PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster”

Previously, I talked about Baker’s idea of the “rollercoaster” that is Apocalypse World, whereby “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. I found his description pretty opaque [1], but managed to summarise it as “real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting”.

Mark Diaz Truman has since refined that a bit for me. He says Baker is talking about explicitly narrative momentum, a kind of energy in running game whereby a story is moving forwards. That doesn’t have to mean “following a pre-written story” [2]; it just means creating something that the players recognise as a story. As Mark puts it, it manifests as the “sense of making decisions that close doors and open other doors, of moving toward conflicts and decisions instead of just sitting and talking.”

In most games, the work of maintaining this energy lands on the GM, especially outside combat. PbtA rules, by contrast, often create momentum directly. Mark — “the moves themselves generate momentum. Even when you [trigger] a move and “things go smooth” a good move will generate new information and options that will pull you down the path of the story instead of just succeeding or failing on a test.”

In other words, the rules provide opportunities, building blocks, playing pieces, from which the the MC and players can build a story. And they put on pressure, rule out some things, make other seem natural or inevitable. This is often true even on 10+ (or 12+) results — PC successes can still have messy side effects.

As an example, Mark points to the basic move “Escape” from his Urban Shadows:

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster””

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.

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 2 — (Possibly) Graceful Collapse”

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1 — 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.

Update 2 March 2020 — I’ve refined my understanding of this, and written a follow-on post.

Three things on games and rules and conventions and precedent

First, read this paper — Beyond the Rules of the Game: Why Are Rooie Rules Nice? The main take away is that the children there are using ostensible rules that aren’t about what they claim to be about. They’re not about discrete, clear actions in the game, they’re about an ill-defined way of interacting “nicely”. And that’s more important than the literal rules.

The article is about children of decidedly modest years. We adults are much more sophisticated. Does that mean we’re also more confused by our own smoke and mirrors?

Next, read Shroeder on Tuovinen on D&D play as a system of rulings with precedent. Tuovinen’s thread wouldn’t load for me (Forge archive structure has changed?) but Schroeder summarise it thus:

One fascinating document is the discussion of Eero Tuovinen’s D&D campaign. There, he treats D&D rules as oral tradition. If people remember a rule, it is applied. If a new rule is proposed on the spot, it is applied and if it remembered the next time such a situation comes up, it is applied again. The rules are what people can remember. Slowly, rules fade out and new ones fade in. It’s a living, mutual understanding of how the game will be played.

Third, read this Twitter thread by John Harper on how Blades in the Dark is no more complex than World of Dungeons. Key quote:

They feel similar to me in play, but one text leaves it to the players to figure out all the steps and methods, and the other text spells everything out. …

I’m pretty sure Harper is wrong here. Most groups, if they took World of Dungeons as a text, wouldn’t explicitly figure out steps and methods. They’d figure out something, for sure, but it is not “steps and methods”, not in the sense that Blades’ rules consist of that.

Finally, go and write your own blog post explaining the important connection between the three articles above that I have failed to describe or indeed to know.

(Bonus activity, for the very eager and alive — (re-) read Patrick Stuart on how BX/Moldvay D&D is the common language that makes the OSR space work, and try to work out how it can be true, given the above)

 

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?”

How I GM and how to play in my games

People have asked me how I GM. People have asked me how to play in my games. By a kind of ontological fusion, this document answers the questions of both groups. It’s amazing.

There is no “plot”, and we are intense

The heart of my method is improvising — I am making this shit up as we go along. That’s my default position. My default model of “run a game session” is that I have no plan or knowledge of what will happen. The players could do anything and it might seem reasonable for anything to happen. That is where I start from, and any prep work I do to is to support that. This is probably the key to my success.

There is thus no “plot”, ever. You are free. But that comes with responsibility — as a player you must make the game work. Good drama has ongoing themes, good drama goes somewhere. So you need to have direction, to be going somewhere, and to stick with that at least some of the time. You need to try to change the world, or at least try to change your position in it.

Example If you start out looking for your brother, you should keep looking for him until you have good reason to give up.

Side-jaunts are not a problem, just so long as you get back on track eventually. But my runs are usually short — 10–12 sessions is typical — so “eventually” is quite soon.

Continue reading “How I GM and how to play in my games”

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.