Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – playtesting

I’ve just completed a full version of Flotsam for external playtesting!

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, misfits and renegades living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. The focus of the game is on interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community that lacks the basic structures of civilisation.

System-wise, it was originally a Dream Askew hack, but has wandered a great deal from those roots. It owes quite a bit to Hillfolk and Archipelago, too. Everyone gets to act like a GM some of the time, controlling one aspect of the game setting and the threats it contains, and everyone gets to play a Primary character some of the time, exploring their life and relationships.

If you like the sound of that, and you think you might like to give the game a try, please get in touch by commenting here or emailling me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.

Some thoughts about GMless gaming

I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless[1][2] gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.

This is the good shit

So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both[3], but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.[4]

There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.[5]

Issues with GM’d play

There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.

Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.

Problems with GMless play

Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.

Direction, energy and structure

There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.

Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:

  • For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page.[6] Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
  • For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
  • For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
  • (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
  • A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.

Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes

By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.

Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.

Role hopping

Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story”[7] or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.

This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).

Too much like hard work

A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.

I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.

Final thoughts

I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.

Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.

 

[1] “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.

[2] As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.

[3] Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.

[4] GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.

[5] There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!

[6] These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.

[7] I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.

The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Roleplaying in Chesterfield, Derbyshire

With apologies to regular readers, this is an advert for my local gaming club.

Refugees from Reality
We are a Roleplaying and Board Gaming club in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. We enjoy a wide variety of games, from indie to the big names. We welcome new players and are always open to trying something different. Find out more on our website or drop us a line if you’re interested in coming along.
www.refugeesfromreality.co.uk
refugeesfromreality@gmail.com
facebook.com/refugeesfromreality

Anatomy of a roleplaying game (LONG)

Georges Cuvier, totally relevant to gaming.

Georges Cuvier, the legendary father of palaeontology, boasted that he could deduce the class and even genus of an animal based on a single bone, because the “correlation of parts” ensures that every component of the animal’s body are related. In other words, every animal is specialised for a particular way of functioning, and therefore every part of the animal reflects that way of functioning.

You can say the same of roleplaying games. There are plenty of games which boast of being completely generic, or of being able to handle just about any situation. But upon close inspection of even individual parts of a game, it is possible to discern a great deal about that game’s way of functioning. Just as an animal has a specialised “design”, games have a literal specialised design that can be observed in individual components of the game.

Before I go on, let’s pause to consider the difference between the design of a game – its procedures, guidance and fictional material – and the way it’s actually played. A game is, after all, not really an organism but a tool. We can learn a great deal from studying a tool, but its full functioning only emerges when we see how it is used. Even so, if a tool is well-designed, its designer will have envisaged a particular way of using it which the design will then promote and support. You can use a kitchen knife to cut paper, and you may even get quite good at using it that way, but it is designed to cut food and that is where it comes into its own.

Let’s take as a simple case study the so-called “traditional” game. This is a class of beasts rather than a single animal, but its members have components in common from which we can deduce a common function. I’m going to look at three such components: the GM; difficulty checks; and ratings for weapons and armour.

First and most fundamental, the GM. Games vary wildly in how they implement this component, but the “traditional” approach is for one person to exercise their judgement and creativity to plan a fictional setting and events, which form the context for a situation that same person creates, populated by people,

Your guide in the realm of…

creatures and phenomena that person describes and controls, regulated by rules that person adjudicates up to and including ignoring the rules in favour of their own rules or ad-hoc decisions. Everyone else describes and controls one character within that setting and situation.

Given that description of a GM, a game design Cuvier would conclude that this was an incredibly important role. The backbone of the game in which it featured. It is possible for a GM to take a highly collaborative, discursive approach, but the role’s natural oeuvre is autocratic – there’s nothing in that description I just gave about collaboration except at the interface between the player characters’ actions and the rest of the world. And because they control so much, they dictate the terms by which the other players must engage with the game.

Returning briefly to what I said earlier about the way a game is actually played, it’s really important to acknowledge that a lot of groups, whether their particular game tells them to or not, do in fact adopt this more collaborative approach. GMs may look to their players for subtle cues to help them craft an experience that will be satisfying for their players, or they may be much more explicit, discussing what the players want from the game and giving them creative input on setting and even situation. But that is not what the game component known as the GM is designed for.

No, the GM as a design component is clearly aimed at producing a specific experience: highly guided play, where one person decides broadly what the game is going to be about and then prepares and moderates the game accordingly. As an experience it’s close to a choose-your-own-adventure story, but with the vastly expanded flexibility for action implied by decisions being run through a human brain instead of a branching flowchart. I’m not going to go into a discussion of other approaches but it should be obvious that there are many other possible experiences a game could promote.

Moving on: difficulty checks. These

Polyhedral dice, how I love thee.

are a ubiquitous mechanic across a range of games, and in most games that have difficulty check mechanic, that is the single core mechanic for handling conflict (outside of combat which sometimes has its own dedicated mechanic). Characters have some numerical stat (attribute, skill, talent, whatever) and via some kind of randomisation they either succeed at a task (if they beat a difficulty number) or fail (if they don’t). Maybe there will be degrees of failure, yes-and, no-but, etc, but fundamentally the mechanic is about: can this character overcome this obstacle, avoid this risk, complete this task.

The fact that so many games make this sort of mechanic the core of their ruleset tells you one simple thing: they want you to tell stories that are about trying to do stuff and succeeding or failing. In other words, what Robin Laws would call “procedural beats”. There are lots of great stories you can tell that revolve around success and failure: action movies and police procedurals, for instance[*]. But, once again, there are many other possible experiences a game could provide.

Let’s also pause to note the link between these first two components: the GM typically decides when a difficulty check is needed, what the difficulty level should be and what the consequences of success of failure are. So in games with a GM, difficulty checks are a key tool that can and often are used to help the GM control pacing and dictate the terms of the story; they help to make the game even more of a guided experience. Once again, we observe Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts.

Finally, ratings for weapons and armour. A lot of games, and virtually all games that have both a GM and difficulty checks, include rules for inflicting damage on characters. This very often means a set of numbers telling you how much damage weapons do, and how good armour is at blocking that damage. (Sometimes the “weapon” is a spell, or the “armour” might be a mutation or something, but it’s the same principle.) In most such games, no other sphere of activity is delved into in that level of detail: we don’t (usually) have ratings for various investigative tools, or for how different types of terrain interact with stealth, or anything like that.

What this tells us should be obvious: the game is about fighting. We need all that detail about weapons and armour because we’re going to be doing a lot of fighting and we care about giving it a level of granularity (perhaps “realism”) that we don’t need for other areas.

Now this last one is so ubiquitous that many games that really are not supposed to be about fighting nevertheless include it. Call of Cthulhu is about investigation and being traumatised by gribblies. Fighting is mostly futile, and not a central part of the Lovecraftian genre at all. Yet it includes special skills for different kinds of weapon, and ratings for their damage levels (pre-7th edition, at least – I haven’t seen it). This is arguably bad design: it doesn’t seem necessary or particularly useful as a component of that type of game. Such games typically fall back on guidance to let you know what the game is “really” about, or a well-understood culture amongst the fan-base.

The point is, these are not “generic” rules or vanilla design choices, they support a specific type of play. Each of these rules reinforces that type of play, promoting a very specific experience. A single person plans and guides the experience, which is mostly about struggling with obstacles and fighting threats. Individual groups may graft on other aspects of the experience or house-rule or ignore the rules to get the experience they want: but a study of the anatomy of those games provides a clear view of what they’re designed to do.

[*] Aside: I’m not actually sure there are that many great stories about success and failure. When I think about stories I’ve enjoyed even within the broad category of “mostly procedural”, the heroes largely succeed unless they’re overmatched. When they’re overmatched it usually marks out the key obstacle of the story, which the heroes must then struggle to somehow overcome through cleverness, a macguffin, some kind of montage, whatever. It’s pretty rare for random success or failure to generate interest. But whatever, it’s a popular model.

MC Moves in PbtA: a different way of doing it

I find it confusing the way that the MC Moves in Apocalypse World and its children focus on the outputs of the fiction instead of the entities in the fiction.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example: in Apocalypse World, you “announce future badness”. You have to decide for yourself what kind of badness we might be talking about and, notwithstanding the greater structure provided by AW’s clocks and fronts, it could essentially be anything from “a dangerous person with a stick of dynamite has arrived” to “the dangerous person with their dynamite is about to blow up the holding”. There’s nothing in the system of moves to distinguish between the first arrival of a threat, which is in itself a sort of announcing future badness, and the actualisation of the threat, the imminent inflicting of harm or other unpleasantness. It’s just “future badness”. Similarly, “inflict harm as established” is just harm, the move doesn’t tell you anything about where the harm comes from.

I find this very counter-intuitive. When I’m MCing, I am thinking about threats, characters, events – stuff in the fiction which might generate “future badness” or “harm as established” or similar. I don’t think “how could I inflict harm on someone right now”, I think, “What might Mr John Q Dangerous do next? Oh! He may inflict some harm with his stick of dynamite!” Every time I read through the list of AW moves I find myself having to translate it into a language I can understand.

So here’s how I would recast MC Moves. A list of Moves, from the softest of the soft to the hardest of the hard.

1. Introduce someone or something that has the potential to be a threat or an opportunity. A guy with a gun. A person with power. A mighty storm. Right now, their mere existence is all you’re announcing. You’re saying “here is a threat that isn’t currently threatening you”.
2. Actualise the threat or opportunity by giving that someone or something a reason to become threatening, or if they already had a reason, by giving them new access to or awareness of the players and their concerns. So, the guy with a gun realises the players are working for his arch-enemy. The person with power, who is looking to recruit new followers, notices the players in her territory and she decides to go after them. The storm enters the valley the players are in.
3. Activate the threat or opportunity by having it make a concrete move to harm the players or their concerns. The guy with the gun points it at the players, he’s about to fire it. The person with power sends a squad of goons to round the players up. The storm begins to lash the players and lightning flashes all around – they need to seek shelter or they’ll take harm.
4. Enforce the consequences if the players fail to block or evade the activated threat, or if they take appropriate action to take advantage of the activated opportunity. The players take harm from the guy’s gun. Having treated with the powerful person, she gives the players new equipment and authority. The players are given the condition “freezing and exhausted” by the storm.

That fourth category contains many of the moves in AW: inflict harm, trade harm, capture someone, take away their stuff and so on. But many of the AW moves cover the whole gamut of the first three categories: you can announce future badness by introducing a threat, actualising it or activating it. Similar thinking goes for opportunities, off-screen badness, and so on.

By the way, I realise this isn’t entirely novel. The countdown clocks do something similarish. But hopefully this provides a helpful general set of steps for moving a threat from first appearing on the horizon to being all up in your face.

Designer Diary: Space Askew

I’ve long had an interest in designing a Dream Askew hack, thanks to very positive experiences playing the game tempered by some issues that I wanted to address. I’ve been tinkering around with this concept for quite a while, and finally managed to get a working prototype to a playtest this weekend.

The game is currently a fairly thinly reskinned version of the original, since I want to concentrate on streamlining and reworking the design framework. But I didn’t want to just copy Avery’s game, so I’ve changed the setting. Space Askew is set in the belly of a space station, where outcasts and misfits live in the shadows below a more prosperous settlement.

What’s changed?

  • I felt that DA would benefit from some more in the way of relationship-building in setup. I’ve added a set of Hx-style relationship seeds to choose from, and some Hillfolk-style unrequited desires. In both cases the process involves choosing something yourself, then asking another player a question, the answer to which provides a completed background element.
  • I wanted a clearer and more intuitive set of MCing guidelines for running the Situations. I’ve brought the MCing system a bit more back towards the way Apocalypse World works, supplementing each Situation’s Principles and Moves with a set of general Principles and Moves, and giving clear guidance for when an MC makes Moves. The Principles are a bit different from AW’s, focused more on small-scale interpersonal drama than constantly shifting external threats.
  • I’ve placed question-asking at the heart of the system. When you want to create a bit of content for the world (a character, a location, a piece of technology, a rumour…) you don’t create it yourself; you ask someone else about it. This is true in setup and during play.
  • I’ve created a more developed process for deciding what scenes should focus on, and for deciding who is MCing at any given time.
  • I added a very simple harm system. Whenever someone tries to inflict harm on another character, they say what they’re doing in the fiction, then ask someone else what the outcome is. I want harm to be kept simple and fiction-based, and I want the decision to inflict harm to recognise that, once the bullets start to fly, you can’t entirely control the resulting pain and injury.
  • I’ve switched the psychic maelstrom to a Battlestar Galactica-esque set of gods who you make sacrifices to and petition for aid.
  • I’ve added a new skin called The Foundling, who was once part of a networked hive mind connected to a parent AI and has somehow become separated from the parent. They’re a bit like the Hollow in Monsterhearts, lacking a clear identity and anxious to understand humanity.

How did the playtest go?

  • Character gen was fantastic. Beyond my wildest dreams, really. It took 45 minutes and yielded well-realised characters with charged relationships but plenty of undefined space to explore in play.
  • The play itself went well, but I think that was more a testament to the quality of my players than the system I wrote. I suspect people were relying on their own habits of running fairly systemless games rather than my rules. (The excellent setup will have helped, of course.)
  • This was partly the result of my failure to effectively teach the rules, and I’m clear that the game needs a Lovecraftesque-style teaching guide that guides you through the rules systematically.
  • It was also partly the result of information overload. I should have realised this would be a problem, because I think DA was already pretty hard work and Space Askew added a bunch of extra stuff.
  • I hadn’t fully appreciated how Play to find out and Ask questions aren’t particularly obvious or intuitive ways to play. As the only person who had read the rules outside the playsheets, I needed to do more to explain this (and the teacing guide would need to include this).

So what am I doing next?

  • I’ve already begun work to streamline the amount of information in the game, reducing the number of Principles and Moves to a manageable level, and focusing on what is really core to the game.
  • I’m going to write a teaching guide which ensures certain rules that aren’t on the playsheets gets mentioned, that key principles are explained in more detail, and that character gen is more structured.
  • I’m going to turn the Situation sheets into something a bit more resembling a character sheet, complete with setup questions.

Watch this space!

AW’s dirty secret: you can say anything

As part of my endless quest to spend every waking moment of my life obsessing about game design, I have spent some time analysing the MC moves in Apocalypse World. And here’s what I learned: what at first looks like a long and fairly complex list of options could actually be boiled down to “say something, anything”.

Ok, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ll explain in a moment. But let’s take a look at the basic moves (i.e. those which don’t come from a front).

  1. Announce future badness, announce offscreen badness. This translates to “tell us something bad is happening, or about to happen”. Obviously, it also has to be something the players weren’t previously aware of, else it isn’t announcing, obvs. Minor subtlety: it has to be badness. Bad for whom? The game doesn’t specify, and at times it makes it clear that moves don’t have to be against the players, they can be against anyone. If that applies here too, then this is truly a flexible set of moves indeed – announce anything that could be bad for someone. In that case, I could just write “QED” here and be done. It probably doesn’t apply here, though.
  2. Offer an opportunity (with or without a cost), tell the consequences and ask. This translates to “tell us something that might happen depending on what we do next”. Now, a particular corollary of this, combined with the “be honest” rule is that whatever that something is, it will definitely happen as described unless someone acts appropriately. So this move boils down to “say what is about to happen and then do it unless someone stops it”. Already we have the basis for essentially anything to happen.
  3. Remember that all the previous four moves can be used with just about any time period attached. Future badness could mean “in the next five seconds” or “in a year’s time”.
  4. Put them in a spot. This translates to “make something bad happen”, more or less. Ok, perhaps it’s a bit more specific – it implies they’re going to have difficult choices to make or challenges to overcome. But that pretty much boils down to “make something bad happen”.
  5. Capture them, separate them, take away their stuff, inflict harm (as established), trade harm for harm (as established), turn their move back on them. Obviously, these are much more specific. The harm moves are the system’s means to link what the MC says to the harm system, and to prevent the MC from just killing a PC (the principles prevent you doing that anyway, but this bit of system reinforces it). The others  are more-or-less just specific examples of someone being put in a spot i.e make something bad happen.
  6. Make them buy. This is just a sub-type of offering an opportunity and/or telling the consequences. It amounts to a prompt to think about barter and other such trade/negotiation.

So essentially everything can be boiled down to “say what might be about to happen” or “make something bad happen”. This looks like it rules out nice things happening, but of course it doesn’t – if you offer an opportunity and someone takes it, something nice will happen. But clearly, for the most part, nice stuff is there to prompt the characters to action so they can get the nice stuff.

So this is maybe not quite just “say anything”, but it’s pretty close. It’s extremely close – maybe indistinguishable from – “say anything that the players won’t want to ignore”. (This seems jolly close to the Dogs in the Vineyard formula, from the same game designer of “do something they can’t ignore” when engaging in conflict.)

What’s my point? Well, mostly it’s just a bit of analysis I did, and I felt like writing it up. But it matters to me because, when I first started playing PbtA games, I remember staring at the moves list when it was my turn to act. Blinded by the sheer range of options. Paralysed, at times. But in practice, if I’d just fallen back on the principles and said something – anything – that the players would be expected to give a damn about, it would probably be fulfilling one of the moves.

I think the AW moves list is probably intended to function as a prompt, to help MCs mentally brainstorm their options in the few seconds before they open their mouth. Occasionally I think I’d find that useful. But I think for the most part I’ll just be saying the first thing that comes to mind, in future. I’m pretty sure I’ll end up sticking to the rules as I do so.

Game feedback: different kinds

I was listening to one of the Metatopia panelcasts from last year, and the panelists[*] mentioned that there are different types of feedback and wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to say what kind of feedback you wanted. Well, I agree, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about. So here goes.

Before I start, let me say that when I send my games out for feedback (playtesting, normally) I always provide a list of specific questions. This is partly to ensure that specific things I’m wondering about get covered; it’s partly to avoid feedback I’ll find unhelpful; and it’s partly to provide a structure to help people think about the play experience. But anyway. Let’s talk through different kinds of feedback.

  1. Drafting feedback. This includes identifying spelling and grammar errors, as well as areas where language might not be as clear as it could be. You might want this when your game is in its final draft form. You probably won’t find it that useful before that point, because you’ll be redrafting anyway.
  2. Comprehension feedback. This is a bit like drafting feedback, but a bit higher level. It’s asking whether there are aspects of the rules that are confusing. Can you understand the game? This might be particularly useful for an early draft read-through. I normally check on it with playtesting as well.
  3. Experiential feedback. What did the game feel like to play? Was it humorous or scary? Was a particular mechanic hard work? Did you get emotionally invested in your character? This is generally a key component of playtesting for me. I want to create a game that feels a particular way, and so I need you to tell me what it felt like to play it. That’s much less useful if you’re just testing out a mechanic in isolation, though. You also might not need it so much if, say, you’ve already playtested the game quite a bit and you’re just testing a modification to the original design.
  4. Mechanical feedback. What happened, mechanically? Did you seem to crit fail constantly? Was there an exploit where you could build up unlimited bennies? Did some mechanics just never get used? Did anything break down at the table? You’ll probably want this sort of feedback at some point in playtesting, unless your game is super freeform. Some people like to playtest mechanics individually, outside the context of a full session. It’s not something I do, but worth considering.
  5. Design advice. It is often said that it is very annoying when people try to design your game for you through their feedback. And generally, I do agree with that. But, sometimes that may be exactly what you want: you know something isn’t working in your game, and you want suggestions on what to do about it.

So, when you’re asking for feedback on your game, be clear which kind(s) of feedback you’re looking for and, where appropriate, which kinds you aren’t looking for. I would add that you can, and probably should, say which specific bits of your game you are asking for feedback on. If there’s a particular mechanic or aspect of play you want to hear about, say so! Even if there isn’t one particular aspect, you might want to break your game down into specific areas you want covered.

Of course, it bears noting that you might not always realise that you need feedback on something. Maybe you think your mechanics are working perfectly and you don’t need feedback on them. If a playtest reveals they broke down completely, I’d hope my playtesters would tell me that, even if I was only asking for experiential feedback.

I hope that’s useful. I’ve probably missed something. Comments welcome!

[*] I don’t know exactly who said it. Panelists included Emily Care-Boss, Julia Ellingboe, Avonelle Wing, Shoshana Kessock and Amanda Valentine.