are enough specific nodes that the world feels like a place you could play. Everyone should agree that the network is done before moving on. Keep any tokens you didn't spend as you will use them during regular play in much the same way as setup.


Play focuses on role-playing fictional events that impact the world via the network.

Once setup is complete, players take turns framing scenes that focus on a character and various other nodes and edges of the network. Each scene should seek to do one of a few things: 

  • strengthen (ratify) an existing node

  • strengthen (ratify) an existing edge

  • create a new edge between two existing nodes

  • create a new node and join it to the network

  • weaken (question) an existing node

  • weaken (question) an existing edge

  • destroy a node

  • destroy an edge

Want to embarrass Megasoft? Weaken its node. Want to crush Megasoft? Destroy its node. Want to improve your ability to find stuff in cyberspace? Strengthen your relationship to it. Want to make Alania love you? Strengthen your relationship to her and weaken the relationship between her and your competition. Want to invent a new cool piece of hacking software? Add it as a new node and connect it to your character with an edge labeled "programmed it." You get the idea.

All this stuff costs tokens. Other players can toss in tokens on your side or the opposition's. Dice get involved, too. Successes earn you virtual tokens toward the stakes of the scene. So say you end up with 4 successes, and your opponent gets 3 successes. That's like having 1 free token toward winning what you want for the scene. Let's say it's weakening Alania's relationship with Roger Dorvin ("she loves him", power 3). It'll cost you 4 tokens to weaken it (power 3 plus the standard 1 for the scene). You need to spend 3 more to win.

You can burn the relationships you have (edges connected to your character) to get tokens in a pinch. This weakens the edge by one and gives you a token. You can do this at any time you are rolling dice or just rolled dice. If you share a relationship with another character, that character's player must allow you to burn it. For example, say there are two characters, Knight and Roger Dorvin. They're connected by an edge labeled "best friends!!" You're playing Knight in the love scene above and you need 3 more tokens to win Aliana away from Roger. You can burn Roger twice for 2 of those 3 tokens. and change the relationship to "best friends!!??" (power 0).

If you weaken a relationship below power 0, you must also weaken your character. If you're playing "Knight!!" (power 2) and you burn a "best friends!!" edge for 3 tokens, you end up with "Knight!!?" (power 1) and "best friends!!???" (power -1). Roger hates you and you lose a little bit of your will to live.

(More later!)

Christian Griffen (xenopulse)chgriffen on April 26th, 2006 06:32 pm (UTC)
Sounds cool so far... I'm curious how that'll work out in play.

As for sources, I see some Universalis (tokens, investment=dice) and Vincent's Ars Magicka Knock-off (creator+underwriter/ratifier) in here, but definitely used in a way I haven't seen before.

To be honest, whereas I wasn't that into your previous versions of Verge, this has definitely caught my interest.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 26th, 2006 08:04 pm (UTC)
Previous incarnations didn't have a lot in them that hadn't been done before and done better. Then I created the nascent story map thing and playtested it with Tony L-B and Shawn De Arment and it rocked. Tony said something like, "You need to make the game about this story map," and I took that to heart. It took me a couple months to figure out how.

I'm sure I picked up the idea of ratification from Vincent's fishbowl, yeah.

I like the way the currency flows between tokens and dice and stuff in the network.

Thanks for your comments!
Robert Donoghuerob_donoghue on April 26th, 2006 06:36 pm (UTC)
Chewing over much of this, though all in all, really cool. Two particular points jumped out at me:

1) I _love_ the !!! and ??? notation. That's freaking brilliant.

2) Looking at the structure of this, I am inclined to ask, have you ever played the glass bead game?
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 26th, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC)
I haven't played the glass bead game. I did see a recent Iron Game Chef entry named that and read a little of it, but that was after I'd formulated most of this network stuff. Can you give me a link so I know what you're talking about? I know it's a Herman Hesse novel and an Iron Game Chef entry and that's about it.

I admit to really liking the !!! and ??? notation myself. I did have the chance to playtest the creation of a story map in an earlier evolution of the idea. Three of us took turns doing basic add, connect, ratify, question operations and a world just fell into place as if by magic.

One of the very cool side-effects of ratification and questioning is that if you can't think of a cool new element to write on the map, it's very easy to just add a ! to the end of something you think is cool. In the new rules, you are even rewarded a token for doing that. It was an unintended but awesome pacing mechanism.

Thanks for the comments!
Robert Donoghuerob_donoghue on April 26th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC)
For more on the glass bead game, check out: http://home.earthlink.net/~hipbone/

And yah. After I got exposed to Ganakagok, I actually used a "put down a box and a line" setup for character generation for one of the PTA games I tried. Whatever else went on with the game, that part worked _wonderfully_ (plus it produced a spiffy graphic when I was done). Given that baselne, the ability to add a third dimension to the map effectively (Since I almost envision !!! and ??? as height and depth) andt the doors really open.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 27th, 2006 06:44 pm (UTC)
Much thanks for the reference to the GBG stuff. At first reading, I thought it was only tangentially related, but as I delved deeper, it seemed very, very relevant. I share the notion that the players of my game and Hesse's must connect ideas through analogy, compress the ideas into icons yet communicate their essence to other participants, and say something meaningful about real life to have any value.

Now I need to get a copy of the Hesse book.
Loki: blackfistxiombarg on April 26th, 2006 10:40 pm (UTC)
Ditto, particularly on #1.

I really like the sound of this, but I'm curious as to more details of how actual scenes are played out. It seems you could spend a lot of time just fiddling with the nodes and edges and fleshing out the world, which is cool, but very high level. I'd miss the chance to actually chew some scenery.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 27th, 2006 01:44 am (UTC)
Yeah, I skipped over the role-playing stuff in the write-up but that's obviously the most important part of the play sequence.

Basically, you role-play freely until you're about to do something that should conceivably modify the network. Then you get game mechanicky, define stakes, roll dice, go back and forth a bit with the slick reroll mechanics I have -- all the time adding narration to support the die rolls -- then you resolve the dice and token stuff, modify the map, and role-play out the conclusion. That should lead into the next thing, whatever it is, and there's free rp going on in that space, too.
Devlocke61dv on April 28th, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC)
The "wait for point of conflict, set stakes, roll, keep going" thing is tried and true, but it would be awesome if you can find some other off the wall and different way of mixing RP with the map modification.

Random suggestion: If you think about it, a change in the Network is almost like a raise in Dogs. Like "I kick Ishmael in the gut: Raise 14". I can say "I dejack the interweb: Burn the edge by 1". Maybe these changes are temporary (not yet permanent) but effect the dice mechanics; perhaps these dice mechanics aren't about "Stakes" but more like a pacing mechanic, where at some point the situation is stabilized and no further Network changes are possible from this scene.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 29th, 2006 01:07 am (UTC)
The "roll dice, go back and forth a bit with the slick reroll mechanics I have -- all the time adding narration to support the die rolls" bit I was talking about is already a lot like this.

To get more specific, there's an initial roll and an opposition roll. Then the player has the option to burn edges to earn rerolls. Your example totally fits in with what I have. There's a great back and forth with the opposition dice rerolling when you do, too, and that creates tension.

I think I see where you're going with the temporary changes to the edges, treating them like Dogs traits. You can use each one only once, it gives you some benefit, and its value is reset at the end of the conflict. I don't think I'll do that with character edges, but I've been trying to come up with a mechanism for allowing a player to use nodes under his control to get bonus dice (instead of a total reroll). Maybe you can use any one node under your control for dice in certain situations. I gotta think about that more.
(Deleted comment)
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 26th, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC)
I poked around on the net and found some affinity diagram explanations. They didn't help much. It seems KJ diagrams are meant for sorting, which isn't exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm thinking more of a cross between a relationship map and a mind map. Recording of and look-up of relationship information like in an r-map combined with the brainstorming power of a mind map.
(Deleted comment)
Alexander Williamszamiel on April 26th, 2006 08:04 pm (UTC)
I have to say, this is looking particularly clever and intriguing. I wonder about the physical mechanism of the network itself, as it gets bigger -- recording and noting on it will keep getting more and more hairy.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 26th, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC)
I imagine using a giant piece of paper that covers half the table. You don't need your own character sheet.

Really, if you write fairly legibly and not too large, you can get a tremendous amount of stuff on a single letter-sized sheet and even more on a legal-sized sheet or (better) an 11x17 sheet.

For a long series of games, a geek like me would take the whole thing and put it in Visio and print it out for the next game, but that's just me. Not everyone has access to Visio. You could just redraw it as necessary, too.

Playtesting will prove if the physical network drawing is unwieldy or not.
Robert Donoghuerob_donoghue on April 26th, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC)
Post it notes on a whiteboard would also do the job.
Lokixiombarg on April 26th, 2006 10:41 pm (UTC)
I've done this sort of thing with a whiteboard and it works very well.

Butcher paper might also work.
 Adam Dray: capinyourassadamdray on April 27th, 2006 01:45 am (UTC)
Yah. I have giant easel-sized graph paper that I'll use for my own games. =)
Christian Griffen (xenopulse)chgriffen on April 26th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
I think it's not the size that's difficult, but having 12 connections to the same thing from all over the map. I've thought about that with conflict webs/r-maps in general, and somehow there needs to be a way to use different levels of granularity, or different local maps, to work that out. But since this is a relatively new technique, there's not that much actual experience with how it works out.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 27th, 2006 04:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I figure I'll playtest it a bit and see if it works. If not, I'll mess with some ways to manage the complexity.
Joannahistoire68 on April 26th, 2006 09:21 pm (UTC)
That seems sort of cool.. but also sort of annoying. Like, everyone could gang up on one person and make all his edges suck. That would be no fun.
Christian Griffen (xenopulse)chgriffen on April 26th, 2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
Like everyone in an adventuring party could team up on one PC and beat them up?

I think things like that are best avoided through social contract, there's not much you can do about it with mechanics.
Loki: chillinxiombarg on April 26th, 2006 10:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this fits into the "don't play with jerks" clause of gaming that so many gamers ignore at their peril. If you genuinely think people would gang up on you, even if you asked them not to, you shouldn't be playing with them; it's not something the system should happen.
Ben Lehman: Snakebenlehman on April 27th, 2006 02:08 am (UTC)
Adam -- This rocks. Seriously, seriously rocks.

Credit could be put any number of places.

 Adam Drayadamdray on April 27th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Ben. I plan on taking some of the credit myself. ;)
Zak ak akzakarntson on April 27th, 2006 09:26 pm (UTC)
I love the map creation. Especially at the end of setup with nodes having power. The rough map (with ! and ?) turning into a gameplay map (with Power ratings).

I'm not so enamored with freeplay gaming, where rules apply only when you want to modify the map. To me, it seems that Power should affect gameplay, rather than freeplay until you have a chance to shift Power. But that could be a granularity dial. Do you want a long campaign? You make Map adjustments only at big conclusions, probably once a session. Do you want a one-off evening game? Map adjustments are made every five minutes.

Thanks for updating!
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 27th, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
My thought is that the group will pressure the spotlight player to Get To The Point. In fact, I'll include a GTTP rule. The whole point of role-playing games is the role-playing stuff, so I don't want to go light on it. Even Sorcerer has its "free and clear stage" rules where players just role-play until there's a conflict. But the idea is that something is driving play towards conflict at all times.

Thanks for the comment!
Devlocke61dv on April 28th, 2006 09:37 pm (UTC)
BTW: I definitely dig this evolution of Verge.
 Adam Drayadamdray on May 1st, 2006 03:02 pm (UTC)
Dude, I love hearing that. I dig it too. I think what put Verge into limbo for, oh, the last 6 months was that I wasn't digging it. There were a couple things about I thought were cool but overall it wasn't what I wanted. It took a half year of mulling and thinking and learning before I found what I wanted it to be. I'd like to kick out a rewrite before June (challenging due to other responsibilities right now).
(Anonymous) on May 23rd, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)
Sydney Freedberg says - Freakin' cool!
(Hey, remember me from that Roach game? Yeah, I'm the guy whose character removed both his eyes and engaged in ritual buggery. I'm at sfreedberg [at sign] nationaljournal.com).

I thought the old version was "kinda neat," but this network thing jazzes me. It's akin to some of the things I'm trying to accomplish with .

Let me zoom in on:

"In fact, play will be defined as scenes that have the potential to change the network."

I know, as people have said, that "just roleplay along until you come to a conflict of interest, then engage mechanics" is tried-and-true, but my experience with (and to a limited degree, and ) has made me very interested in doing it exactly backwards: Every player gets a turn, just like in a boardgame, to do certain things that may have mechanical effect, as mediated by the rules -- and gives rise to the fiction, rather than vice versa.

It's easy to lose the roleplay altogether this way if the structure's not set up right, but it's potentially powerful.