Cascade of personal revelations incoming! TMI, so much TMI. Mute nao.

* I’m sort of terrible at being for-real competitive in creative spaces. I suck at participating in Game Chef. I’m neurotically frozen in place about that Civics game design thing. I compete in other parts of my life, no problem. I would even consider myself a competitive person. So what’s up with creativity?

* This extends beyond just game design. I went to school for music composition and I’m a published author. In school, I’d get discouraged when someone else submitted a modified-piano thing when I had been working on a modified-piano thing, and just pull out. But then again I also wrote a mountain bike guidebook when there were already several on the market, and I didn’t get hung up about that. Because I knew I could do better. You could look at the offerings and ways to improve were clear. Magazine articles, though? It’s why I couldn’t make a full-time career out of it: I’d think up a story angle, see the same story angle a couple weeks later, and toss my draft out the window. Story of my life. Ideas are cheap, work is hard, discouragement is an easy out.

* I think my deal started with that thing where kids who are complimented on their smarts and talent don’t do well because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. That’s why modern parenting theory says to compliment the work and not the talent, because the work is something you can do something about. You have no control over your talent.

* That somehow mutated into this thing where I value novelty over quality. Is it new? Has nobody ever done this before? It’s a way to dodge actual competition, right? I don’t have to be better if I’m different. Totally contra Roger Ebert’s “it’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”

* Novelty plays a part as well, especially in the game design space. Hence generations of fantasy heartbreakers that are (arguably) objectively better than D&D but aren’t different enough. Then again you’ve got niche fantasy like Earthdawn that’s different, but D&D squats the mindshare.

* Anyway! This isn’t about the big bad scope of all gaming everywhere, this is about me stumbling into a malformed piece of myself that I’m finally figuring out how to face. Because now I’m stepping into the ring for real, I hope, and I can’t (just) count on novelty to score a victory. It has to be new but it has to be better as well.

(Please share!)

If you’re into playing awesome tabletop RPGs, you should look at this! Think Game of Thrones built on top of the Apocalypse World engine. There’s power, intrigue, violence and Unspeakable Power.

Look at those playbooks- YOU CAN PLAY A PRINCESS! Also a torturer. It probably says a thing about me that those two are my faves.

(Ok, yes, I’m getting paid if it funds, so there’s def an underlying motivation but I don’t see it so much as a conflict of interest as financial enthusiasm.)

Sagas of the Icelanders: the Videogame

Ralph Mazza turned me on to The Great Whale Road the other day. It just went live on Steam, and it is totally Sagas of the Icelanders. Lots of story, hard choices, angry jerks with weapons, and superstition.

I’ve only played a few minutes so far but it’s nifty.



Just played a four player game and now I’ve got a headache I’ll never get rid of. Ever.

Holy guacamole there’s a lot going on with four! It’s great but slow, so very slow. Lots to pencil out. The turns don’t start complicated but once you’ve got some buildings, wow.

Besides the addition of a fourth player, the main thing we added was the “alternate timelines” option. It’s very simple: instead of the blank time zones where you mark that you’ve borrowed something from the future, there are now little bonuses and penalties depending on player order and how much you’re borrowing. It added some interesting wrinkles for sure.

The map is tight, so very tight, with four players. Everything is a mad dash and small errors in planning escalate into terrible turns. It’s a pretty unforgiving game.

There are still so many options to turn on, it’s ridiculous. Maybe if we played nothing but Anachrony for the next three months and got a little bored, maybe we’d throw in some options. For now there are decks of cards and playing boards still sealed in plastic.

Best in Class Social Moves

So what are the very best ways that social interactions have been turned into Moves in PbtA games? I’m looking through my library now, and obviously there are lots of takes on this. I’m thinking about both PC-to-PC as well as to-NPC interactions here.

I’m gonna think through the games I’ve played and have direct experience with. This stuff is always so hard to eyeball without some AP behind it.

In Apocalypse World you’ve got both Go Aggro and Seduce or Manipulate Someone. SoMS is pretty solid, yeah? XP if they go along or lose a highlighted stat? It leverages advancement, which I think is probably a legit lever more than half the time. Go Aggro is marvelous because the decision point is so juicy on both sides of that equation. And they both combo well with Read a Person and Read a Sitch.

Urban Shadows is more hands-off. Persuade an NPC is, obviously, only for NPCs. Mislead, Distract or Trick isn’t explicitly social but it isn’t explicitly not social either. Mostly the social juice is in the Cash in a Debt, with Refuse to Honor a Debt the downside to not doing the thing. That injects debts into everything, which is fine, but I’m sure we’re not the only ones to kind of…not really work the debt economy as well as we could have. But mostly, it seems, there’s not really much “hey PC, listen to me be reasonable/charismatic/scary” that’s mechanized.

Sagas of the Icelanders is super hands-off! Only the women have social moves, although Look Into Someone’s Heart is a super-effective meta-manipulation system (answer me honestly, so that when I act on the information I know you were an honest broker) and combines nicely with earning bonds. I dig it. Personal favorite.

Dungeon World is just terrible and I know everyone knows it. Parley is NPC only. Sure models ye olde D&D well, though: I’m not sure anyone has ever hit a PC with another PC’s CHA.

Monsterhearts 1E has Strings, which are pretty good. I do kind of like these meta-manipulation systems that introduce an economy into the action (i.e. offer an XP if you do the thing). Otherwise we just have Manipulate an NPC, which obvs is NPC only and is IIRC functionally identical to Apocalypse World’s version of the same move.

Night Witches has uh…Act Up, I think, is mostly the thing you can do. Pretty hands-off but combines with Read a Sitch Eyeball nicely. Reach Out doesn’t actually feel like it’s in the same zone as what I’m thinking about: you’re connecting and bonding (more like an Intimacy move), not leveraging someone.

The Sprawl has Fast Talk and Play Hardball, and they’re both functionally identical to Apocalypse World’s equivalent moves. Hard to argue about reinventing the wheel when the wheel works well.

The entirety of interpersonal action in Undying is baked into the Meddle metagame. Impossible to compare that to anything else.

Cartel does conventional stuff like Pressure Someone (do it or take pseudo-damage), but Get the Truth is interesting and very situationally specific: basically you pick how they can’t lie to you. I only saw the move in action once, seemed okay, just narrow. Make an Offer is another “do it or take damage” move. Given the constant role of Stress in the game, it’s a fine choice.

Epyllion has conventional choices as well: Convince a Dragon is just Seduce or Manipulate and Mislead or Trick is straight out of Urban Shadows. But Stand up to an Older Dragon is neat (NPC only!) and very specific to the game.

What’s your favorite take on moves-oriented social interactions? Hands-off like Dungeon World or pay/harm schemes like Apocalypse World and other? Something different?

Want to improve visibility for indiegames, small press and story games? This is the link to the “discover” category for “roleplaying games.” If you go in there now, you’ll see a preponderance of mainstream stuff: D&D5 and its many offspring. Which, you know, yay! But let’s not let them forget about us. 🙂

You may, depending on your account type, be able to recommend URLs of collections and communities by clicking on a three-dot menu next to the topic’s name, way over on the left side if you’re looking on a desktop. Dunno if “topics” are deployed to mobile; I don’t recall seeing them. Anyway, under that three-dot menu you can recommend links, and then that stuff will show up whenever anyone explores the topic of “roleplaying games.”

Space Wurm vs Moonicorn
Session 1

We had our first actual play contact with SWvM last night and it was interesting and difficult! I haven’t burned my brain this hard since the last time we ran Burning Empires.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of how our session played out, I want to talk a little about prep.

I’ve read in a few places that SWvM is exceptionally prep-heavy, and whoever said that was not kidding. I’ve had a month since we sat down to make characters to fill out some important details, which is a good thing because I needed it! If I was focused, I could have done it in a week, maybe scattered across 3-4 evenings at an hour apiece.

How did I spend that time? Mostly thinking through how the five fronts interconnect and looking for opportunities. I very much feel like this is a skill you get good at; the next time I set this up (maybe as a one-shot at NewMexicon next month?) it’ll be quite a lot easier. But this first time through, I got pretty deep in the weeds of just what all the SWvM book provides, what it doesn’t provide, and getting creative about both the genre and Johnstone’s take on it.

I came at setup with a long campaign in mind, a fully integrated setting experience. What I didn’t want to do was get the players in the mindset that all they needed to do was line up a certain set of rolls, to just reduce the whole thing to a mechanical exercise. I started by looking over all the dangers present in the beatable fronts — in our case, Interstellar Travel, The Spice, and Religion — and picking out dangers that looked interesting. I wanted there to be one urgent, easy to hit right-now danger, but I also wanted to be able to turn on slower-burn aspects of the story. So that meant thinking about all the implications of actual prophetic drugs, for example, w/r/t an imperial government, teleportation, various religions, and secret police. That’s just one of many dangers I picked out as interesting. But I feel like it’s important to foreshadow that stuff, you know?

What I didn’t do, and totally should have, was come up with sets of NPCs, all statted out, for things I knew were going to happen. The Hostile Transport Guild’s hunters, as one small example. I’m not super-fluent with the monster choices present in Dungeon World or Adventures on Dungeon Planet, and I think you need to be to be able to find some good values.

The Session
We started out with Space Wurm and the Lover hanging out in The Mountain, the seat of the empire’s power and kind of a Forbidden City type place. The Transport Guild’s representative arrives and announces that, because Space Wurm has been holding Guild navigators’ families hostage, they will no longer be transporting imperial armies around the galaxy. And if the families aren’t released by a certain time, they’d stop shipping food to the capital world (which is overbuilt and can’t feed itself).

Pretty great start and Space Wurm felt immediately resentful and defensive. There was some parleying and threatening and, later, a fight between the Lover and Space Wurm (the Lover belongs to the same posthuman tribe as the navigators). Eventually Space Wurm took to the airwaves to call on his adoring population to rise up against those who would starve them. So now there are temple burnings, lynchings, hate crimes of all sorts being enacted in his name.

I have no idea how long the player will be able to maintain this villainy! Space Wurm is such a douchebag!

Meanwhile, Moonicorn and the Other are in mid-transit between worlds when the announcement goes throughout the vessel that any military personnel aboard the ship will be dropped off and will not be transported anywhere else. Well, due to the magic of Discern Realities, it turns out most of the ship’s crew is army, headed out to deal with spice claim jumpers on a mining world. They try to mutiny, and discover the ship is alive and listening and spaces a few soldiers to make a point.

There were a few other scenes but that’s the basic outline of our three hour session.

Several things came together that made this a tough game for me to run:

1) The Space Wurm and Moonicorn storylines kind of require, at first, that they be shown in very different contexts. Space Wurm is safe and powerful, Moonicorn is on the ground actively rebelling. That meant long stretches of time where half my players were just listening. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world! But keeping everyone split up like that is something I need to keep an eye on.

2) I’m not nearly as well practiced in running Dungeon World as I am with, say, Sagas of the Icelanders or even straight up Apocalypse World. I know conceptually that there need to be a much higher frequency of rolls, mostly to juice advancement, but that’s not where my habits lie.

3) A lot of the new playbooks’ moves really just modify OG DW moves. For example, Moonicorn’s Full of Grace modifies all of Moonicorn’s other moves! It’s like a contextual filter that might pull in a whole other minigame with several other decisions. I like it, it’s a cool move, but it’s novel. All the playbooks have stuff like that — not moves, exactly, but modifiers to how moves work. They look like they have their own fictional triggers but it’s more like additional context to triggers on other moves. You might be Defying Danger while being Full of Grace, for example. The Lover’s Heartstrings move is another example — not exactly its own move, more a set of additional incentives to do what the Lover wants them to do. Or Space Wurm’s Bargaining, which modifies Parley. Lots of looking back and forth between several sheets of paper, piecing together interesting plays.

4) The moves didn’t move the fiction forward as much as I was expecting, but I’m 90% sure that’s because everyone’s still low on the learning curve. I was a little bummed there weren’t enough XPs earned the first session to unlock a new move, because novelty is awesome, but OTOH I’m okay with everyone learning their way around the basics for a session.

All this adds up to some things I need to figure out:

Space Wurm’s move scale is big and narrative, which means he’s not making a lot of DW-scale moves at this point. That’s going to be hard on his advancement, but then again he’s already astonishingly powerful. This is actually kind of true across all playbooks: the original DW moves are blow-by-blow in a way that SWvM moves aren’t. That’s an interesting tension, and occasionally frustrating.

Some of the moves — Revolution Now! specifically, but others as well — definitely have a learning curve to figure out how best to deploy them. The triggers and their outcomes sometimes are hard to match up.

I think that’s probably it, honestly. It’ll all get worked out.

Cool Stuff
The setting is crazy and amazing and far richer, earlier than pretty much anything I’ve run in a long time. The questions are evocative and provocative and very interesting.

I think once we’ve got a few sessions and some real momentum, the “winning” bit of the game will get more interesting. Right now, Moonicorn has no idea how to stop the Guild’s assassins and Space Wurm has no idea how to get his balls out of the Guild’s vice long enough to take control.

Happily, the “secondary” characters — the Other and the Lover — have gotten maybe more screen time than SW and M themselves. I heard some concerns that they’d feel like bit actors and they’re not, I don’t think.

The love triangle business between Space Wurm, Moonicorn and the Lover is surprisingly effective. Can’t wait to see what goes down when Moonicorn and the Lover get together, after she watched SW give the green light to genociding her people.

The Other is super interesting and weird and kind of a lot of work to get engaged with things. Some of that is the player, and some is just the extreme weirdness of the character. But I adore the Alienation economy (and Moonicorn’s Integrity!), especially when her Alienation popped and violence erupted.