Western Paranoia (part 3), Tangled Threads
With the Lawman/Outlaw/Cowboy tripod of deceit, characters may or may not have secret allegiances, and more importantly the players anticipate that the other player characters have secret allegiances. The groundwork for mistrust and treachery is nicely laid out.
The details behind these choices are fleshed out in the character backgrounds the players create — the surface Lawman is a Texas Ranger, but she is really an Outlaw because she used to run with a gang, and so on. But each secret is effectively a separate plot, and in a one shot game having each person's secrets come out is going to be tricky. Plus when treachery is the name of the game, the players are more motivated to hide their secrets than dramatically reveal them. To get those secrets surfaced, or even make them a factor in play, there has to be some weak point that threatens to expose them.
Players sent me their backgrounds before the game. Most were pretty straight forward: “he accidentally killed a lawman, so now he's on the run”, or “a gang killed his lawman brother, so now he's pretending to be an outlaw to find them and bring them down.”
All good stuff, and fine by themselves, but to up the treachery ante, I took each one and cross-linked it by just assuming that a character in each background was actually the same person referred to in another background. So the lawman player A accidentally killed just happens to be the lawman brother of player B, and the gang that player B thought killed his brother is the same gang that the female Lawman (mentioned above) used to ride with. All the backgrounds interrelate.
In some cases it meant that what the player thought happened was incorrect. One player thought his brother was killed by an outlaw gang, but the secret truth was that he was killed by a drunken doctor while pursuing that gang. Another player thought he killed a US Marshal, only to find out later that the Marshal was an impostor.
The players had no idea I was doing this, and it didn't start to come out until part way through play. Had they known, they might have metagamed and looked for possible connections, so the “tangled threads” trick might have been far less interesting.
The last ingredient to make sure things got spicy were things that were guaranteed to expose some secrets. A player who is carrying around the badge of the lawman he accidentally killed will have some explaining to do after his saddlebags are searched, and how is the Texas Ranger going to explain it when the outlaw gang rides up and gives her a big hug?
If only one person knows a secret, and they have no reason to ever give it away, you don't have material for an interesting game. If there are clues that point towards the truth or just don't fit the story they've been using, they have to start coming up with explanations. And if someone else knows their secret, they are under pressure to get that person to not spill the beans.
This is particularly important for the characters whose only goal is to hide their past. A character that wants something (“avenge my brother”) will get right into the action, but unfortunately the best tactic for the “hide my past” character is to shut up and lay low, none of which makes a good game. Weak points that might give away their secret are critical to getting them involved.
So our Western game now has two layers of action inducing treachery: we have the Lawman/Outlaw/Cowboy deception to make players distrust each from the start, and we have the deeper tangled threads so that when the players do start to find out each other's secrets even more conflict emerges.
Now we just slap on a fairly simple surface plot to get the characters involved, like the outlaw gang gearing up for a train robbery, and let the pot boil…