Sunday, November 13, 2011

Playing Apocalypse World

We've played Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker three times now, me being the GM (or Master of Ceremonies - 'MC' - in AW's lingo). I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. I've probably not yet grasped it right - it feels awkward and unbalanced in some aspects, despite its many awesome parts.

The moves are cool! In AW, everything a player or the MC can do is structured as a move. Each one is described in this "If you do MOVE, roll +ATTRIBUTE. On 10+ you succeed, on 7-9 something more complicated happens and otherwise you fail." straight-forward and colloquial style typical for Vincent Baker. Its easy to understand and pretty quick to use. The really great thing about in my opinion is that every move description is basically the designer saying "do this for fun". Compare that to the design approach common to many other role playing games where the designers apparently spend lots of time to devise rules for how to simulate and decide different types of conflicts but forget to think about when and how those rules are fun to play out. Moves are really direct disgn-to-play tools. AW's moves are a lot of fun and in fact I think its where most of the enjoyment of this game comes from.

Most of the moves are cool, but the rest of them are truly awesome! Giving the players explicit powers to ask the MC questions is simply ingenious. The back-and-forth between in-game fiction an at-the-table mechanics works like a charm most of the time and is lots of fun.

The simplicity of the mechanics is cool... sort of. Everything is 2d6 + some attribute, success on 10+, partial success on 7-9. Thats refreshing after having to deal with dice pools or systems that have different dice mechanics for every other type of conflict. But AW's mechanics are also too simple for my taste...because there are no opposed rolls and in fact, the MC never rolls any dice!

I can see that it is a neat feat to write a major game like that, sort of as a design challenge. But does that improve the game? I think not. You see the PCs improve in their capabilities quite quickly. As the game goes on, they get more and more competent and the only way the MC can counteract is by raising the stakes, by increasing the hurt in case the PCs do fail against all odds. But at the same time, as a fan of the PCs you do not want to kill them. I may be wrong but I think that the game can unhinge after a few session if the players do not actively work to keep it in the tracks.

All this only has a chance of working out because AW has a very limited range of conflicts: You basically have only firefights between humans and one-on-one diplomatic/manipulatory contests, both of which are at least initially balanced by the design. You also have lots of minigames like healing, contacting the psychic maelstrom or taking care of an off-screen job. But those are each completely defined and isolated by a move so that the execution of each move is almost never influenced by context or by other moves.

To put it in another way: The designer chose the moves and fine-tuned their difficulty and risk to a certain balance, relying on a system that does not allow for mechanical complications. That works fine at the beginning, but because you also have quite substantial character improvement, it can quickly lead to very potent PCs. Combine this with the kind of gonzo play that is encouraged by the setting and the examples and you will arrive at play that I personally do not enjoy.

AW also has explicit moves for the MC/GM. If you follow those, you'll basically be mastering in sandbox fashion. I like that in this game, Vincent not only tells you not to plan plots or events ahead, he also pushes GM tools into your hands that make you do just that and stay organized and prepared to whatever the players decide to do. This starts with simply listing rules and moves like "introduce future badness", "spout forth apocaliptica" or "be a fan of the PCs". All of which are on the one hand just prose and non-mechanic but still binding because of their presentation as explicit, non-negotiable rules. But there are also more mechanical techniques like fronts, threats and threat clocks. I like all this a lot but strangely I did not use most of those rules... It just did not feel like fun to do nor did it seem necessary or convenient. Or maybe its just my laziness showing. So I think the idea is great but the actual design of the tools seems to be not to my taste or needs.

On a related note, since non of the MC moves require the MC to role dice, anything the MC does is either powerful GM fiat or ... fluffy GM fiat. Some of the sandbox tools do have mechanical properties (e.g. the threat clocks) but even those impact the fiction strictly as interpreted by the MC. It would have been easy to add a dice throw here or there to the existing MC moves and rules and simplify some of the creative burden placed on the MC. I think this is a missed chance but I also suspect that Vincent designed this very deliberately because he is a strong believer of benevolent GM power. Personally, I like the principle behind random encounters or generally random event tables so I would have liked to see something similar here to.

I think I may like the sex moves, but none of the 5 players made a female character (!) and none of them was ready to seriously entertain homosexual relationships in the game... To bad. Play unsafe guys! I tried to bring some sex, erotic relationships or at least positive relationships into the game through the NPCs, with mixed success. I would have needed more time to really corner some of the PCs and force them to commit to in to binding and relevant in-game relationships. I also could have done a better job of advertising for this kind of involvement with the game world upfront, before and during char-gen. Ultimately, play would most probably certainly have improved with more intense positive relationships (Negative relationships are not a problem, they usually pop up by themselves). All this is not the fault of the game. But then again, there are no mechanical rules, neither in char-gen nor afterwards, that enforce player investment into in-world relationships even though such relationships are a fundamental premise of the whole game. A major flaw in my opinion!

This post already got much longer than I expected and I am not even sure I mentioned everything I wanted to. Obviously, I have been thinking about AW a lot in the last weeks, so I may have overcomplicated some of my points. Please ask for clarifications if I make no sense, I know I often don't.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 26, 2011

Top-down vs Bottom-up

Here is something I was thinking about for some time now but never had the catalyst to blog about. In a sandbox campaign and in a way in classic campaign settings to you often start with the big, important factions. You place your Leach King in one place and the Orc Alliance in another, add a kingdom or two each for every race. The idea is to have those big powers generate conflict between each other and for the PCs to get involved in those conflicts. You often add successively smaller powers like local clans, noble families etc.

I'll call this the Top-Down Approach because it reminds me of top-down parsing in programing language compilers. Whether or not the setting is built before or during play is not important here. What matters is that you as GM always have the big picture about who is doing what in your game world. Maybe the players do not know why the Black Eye clan is besieging Farnburough Castle - but you as GM do know in one way or another. Everything that happens has a known (but maybe unrevealed) reason withing the game world. Everything is - at least to the GM - causally plausible.

Now imagine a campaign in which the PCs have encountered the following:
  1. In the first session, the PCs dealt with a zombie that haunted the village of Oppendunst every night. They found his fresh grave in the cemetery and killed the poor undead bastard a second time.
  2. In the second and third session the PCs dealt with an onslaught of starving kobolds that raided th local countryside in waves. They found out that the kobolds were suffering from a hunger-inducing illness and managed to kill most of the tribe and force the rest of them to somewhere else.
  3. The PCs also met several NPCs in the local communities.
The PCs suspect Loranna, an NPC they have met, to be involved in this because they think her behavior was weird (even though you never intended that). During postparation, you decide that she is indeed the missing link. She found an object in her garden and, after noticing that the Zombie was obviously looking for it wandering around her house, hid it in the forrest. And that's it, you stop right there.

What is that object? How did it get into Loranna's garden? Why was the zombie looking for it? How did it affect the kobolds? You do not answer any of those questions, in fact you watch out not to fixate on potential answers.

Because here is the thing about the Bottom-Up Approach: You will find out or decide on the answers to such questions during play. If the PCs find a place called Old Kobold's Den in the forrest and you spontaneously decide that this is the place where the Thing is, then it really is! But if the PCs go after the kobold tribe (you make it The Quest For The Lost Tribe) and find it? Well it turns out a shaman had found it and that is how it affected the tribe.

If one of the characters has a backstory involving an old family line stemming back to the age of The Empire of Satin then the Thing could be an Odd Cube inscribed in the Lost Language of the Court. But if the players have more interest in fabulous creatures it would be The Curious Giant Feather That Shines Silver And Blue.

In Top-Down you decide on as much as makes sense to you but reveal to the players only what their PCs would know. In Bottom-Up you decide as late as possible but reveal almost all you know immediately.

In Top-Down you build setting elements starting from the causal root and grow them from there until they touch the here-and-now of the PCs. In Bottom-Up you start at the here-and-now of the PCs and hold off developing the setting until new elements spontaneously and forcefully demand their introduction because the PCs bump into them or because you find a natural fit for what was previously undecided.

I think this is about the same thing as what Zak is talking about. His heavy use of random tables to generate interesting encounters is way to seed a Bottom-Up Approach. The tricky thing to hold off on deciding on what all the loose parts mean as long as possible. It goes against most GM's inclination to plan, map and plot.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kagematsu: Japan! Samurai!

I recently bought Kagematsu by Danielle Lewon. Finally another easy, fast read and the rules are easy to grasp. I can't wait to play it with my Monday evening lets-try-out-new-systems group. Unlike some other games I'd like to try, this one even has a good chance to draw the interest of enough players: It plays in JAPAN! It has a RONIN! There is probably no better setting to attract as many players as possible. Now, if only it had elves too....

I just have to make sure that the guys don't find out that we will all be playing maids in distress and not the ronin... Once they are at the table, I think I might be able to convince them to at least give it a try.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Making a Big Scene

About a year ago I GMed a session of Spirit of the Century in the Monday-evening group hosted by Alex. The highlight of the evening was a crazy little airplane chase. It felt pretty much like what the cover of SotC looks like. I don't remember all the details but I think it included the following:
  • One character ripping the board gun from its mounting and throwing it out to reduce weight.
  • Another character abseiling down to the other plane in full flight and getting into a kung-fu fight in the cockpit.
  • A zeppelin launching two mini airplanes to harass the group.
  • One player trying to combat the mini airplanes by attempting to throw dynamite in their cockpit (in full flight)
  • Another player absailing to the other plane, this time to tear out its machine gun and fire it at the mini airplanes.
  • Both airplanes eventually crash-landing on a tropic volcano island...
Ever since this awesome scene I am trying to find GM-techniques for reliably making sessions this exciting. In fact I think I started toying with some ideas in that direction even before that session was played but I cannot remember whether any of my previous ideas influenced my GMing on that evening.

Many players and GMs, when they envision a conflict scene, they think of one of three types of challenges:
  1. Kill or otherwise fight against something or somebody
  2. Convince a guy to help you, to give you the macguffin, to release a smurf...
  3. Survive/disable a trap
There are other types of challenges but I think those three cover about 90% or more of the challenged scenes played in classic D&D-style games. I also think it's important to note that most of the PCs will be good at one type and suck at another. So they will play an important part in one scene while being less important or even irrelevant in the next. This is often accepted as long as each player gets a scene every once in a while where he can shine.

Sometimes you have combinations of challenge types, e.g if you cannot convince the mad wizard, you will have to fight him. But those are designed as serial combinations: you try once and then - afterwards - maybe you try another approach. Only that the really great action scenes are those where a lot of stuff happens simultaneously: Do you remember that one time, when the thief jumped under that mean X while the paladin distracted it and then the cleric threw him the Y and he killed the monster just in time to save the elf? Well, if you don't then you probably remember a similar scene - just as exciting - where all PCs were engaged, each one in a different way - to separately but in the end in symphony save the day. Those scenes are awesome and I believe we all deserve to have one such scene at least once or twice per session.

The following is a technique intended to make you reach such scenes deliberately, reliably and more often. The trick is to have all PCs engage in different challenges during the scene, such that everybody can contribute to the action and that the simultaneous nature of the events causes further complications.

I am considering only scenes containing some sort of conflict here. And of those, only those scenes in which the GM controls the opposition to the PCs are of interest here, since this is supposed to be a GM technique. So say that the PCs want to reach a monastery and that the GM decided that whether or not they reach it and in what state they arrive could be an interesting conflict.

Start with coming up with the main challenge. This is the one obstacle that the scene revolves around and that the PCs must overcome to "win". Conversely, failing to overcome the main challenge means "losing". Here is a list of challenge types, for inspiration:
  1. Combat: Kill or otherwise defeat opponents
  2. Physical: Climb, sneak, do the laundry....
  3. Social: Convince somebody, sing and dance for your life, entertain the princess...
  4. Psychological: Overcome your fear, learn to trust your friends...
  5. Skill: Compose a poem, haggle, forge a great weapon, write an AI, heal the injured...
  6. Secretive: Follow somebody unseen, transmit the secret coordinates without being caught...
  7. Temporal: Hold out until the cavalry comes, wait for the tide, survive the night...
  8. Perceptive: Find that one clue, learn a spell, decipher the hidden message...
(That's eight choices! You could roll that up if you like!)

When you have chosen the main challenge, decide on the actual setting of the scene. In the example above where the group is heading to a monastery, lets say I selected a physical main challenge: there is a cliff that must be climbed. Its important that the main challenge cannot be overcome in just one round in one throw of dice. To climb the cliff, each member of the group will have to successfully make three climbing tests.

Now write down as many escalations as possible. Each time a player fails a test for the main challenge, bring an escalation to some of the characters. An escalation is not just "not advancing" nor is it just damage. It is further complication. Choose the complications from the same list as the challenges. Prepping the scene at the cliff I could list the following escalations:
  • A character looses balance for a second and in the effort of regaining his footing something important falls out of his bags and lands on a ledge. Extra tests for getting it back. (A physical challenge)
  • There is a ravens nest right next to where one of the characters is climbing. The ravens turn aggressive and harass the PCs. (Combat or psychological challenge)
  • The rock under a character's feet gives and the character falls down, just barely clinging to the rope. Somebody will have to come and help him out really fast (A physical challenge)
  • One character falls on another and is injured. He will have to be treated right there and then and will then need help to climb up or down the cliff. (An escalation of medical skill)
  • The wind picks up and clouds show up on the horizon. Soon a storm will form and rain and wind will make climbing much more difficult and dangerous. (A temporal escalation)
Each of the escalations must take longer than one round to overcome and they should each affect several PCs in some way. Each escalation adds to the previous complications and before long everybody will be in over their heads in trouble. It is also important that the escalations are a reaction of players failing their tests and not introduced arbitrarily by the GM. Otherwise the scene will quickly become frustrating for the players.

When prepping a scenes with multiple challenges you should be able to quickly come up with possible escalations and possible moves the PCs can do to overcome those. If the ideas do not come up right away then you will probably not be able to improvise well enough during play and you should consider a different, more evocative setup for your scene.

I haven't consciously applied this method yet. If you should try it out, let me know how that went!

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chaos Theory

In the last post I wrote about me troubles with alignment in D&D. Over the last days I've been thinking about the dichotomy chaos vs order and why I do not like it in RPG settings. I found out that it is a philosophical issue.

I'll start with Telecanter's Priest of Chaos. Think about that: "Priest of Chaos"... You can not be a priest without having a religion. And there is no religion without at least some kind of rules, virtues, taboos etc. In other words, no religion without some kind of ordering. The Priest of Chaos is a philosophical impossibility when chaos is assumed to be the antithesis to order. The reason why Telecanter's priest can make his statements and still make sense is that Telecanter's "Priest of Chaos" is not a priest of chaos - he is in reality a Daoist. His "chaos" is not against order - it is against control! I'm fine with that as long we agree that "chaos" is a misnomer here.

There is another way to look at chaos vs order: One man's chaos is another man's home. For the romans, Celtic lands were barbaric, dangerous, lawless - in short: chaotic. But in reverse, roman life might seem honorless, confused, unsafe, misguided to the Celts. Here chaos vs order is not about which gods you pray to - its about the predictable vs the unpredictable. The Egyptians assigned foreigners to the god of desert, sandstorms and chaos. If you look at it like this, then praying to a god of chaos starts to make sense. What you want from him is not more chaos, but less. You want him to protect you from the unknown.

Our ancestors tried to understand the world just as we try to do today. But laking the tools of empiric science and confronted with devastating phenomena like famines and plagues every human being would be desperate to come up with an explanation, so at least he might sleep quietly at night without fear. Offering to gods is a perfect solution to this problem: ritually suffering or destroying own property creates the impression that you really can negotiate with that which is otherwise absolutely beyond your control. It means you can feel safe, that the world is predictable, that your life is ordered.

One last thought: All that may be philosophically interesting to you (or not) and it may make sense to you (or not). But that by itself does not mean that it should be part of an RPG setting. The reason an aspect should be included in a setting is that it produces fun situations. If it does not, as interesting and smart as it may be, it is still just fluff. You can have it in your setting if you want, but do not expect the players to get fun out of it in relation to the amount of work you spend constructing it. The measure for choosing themes for RPG settings should not be "hey players, look what neat philosophical idea I came up with". It should be "this idea will lead to kick-ass trouble".


Sunday, June 26, 2011

To align or not to align..

Telecanter started with a sort of a chaotic alignment creed. Alex adds to that the inverse for lawful alignment and goes on to explain alignment in his campaigns (in German). I could add the missing creed for the neutral priest, who said:
Lawful shmaful, chaos shmaos. meh!
...But that would be sort of cheap.

The truth is, in all those AD&D sessions I played long ago, I cannot remember one instance where the labels written on the character sheet next to "Alignment" really mattered. So what is the actual influence of alignment in play?

Granted, alignment can be a flag: "Look GM, I'm a neutral priest, hit me with lots of conflicts where I must decide which side to take". But really, is that the way it is used? D&D, in normal play, relies on group cooperation. If your priest decides not to act on a fight-by-fight basis (sorry, its "encounter-by-encounter" in D&D parlance), then your group "combos" will be weakened. In effect, the alignment will have little or no influence other than making a philosophical statement about your character.

Or think about it from a different perspective: Instead of saying that your character is affine or averse to order - a very abstract aspect - try to say explain why your character likes and tries to conform to this particular organization and why that same character has no regards whatsoever to that other one. That is a much more useful flag to a GM because it is concrete instead of abstract. And it automatically deepens the character by hinting at past experiences.

So, to recap: I'm all for droppin abstract alignments in favor of more concrete statements about the characters relationship to the setting.

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 24, 2011

So, here is my first post in the reincarnation of my old blog. May this life be longer and more fruitful than the last one.