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.

0 thoughts on “Headspace”

  1. On the “play it like an RPG” part – I think that really just hits harder on the “golden opportunity” / “when everyone looks at you” move possibilities than based on 6- results.

  2. I wonder if updating Regrets is intended to work a bit like changing Bonds in DW – where your Regrets become things from recent missions we saw in play. “I regret not getting the workers out of Daedalus Corp’s subbasement before blowing it up” or something.

  3. I don’t think so.

    There’s a little reward cycle baked into the Regret thing and it starts with your Drive. Basically your Drive is what you intend to do about your Regret. Your Regrets change but your Drive doesn’t.

    Later, if someone helps you pursue your Drive, that’s the other way the Cell attains Sync status (thereby earning an XP etc.)

    So, since the Drive doesn’t change and it’s explicitly aimed at getting even/making good for that first Regret entry, I don’t see how you could change it.

  4. Yeah, sorry for any lack of clarity in the GM section. When I wrote most of that for Mark Richardson , I was leaning more on “play is a conversation” than the specific terminology of “golden opportunities”. I somewhat assumed that folks would intuit when it was the GM’s turn to speak, which is admittedly an assumption big enough to fly a skimmer through.

  5. Jason Pitre ha! Well, a decade ago I would not have even thought to ask, right? And now I’m like…better check and make sure, who knows what’s up with this specific game.

    It’s probably a minority position. Honestly if you’re experienced enough to notice the rule is missing you can figure it out, and if you’re not then you won’t miss it.

  6. Paul Beakley oh huh on the Regret/Drive thing. That seems a little squidgy in that it’s hard to repeatedly dog pile Regrets stemming from what may be a single issue.

  7. Aaron Griffin I suspect the relative rarity of a Regret getting revealed is the counterpoint. It’s a 6- on a roll you don’t normally want to make until you have earned a big bonus (you add your highest stress track to the Improvise roll).

  8. With regards to the Foster Emotion move, it’s actually a refined type of threat based soft move. Think of it as an emotional knife which can be disarmed by expressing emotion. If you ignore the threat by remaining stoic, you internalize the emotion and suffer harm by boosting the stress track.

    Fun fact? Foster Emotion and Inflict Harm are mechanically and narrative overlapping. If a goon pulls a pistol on ya, you can take them out with rage, show off with ego, or even flee. Threat is dealt with either way, and the same consequences are dodged.

  9. Jason Pitre​ can you walk me through an example of Foster Harm? Because I’m having a very hard time reconciling what you’re describing here with how the move is described in the text.

    One part of that is that harm =/= stress. I mean I get that they’re both very broadly kinds of “damage.”

    Another part is tied into my internalization of how “moves” talk back and forth. So, for example: a bad apple whips out a pistol and points it at your head. Am I Threatening Violence or am I Fostering Fear? And because of the/my underlying assumptions about the tick-tock of moves, it can’t be both of those because each demands a different reaction.

    If they react emotionally to the gun (ie they read me as Fostering an Emotion), they have not reacted practically to the threat, and I do harm to them.

    If they react practically to the harm (ie they read me as Threatening Violence), then they have not reacted emotionally, and I tick up their Fear by one.

    I mean if that’s the correct read, cool, no worries. It’s kind of a can’t win situation and I’d imagine it would come up a lot. Having guns pointed at you isn’t an edge case in the genre or anything. 😛

    If they can react to both I guess that’s better? Like “my eyes grow wide and my mouth goes dry as I Parkour the hell out of the way.”

    EDIT: Or is the Foster necessarily going to come before the gun getting whipped out? Is the Foster announcing a future announcement of future badness? (Ex: bad apple walks in angry at getting screwed out of your payment (foster, with stress consequence) -> bad apple whips out gun (threaten, with harm consequence)).

    I think it’s the GM move/intent overlap that is procedurally novel here. It could totally be PbtA damage keeping me from evaluating the game-state along several parallel tracks. Or from understanding that I’m inflicting multiple moves at once.

    EDIT: Or the real novelty lies in GM moves that have built-in consequences. Since “inflict harm” isn’t a move, rather built into the Threaten move, there’s more packed into a move than typical PbtA?

    (I suspect this is the key to the whole thing, and it is so small yet so hugely consequential in evaluating the action.)

  10. Afterthought: This might also be specifically problematic to the two threatens: Foster Emotion (fear) and Threaten Violence. Might be that this doesn’t come up on the other four tracks.

  11. You got the right of it with your edits about “both”. Foster is a variant of “Announce future badness”, and the ambiguity is an intended feature. As a GM, you have those two moves that drive you towards the idealized dramatic situation. Threaten asks you to think of the procedural situation, which might trigger emotional reactions. Foster asks you to think of an emotional situation which might have a procedural context. The players will re-contextualize, determine how they respond; either emotionally or procedural. Since harm is mechanically represented by increased stress on one of the tracks, both are mechanically synonymous.

    But yeah, I was intentionally trying to pack the GM moves so that they follow a specific formula as much as possible.
    1) Prompt action or decision in the fiction.
    2) If they fail to take action or make a decision, they suffer the relevant consequences
    3) Pass the narrative to the players..

  12. Okay so that I’m clear:

    Procedurally, I might first Foster Emotion (fear) as things start to turn bad, say — the characters are walking into an obviously bad situation, say, or an NPC shows up with an obvious intent to cause real trouble. It’s a soft move so it doesn’t lead to direct in-fiction consequences per Threaten or Seize. And after the emotion has either been fostered or reacted to, then the GM’s next move might be Threaten Violence? The emotional moment has come and gone and now either you’re reacting to the threat or taking the harm?

    Evaluating an emotional reaction feels like a whole other challenge. I can already hear arguments coming from my players about thus-and-such action they take being done “with rage” or “because of my grief” or whatever. Like…when would they ever opt to “be stoic?” I don’t know whether to assume that the players will know I’m making a move to which they need to react emotionally. Normally (!) one does not announce GM moves, but so much in this game contravenes “normal” PbtA/AW assumptions.

  13. The underlying purpose of the mechanic is to make the characters behave in emotional ways, no matter what. The first two moves (Questions/Bargains) are for lower stakes situations, while Fostering and Threatening are for dramatically important situations. Normally, you expect that the characters will…

    Deal with the challenge procedurally, typically by using their Professional Moves which don’t involve dice rolls. They behave as hyper-competent badasses.

    Express emotions, even if they are prideful confidence, by narrating character reactions. They behave as emotional creatures. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is, just that there is an emotional reaction.

    In most dramatic situations, the players need to do both. If they fail to act procedurally, they will often suffer Harm. If they fail to act emotionally, they suffer Stress to a relevant track.

    Example: A corporate agent is offering Whistler a job, continually putting more and more fine scotch in his glass. If Whistler negotiates with him but refuses the scotch (which would hinder his negotiation), his Need would increase as he represses his desires. If he gets plastered on the scotch and neglects to negotiate effectively, he goons will rough him up (harm), kidnap him (seize control), or get some other advantage.

    As a player, you want to set up a scene where your character indulges in his desires, negotiates despite the obvious bribery, and stumbles out of the room with the job in hand. /example

    There are many smaller situations where only Foster or Threaten make sense, but I figure the crux of your question was on the more complex cases.

  14. Wait…so both things might happen on the same “move?”

    That’s fine. But now I am super curious to know why you (you and Mark) elected to use the language of “Moves” at all. What you’re describing is so un-move-y. I mean it’s procedurally perfectly fine — be on the lookout for situations that demand emotional responses, including situations where they might get injured — but that structure of GM activity is … I don’t know, much denser than an AW-style “move.” Quite a lot closer to just traditional GMing, I think.

    None of which should be read as a critique or complaint so please don’t! Just an observation and some curiosity. Might be worth its own thread at some point.

  15. Just butting my head in: the idea of two things happening on one “Move” isn’t super foreign. A lot of the time when I make a single move, I think “I’ll tell them the consequences and ask” but then I realize the move also fits make them buy

  16. But that’s not two moves happening at once. That’s one move that can be interpreted in two different ways. Or called two different things.

    I can’t think of any moves in any other AW hacks where you have to evaluate a couple different things at once, with a couple different consequences in play.

  17. Paul Beakley Mark Richardson had adopted a principle that AW was a foundation to work off, rather than a limiter on where the design could evolve. I took my own idiosyncratic vision on how Moves could be operationalized, and ran with it.

    It all came down to first principles from AW, rather than following the specific implementation in that game. The game is a conversation, and Moves are one of the ways that the GM speaks. Moves allow the GM to create a fictional situation, and players interact with that situation, and the GM applies the consequences for their actions. I simply streamlined the kinds of Moves that would set up those situations, and made sure they made complex problems within theme.

    You can totally use a straight-forward Foster, to be clear. It’s just got the most nuance available as a tool. I could have made the same narrative situation in the previous situation with “Ask Questions” or “Offer Bargains” if I wanted to. Many paths to the same fiction, which is the only place where it matters.

  18. Yeah, cool, I can work with it. Just curious!

    Really at this point the only thing I’m iffy on is how much I need to telegraph that I’ve made a move that demands an emotional response. It feels super similar to the out-loud telegraphing you do in Chuubo’s Marvelous Brain Implant Wish Granting Engine in terms of trying to emphasize at-the-table performance. But this move uses a stick to punish non-performance rather than a carrot to incentivize it.

    Probably it’s a best-practice thing. I’ll explain to my players that the move exists at all, so they won’t be surprised/pissy when I start dicking with their stress tracks.

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