Controversy of the Day
PSA

I have this incomplete, imperfect and totally arguable internal definition when I identify a game as a “storygame,” and am using that term to meaningfully describe it more specifically than “roleplaying game.” I am not advocating for this for anyone else. There are many definitions like it but this one is mine.

For me, my internal definition comes down to the self-awareness the rules have about scenes. Does the game require non-facilitator players to set a scene? Storygame. Is the game structured around acts or stages? Storygame.

That’s it.

Also? I use it as a subset within the larger category of “roleplaying game” rather than as a separate thing. All storygames are RPGs, not all RPGs are storygames.

So if you ever see me use that term in the Indie Game Reading Club, I’m almost certainly keyed into that one very small aspect of the game.

There’s also some probably-confusing overlap with terms like “freeform,” almost all of which require player-created scenes (therefore making them storygames).

There’s probably a Venn chart in all this somewhere.

Headspace, Interrupted

Well last night was going to be our Headspace one-shot. But events conspired such that I ended up going to urgent care with my kiddo after she took a header directly into a door jamb. She’s fine, huge goose egg on the noggin, but no playing happened.

That said, I’ve got some very initial impressions I thought were worth sharing!

* Character creation is as long as I remembered it, but the question load (at three players) seemed reasonable and provided some interesting context. We didn’t have time to let that context play out but we for sure got some really fun double-crosses and unresolved beefs going. I think we’re gonna reset and try again in a couple weeks with one more player, and see how 12 questions compares to 9.

* I feel like the programmed opening act — your cell has just had a job go bad and you’re trying to recover or escape — is very clever for its urgency, way way over-complex to set up (especially given it’s a job already half-finished when the game starts), and kind of under-explained. That’s three things so let me pull it apart a little.

The first part is great: the various stress tracks that the Headspace cell share start out right on the cusp of triggering. Great, let’s see the system do its thing. I love it. And I have no idea how else to do that other than to start it as Mark suggests.

That ties into the second bit, which is how you set up a Project. Okay so basically the structure of the game is that the cell’s efforts are directed at foiling Projects being pursued by the megacorps. It’s a very tight focus, and I don’t have much sense yet whether there’s much life for the Operators to live outside this job. Anyway! To set up a Project, you need to work out three sub-jobs representing the time, cost and quality of the work being done on the project. I can’t really suss out from the examples what makes a good “time” clock or a good “quality” clock or whatever. They just looked like three things that logically have to take place before a Project can be completed.

I was coming up blank and kind of hoping that cutting my table loose on brainstorming would turn up good ideas. We didn’t get that far. It may still. But right now, just little old me, I’m coming up blank. Probably overthinking it.

* The breakdown of cultures and their looks seems weird. You know how in your typical PbtA game you’ll have checklists of face, body, dress, style, whatever? Easy picks, circle some stuff, and you’re good? Well so in Headspace there are five lists of lists. Seems wildly overwrought. But! If you’re using that stuff to flesh out the personal lives of the Operators, well…sure, I guess it’s good to have that stuff. Since I can’t tell if or how their personal lives will come into play — there’s nothing structurally in place to make that happen, and the urgency of the Job/Project structure seems like it’d interfere.

* The setting! Mark provides two sample settings to play in. One is a flooded, plague-riddled apocalyptic Vancouver (as an American I love the not-exoticism of reading about places like “apocalyptic Vancouver”). That’s the one he used at Dreamation this year, so I went with the other: dystopic Israel, which tbh seems redundant but in 2076 it’ll be even more dystopic. I love the politics, but other than one mention of Jewish, Christian and Muslim factors at play in the writeup it’s not really brought up again. He doesn’t write his setting stuff richly packed with easy hooks, but gosh it’s a really interesting choice. I’m glad Neo-Tokyo or Metro City or San Andreas wasn’t in there, although I think they’d be pretty easy to put together.

Our plan is to hit it again, from scratch, in a couple weeks and one more Operator. Three was small and left a lot of Ghosts to be worked out as NPCs, which I kind of like because that’d mean more Improvised rolls but I also kind of don’t like because it seems like you won’t crank the stress tracks as fast. Dunno.

Headspace

And the winner of tonight’s one-shot slot is…Headspace!

I had a chance to play this with Mark Richardson at Dreamation earlier this year and I’ve been noodling over the hardcopy version for a while now. I remember the setup being wicked-long, but we’d had 5 players and I’ll only have 3 tonight. Fingers crossed.

It’s an interesting take on PbtA when you sit and really study it. I mean other than the PC/GM asymmetry and the (relatively rare) 6-/7-9/10+ roll, it pretty much looks nothing like what I think of as PbtA-style. The killer app of the game is the shared consciousness (Sense8 style) rules, which make the game very nearly diceless: the types of moves you make and the kinds of situations you find yourself in are what drive the five stress tracks shared by the whole team, and maxing any track out triggers a team-wide cascade of consequences. I think I’m gonna need to teach my non-PbtA folks how to play plain old Apocalypse World after this and Undying.

So…no real planning for tonight at all other than to give the book one last read and just follow Mark’s instructions. Happily the prep stuff is spelled out well.

An Embarrassment of Riches

I have a ridiculous number of games I want to play and I want to play them all right now.

But holidays, amirite? Just impossible to get folks together in any predictable way. So I’m planning and thinking and mostly getting ready for a slew of one-shots until the end of the year.

My process is ridiculous and overwrought. It’s a combination of mixing up rules styles (mostly this means bouncing between PbtA and not-PbtA), mixing up genres, and servicing the preferences of my players. Mostly my players are totally awesome and flexible. Occasionally they lie to me.

One-Shot Candidates
Uncharted Worlds — leaning toward this next
Ryuutama — or this
Meridian (4-5p)
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine
The Warren
Headspace
Epyllion
Montsegur 1244 (6p! My locals have never played!)
Soth (4-5p)
Apocalypse World 2nd Edition

3+ Session Candidates
The Clay That Woke
Space Wurm vs Moonicorn
Wrath of the Autarch
Godbound
Coriolis
Burning Wheel (but for fuck’s sake let someone else run this)
Apocalypse World 2nd Edition
Night Witches (I want to run the full campaign so bad)
…and maybe pick up The One Ring again at some point

Come on 2017, let the extended games begin again. #gamestoplayin2017

The militarized police response to peaceful Water Protectors protesting the DAPL pipeline that directly and negatively impacts the Standing Rock Sioux is unconscionable.

I’m donating 50% of all proceeds on everything I sell from now through 12/5 to Stand With Standing Rock. Check out my website for details (http://ndpdesign.com/), or maybe think about contributing directly?

If you do make a donation this absolutely counts for my ongoing offer to hook you up with a digital copy of any of my games as a thank-you, just let me know about it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Undying
Debrief, thoughts, disappointments

Played Undying last night, the one-shot in the back of the book. It’s set in 1889 Seattle, the night of a huge fire that nearly burned the city to the ground. It comes with premade PC vampires in each of the five flavors and an established relationship map of the city’s vampire politics. When you set up the game, you trickle tokens drop-chart style all over the map and that tells you how badly the fire has harmed your hunting grounds, as well as which of the NPCs died in the fire.

It’s a pretty good setup for a one-shot.

tl;dr: I had a very hard time making the game work for us. Here are my thoughts, in bullet form.

* Using a premade relationship map was tough. One big reason for this is that Undying uses its r-map to track debt among vampires. It’s kind of hard to eyeball the map and see actual relationships, such as rivalries and maker-child(e) connections. I transferred all the debts to everyone’s character sheet, which helped a bit, but still…ehhh.

* Plugging into an existing power structure is…not to our taste. I didn’t love that, because I had to spend a lot of bandwidth working out just what the top-level movers-and-shakers actually wanted out of this crisis. So, right, the one-shot scenario comes with several jumping-off prompts, none of which made a bit of sense in my head. The one I ran with, because it seemed political and fruitful and interesting, was that one of the surviving Patricians wants to take over as Princeps (top dog) in the wake of the crisis. Neither I as GM nor any of the players had any idea at all how to approach that. Do you just kill him? Maybe! But they stared and stared at the moves, and the moves did not direct them toward any particular ideas.

* The Moves are mostly very generic, except when it comes to feeding. The hunting/feeding/prey stuff was interesting and very well done. They all work together to do a really good job of greasing the downward spiral into monstrosity. Two of the three players started at Callous, one started at Monstrous. When each of them had their hunting/feeding scenes, it was very amusing to have them have to decide just what flavor of monstrosity they’d allow: the Nightmare decided (s)he was the headmaster at an orphanage and fed on children, and decided it was more blood-expedient to direct the orphanage staff (her blood slaves) to silencing the traumatized children by any means necessary, rather than actually bothering to mess with their memories. Yikes.

* Hunting and feeding are the best parts but they become pro forma really fast. So basically, once you’re put on your show and everyone kind of gets where you’re at regarding your treatment of prey, there’s not a lot of variety left. It’s like, okay, here’s my procedure, yes I agree it’s monstrous, but I need to do it twice more at that pay rate. Great, now there are three dead bodies scattered around Skid Row. As good as that first round of description is, there’s not really any reason to repeat it. It takes a lot of narrative time and bandwidth and the payoff is really, really small, both fictionally and mechanically.

* Treating the GM as another player at the table is the one thing I hated most about this game. The GM gets moves but no directives as to when to make them. There’s no “miss” when you’re bidding, so when do I make my moves? In PbtA vanilla, misses trigger the GM to do things. This is just trad GMing I guess? But then I found it very hard to maneuver the fiction toward tough-to-handle GM moves like “overwhelm with prey” or whatever it’s called when the crowds come with pitchforks and torches. It really only came up once in the evening, and it was a tossup whether to spend the blood on the generic “Flaunt” move (do anything vampire-y you want for 1 blood) or the more robust/fiat-y “overwhelm” move, that maybe costs more than 1 blood. They’re functionally interchangeable.

* The only meaty interactive moves are Meddle and Fight, and they suck. Okay, so it’s true of all PbtA style games that the moves constrain and shape the fiction. Unfortunately, I think, Meddle is so generic that it’s not shaped or constrained enough.

We had a situation where we decided that the best way to handle a rather elaborate scheme to draw out the Princeps and wear him down was to have a Meddle, and then Fight him once he was closer to empty. Wellll…the system itself is built so you can’t actually do that, probably because it’s a tactically obvious thing to do.

Meddle relies on a bidding/raising/folding thing that remains totally opaque to me. I have no idea what raising and calling looks like in the fiction. Not all meddling efforts easily lend themselves to escalation, which is what a raise is supposed to look like. So you’ve got this tension between wanting to win the fight through bidding, and narratively not being able to justify it. That’s not the worst thing, but it’s frustrating as hell to have the blood advantage and not be able to put it to use just because we run out of things to scream at each other.

Fighting is better, I think, because it’s a straight blind bid between sides. Nobody knows what the other side’s blood pool looks like, neat and scary. Buuut Meddle is written in a way that you can’t wear someone down first and then kill them: all the blood you bid on the Meddle rolls over to the fight so what was the point of it all?

I slept on it and thought about it and still don’t have any sense of how to really leverage Meddle in interesting ways.

* Having to work the NPCs just like PCs is way too hard (for me). So…when a game is built for good symmetrical conflicts, say Burning Wheel for example, I love treating my NPCs as full equals. In BW they’ll have Beliefs, and those are super easy to pursue because they’re right there. There’s nothing at all like that in Undying. NPCs are supposed to have Agendas and Ambitions, but the one-shot came up super short on this. Some of this may be a function of the one-shot being incomplete. But when the situation started, I had literally no idea at all of how the Patrician might possibly start making moves (and as GM I had no idea when to start making moves, other than “like when you GM an RPG”).

* The players had nothing at all to hold onto other than ambition for its own sake. Maybe that genre-appropriate but it was really hard to get the game moving because of it. Steve Segedy I think mentioned having characters decide what’s important to them in their eternal unlife: art or experience or gardening or whatever. That strikes me as totally essential for play guidance. Without it, you’ve got your betters threatening you with un-challengeable Bargains (another move that sucks because it’s so one-sided), and then the GM needs to know what those betters actually want.

As I write this, I feel like probably the one-shot doesn’t really provide enough information for me to run with the game. I suspect if we’d set up our own r-map and our own setting and situation, everyone would be more invested and clearer on who’s who. But everyone had a strong skydiving-without-a-parachute feeling through most of the game.

* Maybe my favorite part of the game is Flaunt, but it has … problems. Flaunt is so elegant and easy: spend 1 Blood and do a vampire-y thing. Neat! Turn into a cloud of bats? Become a living shadow? Work dark blood magic? 1 blood, say what happens, that’s that. As long as folks are using it rationalize their operations in the mortal world or otherwise just kind of supernaturally coloring their activities, it works great. But it’s a pure rulings-not-rules rule, and when you’ve got rulings you’ve got precedent to deal with. I don’t know about you, but precedent wears me right the fuck out. I do not love having to make ongoing rulings and then track how I ruled things. This is 1000% worse in a PvP game, because it can very quickly devolve into a court of common law: “Why could I not use my super-hearing to spy on the Princeps but she can use her scrying?” That sort of thing. Ugh.

The bottom line is, I’m glad I tried it out but Undying is not my jam. It might maybe be my bag if we built our game setup from scratch, and my players could feel the edges of something very interesting going on. The things I would need to make Undying work for us would be:

* A better handle on what to do with Meddle.
* More motivational context for NPCs.
* A much better understanding of what our options are (Meddle being the problem child here, I think, since it applies literally to every nonlethal confrontational)
* A better sense of when and how to make GM moves
* How to make Feeding/Hunting interesting in the long game (I suspect if you’re looking down the barrel of becoming Lost — that is, worse than Monstrous — it might be interesting to work out the narrative path upward)

What I did not get to see in action, and it might very well be that this is where the good part of the game is, is the “Downtime” game. This is where there is a whole lot of scheming and a nice menu of colorful choices on which you’re spending your time between Nightly play. I have a tiny suspicion that Nightly play is almost like the Night phase of Night Witches, designed to be less interesting than the rest of the game.

A taxonomy of Moves
Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn etc.

So I’ve been reading the shit out of Johnstone Metzger’s Space Wurm vs Moonicorn the past few days. It’s keeping me awake, and not just because of the crazy colors. Because it’s a Dungeon World hack/campaign, it’s been making me think a hell of a lot about Moves and how all I’ve seen them work.

What follows is absolutely not a “this is how it is” post. I don’t feel like litigating any of this. I’m not telling anyone they’re running their games wrong. Good? Good.

To my mind, the first big split in how Moves are treated in the PbtA universe happened right at the Apocalypse World/Dungeon World split. I remember folks finding it hard, I think, to understand or appreciate the prescriptive/descriptive quality of AW’s Moves. Like…sometimes the player wants a thing and looks for the best button to push. So they nudge the fiction toward the things they’re good at and away from the things they’re bad at — easy enough, pretty traditional, that’s what a skill or a feat is. But sometimes it’s the GM pushing those buttons instead, right, because of some confluence of GM moves and aggregate fictional context. Some moves are more tuned to be proactive choices, some are tuned to be reactive. If you’ve got years and decades of looking at character sheets and trying to find the right skill or feat or power to use to solve a problem, that’s pretty weird stuff.

The players in my universe who don’t “get” AW don’t like the feeling the game is playing them; they’re okay with the fiction snowballing but the Moves? Triggering more Moves? Not everyone’s flavor of the day. This was a showstopper in Urban Shadows, where the snowball would keep triggering mechanical effects until the fiction was utterly beyond their sense of control.

Then you had Dungeon World (and yes, I’m bringing this back around to SWvM in a minute), which to my eyes brings the game very much back into the players’ hands. Like…I can’t think of any reactive-type moves other than Defy Danger in the suite. You’re not going to be unwittingly snowballed into Hack and Slash, say. The GM can push the Defy Danger button on your behalf (it’s basically a D&D-style saving throw at that point, right?) but you’re not really ever going to proactively push that button. Well…I guess if you do, then you’re really playing World of Dungeons instead.

Space Wurm vs Moonicorn is very much a child of the Dungeon World branch of PbtA. Besides sharing a menu of common moves with DW, all the playbooks moves are player tools. They’re resources to use, not fictional gates to pass through. That’s fine, it’s great, it’s very easy to explain that to players.

Johnstone has a whole second game kinda-sorta built into SWvM as well, and that is his quickplay rules at the end. It’s a whole second set of ultra-custom character sheets that all have the entirety of their Move selection already on the sheet. At that point you’re not playing Dungeon World with this batshit crazy setting on top of it, you’re playing the batshit crazy game as its own thing.

You know what’s keeping me awake? The fact that the quickstart Moonicorn playbook is the only one that doesn’t have a “do something dangerous” move. And that is so very interesting to me. Instead, Moonicorn has “take a stand,” and the outcomes are entirely different than everyone else’s. Of course everyone has a different “do something dangerous” move. WHY DOES THAT MATTER? I’ve been chewing on that pretty much nonstop since I went through my umpteenth reading.

Okay so let’s talk about what the fuck’s going on with Space Wurm vs Moonicorn.

The executive summary: it’s a space fantasy campaign setting for Dungeon World that summons up Jupiter Ascending, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Farscape, pretty much any of the grand sweeping good-versus-evil space adventure stories. It is very tightly tuned: there will always be a Space Wurm (ultimate evil, fixated on control) and there will always be a Moonicorn (ultimate good, fixated on freedom and revolution). The game ends when one of those two has either secured or defeated all the Fronts in the game.

The Fronts of the game have four dangers you have to overcome. There are a total of 7 broad scifi tropes (Aliens, Cybernetics/Robotics, The Empire, Space Travel, Religion…augh I don’t want to have to go look it up…um um The Spice and, damn it I had to look it up, Secret Police). The Space Wurm scratches two of them out — so, like, there might just not be any aliens or space travel, easy enough. Orrr no robots and no spice. Whatever. Space Wurm controls two of them outright at the start of play, and then the last three are the neutral Fronts to which everyone else is attached, and from which all the external threats will emerge.

There are six custom playbooks for the campaign. Besides SW and M, there’s also The Lover (torn between SW and M), the Mogul (captain of industry type), the Other (weirdness from beyond space), and the Spy (who is secretly working for one of those three neutral Fronts). You can pull in literally any other Dungeon World playbook into the game and it works, because it is still fundamentally a (space) adventure game.

There’s a mixtape for every playbook (I looked some up on Youtube, they exist!) and lots of the moves are named after songs. The whole game is very stylish and specific, at least specific to psychedelic space rock opera.

It’s most definitely a Dungeon World campaign setting and not just because of the common moves and the general moves-as-player-tools vibe. I wrote a thread about the DW dependencies last week (https://plus.google.com/u/0/+PaulBeakley/posts/gPWN2XgWcSo) and the list is pretty long. But you know what dependency caught me the most off-guard? The fact the game uses the “Last Breath” move, formally a Dungeon World special move: instead of, you know, just being dead, it’s a bit of script immunity, maybe — you might make it out okay, you might have to make a hard bargain, you might just die. It cracked me up that Shervyn von Hoerl was shocked that I thought this was optional, but I defy you to name another PbtA game where you don’t just die. You get a Last Move in Urban Shadows, sure, but you’re still dead. Ditto AW, Sagas of the Icelanders, Night Witches, Cartel, whatever. “Last Breath” is distinctly a creature of Dungeon World.

The playbooks are all ultracustom and nothing at all like straight DW fighters or magic users or bards or whatevers. Each one has its own internal economy, many have their own take on DW-style Bonds that interact with their moves in surprising ways, and of course many, many moves that directly reference either Space Wurm or Moonicorn, because those playbooks are utterly mandatory.

Something that jumps out at me about the Move design, other than their fundamental DW-ness, is that in many cases they’re not in the typical “on a 7-9 pick 2” or “on a hit, blah” — the Lover, for example, has a move that says if someone is fascinated (a specific game state) with you, they can’t deal damage to you until you deal damage to them. It’s an absolute prohibition. Fantastic! I think those kinds of moves really constrain the fiction to this game’s specific vibe, and I’ll bet they will evoke the same “but the game is playing me! wah!” out of the folks who want absolute fictional freedom.

I think what jumps out at me about Space Wurm vs Moonicorn is that it’s a masterclass in the adage that design specificity is the highest and best achievement, particularly in the indie universe of game design. This totally would not work as a generic “space adventure” game — The Expanse or Killjoys would never work with it.