Mini-Apocalypse World hack

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp.

On a hit, you can ask the MC questions or propose an answer of your own. If you propose an answer the MC will either agree it, agree it with a change or two, or give a different answer.

Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers or your own answer, where the MC agreed it, take +1. On a 10+, ask or answer 3. On a 7–9, ask or answer 1:

• where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• which enemy is the biggest threat?
• what should I be on the lookout for?
• what’s my enemy’s true position?
• who’s in control here?

This is in response to a friend (I forget who – if it’s you, feel free to take credit in comments) who commented that Read Sitch meant the MC spoonfeeding the players tactical advice instead of them thinking for themselves. This allows players to say what they think the answers are, for the MC to correct their understanding (if needed) and for them to still get the bonus.

Designer Diary: Down the Rabbit Hole

So, Frax and I are working on a new game. We want to create a game about characters who cross over from the mundane world into a strange world of gods and faeries, or secret masters and conspiracies, or maybe magi and vampires… you get the idea. Universes like Neverwhere, Sandman, or the World of Darkness, Nobilis, Immortal, the X Files, all fit into this broad category.

But we’ve had some bad experiences with games like that. Playing those sorts of games, we’ve often found we were stumbling around, not understanding how the world worked, and outmatched and manipulated by NPCs with vast powers and vaster influence. Running them, we found that we would be required to invest hours of time creating the giant conspiracy or sprawling nether world, to make it coherent and consistent and to be always on top of the complicated, interrelated facts when the players began poking around at the tapestry we had woven. Of course, the two feed each other: all that effort means the game has to be about what we the GM have created, not about the players.

We want a game that delivers the conspiracy game experience: mystery, confusion, complicated weird shit – while avoiding these pitfalls. Beyond that, we want a game that focuses on the characters and their personal journeys from naive and sceptical ingenue to being a part of the world beyond the veil, and even masters of it.

So this is the first in a series of designer diaries about the game. It isn’t a finished product – we’re designing it as we go. Some bits remain to be defined, and some bits will probably change. So without further ado…

Aim of design: To create a game in which ordinary people go down the rabbit hole into a mysterious world to which they are naïve and vulnerable, without (a) the players feeling like mere pawns, (b) a huge burden on the GM to create and drip feed the secret world to the players, and with (c) a focus on character development and how the characters come to terms with the mysterious world. The system will support these design aims.

From novice to master

The players move through a series of stages akin to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). They begin with sceptical disbelief and slowly move towards integrating themselves into the mysterious world and becoming movers and shakers in that world. (Perhaps there will be an option to return to the normal world instead – but this would retire your character.)

The players are incentivised to move through each stage because every time they move through a stage they gain new supernatural powers and/or increase the strength of their existing powers. (They start the game with little or no powers.)

The players are incentivised not to move through each stage too quickly because every time they reach a new stage they refresh certain energy meter(s) (health, magical power, etc) which are eroded in play. Optimal play involves wearing down your meter(s) in scenes and then transitioning to a new stage when you are at your weakest.

Note: we might need a further brake on progression so players who transition very quickly don’t get too far ahead of the pack. Or maybe we do not need this.

XP. Uhn! What is it good for?

Ever since D&D, many RPGs have handed out experience points without a huge amount of thought as to why they’re doing it. The standard model of XP, which D&D pioneered, is achievement based. OD&D made it a mix of XP for killing monsters and XP for getting treasure. Many games mindlessly copied this approach, often ditching XP for treasure as unrealistic. But over the years many more methods have emerged.

XP for achievements: mechanistic version – the classic D&D formula, XP awarded in a pre-defined way based on the power of the foe slain or the value of treasure acquired. Often derided as unrealistic or creating perverse incentives, this approach actually gives a pretty strong incentive to keep doing exactly what the game is about, i.e. killing monsters and taking their stuff. It also has the distinct advantage that players get rewarded for acting effectively. If your plan enables you to somehow kill the monsters and get the treasure in a low-risk way, why shouldn’t you be rewarded for that? It’s a pretty strong system for an adversarial, GM vs players dungeon-crawling game.

XP for achievements: nuanced version – a less mechanistic approach. The GM awards points for clever plans, defeating baddies, achieving story goals, and so on. This has the advantage of enabling a broader spectrum of play – you can get XP for solving a puzzle, succeeding at a non-combat task, or even for personal goals like becoming head of the watch, or whatever. The downside is that the whole reward system is subject to the arbitrary judgement of the GM. Favouritism and bias can become a problem. The GM may reward what they see as a clever plan rather than one that actually is clever. Worse, it can be used to railroad the players towards the GM’s preferred outcomes.

XP for turning up – what it says on the tin. Here, XP is used primarily as a means to allow the character’s abilities to evolve and improve over time. There isn’t much of an incentive mechanism here, beyond the obvious one of actually coming to sessions, and many GMs even drop that requirement (everyone gets XP for a session even if they didn’t turn up), effectively removing any incentives.

XP for using abilities: simple version – Call of Cthulhu is the earliest example I’m aware of (but no doubt not the first) of a system that simply gives XP whenever an ability is used, that can be spent on improving that ability alone. (CoC actually went further and asked that you succeed in using the ability at the time, but then roll again and gain XP only if you fail.) This has the dubious advantage of realistic progression, as the more you use something the better it gets (and in the case of CoC creates a pleasing bell curve of progression). It also incentivises players to get stuck in and use their abilities as much as possible, which could be considered an advantage, though equally it encourages the use of abilities when they aren’t really needed or interesting. Other games have awarded XP for using stats without requiring it to be spent on the stat that was used, a more flexible approach with similar pros and cons.

XP for using abilities: advanced version – Apocalypse World is an example of a game that gives XP for using abilities but doesn’t require you to spend it on the ability that got you the XP. AW develops this method further by asking other players to “highlight” the stats they want to see you use, only rewarding the player for rolling highlighted stats. The result is a strong incentive for players to push themselves into specific situation types that other players have chosen (presumably because they think it will be interesting to watch). It also forces players to mix it up a bit rather than always sticking to the same old turf.

XP as fallout – Dogs in the Vineyard introduced (again, possibly not the first to do so) the interesting method of giving players stat improvements or even new stats as a “reward” for being beaten up in play. Each time you get verbally lashed, physically beaten or shot, you may gain a fallout stat like “a healthy respect for bullets” which can then be woven into future stories. What’s nice about this is that it makes the more painful and risky elements of roleplaying pay, and turns each new stat into a reminder of a previous encounter, so that the character sheet actually has character. It creates an slightly odd incentive to up the stakes in conflicts, which is well tailored to the genre of Dogs but perhaps not great for just any old game.

Surveying the above list (which is hardly exhaustive, but I suspect is a reasonably representative sample of common methods), what’s striking is how many of them vary the thing that gets you XP, but how few vary what the XP can be used for. They are virtually exclusively about stat improvement. The pace of improvement varies – D&D did levels, while most games now break upgrades down into individual stats and advantages – but it’s basically the same thing every time.

There must be a lot more that can be done in the space of Dogs, giving you character changes that are directly based on in-game events. Or maybe even advances that don’t change your abilities at all, but interact with some other aspect of your character, like beliefs or relationships.

If you know of any interesting XP systems out there, shout out – I’d love to know about them.

The Enemy Within

I’ve added my Game Chef entry “The Enemy Within” to the free games section of Black Armada.

The game is about a character with voices in his or her head. The focus of play is the battle for control over the character”s body, the battle to decide what the character’s beliefs and behaviour ought to be.

One player is the main or Primary personality, while the others, the Insurgents, will persuade, cajole and threaten their way to dominance over the Primary. The system provides backing to their threats; the Primary can only resist for so long before the Insurgents explosively take over and force their agenda.

There’s an optional alternative where you play a group with warring factions, but the principle is the same.

The Enemy Within is free to download along with the other games on the free games tab.