Day 6: How many PbtA games do you own, and which one best captures its most clichéd genre tropes?

Keeping up with this ridiculous thing is hard. Not even a week into it and I’m getting worn out. Might have been the 3 day weekend combined with a lingering summer chest cold (the worst!) which has now entered the cough-up-dire-chunks stage.

Thoughts behind the question:

I feel so ambivalent about PbtA games. I own a crapton of them in hardcopy and PDF; I think my count is 35. I’ll probably play less than 10 of them, like, ever.

PbtA has become kind of a cliche of indiegame monoculture, yeah? Two of the 2015 Indie Game of the Year winners are PbtA games. I have absolutely no statistics to back it up but I’ll bet PbtA and Fate together make up 99% of the sales. It feels like there ought to be more variety, especially given the indie of indiegaming, right? It’s probably like grunge was in indie music though: thousands of independent acts that all kind of sound the same.

So, my ambivalence comes down to what feels like a lack of ambition on the part of both the audience and the creators of indie games. I wrote an IGRC post about genres and tropes a few months back, and one of the more common comments was along the lines of “no duh, well of course there’s lots of tropes in RPGs, that’s what RPGs are.” And that premise struck me as so weird that I didn’t know how to reply to it.

Looking through my library of PbtA games, the vast majority of them are tropes-y celebrations of known slices of fictional genres: here’s a game about urban fantasy stories, here’s a game about D&D style fantasy, here are some games about cyberpunk.

But you know what? My favorite PbtA games are not the tropes-y ones. Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches is about the experience of being a professional woman under very difficult and humiliating circumstances. It would be a very different feeling game, I think, if he was trying to model military dramas in general. Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders is arguably centered on genre (Viking sagas) but it’s about the experience of living in an honor-bound society with traditions but not laws. It, too, I think would be a very different game if he’d tried to design a game to model the Vikings TV show. And efforts I’ve seen around to expand on or improve SotI (i.e. The Man playbook) that slave themselves to the Viking sagas, I think, do not succeed because the rest of the game isn’t really about modeling the sagas.

The PbtA games about personal experiences are my favorites. The ones about celebrating genre are not, although I still play them and enjoy them very much.

This really came into focus for me working on my own game about the history of the American West. It was a huge revelation to me because of the big gap between Westerns as a genre and The West as a time and place. I want to write a game about personal experiences (like Night Witches and Sagas of the Icelanders) but holy shit is the gravity of genre hard to fight in PbtA. I have some ideas why that I’ll get into later. But, like, I could dash off a Western genre game in a weekend and I’ll bet it’d even be pretty good. And it’s probably what the audience would prefer, to by honest. But it’s not the game I want to write, so I wonder if there’s something about PbtA itself.

32 thoughts on “Day 6: How many PbtA games do you own, and which one best captures its most clichéd genre tropes?”

  1. I think part of the problem with the Western is that the gap between the genre and the cliche is so narrow and so fraught that it’s very difficult to deal with.

    Like, when I see both SotI and Night Witches, the playbooks are genre elements in my reading, cold, and hands down. (Granted, the way I use the word “genre” is different than most, and possibly specifically opposed to “genre cliches” as you’re saying it.) But they’re both just on the edge of any sort of mainstream geek fiction about either that the genre bits don’t immediately code over (in most folks minds, I think) to simplistic tropes.

    But when you get to the Western…. all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what you do or what you say, what you call the playbook or how you situate it, everyone is going to play The Cowboy On The Steel Horse They Ride.

  2. Oh, also, I think that one of the places where Indie games getting lots of play/status/attention is through one shots and con play probably has something to do with our level of reliance on cliche.

    Like, yes, there’s a long history of it in RPGs and very good reasons. But the places where in my personal history RPGs have left it behind is where I’m playing with folks I’m actually personally embedded with in games that last for enough time for us to develop some level of joint meaning.

    When you’re mostly playing with semi-strangers in one shots, you have to import a lot of meaning pre-loaded, and cliche is an easy way to do that.

    Also, the other genre of indie play “hop around like a frog on a hot plate trying to make sense of each others nonsensical contributions in anything that resembles coherence” is — in addition to being something lots of folks actually enjoy — possibly a reaction to the same pressure with an affirmative “sure we can play without cliche, we just have to improvise!”

    Of course, a lot of the improvisation ends up verging to cliche.

  3. Brand Robins yeah totally on both counts. I don’t think we need to delve too deep into the meanings of words; I get what you’re saying.

    And totally true re con culture and one-shots. “Make the obvious choice” is such good advice under those circumstances, but choices obviate themselves somehow, right? And then, I think/worry, those habits get ingrained.

    Then boom, one day you find yourself going through the cliche paces in your home game.

  4. Oh and to answer my own stupid question re. favorite cliches: tossup between Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows, both covering very similar ground but in very different ways.

  5. Oh, also two very good choices to show where taking a cliche and then doing something with it that’s not quite “just the cliche” is cool.

    And also, linked in those two games, how to set things up so that players are likely to be spurred to move beyond the cliches that they started with.

    (Obvious bias being obvious, those are probably my two favorite PbtA games.)

  6. PbtA games are kinda like the Apple of the indie RPG world, in one sense: they’re accessible and different-feeling. For an RPG world that only knows D&D (and, sometimes, GURPS/World of Darkness), they’re a culture shock in a good way: “Wait, you can do that with RPGs?”

    I think you’d probably feel less ambivalent if they didn’t sometimes feel like the only game in town! But at the end of the day, PbtA games have also kinda become like “Save the Cat”.

    Explanation time. If you’re not familiar with it, “Save the Cat” is a screenwriting book pitched as “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need”. It breaks the plot of a movie down into modular components of formula, so that you could basically mix-and-match and create your own movie plot just by following the formula. The book took off like wildfire in Hollywood, because when your industry is focused on producing a large quantity of watchable movies, a plot-generator is a massive boon.

    In light of that, it’s probably unsurprisingly why so many Hollywood movies feel like copies of one another: they’re all drawing on the same formulae. This is probably starting to sound familiar now, in light of your PbtA post.

    (The distinction, naturally, is that Vincent didn’t promote Apocalypse World as “the last roleplaying game engine you’ll ever need”. But I’m pretty sure there are a lot of PbtA fans who do! Which might be where some of this comes from.)

    I think that PbtA has a lot of aspects which make it easy to build a game. All the components are out in the open. It lends itself really well to obvious design, which is another thing you hit on: whether a PbtA game relies on obvious design or not is a mark of its quality. It’s not obvious to take a game about female Russian bomber pilots and make it into an intimately personal game. It’s not obvious to take a game about teenage monster drama and make it into a game fundamentally about messy sexuality and becoming a better person. It’s not obvious to take a game about supernatural politics and make it into a game about racial and cultural and class tensions/imbalances.

    The obvious PbtA games are the popcorn of RPG design, the flashy, fun, forgettable entertainment. The others are the ones that try to dig deeper.

  7. Also, and here’s a thing about PbtA that Andy Hauge got me thinking about in a way it is possible I can express:

    I like game mechanics, and like incentives — be they direct or perverse. But, notably when I answered the question from two days back (or whatever it was) about “your favorite incentive” it was “a character with strong and clear motivations and a way to pursue them.”

    Which was obviously me trolling, but was also equally totally true. One of the reasons I play so heavily in the ven-diagram overlap space of larp/freeform/tabletop/theatre-game is because character and motivation are one of my key avenues of exploration, motivation, and structuration.

    Because of that, my design work (both as a “designer” icky, and as a GM, and sometimes even as a player when I’m looking to understand and structure my input into a game), tends to focus heavily on character, character interaction, and character intentionality.

    And because of that, I can sometimes come off a bit mechanics agnostic. Like, where I’m going to push buttons and force things off the rail is going to be in the combination of “this person, in this place, facing this stress.” So the exact mechanical system (when I’m doing table top) I use to deliver that is… well, it often matters a bit less that it does if the mechanical system’s levers are your primary tool for driving.

    And because of that, many turtles deep, when I don’t just go freeform, I’m likely to look at PbtA games first because I know many folks — including pretty much everyone I play with regularly even the near-total larp heads — know the basics of PbtA. I will not have to invest time into mechanics, on their end, and have a lot of pre-set material and knowledge of systemic interaction on my end to use to get to what is, in my goals, the point.

  8. I wonder if SotI and Night Witches don’t leap out as “genre cliches” so much in part because the genres that they are part of aren’t well-trodden (at least in the anglosphere). Maybe if in 2017 we have a glut of “women in wartime” movies, Night Witches will seem particularly “tropey.” In an alternate timeline, if the tropes that emerge as the territory gets explored are different than the focal elements of NW, NW might seem to be a strange outlier to people doing analysis of “women in wartime” fiction.

  9. I’m ambivalent about PbtA, I am a fan of AW. PbtA makes it easy for me to play a new game. I need to also play non-PbtA games or I get bored. I’m probably not interested in some fiddly new mechanics that revel in their innovation unless the experience is worth it, that is a hill to climb. The 400 page trad gamebook is an equivalent (or higher) mountain to climb. So many games, so little time. Easy to play an old game I know/have nostalgia for or a PbtA game that I “almost” know. Decisions.

  10. To be a little harsh (cuz I know you cats can take it): honestly, to me it feels like criticizing the number of PBTA games is just a minor variation on the previously popular side-hobby of “crapping on the number of indie games that I think are kind of mediocre and maybe shouldn’t have ever been written.” Which seems like a pretty sad place in many ways.

    There are always ALWAYS a bunch of games that are maybe not as exciting to any given player as they could be and you may even feel missed a couple of big opportunities (true for me as well, of course). And sometimes people get into this mindset or this place in terms of their network-ed-ness or limited reservoir of attention to what’s happening in the vast field of game design that those are the majority of the games they perceive, either because those games dominate in their circles or because (for a whole host of reasons) they don’t have a direct line to a bunch of game designers who are putting out games that would actually excite them.

    But it’s almost always true that those designers and games do actually exist, whatever one’s personal preferences are or the place one is currently at with games. (Often those games are given away rather than sold, too, because they are made by niche communities for niche interests, so they may not show up on our shelves to remind us that they exist.)

    However, I think often we end up buying and thinking about and working through games that aren’t directly where we hypothetically want to be because those are the games that connect us to other people, whether the folks who made them, the folks who are playing them, the folks who are talking about them, and so on. And that’s totally wonderful and expected. We make compromises to be a part of a community of people engaged in a supposedly identical hobby that’s probably more accurately a bunch of overlapping different hobbies. And some of those compromises teach us unexpected things and we almost certainly enjoy playing those games a bunch even if they’re not exactly what we would ideally want. No big loss.

    However, sometimes I think people feel like they’re always being asked to compromise, that they only rarely come across a game that really does the things they really want games to do, without having to hack the crap out of it and basically redesign their own experience. And that can feel depressing, but is it really that different than, say, our relationship with other media (movies, TV shows, video games)? Our relationship with other communities (say, religious institutions, even)? And so on. Having to find your own joy in something that’s not perfectly designed for your interests is the norm, no? And we embrace that a lot of the time.

    Consequently, it’s really hard for me to hear people complaining that the creative products of other people’s hours and hours of hard work (for something they’re probably making crap money on, if anything) are part of the problem because they don’t do X thing that people wanted them to do. Cry me a river. The games that you want are out there, almost certainly. And we’re all empowered to make our own games and adapt existing games to do the things we want them to do or (as Brand says) just play them long enough that the cliches stop coming and “things start getting real.” Maybe it’s not always worth the time and energy to make that happen, but it seems weird to blame it on games that never aspired to achieve those things in the first place or maybe aimed to do those things but need some additional help from the players to get there.

    But again, I have a lot of baggage on this issue, so forgive me for reading less charitable things into this conversation. I do actually get the general points you were trying to make, but if you project those concerns more broadly, I’m not sure they carry too far.

  11. Adam D I don’t think that’s it, no. I mean Brand may be right, and NW is based on fiction that I just haven’t read enough of, but the game itself (absent my knowledge of its cliches) prompts me and my players to think and act directly on its fictional prompts: what might I give up if I really need to eat? What does it feel like to feel emotionally bonded to these strangers?

    The tropes-y games, I feel like we act more on the expectations of the genre: this is the part where we discover the rich guy is secretly a wizard and is trying to ensorcel the city; this is where I make a little speech about how we’re fighting against evil but must succumb to evil (and then stop, laugh, drink our beer).

    That stuff feels structural in terms of move and economy design, but maybe I’m just naive and if I could see the tropes then I, too, would be laughing/drinking my way through the NKVD interrogations where once again my hot lesbian girlfriend is being threatened if I don’t do as I’m told.

  12. Andy Hauge ‘Vincent didn’t promote Apocalypse World as “the last roleplaying game engine you’ll ever need”‘ He did promote it as ‘AW finally gives us a language to talk about game design’, or something like that.

  13. Paul Beakley yeah, I think “That stuff feels structural in terms of move and economy design, but maybe I’m just naive and if I could see the tropes then I, too, would be laughing/drinking my way through the NKVD interrogations where once again my hot lesbian girlfriend is being threatened if I don’t do as I’m told.” is exactly what I mean.

    Like, I have no idea if this is a deeply-trodden “genre” (if that term even applies) in some other part of the world. But coming at it from that position of ignorance, I’m just suggesting that it’s entirely possible, which is admittedly navel-gaze garbage. Like, what if AW existed exactly as it does now, but in a world where nobody made Mad Max or Firefly?

  14. Adam D​ I’ve actually got this nascent and ridiculous thought experiment about this. It goes like this:

    Write down one hundred moves, Mad-Libs style. Leave blanks for stats invoked. Make them in the traditional fashion, i.e. sets of choices, what to do at 7-9, etc. Like, normal moves.

    Write down one hundred names of things that could be stats. Like literally anything but probably in the adjective linguistic space.

    Now put them into a program that spits out 8 playbooks with 5 moves each, a sheet with 10 moves that are now your Basic Moves, and base the whole thing in 5 random stats.

    Would you have a playable game? Could you approach the text that was generated completely tabula rasa and play it? What would it look like?

    When you change the past, roll _Decisive.__ On a hit, your present changes. On a 7-9, choose 2; on a 10+, choose one:_

    You don’t erase something from your own history.
    You don’t erase something from someone else’s history.
    You don’t create an unexpected change in the current timeline (MC makes a move).

    …in the same game as…

    When you invoke a prayer to the Screaming God, roll _Hope.__ On a 10+ take 3 forward. On a 7-9, take 1 forward. For each forward, the MC may ask you, when you spend the forward, “who now dies as a result of your arrogance?”_

    Would it be playable? Could you generate enough context from this crazy stuff to make a playable game?

  15. Paul Beakley Dang. I’d have to assume most would not be particularly coherent, though they might be playable. There would have to be some percentage, though, that were not only playable, AND coherent, but actually really “insightful” (in a sort of Rorshach test way).

  16. Paul Beakley On a semi-related note, I’m working on a wizard-school hack where the spell list is any move from any other PBTA hack. We tried it out and, in practice, it only kind of works? The way that moves are structured in different PBTA games is sometimes significant enough that they’re not as cross-compatible as you might think. Like some move might generate a resource or outcome that’s connected to another move or to a certain economy or to a certain theme that doesn’t have the same significance in another game. In the end, I ended up having to create guidelines for adapting moves from other PBTA games into spells. So I suspect that in the case you describe, something similar might happen, where some player-adaption would be necessary. That said, I do think we have enough hacks out there that a “Rifts PBTA” thing is possible, where you encourage people to use moves/playbooks from a bunch of different games together and see what happens, though it might end up being really bonkers (like Rifts).

  17. Dan Maruschak: That’s a good point! I think there’s a very meaningful distinction to be drawn here…

    “PbtA finally gives us a language to talk about game design” means that PbtA is supposed to be a starting-point. It’s definitely one of the first RPGs (and by that, I mean that it’s the first RPG I know of to do this, but I could be wrong about it being the first RPG ever to do this, so I’m hedging) to lay bare the workings of player-mechanics interaction, according to one view. It begins with the model of “an RPG is an asymmetric conversation where intent leads to consequence, which leads to intent which leads to consequence” and then starts dissecting that and making it explicit.

    I suspect a lot of people accept that model implicitly, because it does a good job of laying out how traditional RPGs work. But just because it’s a language to talk about game design doesn’t mean that it’s the language, naturally.

    (Aside: I’m definitely suspecting that PbtA has gotten a lot of people into game design who wouldn’t have normally done so.)

    Which spurs the thought in me: what other approaches to player-mechanics interaction are there, and what does a game look like that lays those rules bare and makes them explicit? For instance, what makes Swords Without Master different? (My gut tells me it’s using an entirely distinct internal model of player-mechanics interaction.)

  18. FWIW I have a half-written essay sitting on my desktop titled Genre is a Virus, but posting it will just be an invitation to Jason Corley to post something about me using the word wrong, and a picture of an angry old man.

  19. Moreno Roncucci: I know of them! I actually vaguely recall reading through The Pool back when I was first researching RPGs, although I never got it into play. (It had a neat derivative called Snowball where you used the system to reverse-engineer a story Memento-style, backwards.)

    Trollbabe I know very little of, other than how it had a core mechanic similar to Lasers & Feelings.

  20. Andy Hauge Ron Edwards’ Trollbabe is from 2002, and its cited among the influences in AW (fronts are based on Trollbabe’s stakes). It’s the first example that i can recall of a game without any kind of “murk” in the rules, no part of the game is not covered by rules (you never ever need “rulings”), and all the rules are about player to player interaction (with the GM being a player).  i consider it one of the most important rpg designs ever.
    And it does the “what does a game look like that lays those rules bare and makes them explicit?” bit much better than AW (IMHO) and almost ten years earlier.

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