MSG(tm) is one of the most innovative RPGs ever made, about a subject I feel safe to say is utterly untouched in the realm of pen-and-pencil gaming. Some of the minds behind White Wolf’s many excellent RPGs have crafted this indie game about soulless corporate brands and the soulless consumers that love them. Chris Braak from Threat Quality Press stopped by Robot Viking HQ to offer this very in-depth playtest/review/analysis.
So, MSG. This game has a fascinating premise; it takes place in the near future, when all business is essentially dominated by an invincible, nearly omnipotent Company, whose job is to control and maintain a Brand. Players are “Reps” for the brand, and play as either Freelancers or Assets—independent characters or “company men,” essentially two classes with different sets of powers. The play is simultaneous, with one player each taking a turn as the Company and giving the remaining players a “situation.” This can be a complex or a simple situation, and it can come from the list of sample situations, or the Company can make it up. Virtually all of the situations revolved around the Company wanting to kill someone, with the implicit assumption that players would probably want to stop that from happening (a mistaken assumption, as I discovered with my group).
The players then talk through and negotiate the situation, establishing a supporting cast, relevant elements, fabricating contacts, making use of their “expertise,” and finally determining their stakes in the situation and bidding on it, using convenient tokens. After every player has taken a turn as the Company and provided a situation, the game is over, and whoever has the most coins left wins. This rule mechanic is very simple—players have three attributes from which they can bid token; the winner of a bid throws out what he risked and gets to keep what was waged against him. This is a fairly elegant structure, designed to prevent over-bidding. It is never in your best interests to win by more than one point, since you can only ever lose money. It is also sometimes in your best interests to lowball another player, and let them win the situation.
Of course, because this rule is so simple, the play is exponentially more complex. Virtually any element can be introduced to the story, subject to a handful of restrictions, provided the player can conceive of a reasonable, absurd, or reasonably absurd way to introduce it. Elements can be rejected by the other players, but in our case, the only characteristic that would cause an idea to be rejected was, “too boring.” If this sounds confusing, it’s because it actually is—in print, the rules read like the kind of thing that five guys thought was a great idea, and of course they could figure out how to play it [Editor's Note: You could probably say this about virtually any game more complex than "Go Fish." Try reading the rules for Arkham Horror and see how much sense it makes before you play a few turns].
I assembled a small group of four players (myself included), with varying amounts of experience in role-playing games—ranging from a lot to none at all. We also had a fair amount of beer on hand, but made no particular commitment to drinking it all, in case that’s pertinent. Our initial discussions, after I’d explained the rules (several times), centered around the game being heinously complicated, and whether or not it would be morally acceptable to just drink all the beer and pretend we played through the game.
We determined that this would not be acceptable, and attempted several rounds, gradually introducing more of the game’s mechanics each turn. Done this way, it turned out to not be as hard as we thought, and I want to stress that: the rules of the game seem pretty unnecessarily complicated, especially with their constant introduction of new and exciting nomenclature, but once you start playing, it actually runs pretty smoothly.
The first round, we decided to just keep game mechanics simple. Players picked names, divided up their two main attributes, and decided on their USP. The USP, along with a couple other things (including iLoves and iHates and Secret Tragedies) is a characteristic that lets you earn “Soap” points whenever you figure out a clever way to work it into the situation—these extra points can only be bid in this particular situation. I played the Company.
The first situation was about an actor who had found insane religion, and was harming the brand with his wacky antics on talk shows. We decided to call him Shmom Shmooze, and his wife, Shmatie Sholmes, because, you know, we’re not idiots. The Company wanted the Reps to kill the guy. Now, I mentioned before that, apparently, players aren’t supposed to just want to kill everyone, and that this is kind of a problematic assumption. The first player (named Barry Goeswiththeflow) pointed out that, “Hey, killing him would probably be pretty easy, and we’d be doing the world a favor by killing Tom Cruise. Shmom Shmooze, I mean.” He then added that his character’s unique selling point was that he had an axe. He then decided to point out that his “iLove,” a character from his own background, was his dear sainted grandmother, Heinous Goeswiththeflow, who was also a mob boss.
He got Soap points for working both of those characters into the story, but he was also veering towards a pretty simple solution. Fortunately, the second player (Dave…just Dave), came up with some kind of alternate plan. His unique selling point was that he had a wheelchair (this was just an example USP that he’d come up with, but then we made him keep it), so he got good parking and could get to work before anyone else. He planned to get to work early and introduce a line of cartoon lunchboxes featuring Shmom Shmooze, in order to make him worth more alive than he was dead. Which would have been a great plan if the third player (Humbert Hmbert), also apparently bearing a grudge against Shmom Shmooze and his real-life counterpart, hadn’t decided to use his unique selling point—a great big red Chevy Camaro—to park crosswise across the only handicapped parking space at the Company, thus delaying Dave…just Dave from getting to work early, and giving Barry time to get grandma Heinous to kill the actor.
This seemed like a good place to do the actual betting—if Humbert wins his bet, then his plan disrupts Dave…just Dave’s, if Dave…just Dave wins his bet, then his plan disrupts Barry’s, etc. Now, it did lead us to a bit of ambiguity in the rules: while the printed instructions clearly indicate that players are meant to be bidding against someone, and that eventually the Reps will have formed “sides,” it also explicitly states that the relevant stakes of any situation are different for every player. Are they supposed to bid against each other? Are they supposed to divide up into teams? Dave…just Dave obviously can’t bid against both Barry and Humbert—he doesn’t have enough resources, and that would mean that every time two players think of a plan, they automatically get to win over the one that doesn’t. It also didn’t make a whole lot of sense for the Company to assist Dave…just Dave, since Dave…just Dave kept interfering with the Company’s plans for murder.
For lack of a better option, we treated it like blackjack, with the Company as the dealer—the Company, which starts with a wealth of resources, bid against every player individually. Whichever player had the highest winning bid got to narrate how the situation turned out. In this case, it turned out to be Dave…just Dave; Barry lowballed the Company, bidding only his Soap points (which he wouldn’t get to keep for the next round, anyway), and Humbert was outbid. Dave…just Dave got to narrate how the situation turned out, which involved Humbert getting his Camaro towed for parking in a handicapped spot, and the Company making a line of lunchboxes with Shmom Shmooze’s face on them.
Round two was Barry’s turn to be the Company, so he set his resources aside and I introduced my player, Egbert—a closeted gay man with a huge beard that had a bird living in it. This is one of the perils of group character-creation. The bird, as it turned out, was not useful in this or any other situation. The Company introduced our new problem, which was functionally more than a little like the old problem: the Company owned fifteen breeds of dogs, some kid had mixed two of the breeds, and now had a mongrel. The Company wants to kill everyone involved (as usual).
With ax-maniac Barry and his mob grandma Heinous gone for this round, it was a little bit easier to not kill everyone. We actually did slightly more role-playing, this time—the Company took the role of supporting cast members, and when we introduced someone and wanted them to do something, we had to actually have the conversation. Dave…just Dave tried his usual route of making a subsidiary brand of the new dog, Humbert cleverly talked the boy’s father (who was also linked to the mob), into killing our manager (so at least someone was getting killed), and I tried to take steps to have the boy and his dog relocated to another country. We did the bidding again, and Humbert won this time, as he succeeded in figuring out how to use his Camaro, how to include our manager as someone that he hates (and so got an extra Soap point for thwarting/killing him), and linking all of his activities to the Brand that we were working for: another element that we were slowly including, and that provided Soap points.
The remaining two sample situations worked roughly the same way. Someone was trying to dilute the brand, and the Company wanted to kill them all. Barry planned on killing them, Dave…just Dave tried to think of something else, and Humbert and I alternated between the two plans. After four rounds, we found that Barry had won the game, something that we hadn’t expected, and that I think exposes a flaw in the game’s mechanics.
You win the game by having the most resources at the end. Every time you bid, if you win you throw out what you bet, and you take what the other person bet. This means that you want to only ever win by one counter, and that without taking Soap into account, the best-case scenario is that you only lose one point each round. Now, with Soap, it’s possible to force the Company to bid higher than your regular resource pool, and thus end up with more tokens than you started with—but all of the bidding takes place in secret. You know that the Company will bid at least your Soap value, but might try to lowball you; you know that the Company could try and outbid you, since it has enormous resources, and then you’d have to risk your regular resources in order to win. So Barry’s conservative strategy, which was to just keep lowballing the Company and hanging onto his own resources, ended up being successful.
What this means is that there’s no financial advantage to actually winning an individual situation. No matter how the situation plays out, what really matters is how you bet, and so there is no point in ever risking your actual, non-Soap resources. You are always better off only risking Soap (and the one resource point that you’re required to bid), agreeing to lose the situation if other players have more Soap, and then just winning the game at the end. That was kind of a bummer, and is something worth bearing in mind—you need to play this game among people who, if they are not actually invested in the Company’s problem, will at least pretend they are. Alternately, I suppose you could use a kind of variant reward; maybe whoever wins the situation gets a couple extra points.
In my estimation, there are two scales according to which any roleplaying game is measured, and a game’s ranking on these scales determines the attendant qualities necessary in a good player. The first is the complexity of and its reliance on rules. The second one is the game’s creative requirement: that is, how much of the story are players required to make up on their own? Obviously, a game with nothing but rules and no creative content wouldn’t even require players, which is probably why two computers can have a blast playing chess against each other. A game with no rules and nothing but creative content probably shouldn’t even be called a “game.”
MSG leans heavily towards the latter situation; very low reliance on rules, very high reliance on creative input from the players. The decentralized model, in which a game session does not invest universal power in one player through its entirety (as in a Dungeon Master or a Storyteller), demands that all players constantly contribute, and also leaves little room for nudging sometimes-recalcitrant players into the game. Situations are also persistent, so anything made up in one round remains true in the next—meaning that you need players who are constantly paying attention. This, combined with the fact that the game is competitive, ultimately means that if you want to play it successfully, you’ll need a handful of experienced role-players who are equally enthusiastic and equally gregarious regarding the game.
If you’ve got that, though, it’s a hilarious good time. I’m going to call this a gamer’s game, and recommend it for people who know what they’re doing. Alternately, I can see a game like this working very well among pre-existing groups of noisy and creative people (potentially: theater majors, marketing majors, maybe the writers from Lost).
You can grab a PDF of MSG(tm) at Indie Press Revolution. Viva!