Tight Indiegame Setups and Oppressive Social Footprints

There’s a kind of RPG — frequently but not always PbtA-style — where a big part of setup is arranging big sprawling social contexts. Hx questions in Apocalypse World, debts in Urban Shadows and Undying, bonds in Sagas of the Icelanders and Dungeon World, plain old relationships in Mutant: Year Zero and its adjuncts, arguably beliefs and instincts aimed across the table in Burning Wheel (which is best practice, not mandated by teh roolz).

I love these. I miss this setup when it’s not available. I think it produces measurably better games, where “better” means strong interpersonal drama. I think the tidal wave of AW-derived games reflects that, like, pretty much everyone agrees with this assessment.

But oh lord these games are exceptionally terrible at handling unstable player groups. Someone drops out, well that sucks if you have tied up your play juice with arrows pointed at their characters. Here is Hx I can’t use, bonds that won’t get spent, frequently advancement I can’t make. We’ve loaded so many mechanical incentives into building and managing these tight webs that if they’re not there, you get measurably screwed. And it’s not just mechanical, either: there’s spotlight time to consider as well.

Drop-ins are almost worse, right? Nobody is pointed at you, so now you have to work extra-hard at leveraging all those out-arrows. And there’s just something about drop-ins, especially when they’re a permanent addition, that’s permanently bad-disruptive to the initial setup. The first idea seeds, which are so important for everyone’s buy-in, are just not very compatible with all the later idea seeds.

Of course there are upsides. I remember many, many years ago when Vincent Baker expressed (maybe mock) confusion about the popularity of Apocalypse World as a convention one-shot game. He’d built it for campaign play, right? But the setup is just so very rich and tight because of all those great Hx questions. I think every game that uses that kind of setup, really the first and biggest of the “setup is play” tools, makes for a really strong con one-shot.

But lordy, for a group that cannot guarantee that precisely the same number of folks show up session after session? They’re feeling to me more like worst-case choices.

Some of these games have done a little to ameliorate that, maybe not on purpose. Sagas of the Icelanders lets you rewrite/redirect two relationships at the start of every session, which is fantastic. It also includes the Wanderer playbook, which is specifically good for airdropping a new player into a table. Dungeon World’s Bonds are okay-ish at it but you have to fiddle with the RAW a bit around the rules for resolving old Bonds and writing new ones.

It makes me think that one of the unsung virtues of mission-focused trad play is that it’s actually a bit easier for irregular groups. When we played 13th Age, it was no big deal at all to have folks come and go. Heck, waaay back in my Rolemaster years I had two circulating groups of like 6-8 players each, and the members would intermingle and folks would flake all the time. No big. There are no particular inducements or incentives for interacting with each other, other than the tactical benefit of doing so.

This has me thinking about designing around the challenge of real-world adult groups going forward. We’re about to start Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, but we only have four who can be relied upon and one more who might be able to drop in once in a while. Argh but those starting Bonds questions! Argh but SWvM is tuned to five players!

I mean, yeah. It’s not that hard for folks to just rewrite their connections when folks appear and disappear. But that’s landing a lot of damaging hits on the shared fiction, isn’t it? At least that’s how it feels whenever I’ve done it.

Feels like an as-yet unsolved challenge: how do you get that tight story-driven interpersonal web every session while both maintaining continuity and allowing for variable participants. Toughie.

The Princess and the Goblin

I backed this last year then forgot it arrived, gosh, months ago. I thought it’d be fun for the monkey and I to play together, although it’s allegedly a 7+ game.

Turns out they’re not wrong about the age! TPatG is “just” a memory game but it’s an effing hard one: during the first half of the game, you’re “exploring” the caves, looking for a way out of the goblin kingdom. That involves looking at tiles and trying to memorize pairs of symbols.

The second half of the game is the escape, where you have to draw face-down tiles from memory that match symbol-to-symbol from the goblin kingdom all the way back to your home. Oh but you can also interrupt someone’s turn by yelling “goblins!” and flipping a goblin tile you found during your exploration. And if you stumble into a goblin tile on your own, all the tiles you laid go back face-up for someone else to use.

It might be that my memory is just terrible, which makes us a pretty good match. Fun game! Pretty tough for a five year old but she asked to play twice.

Sagas of the Icelanders
Final Session Thoughts

I’m going to share my favorite story from our game, the climax of the goði Rurik’s saga.

The community’s central problem all year had been the disposal of the finest sheep-feeding property in the river valley. It had first been settled by Skuli and Osk; Osk died giving birth to Fura, a strange girl. There were whispers that Fura was not in fact Skuli’s daughter, but that of his younger brother Rurik, who was soon to become goði. A decade after Osk’s death, Skuli remarried, this time to beautiful and bewitching Sola. Fura’s stepmother never liked her, and the girl withdrew over the years to the company of spirits and the norns.

Skuli died one spring, and absent a convincing legal argument by her brother-in-law Rurik, Sola took over the property and brought in her own brothers from up-valley to continue working the land.

Late in the summer, Sola was murdered in her longhouse. Her huscarl, her slaves, nobody heard the murderer. But strange Fura stumbled into her uncle-maybe-father Rurik’s home in the middle of the night, covered in blood, muttering that sometimes the gods answer our prayers. Rurik, who had indeed prayed for Sola’s death, was wracked with guilt. He covered up Fura’s crime.

In the fall, Sola’s family arrived to make their own claim on the settlement. The goði considered claims from them, as well as from his own little brother … and Fura herself, who said she had both blessing and urging to do so from the spirit of her dead mother, Osk. The spirit had also said bring Rurik to me. The goði affirmed that his niece-maybe-daughter would indeed inherit the land (not the herd; that was split up amicably between Sola’s family and the little brother). He then avoided the longhouse and its restless spirit for months.

Then winter came. Chasing down an escaped thrall, Rurik trekked through the snow one dark morning and found himself at the haunted longhouse. Finally, the time to confront the spirit of his long-dead lover, his brother’s wife, had come. He went inside.

Fura, now fully come into her role as seiðkona, welcomed him in among her brews and herbs. Rurik felt more conflicted about his relationship with his niece-maybe-daughter than ever as she became both weirder and more relied upon by the community. He couldn’t avoid Osk any longer. He went back into the dark recesses of the big house.

Sure enough, the spirit of his dead lover was waiting for him back in the darkness. They talked a bit. She expressed her profound loneliness, her desire that Rurik be with her in the longhouse. The goði prevaricated, as many long years of the law had taught him. To clarify her needs, the spirit of Osk suddenly inhabited her daughter, Fura. Now she could interact with him in this world. She could touch him, finally, wearing the skin of her-maybe-their daughter.

Desperate for the goði’s touch, Osk took up her daughter’s dagger. “Touch me, Rurik,” she demanded. He would not. Rurik started to panic but could not yet escape. “Remove your furs, let me feel your warmth,” she continued. He wanted to run away from the longhouse. Not yet, not yet. “Why will you not touch me as you did before?!” she wailed, and flew at him with the dagger.

Rurik and Osk-as-Fura struggled over the knife. He saved himself. Fura awoke from her possession to find the blade in her stomach. “Uncle?” she asked, and fell over, dying.

“Take me!” Rurik pleaded with the gods. He fell to his knees. “Take me, not her.”

The gods obliged.

Playbooks and long play
Our final roster was: the goði, the man, the matriarch, the wanderer, and the thrall. Only the first three were present at setup; the other two came in on the second session.

Goði is an attention hog. His playbook naturally pulls lots of screen time. Some of that was the player and the situation, but a lot of that is his central role in the affairs of the community.

The Man was fine. Wish I could have put my hands on the alt playbook to see how it had worked out. But he was the second-most-active role in the game, certainly. I think a second year would have put him in the spotlight an awful lot, once the goði was dead.

My main regret is that I wish we’d had more women roles. I think I’d push for a better 50/50 split if/when I do this again. With just the matriarch present at first, she didn’t have a lot of drive baked into her starting relationship questions. Adding the Thrall was excellent, but also weird, because enticing while also being a slave is uh … iffy territory. It was fine and there was tons of safety measures available. Mostly I keenly felt the absence of a woman, shield maiden or seiðkona in play.

Thrall and Wanderer were hard to fit in, largely because they got added after the initial setup I think. But there are also structural problems the player had with the Wanderer: once the big secret is revealed, that undercuts a lot of his cool stuff. And I didn’t do an especially good job of challenging his secret, either, which he chose to share with me early, secret Burning Wheel Belief-style. In retrospect I think that was a mistake, but he didn’t feel comfortable being cagey about his motivations in play. I do think transitioning the Wanderer into another role – we were looking at Huscarl – over the winter would be pretty powerful.

Matriarch and Thrall had some trouble getting their footing in terms of motivation. Better setup hooks? Dunno. There may have been a combination of weak hooks and non-hard-charging players. I actually think it’s okay that there are roles that lend themselves to somewhat secondary positions. And it’d be easy enough, I think, for a hard-charging player to take those roles on.

Supernatural content
Well, so there’s not enough formal support for all the spiritual/supernatural stuff. I had to rely a lot on my own judgement and research. Tempt Fate was a good fill-in move though. It worked out fine, but I felt a tiny bit at sea. Honestly no big deal, it was super fun in any case.

Formal situation generating tools
It felt to me like gaining new moves didn’t really open up many new fictional vistas. As a result, the game had more GM-intensive prep than I was expecting although it wasn’t bad.

Man’s start of session moves were good! I’m talking Man 1.0, not alt-Man. It was fun to put pressure on the missed rolls. In fact missing the labor roll in the summer started up a whole sub-storyline about the landvaettir helping/extorting the Man.

The “change up to 2 relationships” didn’t really generate as much juice as I hoped it would. On paper it seemed like it would be the main source of new material! But in actual play it didn’t really play out that way. I think it’s because the context of the relationship — “I want to marry” or “I covet their land” or whatever – doesn’t really have any pull beyond pure fictional positioning. The players did do a good job, I think, of rearranging relationships with an eye toward advancement and useful Bond generation.

We talked through Winter move, but since Rurik’s big plotline resolved itself, we didn’t actually play it out and see what it did. I think it probably could use a little more oomph on kicking off the next year of play. The Thrall was contemplating taking the Woman and getting bought out of slavery, which I think would be neat. Others mostly looked at generating new relationships. Don’t know that anyone really wanted out of their current characters entirely.

So that was the game. It feels different but not radically so from my usual one-shot approach to it. Hell of a gut punch, though, and the big payoff in the final session wouldn’t have been possible without a year’s worth of buildup.

Sagas of the Icelanders

There’s something really satisfying about wrapping a game up at its natural conclusion, rather than waiting until I’m at the fuck this game point.

Mote details later, with thoughts about the long game. I’m not sure what to do with myself when I’m not filled with regret and self recriminations about ending the game badly or too early or late.

Hey, it’s time for the annual Big Contentious Popularity Gaming Awards again.

I won’t share my voting this year. But go check it out, it’s an excellent reminder of stuff that came out. The RPG coverage is uniformly terrible; they have no idea what’s out there. But boardgaming is solidly in their wheelhouse, of course.