Missing Words

Of course English doesn’t have a word for concepts for which there are no words. 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.

The Missing Words

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.

26 thoughts on “Missing Words”

  1. Aside: Paul, do you feel like your IGRC posts either focus on how a game works or on how a game plays? If so, I’m wondering if the latter is essentially an endorsement and the former a critique. This current post feels like s works post.

    Just a thought.

  2. Paul Beakley I dunno! I was squinting and thought I saw a pattern, but maybe I’m trying too hard. 😄

    (Basically, it was the difference between posts that talk mostly about how the mechanics work and whether they are successful, and posts about the actual success generated by the mechanics, because they’re working as they seem they should.)

  3. Mark Delsing okay, yeah, I can kind of see where you’re getting that.

    I guess I’ve never really thought about trying to break those things out. I just kind of write about the experience of playing games by their rules, which requires I talk about both the playing and the rules. There’s some alchemy in between them where me and my players either hook into the game or we don’t.

    I’d never write about just the particular dynamics of my regulars, though. Too weird! A couple of them read this stuff!

  4. Over the last few years of working on PbtA games, I’m struck by how limited some of the core mechanics really are. I have this whole thing in Cartel about money and trying to save it and deal with it as a motivator for PC stuff… but it just never worked. It was like a whole resource management minigame that no one ever cared about.

    I’m struck in these posts about Legacy that the game is absolutely trying to do something different from Apocalypse World itself, i.e. think about what building a better future might look like in a way that rescues the conversation from the fruitful void. But it also seems to run up against those limitations: we want to take action, make moves, identify the link between the fiction and the dice.

    Ironically, this is the thing that’s pushing Brendan Conway, Marissa, and myself away from PbtA design. We love it, and it’s always going to be something we do… but we also have these hungers for different kinds of fiction (like Blades or Burning Wheel) that serve the larger, more abstract narrative.

  5. > And that’s fine, but it feels … too easy? Not hooked into the procedures enough?

    I recall similar feelings, and I don’t know how to address them. “I want to deal with this Need” / “Yeah you need Resource X to do that” / “Cool, I ask Other Family for it, can we make a trade. Ok cool, my Need is gone”.

    Well shit, that was easy. I thought Needs were a big hole to fill?

    And maybe that’s the problem – maybe Needs and Resources are at a much smaller scale that my brain is putting them at.

  6. Mark Diaz Truman yeah. Yeah.

    I feel like a beautifully designed PbtA move is like a little nugget of interactive poetry. And then you get moves that are just about resolving uncertainty and it seems to completely miss the point of all the little constraints and gestures baked into, say, a move like Shut Them Down or Go Aggro.

    It’s probably a bad metaphor. But yeah. I don’t think PbtA style moves are especially well suited to broader resolution, like plain old skillz.

  7. I think (from a distance, not having tried it) the key to keeping family play linked to the fiction is, once you cycle through a move, for the GM to integrate what happened into The Grand History of the fictional world, perhaps in an in-character voice (a history book, a wizened storyteller, a folksy cowpoke telling tales of times past). Then a miss hits harder because then you hear the description of How Bad It Was, etc.

  8. Legacy, I think — both from these posts and my more limited experience with it — is actually slightly on a different paradigmatic line than a lot of other PtbA games.

    I’m not sure quite how to put my finger on it, as I think it’s one of those places where it’s hard to see the difference between system and the cultural understanding of system. That is to say, there is what PtbA games do, and what they do because we — the geeks who think and talk to each other too much about this stuff — think they do, and because we think they do them, for us they do them.

    Legacy feels a bit like it’s in an adjacent place where the game works very well, but only works when you hit the place its assumptions/stances/whatever come from — and that place is slightly askew from where I (for one) am used to playing from.

    Which is why, I think, I’m fascinated with it, and with these posts.

  9. I feel like a beautifully designed PbtA move is like a little nugget of interactive poetry. And then you get moves that are just about resolving uncertainty and it seems to completely miss the point of all the little constraints and gestures baked into, say, a move like Shut Them Down or Go Aggro.

    It’s probably a bad metaphor. But yeah. I don’t think PbtA style moves are especially well suited to broader resolution, like plain old skillz

    This is a super interesting thing to me, because when I think of the one PbtA game I’d actually like to run (vs play) it’s Uncharted Worlds. And if you’d ask me why I’d say it’s because it turns it’s back on the whole moves-as-poetry aesthetic (nice turn of phrase, that) and just says “here’s how you resolve uncertainty”. Cool, I can work with that.

    Alot of PbtA seems like it’s trying too hard to be clever. Like each new generation is trying to one up the last generation in how punchy or involved or novel their moves are.

    Sometimes I think designing artsy games is the indie community’s version of lonely fun.

  10. That’s pretty interesting, Brand Robins! One of the biggest challenges of game writing, in my experience, is not only writing down the rules you used in your playtest, but also communicating the way in which you used them. Obviously, we didn’t quite succeed in Legacy, and part of that does seem to be that it clashes with ‘standard PbtA assumptions’; maybe even clashes with what is possible in pbta.

    For example, for a long time I’ve held back on breaking play at the Family level down into explicit rounds and turns, because I prefer to leave the timing of PbtA abilities at the fiction level and stop it feeling board game-y. But maybe some explicit concessions away from standard PbtA would help tell people how the game is best played?

    So as for the issues outlined in the root post by Paul Beakley, it may be that it’s hard to imagine what play looks like at the Family level that isn’t activating moves. Is it possible to just sit at the family level and tell the story of the unfolding fiction in the same way you do at the character level? Or should we reframe the family level so that you play it like SWN’s faction turn, with the different players each picking an action and working through its effects before you dive back to the character level?

    As for the specific example of how to remove Need: Morale, I liked the situation and the answer you gave! But maybe you’d have been happier if you’d used the answer to explicitly guide them back to the Character level. Like… ‘Engineer Andre in your family has been exchanging letters with Rustblood Hellspike over in Crossroads City, and you think if they met and really hit it off that’d life your Family’s spirits greatly.” Priming you to tell the character-lead story of the Enochians’ character escorting Andre through the wasteland (wasteland survival!), making introductions, maybe doing some social manipulations to make it work (find common ground/familiar face/defuse), and finally throwing a celebration of some kind.

    It’s real important to the way I run Legacy that Family moves are used to set up heroics and interesting stories at the character level, and I realise that could have been made more explicit!

  11. Jay Iles – Great post! I think that this struggle to deal at the level above the character fiction (the way that Godbound does it too) is something we’ve seen in our playtests where we’ve attempted something similar. I think it’s awesome that you’ve tried to tackle it through the Family system!

    This is all to say… let’s have a beer/coffee and chat about this next time we’re at the same convention. 😀

  12. Jay Iles I think my big takeaway from your comment, and others, is that I really need to leverage the family stuff to frame up the character stories. That’s great and my preferred answer. My game-playing brain, though, can totally appreciate the draw toward “winning” the family game — achieving a net positive Mood or completing a Wonder or going out and defeating one of my Fronts or Threats.

    I’ve seen this before. Burning Empires has this, and it’s really fucking hard to play past it and stay focused on the characters. Blades and Scum have this via their downtime stuff and building up their crews. Mutant has the Ark-building stuff and boy is it easy to get distracted by it.

    Thing is, I love all of these systems and ideas! But god damn it, it’s brutally hard work to drag players back to the characters. Maybe there’s something about how I facilitate these games. Maybe it’s my particular players. I hesitate to call it a universal thing but jeez, it’s pretty universal in my experience.

  13. Fair, I can see that being hard to work past. Maybe, as a favour to me, next time you play try replacing Finding a Surplus’ text with:
    “When you Zoom Out after your character did something useful to your family, gain an appropriate Surplus or lose an appropriate Need.”

    Mark Diaz Truman that’d be cool! I’m really hoping that it’ll be financially feasible to travel across the pond to Metatopia/Origins/Pax Unplugged/Gen Con/whatever one of these days. Unless Magpie wants to visit one of our European conventions 😀

  14. Regular brain: Let’s meet at Gen Con
    Glowing brain: Let’s meet at Origins
    Exploding brain: Let’s meet at Metatopia
    Galaxy brain: Let’s meet at New MexiCon
    Universe brain: Let’s just fly to Vegas for four or five days

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