PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse

In a previous post, I talked about a claim Vincent Baker made about Apocalypse World in a recent article. Here, I’m going to discuss another one.

In Section 4, Baker claims that PbtA games “collapse gracefully inward”. I.e. forgetting a few rules, unless they are from a small core set (e.g. the conversation structure) will have only minor effect on the game experience.

Questions that come to mind:

  1. Is that true?
  2. Is it more true than for other kinds of games (e.g. those that fall under Baker’s “D&D”, “point-buy”, or “Forge” design approaches? I.e. is this distinctive about AW (and, by extension, PbtA games in general)

I discussed those questions online, and concluded that Baker is right, with some caveats.

First caveat — Baker never explains what he means by “messy collapse” i.e. what fate he thinks AW saves you from. We can infer a definition from his examples, though — one bottoms out with “…You’re missing out, but the conversational structure still works.” and the other with “You’re missing out, but as long as you remember your agenda and most of your principles and what to always say, you’ll be okay.”. I.e. “graceful collapse” means — “you’ve lost some beneficial features, but you maintain the desired conversation structure, and the MC sticks to their agenda, ‘always say’, and most of their principles”.

Second, more important caveat — “forgetting some detailed rules from Baker’s outer circles” is not the only failure mode when trying to play AW. When I run Dungeon World, it’s my own most common failure mode — at least the most common that I notice. But I’ve run dozens of sessions, and read a lot online, and thus internalised the AW/DW core pretty well. Until you’ve done that, it’s far from a given.

Put another way — AW fails gracefully if you have system mastery (thanks to William Nichols for that).

If you don’t, you may fail in a way AW handles messily. Eva Shiffer has seen MCs over-use moves, trying to use them for every PC action. Dungeon World is particularly vulnerable, as modern D&D tends to spell out exactly what actions are possible, at least in combat. Players used to modern D&D may see DW “moves” as analogous to combat actions. If you use moves like that, you don’t collapse towards the core — you drift towards a poor approximation of D&D 3e.

If you do have that system mastery, AW does seem to have a core that you will fall back to. The core is a structured approach to diceless play, where the GM follows their principles, agenda and “always say” and adjudicates player actions consistently with them. In contrast, most non-PbtA games leave that core unstated, such that when groups forget the rules they collapse down to the baseline default game for that particular group, to table culture. (Or, as Jonathan Walton put it, to the “raw social relationships between the people”)

Putting it another way, Aaron Field said  “… most games have a “core” that is completely aside from the actual experience the game sells itself on. And/or have no particular “core” and can collapse any old direction depending on what the GM/players choose to use … PbtA design philosophy has you think about the core experience explicitly”, with the corollary that you can then “expand outwards from there, with each layer reinforcing and enhancing the experience. It’s a very useful way of maintaining coherence. Like a paragraph with a topic sentence, or an essay with a thesis statement.”

I.e. you can design PbtA games by modifying the AW core and then working outwards, thereby maintaining potential for graceful collapse.

In contrast, the thing we call “D&D” is many games, with the everybody-shares part being something like “The DM describes the situation, you say what your character does, the DM says how the situation changes and if it’s uncertain roll a d20 under/over your stat/target number” (Gregor Vuga). Baker’s “GURPS/point-buy” design approach is similar; for his “Forge” approach, we’d want to expand it with “agree stakes … change the situation in a way consistent with them … be sure to steer towards the players’ flags”.

That implicit “core D&D” is vulnerable to railroading, and to “play consists of listening to the GM”, in a way the explicit AW core isn’t. The “core Forge game” isn’t immune to those pathologies, either, though the combination of stakes and flags pulls against them.

D&D’s collapse as you forget rules can be rather messy, depend on the group’s expectations. E.g. if you eliminate extended combats where you track positions and distances, think about areas of effect and who is vulnerable to a free attack from disengaging, you’re removing a lot of D&D 5e. Players who spent hours studying tactics and optimising their build are going to feel short-changed.

In summary, I’d reword Baker’s claim thus — “AW fails gracefully when you have good system mastery but forget some rules outside essential core (where “the core” is something made clearer in AW than in most games, but still easy to miss, especially if you have ingrained assumptions from other games to fall back to).”

Maybe this is the best we can hope for here.

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