Oh and a quick side note: I won’t be doing the #10rpgs thing any more but I’m enjoying everyone else’s posts! Just don’t feel like I have anything special to offer that I haven’t already offered.
Zero Sum Games and the Magic Circle
I hope it continues to be true that I learn the most from my failures, because I royally fucked up my last game. Right now I feel mostly defeated.
So there’s this thing in Legacy called Wonders. They’re big goals your family can aim for. You gather these abstract resources, invest them into the Wonder and explain how that looks in the game fiction, and when you’ve done all five, bang, here’s a big new change to the setting. It’s a neat idea.
Where I fumbled so, so badly is that there’s a zero-sum game lurking inside Legacy. And I was reminded that I cannot be trusted with zero-sum games.
One of the core mechanisms of the game is the Treaty economy. Every family and faction can hold Treaty that’s coded to another family or faction. You spend Treaty (“Call In A Debt”) to acquire one of their resources, or to compel their help, or to gain a bonus when you make a move against them. The only ways to stop that is to spend one of your Treaty back against them (it needs to be reciprocal) or make the Hold Together move. It’s totally unclear from the rules if you need to actually get a hit on Hold Together; I assume you do.
The zero-sum game is taking resources from each other. I now have it, and you don’t.
I can’t be trusted with zero-sum games because it introduces winners and losers. If I have it and you don’t, I’m winning and you’re losing. This is a totally toxic head space to find myself in. I can’t trust my own motivations, and the best-written principles in the world won’t stop me.
In our Legacy game, I had an NPC faction that, since the prior turning of the age, had evolved into a religious crusade. Via several trial and fortune outcomes on the Turning roll, this faction ended up holding a bunch of asymmetrical Treaty on the players’ families. So I opened the new Age with what felt like some strong, sweet moves out of these guys. I’m going to set them up to be the bad guys! I’m gonna upturn our “the vampires are the villains” assumptions of the previous age! Better still, my first target had a resource tied to another resource, with the codicil that if they lost one they’d lose the other.
Or is this ex post facto rationalization? I’m super good at rationalizing. Is my sweet move fictionally sweet or competitively sweet? I don’t know! Because I can’t trust my own motivations.
I’ve been developing a theory of play for, well, a very long time now. It’s not original, I’m not offering it as my invention or anything. But some time ago I read about the idea of a “magic circle” we create when we play. It’s got the trappings of religion, with ritual and community and intimacy inside of it. It’s why I despise playing in ballroom settings at cons: I can’t draw my magic circle.
Play that forgets the principles of fiction first, being a fan of the characters, of making our choices look like things in the fiction, that stuff is extra-toxic within the magic circle. We’ve agreed to the rituals and community and intimacy, and here I am abusing all those things. Because there can be winners and losers, now it’s a competition.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been through this. Burning Empires also has winning and losing as a vital part of the play dynamic. I can kind of keep that at arms’ length, because you can do precious little to actually influence the roll one makes every session to meter out victories of the humans and Vaylen. But in Legacy, those safeguards aren’t there. It’s on everyone to hold the game at arms’ length on their own, to not take anything personally, to play in a principled way.
I’m just not strong or skilled enough. It’s a personality flaw. I know me! I’ve been sitting right there when my motives start getting really fucking blurry around my decisions.
I fucked up. And I knew better.
Our Legacy game is over. In retrospect I should have seen the looming threat of zero-sum play baked right into the game. If you’ve got a table full of players who are 100% cool with watching awful things happen to their stuff, the game might work very well for them. There are lots of ways to inflict awful things on each other in Legacy.
I think, too, that my theory of cognitive load was completely correct: with so much to stay on top of, nobody had any bandwidth left for patience and charity. Me included! The game was too much to track, plus potentially competitive. I think everyone’s patience was worn thin by constantly trying to shoehorn our desires into the moves, constantly evaluating whether we’re zoomed in or out, constantly tracking all the little benefits and bonuses that show up scattered across three pages of character stuff (there are some real information design issues I have with the playbooks) and three pages of moves. Everyone ended up nose-down in their paperwork, thinking very little about the fiction.
Anyway, we’re taking a good long break from any kind of roleplaying going forward, I think. I hope it’s not forever. But whatever we return to, it won’t be a heavy cognitive load nor have zero-sum features. Those things, I think, are poison for me.
Dunno if I’ll stick to the list of prompts proposed by Brand Robins because what does he know anyway? Since it was inspired by that #20moviechallenge thing that was going around I’ll stick to “impact” as broadly understood.
Anyway. This is 1 of 10. Ten! How on earth am I supposed to choose? I may go past 10, because what even are rules.
Traveller wasn’t my very first RPG (that was AD&D circa 1980, but that was everyone’s first RPG so that’s a boring answer (yes I know #notallgamers started with any edition of D&D)), but it was the first one I owned and had to decode on my own. This right here is where it really started for me: digging into a game, trying to understand what it was trying to achieve, really atomizing it.
John Stavropoulos has been posting these screencaps on FB off this season of Riverdale and I’m dying.
I need this on a t-shirt.
More Legacy Thoughts
It’s inevitable that there’s not a word in English for words that are missing from language. That’s how a lot of RPGs feel, taking the “roleplaying is a conversation” bit forward a bit. Specifically I want to talk about Legacy.
We had our third session last night, and we ended it with a Turning of the Age move. This is the killer app of Legacy, the big history arc that gameplay sketches out. It worked okay. We hadn’t looked super closely at the move before making it, so we spent a good long time shopping the Trials (mostly bad with a little good) and Fortunes (mostly good with a little bad) outcomes. The differences between the lists aren’t huge, which is fine but it also makes the roll feel kinda-sorta pointless. Each trial/fortune pair is meant to be a mirror image, and they sort of are I guess. It was fine.
More interesting to me was that the move typically pushes a lot of capital-r Resources into the Families. I think two of the three families triggered the Flush With Resources move. Mechanically this is a super clever little twist: if your Mood would hit 4+ (remember, Mood = Surplus – Need), you erase a Surplus and then choose what happens: give it to someone else, or trade it in for a bonus, or tech, or get new gear going forward. It’s great.
The cleverness is how Flush With Resources interacts with the Wonders rules. Wonders take five Surpluses but you can’t actually carry five Surpluses without at least two Needs, otherwise you trigger Flush With Resources and lose them. But if you bank a Surplus into the advancement of a Wonder, you’ll quickly face negative Mood. It’s great. Love it. It keeps the players from quickly cashing in all their Surpluses to score the Wonder, because doing so will almost certainly trigger the Fall Into Crisis move, the invert of Flush.
Okay! So, to get the players off their marks and get them okay with the Turning of the Age, I passed around the Wonders and talked up what’s involved and what the benefits are. Everyone grabbed a suitable one. I think the timing was about perfect for this, because I was sensing that folks were having trouble finding directions for their Families to go. It’s a tricky bit of Legacy, balancing the forward motion of the Families with the personal dramas of the focus characters. We’re still working on that.
Our Age ended mostly out of boredom, and I didn’t like that at all. Basically everyone pushed their Treaties as far as they could, traded around Resources, and went scrabbling for last-minute mechanical advantages. Nothing about the Age wrapping up was particularly driven by the fiction. The fact we’re playing at the family level for so much of the game, I think, really undermines fiction-first play for us. Drama is about human beings, not history. (Fight me.)
Back to my thesis about words missing from language.
What really jumped out about this session was the extraordinary difficulty of fitting player desires and needs into the language available to us via the rules of the game. They spent a lot of time trying to describe their plans with inadequate vocabulary. And I spent a lot of time trying to translate into the moves we have available to us.
Here’s an example.
The Enochians (Envoys) have a Need: Morale. Okay cool. They make the Uncover Secrets move and ask “how do I remove Need: Morale?” That’s great, straightforward. My intuition, as GM, leads me to this answer: “Your Ark has been isolated for too long, and the clones are restless and lonely. You really need to intermarry and build relationships with other families.”
It’s a good answer! It fits the themes of the game. But what does that look like, mechanically or otherwise? I had no idea.
The player wants to know, great, what move do I make? I don’t know what to tell him. What will it look like when they trigger the Finding a Surplus move for … relationships? Honestly I have no idea. Some of the capital-R Resources of the game are straightforward, and I feel good handing them out: the Envoy scientists patched up their power generator at the dam, so yeah, sure, here’s an Energy surplus. No problem! I don’t know what “okay, you’ve made some friends” looks like, or what the player needs to do.
Now, that family did establish a trading and commerce center in the wasteland where all the families can meet (it was one of their Fortunes), so might be all they need to do to address that Need: Morale. And that’s fine, but it feels … too easy? Not hooked into the procedures enough? What I’m thinking about now is that I’m spending this time thinking about specific mechanical procedures and helping the players through them. The game requires a good bit of player-facing mastery of the rules to accomplish things, but a lot of what they want to accomplish is still left to the GM to evaluate. The missing link might be more transparency about intent: like, is your intention to start that trading outpost to hit that Morale need? And even if it wasn’t, is it still okay for me to be proactive about identifying Morale as a Surplus now?
Dunno. Still chewing on the session.
Probably the big thing I’m noticing is that it’s really hard to constantly fictionally position the Family moves. Like, everything anyone ever does really needs to look like something in the fiction. But the Surplus/Needs system is super abstract and boardgame-y. It’s a constant tug away from the storyline in my head.
Between the players not really feeling confident in pursuing their family goals, or even having goals absent a Wonder, and me working double time to help shape their plans into something the game’s rules can support, it felt like a lot of work.
My hope is that just going through the Turning of the Age will set us up for a good run of sessions that are back to being character-driven. I think we need that. There are in fact some new fronts and threats on the table, and that’s great. I get to do another round of prep and get them shaped up a bit. I think the Turning move did everything it was supposed to. Guess we’ll see next session. If the players start digging into the Family moves with an eye toward accomplishing Wonders, though, I fear it’s gonna feel very boardgame-y. That will instantly kill my enthusiasm.
A preorder for Judd Karlman’s excellent Sorcerer supplement is now up. It’s a dictionary, with space for you to write your own words in, about a Barsoom-like Mars-like planet.
I meant to write about this sooner: the relative heaviness of Legacy.
The game has a lot going on: two layers of play (zoomed in to characters and zoomed out to families) with some fuzziness as to when you’ve fully focused on one or the other. Everyone has two playbooks (character and family). Eventually — I’m hoping my players will start thinking about this tonight — they’ll take on Wonders, mega-projects you can do to radically reshape your setting.
The move sets are broken up into “basic” and “peripheral” moves, both on the family and character sheets, but honestly after a couple sessions the division seems arbitrary. There’s also some overlap between moves. Example: are you defusing a tense situation or forging a path across precarious or dangerous terrain? That was our big one last time, as the characters tried to make their way out of a treacherous vampire-infested highrise in the ruins.
The typical basic move load of a PbtA game is 8 or 9 moves. I haven’t done a comprehensive audit, but looking at stuff I’m most familiar with:
Epyllion has 9, and they’re super simple. Probably the tightest move set I can think of.
Apocalypse World 2E has 8, with a couple one-off or moves-that-trigger-moves type things. And then all the minigames: road war, battle, etc. I gotta say, I don’t super-love the dramatic uptick in rules in 2E but I very much appreciate that those move sets are minigames that get invoked at specific times (rather than being moves to watch for at all times).
NIght Witches has 6 day moves and 6 night moves, which never overlap. There’s also a couple brief/debrief trigger things that I don’t really think of as “moves.”
Cartel has 9 moves, plus the stress subsystem and the whole heat thing, which is a separate minigame.
Monsterhearst 2E has 7ish — I don’t personally think of XP rules, healing, conditions etc as “moves” so much as “rules.” They’re not things you put your hands on, as a player, to achieve your goals.
Sagas of the Icelanders really just has 2 moves that are common to women and men (tempt fate and look into someone’s heart) plus various necessary procedures (harm, scars, campaign play stuff), but really the meat is in the Man and Woman lists, each of which have 4 moves. So probably the “simplest” but also asymmetrical.
Urban Shadows, which I had previously considered the “heaviest” PbtA on my list, has 8 basic moves, 4 faction moves, and both the Debt and Corruption subsystems.
Okay. With me so far?
Setting aside what I think are arbitrary divisions between “basic” and “peripheral,” Legacy has 8 Family moves we regularly use, and 9 Character moves we’ve regularly used. Those aren’t the full counts; I’m leaving out procedural kinda-not-move moves like what happens when your Mood goes high or low, how to heal, all that stuff.
Given what feels like good play (so far), being able to move between both modes of play and even occasionally blending those modes, means keeping 17 options in your head at all times! And that does not include playbook, role, and family options — happily just one of each for everyone so far. And it doesn’t include any of the GM-facing stuff (zooming in and out, tooling up, the in want let’s-stir-the-pot move, the turning of the Age).
Mostly the game feels playable, at least from where I’m sitting as facilitator. I do find myself spending a lot of time guiding and suggesting moves for players to make to Get Things Done: think about lending aid! Don’t forget those Treaties you have! Do you want to call for aid? Don’t forget to spend your debt and tech! And so on.
Probably the one big shift I’ve needed to make is to simply stop looking for descriptive move triggers during play. Like, there’s just no way for me to keep all four Role moves for all three characters in my head at all times: the players absolutely must track whether they’re triggering those moves (and therefore advancing). I still heavily rely on players declaring moves they’re making rather than observing the fiction for moves being made. That’s not a mode of PbtA play I like — I think the prescriptive/descriptive move technology of conventional PbtA games is a family-wide killer app — but given the extraordinary interplay of mechanisms here, it’s just necessary.
On the players’ side, jeez, I have no idea how empowered, or not, they’re feeling about all these options. It feels like a lot to stay on top of.
It’s funny: I did not eyeball Legacy as “complex” when I first read it, nor do I even right now, knowing better! I look at a list and thinking, well 6 moves seems pretty simple! Except for these other four moves. And the other play mode and its moves.
I’m kind of reminded of Masks as well, looking over all these moves. The Masks basic moveset is just 8. But! There’s also the entire block of stuff having to do with team mechanics and manipulating Influence (strings-y type things). It makes me wonder if making, like, all the rules “moves” is actually the best way to go. I mean I don’t know! I’m working on some elaborate games on my end as well, and I deeply fear the ever-growing rat’s nest of interconnected procedures that seems to spawn in every direction.
New MexiCon 2019 has just 5 days left on Kickstarter and is on track to be the biggest and best New MexiCon yet!
BUT we still have 2 stretch goals we’d love to unlock and the last is the most exciting addition we could think of for a play-focused convention.
Help us make these happen by sharing this post with your friends. You probably know a gamer who hasn’t heard of this con yet. And, if you haven’t yet, check out our kickstarter page and consider coming to play with us!
Brand Robins turned me on to this Kickstarter after meeting the creators @ Metatopia a bit ago. So I reached out to Dana Cameron and Hamish Cameron to talk a little about it.
First off, it’s very cute. It alleges to be for all ages, and there’s some really odd (to my ear) off-brand language in book about running it as an R-rated thing, but come on. It’s about dinosaurs. Who are princesses. Or I guess vice-versa. There’s also a pronoun discussion box, which I suppose is a thing of our time but it also brought to mind one of those Man Who Has It All gags: I know Princess is just a generic term, and I have no problem playing a male Dinosaur Princess. I’d probably go Epyllion with this myself and just have everyone be dino-gendered.
Driving home the cute factor is one of the game’s best features: the rulebook and character sheets are set up as coloring books. It’s very cute. Of course there are also big blank versions if you want to draw your own Dinosaur Princess.
The other bit that drives the game home for me as a kids-focused experience: your character is comprised of pairs of words. You have a pair of Dinosaur Words (spiky, scary, fast, flying, hungry, whatever) and Princess Words (adventurous, creative, rebellious). I think my own daughter, turning seven in a month, would understand most of the words. Some of them would need explanation: gregarious, canny, eloquent. In the course of play the other players will be able to offer up Cheering Words as well, which feel a lot like a Fate aspect. You roll a die for each word from your sheet or your friends’ cheering, versus dice the
GM palentologist rolls.
The big game I would contrast this with is No Thank You, Evil! which I’ve played a whole lot of here at home with my kiddo and wife. The fundamentals start in a pretty similar place: use some easy words to characterize yourself. The two diverge fast.
NTYE is super conventional in how it approaches gameplay: here’s a specific problem to overcome en route to carrying out your plan to save the day. Problems have target numbers, you spend your stats as chits, it’s all very visceral and literal. Aaaaand there are crunchy (for Cypher) combat rules, which feel so very out of sync as a parent who hopes his kid will look for solutions other than fighting. But I will say this: it’s easy to hook into and my kid perfectly understands the immediacy and literalness of what’s going on.
Dinosaur Princesses is definitely more storygame-y. There are scenes with a specific scene leader. You build a die pool out of your fictional positioning. Accomplishing larger goals involves achieving steps, which also feature the players adding drawn details to a shared map. I am loving the shared map tech so much in indiegames these days. Overall the whole DP approach feels much more authorial. As an indiegame superfan this all sounds great! And as a parent I’m skeptical that my kid, at her current age, would hook into this stuff. But I’m only skeptical, totally not dismissing that it could be fun for her.
Much like NYTE, DP proposes that other kids could run the game. (The qualifier is, “can you pronounce paleontologist?”) The rulebook isn’t really written with that in mind, though, but I’m sure any parent involved would be helping in any case.
One thing that jumps to mind, a technology from NTYE that I think could work really well in DP, would be to offer different word lists to different ages. In NTYE, mechanical options get spooled out across easy, standard and advanced character sheets. I could very much see a similar thing, and it wouldn’t be hard to do at home, featuring Dinosaur and Princess words that are appropriate to beginning readers, chapter book readers, and finally advanced game-rules-reading readers. Something like that.
Anyway! It’s a very modest campaign with a cheap buy-in and some innovative playing-with-kids ideas. I hope you’ll give it a look.
The zine I would make if I had time would be all about Marshall Miller’s The Warren.
I have a hack of The Quiet Year in my head (and scrawled out on a few pages of lists and notes) for both setting up a world at the start of play and for use between sessions to show how things change and set up for the next set of pressures. I imagine this as one of the centerpieces.
I would include a playset based on Crown Hill Cemetary here in Indianapolis, with a few options to set the game in one of several historical moments from the 1860s to the present.
I would look at creating character moves, GM moves, threats and the like for a game focused on interwarren drama rather than external threats.
It would be fun to include some more lists and ready-to-go predators, threats, etc.
I would include a short essay about ways to use the innovate move in your game.
It would be fun to include an analysis of a scene from the 1978 Watership Down film and breakdown what moves were made by the characters and GM.
– The Lapine Letters
– Down in the Warren
– The Tales of El-ahrairah
– Bob-Stones (This is my particular favorite because it is from Watership Down, described as “A traditional game among rabbits,” a guessing game played with stones hidden under a rabbit’s paw)
What would (will) your zine be about?