Game Plugin: the Blame Game

Human beings crave cause and effect. When something goes wrong, we try to understand what happened so the same thing doesn’t happen again. It’s a good survival tactic.

Taken too far, it means we look for explanations for even the most random events. We don’t want to live in a universe where bad things happen for no reason, so we look for someone to be the reason.

We look for someone to blame.

The Blame Game plugin promotes tension and hostility between characters. You can use it for deadly serious “frag the lieutenant” military scenarios or something much more light and comical. Either way the structure promotes roleplaying because it forces you to forge opinions — bad opinions — about the other characters.

This system was originally developed for project hicks aka Nuke ‘Em From Orbit, now retired. We tried this mechanic and it was super-fun, if by super-fun you mean it got the characters at each others’ throats in minutes flat.

The Blame Game

A team runs on trust. What happens if you don’t trust your teammates? You don’t rely on them. You aren’t sure they’ll do their job, and if that could result in something that could screw you (and it always does) you’ll spend time worrying at what they are doing instead of doing _your_ job. That makes a breakdown in trust contagious: you don’t trust Sawyer, so you are glancing at his fire zone when you should be watching yours. Griff notices that you aren’t watching your zone when you should, so he stops trusting you and starts worrying about your zone too. Soon the whole thing goes to hell in a hand basket.

To rely on someone you have to trust both loyalty (“Cole would never leave me behind”) and competence (“Cole knows what he is doing, he can take care of the bugs on his end”). It doesn’t do any good to know a guy is a deadly fighting machine if he would leave you hanging out to dry to save his own skin, and your best friend since childhood will only keep you company while you’re getting eaten if he can’t figure out how to switch off the safety on his assault rifle.

When bad things happen to the team, each character is burdened with a certain amount of “blame” they must lay on someone to explain to themselves why things went wrong. The bugs got the drop on us, and I think Marcus should have been paying more attention to his zone so I lay my blame on him.

Blame can be rational and based on facts (Marcus wrecked the transport, so naturally you think he’s incompetent) or it can be totally irrational (you weren’t there when the bugs ate Luther, but Marcus wouldn’t shut up this morning about what a bad idea this mission was, so you think he jinxed it and got Luther killed). It’s totally up to the player.

Blame Is Personal — A person may be trusted differently by different people. You think Cole is a slacker, so you don’t trust him, but Sawyer thinks he’s fine. Even two people witnessing the same events may come to entirely differently conclusions of whether someone should be blamed.

Blame Is Belief — An imaginary problem does as much damage to trust as a real problem. If I think you aren’t watching your corner, it doesn’t matter how on the ball you really are, I stop trusting you. If I think you are hiding a cowardly streak or you’re about to lose it, it doesn’t matter if you would really lay down your life for me, I stop trusting you.

Acquiring Blame

When something goes wrong, each member of the team acquires an equal amount of blame they need to put on someone else. The worse things go, the more blame everyone gets:

everything goes according to plan — 0 blame
something goes wrong or someone gets hurt — 1 blame
someone gets killed — 2 blame
massive failure, catastrophic defeat, lots of deaths — 3 blame or more

You can scale these values up or down based on how quickly you want things to fall apart.

Laying Blame

Write down all the other characters’ names side by side on your sheet. When you blame someone you establish a new (worse) opinion of them — you distrust them more. For every point of blame, come up with a one or two word description of the person you are blaming, like “loser”, “slacker”, or “incompetent.” Write that description beneath the person’s name on your character sheet, putting each new description below the previous ones.

Each new description has to be worse than the previous one.

You might start off with:

thinks too much

After a few more bad encounters and laying more blame it might read:

thinks too much

If some missions go well and you start to trust Kelso a little more, you may erase “coward” and just think Kelso is unreliable.

Key point: you have to blame another player character on the team. You can’t pick an NPC or “the Brass.” Maybe you blame them too, but we’re not interested in that right now.

After an action sequence results in blame, play through these steps:

1) Each player gives a brief out-of-character summary of who they want to lay their blame on and why. They may base it on things that were already established to have happened during the action, or they can put forward details that they think fit. It may also be that a character just thinks something happened in a certain way. At this point no one should revise their plans based on what anyone else says. Don’t worry too much at this point about what actually did happen — that’ll get sorted out next.

2) Roleplay the interactions. Usually this involves insults, yelling, and recriminations. The flow of conversation and counter-accusations may lead players to change who they blame. There is no rule that your character has to openly say who you are blaming or why, but even sullen resentment should be played out somehow. More is better.

3) Final decision. Players may choose to revise who they want to blame based on the roleplaying scene, then everyone writes down their final blame. No negotiation or discussion at this point — just decide, write it down and then tell everyone what you wrote.

After an ambush goes bad and a trooper gets killed, everybody gets saddled with a point of Blame. Spruce’s player declares he’s blaming Wallace for not being alert, and Taylor’s player jumps on the bandwagon to blame Wallace too. Wallace’s player decides to blame Taylor for messing up the demolitions used in the fight, even though there was nothing rolled that indicated the demolitions were a problem — maybe it happened that way, maybe it didn’t. Truth is subjective.

Taylor: “Wallace man, you screwed up!”

Spruce: “Yeah, Wallace if you’d been watching your zone Sammy wouldn’t have gotten killed. Sammy! I’ll miss you buddy!”

Wallace: “I was watching my zone! It was Taylor who set off the mines too soon and screwed the ambush! They were all over us!”

Taylor: “Me? That detonator pack was fried! Spruce was supposed to check it this morning!”

Spruce: “That’s bullshit man! It was good when I checked it! You’re so full of crap!”

After roleplaying is over, Taylor changes his mind and blames Spruce (fucking slacker). Spruce also changes his mind and blames Taylor (the lying bastard). Wallace could still blame Taylor as he planned, but the roleplaying might sway him to blame Spruce instead.

Is any of this true? Did Spruce mess up prepping the demo packs? If it is not a detail that came out during the action we may not know.

What we do know is that if a player lays blame, they are saying their character believes that person is to blame for what happened, right or wrong.

“But my character would never do that!”

Other players may say your character did things that you don’t think your character would ever do. My character would never fall asleep on guard duty!

If that’s what you think, say so! Have your character call bullshit on them. Another player saying something happened doesn’t make it so. On the other hand when players make accusations that do fit your character, well maybe it really did happen that way. You can still deny everything (at least to start with), but maybe your protests ring a little hollow.

Unshakable Faith — Brothers In Arms

With all this talk about who you trust and who you rely on, it may seem strange that there are no rules for showing that you trust someone more than usual, like that blood brother you’ve served twelve tours with and who you’d lay down your life for in a heartbeat.

If you want to show you really, really trust someone and nothing can make you doubt them, just don’t lay any Blame on them. Go ahead. Even if they obviously screw up, just blame someone else.

So… what does it do?

The full rules included things like blaming yourself, suppressing blame and potentially cracking up over it, changing your mind and shifting blame to other people, heroic catharsis, Sarge keeping a lid on things, and so on, but this is this is all you need to use it in a game.

You’re probably also wondering, what mechanical effect does all this have? Do I get negatives if I team up with someone I distrust? What’s the deal?

And the answer is: zero mechanical effect. None. Which makes it a great plugin.

It works because the secret ingredient is human nature. If I sit across the table and discuss how my character thinks your character is a coward and liar, I am pretty likely to roleplay that way even if nothing in the rules makes me do it. Likewise if I call your character a clueless screw-up, you are likely to have your character take it personally. You are going to react to the insult.

I’m a big believer in non-binding game mechanics, meaning rules that trust the players have good intentions and will play well (or at least interestingly), rather than distrusting the players and mechanically forcing them to obey. Maybe I’m so sick of your guy that I leave him behind for the bugs to munch on when the chips are down. Or maybe I say screw it and throw myself into the fire to save him because I just can’t leave a brother-in-arms behind. It’s up to the players to play their characters.

Try it out. It’s a very short hop to total team breakdown.

    Ben Robbins | July 11th, 2009 | | show comments