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.

Rolling versus fictional positioning

So, I was reading some stuff about the OSR, and came across the concept that spot checks and detect traps rolls aren’t used in the OSR: instead, you identifying potential danger zones and have your character check them, and the GM tells you what you find. This article is about the more general case of this dichotomy: when is it appropriate to allow a player to describe their way to success, when is it appropriate to reduce it to a roll, and – in the absence of a roll – when to punish a player for neglecting to describe some particular action in the fiction. But yeah, I’ll talk about traps a bit because it’s a convenient example.

Caveat: I’m talking about games where you have Player Characters trying to overcome obstacles through skill or luck, and where those obstacles exist in the GM’s head or in their prep i.e. not invented after a roll is made. I realise not all games are like this, but that’s the scope of this article.

Matthew Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming talks about a couple of examples which are relevant:

  • Some dudes are walking down a corridor. There’s a pit trap ahead. Do you have them make a detect traps check (as you would in, say, 3e AD&D) or do you hit them with the trap unless they take an action which will allow them to detect it and disarm or avoid it? Supposedly the latter is the OSR approach. He describes how the dudes, having lost their ten foot pole, look for cracks in the ground and then detect the edge of the pit trap by pouring some water on the floor and looking where it collects. Then they just walk around the trap.
  • Some dudes enter a room. There’s a moose head with a concealed compartment behind it. Do you have them make a detect secret doors check (as per AD&D 3e) or let them find it if and only if they investigate the moose head (OSR). In the example the dudes fiddle with the moose head and discover it slides to one side.

So, looking at “detecting hidden stuff” as a category of action, we can see that you can just skip over the business of describing how you find it and make a roll (perhaps the GM describes how you succeed or fail after the roll), or you can have the player describe in some detail what they actually do and judge what the effects of those actions might be.

We can go further, though: some hidden stuff will jump out and mess with you if you don’t detect and deal with it, some hidden stuff is something nice you’ll only get if you detect it. I think this is an important distinction. If the world is full of stuff that will hurt me unless I take the correct action, then this raises some questions:

  • What warning, if any, must the GM give me before the bad stuff happens? Is “there’s a corridor” sufficient warning that there might be a pit trap?
  • How much detail do I need to go into in my description? In the example, simply touching the moose head seemed to be sufficient to get it to slide, but what if I can only open it if I tickle the moose under its right eyebrow? Do I need to describe all the weird combinations of action I might take to get to that?

Now, this brings us to GM philosophy. Think about Apocalypse World’s “be a fan of the player characters”. In a system where you’re relying on detailed action description rather than “just make a detect hidden stuff roll”, it would be a dick move to have a moose head that only opens if you tickle its right eyebrow. That’s just too obscure. On the other hand, at the margin, it’s a total guessing game whether the particular hiding method you’ve decided on is too obscure, too easy, or just that nice level of challenge.

I suspect the OSR answer to all this is “who cares”. You’re going to get hit by traps sometimes, and sometimes they will kill you, and sometimes it’s because the GM put something in place that turned out to be a bit too obscure for you to pick up on it. Sometimes it will be because you were slopped and forgot to investigate the obvious moose head; sometimes it will be because you investigated the obvious moose head and it turned out to be a trap. But as someone not particularly signed up to OSR philosophy, the idea that my character’s life or death hangs on the question of whether the GM’s idea of fair warning and mine align, or whether the GM’s warning of a reasonable level of description and mine align.

Let’s think wider than hidden stuff. You may wish to base a category of action resolution on the players’ detailed description if you want your game to be about describing that thing in detail. (Duh.) If you like the idea of describing turn after turn of agonisingly detailed trap searching, weighing up the risk of wandering monsters against the risk of arbitrary death at the hands of a concealed trap, then OSR D&D clones may be for you. Equally, if you want a game that is about complex political negotiations, you might not want to boil every interaction down to a roll – you want to ensure there’s enough fictional positioning required that it feels like you’re actually negotiating, not just rolling a bunch of dice. Conversely, DON’T do that if you want to avoid such detailed description. If you make the intricacies of character position a crucial factor in a fight, then every time there’s a fight you’ll get painstaking description of character position, obviously. If your game isn’t about fighting, you probably don’t want that.

If you are going to make a category of action resolution all about player description (with or without dice rolls) then you’re also going to have to think about how to get everyone on the same page about that. Establish what a reasonable level of description is. Establish what fair warning is. This goes wider than traps: does my political negotiation description need to give the gist of what I’m saying, or the detail, and if the latter, do I also need to roleplay my impassioned, emotional argument, or just describe what I’m saying? If we’re not on the same page about this, I’ll be pissed off when you have my argument fail (or saddle me with a fat negative modifier to my roll) because you felt I wasn’t impassioned enough. I’ll be annoyed that you thought describing the quirk of your NPC’s eyebrow is fair warning they’re about to stab me in the face.

So this brings me back to the OSR. I read in the primer that OSR is about rulings, not rules. Fair enough; but one thing rules do is get everyone on the same page. Quite literally. If we all read the rules, we can have common understanding of how a given situation might play out, and even if we don’t then at least we have a fair way to check the arbitrary power of the GM. If we don’t have that, then that sense of fairness depends on the players and the GM being on the same page, metaphorically.

Anyway, what this has got me thinking is, there’s a space for an OSR-style game that provides exceptionally clear explanation of the above factors: how much detail is it reasonable to expect, how much of a warning sign is it reasonable to expect. Providing some parameters to your rulings, without forcing you to conform to highly detailed rules. Maybe it already exists? Comments welcome.

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.

The procedural vs dramatic balance

I’ve been playing a lot of games recently which are focused on intense, dramatic relationships. The poster child for these is Hillfolk, but there’s a whole bunch of others along similar lines (several in playtesting). What I’ve observed is, there’s a crucial balance to be struck between intense, emotional, conversational scenes, and the procedural scenes which provide the energy for them. Hillfolk, it seems to me, undervalues the latter, with the result that its dramatic scenes[*] gradually wind down and end up meandering rather than roaring along. Other games overdo it in the other direction.

Why is this? Conversations have to be about something. Hillfolk sets up dramatic tension by asking everyone to begin with something they want from each other character, and a reason why they can’t have it. But over time those tense relationships from become flaccid, either because the starting issue is resolved or because it becomes apparent that it isn’t going to be resolved. Sooner or later there’s nothing left to talk about.

To stop this happening you need to provide an external stimulus to tighten up those relationships and reintroduce tension. There are various things that can do this, such as:

– Discovery of information that had previously been secret (or at least, known by a more limited group)

– A decision taken that was previously untaken.

– Somebody does something, i.e. the execution of a decision.

– An external event happens which forces one of the above to happen, or creates pressure for it to happen.

Notice that the first two can naturally happen in the course of a dramatic scene, indeed a dramatic scene can focus on these things. The third could be either; I can take action with the primary aim of getting an emotional reaction from someone, or I can do it to achieve some external goal. The last won’t naturally happen in any dramatic scene, though it might well be part of the setup for one.

Once again, eventually tense, dramatic relationships will wind down as all the secrets come to be revealed, all the important decisions are made and all the resulting actions have been taken. The only way this energy can be restored is if something happens that requires new decisions to be taken, that generates new secrets, that demands new action. Most importantly, something must happen that changes the way people feel about each other, or pushes them in directions which will cause them to feel differently about each other.

These external pressures are vital for keeping the drama going, which is why it’s frustrating that Hillfolk downplays their importance. But at the same time, if there’s too much external pressure then there’s no space for the emotional and social reaction to be played out. Dramatic scenes are a sort of emotional and social processing of what has happened in procedural scenes, but that can only happen if there’s a gap in the action in which that processing can happen.

So all this is a long-winded way of saying, in a game about relationships it’s important to include some sort of external stimulus to keep things from winding down, but equally the action has to be paced to enable those relationships to be explored. You need to strike the right balance between the dramatic and the procedural. Get that balance wrong in either direction and you’ll get less drama.

[*] I’m using Hillfolk’s terminology here. A dramatic scene is one where someone is seeking an emotional response from someone else; a procedural scene is one where someone is trying to achieve something more practical, even if the means to this end is a social interaction.

Trindie, schmindie

I read Smiorgan’s discussion of so-called trindie games (and the “trindie triangle”) on Department V recently. I disagreed with a lot of it – in particular I see the essence of the three gaming spheres, and in particular the indie sphere, very differently from Smiorgan. But I’m not planning to critique his ideas, rather I want to set out some of my own.

Disclaimer: these are my thoughts about what makes a game trad, freeform or (in a much broader, vaguer way) indie, and therefore what could be a trindie game. Obviously, this is to a certain extent semantics – but I think it does identify a space that isn’t fully explored yet, which may therefore be of interest.

A trad game will involve a GM who mostly makes the rules calls and who controls most of the game world and the characters in it; player characters who are the exclusive domain of the other players; mechanical procedures that relate to the actions of characters in the game and aimed at determining success or failure; and game time based on when something interesting is happening to one of the player characters, and skipping over the rest.

A freeform game will be played in real time. It will focus on a defined situation, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for rules calls i.e. characters who aren’t likely to start fighting each other in-session, or using lots of powers, or whatever. It will have a rules system for adjudicating when people do enter conflict, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for a referee, but there will usually be some people who can serve that function if needed. Often times there is a downtime system for managing what people do between sessions, which is much more ref-moderated.

An indie game could look quite similar to either of these (AW is quite like a trad game in many respects; WTDiG is like a freeform game) or be completely unlike either of them (Fiasco, Microscope, forex). So what makes an Indie game (apart from the obvious question of whether it’s independently published)? I think the answer is, no one thing, but there’s a whole set of tools and techniques which you see in indie-style games that you don’t see very often in trad or freeform games.

Diverse options for division of GM duties. Such as:
– Fiasco, has no GM (this seems to be the exemplar indie game by Smiorgan’s metrics, and I suspect the one he was thinking of when he wrote his article). Everyone is responsible for working out how the scene should go. The final outcome of the scene is decided by selection from a limited pool of available positive and negative outcomes.
– Microscope, has no GM. For most of the game creative responsibilities are clearly delineated so that just one person has authority to decide at any given time, so it’s sort of like having a rotating GM. Except! In scenes, the players roleplay in a fairly unstructured way to answer a question posed by the person whose turn it is.
– Apocalypse World, has a GM. But the GM doesn’t have the power to dictate when the game’s mechanics are brought into play. And, the GM is encouraged to ask questions, often quite sweeping questions, about the game world and situation, so that they no longer have full control over those.
– Dream Askew, has Situations which have owners, who effectively take on some aspects of the GM’s role, in particular creating pressure on the player characters. Other aspects are handled through questions asked to others, like in Apocalypse World.
– When the Dark is Gone, hands over creative decision making to the players in its entirety. The GM-role is just a facilitator who asks questions.

Messing with the player character role, so that people may have more than one character. Such as:
– Durance, where everyone has two characters; one from the criminal side and one from the authority side.
Lovecraftesque (and, I understand, Downfall), where everyone takes turns playing the main character.
– Rise and Fall, where you play an archetype, and may play several different exemplars of that archetype, one per scene, maybe coming back and playing the same one(s) more than once or maybe not.

Using mechanics to structure the story and drive its overall shape. Such as:
– Fiasco sets hard limits on the number of scenes and on how many of them can have a positive or negative outcome. After half the scenes are used up, there’s a tilt; once they’re all used up, there’s an aftermath.
– Dog Eat Dog gives out tokens, and at the end of each scene the characters make judgements about the scene, which trigger a token exchange. The token exchanges drive the events of the game and ultimately determine when it ends and with what final outcome.
– My Life With Master is another game with a mechanical trigger for the endgame, based on the accumulation of points resulting from the outcomes of individual scenes.
– Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne frames the whole game around a journey, and has a required number of scenes and a theme at each location, with a fixed ending.

Now, I’d like to touch on the so-called “trindie” games such as Fate and Cortex Plus. What these particular games seem to do that is considered by some to be indie-ish is to allow players to create stuff outside their character – scene aspects in Fate, and mechanically similar assets in Cortex Plus. In effect, the player narrates a little chunk of what would, in a purely trad game, be narrated by the GM. But this is very limited! Players can only do this within fairly narrow limits, and the primary effect of doing so (and I suspect in many cases the primary motive for doing so) is to attain a temporary mechanical advantage in a conflict. In other words, aspects and their ilk are like temporary traits that a character can use, that just happen to sometimes concern a bit of the world outside their character. They’re not so much about creative control as broadening the range of ways your character can be awesome. That doesn’t seem particularly “trindie” to me – it seems like a trad game with a tiny bit of narrative control grafted on.

So what would a truly trindie game look like? Well, I don’t see how you could keep the tr in trindie without keeping a pretty unified GM role and players who each play one character (maybe two). But there is a game which keeps all of that, while altering the trad formula in a number of ways: Apocalypse World. AW gives you background and plot that is mostly generated by the players through question-answering (but driven forward by the GM); mechanics that are triggered by fixed circumstances and with relatively fixed outcome options, reducing the role of GM judgement and constraining GM fiat; it encourages the GM to put things beyond their direct control using tools like countdown clocks. It even lets you play more than one player character, while remaining essentially a player rather than a GM.

I don’t think AW has driven as far into this space as you can possibly go. But it suggests some thoughts about what aspects of a trad game you could retain while introducing elements of indie play. I would suggest the core of a trad game is a GM whose role is to represent adversity and drive forward external threats; and players whose roles are to fully inhabit the roles of a much smaller cast of characters.  Within that model, you can divvy up a lot of creative power, you can introduce mechanics which put the structure of the story at least somewhat beyond GM control, and you can give the players something other than just a single unchanging character to play. I can’t think of another game that has done this to the extent that AW has, but I’ll be very happy to hear of one. Suggestions?

Stance and stancibility

So, where was I? Oh, yeah: stance.

Le Forge has this to say about stance:

  • In Actor stance, a person determines a character’s decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have.
  • In Author stance, a person determines a character’s decisions and actions based on the real person’s priorities, then retroactively “motivates” the character to perform them. (Without that second, retroactive step, this is fairly called Pawn stance.)
  • In Director stance, a person determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character’s knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character’s actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters.

So I was thinking to myself, actor and author stance are basically about playing a character, in the former case according to the character’s motivations, and in the latter case according to your motivations as a player (retro-justified as needed).

Director stance appears to be about playing the environment. But wait: we can subdivide this further also.

Let’s say that Regulator stance is playing the environment in accordance with the fictional logic of the environment. So, for example, you’ve just dived into the Niagara Rapids wearing naught but a polka-dot bikini and a baseball cap. In Regulator stance, I’m afraid you’re toast. You are swept away. The last we see of you is a flash of polka, a flailing arm, then nothing.

Meanwhile, God stance is playing the environment in accordance with your own motivations. Ok, you aren’t likely to survive a headlong dive into the Niagara Rapids, but I’d quite like it if instead of dying, you find yourself hanging by a delicately positioned tree branch, and just within sight of your arch-rival… what will he do now?

The same breakdown can be applied to less environmental questions. Say I want to know “will the inhabitants of Endor rise up against their invaders?” – I can resolve that by thinking about their motivations and the things we know about the situation, or I can do it according to what I think would be interesting, or what I’d like to see. Maybe that’s Sociologist stance and Dictator stance, I dunno.

So there we go. Director stance isn’t just a monolithic thing you can do, it means decisions justified in different ways, just like when you play a character. Maybe it would be simpler and clearer to divide the scope of decision-making in two. Actor stance when you’re playing a character, Director stance when you’re making wider decisions; Endogenous justification when you’re going with fictional logic or character motivation, Exogenous when you’re deciding for other reasons.

One last thing – in practice I almost never go into a pure Exogenous way of thinking. Basically if the fictional/in-character reasoning is overwhelming and obvious, I go with what that says. If it’s, like, 90% pointing in one direction then I’ll need a strong external reason to ignore that. If it’s less clear-cut, I’ll think more about what would be interesting, or just go with my whim. It’s still helpful to be able to clearly talk about the decisions we’re taking and the reasons for taking them, but it’s fair to say that these aren’t either/or.

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.

 

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

A stone’s throw away from the answer

An analogy I often come across when describing investigative games is the “trail of breadcrumbs”. That is, a linear series of clues each of which points to the next in the series. It’s an approach that reaches its apex in the Gumshoe system, which advises the GM to write a “spine” of scenes, each of which contains a core clue which is necessary to progress to the next scene. The game makes discovery of core clues automatic for any character with the relevant skill, solving a genuine problem with investigative games, which is that they can stall when the players miss an important roll.

This is not an approach I subscribe to. Notwithstanding the fact that the “trail of breadcrumbs” is rather demeaning towards the players, suggesting they are simply mindless birds pecking their way to success – well. That is exactly what they are in Gumshoe, it seems to me. The system deliberately removes any element of challenge in the process of discovering the Truth, leaving the players with the job of describing how they do it. Whether they peck at the breadcrumbs furiously or idly, I suppose.

Let me give you my own pointless metaphor for the process I follow. Imagine the villain of the piece is standing on the shore of a lake, throwing stones. The stones create ripples, which spread out in all directions and persist for a long time.

If the stones are the villain’s actions, and the ripples are the clues they leave behind, then you should start to see where my analogy is going. The players are presented initially with some information about the “ripples” – the key evidence that starts their investigation off. Now they are in a position to look for more ripples. They begin to be able to piece together where some of the stones fell. If they are watching closely perhaps they can even spot some stones landing. But I as GM don’t plan out which bits of the ripple they’re going to find, or which stones they will discover the location of. Or in other words, I don’t know which evidence they will discover or what clues they will deduce from it.

Instead, I make sure that there are plenty of stones being thrown, with a varied size of ripple, so that I can be reasonably sure that they will eventually figure out who is throwing those stones. Finally, the stones continue to be thrown as the investigation is ongoing, generating still more ripples. By which I mean:
– My villain is doing lots of stuff
– He is, therefore, leaving lots of evidence behind for the players to find
– Some of it is really obvious, some less so, so there is room for skillful play
– My villain carries on doing stuff while the investigation is going on, so the trail never goes completely cold, and (this is important) there are consequences to failure

Think about the difference between these two approaches. Under the Gumshoe approach, no matter what the players do, they will uncover the mystery, and without any role for intelligent deduction, clever investigation or even just plain good or bad luck. The game (I read Trail of Cthulhu) strenuously denies it railroads the players, but this feels like a game on rails to me. Even a standard “trail of breadcrumbs” (not Gumshoe) game will feel a lot like this.

Meanwhile under my approach the players are required to use their eyes and ears and brains to piece together what happened. They don’t get any free passes. There is scope for them to solve the mystery slower or faster, and there are consequences if they fail. It is unlikely the players will fail because there is lots of evidence and the villain doesn’t disappear off the radar, but they can still screw up properly, allowing the villain to commit more mayhem, and conversely they can score a roaring success, catching the villain early.

A trail of breadcrumbs investigation means you are roleplaying an investigation, but not actually doing one. The stones and ripples approach means you get to actually investigate, not just go through the motions.

Final thoughts: my approach is not without problems. It’s a lot of work, and it requires the GM to think on her feet about every player action and what clues it might uncover. It can mean an unpredictable game length. The GM must pay a lot of attention to whether there is enough evidence to go on (so they will probably succeed) but not too much (so it just feels like childsplay, ruining the challenge). I think these are a price worth paying to get an approach that feels like real investigation.