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.

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.

Oi, rules, get out the way!

A long time ago, in a blog post, Vincent Baker wrote about mechanics which are driven by the game fiction, and mechanics which aren’t. He used some fancy diagrams to make the point, but I think it’s not much more complicated than that. His point (or at least a point that he made) was that if your mechanics aren’t, on some level, driven by the fiction, then you end up ignoring the fiction.

Why is this? I think it’s reasonably straightforward. If the game’s mechanics can manage quite well without the fiction, the fiction becomes an inconvenience. You can’t have your hit roll until you’ve described your attack. You can’t have your damage roll until you’ve described some gore. The description makes no difference to anything, and you may well not be that interested in detailed descriptions of combat. You want to skip to the stuff that actually matters, the hit roll and the damage roll. And so, with the best will in the world, it becomes tempting to skip over, you know, the actual roleplaying. And as your descriptions become more perfunctory, they seem ever more unnecessary, the colour drains from your combat (or investigation, or whatever mechanic it might be) in favour of lifeless dice rolling.

(Incidentally, I’m not talking about mechanics that model the fiction. Nice probability curves and mechanics broken down in a way that maps onto the fictional “reality” are not relevant here. I’m not against them. But what I’m talking about is mechanics that engage because of circumstances somebody narrated, and which are sensitive to the detail of that narration.)

Once I’d seen the phenomenon Baker describes, I could not unsee it. Everywhere I looked were designs which violated the “fiction first” principle, where a conscious effort is required to keep describing, at least when the game’s mechanics are engaged. And, conversely, many an hour of dull die-rolling seemed explicable, even inevitable, given the rules of the games I had been playing.

To bring this back to the title, many roleplayers would prefer that the rules just “get out of the way”. And I think Baker’s analysis is highly relevant to understanding why. When your mechanics suck the colour out of your roleplaying in this way, every time you find yourself in a mechanics-free scene, everything will seem that much more vibrant. You have no choice but to describe, because the mechanics aren’t there to pick things up; and the fiction no longer seems a burden, because it isn’t getting in the way of your resolution system. In the absence of those mechanics, that resolution system will probably be GM fiat or collective agreement, probably based on what is plausible in the fiction, making description key.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entirety of mechanics-averse play is down to a lack of “fiction first” in the rules. A significant amount of it is down to clunky, cumbersome mechanics, cognitive load and tedious book-keeping, for example. But it is certainly a part of it. When the fictional situation drives the mechanics, when fictional logic is put at the centre of the rules, this problem falls away. And so, whenever I design a mechanic, I always look at it through this prism, watchful for anything that might tear the players away from the fiction.

Crowdfunding calculator

In the run up to our planned Kickstarter of Lovecraftesque, I’ve been busily crunching numbers to make sure that the whole thing will fly financially. All of our figures have gone into a spreadsheet, where I can easily update the costs as I get better information, and tweak the prices of the rewards to reflect those costs. In turn the spreadsheet works out how much we need to ask for.

Anyway, having gone to the effort of creating it, it seemed like other people might find it useful. If you give it basic information about your crowdfunding campaign (like reward levels, costs and so on), it will work out your reward levels for you.

I’ve included instructions on how to use it (at the top and in comments on the relevant cells). In brief: fill in the yellow bits and then read off the information in the green bits.

Crowdfunding calculator

Crowdfunding calculator

EU VAT for indie roleplaying publishers

I first noticed the changes to EU VAT when they started being shared all over my social meejas around about December last year. Everyone was all doomy about it. It didn’t seem that relevant to me at the time, partly because I don’t sell digital stuff on the internet, and I suppose mostly because I assumed it would blow over.

It hasn’t blown over, and now I’m contemplating selling digital stuff on the internet. So I’ve been doing some research into this. For the uninitiated, it basically means that anyone, anywhere in the world who sells digital products or services to customers in the EU is liable to pay VAT at the local rate to the member state where the customer lives. Phew! That’s a lot of people. And in due course – scheduled for 2016 – it will apply to physical goods too, though one might hope they’ll make some improvements to this confusing and opaque law in the interim.

I have seen some people, mostly Americans I think, rolling their eyes and saying “how do you plan to enforce that”. Well, I wouldn’t want to put my business in the position of breaking the law in the EU, even if I was in America; but as it happens I am also in the EU, so that makes it… pretty easy to enforce, actually.

Anyway: my research is, essentially, a bit of googling, a fair bit of looking at the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and an email conversation with same. HMRC’s answers can probably be considered as definitive as it gets at this point, for UK businesses at least, and probably for everyone.

And before I go any further: I’m not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. I am not responsible if you mess this up.

Why is this so hard?

Well for one, it’s not that easy to determine where your customer is. You’re selling them digital goods, so it isn’t like you can easily tell by looking at them. And the VAT rate is different in different EU Member States, so it’s pretty much easy to mess this up.

The HMRC online guide to the new rules says that except in some weirdly specific circumstances (it’s along the lines of, if the customer is buying through their mobile bought from country A while flying in a plane from country B to country C but is in the airspace of country D when the sale is made…) then you have to “obtain and keep 2 pieces of non-contradictory information to support and evidence the member state where the customer is normally located.”

And, “Examples of the type of supporting evidence that tax authorities will accept include:

  • the billing address of the customer
  • the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the device used by the customer
  • customer’s bank details
  • the country code of SIM card used by the customer
  • the location of the customer’s fixed land line through which the service is supplied
  • other commercially relevant information (for example, product coding information which electronically links the sale to a particular jurisdiction)”

So, that might be easy or difficult, depending on how you handle your payments and so forth. Administratively, it’s definitely not going to be easy for anyone who has an appreciable number of EU sales.

Oh, and you’re required by law to include the correct rate of VAT in your prices, too. In theory that means you need to get the above bits of information in advance of sale and then work out the correct VAT and include it in your price which, let’s forget about that. I can’t see any reason why you can’t just quote a blanket price to all customers and say “if you’re in the EU, we’ll pay the VAT”, but then you have a tricky balancing act to set a price which ensures you can afford to pay the VAT, when you won’t know how many customers you’re going to get from each country; plus you’ll be marking up your prices for non-EU customers to make sure you have the funds to pay VAT for the EU customers.

I don’t like the sound of this! What can I do about it?

There’s a lot of ways you might legally avoid having to worry about all this.

First off, if you’re selling bundled products, and the digital product is only “ancillary” to the main product, then you don’t have to pay, at least as long as the law only applies to digital stuff. But you have to be careful, because the definition of when a component in a bundle is ancillary and when it’s part of the main thing you’re selling, doesn’t seem to exist. My guess is that a hard copy RPG sold with a PDF version counts as primarily a physical product, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer out of HMRC so I’m not 100% confident.

There’s a sort of loop-hole in the law – I say loop-hole, it seems to have been deliberately designed this way to catch the likes of Amazon but miss smaller operations – which says that if your product isn’t delivered automatically then you don’t have to pay VAT. Emailling an attachment doesn’t count as delivering automatically. Emailling a link to a download site does. I can’t really see the logic, but that seems to be the rule. Still, you probably won’t want to manually email attachments to large numbers of people if you can help it. Also, you may want to check up on your email providers policies, as some email providers (e.g. gmail, or so I’m told) blacklist people as spammers who send too many such emails.

What about selling through a third party? Or crowdfunding?

A third way to get around the tax is if there is an intermediary in your sales process. This is crucial for a lot of roleplaying games, because they are frequently sold through online platforms such as DriveThruRPG, Indie Press Revolution, or through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. I wasn’t clear on whether digital products sold through such a platform would be subject to the EU VAT rules, so I asked HMRC. I am going to quote their reply in full:

“If the platform operator identifies you as the seller but sets the general terms and conditions, or authorises payment, or handles delivery/download of the digital service [my emphasis], the platform is considered to be supplying the consumer. They are therefore responsible for accounting for the VAT payment that is charged to the consumer.”

I think that’s pretty clear. In the case of sites like DrivethruRPG and Indie Press Revolution, they will handle the payment and delivery of the digital service, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT. In the case of sites like Kickstarter, they set the general terms and conditions and authorise payment, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT.

[edited to add:] The HMRC website also has this to say ”

If you operate a digital platform through which third parties sell e-services you are liable to account for the VAT on those sales unless every one of the following conditions are met:

  • the digital platform and everyone else involved in the supply must identify who the supplier is in their contractual arrangements
  • the invoice, bill or sales receipt must identify that supplier and the service supplied
  • the digital platform must not authorise the charge to the consumer
  • the digital platform must not authorise the delivery
  • the digital platform must not set the general terms and conditions of the sale”

Again, this seems pretty clear to me. [/edit]

Kickstarter have specifically said that they will not do this, and that the campaign promoters are responsible for dealing with EU VAT. However, I think HMRC’s advice makes it pretty clear that they are wrong about that. This may not be particularly good news: after all Kickstarter is a big enough target that at some point someone may go after them for the VAT they have said they won’t pay. VAT is generally paid at around 20-25%, so the bill could be pretty big. If I were Kickstarter I think I’d be thinking pretty hard about this. But HMRC’s advice strongly suggests to me that you, as  the campaign promoter, do not need to think about this.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are payment platforms out there like Payhip, who as well as being legally bound to deal with EU VAT, have said that they will do so. Where possible, you should consider using such providers, simply because those who are still in denial may be on a rocky road, and if you use them you may take some bumps along the way.

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.

Will people like your game?

I’ve recently been playtesting a game, and the difference in response to that game and the previous one I designed got me thinking about what makes a game successful. The diagram below massively simplifies the process:

Screenshot 2015-02-21 18.22.17

 

Notice that if your ideas aren’t engaging, you’re already at a disadvantage. I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone, but I think its an important observation.

Notice also that if you fail to communicate your ideas (or your design) then once again you are hampered.

There’s also feedback loops between these three streams. If people don’t buy your game (or download it, or sign up to play it at a con, or whatever) then you don’t get past the first hurdle, and people never play it. If people don’t play your game then they obviously won’t get to enjoy it. If people enjoy your game then they will talk about it, helping you get your message out and get more people to buy your game.

So, every element in all three chains is vital. And, unless you’re hiring someone else to do parts of the process for you, you need to be able to do all four things – ideas, communication, networking and design.

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.