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.