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.

 

Comedy Racism in Historical Games

There is a genre[*] of roleplaying game that covers a mix of historical games that are trying to be faithful (in a strictly non-academic way[**]) to “real life” and pulp games set in historic-ish settings, more like Pirates of the Caribbean than the actual pirates of the Caribbean, if you see what I mean. This genre is pretty popular, at least amongst the internet forums I occasionally frequent. It also commonly includes elements of racism.

Woah there Rabalias! Where did that come from? Ok, let me say up front: I am not saying these games are racist, I’m not saying the people who play and enjoy them are racist. I’m talking about fictional racism.

Games set in World War 2 that include casual jingoism towards the “Jerries”. Games set in the old West where black slaves are commonplace. All manner of historical racism, sometimes brutal but usually casual and even humorous. These are fun settings for games, that many people enjoy. And of course, many roleplayers would not feel right about playing games in such settings without including the racism from the period. So we see players having their characters act racist for “realism”‘s sake. Usually this is done with a knowing smile – I’m not racist, the smile says, and this is all just good fun, why don’t you say something racist back and we can all laugh about it?

What I have discovered is: I am not at all comfortable with this. It is just a story, but I don’t want to be in a story where my character is a racist. I don’t want to play in a group where racism is common, even if it is strictly in-fiction, and even, perhaps especially, where it is done with tongue in cheek and a knowing smile. It makes me feel uncomfortable, and it inhibits me from fully taking part in the game. I can’t shake the feeling that by portraying heroic characters, or even just sympathetic characters, who are not merely just incidentally and occasionally racist, but frequently and casually racist, towards real historical victims of racism, I am on some level endorsing or taking part in that racism.

Unfortunately for me, games don’t typically advertise if they will be including such themes. I am lucky in that the people I roleplay with day-to-day don’t seem to be into playing comedy racists, but I can’t be sure when attending a convention or playing online that I won’t come across this. Sadly, I think I may have to avoid games from “historical” settings with notorious racist attitudes, unless I feel confident the group will tread very lightly indeed over those issues.

[*] Possibly too strong a word, but read it broadly.

[**] In my experience, such games are far more likely to be based on fictional accounts of history than actual historical knowledge. The result is that the social attitudes reflect those seen in movies and books. How racist were people historically? They may or may not have been as racist as the characters in “historical” games.

Intriguing…

Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.

In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.

This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.

Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.

Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.

I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.

What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.

Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.

Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

Rolling the bones… or not.

I have noticed recently a trend for using electronic dice rollers in place of, you know… dice. Now, while I can fully understand the desire to make things simpler in roleplaying games[*], this is not the way, people.

 

Maybe I’m getting old, but the feel of the dice in my hands, the noise they make when they roll (no, electronically simulated dice-noise does not count), the ability to superstitiously pick specific dice to roll in the hopes they will provide a better result… it’s all part of the experience. And just clicking on a screen – if I wanted to do that I’d be playing World of Warcraft, or Portal 2, or whatever it is people are playing now. Insert recent game here.

 

Come to that, why are roleplaying game designers creating games that are so complicated and/or require so many dice that people even contemplate using a computer to make the roll? I mean, mentioning no names *cough*Exalted*cough* but I’m pretty sure when you have to pick up more than 10 dice – and individually count out the results on each one – you haven’t written a roleplaying game, you’ve written a computer game. So logically, you need a computer to play it. I hate to undermine my own argument, but while playing a certain game recently I found myself so frustrated with the mechanics, and so embarrassed at how long the other players had to wait for me to count out my dice, that I caved and used the e-roller. Yes, I admit it. But that’s not the worst of it. Because we only had one computer in the room, I ended up getting someone else to click the roll button for me[**]. Think about that for a moment, and tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little sick inside.

 

So come on, roleplayers. Come on, White Wolf. Let’s drop electronic rollers and the games that make them necessary. That, or give up and play computer games instead.

 

[*] I’m fairly sure nobody would be stupid enough to design a system for a board game that was complex enough to drive people to this sort of behaviour.

[**] Incidentally, an interesting fact: Bad luck is capable of detecting not only who is rolling the dice, but also who is clicking on the e-roller, and whose skill check they are clicking for. Not that I’m bitter.