The core question of Karma in the Dark is archetypical: what are you willing to do for power? How much will you let the pursuit for power corrupt you?
In the fantasy genre, this is presented as a pretty black and white concept. There is the Big Bad who is Evil, and the Good Guys who fight for what is Right no matter the cost. This paradigm assumes a certain black and white morality.
In cyberpunk, it is more common for compromised, imperfect antiheroes to push back against an even more corrupt system . . . or to push back against people who are doing "the right thing" but in horrific ways that undercut its rightness. This is the gray vs. grey trope of the genre. While it doesn't offer the same stark morality as fantasy, there is still this play of morally right, wrong, what falls in between, and what really determines one from the other.
In Karma, I'm not as interested in right and wrong. From a design standpoint, I don't want to enforce my morales on the player, both on principle and on an engagement level; it's hard to be engaged in a moral struggle if you don't genuinely feel invested in the moral issues.
This is part of why I want players to pick their virtues, rebellion, and team ideal. You pick your morales, and then the world holds those as true.
But I'm also more interested in exploring how these moral choices impact a sense of identity.
By this I mean how a character (and really the player behind the character) sees themself when they first establish their beliefs, how the game scenario strongly encourages them to compromise those beliefs for power (i.e. better rolls, more special abilities, easier XP gain), and how those compromises affect how they see themselves after those decisions, reflected in the way the player sees their character.
This is often illustrated best after someone exceeds their stress meter. Not only does the character become jaded, but they experience a short flashback to a time they betrayed their beliefs. Before this flashbacks, most players won't have thought about this event. They focused on definining their characters virtue and beliefs. Now the mechanic is asking them to explicitly describe a time they violated that base assumption; even though the event happened in the past, for the players, it's happening right now and will shape how they view that character moving forward. It changes their view of their character.
The first few steps of this process seem to be working well in Karma. The virtue, rebellion, team ideal, and team reputation seem to sketch out enough about characters that players have an idea of who they are when they start play.
The Sell Out mechanic encourages people to compromise their beliefs, but it never requires it. These sell out instances often push the team closer to corruption, but it's okay, they gain a cool corruption power at each stage. Characters who avoid selling out often need to rely on stress--which pushes them faster towards becoming jaded.
The jaded mechanic half-works. If you get a few, it helps you get XP faster--and going forward, after your first jaded box from play, you get a cool attitude special power. I might throw out the requirement that you have to rebel during downtime if you are jaded (a hangover from Blades' trauma/vice mechanic) because really...I don't want being jaded to be bad until it's too late. It already has enough potential for trouble because of the friction it can cause between team members and the way it makes you rethink your character after the betrayed-beliefs flashback.
But here's the thing. In real life, you can compromise and compromise and compromise . . . and still come back from it. I'm a firm believer that anyone is redeemable, and from a purely narrative and player agency standpoint, I think it is more interesting if a character can decide to stop their downward spiral and try to get back to what they believe. The thing is, you can never go back to who you were before you compromised your beliefs . . . you become a new version of yourself, balancing your desired beliefs and the mistakes you can't undo.
Mechanically, I want to find a way characters can try to redeem themselves and get back to their beliefs. It would require a sacrifice, and they could never be the exact same.
. . . which pushes me towards going back to my unfinished antihero playbooks. Shoot. I started writing this whole thing as a way to help me think through how to simplify/streamline my game mechanics.
Well, until I get this refinised further, here is a work-in-progress attempt to capture some of the feel of the game's dynamics (like, really, really in progress):
You are irrelevant. No faction will speak with you. No vendor will sell to you. No one will buy information or services from you. To the world, you don't exist. Your only connection to the world is through your contacts--friends and enemies with some speck of relevance.
Every moment is recorded. Between surveillance, 24-hour news, live streaming, and social media, every action is uploaded into the Feed. Once it enters the Feed, it can never be erased. People try to hide information, but there is always someone better at hunting. Eventually, the evidence will be found.
You are invisible. If your actions are caught by the Feed, it means nothing. You belong to no faction. You have no power. Upset a faction enough, they will erase you. But until that point, you are a tool for the powerful, who want to make consequence-free moves.
You can become someone. The factions may be at the top of the ladder now, but if you make yourself useful, build connections, grow your reputation . . . you can become relevant. You can even overshadow those who once hired you.
Fortune favors the corrupt. Compromise your beliefs, and the relevant will help you. Hold fast to your ideals, and you declare war on everyone with power. You choose: push the world further into corruption, or attempt to hold true to yourself and put your life in in the crosshairs of those who want to maintain the status quo.
Either way, the jobs don't stop. And neither do the decisions.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.