First Session Impressions
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, Mark’s take on what a “move” is is quite different. Not bad! But definitely different. Like, players only get 3 moves, but they’re not PbtA style fiction-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.
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.