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.

MC Moves in PbtA: a different way of doing it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AW’s dirty secret: you can say anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.