PbtA and Apocalypse World — Momentum and the Rollercoaster

Vincent Baker recently posted an overview of Apocalypse World’s design, consolidating points that have previously been scattered. His main claim seems to be that “PbtA” is a distinctive approach to system design, one that’s particularly well-suited to game prototyping, and that it is so because of particular properties of it that he describes in sections 3–5 of his overview.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the property described in section 3, where he claims that in AW all the “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. This is tricky, because it’s not obvious what it means for something in the real world to “give momentum” to something in a fictional one.

I think he means that real-world things “given momentum” to fictional events when real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting. E.g. rules can take fictional events and generate consequences that are interesting and exciting, that provide pressing dangers, difficult choices, and worrying lose ends.

The opposite here would be real-world actions that take a potentially exciting fictional event and resolves it neatly with no threads left hanging (no serious harm, no-one upset, nothing radically changed).

Insofar as AW’s real-world actions give momentum to the fiction, I guess this it does so by specific design of moves – defining move triggers that are potentially interesting events, and defining move consequences that are interesting and exciting.

As an enabler to that, you need to keep the group’s attention on the fiction, and you need to keep events moving quickly.

The opposite of that would be real-world actions derailling fictional excitement and momentum, e.g. checking multiple places in rulebooks, complex out-of-character planning, or a rules argument.

I think AW achieves attention and speed by:

  • expressing the vast majority of its rules as concise, self-contained moves
  • keeping a fairly strict policy of fiction->(one move)->fiction (rather than fiction->(multiple moves or others mechanical processes)->fiction)

My questions at this point are:

  1. Does Apocalypse World actually achieve this? Do many PbtA games achieve this?
  2. If so, is it for the reasons I list above?

From my reading and play (the latter mostly of Dungeon World, never AW proper), I’m thinking “yes to both”, but I’m interested in any and all other views.

Some links about fixing Dungeon World

Dungeon World is eight years old now. Its flaws are naked, visible, throbbing. My views on it are very mixed — it’s a good system for largely-improvised high-energy adventure, but there are many things (from the plethora of move triggers to the bland nature of its presentation) that drive me to hot madness. It needs work.

Mechanically, I have worked on understanding it:

Meanwhile, several others have worked to actually improve it. In particular Jeremy Strandberg cannot cease from this labour:

Strandberg has covered various other moves in what look like good ways. Read his whole blog. Put those things down. Read it now. He is your god now.

Finally, see John Harper’s classic article on “Crossing the line”. It’s written for Apocalypse World, but it is True and Correct about Dungeon World, too. And it’s not in Dungeon World’s text.

Caveat on that — you can cross the line and survive. You can make a habit of crossing the line, and your game might still be viable. You might have a good time, and your group might eventually move to Scotland and found a successful anarchist commune. However, crossing the line upsets many people, especially when it’s a sudden jarring insertion into a line-respecting game. Look at the player in Harper’s second example. Imagine their face.

Calibrating my BX treasure spreadsheet – desired hours per level

In a previous post, I described a method for placing treasure in BX games. It has several input parameters where the best value to use are not obvious.

First, we have desired-hours-per-level. This is a very subjective value, since it represents individual GM’s desires, but to publish adventures I need something that represents a typical desire.

I’ve trawled over sources in blogs and comments about my article, and I’ve come up with a default value of 14 hours per level. That’s derived from “four sessions of 3-4 hours each”.

(A related question is “how should this vary, if at all, across the levels”? I’ve ignored this for now, assuming that people want all levels to be of the same length.)

Now, I didn’t actually find many BX (or even clearly-OSR) sources. Not many people think in terms of hours-per-level, and when people say “sessions” they often don’t even hint at the length. So I’ve branched out a bit, into modern D&D sources too. And when session length is unspecified, I’ve assumed 3-4 hours of real playing time.

OSR sources:

Modern (or mixed) sources:

Question for readers – what do you think of this value? Would you like a published BX adventure to come calibrated to this?

Why bother having prep procedures?

Or, “why bother writing an article like my A tuneable method for placing treasure in BX?”.

In response to the article linked above, /u/deejax313 said:

“Alot of work to go through for a game.

Cant DMs just give treasure, get a sense of how fast the players are advancing, and then give more or less treasure based on how fast they like the players to advance?

You may as well just not play with XP and just say characters advance a level every three adventures.

You’re crunching numbers and working backwards to create a system to make a totally subjective choice happen.”

A good question. I have answers.

Continue reading “Why bother having prep procedures?”

A tuneable method for placing treasure in BX

There doesn’t seem to be clear agreement on how fast BX/Moldvay PCs should advance, but it’s clear that many people are unhappy with the rate of advancement that results. It tends to be far too slow, at least for busy adults who manage a three-hour session maybe twice a month. (See e.g. Becker’s general critique here and here, and a recent Reddit post on the meagre spoils of In Search of the Unknown).

I’m working on some adventures that I plan to publish, and I plan to stat them for BX because (as Patrick Stuart recently argued) BX seems to be the most-used system in the parts of the OSR I care about. There are often complaints about adventures supposedly statted for BX that they are far too light on treasure (see many of Bryce Lynch’s reviews).

I don’t want to use the standard treasure tables because (a) I’m using mostly custom creatures, (b) there’s controversy about how good they are, and in any case (c) I want to make a tool that we can all use to tune the rate of PC advancement without giving up on xp-for-gold as an incentive.

So, I have made a spreadsheet (Google Sheets version, Excel version), and explained how it works below. Unless noted, I’m getting any specific numbers from the Old School Essentials Rules Tome.

Continue reading “A tuneable method for placing treasure in BX”

Three interesting things I’ve read recently, mid-September 2019

An astute observation from Kyle Maxwell’s review of Dirge of Urazya:

A twenty-four page zine by an independent author will never provide as much detail as an encylopedic tome from a large corporate producer. But I’m not sure the additional detail in those larger books actually gets used in games. … Setting material like [Dirge of Urazya] leans into that idea and gives the players – all of them – both the encouragement and the tools to customize it, rather than present lots of “canon lore” and then a vague statement about feeling free to “change it if you want”.

Patrick Stuart has started a discussion on his blog with the question “What do you think of art in games?”. As you might expect from his circle, the quality of the replies is excellent, with lots of clever, creative people scrabbling around trying to make sense of their heads.

Paul Beakley has advice on how to use clocks in Blades in the Dark and descendants. He starts by talking about the problems he had before he knew how do that:

Every time they rolled anything less than a 6, I’d load ‘em up with consequences. I had no place to put consequences other than the characters or the fiction, and the whole thing ended up looking more like a game of Fiasco than smooth Ocean’s 11 style criming. The reason of course is that you need clocks as a place to put consequences other than the characters and the fiction.

I particularly like how he talks about “places[s] to put consequences” — consequences are, of course, a type of currency, and they need to be accounted for. If you’re generating too many (or too few) for the sinks available, you’re going to have problems. Put another way — I understood after reading this that there are, give-or-take, “consequence points”, and the Blades mechanics only work well if the maths for those points is right.

Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play

The problem — too many ideas, and they scatter to the wind

The basic problem is that I generate lots of ideas and thoughts, for games I’m running and games I’m not. I’m fairly good at writing them down, somehow and somewhere, but I’m not so good at getting them to the point where they are actually used in play. I think I miss a lot of opportunities to put the fruits of my mind into a position where players can experience them.

a_raw_idea.jpg
I had an idea. Now what?

Now, sure, there are some irreducible constraints on this. Play can’t always provide good context to bring in all the ideas you have — you may well generate ideas that require too many entirely different games. And even if everything lines up, you might produce more ideas than can ever be fitted in the playing time you have. Some ideas will fall on stony ground because the world is just like that.

But some losses are accidental. Sometimes, you’ll get an opportunity to use an idea, but miss it. This might be because you forgot it entirely. Or it might because you remember the general idea but you forgot important details (and can’t find them fast enough to not break game flow). Such losses can be minimised if we’re clever about it.

What I want to do is to be as efficient as possible at getting the best ideas from the seething ferment of my mind to the actual world where players can suffer them. I want maximise my ratio of (effort put in) to (amount and quality of ideas that make it to play).

A general model — engineering your idea machine

Continue reading “Optimising your idea machine — getting the possible ideas from your mind into play”