Lovecraftesque: playtest

After half a dozen external playtests and a similar number we ran ourselves, we’ve been beavering away on an updated version of Lovecraftesque. We’re now opening it up for a second round of external playtesting.

What’s the game about? You create your own story of brooding horror in the mould of Lovecraft, but without using any of Lovecraft’s material. It’s a GMless game, in which you spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to intrigue, torment and terrify the Protagonist. You and the other players create strange clues for the Protagonist to investigate and, ultimately, draw them together into a compelling Final Horror to drive the Protagonist to despair or insanity.

What’s changed since the first playtest?

  • We’ve ripped up the token mechanics. They were clunky, and they were getting in the way of engaging with the game.
  • You’ll receive one or two cards at random at the start of the game, which make each story unique and a little unpredictable.
  • We’ve introduced the “leap to conclusions” rule, which keeps things coherent while leaving everyone plenty of room to influence the story and be surprised by what the other players contribute.
  • We’ve created a teaching guide which makes it quicker and easier to teach the game to new players, and which gives a great summary of Lovecraft’s style and themes for players who aren’t familiar with his work.
  • Plus loads of other, smaller tweaks designed to make the game easier to play or deepen the atmosphere.

If you’d like to take part in the playtest, please leave a comment here or email lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net and we will send you the playtest files.

Lovecraftesque update

So, as you might have noticed from my earlier post about playtesting, the first round of Lovecraftesque playtesting is over. We picked up a lot of issues – a few quite major, most not so. We’ve moved quickly to make some changes and additions to tackle the former, in order to get some rapid feedback from some playtests we’ve already got lined up. So: here is a summary of some top-level issues we encountered and what we’re doing about them, with the caveat that this is only a first cut and we reserve the right to have a total rethink in the coming weeks.

1. Not Lovecraftian enough.

Man, this was a real disappointment to hear. The structure of the Lovecraftian tale is clearly in our game, but in terms of realising the alien, uncaring universe of Lovecraft – we didn’t do so well. Admittedly, this was most visible in groups who were not familiar with Lovecraft, but even some experienced players found that just following the rules wasn’t enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft. (Although one group said it was about as Lovecraftian as most Call of Cthulhu, which is either a backhanded compliment or damning with faint praise… but better than we’d feared.)

The main change we’ve made is to provide a style guide to Lovecraft, covering the themes, paraphernalia and language used by Lovecraft. This is supported by other changes which I’ll describe in a moment. It remains to be seen whether knowing the themes and having them at the forefront of one’s mind will be enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft – we should know pretty quickly after the next few playtest reports come in.

We’re also thinking about introducing a requirement to choose a theme for the story, from a list we’ll provide. But that’s something we need to think about over a slightly longer time period – it hasn’t gone into the game yet.

2. Hard to teach, hard to learn

This was also a bit of a disappointment, if I’m honest. I have to explain complicated concepts for a living, so I thought I’d do pretty well at this. I think most of my playtesters managed ok at learning the game. Those that didn’t, were new to indie-style games, which may account for the problem. The teaching of the game, however, seems to have been more laborious than it needs to be.

We’ve created a teaching guide to tackle the latter problem. It’s pretty clear that, since this is a game that has a number of stages that work quite differently to each other, the best way to do this is to teach the game as you play it, not attempt to explain it all at once. That’s what we’ve done – create a guide which you read out at key junctures to explain the key concepts (at the start) and how the basic procedures differ as the game evolves (when the changes happen). The guide also includes a potted summary of the Lovecraft style guide, so that it isn’t just the facilitator who benefits from that. The whole thing would take about 15-20 minutes to read out if you literally just monologued it, but it’s broken into chunks, so hopefully the job of teaching is a bit less strenuous.

We’re going to have to think about whether the rules are just too complicated, or the rules guide not structured in the right way. That’s something we’ll get to in a later iteration.

3. The Final Horror

Quite a few groups found that it was a real challenge to weave together all the clues they had seeded through the story into a single compelling Final Horror. They ended up either ignoring some clues, or laboriously explaining through exposition how they fit in, or having a lengthy discussion as a group which obviously breaks the tension.

We’ve introduced a new rule to address this. In the new version, after every scene there’s a pause in which everyone individually writes down what they think is going on. Obviously nobody really knows – but the rules say you have to leap to a conclusion. The idea is that you’ll then use that premature conclusion to guide what you narrate in the next scene. Since the other players will surprise you, your ideas will change every scene – but because nobody is just firing off ideas into the void, the story will be a bit more coherent. More importantly, when the Final Horror comes, nobody is starting from a blank slate.

Other stuff

These weren’t the only issues our playtest uncovered! But they’re the biggest – we think the rest will be relatively easy to crack. We’ll be going over these, and thinking more broadly (and maybe more deeply) about the game’s overall design, over the next few weeks, with a view to commencing a fresh playtest on a completely revised version of the game.

Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

I’ve collated the information from the first Lovecraftesque external playtest and I thought it might be useful to discuss it here. I’m not going to talk about our game, instead I’ll be talking about the playtest in more general terms, in the hopes of deriving some more general lessons about playtesting.

Recruitment

We advertised the playtest through our website, Black Armada, and through G Plus, Twitter and Facebook. We put the files in a public drop box but only provided the link on request to people who expressed an interest in playtesting.

We received 31 expressions of interest. 29 of these were from people who appeared to be men, 2 from women. 6 were from people who we know quite well in real life, and another 3 from people we’ve met a few times in the flesh. The rest were from comparative strangers.

We allowed six weeks for playtesting from the day we announced it. We sent a reminder out at the midway point to anyone who we hadn’t interacted with for at least a week, and another one a few days before the deadline.

Of 31 expressions of interest, 19% sent in a report.

We received 6 playtest reports within the playtest period – just under a 20% response rate. All of these were submitted by men. 2 came from friends, 4 from comparative strangers. Between these we got 22 session-hours of playtesting, or 72 person-hours.

It seems to me that we were fairly fortunate to get as many as we did. In previous playlists using a similar method I only had a 10% response rate, from a smaller number of expressions of interest. The improved success comes, I think, from a combination of us being better connected within the indie roleplaying community than I was back then, and having a game pitch that was always likely to be a bit more popular.

Method

None of the playtesters received any guidance from us or clarification. They were given a set of detailed questions covering 10 aspects of the game, which were rather bossily labelled “READ THIS FIRST”, in addition to the rulebook and some supporting materials.

None of the playtests involved us, either as a participant or a witness.

Results

All six playtest reports responded to the questions we asked fairly assiduously. I wouldn’t say they were all completely comprehensive, but none of them ignored the structured questions, and all responded to most of the points we wanted covered. One came with a blow-by-blow actual play report (which was quite valuable beyond what our questions elicited).

I shall now provide a breakdown of the issues identified by the playtest. (Either identified by the playtesters themselves or apparent from their report whether they themselves realised it or not.) I have classified them as follows:

  • A critical issue is one which would make the game unplayable.
  • A serious issue is one which would make the game not fun or prevent the design goals of the game from being realised. If even one group identified a serious issue, I’d count it.
  • A major issue is one which makes the game very clunky or interferes with realising the design goals of the game.
  • A minor issue is one which doesn’t interfere with the design goals or make the game avery clunky, but rather is a matter of polish. Minor rules clarifications also fall into this category.

I’ve obviously had to exercise judgement as to whether an issue identified by a group is attributable to the design, and whether there’s anything that can be done in the design to ameliorate the issue. In one or two cases, because different groups reported radically different observations, I haven’t recorded an issue, but will instead watch for these recurring in the next round of playtesting.

Here’s what our groups found:

  • Critical issues – 0 (phew!)
  • Serious issues – 1
  • Major issues – 2
  • Minor issues – 16

50% of our groups caught all three major or serious issues, but 33% only caught one and 17% didn't catch any.

A note here about consistency: not all our issues were detected by all of our groups. Two groups (one of which played twice) did not pick up the serious issue identified above, and the two major issues were each picked up by only three of the six groups (arguably one of them was detectable in a fourth group, but I think we might have dismissed it based on their evidence alone, as it didn’t look that serious). More importantly, these were clustered: 3 groups caught all the serious and major issues, 3 groups missed at least two of these issues.

I want to be clear, by the way, that I don’t consider the above to be a poor reflection on any of our groups. I suspect the ones that missed issues did so because they were more familiar with the style of game or the genre. Some of our clearest and most helpful feedback came from groups that didn’t catch a lot of the bigger issues, but did notice many smaller ones. All the feedback was immensely useful.

The above suggests to me that you want at least three groups to test a game to be reasonably confident of picking up on major and serious issues. With fewer, you might get them, or you might be unlucky. (Of course in our case, we would need four groups to guarantee catching them all.)

By the way, I haven’t analysed the minor issues, but my impression is that they were sprinkled liberally through all six groups. I doubt if there’s a single group that didn’t pick up some minor issues missed by the rest.

Conclusions

The top line conclusion is that you need to playtest, and not just with one or two groups. The comparison with the playtesting on my previous game is instructive. I only had one response, which added a little to my own efforts at playtesting. But clearly, my analysis above means that there is a high risk of failing to catch even quite serious issues with such a low level of response. There would be innumerable smaller issues that will have slipped the net.

Getting playtesters isn’t at all easy. I think we were fortunate this time around. Our voices carry a bit further as a result of a few years circulating in the online indie gaming community. We got support from a couple of people with a very wide reach, and although it’s hard to say how much impact this had, I would guess a lot. And our game concept was more grabby – though whether we would have been taken as seriously if we’d proposed such a concept three years ago, I can’t say.

One thing I would observe is that it’s a lot easier to make playtests happen if you offer to organise them yourself. That’s pretty obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. You can tackle the tendency for the game to get cancelled by providing a venue, making sure you pick people you can rely on and above all not dropping out yourself. And you can make sure decent notes are taken and guarantee to take them away with you. It’s more effort, and if you want it to have the same value as an external test you’ll have to be disciplined about not facilitating the game itself, but it dramatically increases your sample size, which reduces the chances of missing a given issue.

Do you hate Call of Cthulhu?

If so, you may have assumed our new game Lovecraftesque, currently playtesting, isn’t for you. I’d like to persuade you that it is.

Lovecraftesque is about collaboratively creating a slow-building, brooding horror, piece by piece. It is not a traditional investigative game. It does not focus on cracking the plot or saving the world. Instead, the focus is on building atmosphere and tension, creating a slow-burn horror.

Lovecraftesque lets you create your own horrific monsters and dark revelations of bleak, cosmic doom. You won’t be chucking around copies of the Necronomicon, fighting Migo or having dreams of Cthulhu. I mean, you can do that if you’re all absolutely committed to that, but that’s not what the game is for. The game is designed to let you put together your own horrific vision.

If you’ve played and enjoyed Microscope, you may get something out of Lovecraftesque. The players each create strange clues that hint at the nature of the horror to come, but without discussion or debate, and without needing to cleave to some pre-decided plot, so that the Final Horror is built up from disparate ideas, and beyond any one person’s control.

Because the game is all about creating horror, not about investigation, you only get one Protagonist to play with, and you take turns playing them. Everyone else gets to have fun intriguing, tormenting and terrifying the Protagonist until, ultimately, they come face to face with the Final Horror. And because the game isn’t about saving the world, it assumes that the Protagonist won’t do that – and instead of seeing how the Protagonist heroically wins the day, at the end we focus on showing how inscrutable and ultimately unassailable the horror really is.

If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or similar games, we think you’ll find Lovecraftesque is a fresh and interesting take on the subject matter. But if you like horror and hate cthulhu, we think this game will give you something very different to the traditional Lovecraftian roleplaying experience.

Find out more about the playtest here.

Lovecraftesque – playtest now open

The first draft of the Lovecraftesque rules is now complete, and we’re looking for playtesters to try it out.

A reminder: The game is all about creating your own story of brooding horror in the mould of Lovecraft, but without using any of Lovecraft’s material. It’s a GMless game, in which you spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to intrigue, torment and terrify the Protagonist. You and the other players create strange clues for the Protagonist to investigate and, ultimately, draw them together into a compelling Final Horror to drive the Protagonist to despair or insanity.

The game takes about 3-4 hours, and requires 2-5 people to play.

If you would like to playtest the game, leave a comment here or email me at lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net. We’re looking for feedback by Saturday 14th March – if you can’t play before then we’d still love to hear from you, but we’ll be moving forward with the next stage of the project after that.

Admiral Frax adds “I’d really value hearing from people who don’t know any Lovecraft.  The game should be set up so it is equally enjoyable with or without knowledge and I’d really like to know if that holds true.” Good point.

Lovecraftesque – who watches the watchers?

Since the last post we’ve been hard at work nailing down the few remaining details of Lovecraftesque that weren’t already nailed down. We’ve conducted an informal playtest that went well (though we didn’t have time in the end to try out the Journey into Darkness or Final Horror, which are two parts of the game I’m excited to see in action). And I’ve been beavering away turning our notes into a proper set of instructions so other people can playtest the game too. Plus we asked people on our G+ feeds who would do good art for this game, which yielded some really excellent suggestions. It’s been a busy week.

Anyway, a bit more detail about the game is in order. One of the things that’s unusual about the game is that there’s (normally) only one Protagonist. This mirrors Lovecraft’s fiction, but there’s also a very good reason for it – it creates a sense of isolation and helplessness that just isn’t there when you have a party of competent people supporting each other. A consequence of this is that at any given time only one person is playing the Protagonist, which created some interesting design challenges for us. These design challenges have created an aspect of the game I’m really keen on – the Watchers.

We toyed with having a completely shared approach to GMing, like (say) Fiasco, but we wanted to provide a bit more structure to help players to know who is responsible for driving the story forward, when it’s ok to contribute, and so forth. So we’ve kept the traditional GM role in the form of the Narrator (albeit rotating amongst the group) but supplemented it with the Watchers. The Watchers are able to intervene in the current scene by spending tokens to introduce fixed effects – most commonly clues, but also other things, like suddenly turning an investigation scene into a reprisals scene. Just as important, they are allowed and encouraged to elaborate on the Narrator’s description of the environment and NPCs.

This produces a powerful sense of atmosphere, in which every aspect of the scene is dripping with vague unpleasantness and tiny details the Narrator added for colour become amplified.

Narrator: “There’s a clock on the wall”

Watcher 1: “It has a loud, intrusive tick-tock noise”

Watcher 2: “The ticking is incessant. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. You find it hard to sleep.”

This mechanism is placed right at the centre of things during the Journey into Darkness – more on that later.

Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.
Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.

Introducing Lovecraftesque

[Edited to add: Lovecraftesque was successfully kickstarted in 2015 and you can now buy it here]

Admiral Frax and I have been working on a new story game. It is a game of cosmic horror in an uncaring universe, for 2 or more players. It is called Lovecraftesque.

What’s different about this game?

  • This GMful game will see each of the players contribute clues which build up to a cosmic horror of your own devising. You won’t encounter Cthulhu, deep ones, mi-go or any of Lovecraft’s creations, but something fresh that feels like it came straight out of a Lovecraft story.
  • You spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to torment and frighten the protagonist of your tale. There’s no party of investigators, and the protagonist may be more interested in running away than uncovering what’s going on.
  • The game owes a heavy debt to Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu – it codifies and mechanises the ideas in that book, creating a story along Lovecraftian lines while leaving you flexibility to deviate from the formula when you need to.

Here’s a little teaser of the game structure – more on the way.

Screenshot 2015-01-03 11.35.37

Roleplaying the silly way

I want to talk about a couple of games I played this year that deviated quite dramatically from the script of what I’d normally play. Both of them pretty silly games, in different ways. Both of them really enjoyable.

The first is Grunting: the Race for Fire, by Jennifer Spencer. The game is about playing cartoonish cavemen on a quest to get fire for their tribe. The game has some unfortunate aspects, notably some pretty sexist tropes in the background material (which our GM, Triskellian, mercilessly stripped out: quite right too). But I’m here to talk about what I enjoyed about it, so I won’t dwell on those.

Grunting requires the players (not the GM) to speak only using a limited list of caveman words, which are provided at the start of the game. The words are pretty elementary, stuff like “Bam” (stone) or Nurrr (dark). Even when speaking to the GM you must only use these words. (You are allowed to write notes to the GM in your normal language, but it’s more fun if you don’t.) This simple rule is the core of the game, and almost the entirety of what makes the game fun.

I don’t mind telling you, when I started playing the game I found it next to impossible to understand my fellow players. Everything they said involved a look up, furrowed brow, followed by the same again as I attempted to reply. The game could really have helped with this by providing an alphabetised list of words (alphabetised by caveman word and by english word). Instead they are organised by conceptual groups, which is no help at all when you’re trying to translate from cave speak. But after a while, I started to really get the hang of the vocabulary and the game began to flow.

The actual action in the game is pretty simple. Kill a sabre tooth tiger by throwing a rock. Steal fire from the other cave-folk by lighting a burning torch. That kind of thing. But it is surprisingly entertaining just sitting trying to explain your plan to the other players in cave-speak, or trying to understand them. Indeed, there is entertainment value in trying to come up with a plan that can be communicated in cave speak. Moreover, you can make up your own words, but of course you can only explain them to other players using existing words, which is itself fun and sometimes hilarious.

The other game I want to talk about was made up (not published) and run for me at a con by Cuthbertcross. It is called Burt-EE, and is basically Wall-EE the roleplaying game. Now I haven’t seen Wall-EE so you’ll have to bear with me if this sounds like an excessively elaborate explanation. You’re all playing service robots on board this massive cruise liner in space. There’s various kinds of service robot: the little welder-bots that whizz around on monorail tracks, the bulky storage-bots with a belly full of tools, the zippy little butler-bots that serve drinks, and so forth. They all have amusing names that reference their function like Burn-EE the welder bot.

Anyway. Before going further it’s probably important to mention that we played this game with an eight year-old, one of Cuthbertcross’s kids. I can actually hear some of you wincing at that. But the game went perfectly, and indeed was maybe even enhanced by her presence. There isn’t too much to say about this really but I thought it worth saying!

The action of the game was, again, very simple. Get given tasks to do, do the tasks. Slowly become aware of something awry with the ship. Decide what to do about this. The fun came from your typical childish pretend-play stuff: talk in a robot voice. Pretend to be someone whose whole role in life is to be a storage container, and imagine what their perspective on life might be. Come up with innovative uses for your single super-power (you can probably imagine what these were from the robot descriptions above). Make lots of puns ending in EE.

Bringing it all together, I have been surprised at how much enjoyment I can get from just silly, light-hearted play based on a simple (though unusual) concept and just basically messing around in character. I have always assumed I would find such play rather tedious, but in practice they were immensely enjoyable. Indeed, I only agreed to play Burt-EE to make up the numbers (sorry Cuthbertcross, if you’re reading this!) but found it was actually one of my favourite games of the con.

What’s my point? Roleplaying games throw all sorts of elaborate mechanics and high-concept stuff around, hoping to engage their jaded audience. But these light-hearted concepts encourage players to discard their usual inhibitions and throw themselves into make-believe. The simple pleasure of doing a silly voice and playing a silly character, the stuff that you enjoyed as a kid and maybe the germ of what got you into roleplaying in the first place: imagination.

Apocalypse World: Fronts

I’ve recently started a new Apocalypse World campaign and re-reading got me thinking about the Fronts system. Apocalypse World Fronts are basically a set of linked threats that the MC writes down with countdown clocks and stakes questions as a means to (a) give him interesting things to say that aren’t just improvised from scratch and (b) address one of the principles of AW which is “sometimes, disclaim decision making”. Anyway, there’s a prescribed format to them and what I’ll do here is analyse that format.

The fundamental scarcity. Every Front has a fundamental scarcity chosen from a list of eight (hunger, thirst, envy, ambition, fear, ignorance, decay and despair). The AW rulebook has almost nothing to say about the purpose of this, and I surmise that it serves to provide inspiration and keep everything apocalypse themed, nothing more. I have found myself struggling to identify a single fundamental scarcity for a given Front, and even the book’s example Front seems like it would fit with at least two fundamental scarcities. Maybe it could be handy to remind yourself what the Front is all about or to judge whether a new threat should be added to the Front, but mostly it feels a bit surplus to requirements once the Front has been written down.

Linked Threats. The whole point of having a Front is to add value to what a list of individual Threats would achieve. The example in the book doesn’t help us here. We have this mud-fish parasite which is infecting everyone, the waders who carry it and some bunch of thugs who enforce quarantine. Those all seem highly linked and could be called “the mud fish parasite front”. But then we have Dustwich, this person who wants to overthrow the hardholder. She seems unrelated, except insofar as the previous Threats will create pressure to overthrow the hardholder, aiding Dustwich. Anyway, my feeling is that Dustwich is a bit tacked-on, as though Vincent Baker felt that merely having the holding overrun by a parasite wasn’t interesting enough (and perhaps too faceless).

Still, I guess if you start from a fundamental threat – the mud fish parasite in this case – and ask what other factors bear on this threat, either as obvious  connected things like the waders, or things which push the other way like the quarantine enforcers, you’ve got something there. Asking yourself to generate linked Threats is an exercise in thinking about what else is implied by the existence of the core Threat.

The Dark Future. Every Front has a dark future which is what will happen if it is allowed to roll forward undisturbed. This is useful as a check for the MC – is this Front really threatening or have I created a situation the PCs can ignore? It could provide useful fodder for improvising, too.

Again, the example Front in the rulebook is unhelpful. In the example Front , the Dark Future is essentially “Dustwich takes over the hardholding”; the other threats in the Front are just things which serve to antagonise the people against the hardholder and over to Dustwich’s side. I mentioned before that Dustwich felt tacked on, and indeed because the Dark Future relates to Dustwich, it feels as though there’s no real relationship between it and most of the Front. If we imagine, though, that Dustwich were gone and the Dark Future were “everyone gets the mudfish parasite; lacking a healthy workforce, the holding grinds to a halt and one by one its members die or leave”, now we have a Dark Future that relates to the elements in the Front.

So with that imaginary alternative example Front, we can see more clearly that the Dark Future serves an additional purpose, which is to keep the MC’s mind on where the Front is going. Every time something happens the MC can ask – does this bring the Dark Future closer or set it back?

Countdown clocks. Countdown clocks are introduced as a thing relating to Fronts, but in actuality the book recommends they be attached to Threats. Regardless, they’re probably quite closely oriented to the Dark Future (or should be – again, the example Front lets us down here). They serve to provide a concrete sense of the factors that build up to the Dark Future, pacing for that build-up, and a way for the MC to drive that build-up without it just being on a whim “Bam, the dark future happens because I decided”. Having said that, what seems to me missing from the countdown clock concept is:

Triggers. This isn’t in the Front rules, but I think it should be. The book says the countdown clocks are descriptive and prescriptive. Meaning, if I get to 9 o clock then the mudfish parasite eats my head, but equally if for some reason the mudfish parasite should eat my head then the clock automatically advances to 9 o clock. All well and good, and this serves to avoid the clock becoming divorced from reality. But we’re still left with a clock that (absent the mudfish parasite eating my head of its own accord and thereby advancing the clock prematurely) ticks forward on the MC’s whim.

Contrast the injury clock on every player’s character sheet, and which ticks forward when you take harm, back when you are healed. There are rules for this; the MC can change it more or less on a whim but there is a logic that constrains him in doing so. So for me, the countdown clock needs triggers; every time the parasite infects a PC or a new group of NPCs, move the clock forward, for example. That way, aside from the obvious fictional trigger that if the events described in the clock happen of their own accord, you move the clock forward, there’s a separate, more inexorable trigger that if nobody does anything the clock will tick forward, which is at least somewhat outside the MC’s control. So you’re disclaiming decision-making, like the principles say.

Custom moves. One of the things that makes AW popular is its customisability. Custom moves, yay! I’m not sure these are really specific to Fronts but it’s obviously good to think about them when you’re doing your Front prep. Having the Dark Future, the Threats, the Fundamental Scarcity and all the rest in mind when designing custom moves will serve to give everything coherence and relevance.

Stakes questions. These are little questions you write about the fate of particular individuals or groups in the game world, and which you commit to answer using the game fiction’s internal logic. The book says they’re real important but gives little guidance on how they fit in with the wider Fronts framework, or even what committing to not answering the questions yourself entails.

The example questions mostly relate directly but not straightforwardly to the Threats in the example Front. The first and most straightforward is “who will fall prey to the mud fish parasite?” – ok, so I’m committing not to choose who gets it, which seems pretty tough. If I choose to put a non-infected character in a room with an infected character I’m almost making the decision, aren’t I? There will definitely be situations where I put two people on a collision course but let the PC’s actions decide whether they actually collide, sure; but I don’t really see how I as MC could avoid deciding some of who gets infected. Naturally I’ll do it based on the game fiction’s logic, but I would have done that anyway – the crucial question is, have I just fiated someone to infection or not? I think I’d have to if I used this example Front.

The other questions are less straightforward and more interesting for it. “Will Dustwich get a better life for her people?” This question tells me that even if Dustwich fails in taking over, there might be scope for a better life for her people. She won’t get a better life for them unless she overthrows the hardholder or someone else intervenes to make life better, so I can see the benefit of the stakes question here. The question is saying: the answer is no unless something happens to make it yes.

Another is “will Grief’s cover get blown?” – there’s a specific trigger for that in a custom move, so it’s very easy to see how the MC is disclaiming responsibility on that one. The final one: “Will Snug and Brimful stay married?” – great question, totally unclear how it will be resolved given that Snug and Brimful are throwaway names in the Front cast list. How does the MC commit to not deciding it? I honestly don’t know.

What is the point of all these questions? I presume that apart from getting the MC into the mindset of disclaiming responsibility, it’s to ensure the Front isn’t just about the central Threat rolling forward supervillain-style to take over the PC’s world, it’s about the impact the Front has on real people. But honestly, I’m not sure what the point of them is or how they’re supposed to work – as outlined above sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not at all obvious how the MC will keep his grubby mitts off the decision-making process.

Do we need them at all? The book says that Fronts are fundamentally conceptual, not mechanical. I think that’s right; they serve a purpose of structuring the prep process and hopefully giving it coherence and direction without just making it into a one-way railroad.

So far my experience of this is limited to trying to write some Fronts for this game, and for the one that went before it. I haven’t found the process all that intuitive or helpful. I’m mulling over whether to pull the whole thing apart. For example, could my stakes questions be completely separate from my Fronts? I identify some characters whose fates I care about and ask the most obvious questions I can think of about them. Whichever Fronts and Threats intersect with those fates (including the PCs of course) can answer the questions for me, so they don’t need to be tied to a Front. Might it be better to ask what the fundamental scarcities are for the group as a whole, and just use them as an off-Front inspiration for generating new Threats and understanding the consequences of events in the game?

I guess the fact that I’m asking these questions suggests the elements of a Front have their uses, as outlined above, but I wish the AW book had devoted a bit more time to explaining how they were supposed to work and what the benefits of using them were.

 

Four questions for your NPC

I’m starting a new campaign in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m planning to use these four questions to rapidly develop my NPCs when I need to.

1. What does she want? Why? This question should be answered with half an eye to how this might intersect with what the PCs want. Is this a character the players might work with, or one who is likely to oppose them? But mostly, it’s about giving every major NPC something that they’re up to, so she isn’t just inert but in motion, or at least ready to move towards something. Why is important too, firstly because it dramatically changes how we feel about what she want, but also because it tells us a lot about what kind of character she is. So maybe she wants to take down the Empire, because they executed her brother; or maybe she wants the same thing because she hates the Emperor. (How do the PCs feel about the Empire?) Perhaps she plans to rob a bank because she needs the money to pay off her gambling debts, or perhaps she’s just greedy.

2. Who does he love? Is it true love, brotherly love, loyalty, or what? (Could be “what” rather than “who”, but that’s usually less interesting.) This is a separate question to 1, partly because it’s about who the character values without any need for a “why?”, and partly because it will often be the case that the character already has the person or thing that they love. (If they don’t, there may well be an overlap with the first question.) Again, we have half an eye on how this intersects with the PC’s interests – do they love or hate the person in question? The second part of the question helps to colour the question, which shouldn’t just be about romantic love but any positive relationship bond.

3. Who does she hate? Is this implacable hatred, rivalry, petty dislike or what? (Again, could be a “what” rather than a “who”.) Very similar considerations apply to question 2. Hate is great because it puts people at odds even when there’s nothing much at stake; they look for ways to hurt each other regardless. It’s somewhat interesting if the NPC hates the players, but probably more interesting when it’s a third person they have in common.

4. What will he do? How far would he go? In pursuit of his goals, his loves or his hatreds. This question tells us what the character’s immediate actions are going to be, and what his limits are. Immediate action is important for obvious reasons: it puts the character in motion straight away, makes them more than just a person you might meet. As for the character’s limits: Player characters are at their most interesting when they refrain from action not because they are incapable of acting, but because they believe it would be objectionable morally or emotionally. The same logic applies to NPCs. (Though a line the NPC won’t cross for simple practical reasons could also be important.)

Caveat: I think I’ve been thinking about these issues informally for a long time and used them in games without thinking, but this stuff is otherwise untested. Who knows whether I’ll still think they’re a good idea in three weeks! I’ll report back when I know.