Space Wurm vs Moonicorn Questions so many questions
Okay so I’m now elbow-deep into hardcore prepping for Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, and I’m reading the book with a different set of eyes and priorities. I hope SWvM fans and Johnstone Metzger can help me out!
* First thing that jumps out at me is how to deal with Hunters. Sometimes there are handy stats, but as often as not there’s nothing there. FIrst example: in the Alient Revolt front, or threat or whatever, there’s a list of Hunter ideas. Let’s say I want to send “assassins normally used against political leaders.” Do I need stats? Is it assumed I’ll just make those up? Improvise? I mean if it were Apocalypse World it’d all be fictional positioning, but Dungeon World is crunchier and more specific. Am I supposed to go to the DW monster creation rules? Scour this book and Dungeon Planet for appropriate stats? Honestly I have no idea.
* Next thing that jumps out: not all the Threats have attached Hunters. How can Moonicorn beat those Threats? In the case of a phenomenon (like uh…space madness!), how is Space Wurm supposed to take control? How am I supposed to use them? Are some Threats designed to just be additional complications?
* Gear…sometimes weapons listed aren’t weapons at all so I’m not sure why they’re listed that way. The uh…Other’s “bag of books” for example. What am I missing here? In the event they are actual weapons — Moonicorn’s light saber, for example — sometimes there are actual stats attached to another version of the gear elsewhere (I think the secret police have an NPC with a light saber). Is this just sloppy editing or is it purposeful that Moonicorn’s version is just tags and no stats?
Okay so right up front let me set forth a few ground rules:
* This thread is not for criticism.
* This thread is not for publishers.
* This thread is not for designers.
* This thread is for consumers of games, so if you happen to be a publisher and/or designer who also consumes games, please jump in but be mindful of my first bullet. Take off your creator hat!
As a consumer of indie RPGs, when you see the label below, what expectations do you have of how the game will work or…feel?
I think anyone who’s played more than Apocalypse World understands that the PbtA label is pretty loose, right? It’s not as tight as seeing the Powered by Fate label, which of course has been put on a pretty wide range of interpretations. For today, let’s stay focused on PbtA. I want to talk about that looseness.
Now, I haven’t played or read all the games with this label on it, nor have I seen all the non-commercial hacks that are out there. But I’ve seen an awful lot of them, so I feel like I’ve got a good grasp of what I’m expecting.
Totally just riffing, and these things aren’t in any order at all, these are the things that come to my mind when I see the label:
* 10+, 7 – 9, 6 – dice
* Hits, mixed, and miss results
* Asymmetrical GM/player roles
* GM doesn’t roll dice
* Niche protection
* Moves triggered by fictional circumstance
* Custom-built effect sets for every move
* Explicit Agenda and Principles
* Narrowly defined, sometimes idiosyncratic, moments where fortune is injected into the game.
* Common Moves
* Escalating GM moves (“soft” to “hard”)
* “The Conversation” — GM makes moves under specific but common circumstances (on a miss, golden opportunities, when the players are expecting you to — arguing that this is identical to traditional GMing is missing the point so please don’t)
* Narrative tags, sometimes with mechanics attached but mostly for fictional positioning
* Advancement in the form of new, specific Moves
I’m sure anyone who reads this Collection could trivially name a game or more that directly violates any one of these, maybe even several of them. Again, not the point of this exercise. What I’m looking for is audience expectations: When you see “Powered by the Apocalypse” proudly emblazoned across a game, what’s your baseline expectation? As a followup: what element(s) would need to be absent for a game to categorically no longer be “PbtA” for you?
Feel free to add more elements that come to mind when you see the label, too!
So we played our first “full” or “real” session of Headspace last night. The first was the demo in media res session, but this one started with the cell safe in their homes and plotting their next moves. There’s a rather elaborate relationship-mapping exercise you go through at this point, where anchors and agents and other implied NPCs get added and we work out positive and negative relationships with all of them. The net result is an r-map that looks awfully similar to what comes out of the leading-question style you see in other PbtA games. But rather than leading questions, it’s just kind of a blank slate. It’s totally fine, works great, everyone feels invested.
I also started a second corporation’s “dystopian clock” sheet, working out the three milestones needed to achieve their starting project, which is all baked into the premade setting that comes with the book. For whatever reason, I feel really adrift trying to hash that stuff out, and the players started feeling a little restless/bored. Then you also have to work out three session goals — the book is not clear about whether you do that just for the milestone the players have decided to pursue, but in campaign play it seems absolutely necessary to work out all three goals for all three milestones for all the dystopian clocks you’ve got running. It’s quite obvious in play that clever players can pack in a lot of goal-achieving whenever they head out into the world.
Well, so, that’s a lot of brain power before you can really get rolling. This might be an acquired skill, but I haven’t acquired it yet and it felt frustrating. And, apparently, you can keep adding new corporate projects each session — I cannot, honestly, imagine having more than the two going at once. Maybe once one of them gets close to done?
I still haven’t nailed down exactly what makes a good session goal. I knew last session’s were kind of too big, like, each goal was its own milestone almost. So the scale was smaller, but then in play I had to evaluate three outcomes either in the operators’ or the corps’ favor. The process reminds me a little of InSpectres in that the job isn’t done until you’ve succeeded X times, regardless of the fictional positioning.
This all means nine firm wins/losses (3 pie slices x3 goals) have to happen before the milestone is complete. They might even appear to have achieved their goal on the first slice! But two more slices need to get filled, so that’s an interesting and sometimes annoying creative challenge.
In our game, the milestone they were fighting was Yama Corporation’s “lobby the United Nations for total control over water rights.” It was the uh…cost milestone, I think. The time one was physically securing all water facilities in the area, the quality one was destroying a substandard local water plant. Anyway! So Yama Corp is lobbying the UN, which is a great time to pull in a couple of the Agents I added to that relationship map. One of their goals is to recruit a corporate ally to fight Yama for those rights. Great! Scene plays out, it’s mostly talky-talky, and a Coax later, they’ve got their NPC ally: one Operator slice! And then in an parallel scene, a cell member triggers Rage feedback, so back at the negotiating table everyone starts freaking out and the situation goes pear-shaped: one Corp slice! So we’re left with trying to figure out what one more slice might look like.
Although the game doesn’t use anything like Apocalypse World style Moves (I’ll post about that separately), events do snowball nicely via emotional complications. It can also lead to total chaos, and then it’s on the players to figure out how to disentangle themselves from cascading emotional complications and maybe even cascading feedback events. This requires a lot of very hands-on spotlight management on the GM’s part! And it’s a zillion times worse if the cell is split up and pursuing multiple goals.
One mechanism I was skeptical of, I’m very happy to say mostly works okay: the Foster Emotion “move” really worried me because it felt like I was mandating the players act a certain way. In play, I made the move several times and it was actually pretty clear that the players were blowing off “being emotional” to stay focused on their missions. Oh, one player actually played out their feelings (arguably either Rage or Grief) when the ghost of their dead Handler blamed him for her death, which was terrific and weird. It felt like a key fictional moment, learning what operator-ghost relationships might look like.
I think there was one Stress uptick that one player felt was iffy, but I only made the move maybe a half-dozen times so it didn’t feel abusive. It’s highly discretionary since you can kind of fold a Foster into nearly anything else you do as GM.
Some closing thoughts.
I went into this session thinking this would be the last time I played Headspace. I’ve got serious reservations about the game’s formal structure, the text is really hard to navigate despite the index, and you need to evaluate the whole thing super-charitably. I get where Mark is trying to go, the rules don’t do it, but with some effort you can get the game there.
The net product of our evening was that most everyone had a good time (despite my best efforts to spread around focus, one player had opted out of all the action so didn’t have a lot to do). The core conceit of the game is entertaining, I think some necessary skills (related to managing those sheets of clocks-of-clocks) can be developed, and the shared Stress track is the game’s killer app.
I don’t know if we’re going to play it again! When it works and I have the energy to make it work, Headspace is pretty fun. But it also feels like I’m constantly bailing water out of the hull.
Playing the new Mistfall and feeling bad that I didn’t adequately forewarn Brand Robins. This one’s close to the original but not the same and we were exposed to the thrill of decrypting the rulebook once again. Sorry Brand!
Finally got to play Headspace last night, with one more person and a total restart. Four players is better than three, that’s for sure. I think it’s probably better than 5, too, just in terms of screen time.
It’s pretty fun! But it’s also quite far afield from Apocalypse World, and I have some adjusting to do to make the game work right. My personal PbtA baseline barely applies to this game at all.
My immediate impression is that it’s very good at getting the “you’re the baddest of the badasses” vibe across. It is crazy-hard to actually fuck up, and it really is fun to slather on the superlatives while they succeed. Well, at least it was for our intro session.
The surviving Cell (i.e. the PCs; the missing roles are “ghosts” and I said they’d gotten smoked in the course of their mission going sour) is a Tech, a Whitecoat, a Runner and an Infiltrator. All the ground-laying questions worked nicely to set up some context for the Cell; it’s time-consuming but worth it. By the time we got to talking through the actual situation and immediate mission, everyone had a good sense of how to proceed.
I screwed things up but it didn’t seem to ruin the experience. The big one was having everyone discuss their Regret, the motivating badness they were trying to make right. It’s supposed to be a reveal. But I kind of screwed this up on purpose: our newest player is walking the thorny path out of trad playing into collaboration and I was concerned that she’d bob and weave and do everything in her power to dodge the guilt part. And I was right, even after everyone else described stronger Regrets. It’s okay, it’s a process.
The upside for our noob playing this game is the astonishingly high rate of success as well as lots of control over soft hit/miss consequences. The bulk of the rolls you make in the game are “Headspace moves,” which run the risk of creating “emotional complications.” It’s a really nice way of handling sorta-kinda misses by constantly failing forward. It is utterly unlike any other PbtA game because this mostly overwrites the assumptions about “the conversation” and the tick-tock of when and how MCs/GMs make their moves.
Mostly it’s working out just when and how the GM can make a move that’s tripping me up running this. There really isn’t any clear direction on when the GM can make a move; the assumption I think is that you run it “like an RPG,” so you just make one when it’s “your turn.” No discussion of what a “turn” is, but it’s not hard to feel through it.
Also, Marks’ take on what a “move” is is quite different. Not bad! But definitely different. Like, players only get 3 moves, but they’re totally not PbtA style context-driven triggers: they’re either Professional (succeed at one of your playbook’s three skillsets, tick up that emotional stress track by 1), Headspace (roll with a chance of emotional complications but no stress), or Improvised (nobody has the skill or — eek — the GM feels like it ought to be a roll, chance of straight-up PbtA type failure but this is also how you gain the “Sync” status).
Oh, side note on Sync: it’s this sort of … state-of-grace the group enters into when someone reveals their Regret (optionally on a missed Improvised roll, can’t imagine not choosing it). It makes using Professional skills less stress-inducing and the Sync token can be cashed in for a 10 on any other 6- roll. It’s good! Also, when you enter Sync everyone gets 1 XP. Buuuut now you have to write a new Regret, one assumes further exploring the badness about which you’re feeling regrets, yeah? So really, advancement is directly incentivizing Improvised actions and Regret-cycling. Not sure if I totally love that, and I’m concerned about my players burning out their personal Regret stories. We only had one Sync moment in last night’s game, and it was really excellent, but it was by the same player who’d already dodged the heavy emotional baggage during setup. If I let her write the next Regret in secret, yikes, what am I gonna end up with? I need to rely on the other players really digging down while she does her flashback scene.
EDIT: The other major place I messed up was in setting up the session goals of the mission. Mostly I made them too big; each session goal was as big as a whole milestone. There’s this whole staged bit of clock-management in the game where you have three session goals for each of three milestones, and when all the milestones have been resolved you see if a corp’s Project has come to fruition and by how much. This is a matter of learning the game’s best practices, just nailing down how big a session-sized goal should be. The criteria for filling in ticks on the clock (the corps and operators are competing on each clock) are also maddeningly vague; I suspect it’s a move-by-move evaluation: forcing the operators into a retreat is a corporate tick, outfoxing the roving kill-squad is an operator tick, etc etc. I assume the big tracking sheet for that is visible to the players, because I made it visible and they were definitely interested in where and how the ticks were working out.
GMs only have 5 moves, but they feel more like “categories of things you might do” rather than explicit directions: ask, offer, threaten, foster, seize. There’s a good bit of advice on how to escalate through those categories, I liked that bit. Combined with the lack of directions on when exactly to implement those moves and I found myself relying on traditional GMing chops while also fighting PbtA instincts.
One thing I didn’t really get in the intro is the “foster” move: it is, basically, inflict stress as established. I’m sort of scared of it! Maybe for the same reasons I was scared of “inflict harm as established” in AW: it just feels so…arbitrary. To be clear, it’s not a parallel move. Foster says you tick up the stress track of the emotion “being encouraged” if the operators fail to “act out the emotion.” Since this is one of the 2 ways the stress tracks tick up, I need to get a handle on this. I feel like it’s poor form to outright say “now this is where you should feel grief, do you feel grief?” Tacky. But if I’m over-subtle then it looks like I’m being arbitrary about stress infliction.
Foster also feels a little deprotagonizing (!) in that I’m announcing something that I’m hoping gets an emotional rise out of them, but what if they don’t experience the emotion I want them to? Specific example that I’m thinking about rolling out next session: in the course of their mission (assassinate a group of corporate stooges about to get Headspace-type implants of their own), the Operators fucking leveled a hospital. Yes yes, it’s a corporate facility, the corps are eeevil, but the building is also full of civilians and the surrounding neighborhood took damage as well. So when they see a news story announcing something like “terrorists struck a United Nations healthcare facility in downtown Jerusalem yesterday, killing hundreds,” what if they respond with rage at the lies instead of grief at the loss? Is any emotional reply adequate, i.e. I’m really just looking for expediency? I have no idea.
In terms of in-game emotional expressions being core to the experience, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine I think may have superior tools. Maybe my Headspace players need little signs with the five emotions they can hold up while they’re emoting.
So. I’m very much looking forward to the second session of Headspace, which I take to be the real, actual game. I did very much enjoy the demo-ness of starting the game mid-mission, but it leaves a lot of the game out. This is also the amount of game I played at Dreamation this year, so session two and beyond is a mystery to me.
The big addition, I think, is the introduction of a formal relationship map. Now we get to meet three NPCs (“Anchors”) as well as corporate frenemies (“Agents”). They’ll get to meet their Ghosts as well, also Anchors I guess. The Whitecoat chose an NPC as one of his Edges (mechanical advantages), not sure if it’s supposed to be folded into the three NPC set or added to it. I can see the advantages of keeping the map tight and small. Dunno. There are of course many, many implied NPCs as well from the original rounds of questions, stuff like “my family” that the corporations threatened with violence if the Tech didn’t do their bidding, for example. Or “the family” of the Whitecoat that the Infiltrator else helped get out of Israel. I’ll just play it by ear.
I guess that’s the tl;dr of my first experience: it’s fun, it’s fast, and be prepared to play a lot of the game by ear.