Mechanics for player retconning

I'm thinking of running a game based on the television show "Leverage". In the show, the characters run an elaborate scam on some rich and powerful bad guy. The episode shows how things look (roughly) from the point of view of the mark, and then at the end, does a series of flashbacks showing how the characters set up the scam.

I'm wondering if anyone has experience with mechanics I can use to facilitate this for my players. I think it would be really cool if I could just focus on making the heist really hard to pull off, and the players be able to surprise me at the end by making good flashbacks. I'd like to be able to actually be in suspense about how they're going to win (the characters always win).

I know there is a Cortex system for Leverage, but I'm really not too keen on Cortex. I'm planning to use Fate, although I might crack open my Dogs in the Vineyard book and see if I can lift its mechanics. Rules-light in general.

I'm not looking to buy a new system. If you have a recommendation for a system, you need to describe how the rules work so that I can adapt it to Fate. Experience with the Leverage RPG is useful, since someone who has played it probably can give me a good idea how the Cortex mechanic feels to play.

• – Chuck Dee Apr 16 '15 at 18:59
• True game-recs are off topic. This isn't a game-rec, it's looking for a specific kind of flashback technique/mechanic. Like any question on SE, "spitballing" isn't welcome, but anyone who has done this or seen it done should answer using Good Subjective, Bad Subjective guidelines. – mxyzplk Oct 30 '15 at 21:04

Hack Apocalypse World

In my unreleased Apocalypse World superhero hack, each playbook includes a move that allows the PC to have some degree of retroactive narrative control. Retconning happens all the time in comics, and as my hack's goal is genre simulation, retconning needed to be baked-in.

For example, The Detective playbook has the following move:

Strategic: When you want to retroactively make a plan now, explain when and how and roll +Clever. On a hit−, you didn't. On a special+, you did and hold A. If improved, or hold AA. Hold A: While you have 2 or fewer holds from this move, you may spend 1 hold to • have another take +1 forward • have something useful • let someone enter the area • let someone exit the area • reposition someone • take +1 forward.

When made successfully, the move effectively lets Otterman stop everything and explain to the other PCs that, while on the Otterplane on the way to Dr. Mastication's lair, they talked about this exact situation. A brief role-playing interlude occurs as Otterman explains the plan, and the mechanical benefits are realized.

And, for example, The Savage playbook has the following move:

Destructive: When you want to retroactively destroy something now, explain when and how and roll +Tough. On a miss, you didn't. On a hit, you did and pick AA. On a special+, you did and pick A. If improved, take +1 forward. List A: It • can still be salvaged with time • caused some collateral damage when you destroyed it • hurt you when you destroyed it.

When made successfully, the move allows Grenadedroid, as Dr. Mastication is about to escape in his Soviet-era diesel submarine, to explain that while the other PCs were exploring Dr. Mastication's lair, Grenadedroid found the diesel fuel storage. Never one to waste an opportunity to be destructive, he blew it up. In the process, Grenadedroid was slightly injured, as that's what happens when one mixes grenades and diesel fuel. Cut to Dr. Mastication swearing at our heroes from his unfueled sub and a previously unrevealed sliver of fuel barrel protruding from Grenadedroid's back.

(Both of these examples are pulled from my hack, so the language differs from that of stock Apocalypse World, but what effects the moves have should be obvious to those familiar with the game's engine or other hacks (q.v. Dungeon World, Monster of the Week).)

The playtesters—my regular and very conservative and traditional gaming group that I enlisted to help me with the Sisyphean task of playtesting a superhero game—were as wary of taking such narrative control away from me as I was about giving it to them, but over the course of several sessions such moves ended up receiving no greater or lesser attention than any other moves.

Hacking this into Leverage

The main Leverage characters by season 3 are superheroes, almost to the point of parody. For example, once it became clear in the series that Eliot never loses a fight unless he decides to a lose a fight, determining why he chooses losing becomes more interesting than the fight itself. That why is often the retcon point—a short-term failure later aiding in a long-term success.

Unlike a superhero game, a Leverage-based Apocalypse World game would require constant retconning. I'd consider replacing a character's sex move with some kind of move usable when a character is either detected (for the grifter, hacker, or thief), defeated (for the hitter), or outwitted (for the leader) that lets the character turn being detected, defeated, or outwitted into a later success. However, I haven't tried this.

To Sum Up

Such narrative sleight of hand like the kind you want is more easily accomplished in a system that relies deeply on the master of ceremonies to determine the outcomes of PCs' actions. Running Leverage using a more nuts-and-bolts system (cf. Spycraft 2.0, which handles admirably all of the show's characters' abilities) typically means sacrificing the retconning that makes the show's plots so engaging.

• I like the idea for the mechanics. I'll probably make some similar stunts for the Fate game (maybe based around the concession mechanic, not sure). – Joseph Aaron Lehmann Apr 18 '15 at 14:15
• I think I'll make rules like this for the game in Fate, so I'm accepting this answer. – Joseph Aaron Lehmann Apr 18 '15 at 14:21
• Is that "A" deliberate or a symptom of some kind of glyph font not being copied over? I have no idea, I have barely poked at Apocalypse World's written rules, just want to bring it to your attention in case your attention is called for. – doppelgreener Apr 18 '15 at 14:57
• @doppelgreener You mean in notations like Hold A and List A? No, that's no glyph error but an actual letter A, representing a variable. Some more complex moves have several variables (e.g. A, B, C); these examples just have the single variable A. (There's a reason it's unreleased, after all.:-)) – Hey I Can Chan Apr 18 '15 at 18:32

You already mentioned a good one, FATE Core is probably the next best thing aside from the Leverage System. You already have a really cool way to introduce complications and allow players to do flashbacks with the fate point system. Say in one scene a security guard is about to check the room one of your players is in, another of the players says "When we were in the other room I bumped into him and lifted his ID badge" In another scene your thief is about to make his escape when he passes a particularly large diamond, say you invoke one of his aspects Loves Diamonds he can either spend a fate point to shake it off or gain a fate point and go for it.

As an alternative, you might consider checking out the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide. It's substantially cheaper ($20) and includes not only the rules for Leverage (which is Cortex Plus Action) but also a lot of advice and examples for manipulating the mechanics to fit your play style. It also contains the rules for Cortex Plus Drama (the basis for Smallville) and Cortex Plus Heroic (the basis for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying), so you really get a lot for the$.

Fundamentally, you need hack nothing into FATE to pull this off. Use Fate Accelerated.

• Pick approaches as usual for FATE Accelerated.
• Everyone picks one of the following Roles as an aspect: Driver, Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, Thief. No one may take one that someone else has taken.
• Everyone picks 3 additional, more traditional aspects. One should link to the criminal history of the PC. Take 1 stunt.
• Fate already allows spending a fate point on a narrative declaration. This can include statements of past actions. (Fate Core, p. 13; Fate Accelerated, p. 29)

The Cortex Leverage does NOT use the "play in the past mode" - tho' like fate, it allows it with PP spends. So....

Neither should you. Start with the client briefing... then play in order the setups. If, in the heat, you realize you should have done X, fate point to use a declaration of a flashback for it.