How and When To Lift

After chatting with MadJay Brown about his Legacy game this morning I think I’ve identified another category of game facilitation expertise: identifying where the creative lifting is going to be.

Honestly, this one’s been at the edges of my peripheral vision for a very long time. I’ve probably been doing it the whole time, but intentionally identifying this step feels like an important self revelation.

The hardest part, I think, is that this is one of those things that’s usually hard to spot from reading. It also requires an attitude of wanting to play the game as it is designed, rather than conforming the game to the way you want to play it. In fact this is probably, called out so specifically, the primary thing that makes it hard to judge a game from a read-through.

For clarification, when I say “creative lifting” what I mean is: the places where the GM/DM/facilitator/whatever needs to inject their own editorial input whole-cloth. So, not just creatively interpreting move results, or cooking up NPCs on the spot. I mean, like…remembering to ask folks about what’s actually going on in the fiction during the downtime phase of Blades in the Dark. Or working out extended family relationships in Sagas of the Icelanders.

My first thoughts are that you basically have two creative lifts to look for:

* The ones that are there on purpose


* The ones not by design but still absolutely necessary to get at what the creator was going for. This is probably a lot of where “designer not included” games fall down.

The first lifts, the ones that are there on purpose, probably are pretty easy to spot from reading. I think this is especially true if you’re aware and experienced in the general style of the game: interpersonal melodrama games (Monsterhearts, SotI, really lots of PbtA, the ark half of Mutant) or gig games (Blades, Scum and Villainy) or travelogue games (the zone half of Mutant, The One Ring). Like if you’re already kind of in tune with melodrama games, you’ll know that during prep you’re gonna need to push players toward problematic, tightly sprung situations. And later, you’ll need outcomes that create new problematic, tightly sprung situations. That’s where your creative lift is gonna be, so those are the skills you need to bring to the table.

The second ones, where it’s not really designed into the game but you still need to get at them, that’s tricky. Because you might be bringing something to the game that it’s not really supposed to do, and you might be creating more friction than necessary. So like…King Arthur Pendragon has all this amazing legacy-building stuff that happens from year to year, right? The year ends and there are rolls that generate new context for the upcoming year. Well, when I was running it I felt like the knights’ relationships with their actual families — wives, children, siblings — added a lot of richness to the play. That’s a lift I wasn’t expecting to need to bring, but it felt important. Or the one Jahmal and I were talking about, making sure that Family moves in Legacy still get good fiction backing them up, otherwise the moves can feel mechanistic and abstract. Strictly speaking it’s not really needed, and the examples of play don’t really get at it, but I can tell you that it makes our game better.

I think where I’ve messed up learned a lot about where to not try and shoehorn in creative lifting has been in feeling out the fun in games I’m utterly unfamiliar with. The One Ring was my first real travelogue game, for example. I started out wanting to create relationship maps and try and build up melodrama within the Fellowship. Turns out they’re moving around and questing too much to make that really make sense! So instead, I had teeny little mini-rmaps within each community that they’d visit, mostly to remind myself of the NPCs, and I gave up on trying to juice Fellowship tensions. An unnecessary lift that got in the way of the travelogue.

Final stuff that’s on my mind at the end of this:

* Knowing where not to lift is just as important. Don’t shoehorn stuff into a game if it’s actively getting in the way of what the game does.

* Identifying future lift areas is hard without some shakeout plays.

* Disliking or resisting lifts where they’re necessary is probably a sign that this game isn’t for you. Or it might just be lack of experience! I resented the shit out of Act Under Fire 7-9s for the longest time, and now they’re my favorite bit of lifting in Apocalypse World.

12 thoughts on “How and When To Lift”

  1. I’ve read through the One Ring Playthroughs, but i’m curious where you found the fun in the travelogue games? I had a similar situation when playing SWN, where I did a lot of lifting to create a web of antagonistic/complicated goal oriented NPCs, but then the protagonists left the planet and I was left scrambling to keep things tight.

    In One Ring, with shifting from town to town, was the focus mostly on the slow corruption of the characters? More focused on a situation map?

    I def felt with Coriolis that the lifting I was being asked to do was not to my taste. I’m curious where MadJay Brown sees most of his work going. The NPC families he created? Setting up antagonistic npcs to drive momentum?

  2. Rob Alexander depends on the NPCs and the game and context and shades of gray etc etc.

    But what I’m thinking about in, say Apocalypse World itself is the difference between:

    * Pulling a name off a list and giving the character, oh, one thing they want


    * Getting accustomed to the moves telling me what happens at 7-9 except this one move and then, oh shit, am I living up to the agenda/principles/moves, does it actually serve the scene, oh gosh what about my fronts, am I being true to my prep? And so on.

    In the first case, with experience, I actually go quite a lot further with my NPCs in Apocalypse World now. In the second case, I’ve just gotten better at the move and the lift doesn’t feel so heavy any more.

  3. Aaron Berger oh yeah man, I did exactly that thing in Stars Without Number. So much fruitless lifting. Dumb.

    In TOR I didn’t really do the travelogue itself — like, we didn’t spend a lot of time just narrating shit. The table time was really built around working out a route, thinking about what they already knew about Mirkwood, figuring out the best balance of speed versus shadow, and then executing the actual grind. Watching the endurance wane away, watching their hope evaporate, all that. So it wasn’t the traveling around so much as the impact of traveling through a land literally soaking in evil.

    When they showed up in a town, I’d look at my microscopic r-map for the town to remind myself of who all was there and what they cared about. I might make a couple changes on the spot if I thought they’d been in the middle of something that might have come to pass while the fellowship was around. It was nice! And once they left, I’d just file it away again. Very few characters in TOR really have much action outside their little corner of the map. Like…Radagast and maybe one or two others.

  4. I was talking about ToR traveling on the way to GameHole today.

    We we’re talking about how some travel is about survival…did you pack the right combination of stuff to make it. Other games it’s about Lewis & Clark style exploration…let’s go this way just to see what’s there.

    I dubbed ToR “A Forged in Fire Travel Game”

    As in “it’s not about what your blade does to the ice, it’s about what the ice does to your blade.”

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