Push and pull mechanics

A popular mechanic which crops up in a lot of excellent games is Conditions. A Condition is a problem that’s affecting your character, like “broken leg”, “on fire” or “suspected traitor”. The idea is that the GM will hit you with trouble when your Condition would be relevant, or penalise you when it would get in the way. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think.

The trouble is, Conditions hardly ever get used. Why? Because they require the GM to Push them into the game[*]. In other words, the GM has to remember that the Condition is in play and bring it to bear on the game’s fiction and/or mechanics. This requires the GM to divert their limited attention and make a decision. I found this out to my cost in recent playtests of Last Fleet, where a whole bunch of Condition-type mechanics just never seemed to bite.

There are various ways you can increase the salience of these GM-Push mechanics, to help avoid them disappearing into the general cacophony of demands on the GM’s attention. Taking a mechanic off the player’s character sheet and putting it onto the GM’s reference sheet where the GM can more easily see it, for instance. Or better yet, put it in big letters on a nice, visible index card that sits in plain sight right in front of the relevant player. But even so, that’s just greasing the GM’s cognitive wheels a little. You’re still putting the onus on the GM to turn those wheels.

But there’s two ways you can restructure your mechanics to make them work without needing a GM push:

  • Turn them into a Pull mechanic
  • Turn them into a Player-Push mechanic

Let’s start with Pull mechanics. A Pull mechanic is automatically activated in fixed circumstances, drastically reducing the cognitive demands of the mechanic. For example, where a Condition relating to an injury generates work for someone to apply it in the fiction, a simple Harm or Hit Points mechanic are much easier to track.

You might think that sounds kind of boring: am I really recommending Hit Points as a mechanic? Well, it needn’t be dull. The system of Marks in Night Witches is essentially a Hit Point system, but it’s one where every time you take damage, something interesting happens. It’s just that the interesting thing happens automatically. Whenever certain Moves are triggered, someone has to choose consequences which include taking a Mark, and when someone takes a Mark, the fictional or mechanical consequence is applied right away.

The other approach is to use Player-Push mechanics. The difference here is, you put the onus on the owning player to activate the relevant mechanic. A good example is the Conditions found in Masks: A New Generation. Although having the same name as the GM-Push mechanic mentioned above, these work differently. Each Condition is tied to a particular Move or Moves in the game, and creates an automatic penalty each and every time that Move is used. The penalty itself is a Pull mechanic: whenever you use those Moves, the penalty applies, so no thought or judgement required. But removing the Condition is a Player-Push mechanic: if a player wants to remove the “Angry” Condition, they have to break something important, which requires them to choose that action. Now a player character’s Anger can be applied to create interesting complications in scenes, but it’s up to the player to choose when instead of the GM. And there’s a clear incentive for them to do it, because as long as they’ve got that Condition they’re continuing to take the penalty.

Another nice thing about Player-Push mechanics, by the way, is that they hand more power and narrative control to the players. That’s usually a good thing in my view: it means they’re more engaged with the game, and it means that the trouble that is created is something they’re eager to get to grips with – after all they chose it.

You can even combine the two. An example is Pressure in my own WIP game Last Fleet. Pressure is used as a kind of Hit Point system, whenever a character takes harm but also when they take an emotional shock – a Pull mechanic that happens automatically when the rules say so. But players can also voluntarily Mark Pressure to get bonuses to rolls – a Player-Push mechanic that provides a clear incentive for the players to make trouble for themselves. Finally, when you get to 5 Pressure, you hit Breaking Point, forcing you to choose from a list of irrational or risky actions to take that will complicate your character’s life. Breaking Point is another Pull mechanic: it kicks in without any decision needing to be taken.

There’s definitely room for GM-Pull mechanics. In most games, part of the fun of being the GM is to exercise your attention and judgement to spot opportunities to make interesting stuff happen. You wouldn’t get to do that as much if only a mechanical trigger or player decision enabled you to do it. But, in the interests of lightening the burden on the GM and ensuring your mechanics actually come into play instead of sitting unused on someone’s character sheet, consider using Pull and Player-Push mechanics instead.

As a coda to this, I took three distinct GM-Push mechanics in Last Fleet and converted them over to a mix of Pull and Player-Push mechanics. I’m really happy with how they bring into sharp focus elements that were previously relegated to a minor role or just plain didn’t work.

[*] Ok, to be fair, in a lot of games other players can activate Conditions too, using another player’s Condition against them. But the principle is the same – it requires someone else to think of the Condition and bring it into play.

Bite Marks is on Backerkit

We’ve sent Bite Marks off to the printers, which means it’s now available for pre-order if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.

Bite Marks is a PBTA game of werewolf pack dynamics. This is a game about being a werewolf, in a Pack. The Pack is a deeply intimate and close family; like a family, sometimes it is full of love and happiness and sometimes it is brutal and dysfunctional. But love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it – it will shape you. Fearless Alpha, dedicated foot soldier, pacifist scholar or rebellious cub – your relationship with the Pack is the cornerstone of who and what you are.

You might notice the game’s name has changed – we had some difficulty with a similarly-named board game, hence the change. We hope you like it!

You can pre-order Bite Marks here.

Get our games on itchio

We’ve also uploaded our back catalogue of smaller games to itchio. These include some of the first games we ever designed. Create your own disaster movie, fight a deadly duel between close friends, play farm animals overthrowing the despotic farmer, and more. Most of them are free (with optional donation).

And we’re uploading the games we’ve offered through our patreon. The first two games, Soap Bubble and What the Water Gave Me are already up there, with more coming soon. Of course, if you like these then you should consider backing the patreon, where you’ll regularly get games like this, before they show up on itchio.
 

Last Fleet playtest

The first two rounds of Last Fleet playtests are complete. As a reminder, Last Fleet is a PBTA game where you play brave pilots, officers, engineers and politicians on board a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from an implacable, inhuman adversary.

The game is in great shape, but there have been some tweaks which need further playtesting. If you’d like to take it out for a spin, drop us a line at lastfleet@vapourspace.net and we’ll send you a playtest pack.

Designer diary: Last Fleet

I’ve been getting quite a bit of feedback on my current WIP, Last Fleet. In case you’ve missed hearing about it, the game is about the last surviving members of the human race, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman adversary. The players are brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists, struggling to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece, under immense pressure.

As you might gather from the above, a key theme in Last Fleet is pressure. The core mechanics revolve around gaining and losing Pressure, which acts like hit points and mission/team pool all rolled into one. Crucially, players can gain +1 to any roll, after rolling the dice, by marking 1 Pressure. This means players tend to push their Pressure up of their own accord. Your Pressure track has room for five marks, after which you have to mark and perform a Breaking Point action whereby you do something risky or irrational. Eventually when you’ve marked them all, the (presumably) last Breaking Point action is to die.

Side note: if this sounds quite a bit like Night Witches system of Marks, that’s no coincidence. I’ve drawn inspiration from that. And as you’ll see, I think the lessons from playtesting are pushing the design to being more similar to Night Witches than it currently is.

A significant issue in playtesting has been getting the balance right between being under too much pressure versus not enough. There are lots of variables which can affect this:

  • How often the players make actions that allow them to erase Pressure (social stuff, mostly);
  • How much space the GM gives them to do that;
  • How much the players have to roll the dice;
  • How serious are the consequences the GM puts on the line;
  • How much players work together to min-max their rolls and apply maximum bonuses from assists; and (not forgetting)
  • How well the players roll.

So the system puts the players under pressure, but getting it at the exact right level to avoid either crushing them or leaving them feeling totally relaxed, seems to be a bit of an art. But I’m currently feeling that the system itself makes it too easy to reduce Pressure, while leaving the consequences of bad rolls insufficiently terrifying to prompt the players to increase their own Pressure all that much.

So where is that leading me to? Three (or maybe four) things:

  • I’m toughening up the consequences of bad rolls, including on a 7-9, to increase the stakes of failure. In turn that should mean players wanting to spend more Pressure.
  • I may reduce the overall statline of starting characters, which currently start with +2/+1/+0/+0/-1.
  • I’m reducing how much Pressure is erased when Pressure-reducing moves are taken.
  • I said maybe four. I’m considering whether players trust each other too much. The initial relationships set up tend to push things towards distrust and conflict, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken it far enough. Something to think about.

What’s interesting is that the stories people are coming back with from playtesting sound like exactly the sort of play I want to see – so while people may not feel sufficiently pressured, the game is fundamentally working ok. It needs tuning, perhaps even some significant redesign of individual components, but the overall shape of the design seems right.

If you’re interested in Last Fleet, get in touch! I’ll be doing more playtesting later in the year and I’m always keen to have more playtesters.

Is it ok to fudge rolls?

I was bodding about on Twitter recently and I came across this:

Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.

Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.

When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:

Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)

See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.

My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.

There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.

Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.

So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.

The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.

But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.

“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”

If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.

48 hours left to back Bite Me! on Kickstarter

Update: Please note that Bite Me was renamed to Bite Marks, after the campaign closed. The game can now be pre-ordered from Backerkit.

We have been running a Kickstarter for Bite Me! – a game of werewolf pack dynamics here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackarmada/bite-me-a-game-of-werewolf-pack-dynamics and we are down to the last 48 hours.

Vincent Sammy is illustrating the game … gorgeous.

As you know I love Werewolves and werewolf packs especially and this is a labour of love which I’ve talked about before on the blog.  I wanted a game which combined all the tropes of Werewolves like control, domination and hyper-violence and used that to fuel messy relationships and explore pack dynamics.  This is that game.

The campaign is funded and we have hit the first stretch goal but I really would love to get to the stretch goals by Whitney Delaglio, Kelley Armstrong and Paul Czege if we can.

If you’ve backed or shared already then thank you so much and if you have been thinking about it then there is 48 hours to make your move!

Reflections on play: Pasion de las Pasiones

I was recently lucky enough to get to play Pasion de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta. Pasion is a (currently ashcan-only) PBTA game based on telenovelas. If you haven’t come across telenovelas, my totally uninformed layperson’s summary is: overwrought, over-the-top Latin American soap operas. Now you might be thinking “why would I play a game about that when I know nothing about telenovelas”, and that is what I thought too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Pasion is brilliantly designed to reinforce the themes of a telenovela even for a complete novice to the genre. The core mechanics and the playbooks point you in the right direction, probably more effectively than any other game I’ve seen. You cannot really go wrong simply noticing the things that will give you a mechanical benefit and doing them – and if you do, you’ll naturally get both a fun experience and an on-genre experience.

Before I talk any more about how it does this, let’s just look at some things that happened in our game to give you an idea what I’m talking about:

  • Ernesto, the eyepatch-wearing drugs kingpin, fed his lover Maria’s sister to a pair of jaguars for refusing to do his bidding.
  • Ernestino, Ernesto’s twin brother who everyone thought was dead, makes love to Marcela (who is under the impression she is making love to Ernesto) against a marble statue of aphrodite.
  • In a single scene, Maria reveals that she has been posing as a nun to sooth the pain of a wealthy landowner (and inveigle herself into the landowner’s inheritance), and then agrees to run off with Ernesto, ripping off her habit to reveal a slinky dress underneath.
  • The police descend on the (deceased) landowner’s mansion at the reading of her will, to try and wipe out Ernesto’s drug empire, forcing Ernestino and Marcela to smash through window to a waiting limousine, while Ernesto and Maria shoot their way to Ernesto’s helicopter.

In other words, think of a Western soap opera, then imagine that all concerns about suspension of disbelief and overacting have been not merely removed, but destroyed with a flamethrower, and you get some idea of what you’re in for.

So how does Pasion do it? Start with the playbooks. Each one has a set of props which you can choose from to help add flavour to your character. This simple decision makes it easy to see what the character is about. My character Ernesto was essentially built from those props: an eyepatch, a scarily large knife and a huge mansion. More standard for PBTA are the moves and the relationships – though these are very good, and further reinforce the character type and the themes of the game. Most fun of all is your character’s question; as long as you can answer yes to it, you get +1 to all your rolls. Examples are “are you taking control of this situation?” and “are you the centre of attention?”. Wonderful stuff.

Then there’s the basic moves, which are glorious in at least two ways. The first is the obvious, usual way that a well-crafted PBTA game does it, which is simply to point each move at the things you want the game to be about, in this case things like declaring your love for someone, accusing someone of lying, processing your feelings out loud and other such excellent stuff. But the one I’d like to dwell on is the way that stats work in Pasion. The way it works is: there aren’t any. Instead, each move has two questions attached. For each one you can answer yes to, you get +1 to the roll (plus of course your playbook question, which can add a further +1). The questions are things like “are you doing this for love?”, “are you doing this for vengeance?”, and suchlike. So not only are the moves themselves pointing you at the right sort of drama, you’re incentivised each and every roll to conduct that drama, and even shape your character’s motivations, in an in-genre way.

I’ll also mention flashbacks – only briefly, because we didn’t actually use them all that much, though I think they have a lot of potential. Pasion has a flashback move similar to what’s used in Leverage and Blades in the Dark. You can use it, just like in those games, to retroactively declare you have stuff set up to be prepared for whatever situation you’re in. But more interestingly, you can use it to reveal secrets about other characters, and have it be true, right in the middle of a scene. I wish I’d noticed this mechanic earlier on in the game because I’m sure this would be a lot of fun.

Finally there’s a wonderful little mechanic reminiscent of World-Wide Wrestling where – during other characters’ scenes – you get to play the audience watching the show at home, and during your own scenes you earn XP from their reactions. It’s a lot of fun.

I was super-impressed with Pasion de las Pasiones. If soap opera drama on steroids appeals to you then I’d seriously recommend it. You can buy it here.

Bite Me! is coming to Kickstarter – Get on the Mailing List Here!

Update: Please note that Bite Me was renamed to Bite Marks, after the campaign closed. The game can now be pre-ordered from Backerkit.

The Bite Me! Kickstarter is getting closer and closer, practically snapping at our heels over here at Black Armada.

Bite Me! is a Powered by the Apocalypse Game of werewolf packs and it is a full throated emotional howl into these cold Winter nights.

If you want to know the instant the kickstarter emerges naked and bloody into the world then sign up to our mailing list here:

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Indie games aren’t all about narrative

I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.

Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.

With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.

But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.

PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.

The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.

So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.

But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.

I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.

So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.

PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.

Bite Me! Update – Congratulations It’s a PBTA Hack!?

Update: Please note that Bite Me was renamed to Bite Marks, after the campaign closed. The game can now be pre-ordered from Backerkit.

I am in full swing playtesting Bite Me! my Powered by the Apocalypse Game of Werewolf Pack dynamics.

About a year ago (despite all my complaints that I was bored of PBTA hacks!) I decided to write Bite Me! as a PBTA hack. Yeah, I know. But I really wanted the ability to sharply focus the gameplay on some specific elements of genre and PBTA is a solid template for doing that. So over a year later, I’ve got a basic game written, completed 2 one shot playtests and I’m in the middle of a 10 week long campaign playtest.

The core of the game starts with Moves and Playbooks/Skins as you would expect. But I really wanted to create a situation which cycles through two modes of play. Firstly the aggressive, domination riddled, toxic masculine play where things are feral and always on the brink of chaos and secondly, a close, tightly knit, emotionally close family.

The first environment creates the events and issues which will fuel the heartfelt conversations in the second. Behave badly, react with extreme violence to extreme events and then expect to get challenged on it by people whose opinion you care the most about. I feel that games need a more direct and mechanised link between character’s emoting and giving them something to emote about – this is what Bite Me! is squarely aiming at.

Nightwitches by Jason Morningstar has a similar (ish) mechanic with the Night and Day play styles. But I wanted something more organic and slightly less formal to mimic the ebb and flow of the pack relationships. So instead of separating the play into different formats I’m using a points mechanic – you get to spend points on taking powerful and tempting actions, in order to get points you have to call people on their behaviour, you have to express opinions and be vulnerable about your emotions. In fact before a big action scene (in which you’ll need some tasty points to spend) you’ll definitely want to clear the air with a big ‘ol secret revealing row.

So far this loop has playtested really well and I’m extremely pleased with the results. It has also helped me put into words how I feel about secrets at the table – something that will form core player advice for the game: “The point of a secret is to throw it in someone’s face in the most dramatic moment.”

Once the campaign playtest is finished I need to do the really hard bit. Write the MCing guidance. In a MC’d game guidance on doing it well is one of the most important and most overlooked sections in a traditional rulebook. Writing really clear, practical and specific guidance for MCing my games is vital because if anyone else is going to replicate the game in my mind I have to get it down on paper. That is the difficult bit, because there is always something you are doing when you run your own games that you don’t realise you are doing.

I’m hoping to get the next draft finished by the end of Autumn 2017 and release it into the wild for some external playtesting after that.